A multifaceted blog on RPGs

What System To Use For Tolkien’s Middle Earth?

In Generic on February 11, 2009 at 10:03 am

 Over at Greywulf’s Lair, there is a very well written and inspiring post on how to do Tolkien’s Middle Earth with D&D 4E rules. Not d20, not OGL, but strict D&D, all inclusive. If it’s a beholder, then perhaps it’s a Morgoth construct from the second age, if it’s a lich then perhaps it’s a nazgul, if it’s an orc then it’s an… orc. In the comment section to that post, it was mentioned that even though it is feasible,perhaps D&D 4E isn’t the best system to use when playing in Middle Earth. If this is true, then what system would be best? Read on for my take on different systems in Tolkien’s world.

The first thing to do when solving a problem is to define the problem. In this case, the problem seems to be that we want to play in Middle Earth, but we don’t know what game system would suit us best. To be able to find the right system, first we must define what roleplaying in Middle Earth means. I’ll start by making some assumptions (presumtions?):

  • Background: Middle Earth is a world with a rich history and rich politics. Empires have risen and fallen and gods have meddled with the world.
  • Scope: Middle Earth is a mythic world. It’s destiny is shaped by legendary, powerful beings. Stories told in Middle Earth are intertwined with its legends and its destiny. It is not a world of low-level intrigue and farmer marketdeals.
  • Theme: Middle Earth is a world firmly rooted in the anglo-saxon, germanic and nordic mythologies. There are trolls and dwarves but no oni, naga or sasquatch.
  • Monsters: Middle Earth is a world where most monsters are powerful and unique or rare, the exception being the evil races of orcs, trolls, etc, but only a limited number of such races exist.
  • Magic: Middle Earth is a world of legendary,unique and rare magic both in terms of magic items and magic abilities. It is also a world permeated by a low-level magic seen in the snow-walking ability of Legolas or the endurance of the hobbits.

So with these assumptions in mind, let’s take a look at how some different systems fit the glove.

D&D
Dungeons & DragonsThe initiator to this post is a treatise on how to use the RPG granddaddy, specifically fourth edition, for Middle Earth roleplaying. Lets look at how it breaks down. Background seems like a good fit, 4E has its points of light philosophy that meshes pretty well with a Middle Earth built on the ruins of previous ages. The scope is also fitting, especially at paragon and epic tiers. When it comes to theme and monsters, it doesn’t hold together quite as well. D&D has its own set of mythology and a very disparate set of monsters. To be able to use the monster’s manual, you’d probably have to do some major re-skinning and re-factoring and show some restraints towards Displacer Beasts and their like, otherwise you might quickly lose your Middle Earth mood. The fifth assumption, magic is perhaps the most difficult one. Wizards are rare to the extreme in Middle Earth and changing this might mess with people’s conception of the world. On the other hand, the martial power source in D&D 4E seems to be a perfect fit for the supernatural senses and fighting prowess of Tolkien’s characters. All in all, I’d give D&D B-, with a bit of work it could be a pretty good fit.

Middle-Earth Roleplaying from ICE
MERPThis Rolemaster based game from the eighties should be the perfect fit for the world for which it is written, but alas, it is not. First of all, the game itself suffers from clunky mechanics by modern standards. Second, even though the game and it’s supplements are at times superb when trying to convey the feel of the world, it suffers from being Rolemaster Light and keeps part of the Rolemaster feel, for instance when it comes to magic. To go through the different assumptions, background is great, as is, to some extent scope and theme is also good. The monsters are better than the selection in D&D, but the clunky system makes them hard to use efficiently. Finally, the magic system, based on rolemaster is no better than the one i D&D and it lacks the martial powers that seem like a perfect fit for ME. Taken together, the clunky system and the great background yields a C+. It’s better for idea mining than for actual play.

Savage Worlds
Savage WorldsThe new darling of the roleplaying community, the fast furious and fun roleplaying system from Pinnacle seems on a first glance to be able to run Middle Earth pretty well. Savage Worlds is a toolbox system and as such, it can only be evaluated from a perspective of how usable those tools would be in the setting. Background and theme is up to you, the game gives you nothing, but makes no assumptions either. Scope is pretty well handled, though SW doesn’t seem to handle the high end of the scale as well as for example D&D, the sweet spot seems to be for what would be characterized as level 5-15 i 4E. Monsters are also your own game, though they are pretty easily statted in SW. When it comes to magic, SW is a generic, effects-based system, but I think there would be some work making it ME-specific. All in all, SW would probably be a good fit if someone put some effort into it, the one thing I don’t like in this setting is the pulp feeling that SW seems to convey that doesn’t match too well with the poetic nature of ME. I’d give it a solid B, but with some fan-work, that’s a B+.

GURPS
GURPS 4th editionThis one stands out from the bunch due to the fact that I’ve actually successfully run a (short) campaign in ME using GURPS 3rd edition rules. It worked out pretty well, but more despite the rules than because of them. GURPS, up to and including its new 4th edition is a system striving for realism and as such, it is not a particularly good fit for the high fantasy setting of ME. As usual with a generic system, with background and theme you’re on your own. Scope could be ok, GURPS scales ok, but only into the supers setting, not into high fantasy. Monsters doesn’t really work out that well, GURPS has a more or less stated principle that adventuring should be about human adversaries and that’s where their focus lies. The magic system is spell-based and less easily modified than the SW effect-based system. Though I’ve used it successfully, I can’t really recommend GURPS for ME play, it’s a D, not unusable, but not very inspiring either.

What about the Lord of the Rings roleplaying game from Decipher? Well honestly, I don’t know anything about it. It may be great, but it hasn’t been supported for years. Still, if someone has played it, please give a review in the comments.

Do you have any experience of using different systems for Middle Earth roleplaying or for adapting another world for gaming?


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  1. That first link is to your post on the Alea Tools, not Greywolf’s Lair’s post about Middle-Earth.

    • Dammit! I’m trying out different blogging softwares and blogo isn’t quite there for me. Either that or I’m using it wrong. Anyway, fixed, thanks for the heads up!

  2. Good choices, all. We’re using 4e D&D simply because I’ve finally convinced my players it’s a worthy successor to 3rd Edition, and using Middle Earth gives us a ready-made complete setting. Nice.

    I’ve run Middle Earth using both MERP and Rolemaster, and love ’em both. If I were to choose a different system though, I’d use Mutants & Masterminds and run a gritty low-magic campaign around Gondor. No, seriously.

  3. I’d be tempted to try Reign, given its focus on countries and nations. I enjoyed MERP, back in the day, but agree that it isn’t the best adaptation.

    One of the mechanics to steal might be Unisystem’s different way of treating White Hats and power channeling PCs. That way you could have hobbits and Gandalf wander around together and not completely ignore the hobbits.

  4. @greywulf: When writing the post I actually left out a thought on the two ways of playing ME, one high fantasy, by the book and one just tag along and enjoy the scenery. ME is a very well thought out and described world, any kind of campaign, be it playing thieves in the Minas Tirith underworld or fighting slavers from the southern continent, could benefit from that backdrop. This way you could also escape some of the problems with a good setting, the stifling of your own creativity because everything you need to know is already in the books and if it isn’t in the books then it’s wrong ;)!

    @Scott: Some kind of monarch play could be great fun in ME. I have no personal experience of Reign, but I’ve read that it’s based on the One Roll Engine and I don’t really like that one, the probabilistics (or whatever it’s called) are a bit too obscure for my taste. I’ll have to take a look at Unisystem, if only for what we use to call System Pornography (usually me devising some kind of unplayable but very neat die-rolling mechanism or initative count or the like)

  5. You simply MUST look at Luke Crane’s Burning Wheel. It’s designed for Tolkien, with Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Humans as the standard races.

    It makes other games look like the lemonade stand you had when you were 9. Lots of enthusiam, weak on execution.

    • I must honestly say that I know very little about Burning Wheel, though I’ve been intrigued by it. What, in your opinion, makes it a good choice for Middle Earth?

  6. I think True20 fits very well for Middle-Earth

    I ran a recreation of the Mordor adventure and it worked out perfect.

    True20 has good minion rules, which are perfect for recreating large amounts of orc carnage

  7. greywolf: I’ve run Middle Earth using both MERP and Rolemaster, and love ‘em both. If I were to choose a different system though, I’d use Mutants & Masterminds and run a gritty low-magic campaign around Gondor. No, seriously.

    Greywolf you should take a look at True20 revised, since it’s based on M&M… but, I am guessing you’re more excited about the Warriors & Warlocks M&M expansion?

  8. I looked at True20, but right now I’m more into Savage Worlds as a generic system, though due to my players’ current infatuation with D&D 4E I haven’t been able to test it.

  9. […] Middle Earth Roleplaying – ICE published a game called Rolemaster back in the day, but the simplified version that was set in Tolkien’s fantasy universe was a better game in almost every way. This is still the best rpg set in Middle-Earth. […]

  10. GUPRS has some of the best fan material for Middle Earth out there.
    http://www.thecabal.org/gurps/rareitems
    D20 also has EA 20
    http://www.earpg.com/downloads/ea-d20-downloads
    MERPS had some great source books
    That said I feel Burning Wheel and The Riddle of Steel fit the flavour of Middle Earth better through mechanics than the earlier systems. Burning Wheel and The Riddle of Steel are big into what motivates the character and give bonuses for this behaviour. While not up to BW or TROS, Deciphers game is not bad either. Its kind of a d20 meets RQ with only using d6s. LOTRO was at leased influenced by Decipher’s game.

  11. Decipher’s system captures the essence of Middle-earth in a much more satisfying fashion than MERP, however the system is not particularly well designed, in my opinion.

    MERP has the better source material hands down.

    I too would suggest looking at Mutants and Masterminds and its spin-offs. It would be a great system if you wanted to actually play the fellowship but for the traditional fantasy role-play feel, it won’t work.

    I’m currently working on a Pathfinder/3.5 D&D conversion. Right now what I have fits the Pathfinder RAW, but is in no way balanced (Elves are far better than other races). If you want to see what I have so far, follow the link to my blog. http://pathfinderd20merp.blogspot.com/

  12. I think Legends of Middle Earth is the best system for Middle Earth roleplaying I’ve run into. Also, it’s free! http://www.1km1kt.net/rpg/legends-of-middle-earth

  13. BURNING WHEEL. The perfect system for Middle-Earth. Elves, Dwarves, and Orcs have special stats: Grief, Greed and Hatred, respectively.

    Higher Grief makes elves more badass, but has they fail Grief tests they may eventually just…die. They just give up on the world.

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