Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Alternate Reality TFT Product: Up Harzburk!

Here is what the cover to Bili the Axe: Up Harzburk! might have looked like had it been done by Metagaming for TFT rather than GURPS, in a nicer timeline. Note that this would likely have been in a larger "MetaGame" box like Dragons of Underearth and probably the planned Conquerors of Underearth module. It is to be noted that CoU was intended to feature mass combat, which is also a focus of Up Harzburk.

Note that the original adventure as released was deeply flawed and unplayable due to some of the numbered paragraphs being incorrect, too many to be addressed by errata. I have given thought to trying to find and correct these errors, and turn it into a playable module, though that might be too difficult a job.

Anyway, here are the revised covers:

Friday, January 8, 2016

How Tollenkar's Lair might have been improved.

First, apologies for the long hiatus. Life has been getting in the way recently. But I will try and get caught up - my original goal was to publish at least one post a month - and I should be able to make good on at least a couple more posts after this one. So stay tuned!

I have written a review of this adventure supplement for The Fantasy Trip game system here. In that review I pointed out a number of subtle, but in my mind significant, flaws in the adventure. In this post I will suggest how that release could have been made much better. The criticisms are divided between problems with the physical design of the product, and issues concerning the design of the adventure itself.

In terms of the physical product itself, my main observations were (1) lack of counters, (2) unrelated artwork, and (3) the use of the saddle-stitched booklet format. Obviously, adding adventure relevant counters would have been a huge plus to the release (as indeed they would have added much to the whole Fantasy Trip system in general, but I digress). This lack was the most significant flaw from a physical design perspective. The random artwork, while of good quality, was marred by being for the most part not relevant to the adventure. If I could have designed TL, the art would fit the narrative or figures in the adventure, and there would have been rather more of it. While not strictly essential, I feel nevertheless that good, relevant art enhances an adventure supplement considerably. Certainly I assert that this was the case with D&D related modules, for example. Finally, the saddle-stitched booklet was more prone to wear and damage, and even if counters had been present, such a format would not have allowed any means to store said counters. Hence, I would have suggested releasing this supplement in a large "MetaGame" format, as was done with Dragons of Underearth, allowing for more and larger pages vs. a MicroGame, and a box to store the counters in.

One other change I would make that I did not mention previously was to improve the maps by providing one level per page, or part of a page, to avoid the mess of trying to view all the levels on a single page. Sure, it was an innovative space saving idea, but in the end it's difficult to decipher the map, and terribly easy to miss important details.

Going beyond this, I would personally redraw the maps to expand the size of the levels, and add more encounters, to include some that even the supposed "owners" of this Labyrinth (Little Kess and Tollenkar) have no inkling of. Not just monsters and traps, but perhaps more mysterious "otherworldly" things and perhaps background on the ancient "Landmaster Hall" to bring to this adventure a sense of mystery and wonder that was pretty much sucked right out of it at its inception. This would have been a good way to introduce a bit more background and detail on Cidri and Elyntia and their past - a great pity Steve Jackson failed to rise up to the challenge here.

I would also "beef up" the mercenaries on Level 5 with more magic and the like. The whole "stingy with magic" nonsense really doesn't hold any water, as I explained in my first post on this. I realize that, when written, there was probably a concern about folks using basic Melee and Wizard only, and not having the rules for, say, fine weapons, but if that was the case an appendix in the back could have provided a brief excerpt of these rules to allow, say, Jamie Littlejohn to have fine plate and a fine battle axe, along with a couple of magical items. A drawing or drawings of these figures would also be a good thing, if only as a basis for counters.

Tackling the problems with the conceptual design of the adventure is a bit trickier. I honestly don't know which way to go with it - multiple forays just don't make sense in the module as written for the reasons I outlined in my original review, but that is really the only way to tackle Tollenkar and his peeps. One could simply take the suggestion made in the module and cut out Tollenkar and the lower levels, and leave Little Kess and his merry band as the adventure, but that too seems unsatisfactory.

A slightly better approach would be to try a significant rewrite that got rid of either Little Kess or Tollenkar, and left the rest of the dungeon as "untamed", with various random creatures - which would require considerable effort to populate on the GM's part. In this case, if one were after Little Kess and his bandits, one would find the lower levels shunned by that band, and haunted by all sorts of fell creatures. The reverse would be true with just Tollenkar; in this case, the lower levels would be inhabited but the upper levels would be largely unexplored and monster haunted. Tollenkar and his mercs would simply travel by the gate to and from the outside world, and leave the rest of the Labyrinth a mystery to be avoided.

The most straightforward solution might be to do a slight rewrite and simply state that Tollenkar ignores Little Kess and the upper levels for the most part, being involved with various other plots/research/tasks/hobbies/whatever and doesn't really keep tabs on activities up there. Conversely, Little Kess is unaware that his patron Tollenkar literally lives right underneath him. This would be my preferred approach to the problem, as it minimizes the work but provides at least a modicum of logic for multiple expeditions to Landmaster Hall.

What the above suggestions accomplish is that they avoid having to slug through all the encounters and perhaps allow multiple forays, while still avoiding the illogical situation I outlined in my review.

Fixing the above would really make this module standout, and a much more interesting release then it was historically.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

On the Mnoren

One of the odder quirks of TFT, given that it is a Fantasy RPG, is that its gameworld of Cidri and related campaigns did not have much in the way of any religious aspects. While a couple pages in ITL discussed religion, and there are a couple of talents, there is nothing like the deities in Dungeons & Dragons, with various human, demi-human, and even thoroughly inhuman gods and godlike beings, nor is there much of anything in the way of rules for handling priests and the like.

As an aside, my suspicion is that Howard Thomas, who is a very staunch atheist, probably had a strong influence on this aspect of TFT. Also, too, the approach taken in D&D with deities and clerics perhaps motivated an "equal and opposite" sort of reaction.

The upshot is that the closest thing we have to gods in TFT is the subject of this post, the Mnoren (and, no, I am not certain how one is supposed to pronounce that…), or, to give their proper taxonomy, Homo Sapiens Mnorenensis. Here is what is said about them in ITL, pg. 4:

"The Mnoren were human - and a little bit more. They had the ability to move unaided between the many alternate worlds that co-exist with Earth in other time-streams. One ability - but it was enough. The first Mnoren used his talent only six times, and then stopped forever in fright and confusion. But those six trips made him a wealthy man. His power bred true. His children read his journals, and wondered, and experimented. They became the secret rulers of their home planet. Their children did not bother with secrets... they merely ruled.
The Mnoren multiplied and prospered. Three hundred years after Jen Mnoren's first jump, his descendants had found, mapped, and conquered three hundred seventy-one alternate Earths. Three had space travel; eleven had magic. All of them honored the Mnoren rulers.
The key to the Mnoren dominance, of course, was knowledge. Knowledge is power, and the knowledge of one world is power unimaginable in another. Jen Mnoren’s six trips yielded two simple devices and one book, and made him rich. His children imported inventions, techniques, and gold... And the Mnoren power grew. A Mnoren was effectively invulnerable, wherever he traveled. A dozen different protective devices, physical and magical... intelligent bodyguards from strange worlds... and, most formidable of all, a very long lifetime of experience. Anything that could extend his life was of interest to a Mnoren; the medical techniques of 371 worlds made old age merely a measure of experience.

In the "Flora and Fauna" section of ITL, on page 57, the Mnoren are described a little bit more:

"Technically, the Mnoren – the builders and one-time rulers of Cidri – are (were?) human, with one slight difference – the power to travel between alternate worlds. This power made them masters wherever they went.
The power and experience of a Mnoren make him effectively immortal. If a Mnoren is attacked, you may be sure that he will have been aware of hostile intentions as soon as they were formed – and he will certainly have magical, physical, and technological defenses…"

So though they are considered gods, and indeed wield great power, they are really just like us when stripped of their gadgets and magic items (and, perhaps, genetic modifications, nanotechnology, etc.). Except for that one detail about being able to traverse alternate realities…

Let's focus on this aspect first. Happily, there is an excellent, almost spot-on, science fiction reference to this sort of ability from the now ended TV series Fringe. This show was a bit like X-Files and followed the cases of a group under Homeland Security that investigates incidents and crimes perpetrated by means of "fringe" science, whether radical bio-tech, devices that can make it possible to alter a solid wall on a molecular level to allow a person to walk through it, and so forth.

Most relevant to this discussion, though, is the lead character Agent Olivia Dunham who, when enhanced with a drug called Cortexiphan, could actually "shift" into a parallel Earth which was similar in many respects, but radically different in others. I'll avoid going into much more detail, since I highly recommend this show to any who have not seen it (and you can get it off Netflix, hint, hint) but I will use some of the aspects of how the shift occurs to illustrate how the Mnoren's singular power might work.

In the series, there are two possible ways to shift to the parallel Earth. One is by using advanced technological devices and the other through enhanced mental ability. It also helped to be at certain locations where the barriers between the two realities were weakest.

The shift, itself, is sort of like teleportation, only you end up in the same location in the alternate Earth. Of course, this could end up being rather dangerous! Suppose the location you "shift" to is in the middle of an Ice Age and you end up buried under a mile of ice! It seems to me, then, that this Mnoren ability has to have some sort of an "emergency shift back" feature built in, or perhaps an ability to "peer ahead" to the intended destination, else I have a feeling very few Mnoren would have survived were they to accidentally shift to an Earth that was dangerously hostile to life (the Sun went nova, atmosphere never developed, alternate Earth hit by large asteroid and rendered lifeless, etc.).

In "Treasure of the Silver Dragon" the following statement is made:

The Mnoren of Cidri, the world of THE FANTASY TRIP game system, have access to many alternate universes. This access is reputedly the source of the strange variety of life inhabiting Cidri's huge expanse. The existence of alternate universes is a product of creation. Each universe represents a different set of physical laws. Some universes are very similar with minor apparent divergences. These universes may be accessed by Mnoren where the difference is not grotesque. Drastically differing universes aren't accessible.

Also, for the most part, you just end up shifting to an Alternate Earth. You cannot "shift" to, say, one of Jupiter's moons… at least not from Earth. Now, if you first shifted to one of the three Alternates that had space flight, in theory you could jump on a ship, fly to one of Jupiter's moons, and then explore "alternate" moons from there.

Another point raised in Fringe is that, while anyone can use a device to travel between alternate universes, only people with the innate ability can do so without suffering severe (and, given enough trips, lethal) side effects.

It is also worth noting that the shift is usually not instantaneous, nor automatic. Agent Dunham at one point required not only the Cortexiphan but also the use of a sensory deprivation tank to shift – and then the shift was only temporary before she passed back to her start reality. (However, some shifts were accomplished with less help.)

It is also likely that, while the ability to do this is at its heart innate, one has to train oneself to some degree, perhaps even significantly. Therefore, the following talent is proposed for any Mnoren who shift between alternate universes:

REALITY SHIFT (3). Prerequisite: To learn this talent you must be of Mnoren descent. In conjunction with the specific gene that permits travel between alternate realities, this talent reflects the intense mental discipline and training that is required to enable shifting between universes. A shift requires a successful 4/IQ roll and costs 5 ST of exhaustion hits. Success allows the Mnoren to peer ahead into the alternate reality, and can opt to either continue the shift or pull back. The figure can shift itself, along with up to double its weight in "cargo" – to include anything worn, carried or held (thus, a Mnoren could shift another individual, assuming they were small enough). A figure can attempt to shift additional multiples of mass, but must roll an additional die vs. IQ and incur 10 ST of exhaustion hits (so if a shifting figure wanted to move up to three times his mass, then he would roll 5/IQ, four times would be 6/IQ, etc., and the cost would be 10 ST and 15 ST, respectively). If the roll is failed the exhaustion hits are accrued but no shift occurs.

With that, one must ponder where the Mnoren came from and how they conquered the 371 worlds that made up their multi-universe empire. This requires a bit of sleuthing.

So where did the Mnoren come from? A clue can be found here, where it is revealed that Jen Mnoren's six trips yielded, "…two simple devices and one book " It stands to reason that if that was the source of his wealth, then he came from either a magical world or a world without developed magic, for if he had originated from a high tech world it is doubtful that a couple of simple gadgets would have been the source of any wealth at all… Going beyond that, one of the speculative explanations for the Mnoren disappearance was that they died out because, "…their eldritch strain [was] weakened by time and the weight of empire." The word "eldritch" means "unearthly, supernatural, eerie" which lends a lot of weight to the conclusion that they came from a "magical" world, without any high technology.

How, then, did they manage to conquer so many worlds? On the surface this seems easy, even trivial, for as stated previously, "Knowledge is power, and the knowledge of one world is power unimaginable in another." Wouldn't that always be true?

It depends. Magic in TFT is really quite limited. There is nothing in the TFT spell list that is remotely comparable to, say, a Tomahawk missile with even a conventional (let alone nuclear) payload. TFT spells are designed around one-on-one combat, and have little or no application on a larger scale, unlike the more battlefield focused magics found in Dungeons & Dragons. Further, it would be easier for a technological society to deal with hostile magic than the other way around.

For example, how effective would an Invisibility spell be in our world? Certainly useful, but not nearly as effective as one might hope. Assuming it only affects visible light, then certainly any figure using the spell would be spotted quite easily on thermal imaging equipment. Seismic sensors are another possible way of detecting an invisible figure, along with millimeter wave scanners, etc. Other methods may certainly be devised.

And how awed would we be by real magic that we saw? Wouldn't many assume it is just some high tech gadget or neat special effect? So there may not be any widespread "shock and awe", as it were.

Thus, it is less likely that technological worlds would be "conquered" in a traditional sense. Rather, it is more likely done through subterfuge and stealth, with the subjects not really realizing that they are ruled by the Mnoren. I could readily see using Invisibility and Unnoticeability spells to spy and gain sensitive information, which would then be used to blackmail people in positions of power or obtain useful technology to help with their schemes (or both). Assassinations could be done with simple Magic Fist spells, which could easily be undetectable and would fuddle any investigators ignorant of magic ("Strange! I've never seen anything like it in my 25 years as a CSI! The Senator's body was found in a secure zone surrounded by metal detectors and surveillance cameras and suffered massive blunt force trauma consistent with being hit by a sledge hammer, all in front of eye witnesses who could not explain how it happened…"). Money, perhaps in the form of gold brought in from other worlds, might be useful (depends on the society); certainly bringing in gadgets, magic, or even raw resources from other Earths might also raise funds to influence politics on a higher tech world, enabling the set-up of a shadow government a la the game "Illuminati" by Steve Jackson Games.

This supposition is supported by the statement in ITL that, "His children read his journals, and wondered, and experimented. They became the secret rulers of their home planet..." After this, Jen Mnoren's grandchildren simply ruled their planet, but one wonders if on higher tech planets (with or without spaceflight) they maintained their rule behind the scenes?

Indeed, this may explain a great deal about our Earth – who knows, perhaps the members of the infamous Council on Foreign Relations and other alleged "secret" societies are really Mnoren – or at least answer to them!

Then again, perhaps the Mnoren truly have left everyone else alone. This is hinted at in the Dragonodon universe of the Treasure of the Silver Dragon and Treasure of the Unicorn Gold, where it is stated that, "The humans of Dragonodonia know that their Earth has been used by the Mnoren in the past. Numerous life forms haven’t evolved on their Earth and they know it by magical perception. As far as they know there is no current Mnoren presence or influence, as with our Earth."

And perhaps there are other worlds with ultra-high tech that defied easy influence, let alone conquest – a star empire, for example, where Earth was simply a used up husk, as presented in the backstory to Joss Whedon's Firefly/Serenity universe, or maybe turned into an uninhabited "nature preserve" for study and research while the rest humanity has the galaxy as their playground. With no real way of connecting with the civilization (since they can only shift readily to the Earth itself, and likely cannot "shift" a starship with them) they might not really be able to "conquer" anything. Also, what of a world where dread Cthulhu has risen from corpse city of R'lyeh and the Earth overrun with various Eldritch horrors?

There is also a loosely related work of fiction by Robert Heinlein entitled "The Number of the Beast" which uses an invention called a "Continua" device to travel both through time and into fictional universes (in the book, the protagonists traveled to the Land of Oz and Barsoom. In addition to the obvious tie in about traveling to alternate realities, a contributor on the TFT Mailing List suggested that one of the reasons the Mnoren vanished was because they started to explore fictional universes, rather than limiting themselves to parallel Earths.[1] For purposes of this article, I will assume that Mnoren reality shifting only works on parallel Earths, but it is good to at least be aware of this other possible interpretation.

So what became of the Mnoren? In the Labyrinth says this:

Where did they go? Ahhhh... another good question! There are many theories. Perhaps they simply died out, their eldritch strain weakened by time and the weight of empire. Perhaps the assassin's game that their wilder types enjoyed (what prey was really worthy of a Mnoren but his deadly relatives?) drove them into hiding on other worlds. Perhaps they built a grander playground somewhere else. Perhaps they're still here, wise and immortal, watching but not taking part. That's what the villagers believe. They threaten bad children with demons, orcs, and Mnoren."

Probably all of the above. I can see the Mnoren gene becoming less prevalent with time, unless they closely intermarry, which creates a whole mess of problems in and of itself (though perhaps such problems can be cured by magical and high tech medical techniques). One can also speculate that perhaps being in charge isn't as much fun as one might imagine, and shifting to a parallel Earth that has no sentient life might be a nice alternative.

Which does bring up an interesting point, namely that while "only" 371 worlds were ruled by the Mnoren, there must have been many more that were either unusable, or perhaps were "virgin" planets, unexploited by other sentient forms. Can you imagine what it would be like to take yourself and perhaps select others, and colonize an Earth just like ours but without all the congestion, busybodies, etc.? Talk about the ultimate "Galt's Gulch," assuming you could get the necessities across worlds!

Finally, how should one use Mnoren in a TFT adventure? Obviously, one can have them as sort of "gods", but I'd like to make another suggestion: how about a group composed of characters of Mnoren heritage who discover their abilities some time long after the Abdication, and start their own explorations? They lack all of the magic items and gadgets of the "established" Mnoren who left long ago, being descendants of elicit affairs, etc. so they lack the temporal power but retain the ability to shift between worlds.

Another possible approach would be to explore Mnoren gates (no doubt set up to assist transfer of people and goods between worlds in a way that shifting could not accommodate) in a fashion similar to Stargate SG1; indeed, one could use the show's premise wholesale by starting your characters as modern Earth soldiers tasked with exploring these gates and the worlds connected to them! While it would probably be a headache for a GM to run, the concept does have a vast range of possibilities… "So, what Earth do we want to visit, today?"

If anyone does try such a campaign, do report back as to how it turns out!

[1] Subject: (TFT)What happend to the Mnoren? at tft.brainiac.com (see Archives at 27 Jul 2007 02:10:15 +0800)

Thursday, June 4, 2015

TFT Products that Should Have Been: The World of the Silver Dragon...

So, in the spirit of reconstructing covers of TFT supplements (see previous post here) I decided to take a stab at a product that, strangely, never appeared to have been considered, even though it would have been a logical adventure supplement to produce, based on the MicroQuests "Treasure of the Silver Dragon" and "Treasure of the Unicorn Gold" - to wit, "The World of the Silver Dragon."

This supplement would heavily expand upon the parallel Earth glimpsed ever so fleetingly in the aforementioned MicroQuests, which were focused on a North America that had just come out of a glacial period, which has some basic similarities, such as mountain ranges, but many differences (for example, the Great Lakes would not exist, instead being covered by the glacial lake Agassiz, and different climate ranges, etc.). It was a fascinating concept that was never brought to the fruition it deserved.

As a point of fact, I actually developed some text for this, which was shared on the TFT Forums some time ago. I am currently reworking and expanding this; if I get anywhere, I'll share it.

Basically this campaign world supplement would cover the following:
1) Maps of this alternate Earth (Dragonodonia?) based on what is known of our Earth about 12,000 YBP. While many basic outlines would be the same, there would be many other differences, such as the Baltic Sea being an inland lake, England and Ireland part of the Continent, and so forth
2) Discussion of the various cultures to be found, not just the Toltec Empire, or the Mounders from North America, but also various European, African and Far Eastern peoples as well. Mostly in broad outlines.
3) Monster list including many now extinct fauna from this Earth in the Pleistocene, and a few such as dinosaurs that didn't make it in our world. In addition, I've been using GURPS Fantasy Monsters to gin up some Native American/Aztec monsters that would be a good fit for this game world.
4) Special magic for the New World, such as Mounders and Toltecs using their elaborate structures to harness and enhance certain magical effects. Similar might be contemplated for the Egyptians as well
5) Some basic character and NPC templates (Toltec Brujos, etc.)
6) Special rules for Stone Age weapons and technology, such as maquahuilts and similar Meso-American obsidian edged weapons, and the like.
7) Adventure seeds
8) Actual Nahuatl vocabulary, to lend some authenticity to Toltec names.

I think this would have been a real hit, had Howard Thompson pursued it. Too bad he didn't - but perhaps I'll get something useful out that will show what TFT could have been...

And here are the draft front and back covers for this purely hypothetical work. Comments and criticisms welcome!

Coming soon - what if TFT had done Robert Adam's post-holocaust world described in his Horseclans novels? Stay tuned to find out!

Monday, April 13, 2015

Reconstructed Covers for "Soldier City: Shaylle" and "Intrigue in Plaize"

As mentioned in my previous post here regarding proposed but never released TFT materials, there were two items that ultimately were published, but changed to fit a different game universe than originally intended. Specifically the two modules mentioned above, intended as part of the "Land Beyond the Mountains" campaign setting for TFT, and companions to "Warrior Lords of Darok" and "Forest Lords of Dihad", were made part of Gamelords "Haven" setting. Retitled and with some parts rewritten (sometimes lightly and sometimes heavily), they were shoehorned into Haven, but much remains of the original TFT substrate that an effort can be made to reconstruct the modules in their original form. To that end, I have restored the covers to what was likely their original appearance, assuming that the cover art was not changed (which I believe is likely the case, as they were trying to salvage as much of the work as possible). Without further adieu, here they are:


I'll probably be tweaking these a bit in the future. For example, some of the description on the back cover of Shaylle is not quite right, owing to the extensive rewrite of the backstory that was done, and the front cover of Plaize will need a spot of work on the border of the center artpiece (the blue shades don't quite match.) Other than that, though, I think these are pretty close analogs to what should have been published in 1983, in a better reality...

Hopefully I will be able to release notes on what was done to convert the text of the modules to better resemble what might have been originally written. Many of the encounters are fairly easy, even trivial, to convert, but some of the backstory has been considerably altered, and it is sometimes hard to distinguish the original plot points.

Special thanks to the creators of Paint.Net for their excellent picture editing program - that really made much of this possible.

Enjoy the covers!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

How The Fantasy Trip Could Have Been Published, and Saved a Great Deal of Trouble...

While doing research the history of The Fantasy Trip I was struck by the creative differences that arose in the conception and realization of TFT. Coupled with some reviews I read of the game, it became obvious that a major problem was not so much with the material itself (though issues existed there), but perhaps more with how it was organized and published.

As is known, TFT was published in four booklets: three rules manuals (Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In the Labyrinth) and one adventure supplement (Tollenkar’s Lair). Interestingly, this is not what had originally been intended. According to Steve Jackson in The Space Gamer No. 29:
“Plans called for it to be in boxed format, selling for $20. And for that $20, the buyer would get a LOT. The box itself (with a beautiful painting by Roger Stine); 140 pages of rules; hundreds of die-cut counters; four full-color labyrinth maps; light cardboard melee megahexes; master sheets for character records and mapping; a GM's shield with charts and tables; and even three dice.”
The above is also corroborated, albeit in less detail, in earlier issues of TSG. The Metagaming 1980 Spring Catalog in Space Gamer No. 26 provided a somewhat more detailed description of the soon to be released role playing system:
“IN THE LABYRINTH contains a 144 page rules booklet, four full color labyrinth map sheets, 480 die cut counters plus monster counter sheet, tunnel megahexes, Game Master’s reference shield, map blanks, map note sheets, character record sheets and three dice”
However, the title page in this same issue made the following correction to the catalog description noted above:
“The catalog in this issue carries a description of TFT: ITL as a boxed, $19.95 fantasy role-playing game system. (THIS PRODUCT WILL NOT BE INTRODUCED IN THIS FORM AT THIS TIME.) We decided that boxed ITL was the wrong package at the wrong price at the wrong time.

TFT: ITL is better than Dungeons & Dragons or any competing system. However, at $19.95, our great fear was that too few would try it. You have to play TFT to realize its superiority. For this reason, we’ve reformatted the initial Game Master’s package as a $4.95 rules booklet.

The rules you get for $4.95 will be the same rules that were going into the $19.95 package. What has been deleted are the counters, box, and other play-aids. The other material will come out in a supplementary package later.

TFT: ITL will be the Game Master’s module with the hero talents section. You will need the TFT: MELEE rules for combat and TFT: WIZARD rules for magic.

TFT: ADVANCED COMBAT and TFT: ADVANCED MAGIC modules will also be introduced in booklet form. If you want the enhanced combat and magic system fully compatible with MELEE and WIZARD, the Advanced modules will fit the bill. Each module is three to four times as long as the basic MELEE and WIZARD rules.”
The decision to go with the booklets rather than the boxed set was Howard Thompson’s, and did make a certain amount of sense from a marketing standpoint, particularly since In the Labyrinth was playable with just the basic Melee and Wizard rules. Also, when compared to the competitors of the time (Runequest, D&D, Tunnels & Trolls, Swords & Sorcery, Chivalry and Sorcery), one can also see some motivation to try and reduce costs. A closely related factor was the sheer amount of time it took to get TFT on the market – had TFT come out sooner, they would have had much less competition, and thus might have had an easier time going with the “Cadillac” version.

Interesting the comment about the “counters, box, and other play-aids” being released in a supplementary package later; in the event, only the GM’s Shield was produced.

It is worth noting that the original 1st edition boxed set release of GURPS was actually modeled after what the TFT release was supposed to have been, according to Steve Jackson in Space Gamer No. 71, p. 40:
“As far as format goes, we’re planning an original set like you wanted for TFT and never got: a large-sized box with several booklets and other components. (Don’t hold me to this, but we may even be able to include dice.) Later supplements will be 8 ½” x 11” books, with size depending on price.”
And, indeed, the first release of GURPS was in a boxed set, as shown here:

Going back to the TFT rules themselves, it is to be noted that Howard was not happy with the new game. Quite apart from the extra time spent, he was not happy with the rules as written. In a letter addressed to Andy Windes dated 31 Mar 1980, he has this to say about the newly released TFT:
“TFT is too complicated as completed by Steve Jackson. He completed the project as he wished, not as I’d hoped or even laid down constraints.”... “I think the system is better than D&D, but not by a huge margin. All the material in Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard didn’t need to be added at all. More spells and weapons fine, more detail of combat, no.”

“My feeling is that in the extra two years of work TFT got longer instead of better. I’m having work started [on] a new FRP system that can be introduced in 3-4 years and is closer to what I think the market wants and what I’ll feel comfortable in publishing.”
Dragons of Underearth (one of Metagaming’s last releases) was possibly an introductory rules set to this “new FRP system” that Howard mentions. It has been described as a sort of “Son of TFT” and was designed by Keith Gross. It is likely more closely representative of Howard’s “vision” as to what he wanted; unfortunately, DOU is very terse and Spartan,[i] to the point that it is really lackluster and boring, and would require some work to make any sort of enjoyable role playing campaign with it.[ii]

That said, however, Howard Thompson did have a valid point. TFT had considerable tangential and other background material, along with duplicative or overly verbose rules in places, which could easily have been combined or edited to make for a significantly more streamlined game. Certainly not to the extent of Dragons of Underearth in its mere 30 or so pages, but there was definitely opportunity to contain the rules bloat in TFT. For example, I don’t need a half page to explain death in Advanced Melee, nor do we need two separate hit location systems. Dragons of Underearth had some quite reasonable proposals to help streamline the TFT system.

Further, materials were not organized very well. A good example is the Cidri material, which actually sort of cluttered the ITL book and added relatively little to it. It should be noted also that this more streamlined approach might have been completed more quickly, thus averting Howard Thompson’s wrath and perhaps preventing the split between him and Steve Jackson in the first place.

Furthermore, the last minute switch in publishing approaches seems to have contributed to the rudimentary or non-existent table of contents, lack of indices, general poor organization, and some errors and omissions in the rules

Admittedly, it is conceivable that some of the organizational problems may have been Steve Jackson’s fault, but it was more likely a result of the last minute dismemberment of the original 140 page rules booklet (which was probably better organized and integrated, but only a look at the final drafts of TFT – which are likely no longer extant – would bear that out). But could this whole process have been done better?

There are two approaches I would propose: the first being in the realm of the possible, and the second quite impossible, but fascinating as a thought exercise, and perhaps pointing the way to how a TFT 2nd Edition could have been released, had that project ever been brought to fruition. With regards to the first approach, the following cites from the Errata article by Steve Jackson, published in TSG No. 29 are useful:

 “May 1978: TSG said TFT:ITL might be out by Origins. I, personally, was merely shooting for a finished rules draft before I left for the World SF Convention in Phoenix - that being Labor Day. I didn't make it.

September 1978: TSG announced that "work is progressing." It really was, but SLOWLY. I was over the block, but now I had another problem. I was dealing with a truly massive pile of material, and I wanted to make it ALL fit together. It had to be "just right." I have a tendency toward monomaniacal perfectionism, and the tendency was STRONG right then.

Early 1979: I delivered the last rules draft (we thought) to Metagaming. It was better than 300 typewritten pages. TSG announced that publication would be in one of two forms: a "stripped" $20 game or a "cadillac" $30 game. Most of the feedback on that was emphatically in favor of the $20 version.

Mid-1979: Correspondence with Draper Kauffman, a gamer in St. Louis, turned up some problems with the economics in TFT. That's my weak point; it seems to be one of the Draper's strong ones. He pointed out some problems and loopholes in the sections on jobs and magic items. He also told me how I could fix them . . . and I did, gratefully. (Thanks again, Draper!)”
A big problem was really Steve Jackson himself – his unfortunate writer’s block and “monomaniacal perfectionism” I think were key problems with the whole TFT:ITL project. Had these alone not happened, I think that there would be no Steve Jackson Games, Metagaming would still be in business (and would have ended up publishing the SJG games for the most part anyway), Steve and Howard would be friends, and a great deal of history would be different. Even failing that, however, there is one other way the unfortunate split could have (possibly) been averted: releasing the material in smaller supplements, rather than as one grand, complete system.

While there are plenty of good reasons to release an integrated, complete game system all at once it is not as if there wasn’t any precedence for releasing products in increments. Original D&D featured a total of five supplements (Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Eldrich Wizardry, Gods, Demi-Gods, and Heroes, and Swords & Spells) that came out over a period of a few years, and the Advanced D&D rules came out in three books, the Monster Manual in late 1977, the Player’s Handbook in 1978, and the Dungeon Master’s Guide in May of 1979. Why couldn’t the same have been done with TFT?

Though perhaps not ideal, by releasing the game in smaller “bites” it would have alleviated some of the pressure on Steve, while getting marketable products out much sooner and building up interest in the final game. Given that a solid draft of the full product was available by early 1979, I could see extracting at least some of the materials into a short series of supplements that could have been published right away, in two “waves”. In particular, I would suggest the following breakout for the first wave:

1) Advanced Melee combat supplement, which would be similar to what was published, with one crucial addition, namely all of the combat related talents would be included, at a minimum, along with an expansion to the figure creation to include IQ. So the basic concept and rules for talents, along with the various weapon proficiencies, two weapons, fencing, running, tactics, unarmed combat, etc., would all be here. In addition, non-combat talents could be mentioned by title and IQ level as placeholders to drum up interest in the final game product.

2) Bestiary or TFT “Monster Manual”, in the form of a Micro, to include a bunch of countersheets in addition to the monster stats and descriptions. Note that this would have addressed a major shortcoming of the released TFT, which was the lack of counters, especially for monsters.

Once these were out, presumably by mid-1979, then the focus would be on the magic and role playing rules (especially the economic aspects that Draper Kauffman helped out with, along with any other revisions that were necessary). The goal would be to release three more supplements in a second wave, in the following order:

3) Advanced Wizard supplement, which would be similar in concept to the Advanced Melee I outlined above, and would include any talents that pertain to wizards, such as literacy, alchemy, etc. Obviously a much smaller list, though.

4) In the Labyrinth supplement, which would contain all of the role playing and game master material, including the remaining talents, along with the promised full color labyrinth maps, with one important exception: anything pertaining to Cidri, which would be a the subject for the next (and last) core supplement for TFT…

5) The World of Cidri, with a much fuller description then was provided historically, and including various area maps, rules for overland travel, etc. Specifically, in addition to the Elyntia map and Bendywn, I could see having expanded details for Elyntia (significant figures, creatures, encounter tables, etc), a larger scale area map that shows Elyntia in relation to the larger region, and perhaps having all maps done in full color.

At the least Advanced Wizard should have followed as soon as possible, preferably within a couple months of the Advanced Melee and Bestiary products, and ITL a couple months after that, certainly by the end of the year. Finally, more time could then have been devoted to just Cidri, producing a much expanded and more useful product (perhaps by mid-1980, a few months after the March 1980 release of TFT historically).

I truly believe that this approach might well have yielded much better results overall than what happened historically. Indeed, had this approach been pursued from the very beginning, perhaps Steve could have avoided writer’s block since he would have been taking much smaller “bites”, thus speeding up the timeline by perhaps a few months, or even more. It is worth noting that additional weapons, along with the Cidri Octopus, were published in TSG No. 13 (Sep-Oct 1977) by Steve Jackson, and some notes on using Hymenopteria in Melee/Wizard came out in the following issue, so at least some “Advanced” material was available early on. It really depends on the order in which Steve ended up writing the material, and when he came up with the talent rules, but I could certainly see both the Advanced Melee and Bestiary supplements coming out sometime in early- to mid-1978, which would have sped things up dramatically, even if the other supplements dragged. It is even possible that Advanced Wizard could have been released sooner, I expect, if the magic item creation rules had been stripped out and made a part of the ITL rulebook. Granted that the follow up ITL and especially the World of Cidri might have been a much longer slog, but having the key combat and magic elements essentially locked in would have been a much better situation then what prevailed historically.

File the above under “Forever Lost Opportunities…”

In a later blog post I will discuss the “Ideal” approach to release, which would have been wonderful had it been done from the get-go (though requiring Nostradamus-like prognostication on the part of Steve Jackson), and might still have been a useful strategy for the planned 2nd edition of TFT.

[i] I’m not the only one to think this. C. R. Brandon in his Sword and Shield Blog has stated something similar.
[ii] In fairness, that was not the goal of DOU, which was actually an offshoot of the never-released Conquerors of Underearth and intended to be very streamlined to facilitate faster mass combat game play.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

TFT Related: What to do about Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Wizard...?

One of the consequences of TFT’s streamlined design was the combination of related yet separate attributes into a single “Super” attribute. For example, IQ is a combination of raw reasoning capability, memory, experience, perception, etc. while DX is a combination of manual dexterity and agility. One could easily separate these into several more attributes, as was done in D&D and most other systems. But by far the most thorny problem is that of ST, which is combining raw musculature, hit points, constitution, and endurance all in one package. While physique and hit points actually do make sense together, endurance does not - one can be very strong and yet lack endurance, and vice versa, even though both are tied to overall physical “wellness”. Now, much as I love streamlining and elegance, some purely comical situations arise under the TFT system. This is brought home most forcefully in the following description of the High Priest Faron-eld from Warrior Lords of Darok, in which it is stated that he is “Frail of frame,...” Yet, he has a Strength of 18 (!!!). To put this in the perspective of the TFT rules as written:
  • He can wield a Great Sword (the most powerful melee weapon available, doing 3d+1 damage), and yet is “frail of frame
  • He can punch you in the face for 1d+1 (equivalent to a warhammer), and yet is “frail of frame
  • He can lift 324 kg (that’s over a third of a ton...), and yet is “frail of frame
  • He can wander around in cloth and leather armor without penalty, and yet is “frail of frame
  • Per ITL, he can also pick up “...items of furniture, BIG rocks, etc., and throw them for (1+1) damage”, ... and yet is still considered “frail of frame
Geez! I wish I could have such a “frail frame”... I could arm wrestle Conan of Cimmeria and actually rip his relatively “puny” little arm off and beat him to death with it, if I so chose! I would sure hate to see what the module writers would have considered to be a robust frame...
Of course, the real problem here is that ST is used for both fatigue and physique, and since a wizard’s spells can exact a high price in terms of exhaustion “damage” (especially for the more potent spells), they are forced to bulk up like Hercules just to be viable spellcasters.
Naturally, I am hardly the first to notice this, and many house-rule solutions have been proffered to remedy this situation. They generally involve either creating a separate “Constitution” or “Endurance” type attribute,[1] or splitting ST in some manner so as to have a separate “Fatigue ST” (fST). These solutions will certainly work, but their general drawback is that they take away from the elegance of the basic TFT system.
There are three other approaches that have not really been proposed before, though. The first two involve the creation of new talents that allow for either additional fST points, reduction of fatigue damage or more efficient spell casting capability in terms of fatigue cost, while the last allows for using more than one IQ point to learn a given spell, which would give various benefits to include in some cases lower fatigue costs.
A straight-forward talent to add would be an “Endurance” talent, similar in concept to the existing “Running” talent, that could enhance one’s ability to take fatigue damage through yoga and other exercise. The in-game effect would in its simplest form be to arbitrarily add a few fST points to your total ST. Any loss of fST due to spells or other exertion would be taken from this, first. An alternative approach would either reduce the cost of the fST loss or spread it out over time better (or both). For example, a spell that cost 3 to cast and 1 to maintain might cost only 2 to cast and 1 every other turn to maintain. There would be at least two levels for this talent, maybe three. Adopting this approach would make the most sense if other fST costs and penalties were assessed for other strenuous activity, such as fighting for several turns, running in armor or running in general for long distances, etc.
Another approach would be talents geared specifically towards wizards. A truly skilled wizard may well be able to manipulate magical energies in such a manner as to gain the same “bang” for less fST “buck.” Using this approach you might have some sort of “Magery” or “Sorcery” talents that reduce the cost of casting and maintaining a spell (as explained above) and perhaps provide some other benefits as well.
The final method is simply to allow for “double” and “triple” memorization of spells, in other words, to practice them more intensely to allow the wizard to cast them more efficiently and/or effectively. Depending on the type of spell (T, M, C, or S) this allows for lower fST to cast, or perhaps greater effectiveness (or both). In many cases the wizard will expend less fST to cast the spell.
I have not settled on a final method, as each approach has advantages and disadvantages. I do kind of favor the multiple memorization of a given spell, which sort of treats each higher “level” of the spell as an advanced talent, sort of like UC1, UC2, UC3, etc., though I also like some of the ideas behind using talents, as well.
Bottom line, though, is that with these changes to the TFT rules you can make Lou Ferigno wizards a thing of the past!

[1] See especially Michael Friend’s articles in Vindicator Nos. 4 and 5.