Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

An Insider’s View of Metagaming and The Fantasy Trip

inthelabyrinthJeffro: Thanks for dropping by Jeffro’s Car Wars Blog for a chat. It’s really great to have someone here that worked with Howard Thompson and Steve Jackson.

Ken Schultz: Before we start, I have to issue a legal disclaimer here– correlation between actual reality and memories from 35 or so years is not guaranteed. No warranty as to the accuracy of the memories, recollections, musings, and/or ramblings below is expressed or implied.

Jeffro: Heh. So what all did you do at Metagaming?

I started working at Metagaming Concepts (later, just Metagaming) during the spring semester of 1976, my sophomore year in high school. My glorified position title was “Retail Sales Manager”, which sounds more impressive than it was, considering that Metagaming Concepts was a very small operation. We had one or two people to handle The Space Gamer subscriptions and orders from individuals stemming from that and individual mail orders. I took care of all the orders from commercial operations (stores). Still, it was pretty heady stuff for a high school kid, what with handling orders totaling hundreds – and, very rarely, thousands – of dollars from places as far away as Great Britain. I worked there until early in 1978. During this time, I also had a weekend and occasional weeknight job at a restaurant, as well as the standard high school and high school band stuff. (I didn’t have much of a life.) One of the bright points, though, was that I got the opportunity to playtest – to greater or lesser extents – most of the Microgames that came out during that time frame, as well as to hang out with and get to know the designers.

The Metagaming Concepts Org Chart: Ken Schultz took the empty “Retail” position.

Jeffro: So you actually got to playtest The Fantasy Trip…?

Ken Schultz: I was lucky enough to get to participate in working through the basics, in addition to how it all rolled up into the overall fantasy role playing system. To my mind, the most fun parts of it were that latter bit. In various sessions, I think it was Steve’s intent to try to explore aspects of the various character types and ability mixes and see how they worked. I’ll confess, though, that my focus was more on hanging out and making it fun than the nuts and bolts details. With the benefit of hindsight and years (and years, and years) of experience, though, I can kind of see where Steve was aiming.

Jeffro: Who played?

Ken Schultz: Most of the scenarios we worked on involved a group that consisted of Howard Thompson, Robert Taylor, various friends of Steve and those two, myself, and sometimes my brother (who also ended up working at Metagaming Concepts for a while) and/or other friends of mine. I’m sure I’m forgetting some folks, and I’m sorry about that. I have no wish to imply that it was only us or to inflate the importance of my participation.

We ran lots of different cases, including some in a town setting, where Steve was working on some of the aspects of the game that related to the intelligence attribute – charisma, deception, etc. Mostly, though, we wandered through a labyrinth Steve built and populated, working out things like creatures, secret doors, multi-party combat, time flow, and so many others I to which my memory can’t do justice. Usually, I was running naturalist/healer and thief characters (named Narco and Klepto – hey, I was a high school kid, gimme a break). For some reason, I gravitated toward the specialists. We had a good mix of fighters and specialists.

wizard3Those labyrinth scenarios were what spawned one of the all-night sessions. We had a bad habit of going in, getting a bit cut up and then ducking out really quickly. On that particular occasion, Steve hit us with a fairly large party of Orcs in the entrance chamber. We beat them off and were going to do our usual “hightail it out of there” operation, but when we tried to exit, Steve said, “It feels like someone has piled a million pounds of sand on the door.” It didn’t help that during our ensuing explorations, we stumbled on a dragon’s lair and – in a classic case of not communicating clearly with the GM – Steve took the opportunity to explore aspects of “panicked flight.” We tried to say we just wanted to run through the big cave to the other exit (which we could see). That was not the message received by the GM, however, and he started firing off several series of “Left or Right” choices as he seemingly made us run a mini-marathon. As a result, we were pretty hopelessly lost, had to start an entirely fresh map, and try to go from there. There followed a protracted episode of wandering blindly around Steve’s dungeon, during which we just could not find an alternate exit. It finally ended about 4:00 or 4:30 the next morning when a weary (and frustrated) Steve announced that we came across a hole in the tunnel roof that “looked like it was just made.” Otherwise, we might still be there.

Jeffro: Tell me more about Steve Jackson’s game mastering. Was he a “Monty Haul” cream puff or did he hand out total party kills regularly…? Was he a good sport or did he flip the table when things didn’t go his way…?

“I always kind of thought that the one on the far right on the cover of The Space Gamer #29 is a closer depiction of Steve as he looked way back in the day than the ones on the The Fantasy Trip and/or Wizard covers.”

Ken Schultz: Steve was, well, Steve. He wasn’t a pushover, but I think he deliberately tried not to wipe parties out with one fell swoop. But he was always super creative and a bit devious. We did have one encounter with a dragon long before any of the characters were ready for it and he didn’t immediately snuff us all out. As a matter of fact, a very lucky triple-damage roll by the neophyte wizard character in our party caused Steve to play the dragon in a manner very different than I think he had planned. But it was consistent with the backstory he’d developed for that character when he’d populated the system. To me, that’s pretty remarkable foresight for something he was still developing. And despite the effort he’d put into it, Steve never seemed to get emotionally and parochially attached to his labyrinth or the creatures in it. He always seemed – to me, at least – the soul of impartiality. I couldn’t ask for a better person to run a game.

Jeffro: And what was Howard Thompson like at the game table?

Ken Shultz: Howard seemed to me to be really good at that committing to the character thing. Occasionally, he played a big, dumb, lumbering barbarian character who wouldn’t wear armor because “it made it too hard to get to his thingy.” And he really acted out the part stomping around and blundering into things. Stealth was never an option. The character he most used, though, was one called Melio Glorioso. I’m not sure of the spelling on that, but he was allegedly named after a character in an opera (sorry, I’m an uncultured Texas hick and don’t know which). Anyway, he was supposed to be a leader character, but Howard always played him as something of a coward, brimming with false bravado. The first thing he would shout whenever the party would encounter anyone was, “Surrender or die!” It became a catchphrase our little playtest group: “Surrender or die!,” cried Melio. And then he would find some way to work himself to the back of the pack, away from the action.

Jeffro: Did you playtest any other of Steve’s early games? (Were you around when Chad Irby showed up with his early drafts of what would become CAR WARS?)

death test coverKen Schultz: Ogre was pretty mature by the time I got to Metagaming Concepts, but I got to playtest the later drafts, a bit. I still have a copy of the Ogre Draft 3.1 playtesters package, including the hand-drawn maps and hand-lettered/drawn counters (I’ve attached a couple of scans for your amusement). I’ve also got a hand-drawn GEV map, and remember playtesting that one, too. I’ve also still got a playtesters package for Warpwar and the draft rules for Rivets from Robert Taylor. In addition to Melee and Wizard noted above, I playtested the early Death Test drafts. I think the genesis of the Car Wars concept was just after my time. At least I don’t seem to recall working with that one (more’s the pity, I think I would have loved that).

Jeffro: Did you stick with Fantasy Trip after the playtests or did you drift into more mainstream games later…?

Ken Schultz: After Metagaming Concepts came college. When I had time to play, I usually gravitated to the The Fantasy Trip system stuff, though more folks in my circle of friends at college were more familiar with Dungeons & Dragons and I wound up doing that more than The Fantasy Trip. Outside the fantasy role playing world, before MC I’d been mostly into WWII-type AH games (Panzer Blitz, Panzer Leader, Third Reich, Tobruk, and such) and things like Wooden Ships and Iron Men and others. I tried to dabble in those World War II games and even pick up the Squad Leader series, but time was, if anything, in shorter supply than it had been in high school.

Jeffro: Steve Jackson is one of the great game designers of all time. You knew him when he was still working out his first games. At what point did it begin to come clear to you that he was superstar material?

Confidential: Destroy Self After Reading!

Ken Shultz: Oh, it took very little time to become firmly convinced Steve was a freaking genius. Because I was just a high school kid, we were never that close on a personal level. But watching him work and the limited opportunities I had to work with him was simply amazing. He was a boundless font of creativity and new ideas. He had a seemingly innate grasp of the nuances of combat odds and the delicate balance necessary between the different aspects of all the components of game units, be they hardware or characters. It was probably a lot harder than it appeared to me, but he seemed to just come up with things whole cloth or in at least in large chunks, rather than laboriously pieced-together. I’m struggling here to find the right words for all this and the memories are admittedly a bit fuzzy after 35+ years, but it was truly an amazing thing to watch.

Jeffro: It’s probably understating things to say that Howard Thompson and Steve Jackson didn’t see eye to eye on the future of The Fantasy Trip. GURPS has obviously been successful over the decades… and it’s pretty obvious which company is still here and which one is gone… but… where do you come down on the simplicity vs. complexity debate today…?

Ken Shultz: That’s a real tough one. As a somewhat anal-retentive purist, I tend to personally appreciate and want the things to be as close to reality as possible. But the downside of that is that playability and broader user appeal suffer. And I don’t think there are enough really hard-core folks out there to make any really cumbersome close-to-reality simulation commercially viable as a game. Most folks – I think – would want something “close enough” that still moves quickly and is fun to play. Steve really put a lot of thought into some of the more fully-developed character aspects in TFT, but most of the time those didn’t really get exercised. I think his blurb on the back of the original Munchkin summed it up nicely: “Go down in the dungeon. Kill everything you meet. Backstab your friends and steal their stuff. Grab the treasure and run. Admit it. You love it.”

Jeffro: Do you recall anything coming happening internal to Metagaming that highlighted this ideological split between Jackson and Thompson?

The original Ogre playtest counters…!

Ken Shultz: This was just my take on it, but the atmosphere seemed to shift quite a bit when Howard finally quite his day job and dove into Metagaming full-time, rather than as an aside. I can understand where he was coming from; giving up a steady income – even in a job he seemed to detest – and pinning your and your family’s future on a metaphorical roll of the dice (pun only partly intended) is a pretty scary step. But it – understandably – seemed to shift Howard’s focus more to the bottom line more than it had been previously. It was all suddenly lots more serious. I think a lot of the friction that led to the split – which happened after I left – had its genesis in that change. Of course, that’s pretty much pure speculation on my part. I do know that it led to my departure. I was way wrapped up in senior year drama and wasn’t committing enough time to the business end of things. In Howard’s opinion, at least, though I have to say I pretty much agree with him.

Jeffro: I was surprised during the Ogre Kickstarter by the number of fans asking for Designer’s Edition treatment for The Fantasy Trip. Can you briefly describe what your personal “dream edition” would include?

Ken Shultz: I was surprised about the interest in a designer’s edition for The Fantasy Trip, too. Much more there than I would have imagined. To me, it was really interesting that the Ogre Designer’s Edition seemed to embody most of the things Steve mentioned Designers Notes in The Space Gamer #29 about The Fantasy Trip. It seems his vision of an “ideal” game was pretty well-formed even then. I’d say my idea of a “dream edition” would closely align with what came about for the Ogre Kickstarter. Only with figures. I’d probably go for a combined GM/Advanced Melee/Advance Wizard rule book with new artwork, at least one (maybe two) volumes of creatures and scenarios, probably something with some of the Death Test-like paint-by-number adventures. A couple of larger arena/room like maps on heavy paper, a bunch of varied combinations of megahexes for use in building halls/tunnels/whatever, retro flat die-counters for old farts like me, character record sheets (maybe an app), the GM shield with charts/tables/whatnot, single-sheet cheat sheet tables on heavy stock for players, and, of course, dice. And shirts. And shot glasses. And… Sorry, got carried away by a Kickstarter flashback…!

Metagaming Concepts Retail Sales Flow Chart

Jeffro: With Steve Jackson is being pretty satisfied with GURPS and with Howard Thompson probably being unwilling to sell the rights… that leaves a clone made by Dark City Games as being the most likely thing to come about. Do you think something like that could take off in today’s gaming environment…?

Ken Shultz: Honestly, I don’t see a revival of something like The Fantasy Trip as being ultimately successful. I’m an admitted pessimist, but I think there are just too many other shiny objects out there. I don’t see enough of a critical mass of people willing to invest the time it takes to learn and play it to make such a thing commercially viable. Bummer. Something for PS3/Xbox/Wii on the other hand… But I don’t know how you could replicate the The Fantasy Trip rules and gameplay sufficiently to differentiate it from any other generic Swords and Sorcery adventure game… and World of Warcraft is already solid in the multi-user online arena.

Jeffro: Okay that’s about all the time we have…. Thanks so much for providing a behind the scenes look at The Fantasy Trip and Metagaming Concepts! That has been seriously awesome…! Wah.

Ken Shultz: Thanks for affording me a reason to dredge up some (mostly) good memories!

14 responses to “An Insider’s View of Metagaming and The Fantasy Trip

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  5. Stephen Fuzzytek January 27, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Nice to find your blog as I’m wandering around looking for an image to suit vorpal bunny that isn’t from Monty Python. My parents Bob & Joyce Boyle owned The Alcove Hobby Shop (1976) in the Detroit area and Greenfield Hobby Distributors which started in 1978 and I believe we were one of the first companies out there working with Lou Zocchi on getting products into retail stores. I’m the older of the kids working in the business and the one that played and taught gaming systems to our customers.

    If you happen to find something on the vorpal bunny it would be great to get a JPG of it for use in a blog post.

  6. Angantyr March 31, 2013 at 5:56 pm

    Awesome interview! Realize I’m coming in a bit late, but could you ask Mr. Schulz to elaborate on the bit about “…Howard finally quite his day job and dove into Metagaming full-time”. When did this happen, exactly? What did he do before making Metagaming full time? This is a fascinating tidbit, and does shed a bit more light on the whole split with SJ.

  7. Pingback: [Designer Spotlight] An Interview with Winchell Chung | Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

  8. Lester Smith January 29, 2017 at 4:53 pm

    Loved this interview, Jeffro & Ken! I was a big fan of Metagaming back in the day, and of Steve Jackson by extension. I really enjoyed this peek behind the curtain. Cheers!

  9. Matt January 26, 2018 at 8:24 pm

    “…Howard Thompson probably being unwilling to sell the rights…”

    How fortunate that he has no rights to sell, eh?

  10. Chris Rice August 11, 2018 at 4:37 am

    And now, hey presto, the Fnatasy Trip Legacy edition is on Kickstarter. Half way though, nearly $200k and over 2,000 backers. So yes, I’d say Ken was a bit pessimistic!

  11. David VanDyke November 4, 2019 at 7:30 pm

    Always fun to look back and see how “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” The recent TFT kickstarter for the Legacy Edition was huge, and there are plenty of groups starting up, fueled by a combination of nostalgia and interest from the younger players who want something different from D&D and its clones. I’m stoked that I’m getting to play again after all these years.

  12. John Boyle November 5, 2019 at 12:02 am

    This was a fascinating interview. Thanks for posting this, Jeffro and thanks to Mr. Schultz for taking the time to talk with you (and us).

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