Why was there no classic campaign for Middle-Earth Role Playing?

Writing my last post on epic adventure paths in D&D got me thinking about some of the most famous adventure sagas in other roleplaying systems. Consider these famous game campaigns, all of which are considered to encapsulate the essence of the games for which they were published:

I’m not familiar with every one of these, but I know that each of these campaigns lets players participate in a significant, world-changing storyline within the framework of the game. They involve lots of travel to interesting locations around the game world, a wide variety of opponents and challenges, and memorable scenes and characters of the sort that players will reminisce about years later.

One game that almost never got around to publishing a “Tolkien-esque” campaign saga was, ironically, Middle Earth Role Playing.

MERP has often been criticized for being “D&D in Middle-Earth”—for using the setting and trappings of Tolkien to do the same dungeon crawls and treasure-hunting that characterized D&D, rather than empowering players to live out grand stories in the vein of The Lord of the Rings.

This is true to a large extent. The modules published for MERP exhaustively detailed particular geographic points of interest in Middle-Earth (and their wonderful thoroughness makes them a joy to read even now the game itself is long defunct). But despite the obvious obsession with Tolkien that produced such thorough game modules, there was rarely any effort to lay out an epic quest or adventure that would tie all those locations together. It’s as if the game writers assumed that what people loved about Tolkien was the detail of the setting rather than the characters and storyline of Tolkien’s tales.

You could, of course, create your own epic, Lord of the Rings-scale quest, but it was odd that the published game rarely helped you do this; it seemed to assume your party would rather stick around the Barrow-Downs for months raiding tomb after tomb for petty magic items, instead of passing through them as part of a bigger, more epic heroic quest. Toward the end of the MERP timeline, Iron Crown did publish at least one product that took aim at an epic storyline: Palantir Quest, which set the PCs off on a quest for a lost palantir. It was good, but was the only product of its type (that I’m aware of).

Maybe it didn’t sell well; maybe most gamers didn’t want epic quest campaigns. It’s impossible to know for sure now—but if more like it had been published, maybe MERP would have its own “classic campaign” to add to the list of all-time favorite game sagas above. As it is, it’s unfortunate that the roleplaying game based on the greatest fantasy narrative of all time shied away from, well, great fantasy narratives.

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3 Comments

  1. Josue says:

    I used to play MERP …. although, because of the ever-changing situation I was in, as a kid, in love with MERP … I spent a lot of time alone — so I “played” by reading the source books and creating a story line using those locations … That said, when I did play with a group, and the couple of times I ran an adventure … the focus was always on the story we were creating. The impression I always had and still have of the creators of the game (some of it from personal conversation with a couple of the developers) was that the game was there to supply all the details you might possibly need to get a story going. The source books were there to provide the “mondane” aspect of the story, so we could add the magic easily.

    So that the adventure I led and remember the most starts with some guys who meet at the “forsaken Inn” and hear tails of riches and “jooles” to be had north of there in the ruins of old Rhudaur. I dont remember if we found the treasure or not — I do remember that the party got drunk, someone left in a hurry in the morning without his under cloths and later got a TERRIBLE rash from one of the plants. Most of us also got captured by a group of Hillmen on some hill and we were rescued by the elf — who in turn was captured and killed 🙁 it was an ugly mishap 😀

    and it was a night that was fun as heck 🙂

    I think what MERP always tried to do was leave the Storytelling to the GM and the players …. they even gave short little outlines at the end of the source books to suggest ways to do it … I dont remember ever buying any of their ready to run books …except .. no i did ..bought two of them — but didnt use them as such 😀

    BTW– Nice article 🙂 I liked it despite my contrary opinion

  2. Josue says:

    umm…. they also heard *tales* at the Inn..

  3. Andy says:

    Josue, thanks for your comments! I actually don’t really disagree with you. I agree that one of the major appeals of MERP was that they provided you with some top-notch descriptions of cool locations in Middle-Earth, then stepped back and let individual GMs and players chart their own epic stories. In general I loved that approach and we spun many great roleplaying stories using the tools MERP provided.

    That said–I do think it’s a little odd that, given the extremely focused narrative of The Lord of the Rings, that MERP didn’t do *something* to talk about bringing that element into your games. They did publish (as you mention) those “ready to run” adventure books, but even those were less “adventures” and more “adventure locations” without much in the way of an elaborate plot or story. I don’t need a step-by-step, railroady adventure path, but even just an essay or two about how to run an epic, world-spanning MERP campaign (like the story in LotR) would have been cool.

    But I’m not really complaining about the MERP books that were published–in my mind they set a very high standard for fantasy setting books.

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