This article is part of a semi-monthly column on the history of roleplaying, one game company at a time. The intent is to cover one large RPG company each month, then a smaller, but related one. ICE is our third big company, and impressively a company with a twenty-five year history. The written history of ICE turned out to be quite long, so it’s was originally split into two parts.
This article was originally published as A Brief History of Game #8 & #9 on RPGnet. Its publication preceded the publication of the original Designers & Dragons (2011). A more up to date version of this history can be found in Designers & Dragons: The 80s.
1980. The RPG industry was six years old and still growing. The second wave of fantasy roleplaying games was booming, led by AD&D. Another member of that class, RuneQuest, had opened up the industry to new ideas about skills divorced from character classes. Traveller, Villains & Vigilantes, and Gamma World were popularizing new roleplaying genres, while Dallas first suggested the idea of licensed products.
Enter Pete Fenlon. He’d been playing Dungeons & Dragons since its introduction in 1974 and had even rejected an offer from TSR for some of his work. However, his role playing group at the University of Virginia was interested in doing more. In the late 1970s, while playing a campaign set in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, they began to develop a set of roleplaying rules all their own.
And upon those ideas a company would be founded. It would be called Iron Crown Enterprises, after the legendary regalia of Middle-earth, or ICE.
Rolemaster Beginnings: 1980-1982
ICE was formed in 1980, shortly after most of the principals graduated from the University of Virginia. Fenlon was at the head of the company but at his side were S. Coleman Charlton, who’d write most of the rules, Richard H. Britton, Terry K. Amthor, Bruce Shelley (later of Avalon Hill, Microprose, and Ensemble Corp.), Bruce Neidlinger, and about four others. The company had little financing and its principals would soon realize that it’d be years before they could pay salaries to everyone, so very shortly the 10 people who had founded the company became just 6 and those remaining employees started working jobs on the side to make ends meet. Fenlon himself commuted from law school at William & Mary for two years, while Britton ran the firm. Despite the part-time status of its employees, ICE soon had put out three products: Arms Law (1980), The Iron Wind (1980), and Manassas (1981).
Arms Law, ICE’s first publication, would be the start of their Rolemaster line–though it wasn’t seen as its own RPG at the time. Instead Arms Law was offered as an alternative combat system for AD&D. This sort of freeform expansion to TSR’s core games was common in the industry at the time. Judges Guild had made a business of it, but the shelves were full of others such as Chaosium’s All the Worlds’ Monsters, early releases of Arduin, and publications by Gamescience and others.
Arms Law replaced the simple target-number based combat of other early games with complex charts, which cross-referenced weapon type and armor type to show very discrete results for different ranges of die rolls. Each weapon had a chart, so players pulled a table when they pulled their weapon. In addition, the percentage-based system introduced “open” dice rolls and integrated “critical hits,” which could result in maiming or death.
The Iron Wind, meanwhile, was a generic (AD&D) book that described a campaign set on a fantastic island, complete with weather, ethnologies, NPCs, and other background details. It also featured an eight-level dungeon. It would form the basis for the “Loremaster” set of campaign books (later subsumed into “Shadow World”). Loremaster was by no means the earliest campaign world. The City-State of the Invincible Overlord, Glorantha, Greyhawk, Tekumel, and Traveller’s Imperium were just a few of the worlds already being detailed at various levels by 1980. Loremaster was nonetheless an early entrant to the category. However after this first publication the world would not be revisited for four years.
ICE’s last early offering, Rick Britton’s Manassas, was a Civil War era wargame set in ICE’s home state of Virginia. It was well received, but lies largely outside of this history of RPGs, though it does point toward ICE’s interest in strategic games from the very start.
The next Rolemaster release was Spell Law (1981), a plug-in spell system that was most notable for the fact that it organized spells into lists. These lists gave users access to multiple, related spells, as they reached additional character levels. Then ICE produced Character Law (1982), a book which provided character creation rules, and thus finally tied all of the books into a (somewhat) cohesive whole. Spell Law, Arms Law, the related Claw Law, and Character Law were then published as a boxed set, called Rolemaster (1982).
Despite its origins as an AD&D plug-in system, Rolemaster ended up being a unique system all its own. If anything it derived more from RuneQuest than AD&D, especially given its focus on skill-based characters. Though they might seem a bit quaint now, the Rolemaster system was pretty innovative back in 1982. The critical hits of Arms Law were one of the first systems of their type, while the related spell lists of Spell Law can be seen as prefiguring later linked spell groups, from the spheres of magic in the current Dungeons & Dragons to Jonathan Tweet’s original magic system in Ars Magica.
However, Rolemaster really made its own impact on the industry through its careful simulation of real-life systems, from its weapon-by-weapon hit charts to its complex experience methods which gave points from everything from receiving critical hits to traveling.
This careful simulation was based upon simple concepts that were nonetheless rooted in a complex, table-based presentation–and that would soon become a detriment when ICE signed a very important license in 1982.
The Origins of MERP: 1982-1984
The original Rolemaster systems had been developed by Fenlon, Charlton, and Kurt Fischer during Fenlon’s 6-year campaign set in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Thus it made sense for the young ICE to approach Tolkien Enterprises seeking a license for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. What’s surprising, however, is that they actually received it. According to Tolkien Enterprises, the reason was simple: no one else had ever asked.
Thus in 1982 ICE signed an exclusive, worldwide licensing agreement with Saul Zaentz’s Tolkien Enterprises and locked down the biggest and best license in the history of the roleplaying industry (at least until West End licensed Star Wars about five years later).
ICE started the Middle-earth line off by following the same path to success that they’d pioneered with Rolemaster. They produced a generic sourcebook that could be used with AD&D or other games. It was called A Campaign and Adventure Guidebook for Middle-earth (1982) and it was mainly an excuse to package Pete Fenlon’s first map of Middle-earth.
The maps of Middle-earth produced by ICE are worthy of note. Besides that first, large, map, Fenlon would also pen smaller scale maps for all the campaign supplements. These designs would be used until almost the end of the line. They covered broad swaths of Middle-earth in exacting detail, and continue to be lauded for their technical skill.
After the Middle-earth Guidebook ICE started producing Middle-earth based sourcebooks for their brand-new Rolemaster game. The first of these early supplements was Angmar (1982) by Heike Kubasch (who continues on with ICE to this day). There would be a total of six supplements published for Rolemaster before ICE decided upon a different tack.
In these early supplements, ICE also made an interesting decision. Rather than setting their Middle-earth supplement at the end of the Third Age, during the War of the Ring, they instead decided to set it about 1400 years earlier. The first supplements wobble from 1600-1700 T.A., but ICE eventually selected 1640 T.A. as the official year of the ICE campaign.
This is always a hard decision in a licensed product, as you must decide whether to place a game in the most interesting era for players, when the books/movies/comics/etc. were placed, or whether to place them in a different era where the players will have more free will. As one of the earliest contenders in the world of licensees, ICE took the latter path. One of the flaws in the decision was ultimately their inability to totally stick with that setting. Most books conformed to the 1640 T.A. line, but every book talked about how to use it in other time eras, and the occasional book came out that just couldn’t be used in the context of 1640 T.A.
(And, I don’t know how common my own experiences are, but the two MERP campaigns I’ve played in were both set near the War of the Ring, not 1640.)
Early on, ICE was also intent on using the Middle-earth license to their best ability, and not just for RPG books. From 1982-1984, ICE put out several board games, from The Riddle of the Ring (1982), a clever game of card management and bluffing, to The Battle of Five Armies (1984), a chit-based wargame. However, by 1984 ICE was largely moving out of the board game industry. It’d be 10 years before they published another Middle-earth based board game.
The actual Middle-earth Roleplaying, or MERP, system was only released in 1984. The MERP system itself would always be a somewhat controversial. It simplified Rolemaster, because ICE wanted to make it easier for people drawn in by the background to play the game. However it still retained the very mechanical, highly simulationistic details of its parent. Combat was much more detailed than was really necessary for a game that many thought should be about characters and story–and the magic system, which was pretty vanilla-RPG with some small encouragement not to cast spells, seemed totally out-of-whack with the background. In later years games like Pendragon (1985) would show the power of deeply wedding a background and a game system, but unfortunately MERP did not.
Even though they now had a game system, ICE continued to push MERP books as generic. The logos for MERP and Rolemaster didn’t appear on MERP supplements until 1987. Pete Fenlon would later admit in a 1992 open letter that he suspected more people used the MERP supplements with D&D than with the MERP rules themselves. Nonetheless, beginning in 1984, there was indeed a game system at the core of the Middle-earth releases.
And somewhere along the line, ICE became a truly professional company. Between the release of the boxed Rolemaster in 1982 and the first Middle-Earth modules, ICE was making money. Neidlinger and Coleman both went full-time in late 1982, and started taking salaries. ICE was on its way up.
Early MERP Releases: 1982-1987
MERP was one of the best selling RPGs in the mid-1980s, largely because of its success in the book trade and overseas. A couple of different reports suggest that first-edition English-language sales were in the 250,000-300,00 range. MERP did better in Europe than in the United States, and it was translated into 12 languages over its lifetime. However, despite any success it found, it was a remarkably ungamelike game during its first edition run, from 1982-1992. MERP was background heavy and there were no truly crunchy game-mechanic books published at any time during MERP’s first edition history.
The Middle-earth campaign/background books, which began with Angmar (1982), and ran to 21 books by the end of the first edition, were the core of the MERP line. Edited by Fenlon and, later, Jessica Ney-Grimm, they were some of the best and most extensive setting books ever published for roleplaying, begun 5 years before TSR started a similar program for the Forgotten Realms. Today they still utterly eclipse other attempts to detail worlds like Glorantha, Talislanta, and Tekumel. (Though some comment that the MERP sourcebook releases oddly avoided many of the most important realms of Middle-earth. For example, The Shire was not detailed until 1995, 13 years after the line began. Barad Dur never was.)
Despite their success as setting backgrounds (or perhaps because of it) the MERP campaign books were also somewhat odd ducks in the world of RPGs. Some call them “Encyclopedia Middle-earthia.” They provided such specific & deep details, with so little game information, that they probably encouraged an even greater reader-to-player ratio than most RPG lines, which isn’t a very healthy pattern for longevity.
There were 15 actual adventure modules published in MERP’s original adventure line, from Bree and the Barrow-Downs (1984) to Dark Mage of Rhuduar (1989), but up until 1987 these read more like small-focus background books, with a few (usually very short) adventures thrown in.
It seemed to underline the same philosophy shown in the campaign books: lots of background, and just a little bit of game material thrown in to spice things up. Insiders at ICE say that they believed that MERP and Rolemaster gamemasters wanted a lot of creative freedom. The attitude was pretty common in RPGs throughout the 1980s, and perhaps the MERP supplements don’t suffer when compared to the other publications of the period; they just took a different tack–settings instead of dungeons. However, with MERP now divorced from Rolemaster, the lack of crunchy rules for Middle-earth became increasingly noticeable.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that MERP started to really develop as its own game system–not just a series of system-agnostic campaign books. As noted, the MERP logo entered wider user around this time. In addition ICE produced a series of stat books, beginning with Lords of Middle-Earth (1986) and continuing on with more books of NPCs, monsters, and treasures.
Down the line, new campaign modules would provide more precise details for cities like Minas Tirith (1988) and Minas Ithil (1991), offering more gameable backgrounds. Finally, new “Ready-to-Run” adventures (1988-1992) would finally put the focus on real RPG adventures in a way that MERP hadn’t seen before.
More Rolemaster Editions: 1984-1989
Meanwhile ICE was facing the opposite problem with their other line. With the release of MERP as its own game, ICE’s Rolemaster system was suddenly without a setting. In 1984 ICE introduced a fourth book to their core line, Campaign Law. Even more novel than some of their earlier books, Campaign Law described how to run an entire campaign, and thus was one of the earliest GM guidebooks on the markets. Addressing the problem of a setting, Campaign Law also reintroduced the world of Loremaster by describing three new islands, called “The World of Vog Mur”. At the same time ICE re-released The Iron Wind and published a few other supplements set in that world. However, the experiment was short lived, and soon the Loremaster line would be abandoned for a second time.
Rolemaster itself, however, remained more successful. It underwent a minor revision and was republished in a second edition in 1986. ICE would soon afterward introduce a series of yearly rule supplements, beginning with Rolemaster Companion (1986). Each of these books offered new spell lists, new classes, and other new rule systems for Rolemaster. On the one hand it seemed a good direction for a rules-heavy system, but on the other hand it highlighted the system’s weakness by making it even more complex and convoluted with every release. Some would also complain about poor playtesting in the Companions, and that many of the new rules greatly unbalanced the game.
Another iteration of Rolemaster second edition appeared in 1989. This remains one of the best-loved editions of the rules by most early fans. At the same time the new “Shadow World” background, designed by Terry Amthor, appeared. The Wold of Vog Mur and other older Loremaster elements were retrofitted into the new campaign, which was extensively supported over the next year.
Piles of New Products: 1985-1989
At the same time as Rolemaster and MERP were picking up speed, ICE continued to try and expand their company in about every way possible. At least six major new lines appeared in the late 1980s, covering RPGs, solo game books, and miniatures.
The first new product line was the Space Master RPG, designed by Amthor and Kevin Barrett, which enjoyed first (1985) and second (1988) editions in the eighties. By the second edition, with its extensive world building and starship construction systems, it was obvious that Space Master was trying to go straight up against Megatraveller (1987), the recent rerelease of GDW’s classic SF game.
The second new product line was the Cyberspace RPG (1989), which used an iteration of the Space Master system, but set it in a new, future cyberpunk era. As with many of their releases, ICE was following the trends. R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk (1988) had just kicked off the genre, and FASA’s Shadowrun (1989) was released that same year as Cyberspace. There was a joke running around the ICE office in 1989, following the release of Cyperspace, that said “if ICE does a game in a genre, you know that genre is dead now”.
The third new product line consisted of a set of three different solo game book series. By the mid-eighties full-fledged solo gaming books had become very popular, with product lines such as Fighting Fantasy and Lone Wolf in full production, and ICE wanted into this booming market too. They started off with Night of the Nazgul (1985), the first of their Tolkien Quest books (later renamed Middle-earth Quest). A few years later they’d build on this with a series of Sherlock Holmes Solo Mysteries, the first of which was Muder at the Diogenes Club (1987), and a series of Narnia Solo Games, the first of which was Return to Deathwater (1988). Unfortunately there were serious problems with this line, which we’ll return to momentarily.
The fourth new product line included a couple of miniatures games. The first was Barrett’s Silent Death (1990), a combat game which used the Space Master background, but soon became a solid gameline of its own. Another was Bladestorm (1990), which came in a big box of rules, but also linked to a miniatures line.
Even more notable than these new internally-developed product lines was a 1986 publication deal with Hero Games. Hero Games was similar in ICE to many ways. Hero had gotten started just a year after ICE, and they had a solid core game system that was successful enough that they’d used it as the basis for several different games, including Champions, Danger International, Fantasy Hero, and others. However, unlike ICE (or at least, moreso), Hero Games was constantly struggling, with production and financial problems that plagued the company. Thus in January 1986 ICE arranged to take over the game production and distribution for Hero Games, leaving Hero with the editorial and other creative tasks.
There were problems with the changeover, however. Within a year all of the original creators from Hero–George McDonald, Steve Peterson, and Ray Greer–had taken jobs in the computer and movie industries and the Hero Games production had become anemic. As a result, ICE decided to do things themselves, and they brought on a new editor, Rob Bell, who would be the head of Hero Games production under ICE for several years.
Before Rob Bell the Hero System had been disjoint, with similar, but not identical systems being used on many games (much as was the case with Chaosium’s BRP system). But by now GURPS (1986) was gaining steam, and the benefits of a truly universal system were becoming more obvious. So, Rob Bell unified the Hero System. With the release of Champions Fourth Edition (1989), Hero System Rulesbook (1990), and Fantasy Hero (1990), there was a second generic and universal system on the market.
(A more complete discussion of the Hero System will have to await a history of Hero Games, sometime in the future.)
The sixth new product line of the late 1980s was ICE’s “Campaign Classics” line, which detailed various historic and mythic backgrounds in excellent one-off sourcebooks that were dual-statted for both Rolemaster and Fantasy Hero. There were five in all: Robin Hood (1987), Mythic Greece (1988), Vikings (1989), Pirates (1989), and Mythic Egypt (1990).
Though well-regarded and generally lauded, the Campaign Classics line also highlighted how poor the Hero/ICE fit was. Fans, freelance authors, and even in-house authors for ICE wanted little to do with Hero, and vice-versa. Monte Cook, for a time the editor in charge of both lines, would later recount having to deal with complaints from fans on a daily basis, who all felt like space was being wasted in their books with stats they’d never used.
By the start of 1990, things looked generally good for ICE, with Rolemaster, Space Master, Cyperspace, Silent Death, the “Campaign Classics” line, three solo book lines, a few miniature lines, and the entire Hero System set of games all under the ICE umbrella. However, problems had been brewing in the background since 1986, and by the end of 1990 they’d become much more visible to the general gaming public.
The Bad Years: 1990-1992
There tend to be three notable signs when an RPG company is floundering.
First of all, freelancers stop getting paid. And, this was definitely the case for ICE by 1990. Freelancers have stated since that during this time period they stopped submitting proposals to ICE as a result. One staff member recounts that in this time period perhaps 20% of his time was spent talking with (rightfully) irate freelancers.
Second, the employees face pay cuts or delays. Between the late 1980s and 1992 experienced ICE employees like Kevin Barrett, John Morgan, Monte Cook, and even Rick Britton (the VP of the company!) left ICE for more stable pastures.
Third, book production grinds to a halt. Sherlock Holmes Solo and Narnia Solo both ended in 1988, Middle-earth Quest in 1989, in all cases with unpublished books awaiting production. At least one of these books, a final Sherlock Holmes mystery, was even published overseas, but not by ICE. MERP production dropped from a dozen books a year to just two in each of 1991 and 1992. Space Master saw just a single book in each of 1991-1992, while Cyberspace was supported with a princely three supplements in 1991, plus a new edition in 1992. Rolemaster proper was the only line supported at its old levels during the 1991-1992 crash, with over a half-dozen books total, plus some new “genre books” which replaced the “Campaign Classics” line, but without the controversial Hero support. However, Shadow World only saw two books, after 15 releases in 1989-1990.
The ups and downs of ICE were really dramatic. In the mid-1980s they were selling 5000 copies of their average books, and more of their best-selling Rolemaster Companions and MERP books. But by 1992 they were at a nadir. One day staff members showed up to work and found the door locked, with a sign that said “closed by order of the sheriff.” ICE hadn’t been paying its rent. Hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt would be run up during this low point–but then repaid during the next ICE high point, in the middle of the 1990s.
The problems leading to ICE’s near-bankruptcy in 1990-1992 originated from those solo gaming books, especially the Middle-earth Quest books.
By 1986 the first three MEQ books had been released as “Tolkien Quest” gamebooks, and the fourth was on the way. The books had already been approved by Tolkien Enterprises, but suddenly Tolkien’s book publishing licensee George Allen & Unwin (also ICE’s UK book distributor) claimed that both ICE and Tolkien Enterprises were in violation of their contract. ICE was forced to recall and destroy all four books. Two different sources put the loss from this and other Solo Quest issues at $2.25 million to $2.5 million dollars, a disaster for a self-financed firm.
Meanwhile a remarkably similar problem overtook the Narnia Solo books. The Narnia licensor turned out to not have all the necessary rights, and went bankrupt owing ICE considerable damages.
By 1988 ICE had renegotiated a gamebook license with the Estate of J.R.R. Tolkien, and put four more Middle-earth Quest books out under license from George Allen & Unwin. This didn’t make up for the lost revenues of all those destroyed books, but it at least gave ICE a new opportunity to take advantage of the book mass-market. Unfortunately the solo game market had already peaked in 1985-1986. By 1986-1988 it was going soft, with other lines like Wizards, Warriors & You, Sagard the Barbarian, GrailQuest, Endless Quest, and Super Endless Quest all ending during this period. ICE had missed the wave.
This would ultimately push ICE even further over the edge. Returns–always a danger in the book trade–apparently weren’t that bad until the end of the Sherlock Holmes series. A larger problem was that when ICE cancelled the various Solo book lines, they had already invested in over a dozen books which were being prepared for publication in the various lines. This wasted investment just added to the injury of all those destroyed books. However, that original, and costly letter from George Allen & Unwin that told ICE to cease publishing the Middle-earth Quest books appears to be the real reasons behind ICE almost entering bankruptcy starting around 1990.
Bruce Harlick, the new line editor for Hero, offered one of the few public statements on ICE’s troubles, in a response to the Internet in 1993. He said:
ICE is NOT in Chapter 7, Chapter 11, or Chapter 13. They were in a voluntary-type of receivership, but it wasn’t a formal one. They are out of that now. They are even starting to pay off their back author debt! Or so I’ve heard. ICE should be in fine financial shape.
And indeed by 1993 things started to look up. In a pattern also seen in other game companies recovering from downturns, the period immediately after the near-bankruptcy was a revival for the remaining game lines. Though Cyberspace, Space Master, and the solo books were not published after the downturn, MERP and Rolemaster continued on, and each would receive some careful attention from ICE in the next few years, including new editions that were the most massive revisions that either game had ever seen (or would ever seen under this iteration of ICE).
The Fan Component: 1989-1993
However, not all of ICE’s growth came from within. The late 1980s and early 1990s were really a bumper time for fan-created magazines being published in support of RPG lines, thanks primarily to the advent of desktop publishing technology. Among the many fanzines started in this time were: Redcap (Ars Magica, 1992), Tales of the Reaching Moon (RuneQuest, 1989), and The Traveller Chronicle (Traveller, 1993). Often these fanzines were able to support RPG lines through hard times, keeping interest in them up when production was down.
ICE was no exception to this trend. In 1989, just before ICE started faltering, Ross Henton and Lem Richards began publishing Grey Worlds, a Rolemaster ‘zine. It ran for 14 issues through 1992 at which time it was taken over by ICE itself and produced at a more professional level. Unfortunately ICE was ultimately unable to make Grey Worlds work as a professional magazine. They published three issues in two years, then dropped the line just before the new release of Rolemaster. It would be replaced a few years later by Portals, which produced just two issues in two years, from 1996-1997.
The MERP fanzine, Other Hands had much better luck. Chris Seeman’s ‘zine began publication in 1993, and was thus in on the ground floor of the new second edition MERP line. Working with Jessica Ney-Grimm, Chris Seeman would act as a nexus of content throughout MERP second edition and Chris Seeman would later become an Assistant Line Editor for ICE. Even after MERP’s demise, Other Hands would continue on for several more years. Other Hands also had the privilege of publishing ICE’s first announcement of their new edition of MERP.
The Final MERP Incarnation: 1993-1997
During the downturn from 1990-1992, a few new Middle-earth products had appeared.
First up was a licensed game, Middle-earth Play-By-Mail (1991), which was produced by Pete Stassun and Bill Field of Game Systems, Inc. This strategic game was rooted in ICE’s Middle-earth world, and made great use of ICE’s extensive background. It would win numerous Origins awards over the years before being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Second up was the Lord of the Rings Adventure Game (1991), which was an attempt to produce an even more simplified variant of MERP for a broader audience. The first couple of supplements appeared in 1991 and 1992, and LOR would become part of ICE’s plans to reinvent their Middle-earth gaming starting in 1993.
In 1993 Pete Fenlon made an announcement about the future of Middle-earth in Chris Seeman’s Other Hands magazine. He started off by talking a bit about ICE’s recent problems. He admitted that ICE was just getting out from under what they called a “large and old external debt load” and said that they had “curtailed production, advertising, [and] printing, and focused [their] efforts on clearing out [their] old inventory and laying the groundwork for what amounted to a hoped-for revision and renewal program”.
He also talked about some of the problems with the original edition of MERP:
Unfortunately, ICE’s presentation of the MERP rules left much to be desired. We often created a sense of confusion and complexity, even where the guidelines were conceptually simple. In some cases (e.g., with the magic and character creation rules) ICE also failed to create a feeling that MERP was designed around the setting. We failed to create the feeling that the rules were uniquely well-suited to the world of Middle-earth. So, while our Middle-earth products are generally very well received, and while the vast majority of our fan mail is extremely positive, there is a lot of room for design improvement. Much of the problem can be attributed to the fact that ICE wanted the supplements, not the rules, to tell the tale of Middle-earth. This enabled us to reach more consumers, for we knew that many gamers would prefer to play another game or even make up their own rules. We suspect that, to this day, a large portion of the folk adventuring in Endor use TSR’s Dungeons & Dragons or AD&D rules, even though they employ our Middle-earth supplements. This philosophy, however, has “diluted the line.”
Thus, Fenlon explained the two problems that had long plagued MERP: the rules which seemed poorly meshed with the setting, and the setting which was often only lightly described with rules.
To reestablish the Middle-earth line, Fenlon laid out a four-step publishing program. It would begin with the recently published Lord of the Rings Adventure Game (LOR). Then, a second edition of MERP would be released. It would still be Rolemaster-lite, but with a bit more attention paid to making character creation and magic fit into Middle-earth. At the same time, the whole MERP first edition line would be repackaged, and MERP supplements would become much larger and more expansive. The third component would be a set of “three-dimensional” adventures, which could work with LOR, MERP, or as standalone board games. Fourth, ICE would produce a mass-market strategy game set in Middle-earth.
The multi-pronged approach was a strong one (and strikingly similar to other multi-pronged attempts to revitalize a product lines, such as Chaosium’s 1997 plans for Glorantha). The 3D adventures never came about, but each of the other prongs materialized.
Lord of the Rings Adventure Game was supported with a new supplement in 1993, but that would end up being the last for the line though at least two more were scheduled. Though it might have proved a good introduction, LOR actually diluted the MERP line, because now every single supplement featured dual LOR/MERP stats, sometimes wasting tens of pages.
The mass-market board game was called The Hobbit Adventure Board Game and it proved too simplistic for most gamers.
MERP second edition started off with a tight, slightly more Middle-earth-esque rulebook, and was followed by the very impressive Arnor supplement, a massive 416-page book that encompassed five different first-edition books. A lot of reprints lessened the interest in the new line for old players, but Arnor really offered hope for moving forward.
However, MERP was still weighed down by years of tradition. The disconnect that Fenlon noted between rules and background continued to exist. The rules were better, but still an early-1980s simulationistic, non-storytelling design and even if the sourcebooks were intended to have a more solid basis in the rules, ICE had still decreed that the proper background-to-adventure ratio was 9:1. Dungeon crawls and fights with bandits remained the height of MERP adventure design.
MERP second edition slowly fought against these traditions, and a few supplements that really stretched ICE’s old background-only envelope appeared (though many campaign-style background books also were printed). Palantir Quest (1994) was MERP’s first (and only) campaign-length adventure. The Kin-Strife (1995) offered a different type of campaign, with heavy emphasis on background, but lots of adventures interspersed. Hands of the Healer (1997) was MERP’s first (and only) truly crunchy game book. It was a splat-book for healers.
Unfortunately, it was also the final book in the MERP line. We’ll return to all the reasons for the line ending shortly, but the simplest is this: from 1986 to 1995 MERP had bled readers at a high rate, at least partially because it was no longer in the book trade. Whereas Middle-earth books were 85% of ICE’s sales in 1986, they were only 15% in 1995, a total flip-flop–though a new product released in 1995 would bring Middle-earth to the forefront again.
The Penultimate Rolemaster Incarnation: 1994-1998
After their flirtation with bankruptcy, ICE continued to support their Rolemaster second edition line up through 1994. Their last few books were Rolemaster Companion VII (1993), another set of rules called Sea Law (1993), and the final RM2 “genre” book, Arabian Nights (1994).
In the meantime, however, ICE had been preparing a new edition of Rolemaster, which they called Rolemaster Standard System. It was released as four books, Arms Law (1994), Gamemaster Law (1995), Spell Law (1995), and Rolemaster Standard Rules (1995).
Built as a slowly evolving system that had originally been intended as AD&D supplements, Rolemaster had never cohered like most game systems do. This was one of the problems that RMSS sought to combat, and here it was successful, because the entire Rolemaster system felt truly unified for the first time ever.
However, the designers had indulged their love for complexity in the new edition, and the resulting rules systems was quite bloated. Tens of skills had become hundreds. Even with them reorganized in a logical pyramidal structure, the character creation system had become entirely convoluted with ten years of new game design ideas thrown in wily nily, and as a result a complex system became even more so. The size of all of the books bloated too, and the Rolemaster system could no longer be sold as a single box (though it was slipcased for sale in 1997). Now to buy the entire set you needed to put out $65 (or $60 after the slipcasing), a pretty unheard of amount in the mid 1990s.
Under RMSS ICE tried to duplicate their old formula for success. The old Rolemaster Companions were replaced by Rolemaster Annuals, which ran from 1996-1997 and collected updated master tables, master spell list pages, and occasional errata. Named companions collected coherent sets of rules, from the Arcane (1995) to Mentalism (1998). New RMSS genre books expanded the system to totally new settings, including Black Ops (1997) and Pulp Adventures (1997). A single Shadow World adventure also appeared in the era (1995).
The fan component of publication would reappear as well. By now both Grey Worlds and Portals had failed, but in 1998 a new online magazine for Rolemaster, The Guild Companion appeared. It continues to this day.
However by 1998 ICE was back into increasingly deep waters, facing problems that had already caused the cancellation of the MERP line. It was obvious that RMSS was one of the problems, thanks to its high price-point and dull line name, which didn’t emphasize its fantasy basis. ICE would try and redo their Rolemaster line one more time, but it was too little too late.
The CCG Line: 1995-1998
During the last few years of the original ICE’s existence, the company moved further away from RPGs. MERP sales were entirely depressed, and RMSS was not successful as a revision of their core system. The continually popular Silent Death and card games like Fluxx (1997) increasingly became their bread and butter … as well as the inevitable CCG.
Shortly after the release of Magic: The Gathering (1993), Wizards of the Coast had started gobbling up licenses for the most notable RPG gameworlds, partially to head off competition. Jyhad (based on White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade) was one of these licensed CCGs that they actually published, while Middle-earth was one they sat on.
In 1994, ICE recovered the rights to a Tolkien-based CCG, and in 1995 they published it as the Middle-earth CCG (MECCG). S. Coleman Charlton, the co-designer of Rolemaster and lead designer of MERP was the creative force behind the CCG. In a 1998 interview he’d say, “Many of the dynamics of a CCG correspond to good board game design elements.” And, although there’s truth in that statement, it also pointed to some of the flaws in the design, because MECCG played like a board game, which meant it was complex (too complex, Charlton would later admit), and that it tried to use cards to simulate board play and even dice.
The complexity of the game definitely hurt sales, but it didn’t kill the line. It was still a good game and a great license. ICE sold about $12,000,000 worth of MECCG product, a game ultimately published in 13 languages, include Basque. It was produced up through 1998, and on today’s secondary market sealed MECCG boxes still seem to have 30-40% of their MSRP value, which is a lot better than most CCGs of the period.
CCG product lines are overall very hard to manage because of their explosive ups and downs. ICE would find this out, much as Wizards of the Coast had before them, when they listened too much to distributors about what to print for some of their early releases and ended up printing too much as a result. As time went on ICE tried to navigate the turbulent CCG market by changing from collectible releases to non-collectible “challenge decks” decks, but again it wasn’t enough. As we’ll see, those early overprinting errors would ultimately prove fatal.
Though MECCG was one of the beacons of hope (or at least profitability) in these last years, it would eventually take the company down.
The Last Years: 1994-2001
In the mid to late 1990s, ICE was beset by an ever-increasing number of problems which made the company struggle.
First up was the increasing price of paper. Paper costs had tripled in 1994 and were continuing to spiral upward, totally undercutting ICE’s idea of attracting readers through massive sourcebooks & rulebooks. In 1996 they were forced to limit their book size to 250 pages, and in 1997 they dropped their upper limit down to 144 pages.
Second up was Magic: The Gathering (1993). Like computer games before it, CCGs began to gobble up some entertainment dollars, making it that much harder for RPGs to remain competitive.
Then in 1996 the initial CCG bubble burst, and it started bringing down retailers and distributors. Several distributors went out-of-business in 1997 and 1998, and this caused ICE to sign an exclusive distribution agreement with Chessex in the hope that this would allow them to remain afloat. ICE characterized it as a “novel … direct-to-retail program … designed around a regional sales and distribution scheme enabling them to compete with Wizards of the Coast”, but the trade reacted with alarm. More quietly, White Wolf, FASA, and Heartbreaker toyed with joining the program. Unfortunately Chessex started having cashflow problems too. When Chessex merged into Alliance Distribution, ICE’s exclusive was dissolved, and its other potential distrbution partners pulled out of negotiations.
1996 was ICE’s best year, thanks largely to the CCG and strategy gaming market, with sales peaking at just under $6,000,000. But the company’s focus seemed to be on cards and its own core lines; the Hero System wasn’t getting enough attention. So, after an amicable warning, Hero Games jumped boat on August 26, 1996, when they announced that R. Talsorian Games was taking over their publishing and distribution. ICE had published and sold licensed Hero Games books for 10 years, and the line accounted for about 20% of ICE’s core (non-CCG) revenue. The loss of the brand during the height of CCG sales didn’t make a big difference, but after the CCG stopped production the next year, it became a third factor contributing to ICE’s last round of financial difficulties, which really started gathering steam at the end of 1997.
ICE wasn’t the only company having problems in 1997. This was the same time that TSR was picked up by Wizards of the Coast, and also that long-running board- and RPG-manufacturer Mayfair Games went out of business. Not yet aware of its own impending financial downturn, ICE bailed out Mayfair, resurrecting them as Iron Wind Inc. (a familiar name), which then started doing business again under new management as Mayfair Games. Many of the shares of the new Mayfair went to the principals of the company, while 30% ended up owned by ICE directly.
Just four months later, however, things were turning pretty bad for ICE. On September 19, 1997 ICE declared a moratorium on the MERP line. They planned to support it in small ways with short supplements and crossovers with their MECCG and Rolemaster lines, but for all intents and purposes, MERP was dead. Any hope of Lord of the Rings roleplaying was instead pinned on ICE’s plan to release a new roleplaying game to coincide with the new Lord of the Rings movies, even then planned for the big screen.
The end of the MERP line was sufficiently sudden that many partial or completed manuscripts would never see print. These included: The Inland Sea, The Grey Havens, Khand, Near Harad, Paths of the Dead, Umbar, and Northern Gondor. Under MERP second edition, ICE had really been trying to bring their whole world together, and these supplements would have done it if they’d ever seen print.
The nail in ICE’s coffin was overprinting a number of early supplements for MECCG. In general CCG economics run at a level of magnitude higher than what’s normal for an RPG company. (For example, ICE’s revenue in 1996, supported by healthy CCG sales, was $6 million, which compared to a more average $1.5-2.5 million of later years.) When MECCG had released in 1995 it helped ICE take care of its last debts left over from its first near-bankruptcy, following the Solo Quest debacle. Now by overprinting the second MECCG Unlimited Edition (in June 1996), and the next couple of supplements, ICE had sent the pendulum swinging far back in the other direction. Even after they got the printing number right with their later supplements (the last one being entirely prepaid and presold), they never recovered.
MECCG production stopped in 1998 and ICE’s debts began to pile up.
ICE’s last line standing was Rolemaster, which they released in a brand new fourth edition which they called Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying (1999). There seemed to be two reasons behind the change.
First, it allowed them to repackage the core rules as a single hardcover, which contained the former RMSS rulebook, plus some parts of Arms Law and Spell Law, thus reducing the cost for entry into the game system.
Second, it let them put the word “fantasy” front-and-forefront, a much better branding strategy than the mechanical sounding “standard system”.
Some players rebelled against the idea of repurchasing their books so quickly, though ICE tried to clarify that it wasn’t necessary because there were no system changes. However, spending time and effort to publish rebranded reprints in 1999 couldn’t have done a lot to help ICE’s bottom line.
Reports in 1999 indicated that RPG sales were on the upswing, and this boded well for the new RM system. However ICE’s troubles with paper prices, RPG sales to date, dying distributors, the loss of Hero, and the debts left behind by MECCG were too much. ICE was unable to bridge the final year or so that would have been required for Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying to mature … and for the Lord of the Rings movies to be released, thus offering new opportunities for growth of the Middle-earth license.
Unfortunately one of the debts that was piling up by 1999 was royalties owed to Tolkien Enterprises. And, there can be little question that Tolkien Enterprises had a vested interest in recovering the Tolkien gaming rights before the movies released. In a 1995 interview, Laurie Battle, then the licensing director of Tolkien Enterprises, responded to a question about the direction of the MERP second edition game by saying, “To be honest, our eye is focused more on royalty income rather than on the finer details of the games themselves.” With such a mercenary attitude it might have seemed to them good business sense to use entirely legal methods to force ICE into bankruptcy, so that Tolkien Enterprises could then be freed of their contract with ICE. (And other reports suggest that it wasn’t the only lawsuit that Tolkien Enterprises was involved in at the time.)
In 1999 Tolkien Enterprises called in their debts and thus ICE was forced to file for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. This is the type of bankruptcy which temporarily protects a company from debtors so that they can reorganize the company and make it profitable again. Clearly ICE intended to have another go at it once they got their house in order.
However, by going into bankruptcy, even temporarily, ICE gave Tolkien Enterprises the opportunity to recover the Middle-earth license, and they did. On September 21, 1999 ICE announced that they’d lost the rights to Middle-earth. They still kept publishing their other lines for another year, and put out a few last Rolemaster books and even some brand-new Spacemaster books while in chapter 11, but by now they were doomed.
Because of the bankruptcy proceedings, information on ICE’s sales in these last few years was uniquely offered to the public, as the following chart of unit sales shows:
|RFRP Arms Law
|RFRP Creatures & Monsters
|Silent Death Boxed Set
|Silent Death Rules
The sales numbers for Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying are pretty terrible for a set of original core book releases, probably 50%-75% what they should have been for a healthy company in 1999. Contrariwise the Silent Death products (which were not new releases) show the company’s strength, but the abrupt downswing in 1999 is frightening, and really underlines how large ICE’s problem was.
Unfortunately, Tolkien Enterprises wasn’t done with ICE yet and they stayed aggressively involved with ICE’s bankruptcy proceedings. At one point they forced ICE to stop sales of past MERP modules, even though this could have raised money they needed to pay off their debt. Later Tolkien Enterprises convinced ICE’s bank to freeze their funds, which has been reported as the ultimate cause of what happened next. Around October 26, 2000 Pete Fenlon announced that ICE had entered chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is the bad kind:
I regret to say that, after 20+ years and after having published hundreds of adventure game products, Iron Crown Enterprises is closing its doors. We have filed a voluntary petition in the United States Bankruptcy Court pursuant to Chapter 7 of Title 7 of the United States Code, which governs the liquidation of companies. We are converting our Chapter 11 petition to a Chapter 7. We are beginning steps toward dissolution. We enter this termination period with great sadness. At the same time, we are very proud of our work, of the people we have trained and nurtured, and of the many rich experiences and friendships we have been blessed to receive. We are especially proud of having such a great group of loyal customers. All of us have been honored to serve the adventure game market with what have usually been labors of real love. While we have often been financially poor, we have always been enriched by our trade. Thank you for letting us serve you.
ICE, as founded in 1980, was dead. After publishing more RPG products than anyone to date but TSR and having produced what the ICE founders would later report as the 2nd (MERP) and 3rd (Rolemaster) best-selling fantasy RPG games of the era, the original crew was sidelined. The principals largely moved on to Castle Hill Studios (with the Kesmai Studios crew), and then to Mayfair, while the company’s previous assets were put on the auction block. The only questions were who would buy them, and what they’d do with them.
The New ICE: 2001-2006
It was a weird scattering of things which actually got put up for auction.
MERP was now entirely gone, due to the loss of licensing rights. The new owners of ICE’s assets would even be forced by Tolkien Enterprises to destroy all of the old MERP stock. Meanwhile, Decipher would eventually end up with the Middle-earth RPG and CCG rights, and a few ICE alumni would participate in the new lines. Matt Forbeck and Chris Seeman each did some work on the RPG, while Mike Reynolds, the MECCG line editor, managed Decipher’s Lord of the Rings CCG program. Other Middle-earth gaming rights would be split up and sold willy-nilly, earning Tolkien Enterprises exactly the piles of money that they had no doubt envisioned.
Silent Death, meanwhile, had been sold to Mythic Entertainment during the chapter 11 proceedings. Mythic had been working with ICE on a number of computer games (including the MMORPG Dark Ages of Camelot, one of several online games that had originally been based on the Rolemaster system). One of Mythic’s other games had been based on the Silent Death system, and this was a property that ICE had been willing to sell for the sum of $15,000 back when they were trying to stabilize the company.
Ironically, had ICE survived, it would have received a healthy percentage of Mythic’s notable Dark Ages of Camelot revenues. One source suggests that ICE would have, to this date, taken in approximately $7 million thanks to the license, resolving any debts owed by the old company. No one had to lose money, and the original ICE didn’t have to go out of business–but thanks to pressure exerted by certain debtors in 1999, they did.
300 shares in Mayfair Games, or about 25% of the company, were sold for just $5,400, and appear to somehow have gotten back into the hands of the company itself.
That left Rolemaster, Spacemaster, Shadow World, although not all of it, because some rights had reverted to authors upon ICE’s bankruptcy. Everything that was left was sold to John R. Seal of London for $78,000. Those rights were then placed into Aurigas Aldebaron LLC and licensed to Phoenix LLC, with the end result being that a group of gamers was ready to get ICE going again, as announced on November 19, 2001:
John R. Seal, a long time ICE fan, acquired the majority of the Iron Crown Enterprises, Inc. assets. These assets were purchased at an auction run by a Federal bankruptcy court in Charlottesville, Virginia. John R. Seal will place these assets into Aurigas Aldebaron LLC (“Aurigas”). Aurigas will then enter into a Master License with Phoenix LLC, which will be charged with the full promotion and use of the assets.
Phoenix LLC (“Phoenix”) is largely owned and operated by certain ex-ICE employees, Bruce Neidlinger, Heike Kubasch, and Stephen Hardy. Phoenix (dba Iron Crown Enterprises) will start immediate operations using the large amount of inventory and intellectual property acquired at the auction.
(It later officially became Mjorlnir LLC when it filed, the name that’s used to this date.)
The CEO of the new ICE was Bruce Neidlinger, who had been the CEO of the old ICE as well, but had broken away when other principals moved to Mayfair. Heike Kubasch, an old-time Middle-earth writer, was the President.
Since 2001 the new ICE has been very proactive and fairly successful in turning ICE into a modern RPG publisher. The company was initially somewhat limited in what they could produce due to the bankruptcy issues, but they have been getting back rights as they can. They’ve continued publication of Rolemaster Fantasy Roleplaying and have revived the Shadow World line as well. In addition they provided some initial support for Spacemaster Privateers, the third edition of the game that had been released during the original ICE’s last year in business.
The new ICE has also picked up some minor licensees including The Guild Companion, who produced dual-stat PDFs with d20, and more recently Politically Incorrect Games, who will be producing cardstock figures.
Their biggest release has been HARP (2004), by Heike Kubasch and Tim Dugger, a Rolemaster-based system which was successfully released as a simpler introductory game. It’s received some acclaim. Current word is that ICE is also planning a new fifth edition of the Rolemaster rules, and that it will totally renovate a system that’s 10-20 years old, and shows it.
Finally, the new ICE has been very successful at making much of their old stock available as PDFs, so that customers can purchase an increasing number of otherwise out-of-print books. Their web site stands as an excellent example of how to make PDFs available for sale to fans. Most recently they supplemented their RMFRP and RMSS PDFs with PDFs for the old RM2 games, acknowledging that some fans prefer the older system.
I somewhat wonder about the viability of the new ICE’s print products, with so much of their attention going to PDFs, but on the other hand HARP has been pretty successfully supported in print, so that bodes well as the new ICE pushes more products into new releases. Word is that they’re also working on expanding their properties beyond the tabletop realm (again) by new computer game and MMORPG licenses.
With a twenty-five year-old legacy to live up to, the new ICE has lots of work ahead of it, but so far they seem to be doing well.
Thanks to Pete Fenlon, Bruce Neidlinger, Monte Cook, Kevin Barrett, Nicholas Caldwell and Matt Forbeck for various comments and additions. Fenlon, Neidlinger, and Cook in particular gave lots of insight. Also thanks to several other former ICE employees who were kind enough to read over this piece. It’s overall one of the most extensively reviewed and edited articles in this series. This article is otherwise based on a variety of sources including old USENET postings and columns & interviews from Adventurers Club, Grey Worlds, Other Hands, and “The Official MECCG Newsletter”.