Days of High Adventure
Rolemaster, Puppetmaster, Catan Master: Pete Fenlon

Allen Varney | 25 Mar 2010 17:00
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Pete Fenlon (right) with Brian Bouton in a 1985 RPG session.
Pete Fenlon (right) with Brian Bouton in a 1985 RPG session.

The first of several ICE financial debacles centered around ICE's 1985 series of Tolkien Quest pick-a-path paperback gamebooks. The Middle-earth license came from Elan Merchandising, which owns non-literary rights to Tolkien's estate - essentially everything except fiction. The fiction rights reside with Tolkien's book publisher, George Allen & Unwin Ltd. In 1986, claiming ICE's gamebooks violated their license, Unwin forced the company to recall and destroy the line. ICE lost millions of dollars - and history repeated itself in 1988, when ICE discovered, the expensive way, the licensor for its Narnia Solo gamebooks didn't actually control the rights it had licensed. Years of cash-flow problems followed, and in 1990-92 ICE brushed repeatedly against bankruptcy.

[Disclosure: At that time I myself was one of many freelancers to whom ICE owed money. I waxed indignant in online forums, creating friction with company execs and supporters. ICE eventually paid me in full, and I never dealt with the company again. Looking back, I advise beginning designers against fussing publicly about debtors. Then again, anyone prone to fuss (as I was) will also scorn my advice (as my younger self would have). So never mind.]

ICE pulled back to solvency in time to capitalize on the trading card game fad with its Middle-earth Collectible Card Game. In four years they published over 1,700 MECCG cards in seven sets. They concentrated so heavily on MECCG that in 1996 they lost the Hero Games line - an amicable parting, but painful in that Hero accounted for a fifth of ICE sales.

But money was good for a few years. In 1997, when Mayfair Games shut down after many years of bad management, Fenlon, ICE and several others purchased most of its assets. They revived the Mayfair name as a new company, run by former TSR staffer Will Niebling with Fenlon as absentee Chairman. From the first, he says, Fenlon spotted one asset as the company's likeliest bet: English-language rights to a German boardgame, The Settlers of Catan. "I said, 'It may take 20 years, but this game could be the Monopoly of our time.'"

But Fenlon had other concerns. ICE hit more bad times after the CCG fad died. By 1999, brought low by overprinting of card sets, Fenlon hoped for a miracle - an online miracle. He had licensed the Rolemaster rules system to Mythic for its upcoming Dark Age of Camelot MMOG. Mythic's founders had already developed online versions of Silent Death and Rolemaster for Kesmai. DAoC royalties could have kept ICE alive. But when DAoC announced a one-year delay, Fenlon knew it was over. "I went up there [to Fairfax, Virginia] and pulled the license myself, so they wouldn't get sucked into the bankruptcy." In a 2002 DAoC post-mortem, Matt Firor wrote that the loss turned out well for Mythic, "because we were no longer required to adhere to a set of rules based on the license - although we did have to scramble for about a week to rename and retune spells and classes and otherwise clear Rolemaster content out of the game."

ICE filed for Chapter 11 in 1999. Bankruptcy opened them to the death blow: Elan Merchandising seized the opportunity to pull the Tolkien license after 18 years, as it sought higher bids ahead of the upcoming Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. (The license went to Decipher, which produced a successful trading card game and a modestly successful RPG line.) In October 2000 ICE went into Chapter 7 liquidation.

Scattering

A holding company took over the Rolemaster assets and licensed them to a startup along with the Iron Crown name. At the new Iron Crown site, ICE stalwarts Bruce Neidlinger and Heike Kubasch sell old RM editions in .PDF and have launched a new system, High Adventure Roleplaying, intended as RM's spiritual successor.

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