When I played most often, in a time when Internet was a semi-unknown novelty, I did not know the term “sandbox”. Still, I would not have had any problem in understanding its meaning. It was entirely obvious to me that 80% of a roleplaying session was about letting the players decide what to do and where to go. Maps were much appreciated and, at times, revered. Unusually, I was initiated to RPGs with a group who was playing BECMI’s X1: The Isle of Dread. When I started to read and play D&D myself, BECMI’s Expert Set more or less exhausted my interest in the game: RPGs were about travelling and facing dangers, most often in the open. In a way, my generation (in a provincial country like Italy, that is) was equidistant from old-school dungeon-crawls and from heavily structured, “railroading” adventures. Both these styles were represented in published modules, but neither was felt as especially paradigmatic.
I played my only few MERP sessions in Bree and the Barrow-Downs, it must have been 1994. I played a sylvan elf something (mage or bard), my dearest friend was the GM. We struggled quite a bit with character creation (we used the Italian translation of the first edition, so we had none of the nice prefab characters included in the second). Probably, we also misunderstood a bunch of rules. Nonetheless, even then as a player I perceived Bree as a well done setting. Today, reading the module for the first time, I am pleased to confirm this ancient impression. This module is, quite simply, a perfect sandbox. Not necessarily the most exciting, or ambitious: from my still limited knowledge of the MERP catalogue, Goblin-Gate and Hillmen of the Trollshaws seem to offer more meat. But in its own little way, Bree is a very solid work.
It must be borne in mind that while MERP was designed to let you play in any chosen time of the ME timeline, it explicitly privileged the XVII century of the Third Age. This choice, criticized my many, had in fact two clear advantages: first, it gave you a setting which resembled the books just enough to give the players a sense of familiarity while not letting them take everything for granted, and second, it made it possible for the GM to write expansive campaigns without necessarily destroying the official history of ME. In the case of Bree, the choice has many interesting consequences. At this time, Bree is still one of the main hobbit settlements, the Shire having been founded only few decades before. The kingdoms of Arthedain and Cardolan, at the boundary of which Bree stands, are still in existence, while struggling. Interestingly, the haunting of the Barrow-downs is also very recent. If your Tolkien-Fu fails you (like mine failed me), remember that the Barrow-wights are not the ghosts of the people buried in the mounds themselves (namely, ancient warriors of Cardolan fallen while fighting Angmar) bur rather evil spirits sent by the Witch-King of Angmar to desecrate those very tombs. Angmar, remember, is also still standing and is in fact moving aggressively to take down the two northern kingdoms. This, while taking away the charm of “age-old haunted ruins”, makes the thing more interesting role-playing-wise: the haunting is a new and strange phenomenon, which deserves investigation.
Turning to the mounds themselves, consistently with the sandbox orientation, they are laid out in painstaking detail. You come to know the identity of all the illustrious guests, both dead and undead, and the respective treasures. The often criticized abundance of minor magic items is there to be seen: but one should not forget that when Tolkien let us in a Barrow-down it was in fact replete with special weapons. The only real problem with the description is a common one in MERP, which was never the strongest game in checking its stats for consistency: the powers of the wights are described very concisely and confusingly, and, even worse, they do not match with those given in the MERP rulebook or in other undead sources either. Here, no energy draining power is explicitly mentioned, and the properties of their Paralysis and Sleep spells are not spelled out in full. Obviously, I can only advise the GM to find the version s/he likes the most and stick to it.
The town of Bree and its suburbs are described in the greatest detail that you could ever want from a gaming book. There are beautiful colour maps with number keys for notable buildings. Everyday life and the key NPCs of the town ca. T.A. 1700. Wealthy farmers and hobbits with secret hobbies, families of do-no-goods and their bandit friends, a spy from Rhudaur, a contingent of Royal Guards to watch the borders in these troubled times. Above all, it is moving to see how lovingly MERP cared for details, even the farthest from the stereotypical fantasy action adventure: love affairs and the farming economy are detailed at length, and nice sketches of the local political institutions are also included. Like in most other MERP books, there are data and description for the flora (including medical herbs) and fauna (animals and wandering monsters). The adventure-hooks sketched in the module are numerous, and can easily be elaborated upon if the GM feels like it.
All in all, an excellent first attempt at a sourcebook-type adventure module, which gives especially beginning characters plenty of reasons to begin adventuring and, why not?, to make the town their base.