Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Middle-Earth RPGs: System Matters

With the upcoming release of The One Ring, I thought I'd make a few comments about Middle Earth-based rpgs, and licensed rpg settings in general. First, I haven't actually seen the game (I did pre-order it though), but from the comments and excerpts I've read in various places I'm pretty sure I won't like it. Oh, I'm hopeful it'll be a good game, but the design doesn't fit well with how I envision playing in Middle Earth should be done. A while back, on this very blog, I made a post about how to recreate the fellowship in D&D. Oddly enough, D&D would work just fine for LotR if you're not actually interested in playing a wizard or casting any spells. Unfortunately the game lends itself to a certain style of play and it's hard to break out of that mindset. I ran a Castles & Crusades game set in Middle Earth not too long ago, and while it wasn't an outright failure the system didn't help much. Actually, I blame a few of the players for overt powergaming; I think the system was working just fine. But, again, the fact that there are certain assumptions made within the system makes it difficult to emulate specific genres or settings without a lot of tinkering. I've heard "system doesn't matter", but from my experience, it matters quite a bit.

I played a lot of MERP when I was in high school. We ended up tacking on the full-blown Rolemaster rules because that's Just What You Did. I think there's a natural progression to complication in gaming...maybe I'll write another blog post about that sometime. Anyway, MERP was fun, it was gritty, it was deadly and it was Tolkien. The last point was reason enough to play it constantly. It had Hobbits and stats for Gandalf, who was I to dispute that it wasn't the absolute authority on roleplaying within the confines of Middle Earth? In all honesty, MERP was objectively an excellent game, and the supplements are still some of the best the rpg industry ever produced. The 2nd edition stripped out some of the flavor, and I never played it much after it was released. ICE ended up losing the license due to a multitude of reasons, almost went out of business, and thus no more Middle Earth gaming for a while.

With the release of the movies, Decipher came out with The Lord of the Rings RPG (super creative name, I know, but as the license was derived from the movies it may have been contractual). I own the main book, and was never impressed with it. Way too much movie art, with a feel definitely derivative of the movies. No knock on the films (I think they're pretty good), but they do not capture the essence of LotR and anything based upon them would also fail in this regard. MERP was an honest attempt to distill Tolkien into rpg terms, LOTRRPG felt half-assed.

There are probably countless attempts by individuals to create an independent Middle Earth rpg...some of the ones I'm aware of include Realm Guard, Hither Lands, Legends of Middle Earth, Ea RPG and a Heroquest conversion. None of these does anything for me, to be honest, because they all seem to be based on previous gaming systems instead of a system crafted specifically for Middle Earth. I thought at length about what I'd want to use if I ever ran another game set in Middle Earth (if I do run a game anytime soon it'll probably be exactly this), and came up with a few ideas. I considered Fudge, using a variation of High Fantasy Fudge I wrote myself a couple years ago. I re-read it, it seems pretty good, but I don't really like how Fudge combat works so while it's a possibility the combat rules might need to be reworked. I like the MERP/Rolemaster combat system quite a bit, but it's extremely heavy and perhaps not ideal for me anymore, mostly due to being lazy. I saw some stuff for using GURPS, which is a good idea as Thaumatology and Powers can duplicate much of the feel required for the game; unfortunately I'm not so sure I want to use a point-buy system. If someone wants to play a hobbit, they're going to feel gyped if they only get 100 points while an elf has 500+. This brings up a major issue: characters in LotR have zero semblance of balance between them. To fully emulate the books, either the players are going to have to deal with that or all play rangers and elves. Bilbo and the dwarves were fairly even, so sticking with The Hobbit and a low-powered game could work, but I like the darker tone and the more expansive game world. Basic Roleplaying is a definitive possibility, as it has a fatalistic combat system, is quick to run and is easily adaptable for a wide variety of magic systems. Probably at the top of the list right now. A thought came to me to use d6 Star Wars, with skills edited to fit the setting. This idea had promise, but...

The 1st edition WEG d6 Star Wars game is by far one of the best licensed games ever produced, specifically because the system was designed for the setting. Further, d6 is actually an excellent mechanic for skill-based games in general. I think this fact is oft overlooked: system defines genre. Okay, that's really not true, but it certainly has a lot to do with it. I'm sure you could run a Star Trek game using a modified Toon RPG, but it would probably suck. Chivalry & Sorcery is awful for high powered D&D-style gaming because of the implied setting. This is probably why I like GURPS systematically, but dislike it as an actual game. The complete removal of setting leaves it feeling flat. In reality, GURPS is a great fantasy rpg, but this is is most likely due to its roots in The Fantasy Trip. The same can be said for HERO: good for supers gaming, leaves much to be desired for other types. Back to d6, I think it would work. The force powers can be removed and turned into nebulous magic-types; maybe instead of Control there is an attribute called Healing that allows some sort of ability to cure disease. Character templates are great: someone wants to play a Ranger, you hand him a template and say assign some dice to whatever skills you want. Done. Someone has already done a lot of the work, too. No idea how well it plays, but it looks good. Unfortunately, I really don't know if this would be better than an already existing Middle Earth game. Why not just play MERP and be done with it? It's not perfect, but the rules are codified and easy enough to use. It isn't in print, though, which makes it difficult for other people to get the rules. Irritating.

After all that, I'm REALLY hoping The One Ring is a good game worth playing. As I already stated, I'm lazy when it comes to rpgs anymore; I just want to play them, not spend hours preparing. Coming up with templates for a d6 game or figuring out a magic system using GURPS, yeah I could do it, but why bother if the new game works? I'm not sure how to end this so I'll just close with a cool picture that's more evocative of what I want in my Middle Earth RPG than anything I can express in words.


  1. Wow... I thought I was the only person with "RPG System Attention Deficit Disorder."

    I couldn't agree with you more on every point you've made... In fact, I often joke that GURPS is the Greatest RPG I've never played (who wants to die after all the work that went into character creation).

    I, too, think the D6 System has a lot to offer... I've also played with the idea of using D6 Legend Rules in Middle Earth as that might better reflect my take on Tolkien better.

    Thanks for the great post!

  2. I'd be happy with MERP, or to let you peruse HARP if you don't already have the books. Josh and I are big ICE fans.

  3. how's it called...the problem wit licensed games...
    actually the problem I always have, and always will have, is that Middle Earth is a place that nobody besides Tolkien was able to get across really. For me every try clashes with what I can read in his writings.
    Which is rather grating in some aspects, for example I consider the movies to be some of the best fantasy movies ever made, but I still think they butchered the books.
    Still, I treasure my MERP books, even though I don't like the way it presents ME, it still was a fantastic game.

  4. I've read several GURPs books and I still don't have the foggiest clue about the rules. I read it for the pretty awesome story advice, hints, and tips.