Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Retrospective: Adventures in Fantasy

Although his name will forever be linked with that of Gary Gygax as one of the co-creators of Dungeons & Dragons, one must not forget that Dave Arneson had game design credits both before and after teaming up with his more well-known collaborator. True, Dave was nowhere near as prolific as Gary, nor indeed did his designs reach as wide an audience. Nevertheless, I think it's important, for both historical and sentimental reasons, to remember that there was more to Dave Arneson than the little brown books and Supplement II, such as 1979's Adventures in Fantasy, a set of fantasy roleplaying rules he wrote with Richard Snider, who played the Flying Monk in the original Blackmoor campaign (and who also died last year).

So far as I know, there are two versions of Adventures in Fantasy, both released in 1979, the first by Excalibur Games and the second by Adventure Games. If there are any differences between the two, I cannot say, as I only have the Excalibur version. The game consists of three books -- Book of Adventure, Book of Faerry and Magic, and Book of Creatures and Treasure. The Book of Adventure, despite its name, is largely a character generation volume, although it also includes combat and related rules, as well as information about designing a campaign world. As in D&D, there are six stats -- here called Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma, Stamina, and Health -- all of which are generated randomly through percentile rolls (or 2D20, as presented, using old school D100). Social status and age are also determined randomly, with appropriate in-game effects, like starting funds and bonuses/penalties to stats. Interestingly, rules are also provided for natural death: a percentage chance rolled each year based on a character's age bracket to see if they might die from non-adventuring causes.

Adventures in Fantasy
is class-based but possesses only two classes: warrior and magic-user. The main difference between the classes, besides the obvious fact that magic-users have Magic Points and are able to cast spells, is how they gain experience and improve their abilities. Warriors gain experience through martial combat and improve their skills at arms, whereas magic-users gain experience by casting spells and improve their arcane repertoire and potency. There is no skill system in the game as such, but there is an extensive set of rules pertaining to "education," from learning to read and write to learning to ride a horse or wield a particular kind of weapon. These various "courses of instruction" are non-experienced based means of improving a character, taking time and money to complete. They also take time and money to maintain, as the game provides rules for the deterioration of talents learned that characters do not practice regularly.

Book of Adventures includes an overview of "setting up the campaign," as well as a sample campaign setting called "Bleakwood," complete with maps and descriptions. What's interesting to me is how much space is given to timekeeping, something Gygax famously noted as being "of utmost importance," adding -- in all caps, no less -- "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT." Arneson and Snider obviously agreed, if perhaps a bit less emphatically. "Underworlds," that is dungeons, are given some discussion, but it's wilderness design and outdoor encounters that take up even more space in this book. Combat rules round out the book and you can clearly see material from Supplement II in these pages, most notably hit location. Combat's a fair bit more complicated than in D&D, involving more number-crunching but it's probably no more complex than in, say, RuneQuest or other second and third generation RPGs from the late 70s.

Adventures in Fantasy's Book of Faerry and Magic -- proof that "clever" new spellings of common words didn't begin with White Wolf in the 90s -- details its magic system. Although it uses Magic Points, the system is surprisingly loose, with most spells requiring referee adjudication to use in play. There's very little information, for example, on range, duration, and area of effect. Sorcerous combat is a duel of power between magic-users, reminiscent of D&D's psionic combat, complete with attack and defense modes. The second rulebook also includes information on the various Faerry races and their magic. No provisions are made for allowing these as PCs, making Adventures in Fantasy, at least in its original form, a strongly humanocentric RPG.

Book of Creatures and Treasure begins by a lengthy discussion of dragons, which are a great deal more varied and individualistic than D&D's schematized and color-coded draconic beings. Otherwise, the selection of creatures is more or less what you'd expect, albeit with a stronger mythological tinge. That is, most of the creatures presented are closely associated with a real world mythology, whether Greek, Norse, or Japanese, and their characteristics more closely map to those described in those myths rather than D&D's approach of stealing a mythological name for a creature that bears little resemblance to its antecedent. Much space is devoted to rules for generating treasure hoards and the powers of magical items, as well as powerful artifacts. Again, this is all familiar territory to gamers and offers little that's genuinely surprising.

By most accounts, Adventures in Fantasy didn't make much of a splash on its release, in part due to continued legal wrangling between TSR and Arneson over D&D. There are four "upcoming" supplements listed in the Book of Adventures but none ever saw the light of day. As it is, Adventures in Fantasy feels more like someone's heavily house ruled version of D&D, which "fixes" or emphasizes certain elements according to its creators' interests. On some level, that's not an inaccurate feeling, although I suspect that many of the game's differences from D&D don't so much fix D&D as precede them, which is to say, they're reflective of the idiosyncrasies of Arneson's own approach, much of which either didn't make it into OD&D or was filtered through Gygax's own ideas.

Consequently, Adventures in Fantasy is fascinating as a historical document, providing both insight into Arneson's mind and more fodder for hashing out just what is meant by "old school." I doubt I'd ever want to play Adventures in Fantasy, but it definitely gave me a lot of food for thought. It also served to remind me of just how much Dave Arneson bequeathed to all of us who participate in this hobby and how underappreciated that legacy continues to be. Here's hoping that, as the years wear on, he won't be forgotten and his role as a founder of roleplaying is more widely recognized.

22 comments:

  1. Thanks for this insightful review James! Very appropriate on this day. I have only seen parts of AiF previously, so this was really something I can appreciate. The Bleakwood setting is also mentioned in the First Fantasy Campaign by the way. I wonder how similar this game is to the new retro-game, Dragons at Dawn? http://blackmoormystara.blogspot.com/2010/04/dragons-at-dawn-rpg-released.html

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  2. I browsed through a couple of old Dragon Magazines, but did not come across any adverts for AiF. How was it marketed, back in the day?

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  3. Incidentally, do you make anything of the fact that (1) this fantasy game never caught on, and (2) has few proponents extolling its virtues as compared to OD&D. Are both simply related to AiF being somehow suppressed by T$R?

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  4. I can see the importance of maintaining Time Records with systems like Runequest - where characters have the option for skill training during their downtime. (Or Gurps, with income gained through employment during downtime). But D&D? Why the emphasis?

    All that comes to mind is time to rest, and the ability to re-memorize spells. Or HP recovery. But both of these factors can be easily handwaved and, IMO, have no effect on running a MEANINGFUL campaign.

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  5. I had a copy of this for a while, signed by Arneson no less, picked up in a secondhand bin. The same copy had been drifting around the local area for years, showing up at cons', trade tables and raffles. It was the sort of thing that seemed valuable enough to want, but once you had it you couldn't do much with it, so it soon got passed off. Continuing the tradition I gave my copy away to a fellow who ran a fun D&D3 demo back in 2000, and like to think its continued to make the rounds ever since.

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  6. Richard Snider went on to create Powers & Perils for Avalon Hill, which had a few supplements: a screen, an adventure module, and a campaign environment set. I have the basic rules box and the campaign environment box.

    Powers & Perils had for a long time a small group of devoted players long after it went out of print.

    P&P had some really interesting ideas and flavour, cheek by jowl with ideas that on the page just seemed pretty unworkable for actual play (keeping track of experience for every single swing in combat, and every use of a skill: ouch).

    It's character generation system was baroque and complex, but I thought in hindsight that a properly built spreadsheet would have made it vastly simpler.

    It's entirely possible that P&P would make for a rather interesting "sword & sorcery" inspired gaming experience, but I have never played it.

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  8. > But D&D? Why the emphasis?

    I think Gygax was right about keeping notes for a numer of reason and I wish more GM's over the years would of done so! The main one being so much goes on in a session that it's easy to forget what happens the next time you get together as the longer the sessions transpire, the more people forget. Plus, so many ideas pop up within a session that it's good to be able to jot them down should you ever want to use any of them down the road.

    Maybe even more important is to chronicle what happen for people to read such as all the fun were getting from Brother Candor and his Fortune's Fools '-)

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  9. I enjoyed keeping track of time in my own campaigns, at least at the calendar level. Turn-by-turn tracking in a dungeon or other "tactical" setting annoyed me, however. In those cases I'd engage in hand-waving.

    On a related, Chaosium's "Cities" booklet (IIRC) had a nice section on accounting for "down time" between adventures. It included not only skill development (appropriate for their system) but tables for events that might be nothing, but might also become adventure seeds. Very handy.

    security word: "dera," dialect for a female derro.

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  10. As a devoted Arnesonian, this is quite interesting to me. I'd love to get a look at the rules, see how they play.

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  11. And apparently even Adventures in Fantasy has already been retrocloned...

    http://sites.fastspring.com/apriorcrs/product/dragonsatdawn
    http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/dragons-at-dawn/8609478

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  12. I've been wanting to see a copy of this game ever since I saw the AIF-writeups in the original Thieves' World box set.

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  13. Count me as another who doesn't understand the emphasis on tracking time. Is this in regards to the D&D endgame and domains (i.e. earning from your peasants)? I just don't see that it matters if party 2 enters the maegadungeon 1 week after party 1 or 3 weeks. Any grognards with some experience to weigh in on this?

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  14. I always thought the emphasis on time accounting was because Gygax expected GMs to be running multiple, potentially interacting groups in the same campaign setting. One group of adventurers might pass a lot of "game-time" quickly crossing a wilderness, while another beavered away in the dungeon. You needed to know how their actions affected the dungeon/wilderness environment.

    At the least there was an assumption that would often be characters who wouldn't be present in a given session, whether they be absent PCs, henchmen, or even NPCs.

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  15. Well, James is right... AIF is pretty much what Dave thought D&D should have been (and pretty much WAS the way he ran it).

    And TSR didn't "suppress" it. It just never really caught on.

    Old Geezer, RPGnet

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  16. Tracking time matters more if you've got a lot of players and the campaign is working more on a daily basis. You're running far more of a world & setting with interacting groups than the 1 DM - 1 Party we have (mostly) today.

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  17. I never kept any detailed records of exactly what time it was or how much time had passed, initially. Eventually I had some players who hung on my every word saying "but it was summer last week," so I began keeping general notes re: season or month. Usually it would be a week or less game-time between adventures (as we had hp come back completely between adventures).

    That being said, I own AIF, thanks to the magic of Ebay. It's been awhile since I looked at it, but I remember the combat system being kinda interesting, but it needed more tables telling you the modifiers to hit. If I were to play it, I'd probably ignore the fiddly bits (like maintaining skills) and it would end up a lot like Moldvay or Holmes-era D&D.

    And I'm looking forward to downloading Dragons at Dawn too! *drool*

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  18. "Well, James is right... AIF is pretty much what Dave thought D&D should have been (and pretty much WAS the way he ran it).

    And TSR didn't "suppress" it. It just never really caught on.

    Old Geezer, RPGnet"


    Was it that AiF was poorly marketed, then, or was 'the Arneson experience' simply untranslatable to another game-table?

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  19. Rach's reflections said...

    As a devoted Arnesonian, this is quite interesting to me. I'd love to get a look at the rules, see how they play.


    Rach, as a devoted Arnesonian, you should join us at the Comeback Inn! :)

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  20. I always thought the emphasis on time accounting was because Gygax expected GMs to be running multiple, potentially interacting groups in the same campaign setting. One group of adventurers might pass a lot of "game-time" quickly crossing a wilderness, while another beavered away in the dungeon. You needed to know how their actions affected the dungeon/wilderness environment.

    Correct. This is made explicit in later parts of the DMG section I quoted. I think this assumption on Gygax's part is another big element that shows how contemporary play is quite different from its forebears.

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  21. Historical Footnote:

    I was working for Dave at the time at Adventure Games, as the chief 'Tekumel Boat Person' (as he described us); the staff at AGI was made up of Dave's friends from the First Minnesota ACW reenactment group, and none of them were fantasy gamers of any type. Ken Fletcher and I were the only people there with any fantasy gaming experience; Richard was a free-lance author, and rarely in the shop.

    The problem with AiF wasn't that is was a bad game or anything, it was simply one of no marketing. Dave had bought it back from Excalibur with the money that the first of his settlements with TSR, and like many other of the AGI product line was more or less just there because Dave or one of his friends had done the game. There was no real 'in-house' support for this game like there was for, say, "Compleat Brigadier", and it has to be said that there wasn't much support for fantasy gaming of any kind in house.

    AGI's Tekumel line existed because of Dave's personal friendship with Phil, and my presence at AGI was a direct consequence of that. It always amazed the AGI staff that we 'boat people', so-called because we lived on pallets in AGI's basement under tarps (it was a very wet basement!) could sell our rather recondite products and the main AGI line never seemed to sell at all; I kept pointing out that one needed to run games at conventions and advertise the heck out of a game, otherwise it'd never sell to anyone.

    I'm pretty sure that all the remaining copies of AiF went to Flying Buffalo when Dave closed AGI; you might want to try them to see if they have any copies left...

    yours, Chirine

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  22. James has given a kinder (and fairer IMHO) review of AiF than I usually see for the game. Although it is much more polished than first Fantasy Campaign there are still a few gaps, rough spots unexplained terms/stats and rule contradictions that would make it difficult to play without a bit of fudging. Still, for me its very cool stuff.
    One reason tracking time was important for Arneson is that he had his players chracters doing a lot of between adventure stuff; so one might be building a temple, while another was attending a university, while somebody else was engaged in a trading venture.

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