Before my (few) readers die for a Tolkien overdose, I plan to do no more than a couple of posts about the prehistoric MERP stuff I recently bought (often incredibly cheap, see here). Before I go for it, some practical information is in order for those retrogamers who (like me) are beginning to recover the old catalogue and are not entirely familiar with the publication policies of the publisher (Iron Crown Enterprises). The most complete lists of the MERP catalogue have been posted here and here. Reviews of MERP titles do not abound on the internet, but you are likely to find these two blogs interesting.
The first edition of MERP (thin, colourful booklets) was built around two main product types: campaign modules (60-70 pages) and adventure modules (30-40 pages). The criterion distinguishing them was the page count and no other. Campaign modules tended, obviously, to be more like sourcebooks, and were especially strong on the history and geography (often faithfully adapted from the literary corpus, always at least compatible with it) of a Middle Earth region. The modules, though, also included much “ready” adventure material (detailed layout of key locations, NPCs for the PCs to interact with) and many adventure sketches. Adventure modules, on the other hand, fell in one of two very different categories. First, they could be adventure modules proper, with pre-arranged adventures à la D&D. In this case, the format was the following: three adventures (sometimes related to each other) of ascending level, from about level 1 to about level 5. It was possible to run the three as a mini-campaign or in isolation. From what I have seen, the quality varied a lot, but the main problem was always that the adventures were (by necessity) somewhat generic: in fact, at times the authors even boasted that the adventures could be adapted and be run “anywhere in Middle Earth”. This way, one risked a certain blandness. The adventure modules of the second category were usually much more interesting and were, in fact, smaller siblings of the campaign modules: they detailed smaller regions, or even single locations, in greater depth, and had some adventure sketches. Some of the best MERP material that I have seen so far belonged in the latter category. Unfortunately, the publisher was very opaque when it came to distinguish the two: regardless of the category, most MERP modules had merely “geographic” names (“Pirates of Pelargir”, “Gates of Mordor”). Some, but not all, the adventure modules of the first kind were sold as “ready-to-run adventures”, which helped a lot. Others, though, had no reference whatsoever to their real nature.
The second edition of MERP (thick softcovers, black covers), now even rarer and more collectable than the first, got rid of the adventure-modules (both kinds) and expanded greatly on the campaign modules, presenting exhaustive treatments of macro-regions of Middle Earth: Angmar, Arnor, Southern Gondor etc. From the very little I have seen, the result was excellent (if at times disorienting in the sheer amount of information). Unfortunately, the end of the Tolkien license in the late 90s prevented the publisher from completing the catalogue. The paradoxical results is that while some regions got multiple books (Mirkwood, Angmar), some of the key material of the first edition was never redone for the second (the most glaring example being Northern Gondor/Rohan).