Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Iliad, The Odyssey, Beowulf...and Melee/Wizard?!

That's three of my all time favorite books!  Look at that art from the new signet classics releases, I had to buy all 3 (again to my wife's dismay) JUST because the art is THAT COOL.  Especially the cover of BEOWULF-if that does not say SWORD & SHIELD brother you aren't looking (or reading) closely enough!

...and back in '78 Glenn L. Williams converted some of their biggest scenes into Melee/Wizard scenarios!  Below is the article from Space Gamer #16 so break out your hex maps and counters and let me tell you of the days of HIGH ADVENTURE!


by Glenn L. Williams
Fantasy has always been an important part of man's culture and literature - from Homer's epics, through the British scops, to our contemporary sword and sorcery authors. These great fantasies almost always have as a central theme some form of personal combat, whether physical, magical or both. With the microgames MELEE and WIZARD, these battles of literary fantasy can be recreated. I have chosen three epics: BEOWULF, with its three battles; the ILIAD's final duel between Achilles and Hector; and the ODYSSEY, in a solotaire version of the cave fight between Odysseus and the cyclops, Polyphemos.


BEOWULF, the earliest English epic, concerns the career of a singular, boastful Geat warrior who becomes a king. His career was marked by three great personal battles, recreated below. There was little magic or divine intervention in these battles , which, although they have an aura of the supernatural, were solely on a physical level. 

The first battle (with the giant monster Grendel) took place at night in a mead hall in Denmark. Grendel's nightly raids had devastated the kingdom for twelve years, and Beowulf, an outsider from southern Sweden, vowed to destroy the monster. The action took place between Grendel and Beowulf at night amid the corpses of the hero's slaughtered friends. The Melee board serves well as the mead hall, Herot. The entrance hexes are the doorways. Select twelve warrior counters, one will be Beowulf, the rest his friends. Randomly place them face down around the edge of the Melee board Al l figures are lying down, all are unarmed and unarmored, and all but Beowulf are asleep. The ST and DX of the warriors are 12, IQ 8. Beowulf is ST 14, DX 14, and IQ 12. For Grendel use the WIZARD giant counter (not the cyclops, we'll use him later). For our purposes Grendel is simply an unarmed giant with the characteristics from WIZARD: ST 30, DX 9, IQ 8, and MA 10. 

Grendel enters through any doorway hex. He may attack one sleeping Geat per turn, doing triple damage (remember, all hexes are rear hexes, so his adjDX is 13). On each turn beginning with the first, roll a six-sided die. On a one, the Geats awaken. On the second turn, roll again, the Geats awaken on a one or two, and so on until the fifth turn when they will automatically awaken. When the Geats are awakened, roll against IQ for each. Failure to make the roll means the individual warrior panics and flees through the nearest door. Since Beowulf is not asleep, he does not panic. A warrior who has fled will not return. 

When Grendel attacks Beowulf, he automatically misses and the hero automatically strikes at triple damage. Essentially this scenario is an ambush, and the monster was not expecting the sudden twist his wrist took when the hero grabbed him. From that point, combat is hand to hand, and on all ensuing turns the monster fights at DX 7 as he is literally scared of dying. For each time Beowulf inflicts four or more points damage, roll a six-sided die: on a one or two the hero has ripped the monster's good right arm from its socket and the poor beastie is a permanent southpaw. Once Grendel has lost his arm, he must attempt to disengage and flee every turn. The monster is extraordinarily strong against an unarmed, unarmored opponent, therefore, Beowulf needs the advantages given. After playing this scenario a few times see how calmly you go to sleep. Think back to your childhood, maybe there was a good reason to be afraid of the dark! 

Beowulf's other two battles are treated similarly. The second battle took place in a hall sunken below the surface of a lake. Use the Melee board. The fight was the day after the first battle against Grendel's vengeful mother, the hag (ST 13, DX 13, MA 10). She has a stone flesh spell for the duration of the game. Her hands are claws and are the equivalent of daggers. Beowulf has the same characteristics as before, but is armed with a broadsword and equipped with chainmail. The first hit on the hag with an ordinary weapon shatters it, and reduces the damage inflicted by half. On one side of the hall, near the center, are three swords hanging on the wall. Two are ordinary, one is magical and completely nullifies the stone flesh and shatter-weapon protection spells of the hag. Beowulf may not attempt to get a new weapon until his old weapon breaks. The two combatants begin in an entrance hex in hand to hand combat I If you have an unnatural desire to kill heroes, the hag had some attendant monsters who help drag Beowulf into the hall. Add two small monsters (from the MELEE countermix): ST 6, DX 12, MA 6, hands do ½ die damage in hand-to-hand combat only. In this case begin as before, except that Beowulf is engaged by the two monsters. Place the hag in the center of the board. Since these are monsters with sharp claws, treat Beowulf's chainmail as if it were a creature with its own ST of 15. Each hit the armor absorbs reduces its ST by 1, thus the little fellows can't get at Beowulf, but they can rip his bright mail to shreds. The hag cannot engage Beowulf until the monsters have disengaged him or have died (their battle rage is such that they cannot distinguish friend from foe). 

The final battle was between Beowulf as an aged king and a small dragon which had infested his kingdom. Beowulf's ST and DX are reduced to 13, and he is equipped with chainmail, a large shield, a broadsword and dagger. He sought the dragon in the company of twelve of his warriors, all of whom save one, deserted immediately. The one warrior who stood by his ring-giving lord was a kinsman, Wiglaf, whose characteristics and equipment are the same as Beowulf's. In the epic, he vacillated before joining the battle, so he may only enter on a roll of one or two. If Beowulf is killed, Wiglaf will attempt to avenge his death and attack that turn. Use the WIZARD board. The dragon and the warriors enter from opposing sides (the battle was fought at the base of the dragon 's tower, so his entrance hexes represent the doorway). The object is to slay the dragon, even if all the warriors die or flee. In the epic, the dragon was defending his treasure hoard and will not attempt to fly. If you still have some maudlin regard for the old hero, allow him to enter in the company of Wiglaf and his other warriors. The eleven are ordinary warriors, ST 12, DX 12, IQ 8, and equipped exactly as the king. Each turn they must roll against IQ to see if they panic and flee. The dragon will probably kill Beowulf and all who oppose him, so play this scenario from both sides and compare results.


The concept of gaining personal glory through personal combat (aristeia) was certainly present in BEOWULF, but it is more explicit in Homer's epic, the ILIAD. If you have not read this fantasy classic, it opens in the last years of the seige of Troy with a quarrel between the Greek's leader, Agamemnon, and their superlative warrior, Achilles. The hero withdrew to his tent to sulk, knowing that without his strength and the terror he inspired, the Greeks would panic and be slaughtered when they faced the Trojan's greatest warrior, Hector. Only when Hector killed Achilles ' best friend , Patroklos (who was impersonating the sulking Achilles), did the great warrior re-enter the battle. Unfortunately, Hector had stripped Achilles' armor from Patroklos' corpse as battle spoils, leaving Achilles without armor. His divine mother convinced Hephastos, the gods' smithy, to forge brilliant and glorious new armor in which Achilles strode forth to meet the towering Trojan hero. The duel ended surprisingly quickly once the two came face to face, and the Greek killed the Trojan. Hector's death left the Trojans without a mighty warrior to lead and inspired them, and the disspirited city eventually fell. The end of the city and the wooden horse are not part of this epic. This is the framework within which the duel can be staged, with some modifications for balance. 

Obviously, these god·favored warriors were not ordinary men, but had special characteristics which elevated them above the mass of opposing spearmen. Hector, although stronger and braver than almost all the Greeks, was not so brave nor so strong as Achilles. Their personal characteristics are given below:

The armor of Achilles was special due to its divine origin, while that of Hector, although well made, was ordinary. The skill and experience of Hector compensated for the encumbrance of the breastplate and greaves. Therefore, Hector's armor is the equivalent of chainmail, with no penalties. Achilles' armor is the equivalent of plate, with no penalties. Each of the heroes carries a normal large, round shield, each may carry two spears and wear a dagger. The extra is carried in the shield hand and must be readied before used. A spear cast is ½ normal DX adjustment, that is -1 DX for every 2 hexes the target is distant (round fractions down).
If you desire to add other warriors to either side, their ST and DX would be 12. their IQ 8. Armor is chainmail equivalent, their equipment: a large shield, spear and dagger. They may serve as either the hero's immediate companions, or as the mass of battling warriors through whom the heroes must wade to get at each other. Both functions are illustrated in the epic. These other warriors may also have a spoiling function, getting in the way of cast spears or trying to get the enemy hero with a lucky thrust of their own. Back-stabbing is a legitimate tactic.

The battles of the ILIAD, whether the mass actions or the individual duels, were played against the larger scheme of Zeus' divine plan. The various gods and goddesses backed first one faction then another, much as gamblers back different horses. Some stayed relatively loyal to their chosen favorites, Athena to Achilles, Apollo to Hector. Divine assistance provided to these men resembled the spells in WIZARD. To receive divine aid, the heroes must generally roll against IQ.
Achilles has three of these divine "spells" plus one of his own:
  1. A normal aid spell as Athena guides his hand . Roll after movement and apply the effects immediately. It may be attempted only once.
  2. Athena's breath may blow aside the first cast weapon which actually strikes Achilles. This is rolled for after the weapon strikes but before damage is rolled. It takes effect retroactively, that is, the weapon is considered to have been a miss and the hit is completely negated. This aid is also available only once, and failure to make the roll means the spell is lost.
  3. Athena retrieves the first spear cast by Achilles which misses its target. Once again, roll on the miss. The weapon is immediately available on the next turn and does not require a ready weapon action. If Athena does not retrieve the spear, she will not do so again.
  4. Achilles has his own "spell" : his mighty war cry which chilled the Trojan's blood. He may shout it once, and its effects are:
  1. each opponent has his DX reduced by 3 for that turn
  2. each opponent must make a saving throw against IQ or he may neither move, nor attack that turn, only defend
  3. for the duration of the turn, each opponent is treated as if he has received 3 hits that turn which count toward the 5 needed for a DX adjustment on the next turn. At the beginning of the next turn, these points are restored. Saving throw is against IQ. For all of these effects, roll once per opponent, and a failure to make the roll imposes all three effects.
The "spells" available to Hector are three:
  1. Apollo's shadow, a normal seven mega hex shadow. It may be invoked twice per game at any time during the turn sequence, rolling against IQ. It is automatically invoked whenever Hector takes 5 or more hits in one turn. No matter how it takes effect, the spell is never available more than twice. Failure to make the necessary roll does not affect its later availability. The spell has a two turn duration.
  2. Apollo may grant one aid spell, exactly as that available to Achilles by his protectress.
  3. Hector also had a terrible war cry which was not so horrible as Achilles'. The reductions are 2 rather than 3. It may be shouted once, otherwise it is the same.
Use the WIZARD board. The heroes begin on opposing sides in the entrance hexes. Neither may leave the field until his opponent is killed. It does not matter who kills the hero so long as he expires. Ordinary warriors may be forced to retreat off the board if they are against the edge when they take five or more hits: if they do so, they are gone for good. They may also panic (instead of being frozen by the war cry). Panic is random movement off the board To better simulate the fearsomeness of the heroes in battle, you might also require an ordinary warrior to roll against IQ when attacked by either Achilles or Hector, failure meaning the poor fellow turns tail and runs off the board.

With these modifications to MELEE and WIZARD, you are ready to take up spear and shield and stand before the towering walls of Ilion. As Achilles, you have an opportunity to wipe the stain from the honor of Helen's husband Menelaos, as Hector to save you r city from pillage. Helen's face may have launched a thousand ships, but Hector's valor may sink them! May Apollo or Athena be at your side.


Homer's second epic, the ODYSSEY is the story of one of the Greek heroes' return home. The hero, Odysseus, had angered Poseidon, and the god placed many obstacles in the sailor's way, delaying his homecoming for ten years. One of these obstacles was the cyclops Polyphemos. Odysseus and some of his crew were trapped in the cyclops cave when the giant one-eyed monster rolled a massive stone across the entrance. In the epic, the Greeks fashioned a spear and blinded the brute, then escaped from the cave by clinging to the bottom of his sheep. Odysseus, before blinding the cyclops, had told him his name was Nobody. Thus, when the giant roared in pain and his fellows came to aid him, in answer to their question who had injured him, the unfortunate replied, "Nobody." The other cyclops had better things to do than listen to such drivel and left.

This scenario is solitaire and played on the MELEE board which represents the cave. One set of entrance hexes is the blocked cave mouth. Odysseus has four crewmen with him. Their ST and DX are 12, the hero's ST 12, DX 14, and an IQ of 14. The Greeks have neither arms nor armor, only one spear which they must share. Odysseus has two "spells" which simulate his reputation for clever, quick words: a confusion spell with a presumed ST of one, and a limited control person. The latter has only one purpose: if the cyclops has been blinded, and stumbles against the entrance, Odysseus may try this spell. If he succeeds, the cyclops will roll away the stone and flee into the outer world. If he fails, either the cyclops will eat the Greeks, or they will have to get used to the smell of rotting cyclops while they starve in the dark cave. The scenario assumes that unlike the epic, the Greeks botched their first strike, and the cyclops is armed with his club and very angry. Any time the Greeks get a hit with the spear, roll against the spear carrier's adjDX -2 to see if the cyclops is blinded. The Greeks are huddling together, and therefore must occupy adjacent hexes.

The cyclops' move is always a charge attack if not engaged, a shift attack if engaged, and an attack in hand-to-hand combat. The characteristics of the cyclops are those of the WIZARD giant. When he moves to attack, he will always attack the center of the group. Once he is blinded, his options are the same, but his movement changes. Roll one six-sided die for direction. Roll a second for dis lance in hexes. Even if he rolls a six for distance, he still charge attacks. If he runs into a wall. he takes one ST point in damage. The WIZARD countermix includes a beautiful cyclops.

In this scenario, if you can lie, cheat and steal, you might make it home. One hint, though: don't kill the poor guy before he opens the door, even Odysseus couldn't lie to a rock and get it to roll away.

In each of these scenarios, surviving is not easy. The heroes won their battles not merely by skill but by luck, the roll of the die. I have meant it to be hard to recreate the hero's feats in personal battle. The same techniques may be applied to other fantasy battles. For example, David (a small hobbit-like figure with a sling) can meet Goliath of Gath (a Hector-like hero), or Horatio can defend a narrow bridge. May your fantasies be pleasant!


Narmer said...

Very cool. Thanks for pointing this out.

Fenway5 said...

@Narmer absolutely my pleasure!

Narmer said...

Oh, and the book covers are really cool. Particularly the Iliad/Odyssey.