Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Retrospective: The Fantasy Trip

I never saw the original books, Melee and Wizard, that made up Metagaming's foray into the field of fantasy RPGs. They were released in 1977 and 1978, respectively, a couple of years before I entered the hobby, and they were no longer on store shelves by the time I took notice of games other than D&D. But their successors, Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard (along with In the Labyrinth, the GM's book), were and it's through them that I encountered The Fantasy Trip.

Written by Steve Jackson and published in 1980, it's probably no surprise to note that TFT is a proto-GURPS, for good and for ill. Characters possess the same for stats (Strength, Dexterity, Health, and IQ), for example, with both DX and IQ being inordinately useful. There were differences, of course. Although not strictly a class-based game, characters were either "wizards" or "warriors," with spells being the specialty of the former and skills (called "talents") being the specialty of the latter. A character could learn the abilities of the other type but at increased cost, something GURPS doesn't do. Consequently, TFT retains a more strongly archetypal feel to it, in line with most of the game designs of its era. Unlike GURPS, there are no advantages or disadvantages, which also means that the mechanical differentiation between characters is much more limited than its descendant.

Combat received the most detail, as one would expect. Movement was hex-based and had a very strong miniatures wargame feel to it. Indeed, the original releases of Melee and Wizard feel more like simple wargames than RPGs, which is understandable, given Metagaming's focus on wargames. Still, it was no less possible to roleplay with them than it was with OD&D, although Melee and Wizard did include a lot less "supporting" material to enable this, leaving the referee to make up a lot for himself. This changed in the 1980 releases, which greatly expanded the scope -- and rules -- of the game. There was even a very sketchy setting included that bears some resemblance to Yrth from GURPS Fantasy, right down to the inclusion of real world religions into otherwise imaginary setting. Clearly, Steve Jackson is not a man to let go of an idea.

I never extensively played TFT back in the day. I already had D&D and wasn't really ever in the market for another fantasy RPG. Like DragonQuest, TFT was, at best, a momentary flirtation and a very momentary one at that. It wasn't until fairly recently that I even thought about the game again, having encountered a small but thriving community of support for it. Steve Jackson, as I understand it, tried for years -- unsuccessfully -- to regain the rights to TFT from Howard Thompson. GURPS, which began its life as a one-to-one combat simulation called Man to Man, is clearly Jackson's attempt to recreate The Fantasy Trip and build upon its initial concept. Despite at least two attempts, I've never been able to get into GURPS. I find its tendency toward comprehensiveness off-putting, even if the underlying mechanics of the game are quite sound.

On the other hand, The Fantasy Trip does hold some appeal for me, if only as a matter of historical curiosity. In both its original and 1980 incarnations, it's a fairly simple and straightforward game, without all the additional wrinkles and complexities of GURPS that drive me to distraction. There are, I am told, a couple of retro-clones of TFT, although I haven't had the chance to look at them. There's definitely a niche for a simple, skill-based fantasy RPG ruleset that's easy to house rule and, at its best, that's what The Fantasy Trip was.


  1. Dark City Games does the Fantasy Trip RC. Its good stuff, worth checking out.

  2. Oh, yes, I remember The Fantasy Trip. We did a 12-hour marathon of it once. The original Melee and Wizard books weren't on your old FLGS's shelves because they weren't books; they were tiny boxed games, and if the store carried microgames at all, they probably were on a spinning rack. They may have been there all the time and you just missed them!

    There's a couple minor errors in your description. There were only three stats: Health hadn't been invented. There was theoretically a fourth stat for movement, MA, which matched the GURPS Move factor, but wasn't calculated with a formula. Also, TFT did have some rudimentary advantages, like Eyes Behind; talents aren't strictly the same as skills, but were somewhere in between skills and advantages.

    I really liked TFT back in the day because it gave you more options than D&D with a smaller ruleset thant AD&D. Nowadays, I see it as flawed because of its rigidity, but the guts of it could be used for a more flexible game.

  3. Talysman,

    You're absolutely right about Health. I have no idea why I included it there, since I have a copy of Advanced Melee right in front of me. Must have conflated it with GURPS in my haste.

  4. Another minor correction. The original Microgame versions of Melee and Wizard remained in print the entire life of Metagaming.

    Prior to the full Fantasy Trip books (which were originally to be single volume and part of a boxed set) Deathmatch, an adventure similar to a T&T solo came out. Several more followed, including Deathmatch 2 and two with hidden treasures a la the book Masquerade.

    An idea I've toyed with is GURPS Fantasy Trip. You would have the two archetypes with the resulting effect on skill or spell costs. Advantages (no disadvantages) would be divided between the two and many discarded. Finally, skills and spells would only be bought at stat level for no independent tracking. Basically it pare GURPs down to a TFT Mk. 2 core.

  5. The Fantasy Trip was one of my favourite games for two reasons. Firstly, it provided a fast-paced tactical simulation before such things became popular in role-playing. Secondly, the base system is clean and functional (as necessitated by something that was originally a microgame). And thirdly, character generation was absurdly simple and quick, meaning that there was no incentive not to risk your character (it was after all, developed from a game of arena combat), and easy to generate opponents on the fly.

    Man-To-Man and GURPS were, to my mind, a giant step backwards.

  6. Never got into the more advanced versions, but in the early 80's some friends of mine and I played it a lot on lunch breaks in school. This one history teacher with a small museum anti chamber attached to his room used to let us play there. It was inspiring to be around these ancient daggers and coins in glass cases and playing the games. The teacher was fascinated by the game, and would watch in quiet interest as our little cut-out warriors bashed away at enemies and each other.

  7. "Legends of the Ancient World" (or TFT) looks like a version of Gurps that I could handle. Very trimmed down and straightforward - without any of the daunting bulk that Gurps 3e/4e possesses. Seems like you'd have a pretty fleshed out rules set if you combined LotAW with Gurps Lite (though I'd exclude advantages/disadvantages, personally).

  8. I am a fan of TFT and Legends of the Ancient World. My only major quibble with both systems is that they use Strength as both a measure of physical power and as a fatigue/wound pool.

  9. Finally, my home turf! :-D

    TFT was the first game I understood. Not the first game I owned; I'd had the AD&D books for a year. But at that time I didn't have a circle of friends to introduce me to the concepts of roleplay gaming. When I did get that circle of friends ... they'd already tired of D&D and adopted TFT as their main game.

    And we used it for everything for years ... fantasy, historical, contemporary, even superheroes. We didn't really use it for sci-fi ... that's what Traveller was for. We didn't use figures in combat very often, but that didn't seem to hurt anything.

    I still have the (fifth iteration of) my original character sheet.

    I think my favorite feature of TFT was that it seemed so EASY to balance combats. I've never had another game where I was really comfortable about throwing stats in on-the-fly and knowing how soft or hard a fight would be.

    Finally was able to catch print copies of the books (after years of photocopying a friend's) in the mid-1990s.

    I'm rambling, aren't I? Yes. Sorry. TFT meant a lot to me.

  10. Still my absolute all-time favorite game for fantasy role-playing, warts and all.

  11. "There's definitely a niche for a simple, skill-based fantasy RPG ruleset that's easy to house rule"

    You mean, such as BRP? ;-)

    I never got to play a TFT game, though it would always intrigue me when I saw it on the store shelves. Now I find myself trying to obtain reasonably-priced copies on the secondary market, something I'm doing with a lot of games from "back then."

  12. Prior to the full Fantasy Trip books (which were originally to be single volume and part of a boxed set) Deathmatch, an adventure similar to a T&T solo came out. Several more followed, including Deathmatch 2 and two with hidden treasures a la the book Masquerade

    Actually, it was "Death Test", not Deathmatch, and there was even a sequel to those two called "Orb Quest" (which was the last TFT MicroQuest published.

    TFT was and still is an outstanding system. Its main flaw is that it is over simplistic and had a somewhat limited scope of play. That said, though, a few minor rules tweaks here and there could easily fix that. I agree with the assessment that MTM and GURPS were a huge step backwards.

    Really too bad that Howard Thompson was such a, ahhhh, "extreme" personality (I believe that is the polite way of stating that - I have other, less kindly metaphors) as his abrupt decision to close up Metagaming and run and hide under a rock from then until this very day was quite tragic. There were several TFT related supplements that were on the verge of being published when he vanished. A serious loss, and for no really good or logical reason.

  13. @Angantyr: Ack, what was I typing.

    Weren't there a couple of Arthurian ones as well?

    I had a bunch of fun playing the wargames but could never get my group back in the day into the RPG. Wonder if I could sell it now.

    As far as tweeks, the biggest I've seen are a GURPism and a half-GURPism. The first is adding a health stat and the second is an adjunct to IQ that provides talent points but no bonus to IQ roles.

    I'm not sure MtM and GURPS were a step backwards although I remember considering MtM a bit much until I saw OrcSlayer. Still, as I said I've thought of striping GURPS back to TFT style, which wouldn't be that hard.

  14. The MicroQuests were:

    Death Test
    Death Test II
    Grail Quest
    Treasure of the Silver Dragon
    Security Station
    Treasure of the Unicorn Gold
    Master of the Amulets
    Orb Quest

    "Grail Quest" is the Arthurian one you were thinking of.

    In terms of tweaks, I was thinking more of minor changes to the combat system and augmentations to magic. For example, I would make the proposed "Defensive Quickness" talent out of Interplay official, and add a penetration stat for weapons (to reflect ability to get through armor, which is not the same thing as wounding potential.)

    Curiously, I have no problem with the lack of a health stat. There are problems with its absence, but I feel they are better addressed through talents (perhaps something new like "Endurance" or the like) and a couple of minor tweaks here and there. Actually putting in a dedicated Health stat requires a lot of changes throughout the game and is not to be taken lightly (for details, see the article by Michael Friend in Vindicator, #4 I think)

    My problem with GURPS is that it has way too many rules that add little or nothing, in spite of its simple basic mechanics. I have an original boxed Basic Set bought when it was first released (which, curiously, was exactly how TFT was supposed to have been released back in 1980) along with quite a few Supplements, and I have never played the game once! Lot of cool ideas, mind you, but I never got into it.

  15. @Herb: There was Grailquest where one played an Arthurian Knight travelling in search of the Grail. [Although in our case the knights were rather weird, with Naginata and bolas...]

    [There was also Security Station, an SF cross-over notable for it's square map, and Orb Quest, which included a "circular" map (the tower floors), in addition to the one's youve mentioned (Death Test 1 & 2, and the two tresure hunt games Treasure of the Unicorn Gold and Treasure of the Silver Dragon (both of which created a very interesting campaign world that was distinctly different from the majority of fantasy worlds at the time).]

    Actual TFT products (as opposed to Melee/Wizard Microgame supplements) were limited to Tollenkar's Lair, The Warrior Lords of Darok, and The Fantasy Master's Codex (which is the first and last time I have ever seen the output from a dot-matrix printer professionally published).

    And there were a number of interesting TFT articles in the magazine Interplay as well (the Metagaming house organ).

  16. One other product was Forest Lords of Dihad, which was related to Warrior Lords of Darok in that it was part of a larger campaign setting called "Land Beyond the Mountains". Two other modules that were intended to go with these products, and detailed the capitol cities, were finished but never published because Loonie Howie decided to practice the time honoured Arthurian tradition of "Run away! Run away!" The folks who wrote them, Gamelords, ended up rewriting them somewhat and released them as supplements for their Thieves' World series.

    In addition to Interplay, there are quite a few articles in old issues of Space Gamer and also some in Dungeoneer and Different Worlds

  17. This looks really great. I'll have to pick it up sooner or later. This is the kind of thing, I think, that made that era special: people took the idea from Gygax, and reinvented it in lots of personal, original ways. Man, you can just feel the freedom and creativity. In my opinion the creations of this era, say before the crash of '83, were before it became a game. It was an expression of a half understood thing the boundaries of which seemed to extend forever, and was an expression of a life you hoped your future would be.

    Merry Christmas!

  18. I recently blogged about my love of Melee. I'm going to teach my oldest son soon. I kick myself for not getting In the Labyrinth when I had a chance all those years ago. GrailQuest was my favorite adventure.

    I wish someone would retroclone the full TFT ruleset because I have a feeling I'm never going to get ahold of the originals.

  19. Originals come up on eBay all the time. Noble Knight Games usually also has them in stock. They aren't necessarily *cheap* but they shouldn't break the bank, either (and it depends on condition, too)

    After all, TFT was, at one point, the 2nd most popular RPG after D&D, so there are quite a few available.

    Now, getting all of the TFT related articles that appeared in various gaming magazines is a bit more of a challenge :-) but I think I've managed to get pretty much every main one and most of the obscure ones, with the exception of the fanzines Goblin Keep, Inept Adept, and Fantasy Forum (which are unobtainium)

    Funny you should mention releasing a retroclone - I've played around for some time with a version of the game that incorporates my "tweaks" as noted above. I'd love to get the rights to TFT and release it! But I don't have a quarter million and, in any event, doubt I could find Crazy Howie anyway...

    In terms of retro-clones, though, you can always go to Dark City Games, as noted by another poster, as they have a stripped down simplified version of the game that they use for the solo retro-MicroQuests that they sell. Since I consider TFT to be a bit over-simplified, this obviously is more so, but still worth a look.

  20. I actually started playing the original Melee a few moths before being introduced to Original D&D. We used to play it in the school library and study hall. Before I knew waht miniatures were really for I painted up (with Testors plastic model paint) a few minis to use in place of counters for our Melee games.

    I am currently enjoying an Advanced Melee/Wizards play-by-post game on the Necromancer Games Forum. We have linked several threads of individual encounters together to form a mini campaign based in the City State of the Invincible Overlord. If interested, see here...

    The Fantasy Trip clone you might be thinking of is Legends of the Ancient World by Dark City Games. The basic rules can be downloaded here...

  21. I played TFT a lot as a kid, more than any game except Champions, and it was definitely the best for pick-up games -- if you had a dozen people, all with different levels of roleplaying experience (including no experience at all) it was very easy to get everyone involved, through a party together in 15 minutes and run an adventure. The simplicity forced you to be creative as a GM, at the same time as it made it easy to adapt material from other sources.

  22. I had a few friends who loved the original Melee & Wizard and ran games using the Advanced books. I even gave serious thought to switching to this system from AD&D. It was a good system.

  23. Here is a tribute page to Melee/Wizard. The person who put this up is a talented mini painter. His figs and environments are simply beautiful. He also has a version of his melee/wizard rules up he uses during his games.

  24. I played in a few TFT campaigns, ant it's appeal was simple: the simplicity of the rules meant that they didn't get in the way of storytelling, which is what Role Playing Games *are* after all.

    It should be known that I played with some of the original D&D play testers, and their motto was "the rules are only there for when the storytelling breaks down". Too many D&D games bogged down on die rolling, but TFT was quick and logical enough that you didn't have to go looking for a specific rule so often.

    Quick, simple, gave the GM plenty of latitude. Those were it's strengths.

  25. We had so much fun playing TFT. There were an excellent game store in Uppsala, Sweden where most games could be bought. My oldest daughter will soon be introduced to the game.

    Btw, I saw some strange collection of digitalized issues of Interplay at ebay some time ago.