Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part 12: The Fantasy Trip - Melee

In the mid-1970s, Steve Jackson (the US one, not the UK one) was working for a game company called Metagaming. At the time, he was "playing a lot of D&D", and, like other people playing D&D, found that combat in the game was unsatisfying to him - too abstract, with no real tactics involved. He was also working on a game for Metagaming called Monsters! Monsters! - an adaptation of the Tunnels & Trolls rules for campaigns where the players would play monsters (later acquired by Flying Buffalo). However, the combat system of M!M! was even more abstracted than that of D&D.

So he wrote a simple (by wargame standards) man-to-man combat game, which he called Melee. Steve realized that it could be the basis for a new RPG, and Metagaming was very interested in getting into the RPG boom. Thus, even before Melee was first published, plans were already underway to create a full RPG based on it: Sword and Sorcery.

Unfortunately, SPI announced that they were going to be releasing a board game titled Swords & Sorcery, so Metagaming had to find a different title to use, and the one chosen was The Fantasy Trip.

TFT: Melee was released in 1977. It was a "micro-game" allowing players to create warrior characters and have them fight each other in arena combat. Melee was packaged as a small booklet (24 pages, roughly 4" x 8"), a hex grid sheet that could be used for the 'arena', and counters. A year later, TFT: Wizard was released as a fully-compatible micro-game of wizardly combat in an arena. It took another two years before In the Labyrinth, the GM's book, was released... but we'll talk about Wizard and ITL later. For now, let's talk Melee!


The first big innovation in TFT was in character creation: the first fully point-based character creation system for an RPG. In Melee, this is extremely simple, due to the narrow focus of the game: characters had only two attributes to set (Strength and Dexterity, abbreviated ST and DX). Each character started with 8 points in each, and an additional 8 points to divide as they wished. A third attribute was Movement Allowance (MA); this, however, was set by creature type, with humans having MA 10.

Players also selected armor and weapons for their characters. There was no system for purchasing these in Melee - instead, the available weapons were limited by ST, and armor reduced effective DX.

That's it to creating characters in Melee, although the game does advise players that "giving each figure a name and background adds interest, especially when miniature figures are being used as counters." We're told that the sample character created is "Ragnar the Impetuous", and that he's a Viking. Various other character names are used in examples: Astrid, Bjorn, Rolf, and Tark.

There's also a full example of combat, which is treated in an interesting way: it's given in a story format in the game's Introduction, then repeated at the end of the rules - but this time, written as a turn-by-turn breakdown, showing how the mechanics work in a complete, if short, fight.


Almost all actions in Melee (and in the rest of TFT) have their success or failure resolved through a single mechanic: the saving roll. We've seen this term previously with Tunnels & Trolls, and it seems likely that Steve Jackson was influenced here by it, through his work on Monsters! Monsters!

The basic concept is the same: one of the character's attributes is tested, with a varying difficulty. The specific method is different, though: instead of being 2d6 + attribute vs. variable threshold, the TFT saving roll is an attempt to roll less than or equal to an attribute score, rolling a variable number of dice. Most commonly, this is 3d6, but easy rolls are 2d6, difficult ones 4d6 (and, in the fuller TFT rules, there would be rolls of even higher difficulty).

Other elements that seem likely drawn from T&T include strength requirements for the use of various weapons, the use of Strength to double as Hit Points (T&T used Constitution for this, but TFT's Strength doubles as an indication of physical health), and armor absorbing damage instead of making characters harder to hit (although TFT armor does not ablate the way T&T's does). More similarities are seen in Wizard, but we'll cover those when we talk about it.

Unlike T&T's highly abstracted combat system, however, Melee was quite detailed. Movement was performed on the hex grid, and the chance for a hit was adjusted for facing (e.g., a foe facing away from you is easier to hit), position (standing, prone, etc), and other factors. A character could choose to Defend or Dodge as an action. Armor reduced effective DX and MA, creating a tradeoff: heavy armor makes it harder to hit your own opponents, thus prolonging combat, while allowing you to take many more hits than you could otherwise.

Some influence from The Perrin Conventions may be visible here as well. The combat round (called a 'turn' in Melee) is similarly short (5 seconds here instead of Perrin's 10), there is an 'engaged' status in melee, characters who move more than half their movement can't do anything else (indeed, there's a whole set of rules for what sort of actions can be combined with what sort of movement, depending on whether the character is engaged or disengaged), and effective Dexterity is used to determine when attacks take place. Attacks can force a target to move back, and hits that do more than a certain threshold of damage cause the target to take a penalty to their effective DX the next turn.

As with many wargames, however, Melee separates "initiative" from "attack order". Opponents roll for initiative, rolling 1d6, with the higher roll winning. No mention is made of how to resolve ties. Initiative is rolled for each turn. The winner chooses whether to move first or to move second; all movement is done, and then combat takes place, with the order of attacks dependent on effective Dexterity, independent of the initiative roll.

This is similar to Chainmail's initiative, but I personally doubt that the inspiration comes from there. Firstly, such initiative systems are common in wargames, which often divide up "movement" and "combat" into separate phases. Secondly, as we've seen in a previous column, Chainmail's combat system was much more detailed than the "alternative" system that was presented in Dungeons & Dragons. If Steve Jackson had been using it, he likely would have felt less frustration with D&D combat.

Ranged weapons are divided into two types; thrown weapons and missile weapons. Range decreases accuracy, with effective DX being at -1 for each hex of distance for thrown weapons, or for each 3 "megahexes" of range for missile weapons. (A TFT "megahex" is a hex of hexes - that is, one hex and its surrounding six hexes. These are marked on the map, which does create some oddness with ranges and such. Megahexes become more important in Wizard, where they are used for areas of effect of some spells.)

Other Concepts

A number of concepts that would later become popular in RPGs show up here for what is, to my knowledge, the first time:

"Shifting" when engaged. The term "shift" is used, and as in the much later d20 System, it is a move which engaged figures can make, limited to one 'space'.

Critical hits and fumbles exist. Since 3d6 is the normal attack roll, a natural 5 or less is considered to always hit. A 4 hits and does double damage; a 3 hits and does triple damage! Since a one-handed "broadsword" in the game does 2d6 damage, and most characters will have less than 16 ST (doubling as hit points, remember), such hits stand a good chance of killing a foe. Even plate armor with a large shield can only block 7 hit points of damage, so criticals with reasonably heavy weapons are quite deadly. For further comparison, a giant will have a ST of "AT LEAST 24; it might be 40 or 50 if he's a tough one." (Emphasis in original.) A triple damage hit with a broadsword will average 21 hits, nearly enough to take down a weak giant, and can do a maximum of 36 hits!

Conversely, a natural 16 is always a miss; a natural 17 is a miss and results in dropping any weapon the attack was made with; and a natural 18 breaks the weapon the attack was made with! (Characters are allowed to carry a dagger in addition to whatever weapons they normally wield, but that's it - no having a "spare sword" in Melee!

In addition, Melee makes it possible to hit your own allies with thrown or missile weapons. If allies are in the way, or if a ranged attack misses and allies are along the "flight path" beyond the original target, the attacker may have to "roll to miss" them. This works like a roll to hit, but in reverse... meaning that a low DX attacker may actually be more likely to hit an ally than an enemy! The rules therefore also specify that you cannot "roll to miss" an enemy.

Characters can defend and dodge. Defending is used by engaged characters, against melee attacks, and requires a melee weapon in hand; dodging is used by disengaged characters, against ranged attacks. In either case, the character cannot attack, but those attempting to hit them with the appropriate sort of attacks must roll 4d6 and try to roll under their effective DX, instead of 3d6. Critical and fumble rules are also adjusted: 5 or less is an automatic hit (but does not double or triple damage!), 20 and above is an automatic miss, with 21 or 22 causing a dropped weapon, and 23 or 24 a broken weapon.

Shields can be used offensively, for a shield-rush. This is used to knock down a foe, but does no damage.

Lastly, Melee begins the long tradition of special grappling rules in RPGs. Here, it's called "hand-to-hand combat", or "HTH". To enter it, you move into the enemy's space (the only time you normally can share a space with an enemy). If the enemy can't move away, agrees to HTH combat, or you're entering for their blind side (side or rear hexes), HTH combat begins. Only a dagger can be used as a weapon; other weapons and shields are dropped, and the characters are assumed to be rolling around on the ground struggling with each other... which makes them very vulnerable to attacks by others. However, if someone attacks into HTH combat with a weapon and misses, they must then "roll to miss" any allies they have in the grapple! Thrown or missile attacks simply hit a random target out of those struggling, making it tend to be a very bad idea.

(There's considerably more to HTH combat - about two pages worth - but the exact details are less important than the fact that Melee appears to be the first RPG to devote a whole subsystem to it. The first edition of Boot Hill has rules for grappling, but they're integrated into the system for melee combat - you can't really choose to grapple in Boot Hill.)

These various options do interact in some interesting ways - for example, you could shield-rush someone to knock them down... which would then make it easier to enter HTH combat with them while they're knocked down!

Character Experience

Of course, character growth is an important part of almost all RPGs. In Melee, it's via Experience Points (EP), which are gained through combat (since it is a combat game, after all!). Interestingly, however, there are different gradations:

Combat to the death gives 50 EP to each survivor, or 70 if the enemy side was significantly superior.

"Arena Combat" goes until the enemy side is defeated, with all of them being dead, unconscious, or choosing to flee through the door they entered the arena from. The winners get 30 EP each; defeated survivors get 20 EP, or 10 EP if they fled without first being injured. If one side is significantly stronger, survivors on the other side get +10 EP... so it's possible for the loser of an unfair fight to get as much experience as the victor!

Lastly, Melee allows for "practice combat". No missile weapons are allowed, and other weapons are blunted, doing only half damage. You must surrender when reduced to 3 ST or less. Those on the winning side who are not taken out get 10 EP. The game notes that it is possible to die in "practice" - remember how deadly those critical hits can be!

When a character gains 100 EP, they can raise either ST or DX by a point. In Melee, there are no other ways to spend experience.

Other Foes

To provide a bit of variety, Melee gives statistics for bears, wolves, giant snakes, giants, orcs, hobgoblins, and goblins. Orcs are designed to be balanced with 'normal' characters, but the others are not. Rules for making elves, dwarves, and hobbits are also included; elves and dwarves get slight advantages compared to humans (elves move faster, dwarves get +1 damage with hammers or axes); hobbits are created with only 20 total attribute points, but get +3 DX with missile and thrown weapons, and +1 to damage with them.

Wrapping Up

While TFT's popularity wasn't enduring (possibly due mainly to Metagaming going out of business for largely unrelated reasons, and Howard Thompson then asking $250,000 to sell the rights to TFT back to Steve Jackson; Steve decided to instead create GURPS), it was very popular in its day, and influenced many other RPGs.

In particular, Melee's rules on movement and engaged status seem to have influenced 3e D&D, and through it the "d20 System". Indeed, the similarities are enough that when I first described 3e combat to friends from my old gaming group, I described it as "D&D cross-bred with The Fantasy Trip".

There was a definite movement toward "more realistic" combat in the 70s and 80s, which we'll see more of with The Arduin Grimoire and RuneQuest. TFT was one of the leaders of that charge, with a system that still holds up well compared to modern RPGs.

One of the biggest differences in TFT, though, is very hard to show in a description like this: Steve Jackson was used to professional board wargames, which tended to have much more cut-and-dried rules than miniature wargames. Thus, Melee was written in a very different, much clearer style than either Dungeons & Dragons or Tunnels & Trolls. Even though the booklet is very short, it contains a good table of contents, fairly copious examples, and rules broken down into separate cases, with much use of emphasis and section headers to make it easy to find things. There are illustrations to help with points that can be made clear more easily in a visual fashion (e.g., a diagram with several counters on a hex map, illustrating the visibility rules) and a summary page of the various DX adjustments in the system (which includes several that are actually from Wizard, for easier use when combining the two games).

Compared to other early RPGs - and even to some today - Melee is a model of clarity and well-organized explanation... and its release seems to have prodded other companies to improve the layout and writing of their own games.

Next time, we'll be talking about the TFT magic system, with Wizard!

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.