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Friday, August 24, 2018

August 24, 2018: Contextualizing Cville: Iron Crown Enterprises

[Last week my sons and I returned to my hometown of Charlottesville, pretty much exactly a year after the white supremacist/neo-nazi rallies there last August (which took place on the day we arrived in town last summer, because apparently that’s just life as an AmericanStudier these days). So this week I wanted to AmericanStudy a few contexts for this exemplary American city’s unfolding histories, leading up to a special weekend post reflecting on where we are in August 2018.]
On the rise, fall, and enduring legacy of an innovative gaming company.
I wrote a bit in this post on role-playing games about Iron Crown Enterprises (ICE), the Charlottesville-based gaming company whose Middle-earth Role Playing (MERP) system played a significant and wonderful role in my childhood. First developed as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign in the late 1970s by a group of University of Virginia students, MERP (known initially as Rolemaster before the company signed an exclusive worldwide license with Tolkien Enterprises in 1982) became a flagship product for ICE, which the students incorporated in 1980 not long after their graduations. As Stranger Things reflects, the ‘80s were a heyday for roleplaying, and ICE was at the forefront of the trend, developing multiple gaming systems (including two sci fi counterparts to Rolemaster known as Spacemaster and Cyberspace), creating numerous supplements and adventures for those games, and branching out into board games (including a favorite of mine that my sons and I have brought back into the mix, Riddle of the Ring) and solo gaming books as well. ICE was most everywhere in gaming culture in the late 80s and early 90s, making them a standout presence in Charlottesville’s business scene of the era as well.
By 1997 the company was experiencing severe financial difficulties, however, and in October 2000 it filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which cost them the Tolkien Enterprises license. The Wikipedia page identifies a number of factors in that precipitous decline, and I can’t claim any insider knowledge (or really any knowledge at all) beyond what I’ve read in such histories. But I have to admit a strong inclination to agree with this sentiment (also from Wikipedia): “There has been some debate over whether Tolkien Enterprises forced ICE into bankruptcy in order to get the gaming license in anticipation of the upcoming new movie franchise.” Peter Jackson and company had begun planning the Lord of the Rings films in earnest around 1997, and began filming in 1999 ahead of the 2001 release of the first film, The Fellowship of the Ring. If ICE had still possessed the worldwide gaming license as of 2001, it’s fair to say that the company (as long as it could have produced enough product to meet the new demand) would have exploded into international prominence. Perhaps the timing of the difficulties and bankruptcy is just an extremely frustrating coincidence, but perhaps it reflects some of the least attractive sides to the business, gaming, and artistic worlds. At the very least, it’s important to note that ICE did wonderful justice to Tolkien’s legacy during an era when it was far less visible, and deserved the chance to do so once Tolkien became Hollywood royalty.
Unfortunately ICE didn’t get that chance, and after 2001 ceased to exist as an independent company; the company has changed hands and names a few times since and is currently part of Guild Companion Publications. But I would nonetheless stress a couple vital and enduring elements to ICE’s legacy, beyond its meaning in my own young life (although that too, and again I have tried to pass that meaning on to my sons in various ways as well). For one thing, ICE’s dozens of supplemental books about Middle-earth are among the most beautifully crafted gaming products I’ve ever encountered, and by themselves more than make the case that games are a form of art and culture just as much as they are play. And for another, I think ICE’s history comprises the ideal small business success story, one that acknowledges prior and necessary influences (without both Dungeons & Dragons and public higher education there’d be no ICE to be sure) but that at the same time reflects the genuine vision and passion of a group of committed individuals who turned their particular talents and collective interests into a viable and highly successful business. I’m glad to have had the chance to connect with it, and I know Charlottesville is much better for having hosted ICE.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?

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