Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Thursday, May 30, 2019

The Spider Men of Leng

In caverns far below the surface of the land of Leng dwell the favoured disciples of Atlach-Nacha, upon whom the spider god has bestowed its blessing - or curse.  These once-human cultists, the Spider Men, are now twisted abominations cast out from human society and doomed to dwell in the shadows, spending their lives in service to their god.

Interlopers into the subterranean realm may find themselves taken unawares by the Spider Men, subdued and carried off into the darkness never to be heard from again.  The fate of such unfortunates is unknown, but whether they are used as food, or sacrifice, or as hosts for broodlings, most agree that they would be better off dead than in the multi-armed hands of the Spider Men.

Horrific parodies of humans, the Spider Men possess eight arms, each terminating in a five-fingered hand, with which they can scuttle across rough terrain without impediment, and climb faster than the most agile of primates.  With their five eyes they can see as well in the absolute darkness of the abyss as in the light of day.  They lurk in their webs spun on cavern ceilings, waiting to drop upon unsuspecting prey, which they prefer to take alive for purposes known only to themselves.

Average Spider Man: ST 12, DX 14, IQ 10, MA 12
Talents and special abilities: Climbing; Dark Vision; paralytic venom (as per Freeze spell);  Unarmed Combat II; webbing (as per Rope spell)
Tactics: Spider Men will try to engage foes in HTH combat whenever possible, often dropping upon them from above, which counts as entering from a rear hex.  Because they can employ many hands, Spider Men may punch twice per turn at no penalty, and they receive a +4 DX bonus when attempting to pin an opponent.  They will then bite pinned victims to paralyze them (the bite itself does no damage).

Spider Men rarely use weapons, preferring to attack bare-handed, but those who were priests of the spider cult will be wizards and will attack with spells appropriate to their IQ score.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Release the Cephalophants!

Within the dank grottos of their gene-sculpters, the octopuses have bred a fearsome new amphibious war mount for raids-in-force on the coastal villages of the surface world. 

For generations, octopus raids have been small-scale incursions of a few dozen raiders scuttling from their tide pools to steal weapons and supplies.  But the creation of cephalophants - monstrous amphibious war beasts - have elevated the octopus threat from nuisance to a genuine menace capable of razing a small town in a matter of hours.

Unlike their masters, the thick leathery hide of the cephalophant protects it from desiccation, allowing it to remain on land for long periods of time, requiring only periodic submersion in a pond or stream to re-hydrate.

It is not unlikely that some cephalophants may be cut off or abandoned after battle, and left to roam wild.  Over time they may migrate along water ways and spread inland to form herds.  It is not known whether cephalophants are able to mate with normal elephants.

Cephalophant - ST 60, DX 13, IQ 8, MA 15, may attack with up to four trunkacles per turn striking single or multiple targets at range of 2 hexes, dealing 2 dice damage each; charge attack deals 4 dice damage to all targets in its front hexes; when trampling smaller foes (ITL pg. 126) the cephalophant has no chance of falling down; leathery hide stops 2 hits of damage.  Cephalophants are 9-hex creatures.

Optional Equipment - the battle regalia of the cephalophant includes bronze plates that have a 50% chance (roll 1-3 on 1 dice) of stopping an additional 5 hits from attacks against its frontal hexes, and incur a -1 DX penalty; if equipped with full barding. the normal rules apply (ITL pg. 132).  A howdah carrying up to three octopus riders may be equipped, incurring a -1 DX penalty.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Why Play TFT?

I've seen this question posed a number of times on message boards and social media pages, and of course it's impossible to tell someone you don't know why they should play a certain game.  But I think what is really being asked is what makes TFT different from every other game out there, and that's a fair question.  TFT is an old game, dating back to the early years of the hobby.  How does it stack up against all the other games out there today?  Does it offer something unique, or is it just one more RPG amongst many, of nostalgic interest only to aging gamers who played it 'back in the day?'

The short answer is that TFT offers a game experience and style of play that is as unique today as it was when Melee first hit the scene back in 1977.  But you didn't come here for the short answer.  Like the old lady in the Wendy's commercial, you want the beef.

As far as I know there is no other game like it, not even GURPS, which is descended from TFT and arose like a phoenix from the ashes of its forebear.  Although there are some superficial similarities to TFT, GURPS has an almost diametrically opposed ethos and offers a completely different style of play, as I discovered back in the '90's when I turned to GURPS as an alternative to my long-lost TFT (check out my previous post for that tragic tale of loss and regret).  Where GURPS is a highly detailed, complex, simulationist rule set with a heavy focus on realism, TFT goes in almost the exact opposite direction: a fast-paced, easy to learn system that eschews realism for playability.  In other words it is a highly gameist system, by which I mean that it is first and foremost a game, where playability and balance trump realism, as opposed to a simulationist system, where balance is downplayed in favour of simulating realistic situations.

Most games lie somewhere in the middle of the gameist/simulationist spectrum.  D&D, for example, has both gameist and simulationist mechanics. It awards experience for treasure as a way of keeping score in the game, reinforcing the idea that the way to 'win' the game is to acquire as much treasure as possible.  But AD&D also has a detailed weapon vs. armour class modifier table that assigns a bonus or penalty to hit for every weapon in the game to represent the reality that some weapons are better than others against certain types of armour.  TFT skews heavily to the gameist side of the spectrum, while GURPS skews heavily to the simulationist side.

TFT characters have only three attributes representing Strength (ST), Dexterity (DX), and Intelligence (IQ).  Human characters begin with a score of 8 in each attribute, with a further 8 points to distribute between the three.  The attributes are balanced so that creating your character is an exercise in trade-offs.  Do you want a high ST/ low DX character, or one with high DX and low ST?  Or maybe a balanced character with all attributes near the norm?  Every single point you assign to one attribute over another changes how the character performs and makes your decisions meaningful.  In order to hit in combat you must roll your DX score or less on 3d6.  Your ST determines not only your hit points but how much damage you dish out.  Your IQ determines the number and level of talents and spells your character can know and use.  The beauty of TFT is that no character build is obviously superior to another.  Each is equally valid, and requires you to develop tactics to exploit your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.

Herein lies the gameist element of the system; the mechanics of TFT are not grounded in realism, but in balance and playability.  You must have a minimum IQ score to be able to learn certain spells or certain talents; they are grouped by IQ level, so you can't learn a talent or a spell of an IQ level higher than your own.  Weapons are grouped by ST; light weapons, such as daggers or rapiers have a low ST minimum, but deal little damage.  Heavy weapons such as great swords have high ST minimums and deal a large amount of damage.  This is, of course, completely unrealistic, and the weapon weights and the strengths required to wield them do not reflect the real world.  For example a great sword weighs 15 lbs (about twice as much as a real great sword) and requires a ST of 16 or more to wield.  The ST of an average human is 10, so you need to be extraordinarily strong to use a great sword in TFT (in reality even the feeblest among us could easily wield a great sword).

Armour in TFT acts to mitigate damage.  The heavier the armour you wear, the more damage it stops, and the greater the DX penalty you incur for wearing it.  Plate armour and a large shield stops 7 hits of damage per attack, but also confers a -6 penalty to DX, so an average person with 10 DX would have an adjusted DX of only 4!  This makes it really hard to hit enemies in combat, although you always hit on a roll of 5 or less regardless of your adj DX.  The DX penalty confered by armour also makes going without it a valid choice; suicidal in real life, but fully in line with the tropes of the sword & sorcery genre, making loincloth-wearing barbarians, and amazons in chain mail bikinis viable characters.   Again there is a trade-off between protection offered by armour and the penalty to your DX.  This is all very unrealistic; in truth a person in plate armour is not much less spry than an unarmoured person, and the benefit of extra protection makes armour mandatory in any realistic combat simulation.  This doesn't matter though, because the system works so well; the ST/DX/IQ trade-offs are why the choices you make during character creation are so meaningful.  There are no dump-stats in TFT, and every choice you make has pros and cons.  So if you want to run buck naked like Dejah Thoris across the martian landscape have at; you'll hit more often in combat, but one critical hit could end you.

Another unique feature of TFT is that, because it is an elaboration of Melee and Wizard, it is a more tactical game than most other rpgs.  Rather than simply running up to your enemies and taking turns hitting each other until one side dies, there are many movement and attack options that significantly influence the outcome of a battle.  The tactical nature of the game does not make it complicated or rules-heavy though; it remains fast-paced and easy to learn.  It's sort of like chess; you can learn to play in just a few minutes, but tactical mastery may take you years to achieve, making the game endlessly engaging and fun.

The third feature of TFT is how easy it is, not just to play, but also to game master.  I recounted in my last post the story of how bad a game master I was when I first started playing D&D in my early teens.  I suffered performance anxiety and stage fright during every session, and it was not until I tried TFT that I actually started enjoying myself.  With only three attributes and a dead simple mechanic, running adventures on the fly is a breeze, more so with this game than any other I have ever played.

So to sum up the prominent features of TFT:
1) Very easy to learn, but challenging to master.  Combat will hold your interest for years.
2) A player's choices, both during character creation and advancement, and during combat have a very real impact on the game and on the tactics you adopt to fight a battle.
3) There is no right or wrong way to make a character; however you choose to build them they will have strengths and weaknesses.
4) Incredibly easy on the game master.  NPCs can be created on the fly by jotting down three attributes on a scrap of paper.

If lack of realism really bothers you, then TFT might not be to your taste, but if you're okay with playing a game that revels in its gaminess then maybe you should play TFT.  Likewise if you're a 'theater of the mind' type who abhors the idea of playing with miniatures or counters on a battle map, maybe you need to look elsewhere.  But if you love miniatures as I do, then this may be the game for you.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Back in the Labyrinth

Hello, my friends.  It's been three years since my last post and I very much doubt anyone is still following this blog, but on the off chance that any of my old school gaming and blogging friends are still tuning in I want to explain my prolonged absence. 

Not long after my last post I was unexpectedly diagnosed with cancer and the shock of it, and the subsequent depression, sucked away my motivation to do much of anything.  I stopped writing, stopped gaming, stopped blogging.  I stopped doing just about everything that gave me joy.  I didn't want to give these things up, but I just couldn't muster the enthusiasm or energy to carry on with them, or even to care about what I was giving up.

Now here I am, three years later, still alive and now out of that funk of depression I'd fallen into.  I'm still living with cancer, but I'm used to it now; humans are amazingly adaptable and we can adjust to nearly any change in circumstances and make it our new normal.  Also, my current prognosis is much more encouraging than when I was first diagnosed, and I expect to be around for many years to come.

The thing that has inspired me to resurrect this dusty old blog is the return of The Fantasy Trip.  As most of you have probably heard, a couple of years ago Steve Jackson reacquired the rights to his first role-playing game, long held by Howard Thompson, publisher of Metagaming.  Last summer, Steve Jackson Games launched a Kickstarter campaign to republish TFT in all its glory.  I jumped on board the moment I heard about it, and a few days ago my TFT Legacy Edition boxed set arrived in the mail, almost exactly 39 years after first being introduced to TFT at the age of fourteen.

TFT holds a very special place in my heart.  Like many of us, I entered the gaming hobby with the Holmes edition D&D Basic set, and my previous gaming experience was limited to the usual suite of Parker Brothers board games like Monopoly and Payday.  The closest thing to an rpg I'd ever played was Clue.  As such, I found myself quite overwhelmed trying to figure D&D out, and my first session as a game master, running Keep on the Borderlands, was an unmitigated disaster.  I had no clue what I was doing, and my inadequacies were exacerbated by a serious case of stage fright.  Nonetheless I was hooked, as were most of my friends who played in that first session cluster-fuck, and they kept coming back for more instead of finding something better to do with their Saturday afternoons.  There is a magical allure to role-playing games that no amount of incompetence can quash.

I'd like to say that I quickly got the hang of things and became a great game master, but I didn't.  I continued to suck.  Hard.  And I couldn't shake that stage fright; the paralyzing fear of getting everything wrong just got worse with every mistake I made, and I made a lot of them.  Game sessions bogged down as I searched the rule book to figure out how things were supposed to work, I read aloud text from adventure modules that shouldn't have been read aloud, giving away surprises and ruining the fun, I was challenged on nearly every ruling, and felt the icy cold lump of fear settle into my stomach and make me want to slink down behind my GM screen and not come out.  On the bright side, my doctoral defense two decades later was a piece of cake by comparison; the committee members who attacked my thesis had nothing on a group of fourteen-year-old gamers.

The turning point in my game master experience came after I discovered TFT.  I started out buying Melee and Wizard, played some games with friends, and spent the better part of a summer playing arena matches by myself while my friends were away on family vacations.  I ran many a character through the solitaire adventure, Death Test, and by the time I finally picked up the role-playing rule book, In the Labyrinth, I had already mastered the game's combat and magic systems.  When I ran my first ITL adventure for my friends that old stage fright faded away.  There was very little to look up, and I didn't use any published adventures; the system was so elegantly simple I just ad-libbed the adventure as I went along.  And for the first time in my life I enjoyed being a game master.  I just let the players determine the course of the adventure and responded to their actions instead of forcing them down the railroad tracks of the prepared module; I made up quirky NPCs and spoke with funny voices; I had fun.  My group's favourite antagonist was Malcolm Brinebester, the local tax collector who had an uncanny knack for sensing when the characters were just back from an adventure with overladen swag sacks in need of redistribution to the crown.  I suspect my players devoted nearly as much time giving Malcolm the slip as they did fighting orcs.

Throughout my high school years I played many different games from a variety of genres: Traveller, Top Secret, Gamma World, Call of Cthulhu, Ysgarth, The Morrow Project, Champions, and on and on.  But TFT has always been special to me; it was the game that taught me how to be a game master.

And then disaster struck.  Shortly after high school I joined the navy and left home with naught but a duffle bag, and while I was away my mother cleared out my room and threw away most of my gaming stuff.  Including all my TFT books.  For decades I've desperately wanted to reacquire TFT, but I was never able to find used copies for a reasonable price.  So naturally, when the opportunity arose to support the campaign to relaunch the game I was all in, and I'm finally reunited with this wonderful game after far too many years.  I'm playing Melee and Wizard arena battles by myself again, and soon I'll be pitting myself against the challenge of the Death Test once again.  Will fifty-three-year-old Sean be any more successful than my fourteen-year-old-self?  Stay tuned.  I'm back in the labyrinth.