There have been a few attempts in the past – the two big ones that come to mind which have taken on that liscence are MERP and the attempt made by Decipher. Of course, thousands of fantasy RPGs owe a huge amount to Middle-Earth and some, like Burning Wheel, have in some ways tried to do Middle-Earth with the serial numbers filed off, so to speak. Frankly, none of them have satisfied me. Some, like MERP, use another system and tack on Middle-Earthy stuff. ICE actually had very well-researched supplements for MERP with lots of interesting extrapolations about the setting, but the core system was still Rolemaster, which isn’t particularly Middle-Earthy.
Decipher’s own attempt was the Coda system, which is fucking D20 with the die-type changed to protect the innocent. Their big innovation? Use 2d6 instead of a D20 and change…almost nothing else. I frankly had to buy the base book, and I think I was bamboozled into getting one more when the company ended the RPG line because it was cheap and I’m a sucker for Middle-Earth stuff. The book was actually well put-together. In changing the names of Feats from D20, they gave them names that referenced the films and the books. The book was relatively well written, and they gave the magic system a better stab than MERP for sure. But it was freaking D20 for crap’s sake.
Burning Wheel has a lot of cool stuff about it, but what you end up with is sort of Middle-Earth through a distinctly Luke Crane lens. It definitely has a lot of interesting aspects, and picks up on a lot of the color and setting material in subtle ways. Burning Wheel is a great system, and probably the best attempt yet. Still, while it is a good game, it is definitely its own creature. You get something interesting and fun, but it isn’t Middle-Earth.
The Song of Arda, which is now defunct, was an attempt to have a Pendragon-esque Middle-Earth RPG. It was never finished, and the site has long since been taken down. I was following its progress with a lot of hope, but…well, I definitely know about games not being finished. Song of Arda would have been freely available online, which would also have been nice.
This brings me to Servants of the Secret Fire, which is the working title I have for my own system for a Middle-Earth RPG. I plan on finishing the playtest document, playtesting it, and then getting together a complete game document that I’ll then distribute for free to whoever wants it. I just…I want a good Middle-Earth game to be out there.
Anne Lamott said once in an interview I believe – “Write the book you would want to come upon.” Others have said similar things – design the game you want to play. So that’s what I’m doing right now.
It’s pretty likely it’ll come to nothing, but I’ll get to play it, and my players will get to enjoy it, and I can give this idea a rest. I’ve feld like I should write this game since I first picked up a copy of MERP many years ago and ran it and had that feeling of missing the mark but not knowing why or how. I now feel like I know a lot more about the how and the why, so we’ll see where this goes.