Once more, Into the Labyrinth

November 29, 2018 at 10:43 pm

“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

— Jerry Garcia

After their wild successful Kickstarter — nearly 3400 backers raising $315,000 — Steve Jackson Games has brought back The Fantasy Trip after almost 40 years of languishing. A few diehards had kept the game alive during these dark ages, tinkering with the rules here and there, but it had mostly been forgotten.

Very few games from that time (or since) managed to strike the successful balance between simplicity and flexibility, allowing groups to create interesting characters and stories that played quickly and allowed for creative choices. Here at the ‘Aerie, we had very high hopes for its return.

Well, now we have it. At least in PDF. The simple Melee and Wizard board games, the collected In The Labyrinth RPG book, and the classic Death Tests and Tollenkar’s Lair adventures. There is a lot there, and a whole lot to parse. We’ve had it for a month or so, and even had a chance to run a convention game (Go GameholeCon!), and have developed a few opinions about it.

THE GOOD

The best part about the TFT package is that it exists. No longer does the game we love only come in battered old booklets and questionably scanned PDFs. Soon you will be able to be able pick up the Fantasy Trip from Warehouse 23 or your FLGS. And that enough is cause to celebrate. It also stoked the imaginations of at least 3400 gamers and might spur a resurgence of a great game.

Compiling Advanced Wizard, Melee and the old In The Labyrinth book into one is a huge advancement. A working table of contents and index add even more value and finally turn TFT into a game people might actually be able to grasp simply by reading the books.

In addition, they did address some of the biggest issues with the original game. Now you can learn additional Talents without having to become a genius, and cast more mighty spells without being able to bench-press 250 pounds. The new Staff spells manage to add flavor as well as functionality.

THE BAD

In truth, this is a pretty faithful repackaging of the original game(s), and that shouldn’t count as a negative for a game we loved and played for nearly 40 years. But it kind of does.

A lot has happened to role-playing games since 1980. A lot of systems have been tried, refined, improved, and scrapped since The Fantasy Trip first hit game stores. And a lot of lessons have been learned. One of those lessons is that systems should be consistent and streamlined. This lesson must have been missed by the TFT team. Maybe it was a commitment to nostalgia, or the desire to not fix what wasn’t chronically broken, but the game is still filled with multiple systems that don’t connect with each other beyond using only d6 dice.

Things like aimed shots are handled slightly differently for different weapons, as is two-weapon fighting versus fencing. They are not major differences, but it is enough to add unnecessary fiddly bits that complicate a simple game. The same goes for the ‘Mundane Skill’ talent and a number of specific mundane skills that are handled in a different way. These were just missed opportunities to make this a better, more playable game.

It also suffers from drastically different levels of detail. It devotes a half-page to options for character retirement, but only one sentence to how many experience points a GM should give characters per session — ending even that with the caveat “it’s a GM call”. Any halfway functional GM knows that most everything is their call, but having some more baseline guides might have been helpful.

It also commits several pages to character’s potential ‘day jobs’ — an interesting concept that has never come up in any TFT game I’ve ever played or heard about. But ways of avoiding character death are given a few short paragraphs that are often only explained with “he really didn’t die.” Really? $300k for that nugget of wisdom?

Even the character races are given little detail and almost no mechanical differences — which is not a big change from the original. But you do get to know about elves’ fear of spiders, and that dwarves hate orcs and love treasure. Oddly, they mention that orcs might get XP for acting obnoxiously (without any detail), but no mention of XP for a dwarf acting “out of character” by passing up treasure.

The organization of the book seems off as well. It starts with a lengthy introduction that goes into some detail about the world of Cidri, which has never been the most compelling aspect of the system. Then a few pages about Game Mastering that jumps right into specific dice mechanics without really explaining the core mechanics or what the players do. A reader not planning to be a GM might never even read how the core mechanic works. You even get rules for aging before the concept of character creation is introduced. Worse yet, the method of casting spells is explained 116 pages after the spells are listed.

THE UGLY

As glad as we are to have a new Fantasy Trip all under one cover, the book itself is very frustrating. Its almost as it was written as a walk down memory lane rather than an in-game reference. Nearly everything is presented is a prosey style that is difficult to track and skim while playing. Rules are expressed in strange locations and out of context of similar rules. The monster listings (like the original) are grouped under headers whose ordering scheme completely escapes me. And their individual stats are listed in sentences, often with wide ranges, that make it difficult to reference quickly.

Many important aspects (like XP, above) are listed as ranges, or suggestions, or legends spoke among some sages. Flavor text gets dropped into rules sections without any kind of explanation. For example, a list of character languages includes a reference to ‘Fog Runes’, which appears nowhere else in the entire book.

While that sort of thing might make enjoyable reading, it is not what you want when you are running a game and trying to referee a clever player’s action on the fly.

THE RESULT

In the end, even with the missed opportunities and clunky phrasing, we are very happy to have The Fantasy Trip back in our lives. And as fans, we want to make the play experience as good as we can for as many we can. To that end, we are going to devote this space to creating support material and tools that GMs and players can use to improve their own fantasy trips. Also, we want to streamline and improve some of the house rulings we’ve created over the years, and share them here as well.

Who knows, we might branch out into adventure content or setting materials as well. Most importantly, we want to keep the conversation going and our heroes adventuring.

What would you most like to see to expand your Fantasy Trip games? Or what do you hate? Let us know in the comments below.