Confessions of a TFT Addict

The Fantasy Trip Legacy Edition

(Plans change. This post was originally slated as the introduction to a book of The Fantasy Trip essays, now found in issues of Hexagram. Watch for my TFT fencing article in Hexagram #6!)

My game design career started with selling a four-paragraph review to Steve Jackson Games’ Space Gamer magazine. Why Space Gamer instead of TSR’s Dragon? Because I was a Steve Jackson junkie.

In 1981, my game group had dumped AD&D in favor of The Fantasy Trip, at my own instigation. I wanted characters who, no matter how experienced, had good reason to fear wolves in a pack and goblins in a gang, and TFT supplied that. Along with skills instead of classes, and tactics instead of abstract one-minute combat turns. TFT provided a reason to use miniatures for more than just pretty. All that in literally 150 pages instead of literally 472.

I GMed The Fantasy Trip for years to the exclusion of all other RPGs. Our group played TFT long after Metagaming (its publisher) went out of business and TFT went out of print. I scoured hobby stores for supplementary material, photocopied and ringbound every magazine article I could find, bought Gamelords’ The Forest Lords of Dyhad and Warrior-Lords of Darok, and prayed for the two remaining books of that setting to be published. Prayed for anything new to be released.

No exaggeration, I still wake from the occasional nightmare that I’m traveling, stumble across some hobby store in Texas, find an unknown TFT-related title in a bargain bin, and don’t have the cash on me to pay for it.

So when I landed a full-time game design job in my hometown, at Game Designers Workshop (publishers of Traveller), I asked for a special dispensation to launch a non-GDW fanzine, The Fantasy Forum, in my free time.

As I recall, GDW let me run a little ad in their house organ, Challenge magazine, and even let me print out the ’zine on the office copier. And of course I submitted an ad to Space Gamer. Other addicted fans subscribed to this little quarterly. Content submissions soon exceeded the bulk-rate page count. To fit Howard Trump’s solo adventures, I had to print them in 6-point type with 1/8th-inch margins. (In retrospect, I could have published those separately and printed monthly.)

Gen Con 20 in 1987 was my first big convention, and as a brand-new industry pro, I approached Steve Jackson to shake his hand and goob over The Fantasy Trip. When I asked about the prospects of a new printing now that Metagaming was defunct, and Steve told me how much cash Howard Thompson wanted for the title, I gasped, and something inside me died a little bit.

So you can easily imagine my delight when Steve regained the rights in 2017 and launched a Kickstarter shortly thereafter to print a new, deluxe edition. That boxed set now stands in a place of honor on the very top shelf of my RPG collection, right next to the big ringbinder (“liberated” from The Armory) that holds my cherished collection of original TFT material.

And you can imagine my pleasure to be writing this introduction to a collection of essaygs honoring The Fantasy Trip.

Thank you, Steve, for the years of wonderful memories, playing The Fantasy Trip with my friends.

Capsule Review: Deck Box Dungeons

Caveat: I’m a designer and publisher reviewing other people’s games that I admire.

Deck Box Dungeons is a dungeon crawler board game in a card box (about the size of two Bicycle deck boxes back to back). Inside are 44 cards, 5 standard dice, 13 specialty dice representing monsters, 5 small fantasy themed meeples, and a 14-page rules book. A separate app serves as a random dungeon generator. It’s a 1-2 player game (2 characters total); 3-4 players by combining 2 copies.

The Good …

Designing characters is engaging: lay an item card, a character card, and an ability card side by side, with matching edges determining combat and skill scores. Treasure points, health, and ability energy are tracked with cards sliding beneath those.

The combat rules are nicely done, balancing hero choices and special powers against more limited actions for monsters but stronger dice ratings.

Small fantasy meeples represent the heroes, while the specialty dice represent the monsters, some faces identifying a ranged attacker and others a melee attacker, as well as their health. These dice are rolled at the start of each new encounter, to randomize their type and health. Dice color and attack type is keyed to individual monster cards, to determine that monster’s combat abilities.

Combat itself uses standard dice, with each representing a chance to hit, and to defend when hit in turn. The more dice you roll and the higher your combat modifier, the more chances one or more hit.

Like an arcade game, as you hit, your power rises, allowing you to activate special powers on your chosen ability card. Likewise as you kill a monster, you receive its random treasure score immediately, allowing you to buy magic items and potions even in the middle of combat.

The dungeon map tile cards are identified by number and letter, so the app can indicate which to place next for a random dungeon layout. Given the limited number of map cards, and that there’s an encounter or event each card, the map doesn’t wander beyond manageable size.

The app itself is easy to grasp yet flavorful, randomizing the dungeon and encounters, but actual movement and combat remain on the table. And the game is expandable with user-generated missions available online.

The Bad …

The rule book is unclear in places, with wasted space that could have been used for examples. One of the oddest issues is monster dice placement, with no instruction for which die is placed first, but a very specific staggered diagram for which space they go in. On many map tiles that diagram simply doesn’t fit, calling for tedious adjustment.

A few non-combat encounters (traps) allow no roll to avoid, which can kill a wounded character anticlimactically, especially given the overall scarcity of healing options during play. Character skills other than combat abilities seem seldom used.

The fantasy meeples are nearly indecipherable silhouettes, unlike like those pictured on the Kickstarter page.

The deck box itself thin material, easily crushable, not in keeping with the quality of the game components.

& the Augury

I’ve had considerable fun with Deck Box Dungeons, both solo and with my spouse, and I predict it’ll see more play here in the future.

Players coming to it as a dungeon crawl adventure should be aware, however, that it has a solo game’s difficulty. The wrong pair of characters, equipment, and abilities guarantees fatality, and even the best mix has a good chance of death. Strategy is critical: which character spawns the next tile, who follows up, and when to use powered abilities.

(As for monster dice placement, online FAQ says choice of which comes next is left to the player, which makes that detailed diagram for placement even odder. I’d suggest ignoring it. Just put the toughest monster on the center space, place the rest adjacent to it with archers toward the back and melee units up front—which is in keeping with their actions during combat.)

Some people think the game slightly too pricey, though that perception likely involves the box. I think the components and game play well worth the price.

The “Dream” Team, Elder Sign: Omens

Nearly five years later, I’m still playing this app, trying out new themed combinations of investigators.

Currently I’m working a two-person team related by their “Other Worlds” abilities: Luke Robinson, Lucid Dreamer; and Gloria Goldberg, Psychic Sensitivity. Which probably explains my calling this themed pairing the “Dream” Team.

Gloria’s ability gives her an automatic red die and yellow die whenever she’s in an Other World. That’s a huge benefit, especially given that most Other Worlds pay out one or two Elder Signs needed to win the game.

A hidden benefit of visiting an Other World just before the clock strikes each turn is that when solved, it avoids any possibility of getting saddled with a new Midnight-penalty location before you can react.

Luke’s ability to spend 4 trophies to open an Other World means that he keeps Gloria well supplied with Other Worlds to visit.

Against the first four Great Old Ones they’re a killer combination, with Gloria not only quickly racking  up Elder Signs, but also scoring enough trophies to buy an extra one or two from the Souvenir Shop. And it’s easy to score high by gaining Elder Signs beyond what you actually need. Just save back a two- or three-sign Other World to finish when you’re one point away from winning.

The team is not without its weaknesses, however:

1. Gloria’s ability is crippled at sea in the Cthulhu mission, since Other Worlds can’t appear there. (On the other hand, she regains it in the climactic R’lyeh battle, which means you can concentrate on adventures without Common and Unique items.)

2. In some missions you maybe don’t want to rack up Elder Signs so quickly, preferring more time to gather equipment.

3. Both characters have low Stamina, which makes some encounters too deadly to choose. That hurts in the desert of the Dark Pharoah mission. And I’m sure it’s going to make the Arctic a challenge in the Ithaqua mission I’m currently tackling. Then again, I once won that mission with Wendy Adams solo. So here’s hoping!

If you haven’t read my about my earlier themed teams over the years, just do an Elder Signs search with the text box upper right on this page. And please let me know what team-ups or strategies you like best!


Elder Sign: Omens – Teams 2018

Elder Sign: Omens - Android screen shot

It’s been four-and-a-half years now that I’ve been playing the Elder Sign: Omens app. That’s fairly astounding. I’m not apt to play anything over and over and over—this and the Vampire: Bloodlines PC game are notable exceptions.

What gives Elder Sign: Omens its longevity on my phone and tablet is partly its portability: I can play a turn or three while riding in the car, for example. But the main reason is undoubtedly the tens of thousands of permutations for building a four-person team from a pool of 32 characters.

In previous posts I’ve discussed strategies for using different teams against the seven different “ancient ones.” And even a few instances of playing a single character instead of a team. This year I’ve taken a slightly different tack, assembling teams by theme. Allow me to introduce you to the four so far—and one in the wings.

“Charlie’s Angels”

This team was assembled on a whim, based on the fact that there’s a Charlie among the 32 characters, and that the game has so many female characters with kick-ass special abilities. For this team I chose Jenny Barnes, Amanda Sharpe, Diana Stanley, and Charlie Kane—in that line-up order.

Jenny and Amanda have long been two of my favorites: Jenny almost always has the bonus red and yellow dice at hand, and Amanda isn’t limited to one task per roll—if she’s got the results to solve several, she can. I added Diana because she’s a monster hunter, sort of a combat specialist, which seemed legit for the theme. As for Charlie, I’ve always thought lame his special ability to gain extra trophies by helping an investigator who failed a task; I plan for characters to succeed. But his name’s Charlie, so there you go.

It’s a very good group against pretty much any of the ancient ones. But I’ve played those three ladies in so many other teams that “Charlie’s Angels” didn’t hold many surprises. What did surprise me was Charlie’s effectiveness—which brings me to team two …

“I Got Your Back”

In this case I chose four investigators I’ve never really liked. But it occurred to me that they each have a “help someone out” ability, so why not band them together? Dr. Carolyn Fern restores sanity and Dr. Vincent Lee restores stamina; Charlie Kane and Rex Murphy chip in similarly on a failed task, but while Charlie gets extra trophies, Rex gets an extra clue.

This team-up proved surprisingly effective! Carolyn and Vincent prevent team members from wasting turns and trophies in the first-aid station. Charlie and Rex proved helpful in making failed tasks yield the team at least some repayment. The only trouble was that while Charlie and Rex were always well-equipped, Carolyn and Vincent were often left with empty backpacks. At times I even let them spend a turn in the lost-and-found department to reequip while Charlie and Rex faced down the toughest tasks.

Of the many teams I’ve assembled, “I Got Your Back” is distinctly the most effective. (I suspect there’s a life lesson in that.)

“Greed Is Good”

This team was built of investigators who got a little something extra each time they completed a chosen task. Monterey Jack gets a bonus unique item (red die) when landing a unique item. With Bob Jenkins it’s common items (yellow die), and with Dexter Drake it’s an extra spell. Joe Diamond gets to use each clue twice, which is more stinginess than actual greed, but he’s closer to the greed theme than the remaining 27 investigators.

The results from this team swung between extremes. On the one hand it meant that the investigators each quickly built a stockpile of items. The trouble was that it meant an overabundance of one particular type for each and a paucity of others. For example Joe often had more common items than he could ever actually use, but other items suffered. Even Joe tended to load up on clues more than anything else.

In situations where the game locked out one type of item, that investigator was screwed. (Especially painful in the Dark Pharaoh adventure, where nearly every day blocks out one thing or another.) I began to send the affected investigator to first aid, lost and found, or souvenir shop that turn. It proved to be a fairly effective strategy.

Joe’s clue ability proved to be the most effective of the four, followed closely by Dexter’s spells (a surprise), then Jack’s unique items. Bob’s common items definitely lagged behind the others, though the food and drink common items kept him in relatively good shape.

I’ve since replaced Joe with Tony Morgan, who gains an extra trophy when he kills a monster—which feels more suited to the theme. That extra trophy comes in handy for buying elder signs and equipment against the lower-powered ancient ones, and ally aid against the Dark Pharaoh.

Although not as effective as the “I Got Your Back” team, “Greed Is Good” turned out to be exciting. The team either scored wild success or crashed and burned. Mainly crash and burn against Ithaqua. That final ancient one was felled eventually, but it took more than half a dozen attempts.

“Immunity Deal”

The theme with this team—which I’m currently playing—is immunity from one game effect or another. Sister Mary is immune to locked glyphs. Amanda Sharpe (mentioned earlier) is not limited to one task per roll. Kate Winthrop is immune to terror effects, and monsters cannot appear on her turn. Rita Young is immune to Sanity and Stamina losses from hazardous attacks.

This one has been tougher to succeed with, except (surprisingly) against the Dark Pharaoh! After losing several times to His Lordship, it occurred to me to try different allies. Instead of the Mender of Flesh (spend two trophies to heal two Sanity and Stamina) and the Guiding Spirit (spend two trophies to ignore daily restrictions on one type of equipment or another), I used the ally who adds a red die and the one who adds a yellow die (can’t recall their names). With that change I defeated Nyarlathotep prettily handily.

Ithaqua I’m still battling, having already failed a half-dozen times, many without even leaving the museum for Alaska!


Next up will be a team of characters who can modify dice icons and midnight doom effects: Michael McGlen (changes a Terror to a Peril), Wilson Richards (changes the yellow die face to whatever he wants), Jacqueline Fine (changes the nightly mythos effect), and Wendy Adams (changes a terror to whatever she likes).

Other Possibilities?

I’d love to try a monster-hunter team, but there are only two investigators with related abilities, and it’s a minor aspect of the game, meaning they’ll almost certainly fail again and again. But maybe with a couple of investigators whose illustrations include guns?

Any ideas you can think of?