Tuesday, November 13, 2012

A Spy In Isengard

Stop the presses!

Stop. The. Fracking. Presses.

I just found A Spy in Isengard online. What is this, you ask? I wasn't quite sure either. All I knew was that as a kid I played this the crap out of this book, and it was a critical link in my jump from Choose Your own Adventure to Dungeons and Dragons.

As I remember it, the book was basically a choose-your-own-adventure format, but with a few interesting advanced steps. You have to create a character in the beginning, there is a character sheet with inventory list at the back, and a random numbers table in case you don't have 2d6 lying around (or if you're squeezed in the back of a station wagon with two younger brothers on family vacation).

Middle Earth Quest Character Sheet: Awesomeness from the 80s.

By the magic of Google, I have come to learn more. A Spy in Isengard was a Middle Earth Quest (MEQ) book published by Iron Crown Enterprises, which also published Middle Earth Role Playing (MERP), a system based on Rolemaster. I'm guessing that this book was a way to publicize MERP or maybe even it was designed to be a gateway drug book to heavier MERP games. I'm still not sure, but I'm struck by a couple things.

One, it's a little baffling to me that one publisher could produce so much at that time. Rolemaster, MERP, MEQ, a few books, and I recall couple similar Sherlock Homes books produced around the same time. For one, it drives home just how much the gaming industry was producing in the 1980s. But how big of an operation was Iron Crown? Was it a couple guys working out of a garage? If so, how did they get wide enough market access to be successful? Was it a wing of some giant corporate conglomerate? If so, how did they fund enough staff? Did the really sell that many copies of Rolemaster and A Spy in Isengard to turn a profit? Is that why the MEQ system ceased to be?

Two, it hits on the importance of having proper introductions to games. Not long ago on Google+, some folks were having a discussion about how a game product should be properly introduced to a kid who just picks it up off the shelf. Rightly, the issue is that many kids like myself grab something cool (A Spy in Isengard) at a local store and have no way to tie it in to anything.

I remember wondering as a kid what MERP was, but I had no idea how to find it. The local library didn't have information on it. Not even the country library had any information in the whole card catalog! Even if I had found something, I was beholden to the preferences of our friendly neighborhood game shop, and to my mom's willingness to drive me there.We didn't even have a comic book store in my town until I was 14. As a result, A Spy in Isengard was the only MEQ product I ever purchased.

What I'm saying is that an awesome product like A Spy in Isengard produced today would come replete with links to a website where more information could be had and more products purchased. I see on the Iron Crown Enterprises website they have produced a Sherlock Holmes game app. This is great. Hopefully ICE will be able to continue making great gaming products and not lose potential customers because they can be linked in to the magic of the internets.

Meanwhile, I'm totally going to rip a copy of A Spy in Isengard from Scribd and print it on the work Xerox.


  1. This is also (or very close to) the system used in ICE's Lord of the Rings Adventure Game. Which is a 'proper' RPG. As in has a gamemaster, etc.

    No wizards. Gandalf is a Bard. Or rather, a Human Bard is like Gandalf.

    I used to see these MEQ books at the local used bookstore-of course when I went a looking-gone.

  2. It's not at all surprising that the systems are similar - good game designers borrow, great designers steal... especially when it's your own stuff.

    But I am intrigued that the Bard class is most like Gandalf. I've been thinking about how to make the Bard a badass character (I have a dark, compelling, and secret desire to make my backup GURPS character a Bard), but clearly haven't thought about it enough.

  3. Yes! I didn't have this one but I have fond memories of the one set on Weathertop. Of course, I also played the hell out of Merp.

  4. Heh, glad you liked it, I was particularly proud of this little book. -- Terry Amthor