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?"

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.


Jeff V. said...

This is one of the better "thumbnail" comparisons between TFT and GURPS (and between TFT and other games in general) that I've seen. I've been playing TFT for 40 years now, and still think it's absolutely the best Fantasy RPG I've ever owned. Why? Because it's simple enough that the mechanics don't constantly get in your way (witness your experience GM-ing D&D) and that allows everyone to "master" the mechanics in a short period of time. Which, in turn, means everyone gets into the role-playing that much faster! And that's why we play -- to role-play, not roll-play! At the same time, since every choice you make in the game is meaningful, there's really no such thing as "mastering the game." You master the mechanics easily, but the choices you make mean that you can never really be entirely sure what the outcome of any combination of choices you make will actually be -- and that's where the fascination that keeps bringing me back comes from.

Another big difference between TFT and many other games (but not all -- Call of Cthulhu comes to mind as another) is the sheer deadliness of the game -- you can be killed by just one or two lucky hits by the enemy; which means that running away is ALWAYS a viable option; and fear is present in every battle. ;-) Something that many modern games, with their "challenge ratings" don't really give you the chance to experience. Some folks may consider that a DISadvantage, but not me. One of the great things about early roleplaying games was that you were always wary, never quite knew what to expect; it was one of the great atmosphere builders of the early days!

Finally, I'd like to put a plug in for a couple of "clones" of TFT -- C.R. Brandon's Heroes and Other Worlds (and even better, IMO, his Blades and Black Magic). He has tons of support material available, almost all of it basically written in TFT terms, including a couple of excellent mini-settings, and the great Terrors and Treasures (probably 85%+ of the D&D monsters in TFT terms) and Magi Carta (which probably has 85%+ of the D&D magic spells translated to TFT terms). And Dark City Games, which has kept the "solo dungeon" concept alive and well the past ten years and has a great selection of "gamettes" (I don't suppose I can call them Microquests, can I?) for sale on their web page -- all of which use their own clone of TFT but are fully playable with Legacy TFT as written. Enjoy!

Branduan said...

Great analysis, thanks for making the effort! Hopefully I'll get my own group playing . . .

Sean Robson said...

Thanks for your insightful comments, Jeff! I completely agree that TFT gets out of your way and lets you get straight to the role playing. As for the deadliness, well, I was playing Melee the other day and rolled a 3 to hit with a great sword for over 30 points of damage. Doesn't matter how much armour you're wearing when that happens - time to make a new character!

Sean Robson said...

@ Branduan: Thanks! I'm glad you liked it; good luck with your group.