After the previous two articles about early RPG rules revived and retooled in the last decade, we’ll look at one that I actually played back in the day1.
The Fantasy Trip began in 1977 as two skirmish-level tabletop games, Melee and Wizard, both written by Steve Jackson2. Jackson’s In The Labyrinth (1980) expanded it into a full role-playing game. After a split with the original publisher who then ceased operation, the system got lost in copyright limbo. Its sudden disappearance spawned a few “retroclones”, including a series of solo and GM adventures from Dark City Games that I blogged about a long time ago. In 2019 Steve Jackson Games recovered the rights and republished a deluxe “legacy edition” of the rules.
TFT was the first thing close to a tabletop role-playing game I ever saw, even before D&D. Much of what follows will be off the top of my head, but when I need to check something I’ll use the 2019 edition of In The Labyrinth.
Making a Character
Characters have three main characteristics:
- Strength (ST)
- the amount of damage and/or fatigue one can take, the amount of weight one can carry, and the maximum size of of weapons one can wield.
- Dexterity (DX)
- the speed and accuracy with which one strikes in combat, and the speed, agility, and hand-eye coordination one possesses outside combat.
- Intelligence (IQ)
- the complexity and number of talents and/or spells one can learn and the acuity one brings to other mental tasks.
The basic steps are as follows:
Decide on a character concept, notably whether the character is a Hero or a Wizard.
Choose the character’s species, which affects characteristic values. Each species has minimums for ST, DX, and IQ, plus a number of extra points to distribute freely. Humans, for example, have ST 8, DX 8, IQ 8, and 8 extra points. All species (besides humans) have other, mostly narrative abilities and disabilities.
Distribute points between ST, DX, and IQ.
Pick the character’s Talents (if a Hero) or Spells (if a Wizard), based on IQ. Talents and Spells both have a minimum IQ. Talents also have an IQ cost3, while Spells (for a Wizard) cost only one IQ point each. Wizards can learn Talents at double cost, and Heroes can learn Spells at a cost of 3 points each. The total cost of a starting character’s Talents and/or Spells cannot exceed their IQ, although they may purchase more with XP.
Record the character’s base Movement Allowance (MA), the maximum number of yards a character can move in a turn, which depends on species. For humans it’s 10.
Buy starting equipment, including weapons and armor.
Adjust DX and MA based on armor and the weight of equipment. Adjusted values are given in parentheses.
I’m going to choose the character’s armor and weapons to explain Combat in general and Adjusted DX in particular, but I’ll ignore other equipment.
Name: Hjalmar the Northlander
Concept: pseudo-Viking barbarian
Race and Type: Human Hero
|11||12 (10)||9||10 (8)|
Talents: Alertness , Axe/Mace , Boating , Brawling , Literacy , Shield , Swimming 
- Small Axe (1d+2 damage, $30, 5 lbs.)
- Leather Armor (2 hits stopped, -2 DX, MA 8, $100, 16 lbs.)
- Small Shield (1 hits, $30, 10 lbs.)
- $840 worth of other stuff
Playing the Game
In The Fantasy Trip to see whether an action succeeds or fails, the player usually rolls 3 six-sided dice (3d6 or 3d for short) against one of their attributes: DX for most physical actions like fighting or sneaking, IQ for mental tests of perception, knowledge, and social interaction, and ST for brute strength and resistance to poison or similar threats. The characteristic may be modified based on circumstances, e.g.:
- Bonuses from specific Talents, or penalties from not having a specific Talent.
- Circumstances like armor and other weight carried.
- Available lighting for perception and ranged attacks.
- Terrain and footing for movement-related actions.
And so on.
In rare cases the player may have to roll 4d (or even 5d) as a penalty, e.g. if they lack a particular talent or if they’re attacking a foe who’s actively defending against attacks. In even rarer cases the player rolls only 2d, e.g. if the character has the Brawling and Carousing talents and is trying to defuse a bar fight.
In any case, if the total on the dice is equal to or less than the adjusted characteristic, the character succeeds. Otherwise the character fails, with any and all negative consequences, e.g. missing with a weapon, missing a secret door, slipping and falling, etc. A total on 3d of 5 or less indicates automatic success, and a total of 16 or more is an automatic failure. Fewer or more dice have similar thresholds.
If two or more characters are competing directly against each other, all characters roll at once; the one who succeeds by the greatest margin wins. For example, two characters are wrestling. Albert has ST 13, Bertram has ST 11. Each rolls 3d; Albert rolls a 11, Bertram rolls an 8. Everything else being equal, Bertram would win because he succeeded by 3, while Albert rolled only 2 below his ST.
Because TFT descended from a tactical skirmish game, combat requires a battle map divided into hexes, with circles of seven hexes grouped into “megahexes”. Each character (PC or NPC) has a counter or figure on this map, and their movement and relative positions are important factors in battle.
In each round of combat, each player4 and the GM rolls a die; the winner chooses whether to move first or let the other side(s) move first. Certain talents modify the value on the die. After this5, each player moves their figures; those engaged in close combat with others can move at most one hex to disengage, shift positions, or attempt to grapple, while those not engaged can move either up to their full MA or move up to half their MA to charge into battle or dodging incoming attacks. Characters who change weapons, cast spells, fire ranged weapons, and the like can only move one hex; characters standing from a prone or kneeling position don’t move any hexes. There are other rules for movement which I’ll skip.
After movement, characters resolve their actions – attacks, spell-casting, attempts to disbelieve illusions, etc. – in adjusted DX (adjDX) order. Attacks require a successful roll against adjDX, usually 3d but 4d if the target is Dodging or Defending (and forgoing all attacks). If an attack roll succeeds, the attacker rolls damage for their weapon.6 A roll of 4 on 3d does double damage, and a roll of 3 does triple damage.
All damage not absorbed by armor7 subtracts from ST; when ST reaches 0 the character falls unconscious, and when driven below 0 by injuries the character will die within a few rounds without immediate medical or magical aid. Characters who take a lot of damage in a round (after armor) suffer DX penalties in the remainder of that round and subsequent rounds. Characters who are incapacitated or killed before their attack roll comes up lose their action in that round and subsequent rounds.
A final phase in a combat round allows characters to push their opponents backwards. This rule, and other rules involving “hand-to-hand combat” (a.k.a. grappling), mounted combat, uncertain terrain, elevation, and other special circumstances, most of which are detailed in “Advanced Combat” from In the Labyrinth, don’t really matter to this basic overview.
Wizards can only cast spells they “know”, i.e. have committed IQ capacity to. (“Advanced” rules allow wizards to cast spells from grimoires, which is extremely slow, or from scrolls which is somewhat faster.) They need make no IQ roll to do so; they just pay the ST cost and it works. ST spent for spells (a.k.a. “fatigue”) returns after a few minutes of rest. Wizards need to keep track of which ST they expended for spells, and which they took from physical damage (which takes a lot longer to come back.) When ST goes to 0, no matter the cause, the wizard falls unconscious, as above.
As one might expect, many if not most spells either create battlefield obstacles or affect the target’s ability to fight. A curious subtype is the “Illusion” spell, which may be of any object, or in more advanced forms any creature, of a maximum size. Any character, even non-wizards, may attempt to disbelieve a wizard’s creation by succeeding at an IQ roll. If it’s an illusion, it’s dispelled. (If it’s a non-illusory creation, or a real object, nothing happens except the skeptic just wasted a combat round.) Neverthelesss, illusory fire does damage even if later disbelieved, and illusory bears can maul. One can get creatively nasty with Illusions or their weaker kin, Images. (Images disappear the moment they touch a real object.) Imagine an Illusion or Image of a normal floor over a spiked pit, for example. The rules state the creator of an illusory animal can see through its eyes, perhaps to avoid complicated line-of-sight rules; as a player I abused this rule to create a quick-and-dirty scrying spell.
Rules in ITL’s “Advanced Magic” section cover creating alchemical or magical items, assuming one has the Alchemy talent or an appropriate Enchantment spell. Again, the details don’t concern us here.
While Melee and Wizard contain rules geared for combat or magical duels, In the Labyrinth contains not only Advanced rules for each but rules for adventuring in wilderness or underground8 settings, finding jobs with regular income (in silver pieces or “$"), and other stuff that most old-school games of a certain age cover.
Notionally, TFT takes place on an impossibly huge planet called Cidri. The Mnoren, humans with an innate psionic ability to travel betwen alternate realities, created Cidri, and populated it with creatures from the thousands of alternate Earths they visited. Eventually the Mnoren disappeared for unknown reasons, leaving their empire of humans, near-humans, and other creatures to devolve into small, warring tribes and city-states.
In other words, anything could exist on Cidri. The bestiary details creatures of pseudo-medieval myth and legend, plus some speculative fiction creatures like insect people and land-dwelling multi-dexterous Octopuses (Octopi? Octopodes?). But a GM could also introduce a science-fiction ray gun or even a wrecked spaceship a la D&D’s Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.9 The core rules in 1977 detailed no continents or kingdoms, which is either liberating or daunting depending on one’s perspective. The 2019 edition includes “The Village of Bendwyn” and “Southern Elyntia”, which take up only a few pages at the back of ITL.
Assessing the Game
The Nostalgia Trip
As I said previously, Melee and Wizard were the first almost-RPGs I ever encountered, and when In The Labyrinth first came out in 1980 I reluctantly saved up $20 of my allowance and purchased it. The cover was flimsy, the typesetting occasionally a little off, the typos a bit annoying … but it fueled by young imagination in the same way Star Wars had a few years prior, and the limited science fiction and fantasy section of my local library in the intervening years.
But then I moved on, to Traveller and RuneQuest and Champions, and to Steve Jackson’s GURPS which was essentially his TFT do-over. (As one of my fellow college students repeatedly and angrily ranted, GURPS also borrowed many ideas from the aforementioned Champions.) And then came Ars Magica and Fate and lots of other systems, each of which made those older systems look increasingly limited, even quaint.
So now I look at The Fantasy Trip, Legacy Edition, more expensive but with fewer errors and better production values. I recognize some of the system’s good points: characteristics that directly affect a character’s abilities10, a simple task resolution system for all situations, and extremely detailed combat rules if you like that sort of thing. But I also see the many flaws:
Combat in The Fantasy Trip simply requires a hex map, which is why the Legacy Edition includes hex tiles. While the current edition of In The Labyrinth pays lip service to running combats without a map, other rules scattered throughout the book require it.
Compare this to, say, GURPS, which provides tactical combat movement as an option, albeit an encouraged one, or later games like FATE which track movement across coarse-grained “zones” instead of measuring yards, meters, hexes, or squares.
For that matter, the updated version of ITL is targeted towards GMs, despite a lot of player-facing content, and assumes that players and GMs are already familiar with Melee and/or Wizard. The first section is written entirely for the GM, followed by the “Advanced Combat” and “Advanced Magic” sections.11
Compare this to, say, the 5th and 8th editions of Tunnels & Trolls, which gently introduces players to all the essential rules, then provides advanced rules and GM resources toward the back.
Using ST to fuel spells and take damage does lead to the “bodybuilding wizard” problem that early editions of GURPS also had: high ST allows a wizard to cast more spells but also lets them carry heavier weapons and take more damage, which ruins the stereotype of the frail wizard. “Advanced Magic” introduces Powerstones which can store ST to power spells, an approach GURPS later took.
GURPS introduced Health (HT) which determined Hit Points (HP) while ST provided Fatigue Points (FP) to power spells; 4th edition swapped the roles of HT and ST so that ST determined HP – since ST roughly corresponded to mass in other rules – and HT provided FP – just as it provided resistance to disease and poison. Runequest and its successors simply defined Magic Points off a mental characteristic called Power. Other systems define tactical spell limits as castings per day.
The ITL “Talent” conflates learned skills, innate abilities, and everything in between. IQ limits what talents a character can take twice, both in number and in kind. “You must be this smart to Detect Lies” seems a little arbitrary and reductive.
GURPS replaced most of these talents with Skills, which adds the skill rank to effective DX or IQ (or sometimes HT); most skills default to a characteristic at a penalty (e.g. DX-5) rather than adding dice. Talents like Alertness – keen senses – became Advantages, paid for with “character points” during character creation or bestowed later with experience. The aforementioned “Legends of …" rules from Dark City Games took the same tack. Skills generally seem like a more flexible and extensible system for learned abilities.
Why It Can’t Be “Fixed”
While I suggested alternate rules and simplifications for Cepheus Atom and AFF2, I don’t think simple house rules will fix the problems above. Or rather, the “house rules” already exist as GURPS, in which character generation has gotten extremely complicated, and “Legends of …", which is a decent enough emulator for old and new programmed adventures but isn’t complete enough for a full RPG.
Tactical combat with adjusted attribute rolls is kind of the point of the whole system. Remove the tactical combat portion and you end up with a clunky version of “GURPS Ultra-Lite”. Add more attributes or replace them with a skill system and you’re effectively writing your own more complicated game.
Sure there’s other stuff to cannibalize or draw inspiration from, but honestly RPGs have advanced since 1977 and 1980. There are simply better systems out there now.
What We Can Learn
Today I might run a Fantasy Trip adventure or even mini-campaign, if I could find players who were into it, but I don’t think I’d run a full campaign. Tactical single-unit wargaming just doesn’t interest me any more. Tunnels & Trolls more closely reflects my attitude toward combat in RPGs: skip the blow-by-blow and tactical maneuvering, just tell me how it ends.
Some of TFT’s best features (and some not so good ones) ended up in GURPS. Some not-so-good ones, like using Talents to define everything about (non-magical) characters, have been quietly forgotten. It stands as an elegant game design with a lot of fascinating ideas, but also as a style of tabletop RPG rendered obsolete by a wealth of tabletop options, mostly oriented toward story and character development, and by combat-oriented computer games and tools that handle nitty-gritty details far better.
OK, I briefly played Traveller back in the early 1980s, but this was the original die-during-character-creation edition, decades before Mongoose published their SRD or Cepheus was a twinkle in Jason Kemp’s eye. ↩︎
No relation to the Steve Jackson who created the Fighting Fantasy books. ↩︎
Noted in square brackets in the character listing. ↩︎
Or the lead player if all players are acting as a team against NPCs. ↩︎
Technically, before movement, wizards who cast continuing spells in previous rounds can either renew them or drop them, paying any ST costs necessary. ↩︎
Just like D&D, RuneQuest, Traveller, GURPS, etc., except damage only uses six-sided dice. ↩︎
Armor absorbs damage as in RuneQuest, Traveller, and GURPS, rather than making characters harder to hit as in D&D. ↩︎
Called “labyrinths”, lest one confuse TFT with that other game or that other other game ↩︎
One of Metagaming’s last solo adventures for TFT was set in a post-apocalyptic bunker. ↩︎
Unlike D&D’s characteristics, which depending on editions might give bonuses and penalties to die rolls but didn’t really matter as much as a PC’s class. ↩︎
In 1977 TFT consisted of ITL, Advanced Melee, and Advanced Wizard. Prior to 2019, Steve Jackson decided to throw the latter two sections into ITL, rather than publish three slender books. ↩︎