Our group is regularly playing in Tolkiens Middle Earth universe, and we use a combination of MERP extended with Rolemaster as our system. And from what I gathered online, this seems to be a popular choice for fantasy RPGs which take place in Tolkiens universe.

Now, both MERP—to some degree—and Rolemaster—even more so—have quite a detailed and powerful magic system. You might even say that Rolemaster somewhat relies upon it, with many classes/professions being at least part-magical. (I'm not saying Rolemaster characters absolutely depend on magic, but a big part of the system would be thrown out of the window were one to entirely forego magic.)

What I'm struggling with is that the "original" Middle Earth feels (for us, YMMV) like a low-magic setting. If we look at the core source material from Tolkien, magic is a very rare occurence reserved to only the oldest and strongest of beings—many of them are of a semi-devine nature (Maiar).

A classical human "mage" character is something which is (almost?) entirely undocumented in the canon. And while Gandalf may actually come very close to a wide-spread interpretation of a "mage" he is

an Istar/Maiar, a semi-divinie Spirit of which there are a total of 5 in Arda.

I am well aware that there is a lot of 'universe' still to fill with our own interpretation, even after all of Tolkien's canon. Large regions and their history and civilizations are essentially undocumented (or only through RPG source books). But for me this essentially boils down to just filling the gaps in Tolkien's world description with magicians, magical items, orders, wizardry schools, ...

I'm interested in how your groups handle magic in Tolkien's Universe.

  • Do you see a similar discrepancy between rule-system and setting in your Middle-Earth groups? (Maybe things are different when not using MERP/RM?)

  • Do you avoid magic for the most part and leave it to powerful NPCs, elven lords, half gods and the like (i.e. a low-magic setting)?

  • Or do you play in high-magic settings, i.e. where magic is common and established?

To summarize my question:

  • How do you reconcile the low-magic setting of Tolkien's Middle Earth with the high-magic game system Rolemaster / MERP?
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    \$\begingroup\$ I think this can be answered fine using Good Subjective, Bad Subjective guidelines. Opinions are not welcome, only experience from those who have run middle-earth games and balanced the "rule system magic" vs the "setting magic." \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 12:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ @mxyzplk Should answers be kept to Rolemaster/MERP experience, or is this open to the entire spectrum of LotR RP experience? \$\endgroup\$
    – BESW
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 12:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ As long as it bears on the OP's problem, other systems are fine. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 12:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ OTOH, magical items are common enough that even trolls can have talking purses. tolkiengateway.net/wiki/Talking_purse \$\endgroup\$
    – cas
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 3:21

3 Answers 3


When I played and ran MERP, I alway took the world of Middle Earth to be a setting where magic is diminishing.

The mighty feats of the past ages are no longer possible in the current age. So, when you look at TA 3019 (the year of the War of the Ring) magic is mostly gone. However, we know that magic was much more prevalent beforehand. In the first it was ever present. In the second age, it was less powerful but nonetheless mighty feats were possible. Meanwhile, in the third age, less and less of it is visible or possible.

MERP is set in TA 1636 just after the great plague. This is 1383 years before the War of the Ring! So, there might still be a fairly large amount of "magic" about. Moria is still open and trades with everyone, Lorien accepts (reluctantly?) visitors, and Elrond's house is not a mythical place but just down this road. The Northern kingdoms still stand, although not for long. This is the time that Rolemaster/MERP try to model. A time where magic is rare but not uncommon.

The way I ran it is that Sauron, well, mostly his minions are actively hunting magicians to weaken the opposition. So, large displays of magic will attract unwanted attention. This forces the players to be careful and not lob fireballs at every encounter.

As for magic items, look at the Company of the Ring: they all have a dozen of them around! Most are very powerful indeed: Anduril? The Ring? A mail shirt of mithril?. Who can say that a +10 sword in TA 1636 does not become just a normal sword in TA3019 -- that is if it even survives that long!

Finally, what the system marks as magic and spells could just be skills by another name. Most of the channelling spells are weird channels of nature. Most of the mental spells are just that, your mind creating things. Essence is a little more difficult to rationalise this way.

TL;DR Basically the setting of Middle Earth of TA 1636 is what we see as high magical compared to TA 3019, but low magic as compared to the First Age. Rolemaster makes an okay system to model that: magic users are rare, for the most part, their spells can be rationalised as special skills, and them being blatant about magic will get you killed.

Note that this is to answer the question whether Rolemaster/MERP can be reconciled with Middle Earth. Clearly, I think it can using the above arguments. Whether it is a good model for Middle Earth is another matter -- I think it does a poor job. But that is a matter for either another question or discussion.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Nice; I'd not considered the ages in much detail as all my games were in just-pre third age. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rob
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 13:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually in my (2 cent) opinion and to my memory, even in the first age magic was not nearly as prevalent as you make it out to be. Yes, the elves are magical beings, but they don't go around casting spells. Read, for example, Narn i Chin Hurin. It's only Elf-Lords, Maiar and such who work any magic (as opposed to being 'magical' in character). The events of the war of the ring are an exceptional outburst of magic after a long dwindling - which began long before the first age of the sun. \$\endgroup\$
    – einpoklum
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 19:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ MERP is set in TA1636? In my old MERP books, you could play any year of any age of the sun. The modules I read used to take place on the third age, but in a long range of them. I don't think MERP was defaulted to a particular year. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Oct 10, 2014 at 20:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Mark Many Lambas bread, 9 x elven cloaks, Legolas's bow & arrows, Both Pippin and Merry's swords were Numenorian blades, so probably magical.. No, I do not exaggerate there's plenty of them … \$\endgroup\$ Commented Mar 27, 2019 at 7:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ And then there's that rope ... \$\endgroup\$ Commented Sep 16, 2019 at 12:59

Keep it low-level and keep magic uncommon

My experience from running Rolemaster in a MERP game (two campaigns) is that the feel of the world can be maintained if the magic is kept to a minimum and consider some of the abilities (especially the semispellcasters) as 'exceptional' abilities rather than magical abilities.

Yes Rolemaster and MERP have a lot of magical influence (and possibly aren't the best choices for a system, if I reran I'd probably choose WHFRP... think about it) but this can be tempered and managed.

My games all started at level one, and at that level the spellcasters were pretty weak, but the abilities they could generate were still (to mundane eyes) pretty fantastic.

Pointers I'd give are:

  • Limit PC magic classes; I only ever allowed a single mage (ie pure/hybrid caster) and a single semi in a group of 4 (and eventually an extra semi in a group of six)
  • Keep a sense of wonder and alarm, normal citizens should be alarmed and scared by spellcasting going off all over the place.
  • Herbs and such are the saviours for the PC's health, this should be seen as part of the world and is far better than potions all over the place. This is the biggest concession I made.
  • Temper the magic items from modules, review them carefully - the MERP modules can be changed to give quality items instead of magical if needed.
  • Keep magic off the enemies as much as possible; the fantastical nature of middle earth is just as well expressed in culture than spells
  • Powerful magic spells and items should be A big deal people will get to hear of it and interest will get generated, powerful magic items should also have history.
  • As mentioned for semi spellcasters emphasise that their spells represent supernatural abilities (amazing ability to track, sing, impress, etc) rather than magical - I did ponder limiting Semi spellcasters to only their base lists as well but never did. These supernatural abilities I generally made non-vocal, the caster just had to concentrate or perform an inspection/ritual type effect (search for tracks, sing a song, etc) mostly I played this by ear.

The effect I was looking for in my (nearly third age) game was that the glory days of elves, men and magic were gone; that it was still around but rare, that the world and the cultures were the important things that the players would want to explore.

The first campaign ran two years, so something worked :)


As an out-of-universe explanation, Rolemaster (which has its origins as a D&D plug-in combat system) was retconned into MERP, and they somehow had to keep the magic system. Why? Because it's expected for a Fantasy RPG. They would've ended up with a very small selection of professions given the low number of skills to make non-spell-user variants of if they had not kept it intact.

Yes, my observation was the same -- Middle-Earth is basically devoid of any "classic" magic. Toward this, I am counting Gandalf's very rare "magic" as Maiar abilities, and the various magical objects as being either Maiar/Valar-made, special material (mithril), or imbued with "historical power" (a somewhat unspoken concept I am using in my campaigns, that objects used for great deeds retain some "special" power -- like Narsil / Anduril). You never see (read about) anyone doing classic spell-casting who's not also a Maiar.

As for game mechanics, I suggest having the players spend background options for spell-user professions. (Personally I demanded two for semi-spell-users, five for full spell users, effectively ruling out elven mages in the process.)

Additionally, make it clear that study material (i.e., spell lists) will be hard to come by. (After all, how many libraries did our heroes find in LOTR?) Then stick to that.

This makes the choice of a spell user profession much less attractive to the players. Yes, it's cruel, but I felt it is completely justified for Middle Earth settings. In three campaigns, I've had one PC bard, the occassional NPC charlatan, and one encounter with an NPC mage (who might as well have been one of the seven wizards for all the players knew). Everyone was happy with that as it kept the feeling alive that this was actually Middle Earth, not a random fantasy world.

Another approach would be to give a different selection of spell-user professions and / or spell lists. The RM Alchemist, for example, would somehow fit the setting of early-age MERP, crafting objects of great power (i.e., +15 weapons or armor, not a fire bolt flinging staff), but not being very attractive as a player character due to the crafting time involved. The Sage profession is also strong on "soft" skills and low on "hard" spell-casting, and can be used to effect without breaking the setting.

Just don't add Warrior Monks. ;-)

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    \$\begingroup\$ You never see (read about) anyone doing classic spell-casting... Not quiet true. The Witch King of Angmar casts at least one spell at the Gate of Minas Tirith. His title even suggests that he was a magic user in the past. Quote from Tolkien: "Then the Black Captain rose in his stirrups and cried aloud in a dreadful voice, speaking in some forgotten tongue words of power and terror to rend both heart and stone." -- Return Of The King, the Siege of Gondor. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 14:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion: And to what effect? Thrice he cried. Thrice the great ram boomed. And suddenly upon the last stroke the Gate of Gondor broke. As if stricken by some blasting spell it burst asunder: there was a flash of searing lightning, and the doors tumbled in riven fragments to the ground. For all the reader knows it's the ram Grond, forged in the fires of Mordor (presumably with Sauron having some hand in it) that breaks the gates... also, note the as if. ;-) \$\endgroup\$
    – DevSolar
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 15:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ The ram failed to break the gates until that point. Sure, we can not know for sure what Tolkien intended by those words. I am unaware of any of his writing that specifically defined his magic. Certainly Gandalf, Galadriel, Aragorn, and quiet a few other of the case use supernatural abilities. Whether you define those as "spells" or not is really up to you. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 15:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Sardathrion: Galadriel wields one of the three elven rings. Gandalf is Maiar and wields one of the three elven rings. Aragorn... using supernatural abilities? Not to my knowledge. (His healing is done by Athelas and him being king-in-waiting.) Yes I know this is a thin line, marginalizing PC magic by using this kind of reasoning, but it made for three good, "Tolkien-feeling" campaigns. (Actually, I quite severely curtail magic in any Rolemaster campaign, to good effect.) \$\endgroup\$
    – DevSolar
    Commented Oct 8, 2014 at 15:10

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