Tuesday, January 5, 2010

A Historical Background: Iron Crown Enterprises

One of the things I want to do before we get into the nitty-gritty of the various editions and presentations of Rolemaster is explain a little bit about the history of the company. This way, you can sort of see the roots of Iron Crown, and perhaps how they got to where they are today.

Iron Crown Enterprises (or I.C.E., or ICE) was originally formed back in 1980, when a group of RPGers who were recent graduates from the University of Virginia. The company is named after one of the relics/items of Middle-Earth (the setting the group's founders used for their home campaign).

The Rolemaster line began with the product Arms Law, which was not a true RPG unto itself, but a combat supplement for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This product replaced the relatively simple and relatively undetailed AD&D combat system with a series of tables and critical hits. When resolving combat, players would look at a table to determine lethality and effect. Spell Law, another add-on supplement, organized spells into various lists. The basic ideas for Rolemaster were largely set with these two products, though Rolemaster as a game still not exist as of yet.

The first "complete" edition of Rolemaster was published as a boxed set in 1982. 1982 also saw Iron Crown land one of the biggest fantasy-related licenses possible--that of Middle-Earth itself!

Pete Fenlon, one of the founders of ICE, was a amazing cartographer, and his maps of Middle-Earth are still considered to be without peer. They were featured in a Middle-Earth sourcebook of 1982, but the biggest Middle-Earth release would come in 1984. That's when MERP, or Middle-Earth Role Playing was released.

MERP was a system that was largely "cut down" or simplified from Rolemaster itself. It also tried to market itself as sort of a generic 3rd-party supplement as well, and anecdotal evidence does seem to suggest that is how many people used the MERP line.

There was a time when I.C.E.'s MERP was the 2nd-best selling RPG on the market, bowing only to the 800-lb. gorilla of Dungeons & Dragons. It was a worldwide hit. MERP supplements would be made into the mid-90s, detailing both the well and lesser-known regions of Middle-Earth.

As MERP was rolling along, Rolemaster was doing pretty well, too. A 2nd edition of the game premiered in 1984. The first of the Companion series, with new rules and options for the game, debuted in 1986. Many other Companion books would follow, adding option after option to an already "crunchy" game.

Like many RPG companies of the late 80s/early 90s, ICE attempted to diversify with multiple product lines. During this time, solo adventuring books (including a Narnia line!), minis games, game distribution (Hero Games), and a series of "mythic" campaign sourcebooks were all produced in addition to Rolemaster & MERP titles. The CyberSpace and SpaceMaster RPG lines also date from this time.

After a rough spot financially in the early 90s, ICE seemed to have righted the ship. Many of the aforementioned products were not commercial hits, so ICE re-focused on the Big Two, Rolemaster and MERP. The early 90s saw a new explosion of MERP product, including a better-focused 2nd edition. However, it would soon become apparent MERP sales were not up to par with where they had been historically.

Rolemaster 2nd edition was still clipping along, too. However, a big change for Rolemaster would be seen with the release of Rolemaster Standard System (RMSS). This was a more complex, rules-heavy "3rd edition" of the Rolemaster rules. It was also the start of a division between fans favoring this newest edition, and the ones preferring the releases of the 9 years prior.

Like many companies, ICE was absolutely decimated by the Collectible Card Game (CCG) boom and subsequent crash. At roughly the same time as the crash, ICE announced there would be no more major MERP releases; the line just simply wasn't what it once was.

That left Rolemaster, which in 1999 saw a 4th edition in Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying (RMFRP). However, this edition change saw few actual mechanical changes, and was largely seen as unneeded by many Rolemaster aficionados. The new edition failed to revive the company's now-lagging fortunes.

In 1999, the company went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Tolkien Enterprises recovered the Middle-Earth license. A year later, it was announced the company was going into Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

For twenty years, Iron Crown Enterprises and their games had been a landmark company in gaming. Now, it looked like that was all over. But it wasn't.

What follows was a bit of a mess. Rights, revenue, stock, and other assets went all over the place. Eventually, an entity was formed called Phoenix, Inc. (later Mjolnir, Inc.), which licensed the majority of remaining Iron Crown IPs and assets from Aurigas Aldebaron LLC. They began to do business as Iron Crown Enterprises. One of the founders (and former CEO) of the company, Bruce Neidlinger, was brought back on as CEO.

The New Iron Crown continued support for the most recent edition of Rolemaster, and brought back the old Rolemaster setting of Shadow World. High Adventure Role Playing, or HARP, was created as a rules-lighter percentile-based alternative to Rolemaster, to much critical acclaim.

With a large contingent of Iron Crown's fan base preferring the old Rolemaster 2nd edition rules, they brought back the 2nd-edition rules as Rolemaster Classic, reorganized and cleaned up. An inexpensive introduction to Rolemaster Classic, Rolemaster Express, has also met with generally positive reviews. While celebrated by many fans, this also shows one of the biggest challenges facing Iron Crown--multiple game lines and editions, but only finite resources for support. Rolemaster FRP is still out there as well, after all. As well-received as their products from the time of HARP onward have been, one wonders if there will ever be any unification under a single Rolemaster banner. It is important to note that Iron Crown has successfully brought many of their out-of-print products they hold the rights to pdf format, thus ensuring some form of access for fans of those games.

Going forward, one of the things that will be interesting to watch is how licensed agreements (such as that of The Guild Companion taking over HARP Sci-Fi) progress. However it goes, Iron Crown is a legacy company, one with a history dating back to the latter formulative days of the hobby. It has been at the top of the industry, and also seen its depths. But it's still here, and inspires a dedicated fan base to provide a whole host of fan-driven material.

Iron Crown and their game lines have some truly talented alumni, including Monte Cook, Tim Dugger, Matt Forbeck, Heike Kubasch, Aaron Alston, (now-Mayfair Games CEO) Pete Fenlon, and others. Their games have influenced RPG design up into the 3rd edition of D&D and beyond. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the formation of the original Iron Crown. Let's see what the future holds! As always, questions/comments are very welcome indeed!

(For more extensive detail on the history of Iron Crown Enterprises, you should check out either their company page or Shannon Applecline's great article on the same subject. My thanks to both for aiding my own recollections on the topic. Thank you as well to the always-helpful ICE Webring).

(Edit: Thanks to reader TJones for some clarifications. Aurigas Aldebaron LLC owns the IP, licensing it to Mjolnir, Inc.).


Chgowiz said...

Fascinating history! Thanks for that.

RM and MERP were always at the "corner" of my RPG consciousness in the 80s. I knew it existed, I may have even flipped through the books a time or two, but overall, "if it's not D&D, it's not for me" was my rule of thumb. I did, however, drool over the Mines of Moria sourcebook (and I managed to track down a copy and now look at it for inspiration) back in the day.

Zachary The First said...

Iron Crown’s MERP sourcebooks had sort of a reputation for being Middle-Earth encyclopedias as much as anything. That makes them great to read, if sometimes sketchy on mechanics.

Oh, MERP is a fascinating subject. I wish someone would OSRIC-ize the thing (HARP does bear some similarities, however).

greywulf said...

Great historical overview! And I agree - ICE's contribution to role-playing shouldn't be underestimated.

Thomas Denmark said...

I did some illustrations for the Mentalist Companion that I was never reimbursed for. According to the art director what really put ICE under was the Lord of the Rings movies - because the Middle Earth licensor expected much higher royalty rates and ICE simply couldn't pay them.

Zachary The First said...

From what I’ve heard, they did owe a lot to Tolkien Enterprises, and were pushed to pay. If they would have waited until the proceeds from their work with Dark Age of Camelot came out, ICE probably could have covered everything. But that didn’t happen.

Dr-Rotwang said...

Damn, Zach, you're off to a good start.

Tenkar said...

MERP was what I ran when I wan't running D&D. Good times. Great read of the history.

Khairn said...

Great re-cap Zach! I'm looking forward to what you bring us in the future.

Zachary The First said...

Thanks, and thanks so much for reading!

Tomorrow will be a regular article, but there's a lot more to come for the year.

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Chris Tregenza said...

Good post but I almost gagged on

"... a more complex, rules-heavy '3rd edition' of the Rolemaster rules"

No wonder the company struggled. The original 1980's rules where complicated and laborious as it was. Even MERP, was still a bit cumbersome even compared to 1st Ed AD&D.

However, they did produce some great stuff and I know of at least one group that still uses Rolemaster as the basis of their homebrew system.

One thing not mentioned in the review as Space Law, also released in the mid-eighties. It sucked.

Zachary The First said...

@Chris: I've played RMSS/FRP, RM2, and MERP, and MERP is definitely the lightest of the 3. I've also played HARP, which is simple in comparison.

RMSS/FRP has some great ideas, but our group gutted a lot of the system when we played.

The Evil DM said...

During my basic training in the Army, I remember my first chance to go off post brought me to a B. Dalton where I found a copy of the MERP Boxed set. I bought it and brought it back to the barracks. We gamed every chance we could after that.

I was a proud member of "The Crown Guard" back in the day. I did quite a lot of demos of their "Silent Death" spaceship miniatures combat game. A very fun and easy game.

I have very fond memories of I.C.E
When I was helping to organize a Con in Hawaii I.C.E came through with a TON of prizes and swag for our charity auction. They were a very gamer friendly company.

Andreas Davour said...

Bittersweet story, that. I got my start in this hobby with MERP, where I was put behind the screen way to early. Somehow I never got out from there.

The relative crunchiness or which edition of RM is best is such a convoluted mess that I tire as soon as I hear of it. Personally I thought the RMFRP was the first edition that was sensible presented. Go figure.

ICE will live or die depending on if they get their conservative 2nd ed fans to buy something new. Not an easy prospect.

Zachary The First said...

@EvilDM: I just placed an order with them, and the package shipped out like immediately. Good customer service, from where I sit.

@Andreas: They definitely face some challenges, don't they? I never knew you started with MERP--but I'll bet you aren't alone.

John Adams said...

Thanks for the article. I knew nothing of ICE.

Andreas Davour said...

Oh yes, MERP was the start of it all. That and some BRP derived games, so I surely loves my percentile dice. :)

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