Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Strange Fascination: Melee, Wizard, and TFT

This post will ramble, you have been forewarned.

I am fascinated, possibly obsessed a bit, with Metagamings Fantasy Trip system.  There is a core clarity and simplicity to it that I want to enjoy.  At the same time there are so many tweaks and changes I have to it that I can't say its much more than a muse of a game to me really.  Yet that muse for some reason sings like Billie Holiday to me.  Why am I fascinated?  Well let's look at it where it started:

 In 1977 Metagaming published Melee and it was a mini arena combat board game.  The core of the system could be used to replace your RPG's combat system to make it more gritty and tactical.  Characters were rated by Strength, Dexterity, and Movement.  The player was given a point pool to divide amongst Strength and Dexterity, while movement was governed by race of the character. You rolled 3d6 trying to roll lower than your own Dexterity score to hit your foe.  Strength regulated what weapons you could use and also acted as your hit point total.  Armor absorbed damage from weapons which struck your character at the expense of  lowering your own Dexterity score and movement speed.

The original rules were all contained in about 17 pages and eventually with revisions went to 24 pages. The rules were contained in a 4x8 game box which also came with a hex map and counters.  Complete out the door for about $3 in 1977 (or roughly $11 in 2010).

Melee was a simple game to pick up and play. Characters were really easy to create and you could manage a couple of them in a fight easily.  As a tactical board game it was great fun and we did use it in our D&D games.  There were a few problems though that bothered us:  Why did weapons have Strength attribute limitations, but armor did not?  With a low strength I could only use daggers or other low damage weapons, but I could wear plate mail and pack a shield? Secondly, anyone wearing Plate mail and carrying a shield or large shield would make some weapons completely useless!  They would absorb all the damage that could possibly be done by some weapons like: Dagger, rapier, club, hammer, javelin, spear, Longbow, Horse bow, small bow, and sling.

In 1978 Metagaming released Wizard which added magic rules to the Melee game.  This also added a new attribute, Intelligence, into character generation and rules.  Intelligence score determined which spells you could learn and cast as well as your resistance to spells like Illusion or control.  Spells were not automatically cast, instead 3d6 were rolled and compared to the Dexterity of the caster. Successful casting was paid for as damage to the Strength of the caster.   Yes Magic casting caused physical damage to the caster!  You never forgot your spells, but you paid dearly for casting them!

Just like Melee, the combat was stylized as a wizard arena duel.  For the same $3 ($11 now) as Melee you got a 17 page rule book, that with revisions went to 24 and then 32 pages.  The 4x8 box contained a hex map and more counters.  The system linked up perfectly with Melee and could be used as a substitute for magic rules in your other Role Playing Games you might be playing.

While Melee was easy to add into our regular D&D game, no spell caster wanted to adopt Wizard rules over D&D rules. Looking at it now I like the way Wizard checked the power of wizard characters.  For a Wizard all 3 attributes were very important: Strength was necessary for absorbing spell cost, Dexterity was important to cast spells, Intelligence for determining what spells you could cast and as well as resisting some spells.  You did not have a dump stat (same as Melee) they all mattered.

While I like not automatically forgetting spells and having to roll for casting, no one liked spells damaging your wizard character.  They weaken themselves to the point where any knucklehead with a sling can take them out with a rock! Since they can't wear armor that's not a far fetched idea in this system.  Secondly as laid out you needed to build a Conan the Librarian wizard in order for them to survive as Strength was incredibly important for casting! This always seemed goofy to us.

Lastly advancement in both Melee and Wizard was done by increasing your attributes.  At some point your attributes made your success nearly guaranteed in combat ruining the fun and danger. 

Eventually these two simple little games would provide the core for what would become known as The Fantasy Trip (TFT). The TFT system consisted of three 8.5x11 books released in 1980 and each had a $5 MSRP ($14 today). Advanced Melee was 32 pages, Advanced Wizard was 40 pages, and In the Labyrinth was 80 pages.  To play you also needed to own both Melee and Wizard as well as the three TFT books.  TFT added advanced combat, spell casting, and full Role Playing to the Melee/ Wizard core rules. In TFT a full system of Talents (skills) was introduced and experience could be used to raise a Talent score, or more expensively and Attribute

Originally TFT was conceived of as a complete boxed set with map, counters, and an adventure (Tolenkar's Lair).  Jackson believed in the box set, and all work had been done, but Metagaming owner Howard Thompson disagreed believing a $20 boxed set ($56 today) would be far too expensive and the TFT became too complex.  So TFT would compete with D&D by undercutting it by being cheaper as well as simpler to understand and play.  A big boxed set was also counter to Thompson's established and successful Microgame sales model, so instead all the books were released individually at $5 each. 

TFT would, and still does, have its share of adherents. I wanted to like it, and was excited to see these games become a full blown RPG system! Sadly the weaknesses I saw in the core games seemed to become more magnified in the full system.  Secondly TFT was a pain in the ass to purchase or to try an explain to someone what to purchase to play.  You had to buy and own: Melee, Wizard, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In the Labyrinth to play the damn system!  Three of the books matched in size (8.5x11) and presentation (Adv. Melee, Adv. Wizard, ITL) but Wizard and Melee did not! They could not be merchandised together due to their variant sizes which further caused problems.  This awkwardness of presentation certainly seems like a strike against the game and trying to purchase 5 different books/ games to play seems to me needlessly complex for a game and system that strived to be a playable, inexpensive, and simple game.

Eventually Steve Jackson split off and formed his own company, and Thompson retained the rights to the TFT system.  Thompson felt TFT became too complex for its own good.  The simplicity established by Melee and Wizard became buried under TFT's advanced rules. To that end Thompson created a new TFT compatible boxed set entitled Dragons of Underearth in 1981. In 16 pages this game condensed Melee/ Wizard and a few bits of TFT (talents/skills) into one book. This was a digest sized box set/ book which came with a map and counters.  I am unsure of the original retail but I assume it was $5 ($14 today).  This stripped the TFT system back to a Melee/ Wizard level of simplicity and with that, stripped it back to more of a tactical board game with RPG flavor.  Reading it now, besides just trying to strip Jackson out of the system completely, it was a true TFT basic set.  Unfortunately in the drive to simplify, it also left out a lot of what I would consider necessary explanations. As written, the rules lead a prospective player into confusion and a sense of incompleteness.  Another 12 to 16 pages of explanation, details, and potential RPG application could have made this into a little gem of a basic set.  As is, the set feels like a half arsed attempt at overkill system simplification done with a mega dose of spite.  That's a bad brew.

Jackson went on to create GURPS, Metagaming crashed in April of 1983, and publishing/ production for the system died a swift death.  It is rumored Thompson was seeking $250k for the rights to TFT but no one ever paid, and Thompson (and TFT) disappeared.

Currently, Dark City Games is publishing programmed adventures compatible with the basics of the TFT system.  In addition their version of the rules are available as a free download.   Their adventures cover fantasy, wild west, and sci-fi-are taking TFT far beyond its original scope.   Full disclosure, I have an adventure published by DCG, but I make no revenue from its sales by choice.

For years I had hope they would flesh out and create a complete RPG game, but the fine folks at DCG seem content to focus on publishing adventures and leaving the rules as a free download to support module purchases.  I spoke with the owners actively for about a year regarding a full RPG while I worked on my module, but it became clear they were not going to do it.  Hopefully that will change someday.

So all of that to get to why do I like the system? As stated earlier, their are many things I do not like, but the core elements are very good. I like the simplicity of the 3d6 system and the bell curve averages inherent in the workings of the system.  I like the simplicity of a few core attributes and leaving things like "charisma" to game play and character/ NPC interactions in game.  I like wizards having to compete like warriors in combat with dice rolls to cast spells and not being sure if the spell will be successful or not rather than the automatic success/ target resistance model of D&D.  I like the combat always being perilous rather than the deadly to dismissive path of D&D.  I think the programmed adventure model is interesting but I'd rather create see a series of adventure opportunity/ battle scenes ala Orc Slayer for the GURPS pre-cursor Man to Man rather than the choose your adventure hooks of the original.

Note I recently (11/19/12) released an RPG that is a "basic set" inspired by Melee/Wizard/TFT. Check it out at Heroes & Other Worlds.

Hope you come along for the ride!
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