Steve Jackson’s 1977’s Melee, 1978’s Wizard, and 1980’s In the Labyrinth are three games that together form The Fantasy Trip tabletop roleplaying system. Originally published by Metagaming, these games languished out of print for decades before Steve Jackson Games acquired the rights and reprinted them.
I can’t say that this is a deeply informed review of the games, because I’ve only played one of the three and that was way back in the days when UWaterloo’s Watsfic club had an office. I’ve played Melee, but not Wizard or In the Labyrinth; I haven’t even made the time to play or read the new edition of The Fantasy Trip despite having had the latest version since December 19, 2022.
But! I found used copies of the originals languishing untouched in my Powers & Perils box1. I should add that the three games reviewed here might not quite be TFT as defined in 1980. Wikipedia suggests that while Meleeand Wizard were ancestral to TFT, the game itself was composed of Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, In the Labyrinth (1980), and an adventure called Tollenkar’s Lair (1980). What distinguishes the regular Melee and Wizard from their advanced forms, I could not say.
Further historical context: Metagaming specialized in microgames, inexpensive, simple wargames. Thus, Melee and Wizard were highly constrained by the need to fit into the word count limits and packaging constraints imposed by Metagaming’s preferred formats. I suspect that the packaging wasn’t that durable, as I found my copies of Melee and Wizard transferred to Ziplock bags. Or maybe they were sold in Ziplocks? It’s been a long time, the details escape me.
Modern gamers who buy this package may be dismayed by the rudimentary printing and graphics of the 1970s. They may note the passages suggesting that women or at least their pronouns were unknown to the TFT’s copy editor. They may also be impressed by how inexpensive the games were when first published, provided they don’t run the prices through an inflation calculator. If they were to do so, they might find that the original per-page price was a bit intimidating.
A veteran gamer like myself may be distracted by ancestral forms of innovations now commonplace. For example, TFT’s 3d6-based task resolution system bears a striking similarity to that used in Champions (1981). Did TFT inspire Champions creators Steve Peterson and George MacDonald? Along similar lines, this is the earliest points-buy RPG system (in which one is provided with a pool of points to purchase desired characteristics) that I can recall encountering. Did TFT inspire later points-buy RPGs?
The TFT system is very straightforward and simple. It may be a bit too simple; there are just three attributes to track. At least no one attribute seems to dominate, although IQ may have a slight edge in utility. In its time, the Cambrian of roleplaying games, TFT was a perfectly respectable system. Its failure to thrive appears to have been due to three factors: the constraints placed on it by Metagaming’s preferred formats and price points, Metagaming’s exit from gaming in 1983, and the lofty price Metagaming owner Howard Thompson demanded for the rights. Those three factors ensured TFT would be relegated to a historical curiosity and its revival deferred until the following millennium.
Except … that wasn’t quite the final chapter for 1980s TFT. TFT had a direct descendent. For that, you will have to wait for a future review.
Melee retailed for $2.95 in 1977, which is equivalent to $14 today.
Melee is a simple wargame, focusing on classical and medieval-era combat. Unlike many such games, the combat statistics for each piece in the game is a matter of player choice. Each piece (which can be represented on the board by a cardboard token, a figurine2, or other object) has just two characteristics, Strength and Dexterity. These begin with a value of eight. The player has eight more points to allocate as they see fit. Since both Strength and Dexterity provide crucial combat functionality, players grapple with painful trade-offs. Is it better to possess ample hit-points and the ability to wear any armour and wield any weapon (strength) or to be able to actual hit things?
While this is very much a wargame rather than a roleplaying game per se, Jackson foreshadows where he’s headed with this project. Those pieces that survive combat get experience points which can be traded in to improve Strength and Dexterity.
I was amused to notice that while Jackson mentions dice and how they are to be used, he never specifies that they are six-sided dice. In fact, there were a number of places where more explanation would have been better. That said, Jackson manages to cram a surprisingly flexible mundane combat system into just twenty-one pages (plus ads).
Wizard retailed for $3.95 in 1978, equivalent to about $18 today.
Wizard is very much like Melee, except where Melee focused on classical and medieval fighting, Wizard is all about the spells. To accommodate this realm, a new characteristic, IQ, is added. The base values for all three characteristics is 8, to which eight more points can be allocated as players see fit. Once again, the player has to balance trade-offs but because the extra points were not increased in proportion to the number of characteristics, their budget is even tighter.
Again, Jackson does not have much room in which to work. Nevertheless, wizards are offered an impressive range of options for a rulebook that is only twenty-odd pages long. Like Melee, Wizards is a wargame and not a roleplaying game. Pieces’ combat abilities are customized but they aren’t characters in the RPG sense.
In the Labyrinth (1980)
In the Labyrinth retailed for $4.95 or about $24 in modern currency. That’s a lot more expensive than either Melee or Wizard. In compensation, the page count is about twice those of Melee and Wizard combined, and the production values have been much improved. On the minus side, this game is not complete: players also need (Advanced) Melee and (Advanced) Wizard.
On the plus side, Jackson has a munificent eighty pages at his disposal. On the minus, he has to cover lot more ground, from the essentials of roleplaying to details about the stock secondary science fantasy world in which TFT is set. Yet another new system is added: talents (or as other systems call them, skills). Rather than provide more points with which to buy talents, Jackson effectively creates a parallel point system by letting IQ govern which skills are available and to what degree.
I won’t lie: a young gamer will find the production quality on this primitive. Nevertheless, the improvement in presentation between Melee and Into the Labyrinth is striking.
1: If you are very naughty, I may one day review Powers & Perils.
2: Game figurines were no doubt forged from that friend of good health, lead.