Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: The Fantasy Trip

On The Table: Melee and Wizard!

I tell you, these games are something else.

Long, long ago I heard rumor of them in the introduction of GURPS. Elements of Melee and Wizard are of course baked into the classic Second Edition GURPS Basic Set and first edition GURPS Fantasy. But strangely enough, the group of high school buddies that went hog wild playing Car Wars and Ogre and Illuminati somehow never went beyond doing anything else beyond creating a few 100 point characters with those gaming materials that were supposed to be Steve Jackson’s magnum opus and the ultimate testament to his design genius.

But now today, thanks to these beautiful editions of Steve’s groundbreaking fantasy microgames, we could finally appreciate his astonishing contribution to the development of fantasy role-playing games. Hoo, boy! What games!! The best thing about them, of course, is that there’s nothing you can do with them except play them. And wow, is it ever easy to dive in.

I will caution people that pick these games up that the fighter cards that I think came with the Legacy Edition are NOT the way to introduce Melee to people. No, the CORRECT way to be initiated into The Fantasy Trip is by creating a figure of your own with no idea what you’re walking into. (Pregens considered harmful!)

My opponent picked a counter out of the stack and decided to run with Rapier Dandy– ST 10, DX 14(13), IQ 8, MA 10, Rapier 1d, Cloth 1 hit. (We later figured out that this figure was a girl. Haha!) Not wanting to throw the weird rules into play at once, I countered with Cave Man– ST 14, DX 10, IQ 8, MA 10, Club 1d. Needless to say, Cave Man got cut to pieces fairly quickly. Rapier Dandy got in a solid hit that gave Cave Man a -2 on his next strike. An 8 or less is not easy to pull off! A followup blow knocked him down into the -3 penalty for low hit points. This was an elegant demonstration of Melee’s death spiral mechanic where once you start losing, things go from bad to worse very fast!

Of course this one on one fight was rather simple– two figures closing to melee range and then trading attacks does not require a hex grid in order to adjudicate. If the whole point of this game is to repudiate the godawful combat systems of classic D&D which have absolutely NO TACTICS involved whatsoever, then this game really needed to step up its game.

So we tried again this time with Rapier Dandy being joined by Archeress “I”: ST 11, DX 13, IQ 8, MA 10, Longbow 1d+2, Short Sword 2d-1. Together they would take on Longsaber Shortie– ST 10, DX 14(12), IQ 8, MA 8, Saber 2d-2, Leather 2 hits– and Knife Girl: ST 11, DX 13(12), IQ 8, MA 10, Saber 2d-2, Main Gauche 1d-1, Cloth 1 hit.

In the opening my pirates ran across the board at maximum move, giving up their melee attacks to close the range. Then… Rapier Dandy managed to not only flank Knife girl but also engage both Knife Girl and Longsaber Shortie by placing them both in her three front hexes.

This meant that rather than engaging the Archeress and forcing her to was tea turn changing weapons, it was Knife Girl that ended up losing an attack while getting ganged up on by both of her opponents. (Doh!) My figures dealt their share of blows, I suppose, but the Melee death spiral soon returned as both my figures bought it. All because of a careless mistake on their positioning in the opening turn. Doh!

Rapier Dandy had now won two arena combats, thus gaining an attribute point to spend. She went up to DX 15, making her even more dandy than she was to begin with.

At this point I suggested we try out Wizard, but after a few minutes of perusing the spell list my opponent countered that we should try running his Melee figures against a mixed team of both a Wizard and a Melee figure. This is not surprising, really. Not even players settling in to a brand new B/X D&D campaign bother reading through the full spell list, much less take the time to think through some kind of spell use strategy. Expecting a new player to do something like that with Wizard over a couple of beers is a really big ask, even for a long time microgame addict.

Therefore I created Knife Girl II out of a desire to get that main gauch into play. I also produced Belboz: ST 10, DX 13, IQ 11, MA 10, Staff 1d6, Blur, Magic Fist, Staff, Avert, Clumsiness, Confusion, Fire, Summon Wolf, Summon Myrmidon, Illusion, and Rope.

Knife Girl II again charged across the board. Belboz hung back and created the illusion of a wolf. The next turn I’d hoped to cast a second spell, but Archeress “I” had a greater DX and went first in the attack face. She hit and did five points of damage! That combined with with the two points I’d spent on the wolf was enough to put me in the -3 to DX zone. The death spiral was rearing its ugly head yet again!

Meanwhile, on the other end of the arena, Knife Girl II got cut down by Rapier Dandy. My wolf bit back and finished off Rapier Dandy. My wolf then flanked Archeress “I” while Belboz played the dodge option. Archeress “I” needed a 12 or less to hit with her bow, and she let fly… mercilessly killing Belbox. The wolf illusion then promptly disappeared, ending the game. Ah, if I could have survived that one attack, the Archeress would have had to change weapons and attack the wolf with her shortsword. Doh!

The moral of the story here is that a good archer has MANY advantages over a wizard character– namely, that archers can make ranged attacks without having to spend strength to do it!

Not quite the outcome I expected. On the other hand, we both immediately began discussing tactics for working around this problem and what we would do differently the next time we played– the hallmark of solid game design! And there will be a next time, too. These games are just too danged charming not to play obsessively!

Besides, Archeress “I” went up a level in DX after that third game and is itching to do it again!

Melee for Real

Such a small box, but there’s so much game inside!

You can play it as a “design-a-thing” game where you spend five or ten minutes figuring out how to destroy your friend’s continuing character in a campaign of endless arena duels.

But you can also cut out the min/maxing element entirely by dealing several of of the fighter cards to each player and seeing what happens. How do you make these unoptimized figures work together as a team in order to crush the spirit of your opponent? It’s not immediately obvious! The range of options each turn are tremendous!

Pole weapon users really do get a great deal of attention in these rules– and do note that a few nuggets from Advanced Melee are folded into the third edition rule set here. The new tactics won’t necessarily be familiar to fans of the original microgame!

Charging a dude with a pole arm is suicidal. Letting yourself get charged by a dude with a pole weapon is also suicidal. That first contact is liable to hurt, but once engaged… you have options. He can’t hit people in adjacent hexes at all! If you have a line a men engaged with his crew… look for ways to shift your figures out of that pole weapon’s reach. Or even better… have two figures engage one of his on two sides… and then have your pole weapons dude hang back jab.

(This is something that is a huge part of classic old school D&D combat. Dungeon Masters the world over hand-wave the effects of pole weapons EVERY DAY. Having rules both coherent and playable for it is really weird. And having rules from 1980 get the job done is even weirder!)

This is just one small piece of the game, too. Coordinating the pole weapon guys with grapplers, missile weapons dudes, straight ahead skull bashers, and wizards is a whole ‘nother thing. It’s an insanely rich tactical environment with a tremendous number of permutations. The figures have scads of personality. And burning a turn to convert from pole arm to sword or sword to knife is well worth the sacrifice if the tactical context dictates it. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen in the old school rules that precede The Fantasy Trip.

But is it playable at the scale in which fantasy games tend to focus on…? New school games where there are a small number of special snowflake super hero types on each side? Yeah, probably. Old school games where the players are liable to have multiple hirelings and henchmen backing them up…? Ah, you might start to have problems there!

There are a couple of things you can do to keep it from bogging down, though:

  • In larger two player battles, make sure all the counters you use for each side are of the same color.
  • Use the erasable fighter cards (and/or the small paper record sheets) and arrange all of the characters in adjDex order next to the game board.
  • Steal colored cubes from a euro game to mark characters that have the -2 DX penalty for the next attack only and/or the -3 XD penalty for being at ST 3 or less.
  • Have one side be made up of identical units and possibly mark them with cubes based on what type of weapon they have ready.

Nothing in Melee happens simultaneously! The sequence of play for the combat round is unambiguous and detailed. It can slow things down if you have a brain burning life choice to make for each of eight or more figures every single combat round. But that’s the price you pay for being able to do something besides just rolling a d20 and dying!

Amazon Women, Pulp Fantasy, and Old School Game Mastering Advice in The Fantasy Trip

The year was 1980 and Steve Jackson’s first complete role-playing game design hit the market. A pivotal time in gaming to be sure!

Sign of the times: there are no amateurish drawings of naked women in the pages of this module. But take heart! This game nevertheless has its foot firmly planted in the staggeringly awesome days of gaming’s primordial past. A scantily clad Amazon chick not only appears on the cover but also as an explicit option for unironic play:

AMAZON: The beautiful, dangerous female warrior. She probably has high DX and wears little armor. Talents
include Sex Appeal, Unarmed Combat, Bow, and Thrown Weapons — plus several other weapon talents.

Nice!

If you shelled out big bucks for the recent monster-sized Kickstarter edition of this game, don’t bother to look for this. This was evidently expurgated for being way too spicy for the high strung pearl-clutching gamers of today. (Fortunately for us pulp fantasy fans, Tarzan remains in the archetype list for the Woodsman “class”– though the name was character type was updated to “Ranger”.)

One surprising bit that was left 100% intact, however, is this choice bit from the game’s background setting of Cidri:

This enormous polyglot world was chosen as a background for two very good and totally opposite reasons. The first is variety. Cidri is big enough to hold thousands of Earths; it has room for the world of every Game Master who’ll ever put pencil to hex-paper. There’s room here for every sort of fantasy adventure to coexist — in a logical manner. And it provides a workable rationale for the weird melange of legend, historical fact, prehistory, science fiction, and sheer wild imagination that characterizes the work of the best fantasy gamers.

What an astonishing line there!

Granted, anyone that is familiar with role-playing games of the 1970’s could see why Steve Jackson would say such a thing. And Cidri is truly a bizarre game setting. It’s like Philip José Farmer’s World of Tiers series mashed up with Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. It’s like a weird inversion of the default setting of the much later Steve Jackon  release of GURPS Fourth Edition– instead of “Infinite Worlds” it’s Infinite World!

Rough sketch for the cover of the Melee MicroGame? A stray illustration from the 1980 edition of In the Labyrinth? No on both counts! It’s a picture of Dejah Thoris by Frank Frazetta!

But look at that sentence again. It is very much like how I have (on many occasions) attempted to describe the best work of A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett to a generation that is almost entirely unfamiliar with the pulp era. And here Steve Jackson in 1980 casually declares the work of the best fantasy gamers to be JUST LIKE THAT. He had no idea that there was about to be a sea change in how people even conceived fantasy to even work!

Incredible. The intrinsically weird/pulpy foundations of fantasy gaming confirmed!

But wait, there’s more treasures to unearth in this old game!

In Steve Perrin’s review of it from the April/May 1980 issue of Different Worlds, he says this: “Perhaps the best part of the book is a column by publisher Howard Thompson, describing the story-telling requirements of being a GM. Truer words were never spoken.” Story-telling? Sounds potentially heretical to me! Too bad purchasers of the new edition will not have the benefit of this awesomely TRUE gaming wisdom from the dawn of the hobby. Steve Jackson deleted it for some reason!

But don’t worry. I have the text right here:

NOTES ON SUCCESSFUL GAME-MASTERING

Most of you will eventually want to design your own labyrinths and take a turn at being Game Master. A fantasy role playing game is certainly more enjoyable when you can provide fun and adventure for your friends. In our experience, there is one philosophy of game-mastering that consistently leads to success. That is this: A GM is a solo entertainer of an unusual new variety. He is a writer, performer, and group facilitator rolled into one. Players participate in an adventure campaign for entertainment — not to let the GM be a petty god and manipulate their characters at will. It takes practice, attention, and sensitivity to lead a group through an adventure and leave them feeling good (win or lose) when it’s over. Thinking of yourself as a semi-professional entertainer like a bard or other
small-group yarn-spinner will help.

Don’t try to control the action or predetermine specific outcomes for everything. Your labyrinth and its supporting environment must be flexible enough to evolve as a result of the players’ actions, be they successes or failures. There must be room for players to build, destroy, live and die as they choose. This doesn’t mean that things should be easy. Player characters will get killed — fairly regularly, for the careless or headstrong. As a GM, you must be firm – but not so attached to your creation that it doesn’t also become something of the players’.

You needn’t bully your players or allow them to intimidate you. There will be points of disagreement during play, of course – but the best way to handle them is to postpone any
real discussion until a “critique” period after the game session. Players should feel free to ask questions or make comments about the GM’s actions, but it shouldn’t go farther than a few brief comments while play is going on. If you goof, and a player catches it immediately, you ought to fix it then and there IF you can do it without breaking the “feel” of the adventure. The ability to do this is a mark of the experienced GM. Real disagreements should always be discussed AFTER an adventure, in preparation for the next. You can stand by your actions and refuse to discuss them — but to the detriment of your campaign.

Remember – you are an entertainer. The adventure unfolding is your “act.” Nurture the story, let it build, involve players in the action. Within the framework you’ve constructed, let events happen as they will. What you and your players will create is a spontaneous experience that can be a rewarding entertainment “high.”

— Howard Thompson

This is solid, straight ahead advice. If all you had were a bunch of fantasy game materials from the seventies you’d probably hit on this eventually. The Hickman Revolution was a not even a glimmer in anyone’s eye at this point, of course. And Steve Jackson’s own particular brand of role-playing philosophy (which would fully flower in the mid-eighties with GURPS) was not yet in evidence in any of The Fantasy Trip’s material.

Of course the approach to role-playing that would become dominant in this century in the aftermath of TSR’s demise was even further off. Which is intriguing. One thing that sets The Fantasy Trip apart from original D&D that it has in common with D&D 3.5 is the hyper-regulated combat and movement system.

Here is Steve Jackson’s own rationale for why he developed it from his designer’s notes in The Space Gamer 29, July 1980:

It started in early 1977. I had just found out, much to my surprise, that I could design games… people were buying Ogre, But the game that I was playing a lot of myself was Dungeons & Dragons. And like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating– but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement– you just rolled dice and died. T&T was the same way. Monsters! Monsters! was more detailed in some ways, but still allowed no tactics. So I did something about it.

Amazons from the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons and 4th Edition Tunnels & Trolls. If your game doesn’t have them, it sucks!

Indeed he did. Steve Jackson would end up making two of the greatest microgames in history, which is pretty cool given that he’d already created the definitive microgame with his debut game design.

Steve Jackson is far from being the only person that could look at the first two role-playing games and declare the combat system to be completely broken. Of course at the time he wrote that, we were decades away from anyone being able to provide a cogent argument for why the nature of those early systems were a feature, not a bug. But given everything we’ve seen in five decades of role-playing at the tabletop, we have to ask. Is a hyper-regulated combat system intrinsically bad for rpgs? Is that the root cause that made D&D 3.5’s completely linear “everybody wins nobody dies” adventures the gaming travesty that it is…?

It’s a reasonable question, really. After all, the Melee/Wizard adventure “The Lost Lair” published in The Dungeoneer 11 in 1979 did not embody the design principles outlined in Jaquaying the Dungeon even though it was created by the person whose name would become synonymous with the idea.

The seeds of destruction really are there, perhaps. But given Howard Thompson’s spot on game mastering advice included in the original edition of In the Labyrinth, I have to say…. It doesn’t have to be that way!

The Wisdom of Tunnels & Trolls

One of the big changes in the new edition of The Fantasy Trip is that Steve Jackson has recanted on the old rule that IQ provided a harsh upper limit on the total number of spells and/or talents a character could have. The reason is… under the old advancement system there comes a point where attributes get ridiculously and pointlessly high. So Steve’s solution is to have players buy attributes early on in their adventuring careers… and then at some point switch over to buying more talents and spells when the usual method of advancement becomes cost prohibitive.

I like the idea, mostly because I’ve long been hung up on the old first edition AD&D Fighter/Magic-user multi-class ever since I saw it. A great idea, but a clunky implementation to be sure. The idea of slower advancement is preserved here under the new rules here for The Fantasy Trip: non-wizard characters are going to pay triple the experience points for each new spell they acquire!

But of course, Steve isn’t channeling the more baroque elements of the biggest fantasy gaming franchise on the planet. No, he’s merely rolling back to a key element of The Fantasy Trip’s predecessor, Tunnels & Trolls!

See, the justifiably infamous Ken St. Andre had this hilariously brilliant “Rogue” class. This one was not like any of the Rogues in more ubiquitous games of today. It was an offbeat first-class treatment of the fighter/magic-user hybrid. Rogues didn’t have double armor ability of the warriors, though they could still use any weapon that they had the strength attribute for. (Shades of GURPS and The Fantasy Trip!) They could cast spells like a wizard, but didn’t get the strength cost break that wizards got from magic staffs and from casting spells at lower spell levels than their character levels.

And note again… because Tunnels & Trolls had Constitution be a distinct stat from Strength when determined the energy reserve, T&T avoided the “Conan the Wizard” problem that The Fantasy Trip accrued to itself due to its overly elegant design framework! Problem solved way before GURPS even came close to being on the drawing board!

The real genius of Tunnels & Trolls lies not just in its development of the ultimate fighter/magic-user combo. It’s that additional spells were doled out in that game in exchange for gold, not experience points. Wizards pay a flat rate to the guild, of course. But Rogues have to learn from other player character wizards. And they have to pay whatever amount those players are asking!

This is awesome. Not only does it inject a healthy amount of old school “XP for Gold” into T&T’s gameplay, but it also keeps the wizard players out in front of the rogues when it comes to spells. Not only are rogues limited to selecting from the spells the wizards have already purchased, but wizards can also relieve the rogues of all their spare cash… and then turn it over to the guild for even more spells!

This is particularly brilliant because the stupid stuff players do to min/max character generation and advancement is always inferior to the hi-jinx that ensures when the players start playing off of each other.

Score another one for Ken St. Andre, y’all!

Melee: Killing JON of the ISLES

It didn’t add up.

I mean I knew that an ST 12/DX 12 character would have an significant advantage in Steve Jackson’s classic Melee microgame. This is just one of those iconic artifacts of gaming legend– right up there with stats for the original G.E.V. counters having to be revised due to actual players doing stuff with them that the playtesters never imagined.

But it was too much. “JON of the ISLES” was way too awesome. He cut down hulking crossbowmen and nimble swashbucklers with ease. Soon the body count was up to seven; his ST pumped up to 13 and his DX at 14 via the oft-lamented experience system… the guy pretty much couldn’t miss. It was awful.

But more was at stake here than everyone else’s chances at nabbing a prized continuing character and bragging rights over the week’s lunchtime game sessions. The natives were restless, frustrated. Rather than seeing a challenge worth rising to, they saw a pointlessly insurmountable obstacle. “Your game’s broken,” they told me. Sour grapes to be sure! But also fighting words. They’re talking about one of the greatest designers in history. Nobody’s going to besmirch the legacy of Steve on my watch. Not going to happen!

So I made my challenge and spent ten minutes carefully perusing the rule book. There had to be a way! And there was.

JON of the ISLES was played by someone that had neglected to mine the equipment list for every conceivable advantage. This wasn’t much, but it was enough to counterbalance those additional ST and DX points that looked so unbeatable. The biggest problem that I could see was the guy didn’t have a backup weapon. Maybe there would be a way to punish him for that?

Ah, yes there was…! The hand-to-hand rules say that if I can move onto his hex, he has a very good chance of dropping his weapon. I started to work up a dagger-wielding figure just for this purpose, but then I looked again. Yeah, if I move into JON’s front hex I would have to stop. And then once engaged, I could take the “Attempt HTH Attack” option. But… it’s not that easy. There are only a few very narrow circumstances where this is allowed, having a higher Movement Allowance being chief among them. And the stats just weren’t there for that.

But there was a way that it could be pulled off. Not a surefire method… but a solid chance. Spears do less damage than broadswords. But… being much longer, they have the capacity to short-circuit JON’s dexterity advantage. I’ll have a chance to seize the initiative with that! But there was more…. A character that takes 8 or more hits in a turn immediately falls down. And prone figures can always be engaged in hand-to-hand. A spear’s 1d+1 damage was never going to pull that off, but if I could lure JON into charging me or else allowing me to charge him, I’d have a better than even chance to knock him down!

The day of the battle arrived. I was allowed to my one charge in. (An unforced error!) I then got just enough damage to knock him down. I won the initiative for the movement phase and moved into HTH range. We both dropped our weapons in the hex. I got lucky with a HTH attack and did another 2 hits of damage with a punch, putting him beyond the -3 to all attacks threshold. He was stronger than me and could conceivably hurt me in a HTH scenario… but not after the deathspiral was in motion!

At this point JON’s player did not feel he could retreat. He didn’t have a backup weapon and didn’t want me to pick up the spear and use it to finish him off. So he stayed to trade punches and was finished off with a flurry of 1-point hits.

(For what it’s worth, I will say that my chest-beating at this point wasn’t too obnoxious.)

Now… does this mean that the game is broken in just a slightly different way than we first imagined? No it doesn’t!

The spear charge / hand-to-hand combo can be countered in two ways. First… you can merely close to a distance of two hexes and accept a spear jab there the turn before you engage. Maybe not ideal, but hey… you gotta give spear carriers their due!

And though this auto-knockdown seems out of control (especially combined with 2-in-3 chance of a defender dropping their weapon in HTH combat), also note that armor makes it MUCH less likely that you’re going to get knocked down. It takes 8 hits of injury to trigger the auto-fall, and plate armor pretty well ensures that that’s never going to happen, even if you charge a spear carrier!

So there you go. There’s definitely more to this game than closing to melee range and taking turns wailing on each other until somebody goes down. Dagger-toting goblins with MA 12 are going to be a real problem under these rules. And if you’re used to fighting naked like the Irish did back in the day, you’ve got good reason to rethink that here. The penalty to adjDEX is harsh, but getting knocked down is even harsher!

(And do note if you’re irked by the dweebie wizards hauling around new school staffs to power their spells… lobby your opponent to let you combine Wizard with Melee, cast Summon Wolf and get up in his grill. You’ve got a better than even chance of making him drop the darned thing!)

Anyway, the integrity of my game is preserved. The greatness of 70’s Steve is demonstrated yet again. Granted, you can develop the nuggets of these rules into something with more nuance and granularity. (See GURPS.) But you cannot beat Melee for either elegance or excitement.

It’s a thing of beauty!

I am saddled with being accused of staying up all night analyzing a pitifully small 24 page rules pamphlet, sure… but I can live with that!

Long live Melee™!