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.

1 comment:

  1. À vision that made me drool, a wonderful what-if 8')