My first experience of RPG started when I left for Plymouth Polytech in 1987. In those heady days of Freshers week I tried a lot of different activities trying to find a place to fit in. I was/am an avid reader, a story teller and loved playing strategy games, so the RPG club looked like a fun thing to get involved in. Playing in a dungeon raid under D&D rules it was fun, but I couldn’t understand some of the unrealistic mechanics and dice combinations. In halls there was another Fresher who played D&D and ran a few sessions but still the rules frustrated me. And perhaps it was the style of play, but there always seemed a lack of background to all the adventures.
Unsurprisingly, I had read all of the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, a rarity in those days, so finding the Gameworkshop shipped Middle Earth Roleplaying (MERP) rules in our local games shop. Tentatively, I ran the first game using the adventure in the rule book. The surprise was that it worked! We struggled slightly with some of the rules, but it quickly became apparent that you needed to think carefully about how and what you attacked. No standing around for 10 minutes doing nothing. MERP was brutal, 10 sec rounds kept the combat moving but brutal. Characters who left themselves open to frenzied Orc attacks found themselves rapidly out of the battle. Staying in one place and shooting arrows will get you killed quickly. Mud on the ground can really affect how fast you move. Having said that, my first go was quite clunky and error prone as I got used to the way the system worked. But because I was a good story teller, the suspense and action descriptions meant that the occasional liberty with the rules were overlooked. What we really like was the fact that even a lowly level 1 character could kill much higher level characters through a one in a million chance critical, and as we know one in a million chances happen nine times out of ten (Terry Pratchett).
From this humble beginnings began a weekly Saturday session, play in the afternoon, eat a one pot meal, go out for the evening. My MERP campaigns, despite killing an awful lot of characters and maiming many more, were the mainstay of these although we dabbled with others for fun. I think mostly because the storylines were good and with a shared knowledge of the setting even the players helped bring the adventure alive. From there several generations of groups formed as I left and others took on the role of GM. Some were more better at creating fun games, others at producing games with the authentic feel. Mass games of 20-30 players with two GMs to handle combat and the inevitable party splits were like family gatherings. Player Characters began to reach legendary levels and campaigns and adventures began to take on epic quest proportions. Then just as swiftly life moved on. Careers, family, and locations ,New Zealand always tricky for a weekend, slowly elbowed out the time to play.
What I liked about MERP was the percentile system with its one in a million chance kill. You might if you are lucky take out a Balrog even as a lowly level 1 hobbit thief. The combat made you feel mortal. Ganging up on an opponent is a really effective strategy – anyone who has been in real life will know that once you get past the who is going to be sacrificed to the attack knows that even the best fighter eventually will go down under weight of numbers. By not throwing all you OB into attack your defense is much improved. A parry and a counter thrust can nibble away at those hit points (HP) and it easier to finish of a groggy opponent with a full OB than a healthy one.
What was terrible were the “magic” rules. The spell points meant that spell users needed to be in a big party picking up group points for many levels. Healers were more useful than wizards, who were a walking flashlight for three levels. The half spell users had a slightly better chance given their improved combat skills, but even they had to be backed up by warriors. But what really annoys me to this day were the spells themselves. They always seemed a bit unTolkeinesque. Spell law helped broaden out the range of magic and allowed me to craft a little more Tolkien into the magic users. However, to keep my campaigns more realistic, magic was limited to a very few characters. The players also realised this as trying to keep a wizard and healer safe with only a rogue and a ranger is a recipe for disaster.
Eventually, I graduated to Rolemaster, the variations for different weapons appealed, but players disliked the lengthy creation process even though it gave them more control over their characters skills and background. I fixed this with some nifty Excel work, but somehow I have managed to misplace this. A copy may exist on a 3.5″ floppy disk, but who can access that now?