The Fantasy Trip (TFT)

Copyright Steve Jackson, 1980. Published by Metagaming.

Advanced Melee Advanced Wizard In the Labyrinth

Advanced Melee. 32 pages, 8 1/2" by 11", saddle stapled.

Advanced Wizard. 40 pages, 8 1/2" by 11", saddle stapled.

In the Labyrinth Game Master's Module. 80 pages, 8 1/2" by 11", saddle stapled.

Supporting products in the collection:

Death Test, MicroQuest 1. Steve Jackson, 1978.
Security Station, MicroQuest 5. Designed by John W. Colbert, 1980.
Master of the Amulets, MicroQuest 7. Designed by Mike Monastero, 1981.
Tollenkar's Lair Adventure Supplement. Steve Jackson, 1980.
Fantasy Masters' Screen. 1981.

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Metagaming was a small game company in Austin, Texas that pioneered the concept of the microgame: small, inexpensive wargames that were fast and easy to play. Like many wargame companies, Metagaming created its own role playing game, called The Fantasy Trip (TFT). TFT started as a pair of stand-alone microgames: Melee and Wizard, released in 1977 and 1978, respectively.

Melee and Wizard were the basic combat and magic systems of The Fantasy Trip. In their simple forms, they allowed players to conduct small arena-type combats. Each was a stand-alone game, with a hex-grid map and cardboard counters.

Melee Cover

Melee: Metagaming Microgame #3

Published by Metagaming. Copyright Steve Jackson, 1977.
Illustrated by Liz Danforth.

17-page booklet, about 4" by 8", with a 8 1/2" by 14" hex map and counters.

Melee, MicroGame 3 was published in 1977. It was designed as a simple stand alone figure to figure combat game, and served as the combat system for The Fantasy Trip. Melee handled basic medieval weapons and armor. Like its predecessor microgames, it was easy to learn, quick to play, and a lot of fun.

Character Creation was simple. Figures started with a strength (ST) of 8, a dexterity (DX) of 8, and 8 extra points to be divided between those two. Movement rate (MA) was ten hexes on the hex-grid board.

Strength governed the size of the weapon the character could wield, and served as hit points. Dexterity governed when a character attacked, and the to-hit number—players had to roll their dexterity or less on 3d6 to hit. Damage was entirely based on the weapon used. In general, the more strength you needed to use the weapon, the more damage it did. There were critical rolls: a roll of five or less was an automatic hit, with a roll of four doing double damage, and a roll of three doing triple damage. A roll of sixteen or more was an automatic miss, with a seventeen indicating the figure dropped his weapon, and a roll of eighteen meant the figure broke his weapon.

Thrown weapons used the same system, with -1 to dexterity for each hex of distance. Missile weapons had range penalties based on megahexes: seven hexes organized into a larger hex. Polearms did double damage when the user charged or received a charge.

Armor subtracted damage, and reduced the wearer's dexterity and movement allowance.

The rules covered most basic situations: shifting positions, lying prone, going hand to hand, shield rushes, accidentally hitting one's friends. Melee even listed a few non-human foes. There were conventional animals (wolves and bears), monsters (giants, gargoyles, orcs), and non-humans (elves, dwarves, halflings).

Characters earned experience by killing foes (of course), fifty points for defeating an equivalent opponent. For every hundred experience points, the figure could raise an attribute by one point.

Wizard Cover

Wizard: Metagaming Microgame #6

Published by Metagaming. Copyright Steve Jackson, 1978
Illustrated by Clark Bradley.

32-page booklet, about 4" by 8", with a 12" by 14" hex map and counters.

Wizard was sold as another stand-alone game. Character creation was identical to Melee's, except that it added a new attribute: Intelligence (IQ). Characters now started with ST = 8, DX = 8, IQ = 8, and eight extra points to assign. A wizard could know as many different spells as her IQ score, and the spell lists were IQ-based: the higher one's IQ, the more powerful spells that character could know.

Spell casting followed essentially the same rules as Melee: one had to roll one's DX or less on 3 dice for the spell to work, and the spell's casting cost was deducted from the wizard's ST score. A failed spell meant losing 1 ST anyway. Wizard used the same critical values as Melee. Critical hits meant more effective spells (tripled or doubled effects), while critical misses meant the wizard paid the full ST for failed spells (and a roll of 18 meant the wizard fell down).

Spells were classified into four kinds: missile, thrown, creation, and special. Missile spells created magical missiles that did damage, while thrown spells had other effects, such as reducing the target's DX or IQ. Missile and thrown spells required the wizard to roll to hit as his casting roll, using the missile or thrown weapon rules to see if the spell struck the target. Creation spells either summoned creatures (wolves, bears, dragons) or substances (fire, darkness), or illusions of the same. Illusions were classified as images (which looked just like what they imitated, but couldn't touch anything) or illusions (which had reality until they were disbelieved). Illusions cost less ST than actual summonings, and images were cheaper yet. To disbelieve meant taking no action except for trying to roll below one's IQ on three dice.

As stand alone games, Melee and Wizard worked very well. As mentioned above, they were easy to learn and play, fast, and lots of fun. There were enough play options that games rarely felt stale, and enterprising players could create terrain, unbalanced combat situations, or even try limited simulations, such as a batch of Roman soldiers in a small formation facing down German or Celtic heroes. The games did not require a referee (unless a wizard was using invisibility spells), so everybody could play and have fun.

The games had limits. One on one battles tended to fall into simple patterns. For warriors in Melee, a ST 12, DX 12 figure armed with broadsword and shield usually beat any other set of options. For wizards, we found that direct missile attacks were more likely to defeat a foe than more subtle magics. We also felt using ST to serve as both magic fatigue and damage made wizardly duels feel more like a boxing match, with exhausted sluggers trying to keep standing as they wore their opponent down. In spite of this, the games were quite popular as a stand-alone combat and magic system.

The Fantasy Trip

Cover of TFT

The full version of TFT was published in 1980 as three books: Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In the Labyrinth: Game Masters' Campaign and Adventure Guide.

Setting

The setting of TFT was very sparse. The Mnoren family had a genetic mutation that allowed them to travel to alternate Earths, and with this power they were able to somehow build the world of Cidri, and import anything their hearts desired. Over a few generations, the Mnoren went from emperors to jaded, bored observers, and they eventually disappeared, although they might be somewhere, watching. Steve Jackson told us Cidri was very large, but otherwise, the world was left undetailed. Cidri was not so much a setting as a blank canvas for gamemasters to build whatever they wanted.

Despite the presence of primitive black powder weapons (see Advanced Melee, below) and the possibility of advanced technology, the game was clearly meant to occupy the same niche as Dungeons & Dragons, with pseudo-medieval technology and underground explorations as the norm.

Character Generation

Characters were created as described in Wizard: ST 8, DX 8, IQ 8, and eight points to divide among those attributes. Movement rates were set at ten hexes. In The Labyrinth added further embellishments. Every starting character had as many development points as her IQ score, and these were used to purchase spells, talents, and languages.

Wizards and warriors could be considered character classes, even in this skill-based system. Wizards paid double the costs to acquire a talent, and warriors paid three IQ points to learn each spell, and were unable to cast spells from scrolls or books.

Talents would be called "skills" in most games. Like spells, they were classified by the minimum IQ needed to learn them (ranging from seven to fourteen). Talents cost one to three IQ points to choose. Unlike the microgames, a TFT character needed to have the talent for a weapon to use it properly, or pay a -4 DX penalty on each attack. Other talents were typical for most RPGs: swimming, literacy, alertness, animal trainer, and so forth. Some talents had prerequisites: characters needed to have a lesser talent to select a higher one. There were a few talents that gave a character extra abilities in combat: shrugging off damage due to innate toughness, or having an easier time rolling a critical hit due to extra skill. There were a series of unarmed combat skills which made their possessors very difficult to hit, and while their barehanded attacks caused little damage, they could knock opponents down.

Unlike similar RPGs, clerics and thieves were not separate character classes, but talents for a character to have. Priests did not have the ability to turn undead or cast healing spells; the rules simply said they were religious leaders, although they suggest prayers might affect die rolls once in a while. Characters with the thief talent could try to pick locks or pockets by rolling against DX.

Experience

The Fantasy Trip expanded on the original microgame experience rules. Characters earned an experience point for every point of damage done to a foe, one point for every point of strength expended in spellcasting, a few points for succeeding on a difficult die roll, and five points per character for every hour of real time spent in play. As in the microgames, experience points were spent on raising attributes only. For low powered characters (thirty six points for combined attributes), 125 points would permit a one point rise. As characters grew more powerful, the cost for an increase climbed dramatically: 1000 points once one's attributes summed to more than 40, and so on. Larger and more powerful creatures than humans had even higher costs.

Characters could learn new talents by studying them for at least three months of game time. Once that character's IQ score was raised by experience, then a studied ability was obtained.

Other details

TFT provided the basics of how a referee could lay out and stock a labyrinth and some sparse information on outdoor adventuring. Surprising for such an undetailed setting, TFT expected characters to obtain regular jobs and pay living expenses out of their wages. The employment table had a short list of professions, along with the prerequisites to be hired, the weekly salary, and the risk. Once a week, players rolled 3 dice and checked the result. A very low result meant earning enough experience to raise an attribute, while a high result meant the player had to roll three dice against their highest attribute. A failure here meant four dice of damage, which could easily be fatal.

Other setting information included basic legal information (although only giving a few examples of laws, which would vary by locality in any case) and how to roll for the trial if characters were caught breaking the laws. States on Cidri generally permitted duels as a means to settle arguments, too. There were guilds, including those for wizards, thieves, mechanicians, scholars, and mercenaries. TFT was unusual for including real-world religions as part of its background (Christianity and Islam), along with a couple of otherwise undistinguished fantasy religions.

There was a fairly short list creature list in TFT. The common, expected creatures were here: orcs, elves, centaurs, reptile men, gargoyles, dragons, etc. Unusual encounters included the octopus, a tough amphibious monster with multiple attacks; giant insect hymenopterans (borrowed from Microgame 2, Chitin I), blood trees (vampiric trees with spiny tendrils) and am-bushes (armed with exploding pods of poison gas), piranhakeets (flocks of small carniverous birds), and prootwaddles, which were stupid little humanoids. Jackson, probably indulging in a joke, listed "children" as a nuisance monster, as they mob around adventurers, asking constant questions.

The more powerful creatures were a disappointment. Dragons could be tough, especially the bigger ones, but they expended ST to breath fire, which fits the game mechanic but seems to diminish the beast a bit: why should its hit points be reduced by breathing fire? As for demons, in most games these are exemplars of designer creativity, but in TFT they were little more than tremendously strong giants with the ability to cast Wishes.

The book ended with a sample village (seven points of interest detailed) and a larger scale map with some sketchy details on the features there. There were blank character sheets and hex grids to photocopy, and the book's centerfold had a sample six-level dungeon (unstocked). The centerfold also had some megahex sections to photocopy and cut out for rooms to fight in.

More on combat and magic

The combat and magic systems had already been released as the separate microgames. Players could easily stick with the original Melee rules, but the Wizard rules needed some beefing up. New versions of these games were released for the full TFT package: Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard. These were complete replacements of the original microgames, sans board and counters, although there were some megahex patterns in a pull-out page in the middle of both books. Although both books used the same core mechanics as the earlier and cheaper microgames with only minor embellishments, both books carried a (unnecessary?) warning that players should start with the microgames first.

Advanced Melee added a lot more detail to combat that wasn't needed in the earlier release. There were new weapons from non-European cultures (such as boomerangs, blowguns, sha-kan throwing stars and naginata), new armor (cloth, half-plate, fine plate, spike shield), and some new combat options including "jab" attacks for polearms, which gave them more reach. Advanced Melee added black powder weapons and rules for flaming oil molotovs. There were optional rules for called shots, with a DX penalty but causing higher damage. Steve Jackson added two pages of simple rules for mounted combat, but he didn't expect players to use them much: "Underground jousting?...Hah." Recognizing that combat would dominate game time, Jackson added a quick combat system to speed things up for those who didn't want so much detail: players rolled a d6 for initiative, all figures on a side moved at once, and attacks were simultaneous.

Healing

Where the original Melee simulated short encounters, the larger role playing game needed a way for injured characters to recover for the next battle. Damage was healed by resting (one ST point every two days of rest), or by the services of someone with the Physicker skill (an IQ 11 skill). Physickers could heal two points of damage per wound, if they had a first aid kit. The Master Physicker (IQ 14 skill), could heal three points of damage per wound.

Advanced Wizard had more material to add to the game. There were rules for casting spells from books and enchanted scrolls, and for casting spells with and without accompanying gestures. There were new spells, of course: the original microgame only had spells up to IQ 16, but Advanced Wizard took spells up to IQ 20. New spells included demon-summoning, suspended animation, shape-shifting, creation of magical items, reanimation of corpses (zombies), raise the dead, and possession. The most powerful magic in Advanced Wizard was the wish, a generic spell that could create effects no other spell could, such as permanently raising an attribute, or undoing a bad die roll. Wishes were typically obtained by summoning a demon.

Wizards in role playing games traditionally have the option to do research, and The Fantasy Trip was no exception. There were rules for creating new spells, potions (which required a separate chemist or alchemist talent), and enchanting magic items. The game had an interesting rule called The Rule of Five: nobody could use more than five magic items at once (meaning, we suppose, that you couldn't carry more than five magic items with an intent to use), and no item could have more than five enchantments on it. There were lists of typical potions and magical items. As per most fantasy games, wizards needed to accumulate treasure (silver was the coin of the realm in The Fantasy Trip instead of gold) to be able to afford the cost of creating magic items.

There were plenty of options for creating magical items. Chemists (a talent from In the Labyrinth) created non-magical potions such as mundane poisons, or gunpowder, used for those black powder weapons from Advanced Melee. Alchemists (another talent) brewed up magical potions. Wizards used the Create Magic Item spell to bind standard spells into items. These might have a limited number of charges, or they might be permanent magical items.

Advanced Wizard added little in the way of curative powers. A Wish might heal all damage or repair a missing limb, but there were no spells to heal wounds, which would have come in very handy. Wizardly fatigue from spell casting was recovered quickly (1 ST for every fifteen minutes of rest), and required Wizard characters to track injury damage separately from fatigue damage.

 

Summary

For a game of its age and time out of print, TFT still has a lot of fans out there. We have fond memories of Melee and Wizard, and we would like to play them again. When we began updating this review, we found references to TFT all over the place: the game is gone, but is still missed. There are some very good websites to see. A good starting point is http://thefantasytrip.com/links.php. David O. Miller has a nicely done site at www.meleewizards.com/. From these, the reader can easily find other sites.

But while the boardgame versions of the combat and magic system were a lot of fun, the role playing part was lacking. First, the setting. Cidri was virtually a blank piece of paper, and the various supporting adventures did little to differentiate it from other settings. It had no hooks to attract players, no color, and no flare. While this can be overcome by strong characters, the simple character generation system, even with the addition of talents, meant cookie-cutter characters, and death meant little as a new character could easily duplicate a lost figure, albeit without the accumulated experience. There was little to distinguish one character from another: weapons and armor were largely determined by the character's ST and DX, so fighters might as well be clones. Wizards had somewhat more variety, but the comparatively small number of spells they could carry and the usefulness of missile spells meant that they, too, would be very similar to each other. Worse, with monsters using the same ST, DX, and special attack (magic, fire-breathing, etc.) system, the heroes even resembled their foes. There just wasn't that much to differentiate figures.

Without a strong setting or strong characters, TFT had little left but the combat and magic system, which meant the game would easily fall into little more than a series of combats. But with the low levels of healing available, a campaign based on repeated combat meant spending a lot of time laid up resting. Without rest, characters would die quickly, their ST gradually abraded away. Resting meant very slow games of cleaning out a room or two at a time, and going back to base to rest for a week or two to recover damage.

The combination of simplicity and flaws made TFT a tempting target for customization. In fact, even in the writing of this review, we find ourselves considering how to modify the system to make it more appealing. But this work is largely unnecessary, as Steve Jackson has already done it. TFT became GURPS.

GURPS retains many of TFTs basic ideas: the small number of simple statistics (ST, DX, IQ, and HT), letting the players build their characters by spending points, classifying weapons by how strong one must be to carry them, using a "roll under your stat on 3d6" system, etc. There have been some real changes, though. The plethora of character options (advantages, disadvantages, skills, quirks, etc.) make cookie-cutter characters a thing of the past. Damage from melee weapons is based on your ST, with the weapon modifying that damage. The attack roll is based on the skill with the weapon, which is based on character DX and the number of levels in the weapon skill. HT is a separate statistic to track damage. Combat involves both an attack roll and a defense roll. There are many other differences, too.

We have tried GURPS, and while we'd love to try it again, its complexity makes it far less appealing than TFT. Part of TFT's beauty was its simplicity, and the improvements made in GURPS buried that simplicity under a mound of options. That seems to be a central paradox of TFT: the simplicity that made it such fun also limited it as an RPG, and if Metagaming's demise hadn't doomed the game, it probably would have become GURPS or something like it, anyway.

 

A Personal Note from the Curator

I played Melee and Wizard a lot with my friends as stand-alone arena combats. We had a good time, but I wanted the game to be more. When TFT finally appeared, I wrote two adventures. The first is long gone, involving a dimension-hopping ship along the lines of Michael Moorcock's Sailor on the Seas of Fate book. The second was a castle called "The Tower of Negordyh." I've still got it. I've tried to play it twice, and neither group managed to get past the first three encounters, done in by the lack of magical healing and the large number of weak monsters in the first encounter. Still--I've got access to a gaming group that might enjoy an arena combat, and I've got three adventure modules published by Metagaming that can be run as solo games without much effort. If magical healing is the big problem, I can add in a healing spell, crank out a few characters, and do some dungeon crawling. Lemme grab some d6s...

—RAD

October 6, 2007

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