Wednesday, August 3, 2011

One Ring to Rail Them All…

Rolemaster's Middle Earth and the High Fantasy Sandbox

The rail road of the Rings

A recent poll here identified that only 6% of folks like High Fantasy these days for their D&D game.  Why is that so low?  I think much of it has to do with the perception that High Fantasy means epic storylines like the Lord of the Rings.  Epic stories translate into D&D as adventure paths and railroads and Elminster.  Old schoolers don't want to be lead around by the nose.  It got me thinking about the possibilities of mixing High Fantasy and the sandbox campaign style, and that got me reminiscing about the old ICE Rolemaster take on Middle Earth, and the huge number of sourcebooks they published in the 80's.

Did anyone else collect these?  ICE created source books that detailed sections of Middle Earth some 1400 years before the war of the ring.  This gave them great flexibility to use Middle Earth names and places, plenty of historical characters, and freedom to turn it into a huge sandbox.  Many things in Tolkien's books are timeless and immortal, and could be encountered in the earlier time period.  The art was spectacular.  The Middle Earth lore was overwhelming, and the text was painfully small.  But an ambitious group of characters could find the One Ring at the bottom of the river, or go into Dol Guldur and take on Sauron (who was masquerading as The Necromancer in southern Mirkwood during that period) - and get promptly obliterated.

I can remember running games where our youthful power gamers looted some of the Barrow Downs near the Shire for ancient weapons, fought a wight or two, had a few beers in Bree, and then went into the Trollshaws and got pummeled by Trolls.  Good times.  Rolemaster (and the simplied version, MERP) was an unforgiving system.

Wouldn't you say ICE turned an epic, High Fantasy setting into a playable sandbox?  Transplanting this approach to Dungeons & Dragons, the DM could write his intricate back stories about One Rings and Dark Lords and blah blah blah, and the players could ignore all of that and do whatever they want - like go looting.

Couldn't you foresee a campaign where the players found a cool magic ring, and then discovered that lots of bad guys were hunting for it because it was, in fact, an artifact?  Through their own choices, the players went to ancient libraries or wise old NPC's and learned that the ring had a history; the players then planned and executed their own quest to "take care of the ring".  The DM sets the table, the players bring the awesome and the epic.

In an Adventure Path covering the same ground, the visit to the Mary-Sue NPC or the ancient library would be ordained by the writer; in the sandbox, the visit only happens if the players make it happen.  If they choose to sit on the ring, hole it up in their tower, take it to the arctic and throw it into the sea, let them do it.

Simple stuff, really.  The DM creates some basic setting elements and puts them in the sandbox:  a ring, some bad guys who want it, and some hidden lore on it's history and vulnerabilities.  Once the ring crosses paths with the players, the unfolding of the campaign is dictated by their choices and the consequences of those choices.  The bad guys will have their own ideas, and they're going to react to the player's actions and adjust accordingly - it could mean declaring war, sending troops on the move, or dispatching a group of 9 black-clad undead riders to go find it.  The sandbox isn't static, and a story will emerge from player actions and the consequences of their choices.  But the sum of the parts is much larger - and far more satisfying to all involved - than if the DM sat down and wrote a scripted adventure path on how he thinks the campaign should unfold.

Looking back at ICE, they did commit a "cardinal sin of the sandbox"; they made it clear that anything the players did that would affect future history would be undone, so that the War of the Ring would proceed as in the books… If the group found the One Ring and went bizonkers with it, sometime after the characters died, it'd have to make it's way back to the river for Deagol and Smeagol to find it again, right on schedule.  It gives the illusion of freedom, but ends up as the ultimate railroad, because all their activity would have been futile.


  1. I have a few MERP books and would still happily play it, whether it's true to Tolkien's vision or not. I think a canon-ignoring MERP campaign would be a blast.

  2. I have a HUGE collection of MERP stuff. Together with Harn it's my favorite setting for detail and idea mining.

  3. I wish I kept all my MERP stuff. If you blew off canon, it'd be a great framework for a D&D sandbox setting. Slap a hex overlay on those excellent Pete Fenlon maps and start rocking out, MERP-style.

  4. I have to disagree that their actions would be futile. Sure, they don't have that much effect on the world 1400 years later (and, really, how many of us will?), but so what? The gamers had fun, yeah?

    Having fun is the point, and if you do that, it's not futile.

  5. There's a very healthy MERP collecting community, though they aren't a true community. I'm not aware of an Acaeum-like central point of contact for MERP collectors.

    And yeah, lots of the ICE stuff up through the 80's is quite sandbox-oriented. Low on the "here's the plot", high on the "let the characters loose in a well-developed area where some stuff is going on."

    Many of the MERP modules are generic enough to use in D&D.

  6. In D&D, one of the more iconic high fantasy settings is Forgotten Realms, and if you play in that setting and then move to something grittier, more desperate... it is, for many of us, hard to go back. After the more realistic struggles of low-middle fantasy, Forgotten Realms feels like a cartoon.

  7. I worked for ICE as a freelance artist in the mid to late nineties and did a lot of the 2nd Edition map and plan layouts (see my blog for illos). I own copies of all of the stuff I worked on and a lot more that I didn't, yet I never ran a middle earth campaign or know anyone that did while I was working for ICE (or before or afterwards either). I always thought that was kind of strange and may have resulted in weak sales. I did play in quite a few Rolemaster Games there though (playtest and home brew).

  8. That is super cool, Dan. I checked out your gallery, I totally remember those maps from the Moria book and Sarn Goriwing from Mirkwood (Sarn Goriwing was one of my favorite places back in the 80's).

    I wish I kept all those source books from back then; like I say in the post, it'd make a hell'uva D&D sandbox.

  9. I do remember the President Pete Fenlon had a MERP game but he was winding it down by the time I started working there and rarely ran it (plus it was mostly just his buds rather than open to all of us grunts).

    Middle Earth is the ultimate sandbox but my guess is that most people want to make their own so pre-packaged worlds don't really sell. Most people that I heard about who bought the MERP books did so because they loved middle earth and/or used them to poach stuff for their own sandbox games which is part of why I am posting the old illos now.