This is the story of a Kickstarter which many in the RPG community had thought would never be possible, or at least wouldn’t be possible until at least one stubborn rights-holder had ended up in the grave. The departure of Steve Jackson (the US one who does GURPS and Munchkin, not the UK one who started Games Workshop and Fighting Fantasy) from Howard Thompson’s Metagaming was, as I’ve discussed previously, a bitter breakup involving no small amount of acrimony, largely from Thompson’s direction (at least in terms of public behaviour and incidents).
One of the ways in which Thompson tried to get back at Jackson concerned The Fantasy Trip, an RPG which Jackson had written whilst at Metagaming (and, indeed, the subject of some of the ill feeling between them, with Jackson and Thompson having very different tastes in RPGs and ideas about what form the product should take). After Metagaming went bust, it was only natural that Jackson should ask after the rights to The Fantasy Trip, but Thompson demanded a quarter of a million dollars for the rights.
This was an absolutely absurd amount of money, even during the early 1980s RPG boom, and Thompson’s reasons for asking for it have been the matter of lasting speculation. Was he absolutely kidding himself about how much the rights were actually worth? That would be consistent with a caricature of Thompson as a clueless businessman who didn’t know his own industry, but the dude had kept the lights on at Metagaming for nearly a decade, so if he were that clueless it’d be surprising. Did he have half a mind to get back into the industry? If so, after three-and-a-half decades he hasn’t made any apparent effort to do so.
To me, the explanation which is most consistent with the facts is good old-fashioned spite: Thompson still bore a grudge against Jackson for leaving (and taking some hot IP like the OGRE boardgame with him), Thompson therefore demanded an absurd amount of money from Jackson for the Fantasy Trip rights, working on the basis that it was more insulting than simply refusing to negotiate at all – and that if Jackson were actually fool enough to pay him the money, he’d be gambling with the stability of Steve Jackson Games itself.
Thompson, however, didn’t figure on the arcane operation of 17 U.S. Code § 203, a legal clause allowing authors to claim back the rights to works they’d signed away after 35 years. A little known and even more infrequently used clause, invoking it allowed Jackson to reclaim all the rights he had in The Fantasy Trip. Whilst that didn’t include the artwork, or the range of products that Metagaming had made written by other hands, that did include the text to all the products that Jackson himself had written – and since that included all the core rules to The Fantasy Trip, the stage was set for the game’s return after decades in the wilderness. And what better platform to fund the big comeback than Kickstarter?
Usual Note On Methodology
Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.
The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.
Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.
The centrepiece of the Kickstarter was the new Legacy Edition of The Fantasy Trip. Back when the game was originally published, it was the subject of intense disagreement between Howard Thompson and Steve Jackson as to what form it should take, in part because of its unusual publishing history; rather than being originally published all in one go, The Fantasy Trip had emerged in a piecemeal fashion, with the boardgames Melee and Wizard preceding it (and based on segments of the game rules) and the rulebook that actually tied it together into a full RPG, In the Labyrinth, coming out later.
Jackson felt that The Fantasy Trip should be packaged as a lavish boxed set, with all the components needed to play present and correct; Thompson disagreed. In the end, Thompson had his way, with In the Labyrinth coming out as a separate book along with Advanced Wizard and Advanced Melee, booklets expanding on the baseline Melee and Wizard systems. Now, thanks to the power of Kickstarter and his reacquisition of the rights, Jackson reasonably wanted to do the game his way; the Legacy Edition would essentially be a “director’s cut”, offering in one box not just the components that Jackson had originally intended to be delivered together, but a swathe of additional play aids besides.
The Kickstarter turned out to be big news in gaming circles. This might seem surprising; arguably, The Fantasy Trip had only enjoyed a brief commercial lifespan as an RPG (In the Labyrinth only came out in 1980, then Metagaming collapsed in 1983), and this was during a time period when several other fantasy RPGs such as RuneQuest, Chivalry & Sorcery, Rolemaster, and of course Dungeons & Dragons were riding high.
Nonetheless, in that brief span and against such stiff competition, The Fantasy Trip earned itself a loyal fanbase, with fanzine activity and online discussion persisting throughout the long darkness. It probably didn’t hurt that GURPS further develops a lot of the ideas from The Fantasy Trip – points-based character creation and hex maps for combat in particular – so GURPS fans with an interest in the system’s roots had natural reasons to want to poke around with The Fantasy Trip, but I don’t think the game would have been so well-loved on its own terms had it not stood up on its own merits.
Steve Jackson Games asked for a modest $20,000 for the Kickstarter campaign, and easily smashed it, coming away with a haul of $314,572 and accomplishing every single stretch goal along the way.
What Level I Backed At
The complete boxed roleplaying system. Two boxed tactical games, the 160-page In The Labyrinth rulebook, and Tollenkar’s Lair with a color map. Of course, the complete PDF is included. Shipping to be charged separately in BackerKit. Delivery March 2019.
Delivering the Goods
Delivery was estimated for March 2019; I actually got my copy in April, though given it needed trans-Atlantic shipping that’s as close to on time as the same thing. By and large the delivery process seems to have been reasonably smooth, aided perhaps by the fact that Steve Jackson Games a) have a long-standing relationship with their manufacturing partners and generally communicate well with them and b) have previously done a Kickstarter for a self-contained boxed RPG with a strong dungeon crawling element in the form of GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, so there were presumably ample lessons to be learned from that experience.
Reviewing the Swag
This is the conveniently pocket-sized basic combat system for The Fantasy Trip, which also serves (as originally published) as a standalone skirmish combat wargame.
Specifically, it’s a hex-and-chit skirmish game, which is a slightly different wargaming tradition from the miniatures-based version which Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson had been working in. The game comes with hex map and a healthy variety of chits for fighters (both ordinary and monstrous), which means that there’s no additional hurdle between obtaining the core rules and playing the game using hex maps and chits as intended. Conversely, no RPG I know of has come prepackaged with a similar variety of miniatures, which I guess explains why people tend to try to play them “theatre of the mind” style, even when it’s a game like D&D 3.5E where it’s clearly intended that minis are used.
Originally published as a standalone game, Melee would likely become burdensome at scales beyond your typical dungeon combat, not least because you have to come up with stats for each of the participants,. That said, the stats are mercifully brief: you have your Strength, you have your Dexterity, and that’s more or less it in terms of variables: everything else varies based on what armour and weapons you’re utilising, hits come directly off your strength, and the simply-explained rules cover options ranging from simple moving and fighting to desperate bids like attempting to wrassle your opponent hand-to-hand.
The upshot of The Fantasy Trip growing out of Melee is that the game is more or less tied to the hex grid for the purposes of combat; it is assumed that fights will be fought out using Melee (or the advanced rules building on Melee – provided as Advanced Melee in the Metagaming edition and folded into In the Labyrinth in this new edition). It’s interesting to contemplate what this would have meant for fantasy RPGs, had the intransigence of Howard Thompson not kept The Fantasy Trip forcibly out-of-print for decades. Most tabletop RPGs published in the intervening years have tended to assume that theatre-of-the-mind combat is, if not the default, at least a valid option, and even those which tended to assume use of miniatures didn’t affix them to a grid nearly as closely as The Fantasy Trip does.
One can imagine the persistence of The Fantasy Trip back in the 1980s giving rise to a class of “tactical RPGs”, with a robust grid-based skirmish combat system being part of that. In fact, it’s possible that it almost did. When SPI – one of the two big gorillas in the wargaming market (along with Avalon Hill) before the meteoric rise of tabletop RPGs and TSR in particular disrupted everything – decided to unleash their big attempt to compete with D&D on the world, it took the form of DragonQuest, which also had a hex-and-chit-based combat system in which facing and the like played a major role.
It is, of course, entirely possible that this is a case of parallel evolution – but poking at it further reveals aspects that are highly reminiscent of The Fantasy Trip to an extent above and beyond the mere common origins in hex-and-chit wargaming. The parallels come even closer when you note that the fact that the game was published alongside Arena of Death, a standalone arena combat game using the DragonQuest combat system and playable solo or against an opponent without a GM – much like Melee, except whereas Melee preceded The Fantasy Trip‘s roleplaying rules by some years (Melee came out in 1977, In the Labyrinth came out in 1980), in this case both Arena of Death and DragonQuest came out in 1980.
Based on these parallels in approach, it seems likely that DragonQuest‘s designers at SPI used The Fantasy Trip as a model for DragonQuest – in part because it was a model of game they were familiar with, in part as a bid to get a hex-and-chit-driven RPG out onto the market before the much-delayed In the Labyrinth provided the long-awaited roleplaying rules for The Fantasy Trip.
Perhaps 4E D&D would have had a warmer reception in a world where such tactical RPGs had enjoyed a longer day in the sun – or perhaps the backlash against it would have at least found a clearer way to describe its objections than “It’s just an overcomplicated dumbed-down MMO for babies!” (“I don’t like grid-based tactical skirmish combat games!” is a perfectly cromulent objection to 4E, though it’s equally an objection to much of 3E, particularly its later evolutionary stages.) Or perhaps it wouldn’t have gone in the direction it did, what with a thriving Fantasy Trip already occupying that portion of the market.
This is the spellcasting system – adding a new stat, IQ, as a prerequisite for gaining spells and a means of resisting illusion, but otherwise essentially a continuation of Melee‘s approach. Interestingly, spellcasters have to spend Strength points to cast spells – a quirk shared by Tunnels & Trolls, the other significant early fantasy RPG to come out of Texas back in the early days of the hobby.
The system isn’t perfect for the sort of wizard-vs.-wizard duels its concept seems to imply, mind; there’s a strong suggestion that you use the “courtesy rule” of not doing direct-damage spells against each other in the first turn, to avoid the situation where one wizards zaps the other, rolls lucky on damage, and ends up winning the fight in the first turn or so. Conflict between wizards fighting with summoned adversaries seems to be more in keeping with the intended mode of play, which makes one ponder whether a Pokemon variant could work.
Death Test 1 and 2
This is a pair of Jackson-penned adventures for The Fantasy Trip. In principle you can run them solo, with a group of players (each controlling a protagonist) or with a full players-and-GM setup, though since it’s basically a gamebook in format (with some additional chits for your adversaries) I’d actually say that there isn’t much for a referee to do here beyond playing the monsters in the fights.
The actual scenario presented is reasonably simple – to fit in a nice pocket-sized box the associated booklet can’t be too thick, after all – but it’s illustrative of Steve Jackson’s fondness for solo adventures. As well as being a trait he shares with the UK Steve Jackson (co-creator of Fighting Fantasy), this also suggests the further influence of Tunnels & Trolls, which quickly developed a robust range of solo adventures early on after its publication. (Buffalo Castle, the first solo Tunnels & Trolls adventure – and the first gamebook out there to be linked to a tabletop RPG-type system, rather than being wholly choice-based like Choose Your Own Adventure books – had come out in 1976.)
Specifically, in discussing The Fantasy Trip and its solo adventures Jackson expressed the view that he considers solo adventures the test of robust RPG design: specifically, he considers it impossible to write a concise solo adventure for an RPG unless the baseline rules are clear and coherent. I am inclined to agree: whilst a solo adventure can be written for any RPG system, the more woolly and undefined the baseline rules for an RPG are, the more additional clarification and explanation and on-the-spot rulings you’d need to include in a solo adventure for that system, and there’s a point beyond which the inclusion of all that would mean your solo adventure fails Jackson’s conciseness requirement.
Death Test and its sequel are certainly concise; the nice thing about them is that, since they come with some extra tokens and the like, once you’ve played through them you still have the tokens and whatnot to utilise in your other Fantasy Trip games. The problem with them is that the adventures are just kind of simplistic and dull. You just amble through a series of rooms, all of which are variations on the layout of the Melee arena map, and if there’s any encounter at all where you can actually talk to people rather than just fight them, I didn’t find one. I’d actually say Death Test 1 and 2 are better treated as a series of standalone combat scenarios for solo play in Melee or Wizard rather than as fully-developed adventures.
In the Labyrinth
This is the book which turns The Fantasy Trip into a fully-fledged traditional RPG, with a referee and out-of-the-dungeon action and whatnot. As I alluded to above, originally Metagaming put this out in three booklets – In the Labyrinth itself covering full character creation and gamemaster procedures, Advanced Melee providing a more in-depth version of the Melee combat system, and Advanced Wizard offering a more detailed take on the magic system.
For this new edition, the advanced combat and magic rules are incorporated at the back of the book here. They include all the information from Melee and Wizard (so far as I can tell from a skim), plus additional details, but on the whole you could just use basic Melee and Wizard with this if you wanted. The main system innovations which In the Labyrinth adds is that it bridges the character generation systems of the two games, adds a use for IQ for non-magician characters in the form of Talents, and works in a generalised action resolution system.
Character generation is point-buy, as in Melee and Wizard. Jackson resists the temptation to add a bunch more major stats, so Strength, Dexterity, and IQ are still the order of the day; Melee characters are assumed to have 8 IQ (so a starting Melee character build with 24 points is effectively a 32 point character for the purposes of In the Labyrinth). Characters come in two basic types – warriors and wizards – and if you want to play a different character type you have to build it accordingly. Warriors find it easier to buy Talents and harder to get spells, wizards vice versa. This simple division is, once again, highly reminiscent of Tunnels & Trolls, but thanks to the point-buy process offered The Fantasy Trip is able to model crossover characters more elegantly than T&T, which has to resort to odd classes like the Rogue or the Warrior-Wizard to do that.
Talents, like spells, have a base IQ level required of them – the more sophisticated training implied by the talent, the higher the IQ prerequisite. They generally cover any non-magical skill or area of competence – including weapons training and that sort of stuff – or special abilities belonging to a character. On that level, they’re reminiscent of Advantages and Skills in GURPS – closer, in fact, to Advantages, since you either have a Talent or you don’t rather than having a number of levels in it which default to your skill level, but some ideas here about skill use (like having a fallback level of ability in an area if you’re unskilled in it and having the capacity to learn a skill being tied to attributes) do seem to have informed the GURPS skill rules as well.
Whereas in GURPS action resolution is always based on a roll of 3D6 against a skill or attribute level (with pluses or minuses to that level based on difficulty), aiming to get equal to or under your score; in The Fantasy Trip it’s always 3D6 against the attribute, after modifiers are applied to the attribute, with significant variation of difficulty after that represented by making you roll one less or one more die (so, for instance, in a lot of situations attempting something you have no appropriate training in and which is the subject of Talents ends up being a 4D6 roll, which substantially shifts the bell curve).
Whilst in many respects similar, this puts an awful lot of weight on those three special numbers, which means that in spending experience it’s usually more worth spending points on your attribute points than anything else, since the higher up you get them the better a shot you have of succeeding even when unskilled. In fact, this is noted as a quirk of the system here – it’s said that after years of play it was found that PCs would tend to gain absurdly high attribute scores, and so to counteract this buying higher levels of attributes becomes substantially more expensive, encouraging players to broaden out with their talents and spells rather than stacking on further attribute points after a certain point.
With In the Labyrinth in place, we now have a full picture of The Fantasy Trip and its place in early RPGs. What’s notable is how, despite taking a lot of ideas from Tunnels & Trolls, the game largely evolves the basic dungeon-crawling concept from D&D in more or less the opposite direction from that game: whereas Tunnels & Trolls abstracts an awful lot, particularly when it comes to combat, The Fantasy Trip gets down into the nitty-gritty during fights thanks to the robust system provided in Melee. We know from Jackson’s designer’s notes on the game that his initial inspirations were D&D and T&T, and a dissatisfaction with the lack of robust tactical combat in both, so the fact that a hex-and-chit system is hardwired into In the Labyrinth and theatre-of-the-mind is not given much (if any) consideration is clearly intentional.
To build on the idea of The Fantasy Trip as a representative of a “tactical RPG” branch of the hobby, let’s consider the game in contrast to its main influences. When the original edition of D&D came out, of course, the assumption presented in those little brown booklets was that people would use Chainmail to run combats. Chainmail, no doubt, would have offered the tactical game which Steve Jackson clearly wanted – but Chainmail wasn’t packaged with D&D, and what most people actually used was the combat system presented with the game itself, despite that being clearly labelled as an “alternative” system.
That system was, and remained until 3E really tightened it up, a weird compromise between minis combat and theatre of the mind. On the one hand, D&D pays slightly too much to distances, volumes of fireball explosion, and the like to be 100% friendly to theatre-of-the-mind stuff unless you handwave all the precise numbers away – which I suspect many groups do, and is fine, but once you do that you’re not playing rules-as-written D&D any more. On the other hand, the rules don’t really provide the necessary guidance and rigour necessary for tactically deep miniatures-based combat.
Suppose, as a game designer in the 1970s, you’ve decided that you want to make a game which offers D&D-style dungeon crawling, only with a substantial improvement on its muddled combat system. Important note: don’t actually do this in the present day. These days, this would the recipe for a Fantasy Heartbreaker. However, back in the 1970s, this was a reasonable course to take; D&D and the immediate rip-off responses to it consisted the cutting edge of game design, for better or worse.
Given this design challenge, there’s basically two ways you can jump to get the combat system off the awkward fence it’s straddling there: you can either embrace further abstraction, making it easier to do theatre-of-the-mind combat, which is what Tunnels & Trolls does in its combat system, or you can construct a robust wargame-like combat system to effectively fill the niche which Chainmail was supposed to fill in D&D. The latter approach is the one which The Fantasy Trip takes, and if this is the sort of game you want, I’d say In the Labyrinth does a good job of extrapolating the mechanics of Melee and Wizard into a full-featured RPG.
The Fantasy Trip Companion
This is a compilation of various writings on the subject of The Fantasy Trip, including just about all the magazine writings on the subject from back in the day which Steve Jackson Games have been able to get the rights to, as well as some bits posted to the official Steve Jackson Games blog and the dedicated Fantasy Trip website after Jackson succeeded at getting the rights back in 2017. (Other website postings, considered central enough to be worth it, got incorporated into the new edition of In the Labyrinth.)
This ranges from bits of useful gaming material to add to the game – extra monsters, spells, items and the like – to reviews and criticism of the game from the era. Its reception seems to have been broadly positive – Steve Perrin, author of Runequest, for instance, praises it in the pages of Chaosium’s house magazine Different Worlds, though he does spot the issue where players are likely to buy up their attributes to absurd levels over time (putting the lie to the idea presented in the new edition of In the Labyrinth that the fault was only evident after “years of play”).
Now, consider that The Fantasy Trip was surely directly competing with RuneQuest – both games tried to offer a deeper and more realistic-feeling combat experience compared with D&D (though through very different routes, RuneQuest arguably focusing on providing a more vivid theatre-of-the-mind experience), both games offered a setup in which any character could conceivably have magic to bring to bear, and so on. That being the case, it’s really pretty decent of Perrin to be able to provide a generally approving review of the game in Chaosium’s own house organ; it’s a refreshing reminder of the days when RPG companies considered each other to be fellow hobbyists first, competitors second, and were willing to give each other’s products a fair airing in their magazines. (This more or less died in the early 1990s, when Dragon stopped reviewing outside products – and then, within a decade, RPG magazines as a concept were largely rendered redundant by Internet forums and blogs like this one.)
It’s one thing for a competitor’s house magazine to be nice about your game – it’s quite another for the game’s own designer’s in-house magazine to damn it with faint praise. The review by Ronald Pehr from The Space Gamer #31 – an issue which would have been put out when The Space Gamer was owned and operated by Steve Jackson Games – is a case in point. Whilst he does conclude that it’s an “excellent FRP game system” and says “Those who purchase it anyway will be very glad they did”, this is in the context of complaining about the price and the organisation of rules, and other aspects.
The review is riddled with little slams, like saying in reference to the hex grid “This might seem limiting, the kind of thing you took up FRP to avoid”, or that in reference to the simplicity of character stats and definition “If that’s the way you feel, you won’t like The Fantasy Trip no matter what it offers. To some extent, I’m one of those people.” Such statements are followed by a justification as to why this apparent flaw is actually a positive, but the justifications are sufficiently weak to be unconvincing once the objections are planted in your head.
To work in some terminology which wouldn’t actually be enunciated for a decade or so after Pehr’s review, The Fantasy Trip is undeniably a Gamist endeavour; having clear rules is prized, the clarity provided by the hex grid is welcome, if your aim in playing a tabletop RPG is to play a tactically interesting game then it’s going to press that button hard, if that is not your priority then Pehr is correct that you will likely not see a reason to play The Fantasy Trip over the plethora of other fantasy RPGs covering other needs. (Hell, even GURPS is arguably more Simulationist than Gamist in many respects.) To that extent, Pehr’s point about how The Fantasy Trip is not going to be for everyone is true, though I feel that his explanation of what tastes The Fantasy Trip would particularly suit is a little fuzzy.
Perhaps the most damning part of the article is its early segment, however, in which Pehl gives an extended breakdown of The Fantasy Trip‘s place in the RPG economy of the time. This is significant enough that I think it deserves quoting here, following on from a discussion of how the game is published as three $5 booklets:
This puts the game in a bad price range. At $15 it isn’t anywhere near as expensive as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (a game whose price, scope, size, and complexity put it in a whole different league). However, it is slightly more costly than the basic versions of Chivalry & Sorcery, Runequest or Tunnels & Trolls.
And then, a bit later, after insisting that in his view that The Fantasy Trip is probably worth the price:
The problem, again, is price. Someone who had played the original D&D, and was looking to start his own FRP campaign, might have purchased Runequest or Chivalry & Sorcery because they offered coherent games with better mechanics than D&D. Adding the supplements made D&D better, but also more expensive, and the Advanced version was more expensive still and wasn’t published as a full campaign game one at a time. So someone who wanted that, wasn’t satisfied with Original D&D, and didn’t own a money tree went out and bought one of the other games. The Fantasy Trip isn’t cheaper than they are and didn’t come out until they were established.
Pehr even goes so far as to claim that The Fantasy Trip offers basically nothing which RuneQuest doesn’t provide. Given that RuneQuest doesn’t provide a robust grid-based tactical combat system, this is demonstrably untrue, but in the context of an article where Pehr points out that core RuneQuest is substantially cheaper than the core Fantasy Trip materials (which at this time, remember, were split between In the Labyrinth, Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard) this sort of statement was surely incredibly damaging.
Now, don’t get me wrong – I don’t think that Pehr was going rogue here with the review. I think, instead, that what is going on is that Pehr was bending over backwards to try and provide a fair review – specifically to avoid the accusation that he was being too kind to the game because it had been written by his boss – but in doing so he overstated some of his criticisms and inadvertently made the review sound more harsh than he was intending.
At the same time, I do raise an eyebrow about the interview, in that form, making it past the editorial process of The Space Gamer and making specific slams on the form of publication that Metagaming chose for the game – a known point of discontent between Jackson and Thompson. Recall that this is The Fantasy Trip being published in a compromise format – Jackson originally wanted it to come out as a boxed set containing everything, as the Legacy Edition presents – but Thompson overruled this as being too lavish.
Now The Space Gamer is saying that even this compromise format is, in effect, far too expensive for the game you actually get. I can’t help but wonder whether the price discussion is Jackson via Pehl continuing his argument with Thompson – effectively saying “The three-separate-booklets format makes the game fall between two stools in the market, it would have been better to go for a deluxe boxed set to make it a premium item to compare with the AD&D hardbacks rather than to scaling it back to a price point other games are beating anyway”.
Then again, maybe I’m being too cynical. Pehl’s point about how RuneQuest and Chivalry & Sorcery had a chance to get established before The Fantasy Trip finally saw the light of day is a solid criticism, given the delays in the design process Jackson notes in his designer’s notes, though there it seems like most of the delays were down to Jackson having bouts of writer’s block and other delays at his end – Thompson can’t be blamed for that. Then again, that does bolster the argument that The Fantasy Trip should have come out targeting the top end of the market and tilted directly at AD&D, rather than trying to compete with the second tier of fantasy RPGs – that there was ample space to increase Fantasy Trip‘s price point without hitting AD&D‘s, that a boxed set full of support material would catch the eye of the market, that trying to compete against similarly-detailed but substantially cheaper RPGs on their own terms wouldn’t work, and that the Fantasy Trip‘s robust game mechanics would stand up well next to the crazed scaffolding of AD&D.
A single article from The Fantasy Gamer from August/September 1983 (said magazine having been a short-lived spin-off from The Space Gamer, before it got folded back into the parent magazine) is provided in which Steve Jackson explained the state of affairs relating to The Fantasy Trip. This came in the immediate aftermath of Metagaming shuttering, and a flurry of fan calls and letters to Steve Jackson Games along the lines of “Say, Steve, maybe you can take over publication of The Fantasy Trip now that Howard’s out of the gaming business”. Jackson explains here what we all know now: that Howard was demanding an absurd six-figure sum for the rights to the game, an amount of money no game publisher had just lying around and represented a gross overvaluation of what was, as Steve pointed out, just one fantasy RPG in a crowded market of competitors.
The span of years covered by the articles here (setting aside the post-2017 articles) is brief: 1980 to 1984. After this, The Fantasy Trip didn’t seem to have much of a place in wider RPG discourse, at least in terms of professional magazine publications – an online fan presence seems to have been there since the early days of the Internet. The other fantasy RPGs which Pehr saw fit to compare The Fantasy Trip to – RuneQuest and Chivalry & Sorcery – have had chequered histories since. Chivalry & Sorcery has retained only a small rump of internet fans and has had an extremely patchy publication history, but the new Kickstarter hopes to change this state of affairs; RuneQuest went into the wilderness for a while in the late 1990s, but by the mid-2000s had a new home at Mongoose, has been in print in one form or another since then, and has finally come home to Chaosium and Glorantha.
Other fantasy RPGs of a similar vintage have likewise had mixed histories. Tunnels & Trolls has consistently retained a small cult following, but little more than that; most other pre-Fantasy Trip fantasy RPGs are pretty much forgotten. Other games have risen and fallen since; Rolemaster, for instance, began its emergence in 1980, and since then has risen to prominence, fallen into decline, and then fallen away since; Fantasy HERO has undergone the same experience, as have a long string of heartbreakers. Other games, like WFRP, are in good health at the moment, but almost none of this vintage have had consistently good health since their original publication – even D&D has had its ups and downs.
Since we are dealing with a cruel, fickle market, where some games retain a fanbase against all-comers whilst others fall into total obscurity, how would The Fantasy Trip have fared had it stayed in print? If Steve Jackson Games had been able to pick up the game for a sensible price from a less spiteful and juvenile Howard Thompson, would the game have thrived and become, as I’ve speculated, the wellspring of an entire subgenre of tactical RPGs, or would it have eventually faded away and been displaced by something like GURPS anyway?
Given that The Fantasy Trip retained a core of fandom right up to Steve’s reclamation of the rights, despite the longstanding dearth of new material, whilst other also-ran RPGs of the era were more or less completely forgotten, I kind of feel like The Fantasy Trip had a chance. Then again, it’s possible that The Fantasy Trip‘s warmly-remembered reputation has been artificially kept on life support by GURPS, its successor game. (And what direction would GURPS have gone in, had Steve Jackson Games been able to keep The Fantasy Trip in print all along? Would we eventually have seen the original edition of The Fantasy Trip retired, in favour of GURPS Fantasy Trip or some other product unifying the two games?)
On balance, I feel like The Fantasy Trip actually provides something unique in a field where all too many games are tweaked clones of each other; the way it grew out of Melee gives it that sound tactical basis which other RPGs simply gloss over.
Steve Jackson’s sole GM-run adventure for The Fantasy Trip is a bog standard dungeon crawl, which next to Death Test makes me feel like Jackson’s talents don’t really lie in setting up interesting, flavourful scenarios or characters in games and lie more towards rules design and encounter balance.
Beyond the games themselves, the Legacy Edition box – particularly this first print run one with its exclusives – is crammed with useful bits and bobs. You have character sheets ranging from full In the Labyrinth character sheets to thick pads of Melee or Wizard sheets, you have a little deck of prebuilt fighters to get you playing Melee or Death Test immediately, you have a card folder to hold a lot of the loose documents in, you have a sheath of maps, you have a cardboard box full of “megahexes” (hex map sections you can put together and draw on with appropriate marker pens in order to quickly throw together a combat area), you have a nice GM screen with useful rules summaries on it, in general you’ve got all the stuff you need in here to get playing right away.
Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?
I’d say I got this one Just Right, with the box containing all I need for plenty of Fantasy Trip play without flat-out redundant material like the “I want it all” pledge level received.
Would Back Again?
This is where I suck my breath in through my teeth and say “no”, and regrettably say “no” for reasons which are by and large not very much to do with the outcome of this specific Kickstarter but are closely linked enough that I can’t overlook them.
You see, in the course of the followup Kickstarters – one to produce a Fantasy Trip Adventures supplement and accessories, one to produce new reproductions of Steve Jackson Games’ classic “pocket box” games of the 1980s – SJG announced that they’d signed a deal with Frog God Games to licence Frog God to produce material for The Fantasy Trip. Frog God is a company who’s had to struggle with their reputation lately; one of the major wheels there, Bill Webb, has had a longstanding reputation for inappropriate behaviour at conventions, and in particular seems to have been involved in an entirely unacceptable incident at PaizoCon 2017.
Even Frog God’s own internal investigation of the matter – carried out by Webb’s business partner, Matt Finch, who as someone with a fiscal interest in Frog God and Bill Webb’s good reputation cannot possibly be considered to be impartial in this matter by any stretch of the imagination – concluded that “Bill Webb took an action and engaged in speech that could be construed as a sexual advance or as gender-dismissive”. (The blog post in question is a tooth-grindingly frustrating exercise in playing down Bill’s behaviour – and they don’t even look into the question of the injury to the Paizo staffer, attested to by multiple witnesses.) Substantially later, Bill Webb would make his own statement on the matter in which he somehow managed to incriminate himself more with the thick stench of bullshit coming from it, as he asked people to take the word of random Twitterers as an exoneration of his behaviour and expected people to believe a ridiculous, sitcom-esque series of misunderstandings was behind the whole thing.
In short, of all the publishers of old school roleplaying materials out there that Steve Jackson Games could have chosen to give a major leg up to by licensing them to produce Fantasy Trip material, Frog God shouldn’t have made the shortlist. There’s ample game designers and small presses out there who don’t have this sort of controversy surrounding them and would only be too happy to produce content for the game, but they didn’t get a look in.
I had gone in on Fantasy Trip Adventures and the Pocket Box games, but ended up seeking refunds over the Bill Webb thing and Jackson’s dismissive approach to it. As one of the backers quoted in that Geeknative article points out: why would SJG want to associate The Fantasy Trip with such a scandal in the first place? (Especially when there’s indie developers with vastly less controversial track records out there who’d do just as good a job?) As such, I’ve cashed out of those two; it was too late for me to seek a refund on The Fantasy Trip itself, but I can at least make sure my coverage of it here and elsewhere includes a strong caveat to think twice about giving money to Steve Jackson Games if you find the Bill Webb situation as troubling as I do.