So in order to keep my promise of a comparison of Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP) by Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE) circa 1984 and The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game (LRRG) by Decipher circa 2002… here we go.
So lets start with the companies. ICE was into roleplaying games (and still is in spite of the master license for its games now being in the hands of Guild Companion) early (started in 1980). Decipher started out with puzzles and party games in 1983 and did not make a move on RPGs until 2002 and they charged into that field with two licensed products (LRRG and Star Trek), the hardest kind of game to get traction with. Both are headquartered in the United States. Actually they are both headquartered in Virginia. Hmmmm.
Ok so why start with the companies. Well you see the reason I wanted to start there is so that both companies are into games. ICE started out as a RPG company that moved into other products later, and Decipher started out in other games and moved into RPGs. Neither company came into the games blind. Approaches may have differed, but they both know about games and gamers.
The next big element is the source material. MERP started based on the books, and only the books written by Tolkien. I mean sure there was the Ralph Bakshi animated movies from the late 70s, but if you look over the products you can see, well, nothing that comes out of those movies. LRRG however was rooted firmly in the movies created by Peter Jackson. Nearly every page has art from the movies and in some places the original books by Tolkien show some influence (like at the very start of the game where they talk about the realms) but it seems much more rooted in the flavor of the movies. To my mind it stacks up like this, MERP was inspired by Tolkien, LRRG was inspired by the movies that were inspired by Tolkien. Does this have an effect, yeah it does.
Mechanics of the games comes next. MERP uses the Rolemaster engine. A system designed by gamers to be epic and full of flavor (see my comments in my review about the critical hits tables for combat). LRRG was designed by gamers to be fast and light and try to match the pace seen in the movies. So now this is where you ask, ‘So Mr. Review guy, which one is better?’ And I look at everyone asking that question and smile in a wry fashion and pat you on the head softly before telling you… ‘Each one does something different, what do you want to do with a game? That will tell you which one is better.’
Yeah that’s right I am not going to tell you that one game engine is better than the other. You see the MERP game focus’ on being epic. EVERY character can have magic of some kind, when you hit big the rules don’t just give you extra damage, they give you descriptions to make everything more visual and bigger. LRRG focus’ on being able to move quickly, limits magic to certain types of people, but it has special talents that you can choose from so you can still be unique and memorable. MERP takes a little longer to sort out and do the math, LRRG lacks the descriptive quality and relies on the PC’s and the GM’s to come up with the flavor IF they want to take the time to add it. Both game engines work well at what they intend to do. Both can be adapted and added to with a little work. Neither engine is completely game balanced (one favors magic and the other favors weapons). So figure out the kind of game you want to play and you will know which engine I recommend.
Flavor and fluff, well… this is where I go reaching out a bit. You see neither core book has a ton of flavor material. It has just enough to get you started and let you build things up. But if you start looking at supporting products, well, to be honest Decipher fell way behind here. They published only six or eight supporting items for the game. ICE published dozens. The supporting items are usually where the fluff and flavor really kicks in, and ICE went whole hog into things by diving into the books published by Tolkien and by the supporting books put out by Tolkien Enterprises, while Decipher seemed to wait for the movies to come and then tried to use the limited material in them as the main basis for how to present the added setting locations and adventures. The movies never really were the only source of information and flavor for Decipher, but they used it as the main source.
Leaving stuff out… Now then I could go into the fact that since 2011 there has been another Tolkien inspired role playing game, The One Ring by Crucible 7. I dont have it in my collection though, never have so I can’t really add it in to the comparison. Fan support is another thing I am not going to go into. Each of the games has had it’s supporters and it’s detractors. No one game will make everyone happy. Everyone has a different take on things, so the added fan materials (that’s right use GOOGLE and prepare to be amazed at how many fans have made add on materials for each game system) push into a realm I am not ready to dive into, and may never dive into, like fan fics. I am so sorry I ever read that story about Legolas and Glimli… I mean, I never wanted to think they would resolve their differences THAT way… SIGH… ok way off topic there…
Publishing… so here is the last little bit before I conclude… So as you have already read, and likely surmised, neither one of these products is being published any more. Used book stores is really the only way to get them. Support comes from fans and that’s it. With MERP though if you can find any of the supporting books you can still get their Role Master game from Guild Companion in PDF form online. So that game at least you can still start up and build on with some semblance of support.
Personal take… yeah this is the conclusion.
I like both games. I prefer MERP, in part because of my history with it, and in part because of all the flavor it offers in its supporting products, even if they are not being published any more. My suggestion for anyone else, figure out what kind of game play you want to use and make up your own mind what game is the best for you 🙂 If you want to know more about either games history, or their publishers look them up on wiki.
Now gimme the dice, I need to see how many goblins it takes to take down a publishing company…