Friday, February 17, 2012

MERP, a retrospective

In the early 90s, I headed off from my childhood home seeking fame, fortune and a graduate degree. Only the third goal was achieved, but I did get to spend a lot of that time experimenting with tabletop roleplaying games that didn't have the words "dungeons" or "dragons" in their titles (this is possibly why the fame and fortune parts never materialized). Some of these, I played the heck out of (notably GURPS), while others, I only tried once or twice (Chivalry and Sorcery, Call of Cthulhu, Alternity, Star Wars d6, Pendragon). Another one of this latter group is Middle-Earth Role-Playing or MERP by Iron Crown Enterprises. MERP is a softer, gentler spawn of the angry, ex-Marine drill sergeant of tabletop role-playing games, Rolemaster. I've never played Rolemaster, I suppose, because I don't hate myself enough, but even MERP requires a healthy level of masochism. The interesting thing about MERP/Rolemaster is that even the DM has to filled with a sense of self-loathing to really embrace the system. Sadistic DMs are better off with Call of Cthulhu, in which they can inflict all manner of pain on their players without having to beat themselves repeatedly about the head. Anyway, as I was saying, MERP is a simplified and more approachable game based on the Rolemaster game engine. Like D&D, it is a class-and-level system, although the power curve is a little less steep. For example, a Warrior will gain 5 development points for weapon skills each level. Each such point may be spent on one of the six weapon skills (1-H Edged, 1-H Concussion, 2-Handed, Thrown, Missile, Polearm) for a 5% to hit bonus or spend 3 points for a 10% bonus. Furthermore, once 10 points have been spent on a skill, the bonuses drop to 2% or 4% respectively. Combat is certainly more complicated than D&D, but not as torturous as Rolemaster. The character has an offensive bonus (OB) based on weapon skill, relevent stat bonus and magic bonuses which he may dedicate wholly or in part to his attack roll. The attack roll is then penalized by the defensive bonus (DB) of the opponent which is derived from the relevent stat bonus, a shield bonus (if applicable) and any portion of the defender's OB he wishes to commit to parrying. Up to that point, combat is pretty straightforward. The modified result is then compared to a combat matrix for the appropriate weapon group (in Rolemaster, there's a separate combat table for every weapon!) which gives a result that accounts for the type of armour worn by the defender. A typical result will give a number of hits inflicted, but good rolls can result in a critical hits roll. This is where things get painful. This game has critical hits for everything. There are puncture crits, slashing crits, crushing crits, grappling crits, heat crits, cold crits, electricity crits and impact crits and tables for each. If you have a particularly brutal "primary" crit, it can also result in a lesser "secondary" crit as well. Especially bad rolls can also result in fumbles, of which there are several varieties.

Interestingly, aside from the obsession with the minutiae of combat simulation, MERP is clearly influenced by D&D. There are six stats which correspond pretty closely to the traditional D&D formula; strength, agility, constitution, intelligence, intuition and presence. There are also six character classes, one for each primary stat; Warrior (i.e. fighter; primary stat - strength), Scout (i.e. rogue; primary stat - agility), Animist (i.e. cleric; primary stat - intuition), Mage (i.e. wizard; primary stat - intelligence), Ranger (i.e. ranger; primary stat - constitution) and Bard (i.e. bard; primary stat - presence). All character classes may learn some magic, of which there are two varieities; Channeling (divine) and Essence (arcane). Obviously, the more magic-oriented classes of Animist and Mage have fewer restrictions. Spells are organized into lists of ten, within which all the spells have a related theme and increase in power with each level. For example, the Mage spell list Fire Law starts with a spell called Boil Liquid that can cause a cubic foot per level of liquid to boil and ends with Circle Aflame which conjures an immobile, 10 ft. high wall of flames encircling the caster and which inflicts a heat critical on anyone passing through it.

So, you may ask why I'm posting about a game I played a couple of times some twenty years ago. Well, it turns out I have a ton of supplements for this game that I recently uncovered during a spring cleaning. I had forgotten I even owned most of this stuff. Going through it all has brought back a lot of memories, not so much of the game itself, but of the time in my life when I used to have a lot of free time and, apparently, a lot of disposable income. So, I thought I'd share it with you all.



Obiri said...

I'm guessing it involves masochism because of a large amount of charts that need to be checked by the DM? Or is it like high level D&D where you spend 5 minutes determining how many modifiers you have this round?

Rognar said...

More the former, MERP doesn't really use modifiers that have to be determined on the fly. The only really decision that has to be made is how much offensive bonus to be applied to attack or defense. The charts are brutal, though, especially the critical hit tables. Getting hit with a crit can be pretty debilitating and instant death is an omnipresent threat. It's definitely a system that begs for a digital solution.

Oh, and Rolemaster is even worse

Obiri said...

So its a bit more realistic than D&D where you can swim in lava, get disintegrated, and get chewed and swallowed by a dragon but as long as you have 1 hp left you are still 100% ok.

Rognar said...

Yes, much deadlier than D&D. Oddly, the damage of spells and weapons has less to do with the damage-causing agent itself and more to with the result of the dice roll. There are none of the "big-handful-o'-dice" spells. In fact, spells and weapons don't even have damage dice associated with them. If you cast an ice bolt at someone, you may miss completely (possibly hurting yourself in the process), do a few points of damage or flash freeze his head causing instant death.

I find it amusing that many of these superdeadly old-timey game systems like BRP and Rolemaster had pretty involved chargen systems. You definitely want to have a few backup characters ready to go since throwing one together on the fly is not an option.

Gleichman said...

Ah memories of MERP...

MERP/Role Master was the last published system I tried before going home grown rules for my fantasy campaign and I've never looked back.

It wasn't too complex for us, but the critical charts were just over done. Even a good successful victory would leave a group with a mass of critical damage to heal.

And I must ask, did the Fellowship in Moria have to heal a bunch of critical damage after their fight in Moria? Or anywhere?

Did however love their Middle Earth Modules... greatest maps ever.

Rognar said...

There are some aspects of MERP that I like. The tactical nature of combat is quite good. I also find the simple skill system much more appealing than the system used in D&D 3.x/Pathfinder. If the combat resolution mechanics were significantly less cumbersome, it would be a pretty elegant game.

Gleichman said...

It could be made simpler easy enough, just replace all the crit charts with a single, smaller, more suitable one.

It would loss some 'flavor', but in the end I don't think it would really hurt the game. All that flavor is basically fluff anyway.