Tag Archives: The Fantasy Trip

5 role-playing products that shaped how I play Dungeons & Dragons 1977-1978

Holmes Basic Set (1977)

The blue box of the 1977 Holmes Basic Set introduced me to D&D. To ninty-nine percent of Dungeons & Dragons players, the edition that introduced them to the game stands as their most important. Why should I be different?

Dungeons & Dragons Basic SetPlayers who came later never saw how revolutionary the game and its brand of fantasy seemed in the 70s.

Then, games sold as toys and they were all terrible. They suffered from stupid, and random mechanics: Roll a die and move that many spaces. These games offered minimal choices. In them, the winner became obvious well before the end, yet they took forever to finish.

Before I saw D&D, I heard of the game in a 12-year-old’s lunch-room pitch. After school, I sat with a sheet of graph paper and tried to imagine how the game would play. I got nowhere. From my experience rolling a die and moving that many squares, I had no clue how a game could allow the things the kids claimed.

So in a mere 48 pages, the 1978 basic Dungeons & Dragons rule book edited by J. Eric Holmes shattered my notion of what a game could be.

As a kid in the 70s, All the fantasy I knew came from picture books. Stories where trolls lived under bridges and bugbears under beds. Nothing prepared me for a game inspired by Appendix N.

For more, see “4 popular beliefs Dungeons & Dragons defied in the 70s.”

City State of the Invincible Overlord (1977)

When I discovered D&D, TSR had yet to publish any setting information other than the hints published in the Grayhawk and Blackmoor supplements. For a break from dungeon adventures, the original rules suggested wandering the hex map packed in Avalon Hill’s Outdoor Survival game and rolling encounters.

City State of the Invincible OverlordSo when the City State of the Invincible Overlord reached me, the scope of my game exploded. The $9 setting included a huge 34″ x 44″ map in four sections, and 11″ x 17″ map of the castle of the dwarven king backed with a sprawling dungeon map, three booklets detailing over 300 individual locations and the non-player characters who populate them, maps for ten more dungeon levels, plus players’ maps.

The package shows remarkable creative output. No locations in the sprawling city rate as too mundane for descriptions. Even with five bakers, the guide finds something interesting to say about each.

Instead of adopting the entire City State, I cherry picked stuff I liked. My 1977 copy of the city state still contains the pencil marks noting my favorite bits. The best inspiration came from the rumors seeding every location. Now we would call them adventure hooks. In an era when most players just wandered, these ideas suggested a way to steer the game from aimless looting to plot.

For more, see “A butcher, a baker, and naughty nannies in the City State of the Invincible Overlord.”

Arduin (1977).

Inspired by the Greyhawk and Blackmoor supplements, Dave Hargrave printed his house rules, lore, and advice in 3 little, brown books named after his world, The pages of the Arduin Grimoire teemed with fresh ideas. When I discovered the books, I became enchanted. I haven’t found a game book that proved as enjoyable to read.

In an era when state-of-the-art setting design consisted of a map paired with encounter tables, Hargrave opened a world with detail that rivaled any setting that came later.

The Arduin TrilogyDave Hargrave’s campaign world of Arduin was not built; it was piled. To create Arduin, Hargrave took every fantastic element he dreamed up or fancied and piled them into one work of love. He preached bigger imaginary playgrounds. “The very essence of fantasy gaming is its total lack of limitation on the scope of play, both in its content and in its appeal to people of all ages, races, occupations or whatever,” He wrote. “So don’t limit the game by excluding aliens or any other type of character or monster. If they don’t fit what you feel is what the game is all about, don’t just say ‘NO!,’ whittle on them a bit until they do fit.” (Vol. II, p.99)

He tore up the D&D rules and offered wild changes. His specific rules hardly mattered. The message mattered: Hargrave encouraged me to own the rules and my games and to create a game that suited me and my players.

For more, see “Once subversive, the Arduin Grimoire’s influence reaches today’s games.”

Melee (1977) and Wizard (1978)

Over my first years years of playing D&D, the fun of the game’s battles waned. My games drifted away from the fights, and toward exploration and problem solving.

Advertisment for Melee and WizardGame designer Steve Jackson understood the trouble. In Space Gamer issue 29, he wrote, “The D&D combat rules were confusing and unsatisfying. No tactics, no real movement—you just rolled dice and died.” Steve turned his desire for better battles into elegant rules.

In the late 70s, ads in Dragon magazine convinced me to spend $2.95 on Jackson’s combat game Melee and $3.95 on the magic addition Wizard. 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.

I loved playing the games so much that they changed the way I played D&D.

The 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.

For more, see “Melee, Wizard, and learning to love the battle map.”

Runequest (1978)

With Dungeons & Dragons, Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax invented the role-playing game. With Runequest, Steve Perrin and Ray Turney showed how to design a role-playing game.

Runequest second edition

Steve Perrin first entered the hobby when he distributed his D&D house rules, “The Perrin Conventions,” at DunDraCon in 1976. This led to Runequest, a game that replaced every aspect of D&D with more flexible, realistic, and simpler alternative: Skills replaced the confining class system. Experience came from experience, not from taking treasure. Armor absorbed damage from blows that landed. Combat simulated an exchange of blows, dodges and parrys. Damage represented actual injuries. Rather than a hodge-podge of mechanics, Runequest introduced the idea of a core mechanic that provided a way to resolve every task. Rather than the game setting implied by all of Gary’s favorite fantasy tropes, Runequest supported Glorantha, a unique world built as a consistent, logical setting.

Suddenly, D&D’s rules seemed as dated as gas lights and buggy whips. I enjoyed an occasional D&D game, but I switched to electric lighting until D&D adopted much of the same technology for third edition.

Today, simulation seems less important than in 1978. I now see that rules that made D&D unrealistic also added fun by enabling the game’s combat-intensive dungeon raids. For more, see “The brilliance of unrealistic combat” and “The fun and realism of unrealistically awarding experience points for gold.”

However, elegance remains as important as ever. Aside from earlier editions, D&D’s current design owes more to Runequest than any other game. Third-edition D&D’s lead designer Jonathan Tweet called Runequest the role-playing game that taught how to design RPGs. Actually, Runequest taught everyone how.

Jonathan Tweet credits Runequest with a long list of innovations that reached D&D.

  • prestige classes (rune lords, rune priests, and initiates)
  • unified skill-combat-saving-throw system
  • ability scores for monsters
  • 1 in 20 hits are crits
  • ability scores that scaled up linearly without artificial caps
  • a skill system that let anyone try just about anything
  • armor penalties for skill checks and spellcasting
  • creature templates
  • faction affiliations
  • hardness for objects
  • chance to be hit modified by Dexterity and size
  • iconic characters used in examples throughout the rule book
  • rules for PCs making magic items.

Next: 1978-2000

Ability scores in fantasy role-playing games up to 1983

While researching some posts, I looked at the ability scores in the fantasy role-playing games published from 1974 to 1983. My notes grew until they became the tables that appear here.

These tables encompass nearly every fantasy RPG published between 1974 and 1983 that I happen to have, and I must have almost all of them. I cannot find my copy of Lords of Creation from 1983. Sorry LoC fans.

The table lists a 13 character traits from strength to beauty, and indicates the ability score each game uses to represent the trait. To decide on the mappings, I drew on each game’s description of an ability, and on the ability’s mechanical effect in the game. If more than one score contributed to an ability, I mapped the score with the biggest contribution.

Trait Blackmoor
(1971-1973)
Dungeons
& Dragons
(1974)
Tunnels &
Trolls
(1975)
Empire of
the Petal
Throne
(1975)
Metamorphosis
Alpha
(1975)
Arduin
(1977)
Chivalry
& Sorcery
(1978)
RuneQuest
(1978)
Adventures
in Fantasy
(1978)
Advanced
Dungeons &
Dragons
(1978)
The Fantasy
Trip
(1977-1980)
RoleMaster
(1980-1982)
DragonQuest
(1980)
Bushido
(1980)
Swordbearer
(1982)
Hero System
(1981)
Palladium
Role-playing
Game (1983)
Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical Strength Strength Strength Strength Physical
Strength
Stamina Health Constitution Constitution Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Stamina Constitution Constitution Fatigue Health Mass Constitution Physical
endurance
Health Constitution Health
Durability Endurance Body
Magic ability Brains Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence   Intelligence Intelligence Power Intelligence Intelligence IQ Reasoning
Memory
Magical aptitude Will   Intelligence IQ
Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Intelligence Wit Intelligence
Search ability                   Intuition Perception  
Awareness                    
Willpower       Psychic
Ability
Mental
Resistance
Ego       Wisdom Self Discipline Willpower Will   Ego Mental
Endurance
Spirituality Cunning Wisdom       Wisdom Wisdom       Empathy          
Precision of
movement
  Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity   Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Dexterity Manual
Dexterity
Deftness Agility Dexterity Physical
Prowess
Quickness   Agility Quickness Agility Speed Speed
Charm Credibility Charisma Charisma   Leadership
Potential
Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma Charisma   Presence       Presence Mental
affinity
Beauty Looks
Sex
Comeliness Comeliness Personal
Appearance
Comeliness
(Unearthed
Arcana
)
Physical Beauty     Comeliness Physical
Beauty

Throughout all the years, fantasy RPGs adopted ability scores descended from the original six scores in D&D. Sometimes the names change—only the term “Strength” remains constant—but the essential traits remain. Some games split one of the original ability scores into narrower abilities: Dexterity splits into an attribute for precise movements and one for quickness. Constitution splits into attributes for endurance and resilience. Charisma splits into attributes for charm and beauty. With Unearthed Arcana, AD&D experimented with the Charisma and Comeliness split.

Not all games represent every trait in an ability score. When no ability applies to a trait, the cell appears in yellow.

The table omits a few odd ability scores that share no comparable scores in the other games. Tunnels & Trolls includes Luck, which apparently gives players a chance to roll all their saving throws at once. Chivalry & Sorcery includes Bardic Voice, for your Feudal Idol campaign. Arduin adds Mechanical Ability and Swimming Ability because no one had invented skills yet.

These games come from an era when most designers worked to simulate game worlds more accurately than D&D. In the games that appeared in the early ’80s, this quest for realism shows in burgeoning numbers of ability scores. Powers & Perils appeared in 1983 and reaches a pinnacle for the situationist era of ability scores.

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils, one of Avalon Hill’s RPGs from 1983

Powers & Perils uses scores for Strength, Stamina, Dexterity, Agility, Intelligence, Will, Eloquence, Empathy, Constitution, and Appearance. If designers had borrowed Bardic Voice from C&S, they would have covered everything. The game drops combinations of these 10 attributes into formulas for various factors used in the game. For example, to find your character’s Hit Point Value (HPV), calculate (S + St + C)/4, using Strength, Stamina, and Constitution. The game includes pages of similar equations, and thus defied my attempts to match abilities to my table. By 1984, unpopular RPGs such as P&P and Lords of Creation drove Avalon Hill to write a check for the RuneQuest license.

Meanwhile, The Fantasy Trip came from Steve Jackson’s man-to-man skirmish games, Melee and Wizard, and used just three ability scores. As the first RPG to use a point-buy system for ability scores, the abilities in TFT needed to be equally valuable.

The first Hero System game, Champions, also featured a point-buy system, but the system never balances the value of abilities. Instead, more valuable abilities cost more points. Other games on this list never needed to balance ability scores; players rolled the dice and took what chance gave them.

For comparison, D&D Next’s ability scores map as follows.

Characteristic Dungeons & Dragons
Next (2014)
Strength Strength
Endurance Constitution
Health
Durability
Magic
ability
Intelligence
Intelligence
Search
ability
Awareness Wisdom
Willpower
Spirituality
Precision Dexterity
Quickness
Charm Charisma
Beauty

In the games that followed D&D, only the Wisdom ability score stands with few clear descendants. The story of Wisdom is a subject for a future post.

D&D Next brings back random ability scores and loses their charm

On my first look at the Dungeons & Dragons Next playtest, the first page of rules stunned me. The Next rules instructed players to roll dice to set their ability scores.

Most D&D Next players will likely generate characters using the optional point-buy method. But when the D&D Next designers opted to default to random ability scores, they made a forceful statement that they planned to look beyond fourth edition and beyond organized play to D&D’s roots.

Signed Greyhawk CoverIn original D&D, your ability scores barely mattered. Gifted characters received a 10% bonus to experience and maybe +1 somewhere, but they earned few other perks. In a game without ability checks or bonuses, character ability scores hardly affected play. But as soon as the 1976 Greyhawk supplement granted fighters bonuses to hit and damage, ability scores started growing in importance to their current role at the heart of the game.

The growing importance of ability scores increased the difference in power between characters generated randomly. Most players dislike playing a character inferior to the others at the table. And if you honestly rolled a prime requisite of 11 while the other characters at the table boast scores in the teens, then you feel like a chump. Apparently, all the other players spent an afternoon rerolling characters until they could cherry-pick supermen.

This problem led role-playing game designers to give players a set number of points to buy character ability scores.

Champions role-playing game from 1981

Champions role-playing game from 1981

In 1977, two games introduced point-buy methods for character creation, but neither Superhero ’44 nor Melee fully-qualified as role-playing game. Superhero ’44 limited player actions to a menu of patrol activities and lacked descriptions of superpowers—in a superhero game. Steve Jackson’s Melee started as a man-to-man combat game that would become an RPG with the release of Into the Labyrinth in 1980. In 1981, Champions popularized point-buy systems. Champions proved so influential that most newer games turned to relying on trading points for abilities.

In 1987, the Living City campaign introduced a shared campaign world to D&D. The shared campaign dealt another blow to random ability scores. Unless you want tables that team Superman with Clark Kent, random ability scores won’t fly. Living City required players to use a point-buy method to generate D&D characters. The point-buy method appeared in third edition as an option, and then became the standard in fourth edition.

Even though random ability scores bring drawbacks, with the right crowd, they can be fun.

Random character creation provides a lively activity. Rolling up characters provides a fun, group activity where you sit with your friends and everyone rolls. This way, when you throw an 18, you have witnesses, and when you roll a weak, ugly, clumsy half-wit, you can lobby for a fresh start. Everyone works together to assemble a party.

Die rolling provides an easy start for beginners. When new players roll their first character, they immediately throw dice, which feels like playing a game. Have you ever tried to help a new player create a character using a point-buy system? Instead of rolling dice, you explain ability scores, explain which abilities benefit various character types, explain point values and totals, and more, while the new player looks for a polite excuse to leave. You promised a game and started with homework.

Random characters provide engaging role-playing challenges. Some players enjoy the challenge of making a hero from a wretch, while many role players enjoy turning a miserable characteristic into a defining trait.

Random characters don’t all look alike. Random ability scores can create characters that feel organic—that break the optimal recipes of good ability scores and dump stats. For example, your randomly-generated fighter might have a high intelligence and a weaker constitution. These unusual combinations can fuel both role-playing and play strategy.

D&D Next offers this character-creation method: (1) Roll 4d6 and add the three highest dice to generate each of 6 scores. (2) Assign these 6 scores to the 6 abilities in way you like.

Plenty of history backs this method. It first appeared as the top-recommended method in the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide. The method carries through second and third editions.

Despite history, this method offers the worst of both worlds.

The best aspect of random character generation stems from the interesting but sub-optimal characters created. Allowing players to assign scores to any ability keeps the worst part of rolling characters—uneven character power. Then the method throws out the best part of rolling—interesting and organic characters.

I get the method’s purpose: Players can assign rolls to suit their chosen class. While some old-schoolers may find this decadent, the game should allow enough latitude to choose a class. Even in original D&D, where the referee rolled the characters, players could choose from a pool of candidates.

Rather than allowing players to shuffle rolled ability scores into any order, I suggest players roll scores in order, and then swap two scores. This system keeps characters organic and interesting, while giving players flexibility to choose a class. Plus, new players only have one decision to make. If you want to compensate for the less-flexible scores, allow players to reroll one bad score. That’s decadent enough.