Thoughts on a nearly-dead RPG

If ever there was a desirable roleplaying game property, you’d think it’d be the Lord of the Rings license. How could you go wrong with the Middle Earth mythos, which inspired (and continues to inspire) the Dungeons and Dragons game that started it all? You’d think that owning the rights to print a Tolkien roleplaying game would be a license to print money… but history doesn’t seem to bear that out. Iron Crown had a long and presumably successful run with their Middle Earth Role Playing game (MERP for short), but eventually went under and lost the license (due to either cutthroat licensing practices by Tolkien Enterprises or financial incompetence by Iron Crown, depending on who you choose to believe).
More recently, the ears of MERP fans around the world perked up at reports that a company called Decipher had acquired the rights to the Lord of the Rings franchise and planned to publish a roleplaying game to coincide with the release of the Peter Jackson films. Like everyone else, I was skeptical that a new Lord of the Rings game could match up to Iron Crown’s MERP, but I dutifully drove down to the local game store when it came out and bought a copy of Decipher’s shiny new Lord of the Rings RPG to see for myself.
Now, two years later, the Lord of the Rings RPG line is all but dead, and rumors are flying that Decipher–which hasn’t published anything for the line for quite some time–is going to farm out the license to another company, like Green Ronin or Games Workshop.
What happened? How do you go wrong with a Lord of the Rings game?
I have no idea what went wrong, obviously–it could’ve been mismanagement by Decipher, bad sales returns, lack of interest in the property, or some other reason. But while I don’t know why Decipher dropped the ball on the Lord of the Rings RPG, I do have some thoughts about their efforts–what I thought they did right, and what I thought they did wrong. Maybe my thoughts are representative of other gamers, and maybe not. I think there was both good and bad in Decipher’s Lord of the Rings game and the way they handled the line. I’ll start with the good.
The Good

  1. The game looked good. I’m not normally one to put much emphasis on a roleplaying game’s appearance or production values–after all, it’s the content of the game that’s important, right?–but Decipher’s LotR rulebook looked really, really good. The core rulebook (and the followup books they published) was hardcover, solidly bound, and filled to the brim with full-cover illustrations and pictures (most drawn from the movies). The pages were colorful, and filled with nice little touches–even the fonts they used had a great Middle Earth feel to them. In fact, the game looked so good that I didn’t even mind that the images were taken from Peter Jackson’s particular interpretation of Middle Earth. I think Decipher really raised the bar when it comes to visual presentation and production values in games–only Nobilis and some of Wizards of the Coast’s books are in the same category, in my opinion.
    Looks aren’t everything. But given that the book’s appearance was the first thing you noted, the game certainly got off to a good start.

  2. It captured the spirit of the books. Fears that the new LotR RPG would be based on the Jackson movies and not on the original texts proved to be unfounded–despite the movie images that graced its pages, the RPG was based entirely on Tolkien’s writing. Where it particularly succeeded was in making the game specifically about playing Tolkien-esque heroes–that is, heroes who embodied both the noble ideals and the flaws exhibited by the characters in the novels. The RPG exuded a strong sense of moral good and evil–as in the books, it’s not always easy to tell at first glance whether a given choice is for good or evil, but the distinction is nevertheless present, and heroes are expected to do their best to identify it. Heroic roleplaying–as opposed to hack-and-slash, loot-and-pillage gaming–was strongly encouraged both in the rulebook text and in the design of the rules themselves. There are enough games out there featuring violent anti-heroes; I was pleased to see that no such postmodern, survival-of-the-strongest themes cropped up inappropriately in the LotR RPG.
    Other areas in which the RPG caught the Tolkien spirit were in its depiction of magic (which was based very closely on the subtle magic described in the books), its use of unusual but very Middle Earth-appropriate character types like sailors, loremasters, and scholars, and its emphasis on the corruption that comes from power (a theme that comes across strongly in Tolkien’s writings). All in all, the Decipher RPG captured the heroic and moral spirit of Tolkien well, which more than made up for the fact that the physical world of Middle Earth went quite under-described in the rulebook. In this respect above all, Decipher’s LotR RPG really outshone Iron Crown’s MERP–the latter had some amazingly detailed sourcebooks about the places and geography of Middle Earth, but the former really captured the attitude of the source texts.

  3. The rules were good. The rules system wasn’t anything amazing or hugely innovative, but worked well for what it aimed to do. The rules were pretty easy to pick up and played smoothly and painlessly during the games. Unfortunately, while the rules did their job well enough, there is a negative side to them, which I’ll address below.
  4. It was accessible. By this, I mean that Decipher’s game was emminently easy to find and play. It was on the shelves of just about every Barnes and Noble and Borders I visited, which meant I could just head down the street to the local bookstore and pick up a copy of the game and its sourcebooks–instead of ordering through the Web or special-ordering via my local game store (a painfully long process that, for me, ends about 50% of the time with the store staff never actually bothering to order the book… but that’s a rant for another time). Decipher’s game was highly visible compared to other RPGs, and actually had a decent chance at catching the notice of a non-gaming Tolkien fan who happened to be browsing the fantasy section of the bookstore.

Those are some of the things I liked about the game. Here are some of the things I didn’t:

  1. The rules should’ve been D20. That’s a reasonably controversial thing to suggest (among gaming circles, at least), so let me elaborate. The Decipher RPG used its own, custom-designed ruleset–Internet scuttlebutt indicates that having a proprietary set of game rules was an important part of Decipher’s plans for the line. So far, so good, right? There’s nothing wrong with making a non-D20 game… unless your new game is just D20 with the serial numbers filed off. To be blunt, that’s what the LotR system is.
    The similarity to D20 was one of the first things that struck me as I read through the LotR RPG. It borrows a whole lot from D20–it’s got your six basic stats, saving throws, classes and prestige classes, the familiar skill ranks system, difficulty checks, feats, and the like… with the names changed. The rules system can be described basically as “D20, but you roll 2d6 instead of 1d20.” There are some nifty bits in the LotR RPG that aren’t in D20 (like Edges, Flaws, and rules for Corruption)… but they could’ve easily been simulated within the open gaming license. So in the end, we get a modified version of D20–different enough to make it incompatible with the gazillions of D20 monsters, adventures, settings, and rules out there, but not different enough to really justify its existence as an independent rules system.
    This was a disappointment. The rules are fine… but if they wanted to use so many elements of D20, they should’ve just used the D20/OGL license and made it easier for players to jump into the system, and easy for gamemasters to plug D20 and OGL material back into the fantasy setting that inspired all the rest.

  2. Lackluster sourcebooks. The sourcebooks released to support the LotR RPG were not bad… but they felt somewhat uninspired. Quite a few “fluff” books and materials–character folios, map sets, introductory boxed sets–were released, which is fine, but not when said fluff outnumbers the actual sourcebooks for the RPG. Of the four “major” rules supplements released–one on Fellowship, one on Two Towers, one a monster manual, and the other a Moria setting guide–exactly half were decent-but-not-great detailings of movies and books that everyone in the universe has seen multiple times. Do we really need full writeups and stats for all the characters in the books and movies? How often do those characters even appear in games… let alone how often are their stats actually important (“Tom Bombadil fails his Climb roll and falls screaming to his death!”)? Maybe I don’t play LotR like most other people, but the players I know prefer to create their own characters and forge destinies for them outside the established bounds of the trilogy’s events. Likewise, while we got a lot of detail about the sites visited during the events of the LotR trilogy, the most intriguing parts of Middle Earth–those areas that haven’t been exhaustively detailed in the books–go more or less unmentioned. Most players I know would prefer exploring the areas of Middle Earth mentioned in the source texts but not described in detail, rather than retracing the path of the Fellowship.
    A related issue is the incredibly glacial pace of new releases for the game. When The Two Towers was hitting theaters and everyone was talking about the massive battle at Helm’s Deep, the new LotR sourcebook arriving on bookstore shelves was… The Fellowship of the Ring Sourcebook. Be still, my beating heart. A year later, The Two Towers Sourcebook arrived just in time for The Return of the King to take theaters by storm. Decipher never released a RotK sourcebook, so we’ll never know how that would’ve turned out. Bummer.
    Perhaps these are gripes unique to the way I play RPGs in Middle Earth, but they nevertheless irked me a bit while playing.

  3. It was pricey. While it was nice that the RPG books were attractively designed and laid out, they were pricey enough that they couldn’t really fall into the “impulse buy” category. $25 for a 96-page hardback? Ouch. I have no problem paying that much for an RPG book if I’m going to use it a lot, but that had better be a darn good 96 pages if they want me to plunk down that much cash for it. Of course, I did plunk down said cash, so maybe I’m exactly the sort of sucker gamer they’re hoping will get hooked on the game.

I hope my rants have not drowned out my praise for Decipher’s game; it’s a good system, admirably true to the spirit of the source material, and I’d love for it to be granted a new lease on life. The quality of the supplementary material was improving even as Decipher’s support for the game line petered out, which seemed to bode well for future releases. I hope that Decipher revives the LotR RPG and gives it more of a fighting chance to prove itself amidst the competition–or at the very least farms out the license to a company that will support the game line to the best of its abilities.
We shall see. In the meantime, between Iron Crown and Decipher offerings, I’ve got enough Middle Earth material to last me for a while… but I’d love to see more. Come on Decipher, give it another try!

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on a nearly-dead RPG

  1. Bill

    I measure whether it’s a good MERP system by looking at the degree of care given the rules regarding Pukel-men.

  2. jrau

    Bill, I think you’re bound to be disappointed with the new LotR RPG. Can you believe that is has no rules at all explaining how to create an invincible demonic Pukel-man servant? You’re right–that automatically discredits it 🙂
    The Pukel-man situation, and the oil flask situation. Those are perhaps the two most defining moments in my gaming experience.

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