Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map

In the late 70s, the ads that ran in Dragon for the Melee and Wizard microgames convinced me to send away for Melee. I had grown interested in seeing how games other than Dungeons & Dragons handled fantasy combat, but I half expected to be disappointed. Role playing games required hefty books, and Melee and Wizard were not even full role playing games, just tiny pamphlets with paper maps and cardboard counters. Still, Melee seemed cheap at $2.95, even weighed against the little money I made cutting lawns.Advertisment for Melee and Wizard

Game designer Steve Jackson created Melee and Wizard after his first game, the futuristic-tank classic Ogre. In Space Gamer issue 29, Steve wrote, “Like everyone else who tried an early version of D&D, I wanted to make some changes. The polyhedral dice were irritating—but the biggest problem was combat. The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.”

I didn’t share any dissatisfaction with the D&D combat rules, because I had never seen any better alternatives. However, my D&D games had drifted away from the uninteresting fights and toward exploration and problem solving—the more satisfying parts of the game.

So Melee provided a revelation.

Unlike early D&D, where your six characteristics hardly mattered, and where one fighter played much like another, with Melee you could create a variety of heroes from two, carefully-balanced characteristics: strength and dexterity. Strength determined how potent a weapon you could wield and how many “hits” you could survive. Dexterity determined your chance to hit, and who gained initiative.

I liked Melee so much that I immediately sent for Wizard.

Wizard added intelligence, a dump stat for non-wizards, which cleverly balanced wizards against mundane heroes. The spell point system allowed wizards to cast spells every turn, without resorting to darts or a crossbow. And the spells featured a variety of interesting battle effects. I loved how my wizard could snake a wall of fire across the battlefield, dealing damage and obstructing the enemies.

For me, the real revelation came from the map and counters. You see, despite D&D’s billing as “Rules for Fantastic Miniature Wargames,” I had never seen miniatures used for more than establishing a marching order. From local game groups to the D&D Open tournaments at GEN CON, no combats used battle maps, miniatures, counters, or anything other than the theater of the mind. Miniatures struck me as a superfluous prop, hardly needed by sophisticated players. The idea of bringing a tape measure to the table to measure out ranges and inches of movement seemed ridiculous.

I failed to realize how limited we were by theater of the mind. Without a map, nobody can really follow the action unless things stay very simple. In practice, you could be in front, swinging a weapon, or behind the fighters, making ranged attacks. Two options. If you were a thief, you could also try and circle around to backstab. As Steve Jackson wrote, “You just rolled dice and died.”

Melee and Wizard included hex maps and counters and simple rules for facing, movement, and engagement. After just one game, I felt excited by all the tactical richness that I had formerly snubbed.

My enlightenment came long before third edition D&D brought the battle map into widespread use. Ready-made battle mats simply didn’t exist. So at GEN CON, I purchased blank, poster maps with both 1” squares and hexes, and I had them laminated for use with wet-erase markers. I discovered that drawing the rooms and corridors of the dungeon on the mat as the players explored gave the players a much better understanding of their surroundings. (No players enjoyed the old-school practice of sketching a map based on the DM’s descriptions. It’s only fun for sadistic DMs who like frustrating players with teleports and gradual slopes.) When Steve Jackson Games introduced Cardboard Heroes, I came to rely on them. I hardly ever ran a combat without a map.

As much as Melee and Wizard inspired me, the games suffered some flaws. Wizards drew on strength to power spells, leading to some curiously brawny wizards. As your character gained experience, their characteristics increased. Soon, experienced characters earned high enough stats to succeed at everything, virtually automatically. Ultimately, Steve would address the flaws in Man-to-Man and then GURPS, at the price of wonderful simplicity.

Next: D&D brings back tactics late in second edition.

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