Ok so first lets hit the obvious question… Why when asked to do a review of Role Master (RM) am I doing a review on Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP)?
- Because I only have one of the three core books for RM, ‘Arms and Claw Law’. If I am going to do a review I like to have the book or books on hand to reference back to so I can be reminded of specific elements in the game or to bring back specific memories so that I can give a better review.
- MERP really is RM lite. It uses the same core game engine and it has a lot of the same features. Really it only has less character classes, magic, and modes of combat. So you can look at it as MERP is a little less than RM, or, MERP is trimmed down to make it easier and faster to play because you don’t have to look through so much just to play. That is going to be a personal choice for everyone who cares 🙂
With that out of our way lets move into the game. So back in the early 80’s Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) did what TSR forgot to do when creating a fantasy role playing game that has its roots in the works of Lord of the Rings by Tolkien, they got permission to use the terms and ideas of the original authors family and license holders for the property. So where TSR got sued into changing Hobbit into Halfling, ICE got to go crazy and actually go ahead and make a game that used their core engine, based in the Tolkien stories. (Sorry if WOTC takes a different point of view to that telling but even TSR used to even take it to themselves in their Dragon Mirth section of Dragon Magazine, look online for Whats New by Phil and Dixie and you can find a couple of great strips on the topic.)
Back in 1985 I found MERP at a comic book convention in Seattle and fell in love with it. Due to a miss read of the rules my first time running a game of it ended up with just about every combat session being flooded with critical hits and spells that would have broken a planet in half. But that just fueled my love of it. Even when I figured out what I had done wrong, and had moved into playing it from time to time with others, there were elements that I kept coming back to. From MERP I moved into the regular RM rules and still use the critical hits tables for added flavor in combat regardless of the game engine I am running in.
These days if you have an interest in MERP you will have to go looking in used book stores. The license for Lord of the Rings games has moved into other hands, and the current holder of ICE’s old properties cannot even print it as a PDF anymore. Oh the joys of having to license other peoples works and pay for it… RM on the other hand… well ICE fell by the way side years back and Guild Companion Publishing now has RM and what by some is considered the evolved form, HARP (High Adventure Role Playing) as PDFs on places online. Some of these books were published as well and can also be found in used book stores.
So how does the game work and why do people call it ROLL MASTER in jest (role/roll <- basic humor right?)
Ok so MERP is a level based system. The original basic rule book only gave rules for levels up to ten. I seem to remember a supplementary rule book that was published later taking the levels up higher, but for the life of me I cannot remember the name of the book now. Also I may be wrong about that, so don’t sweat looking too hard for it. There are a limited number of classes/professions, and almost every race that Tolkien created are available for play. Even orcs and trolls if you can imagine that. The rules are based in such a way that every stat (and there are several) can have a bonus or penalty effect on skills. Your race gives you a bonus for your skill bonus as well as some basic skill ranks. Every level you go up adds skill levels based on your class/profession. You choose your skills from groups. So you may have 3 skill level adds in combat, you pick what specific combat skills you put those adds into.
If you are going ‘WTF Batman?’ you are right about where most starting players are when they go over the rules the first time. See in this game you roll for each stat on percentile dice. Low bad, high good. If you have a stat, say Strength (STR) at 100, you get a bonus of +25 to all of your skills that user STR, now then if you play a dwarf you also get +5 to all STR skills. Not a bonus to the stat, but a bonus to the skills. Your race, and then you class give you skill levels. The first ten levels are +5 each, and after that they are +2 each. So if you have a dwarf with a STR of 100 who has five skill levels in lifting that would give a total of +55. So what do you do with that bonus, roll a d100 and add the bonus to it. Yeah that’s right, you can max out a skill and a stat and with race bonus and so on you may end up with over a +80 to a d100 roll. Now then if you are looking at skill vs skill you can call it over with a roll. If you are looking at combat, if you get a critical hit with a weapon or a spell you then have to take a look at the critical tables and roll again, and possibly again. This is where in MERP the ROLL Master comes from. It works the same with spells or fumbles.
In the original RM you also have things like backgrounds you can roll for that extend the rolling into character creation more. But not in MERP.
So why did this game capture and keep my attention for all these years. Well part of it comes from the fact that humans are not just one broad group. There are actually cultural differences and so picking where your human comes from can make a big difference in what you can do. Next is the fact that every character class can use magic. EVERY. SINGLE. CLASS. And then the big one, the crit tables are a lot of fun. Example – Crush Critical table – Roll total 107-109 “Neck strike crushes throat. Cannot breathe and stunned for 12 rounds. Poor fool then expires.” Getting a crit roll that high is not easy but you have to admit it is kinda cool, and the fact that the same target of that hit can be hit again and stack another crit on him… well you can get some really cool and descriptive things going in a fight that way. Spells have similar tables and failures and fumbles have them too so dont think you can get off light. I mean when bow/crossbow failures and fumbles allow you to pin your own foot into the ground or give an instant kill against one of your own party members… yeah… it can get a bit wild once you start rolling.
Ok so I have rambled on about how it works and what you can see, lets see how it stacks up in my ratings game…
Fluff – Actually this game is a little weak on the fluff. There are some really good things, but to get the best out of it you need to get the supplements that were published by region of Middle Earth. Moria is one of my favorites and it is hard as hell to get a-hold of on eBay these days. In the basic rules though there are bits and tidbits all over the place, the sketches of the LOTR characters are awesome and it adds to the flavor as you go on.
Overall Fluff Score – 3 Good stuff but not enough to really make a strong showing.
Crunch – Sigh, ok so there are bits like the crit tables that are awesome, but there is some weak editing that leaves you going over the rules two or three times to make sure you know what is going on unless someone is walking you through it. The rules though are solid, and once you get them down its pretty easy to run with. The bad editing though hurts this score.
Overall Crunch Score – 3 I was tempted to give it a four because of the crit tables, but I cant in good conscience.
Mod – Ok this one may surprise folks but at the very end of this rule book they have pages dedicated to converting this game to the full version of RM and to Hero Games Fantasy Hero. Yeah that’s right they tell you how to change and import or export things you like to other games. Now then knowing Hero games and the fact that there are a lot of other games out there with mod suggestions, I have to say I think I could take a character or monster from here to anywhere. Also the class/professions are laid out in such a manner that you can see how to build your own really easy. Same for races. Basically if you pay a little attention you can mod this one all over the place.
Overall Mod Score – 4 The only reason this did not make a five is because you actually have to pay attention. It is not so easy you can just go oh look now I have something new. Some will disagree… let em. 🙂
Fun – I really do enjoy this game. It is one of my Fantasy setting faves and I have some really great history with it. But it takes a bit to get used to and you can go Monty Haul wayyyyy easy.
Overall Fun Score – 4 I do love a good Monty Haul with a character that can make the haul. And making a troll thief that can cast spells never pales.
Total Score 14/20
All these years later, still a fun game, and if you have RM it is a great way to introduce people to the bigger game and the greater options.
Wow that’s a big review… gonna have to do more like this 🙂
Now gimme the dice, I want to see if I can still crit a goblin three times with a club before it dies 🙂