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Tabletop Game / Middle-Earth Role Playing

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Middle-earth Role Playing (or just MERP) was a Role-Playing Game published by Iron Crown Enterprises from 1982 to 1996, using a streamlined version of the publisher's Role Master game rules. It was licensed from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film and game adaptation rights holders Middle-earth Enterprises (then Tolkien Enterprises), a division of the Saul Zaentz Company.

Set in the world of The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, MERP allowed players to run campaigns in any era of Middle-earth's history — though the default era was the year 1640 of the Third Age, approximately a millennium and a half before the War of the Ring in a time when Sauron is only just starting to rebuild his power. The southern kingdom of Gondor is recovering from civil war, while the northern kingdom of Arnor is under siege from the Witch-king of Angmar. The Great Plague has just ended, drastically reducing the population in north-western Middle-earth but opening up new opportunities for the survivors. Sauron remains in hiding, but his servants, the Nazgûl, gather forces under his banner. The lands are less settled but also more free, and Elves, Men, Dwarves, and even Hobbits might find adventure.

Because its setting was relatively little-detailed by Tolkien, MERP was allowed a great deal of creative freedom and developed its own mythos derivative of but distinct from Tolkien's, with a close attention to the languages and cultures of Middle-earth.

Notably there was far more magic extant in the default timeframe of MERP than during the later events of the books — magic items were common and mages and other spellcasters were also a major part of the world.

In 1991 ICE released the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. It was intended as an introductory boxset, in the vein of Basic Dungeons & Dragons. It uses a separate, simpler system, expanding from the one used in the Tolkien/Middle-earth Quest books to more resemble the Rolemaster-based MERP rules. Though its official lifespan was short (they only released three of five planned modules), the system became a Cult Classic within the wider MERP community, with a small community of players embracing it as a rules-lite alternative. There are even modern retro-clones of this version of the system.

MERP went out of publication in 1996 and the license reverted to Tolkien Enterprises. Other Middle-earth RPGs have since been published by Decipher (The Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, 2002-2005, tying into the Peter Jackson movies) and Cubicle 7 followed by Free League Publishing (The One Ring, 2011-present, taking place shortly after The Hobbit).

The game had a thriving fan community rallied around the fanzine Other Hands, which ceased publication in 2001. Other Hands was succeeded by an extensive fan module project and the current webzine, Other Minds.

Middle-earth Role Playing provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Expansion: MERP just about doubled the information available on Middle-earth from what Tolkien provided, and that's no mean feat. For example, it provides unique and fleshed-out cultures for the "enemy" Men such as the Easterlings and Southrons.
  • All There in the Manual: Information on the names on an early map was found only in an unpublished gazetteer, which thankfully can be found in several places online.
  • Animal Motifs: Seven of the nine Nazgûl have a helm based on some sort of animal (Akhôrahil and Ren do not). Khamûl's is a dragon, Dwar's is a war-dog, Indûr Dawndeath's is an elephant (or more precisely, a Mûmak), Hoarmûrath's is a polar bear, Adûnaphel's is a falcon, and Ûvatha's is a bat. The Witch-King has a helm in the shape of an octopus because the artist mistook the Dragon-helm of Dor-lómin on the cover of Unfinished Tales for the crown of Númenor, which she assumed was a cephalopod (Númenor being a seafaring civilization; in fact, the crown of Númenor was a simple winged helm).
  • Armor Is Useless: Played with. Plate and chain armor are decent, reducing (in the case of chain) or greatly reducing (in the case of plate) the chance of taking a bad critical though wearers are more likely to take non critical concussion hit damage which can wear them down over time. Rigid leather and unarmored were generally 50/50 depending on the weapon type being faced but soft leather was almost useless, being more likely to result in taking a critical against all weapon types.
  • Attack Its Weak Point: Dragons are normally covered in impenetrable armor, which leaves only three parts of their bodies vulnerable to damage — their eyes and a single spot where scales do not develop, referred to as their birth spot and believed to be a punishment from Eru.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: Morningstars and flails both have a decent combat bonus (+10, equivalent to two skill ranks in the weapon type) and the morning star has secondary criticals which are otherwise rare in one handed weapons. However they both have an 8% chance to fumble, the highest in the game, and in addition to any penalty on the fumble table you also automatically critically hit yourself if you do fumble them, making them more dangerous to the user than the enemy a lot of the time.
  • Beneath the Earth: Moria is given an extensive description, showing it as a layered, complex labyrinth of mines and underground ruins home to tribes of orcs and trolls, flocks of flesh-eating bats, restless undead, and serpentine dragons that shun the light of day, although its depths also hide the treasures of the ancient Dwarves and natural wonders in the deeper caves. The deepest levels of Moria are connected to the Under-Deeps, a lightless realm that has never been explored but which is believed to extend beneath the span of the Misty Mountains and where terrible monsters lurk.
  • Big Bad: Sauron, naturally — though in the canon setting of T.A. 1640 he's in hiding and is The Man Behind the Man for his Dragon, the Witch-king of Angmar.
  • Blessed with Suck: Monsters, in general, are harmed more than benefited by the "gifts" given them by Morgoth and Sauron. They are strong, powerful, feared and ferocious, and often long-lived to the point of being immortal; however, most are also unable to breed on their own, they lack the capacity for truly independent thought, and often exist in a state of constant pain or anger.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": The modules often use the elven names of common animals, plants and objects, even in non-flavour text.
  • Critical Hit: The main way characters kill enemies or die themselves. Losing all hit points just knocks someone out, it takes a serious amount of hit point damage above and beyond this to kill someone, but critical hits can cripple or kill instantly.
  • Death by Falling Over: Trying to do anything physically unusual, such as jumping over a wall, requires a roll. A failure on an "Absurd" difficulty task can result in your character dying if they roll critically badly on the failure table. In fairness, the modifier for Absurd difficulty is more than twice that of "Extremely Difficult", so you'd need an Olympic skill level to even think about attempting such a stunt without mangling yourself. Even so, it remains that this is a game where you can, rules as written, make a die roll to do something and fail badly enough to die.
    Your fall turns into a dive. You crush your skull and die.
  • Dragon Hoard: Most dragons collect vast hoards of treasure to gloat over in memory of their victories. The primitive cave drakes gather hoards like those of the greater kind, but mostly tend to gather common baubles and colored glass.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: One of the first adventure modules, The Court of Ardor, centers on a cult of Morgoth-worshiping dark elves in the far south of Middle-earth. This is ignored by later products.
  • Fantasy Counterpart Culture: MERP's take on the Easterlings is very strongly based on Mongol horsemen, ignoring the fact that Tolkien explicitly notes they use horses mainly for pulling wagons and chariots and rarely field cavalry.
  • Fiendish Fish: The waters of the world are home to many dangerous, predatory fishes, such as Carnantor, huge and aggressive marine eels; tenacious pike capable of reaching seven feet in length; Sarnúmeni, freshwater predator eels coated in venomous barbs; giant wels catfish known for attacking boats; and Red Jaws native to subterranean waters, where they use bioluminescent markings to lure prey to devour in a frenzy of blood.
  • Flies Equals Evil: Mordor is home to large, biting insects known as Morgai Flies or Orcflies, which swarm throughout the dark land, sucking blood and spreading disease.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: In addition to Tolkien's half-elves and half-orcs, MERP has the Umli, a race descended from the union of Men and Dwarves, who live in the Northern Waste.
  • Heroic Dolphin: Dolphins and porpoises, or Ulmodili ("Friends of Ulmo"), are noble creatures who serve Ulmo directly rather than his servant Ossë. They thus avoided being corrupted during Ossë's temporary fall, and remain allies of the free people and of the Teleri in particular.
  • Hobbits: They're a bit less soft and complacent than they are in The Lord of the Rings, as the Shire has only been settled for about 40 years, and a lot of Hobbit clans are still wandering in the Wild.
  • Half the Man He Used to Be: Sauron, as statted in a supplement, can do this by making a couple of decent rolls against any opponent — it's instantly fatal if he succeeds and does up to a hundred hit points of damage even if he fails.
  • Hit Points: Called "concussion hits", losing them all results in unconsciousness, not death — it takes a considerable amount of extra hit point damage (equivalent to a character's constitution score) to kill by hit point damage alone.
  • Lord British Postulate:
    • A (ringless) version of Sauron gets stats in one supplement — he's absurdly powerful at 240th level (in a system where a mortal PC might take a lifetime to reach 20th level), but since the game supports open ended attack rolls and instant death criticals, he could potentially be killed by even the lowliest enemy who lands a really lucky blow. In practice, the good guys would probably have to churn through literally hundreds of characters Knights of the Dinner Table-style before getting the one who ends Sauron with that lucky die roll... but it is theoretically possible.
    • The game also stats the Nazgul and the Istari (Gandalf et al.) — they are not quite as overpowered as Sauron, but still far stronger than any player character would normally be.
  • The Marvelous Deer: White harts are a rare species of deer found in the Old Forest. They grow to be larger than elk, are extremely rare, and have antlers that can be used to make a powerful healing potion. They're rarely hunted, however, because they will turn on hunters when cornered and killing one is said to bring bad luck.
  • Monster Whale: Demon whales are immense, predatory cetaceans native to the Ice Bay of Forochel. They're distinguished by their white or pale grey hides, five-inch teeth capable of shearing through steel, and penchant for swallowing people whole.
  • Never Smile at a Crocodile: Sea crocodiles are ferocious predators native to the southern seas, can exceed twenty feet in body length, and are known for attacking ships.
  • Noble Bird of Prey: In addition to the Great Eagles, there are also the Sea Eagles, smaller relatives of theirs that live on the eastern coasts of Middle-earth's continent. They are enemies of the local dragons and seen as savior figures by the islander tribes that live near them.
  • Our Demons Are Different: Demons, or Raukar, are the various spirits corrupted by Morgoth. They're trapped in monstrous physical forms that mimic the aspect of nature they once oversaw and that they can no longer change or abandon for an incorporeal state, and will perish if these are destroyed. They cannot reproduce — no spirit can. Multiple kinds exist:
    • Balrogs are fallen Maiar of flame, and the mightiest of all demons. They are deadly in combat and can seize and enfeeble the minds of mortals, and while their mindsets are largely impossible for basically decent people to fathom it's known that they are fiercely loyal to Morgoth and have little respect for any creature save each other and dragons. Their magic is mostly concerned with fire, detection, and summoning other evil beings.
    • Black Demons are a generic collection of weaker spirits in Morgoth's thrall. Their forms are immensely varied and unique, although many are elemental in nature, and they can sometimes be persuaded or forced to obey the commands of mortal summoners.
    • Lassaraukar, or leaf-demons, are corrupted wood spirits in the form of tall, featureless men with thick green skin and a natural "veil" of skin hiding their faces. They are insanely fast and agile beings, delight in spreading death and terror, and fight with stone disks coated in their own venomous blood.
    • Vampires were once patron spirits of bats, but under Morgoth's influence have become monstrous, evil creatures resembling immense bats with ugly human heads and grasping talons. They also possess magical cloaks that can be used to take the shapes of others. Morgoth used them chiefly as messengers and spies.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Dragons are immense reptilian monsters bred by Morgoth in the First Age, although their precise origins are not very clear. Many died during Morgoth's wars and downfall, but others escaped and haunt the wildernesses of the world. They come in multiple kinds, distinguished by different powers, size, and number of limbs, and each drake is unique in its own manner, but all dragons are serpentine reptilian beasts of physical power unrivaled by anything save a Balrog, and are virtually immortal; those dragons that fly do so with forelegs modified into wings. In personality, dragons are vain, arrogant, deceitful and easily angered, and covetous of both land and treasure, but are also very fond of riddles, debates and games of wit. Most are also powerful spellcasters and can dominate the minds of others. They generally live alone, only meeting to battle over territory or to mate.
    • Cave drakes, or Rondóloki, are one of the oldest breeds of dragons. Since they date back to before the dragons' more refined features were bred into them, they lack wings, magic, breath weapons or much in the way of intelligence, and rarely grow very large or ambitious. They mostly live as wilderness predators and are terrified of their greater kin, although they'll bluster shamelessly when confronted with Men, Elves or Dwarves. They lie easily and often, but are very bad at it. Cave worms are a variant that resemble limbless, slimy serpents and live in the deepest recesses of the earth, burrowing through the rock and eating anything they stumble into. They're never seen on the surface, but many entered Moria when the Dwarves' mines breached into their homes.
    • Cold-drakes, or Helkalóki, are the most ancient true dragons. They lack breath weapons and most, but not all, are flightless, but they remain cunning, powerful predators with a keen sense of smell. They originated in the Utmost North and still prefer cold climates, and mostly inhabit the wastes of the far north or high, cold mountains. Most are grey or white in color.
    • Ice-drakes a variant of cold-drakes that inhabits glaciers, ice caves and boreal seas, mostly preying on marine creatures. Besides their living preferences, they're distinguished by their ability to ingest large quantities of water and ice and spewing it back out as a sort of mock breath weapon.
    • Fire-drakes, or Urulóki, are the descendants of Glaurung. They lack the raw physical power of cold-drakes and are poor swimmers, but can breathe out streams of fire and cast powerful spells. Some are winged and some are not.
    • Water-drakes, or Nénilóki, are an aquatic offshoot distinguished by elongated bodies, webbed or fin-like legs, the ability to ingest water and regurgitate it in a powerful spray, and difficulty in moving about on land. They are divided between the rain-drakes and true water-drakes. Rain-drakes are a less specialized breed, still capable of limited movement on land and mostly found in lakes and deep rivers. True water-drakes, also known as Sea Serpents, are entirely water-bound and found in the seas and Beneath the Earth.
    • Were-worms are a very unusual breed capable of altering their shapes. They are divided between sand-drakes, animalistic beasts that can mimic the characteristics of objects that they touch, and true were-worms, intelligent beings who use sorcery to take on the forms of other things.
    • Fell-beasts are not true dragons, but were bred from winged drakes to serve as steeds and messengers and resemble smaller, smellier and animal-minded versions of their ancestors.
  • Our Fairies Are Different: "Fairy" is a general term used to refer to the lesser Maiar, mostly ones who are tied to nature in some way. Many played some role in shaping the world during the Elder Days, although a few are comparatively more recent spirits. Almost all the ones remaining in the world are tied to guardianship of something, usually a specific place or landform.
  • Our Trolls Are Different: Trolls are hulking, evil humanoid beings that were created by Morgoth in mockery of the Ents. They're powerful and strong, but most kinds turn to stone under the light of the Sun and thus prefer to live in caverns and other dark places. They usually live as solitary monsters, eating whatever they can catch, but the smarter ones often use their might and fearsome presence to take over leadership of Orc tribes. Multiple varieties exist:
    • Stone trolls are the most common variant. Beyond that, they're stupid, quarrelsome brutes who mostly live alone or in small groups in the mountains, and at eight to ten feet in height are the smallest of the trolls.
    • Hill trolls are slightly rarer but still fairly common. They prefer to live in foothills, are usually a couple feet taller than stone trolls, and are just smart enough to make and use simple spears and clubs.
    • Cave trolls are very rare and only found in deep caves under the mountains, such as the ruins of Moria. They can reach twelve feet in height and are virtually blind, but have a very keen sense of smell.
    • Snow trolls are an extremely rare breed found in the far north. They turn to ice instead of stone under the sun, but thaw back to flesh in the night unless they're badly damaged beforehand; most hibernate during the summer to avoid the long arctic days.
    • "Olog-hai" were to ordinary trolls as Uruk-hai were to orcs — taller, stronger, faster, more intelligent and able to operate in sunlight without penalty.
  • Pike Peril: The pike of the Entwash river can grow to seven feet in length, and pike in general are tenacious predators that, once they bite down on something, will not let go until either they are badly injured or they succeeded in tearing off a mouthful of flesh. Luckily for humans, they rarely attack swimmers unprovoked.
  • Poison Is Corrosive: In the supplement Rivendell: The House of Elrond, one of the poisons listed in the 9.1 Herbal Chart table was Camadarch Acid. When mixed with alcohol, it inflicted Heat critical hits on the victim.
  • Quirky Miniboss Squad: The nine Ringwraiths, each of whom was given a distinct backstory and personality.
  • Rapid Aging: The sourcebook Gorgoroth includes an in-depth description of the Sammath Naur (Sauron's forge and laboratories inside Mount Doom), and how the Dark Lord used its capabilities to create the One Ring. For example, one of the six Rooms of Tempering imbued the Ring with protection from decay and corrosion by focusing time energy upon it. Any person caught inside the chamber when it is activated ages at a rate of one thousand years per second — even Elves fade and die after an hour (3.6 million subjective years) of this treatment.
  • Red Oni, Blue Oni: Marcho and Blanco Fallohide, the co-founders of the Shire. Marcho's aggressive leadership gathered the many Hobbit clans together, while Blanco's soft-spoken diplomacy convinced King Argeleb of Arthedain to grant them the Shire to live in.
  • Savage Wolves: Common wolves are relatively timid creatures and typically avoid the Free Peoples, but other wolf varieties are much more aggressive. Dire wolves have no fear of Men, Elves or Dwarves and hunt them like any other prey, red wolves are aggressive and tireless hunters prone to killing just for sport, and white wolves are immense, powerful hunters of the far north and the most dangerous of all non-monstrous canines.
  • Sea Monster: The creatures of the oceans are noted to have suffered significant corruption, more so than most other natural creatures, due to Morgoth's brief seduction of Ossë allowing him to introduce many of his monstrous creations into the sea, where they remain to the present day. Even redeemed, however, Ossë and his servants are much more tempestuous and aggressive than his wife Uinen and the natives of her freshwater domain, and even uncorrupted creatures can be dangerous to seafarers. These creatures include a variety of naturally and unnaturally aggressive fish, sharks and whales, as well as monsters such as krakens and marine dragons.
  • Sea Serpents: The Sea Serpents, or Lingwilóki, are a breed of dragon adapted for aquatic life. They are long and serpentine, with clawed fins instead of legs, deep blue or green scales, and a sonar organ in their foreheads. They attack by swallowing large quantities of water and forcefully expelling them from their mouths, and the largest specimens can grapple and crush small ships. They fear and hate fire and don't care for light, and consequently avoid shallow water; sea serpents are only found in the deep ocean and in subterranean waters.
  • Self-Made Orphan: Supposedly, Glaurung devoured his own father, the elder dragon Iaurlóke the Cold.
  • Stronger with Age: Dragons do not experience decrepitude as they age; instead, aging dragons only grow larger, their blood more caustic, their horns longer and their armor more and more impenetrable.
  • Threatening Shark: Nímaeargyrth, or White Seadeaths (by their description, they're essentially great white sharks), are deadly predators that will hunt anything with meat on it, even taking wounded whales.
  • Token Heroic Orc: Utumkodur was the only dragon not to be a purely evil, destructive monster. Instead, she was distinguished by possessing a noticeably even temper for her kind, and for developing a peculiar fascination with the Men of Hildor and teaching them sorcery.
  • Treasure Room: The beacon tower of Calenhad in Gondor has an Upper Treasury room. It's filled with gold and mithril coins, various rare and valuable goods and the Tower Captain's collection of magic items, including two magical swords and a pair of magical boots.
  • Weredragon: Were-worms are a very unusual breed of dragon capable of altering their shapes. They are divided between sand-drakes, animalistic beasts that can mimic the characteristics of objects their touch, and true were-worms, highly intelligent beings who use sorcery to take on the forms of other things.

Alternative Title(s): Tolkiens Legendarium