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

Allen Varney | 25 Mar 2010 17:00
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The Iron Crown founders were huge fans of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Their original D&D campaign had been based in Middle-earth. In 1982, when the Tolkien license holder, Simulations Publications, entered bankruptcy, the ICE folks recognized the license was up for grabs. That year, after offering what Fenlon has called "a ridiculously high royalty rate" to licensor Elan Merchandising, his small company secured the biggest roleplaying license the hobby had yet seen. In 1982 ICE published A Campaign and Adventure Guidebook for Middle-earth, and in 1984 the first edition of Middle-earth Role Playing.

Designed by Charlton (adapting the Rolemaster rules) and edited first by Fenlon himself, then by Jessica Ney-Grimm, the MERP line grew to encompass two editions and dozens of encyclopedic supplements. The rules didn't really support a Tolkienesque atmosphere; compared to the source fiction, MERP is much more magic-rich (lots of rings around) and perhaps unduly mechanical (Sauron is 240th level and has 600 hit points). But the setting material - covering Angmar to Harad, hobbits to Valar, over a thousand years of the Third Age and into the Fourth - displayed authoritative knowledge of and deep respect for Tolkien's work.

And what presentation! MERP supplements sported matchless covers by South African artist Angus McBride, character portraits by Liz Danforth and others, and especially Fenlon's terrific full-color campaign maps. Middle-earth has attracted some fine mapmakers - Christopher Tolkien (the author's son), Pauline Baynes, Karen Wynn Fonstad - but to see MERP's maps, you could believe Tolkien himself had drawn them. Fenlon, a self-taught amateur cartographer, drew maps as a child for his parents, and has been fascinated by maps throughout his life. Unexcelled for fidelity, atmosphere and detail, his MERP works stand with the finest maps in Middle-earth and in roleplaying alike. (A 1996 Other Hands fanzine interview, "Mapping Middle-earth," outlines Fenlon's cartography background. ProFantasy Software has released a Campaign Cartographer style pack inspired by Fenlon's maps.)

MERP was a huge hit - the second-bestselling RPG, some say, after the D&D line. (Others claim the #2 spot belongs to Rolemaster.) Fenlon believes a $1.2 million MERP royalty check he delivered to film producer Saul Zaentz (whose company owned Elan Merchandising) rescued production of the 1996 Oscar-winning film The English Patient.

Ups and Downs

Fenlon speculates Iron Crown published more products in its heyday than any other adventure gaming company save TSR - though he allows Steve Jackson Games might have surpassed ICE now. Key ICE lines included Rolemaster spinoffs Spacemaster and Cyberspace, Terry Amthor's Shadow World setting and the Silent Death miniatures line, along with interesting oddities like the first version of Fluxx and the 1997 collectible dice game Dicemaster. ("I recall that we made billions on Dicemaster," says Fenlon, deadpan.) For many years ICE published the Hero Games line, produced in-house by line editor Rob Bell and, later, a newcomer named Monte Cook.

The mid-'80s were passably good times in tabletop RPGs. The atmosphere was collegial. Fenlon speaks fondly of the annual America's Pup [sic] event, a haphazard and debatable sporting contest staged at the Origins gaming convention between ICE, FASA, Games Workshop and others for possession of a small, ugly stuffed dog. The rules, which changed each year, always involved a raw egg.

Good times - but that egg soon broke.

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