01 August 2022
We take a trip around the Middle-earth games that you can make your own
Words by Richard Jansen Parkes
It’s hard to imagine quite what roleplaying games would look like without the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Of course, there were fantasy stories before Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, but in the space of a handful of volumes – relatively thick ones – he laid down so many of the tropes that shaped tabletop gaming from its very beginning.
Without Aragorn, we wouldn’t have bow-and-blade-wielding rangers. Without Bilbo Baggins, no table would have ever been graced by a podgy, light-fingered halfling rogue. Without The Fellowship, we wouldn’t have a standard template for the culturally diverse, astonishingly well-armed adventuring parties that have formed the basis of so many campaigns over the past 50 years.
Though it has grown into its own beast over the decades, Dungeons & Dragons undoubtedly owed more heavy inspiration to Middle-earth in its early years. The first edition rulebooks only changed Hobbit to Halfling after a 1976 legal scuffle with the Tolkien estate.
Of course, not everybody is content with simply playing in a setting merely inspired by Lord of the Rings. For some gamers, the holy grail is a game based in Middle-earth. A game where they can explore the rolling hills of the Shire, delve into the dusty halls of Moria, and finally see what all this fuss about the Hobbits’ pipeweed is really about.
There have been five major, licensed tabletop adaptations of Tolkien’s works. Today, we’re going to explore all of them.
MIDDLE-EARTH ROLE PLAYING (MERP)
Publisher: Iron Crown Enterprises
Year of Publication: 1984
The original attempt to wrestle the titanic lore of Middle-earth to the tabletop, MERP remains a beloved entry in the annals of early roleplaying. It aimed to capture the feel of exploring the wild and dangerous lands of Tolkien’s works, with plenty of battles and puzzles to conquer.
The ruleset was loosely based on Icon Crown Enterprises’ Rolemaster system. As such, it was built on a detailed – critics might say ‘cumbersome’ – d100-based mechanic that came bundled with piles and piles of tables and charts that helped make combat bloody and dangerous.
One of the game’s many strengths lies in its immense volume of supplements and sourcebooks. There are around 70 MERP books out there, sketching out vast tracts of Middle-earth that were barely touched on in the original stories. Exactly how canonical these are is, of course, up to the reader.
If all this has piqued your interest and inspired you to track down a copy of the rulebook… we have some bad news. Iron Crown lost the license in 1999, and the licensing situation keeps them from just bundling up PDFs. Finding old copies online is possible, but they don’t come cheap. Sorry.
On the plus side, MERP still has a small legion of dedicated fans who are helping to keep the game alive. Indeed, their fan convention, TolkienMoot, is set to enjoy its 18th edition the same month this magazine hits the shelves.
Worth Playing? Yes, but more for the nostalgia hit than anything else. If a game was being criticized for being too fiddly in the mid-80s, you know it has some clarity issues.
THE LORD OF THE RINGS ROLEPLAYING GAME
Year of Publication: 2002
Designed to tie into the film adaptations of The Lord of the Rings, this is arguably the first modern (ish) take on a Middle-earth RPG. Its rulebook came packed with lovely art and illustrations from the movies but still promises that players could explore any of the four ages of Middle-earth.
It used a ruleset that had first been developed to handle another titan of nerd culture – Star Trek. This relied on a pair of six-sided dice and a handful of attributes to get things done. It also offered a range of class/race combinations that should be familiar to anyone with even a passing familiarity with D&D.
A handful of sourcebooks were released, including tie-ins for The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers. Still, the license didn’t last all that long. Despite the initial fanfare, the series was pulled in 2006 – just four years after its inception.
Worth Playing? Maybe. The game was popular, but even at the time, fans complained of poor balancing and slow, grindy combat.
THE ONE RING RPG
Publisher: Cubicle 7
Year of Publication: 2011
A beautiful take on the genre, The One Ring was arguably the first game to really lean into what differentiated Middle-earth from more traditional fantasy gaming.
Riddles and traveling came to the forefront, with endless combat and splashy magic taking a back seat. Instead, players were encouraged to make journeys through the wilderness and meetings with wise lords just as much a part of the game as dungeon-delving and orc-hunting. The result was a game that felt truly special and deeply Tolkien.
Most of the content for the game was set in the sprawling wilderness east of the Misty Mountains – the location of the second half of The Hobbit - and looked to give adventurers the chance to make a name for themselves throughout the region.
Cubicle 7 opted to use a special set of dice to run the system, with a relatively simple ruleset that looked to evoke the danger and inherent magic of the setting. They put out a fair few supplements for the game, many of which focused on expanding the regions The One Ring covered and giving players more options.
Worth Playing? Probably. It’s a solid game, and though it’s over shined by its second edition (more on that later), there’s a lot of value in the supplements.
ADVENTURES IN MIDDLE-EARTH
Publisher: Cubicle 7
Year of Publication: 2016
Like a snake eating its own tail, the relationship between Lord of the Rings and D&D came full circle with the publication of Adventures in Middle-Earth. This juicy sister system to The One Ring takes advantage of the D&D Open Gaming License to build a Tolkien-ey RPG on the foundation of the incredibly successful Fifth Edition ruleset.
The result is a fascinating marriage between the two concepts. Players should expect a little more combat than you’d typically get in a traditionalist Middle-earth game and a greater focus on diplomacy and wilderness survival than you’ll see in an average 5E romp. Of course, there are a handful of areas where things don’t quite line up, but for the most part Adventures in Middle-Earth was a roaring success.
Cubicle 7 was able to put out about a dozen supplements before their license lapsed, each of which was solidly written and packed with ideas.
Worth Playing? Yes. It is a solid stab at a Middle-earth RPG, and a surprisingly enjoyable take on D&D that fixes perennial worries about overpowered casters and easy magical healing.
THE ONE RING SECOND EDITION
Publisher: Free League
Year of Publication: 2022
The latest, and possibly greatest, Middle-earth RPG to hit shelves, The One Ring Second Edition leans into Tolkien›s works› gloomier, deadlier side in a way that few others have managed. Set in the run-up to Sauron's return and the events of The Lord of the Rings it is packed with danger and the fear of rising shadows.
This is packaged with some gorgeous artwork and a solid design from publishers Free League. The rules tend towards the denser, more side of things, but they’re rarely so complicated that newcomers can’t enjoy the game.
As with its first edition, The One Ring Second Edition places significant emphasis on travel and exploration. Most campaigns can expect to involve a hex-map and careful rolls to secure food and shelter, but this only helps to highlight the bursts of combat and mystery when they strike.
It remains to be seen if this latest iteration of the Middle-earth RPG will have a long shelf-life and a fair share of supplements, but when we’ve seen so far has been impressive.
Worth Playing? When we reviewed The One Ring Second Edition in the March issue, we gave it a Must-Play award. Nothing has changed since then.
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This review came from Tabletop Gaming Magazine, which is home to all of the latest and greatest tabletop goodness. Whether you're a board gamer, card gamer, wargamer, RPG player or all of the above, find your copy here.Get your magazine here
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