Systems & Stories
July 13, 2018
As a charter member of the Grizzled Gamers Guild, I had the opportunity to see One Giant Step become an amazing journey. I watched that first toe go into the water when Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson morphed a medieval miniatures game and used it as a way to meld combat simulation and storytelling.
The jump from Chainmail to Dungeons & Dragons was as crude and tentative as any newly-blazed trail must be. But It gave all of us a chance to walk that trail, trimming and branching and clearing and paving until it became a mighty system of highways and byways that will take us anywhere we want to go.
Since then, there have been uncountable ways that interactive simulational storytellers (in TFT parlance, gamemasters or GMs) have approached the concept. Some RPGs are almost all free-form story and almost no structured simulation. Others emphasize a structure which guides the creation of a shared reality and funnels it into a narrative. In between is every mix and proportion imaginable.
The Fantasy Trip came along at a time where the prevailing thought among designers was to break down the simulation of a person into a lot of fine bits. The idea was that the finer the distinctions between the capabilities of two individuals, the more detail the simulation provided and the better the game environment.
The best-known example of this school of thought was the division of the top-end “18” Strength stat into percentage point levels is Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It was apparently important that the most powerful possible people in the game universe be ranked among themselves so the simulation could carefully differentiate their abilities. This resulted in far more fighters with 18 (00) Strength than normal probability could account for — but it didn’t really enhance storytelling. Indeed, that percentage point variance became more important than how the characters used that Strength strategically.
At the same time that stats were becoming more structured, conflict was becoming more abstract. Characters took turns rolling dice to hit each other, with bigger dice then rolled to simulate damage from bigger weapons. Characters rose to higher levels to hit more often to use better weapons to do more damage to an opponent while craving more and more hit points to protect themselves. To keep the game interesting, monsters and other foes had to get bigger, badder and harder to hurt in proportion with the endless growth of the player characters’ ability to deal out destruction.
Nowhere in there did characters need to think or act strategically, move to enhance their position while making themselves harder to hit and hurt, or have their combat affected by environment or line of sight. A dozen players could gang up on a single orc at once, and dragons ambushed parties of six in a ten-by-ten room.
Steve Jackson was fresh off creating a small, approachable and easy to learn board game that revolutionized armored vehicle battles. It set a force of individual vehicles using range, maneuver, speed and strategy to wear down, slow and eventually stop one gigantic killer machine that could both deliver and soak up massive amounts of damage in a single turn. It was the quick and the clever against the big and the bad. I can’t swear that this concept was the inspiration for Steve’s next Microgame, but the thought occurred to me as soon as I started playing Melee.
Melee (and Wizard soon after) traded snowballing sets of numbers for combat maneuver, strategy and use of the physical confines of the fight arena to gain advantages. An experienced fighter was not able to soak up dozens and dozens of blows with impunity while a newbie died if someone breathed hard in his direction. Every fighter took his chances, relying mostly on the skill that comes with experience to keep him alive and fighting.
Ironically, as In the Labyrinth opened up full roleplaying adventure campaigns, spending more time on combat strategy and skills actually enhanced the storytelling opportunities for players and gamemasters. Now, what you did besides swinging a sword and shooting an arrow mattered, both to the combat and to the game/story. Players went from saying “Did you see me bring that giant’s hit points down to zero?” to “Did you see me put my back to that pillar and keep my shield up when those three orcs closed on me?”
When every fight matters and what you choose to do affects everything, excitement stays high. In between battles and dungeon crawls, In the Labyrinth offered non-combat Talents and daily jobs to enhance role-playing options. A limited set of stats encouraged players to define and difference their characters by something beyond numbers.
Wizards benefitted from the same sort of change of focus. They weren’t just spell-slingers, they studied magic, combined their efforts in rituals to create bigger effects, and even researched new spells. Magic items were not just things that appeared in dungeons. Real Wizards made them, including player characters.
The overall effect was to combine System and Story in a carefully considered way that was both more realistic and more open than anything that had come before. It also brought more new players into the game by using cool, easy, fast and inexpensive microgames to attract and teach. The path from joining a pickup game of Melee over lunch at school to gamemastering weekend roleplaying sessions using the same core rules was deceptively easy and fast — and fun.
Now, 40 years later, there are not just a dozen tabletop RPG systems, there are hundreds — maybe over a thousand that have gone in and out of print, some multiple times. Each has its own blend of System and Story. Even so, right now there is more need than ever for something that offers fast and easy entry, tactical combat simulation, limited number crunching, enhanced storytelling opportunities, and an emphasis on fun. Welcome back, TFT. You’re just in time.
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