In 1980, the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Open tournament played much like D&D games at home. The scenarios included dungeon exploration and fights with a dash of problem solving. Success came from quick play and cooperation. The Against the Slave Lords adventures show the sort of game players could expect.
In 1979, Len Bland and James Robert tried to enter the AD&D Open at Gen Con, but were turned away, so they decided to create their own tournament for next year’s convention. In 1980, they introduced Fez, a tournament like the AD&D Open, only better. In 1981, my buddies and I, at our first Gen Con, stumbled into the Fez tournament and had a blast, more fun than we had in that year’s AD&D Open. For several years, even as our interests wandered from AD&D to other role-playing games, Fez remained the Gen Con event we most eagerly anticipated.
Plus, Fez featured a play style different from the typical D&D game, and it blew my impressionable mind.
Fez I: Wizard’s Vale sets a pattern the tournament would follow for years to come. Players begin the game unfamiliar with their characters’ abilities. The players start with a brief description of their character and hints of what the character can do, but with no game stats, and with no knowledge of their goals. In Fez I, the characters begin the game waking with amnesia.
This setup points to what made Fez so brilliant. The character sheet lacked the pat solutions of skills and magic and THAC0. To succeed, players could only rely on their wits as and whatever solutions they could uncover in the game world.
In this blog, I’ve shown how a reliance of skill checks tends to encourage players to focus on their character stats and to lose interest in the game world. When a skill check solves any problem in the game world, the details of the problem become unimportant.
When I played Fez, little seemed to demand a roll. Behind the dungeon master’s screen, Fez was a D&D game complete with THAC0 and HP (or HTK as the module writes, perhaps as part of an agreement between Mayfair Games and TSR). From my player’s perspective, Fez factored rules out of the game, making immersion the game world all important. Normally, I would not want to play battles without character stats, but in Fez, the objective seemed to be to avoid fights.
In Fez, the characters always started without knowledge of their ultimate objectives. This convention started the players and their characters on the same footing. It enabled Bland and Robert to start the players with a puzzle—the task of learning their goal.
Each tournament offered more puzzles and mysteries beyond the first. In Fez II: The Contract, players must settle Fez’s bet with a demon by accomplishing seven impossible tasks. Every task offers a puzzle with a variety of solutions. For example, players can circle the world in a single day either by repairing a crashed spaceship and circling the world, or by going to a library, finding a map, and drawing a circle around the world.
In Fez II, characters are plucked from the modern day, and one is an engineer, so repairing the space ship is less impossible than it seems. Every Fez challenges players with novel characters. In the first Fez, one player gets a Lammasu character. In Fez III: Angry Wizard, everyone plays a polymorphed monster. In Fez V: Wizard’s Betrayal, someone plays this:
Much of the Fez’s charm comes from a gleeful mix of magic and technology. The game’s namesake, the wizard Fez, travels though time and frequently visits the modern day. The scenarios mix faerie and monsters, aliens and robots, with as much joy as a kid mixing action figures and toys for make believe. Despite the light tone, the first adventures still feel like D&D and avoid turning goofy.
After Fez V, Bland stopped writing the series, and the tone becomes sillier. For example, Fez VI: Wizard’s Dilemma includes a gag where the players overcome orcs by getting them to argue over whether a beer tastes great or is less filling. Years later, when I resampled Fez’s descendent, the NASCRAG tournament, it seemed to have lost any flavor of a D&D world to gags and pages from a puzzle book tacked to the dungeon wall. For my taste, it lacked the old magic.
But before Len Bland passed the torch, he and James Robert finished with Fez V: Wizard’s Betrayal, an adventure that would blow my mind again. Fez V inspired me to do a Gen Con tournament of my own. More on that in a future post.
During the 80s, Mayfair Games published the Fez adventures as a series of modules. You can still find used copies at affordable prices.