Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 19 October 2019

The Other OSR: Melee

It is impossible to ignore the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and the effect that its imprint has had on the gaming hobby. It remains the most popular roleplaying game some forty or more years since it was first published, and it is a design and a set-up which for many was their first experience of roleplaying—and one to which they return again and again. This explains the popularity of the Old School Renaissance and the many retroclones—roleplaying games which seek to emulate the mechanics and play style of previous editions Dungeons & Dragons—which that movement has spawned in the last fifteen years. Just as with the Indie Game movement before it began as an amateur endeavour, so did the Old School Renaissance, and just as with the Indie Game movement before it, many of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance are being adopted by mainstream roleplaying publishers who go on to publish retroclones of their own. Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games is a perfect example of this. Other publishers have been around long enough for them to publish new editions of their games which originally appeared in the first few years of the hobby, whilst still others are taking their new, more contemporary games and mapping them onto the retroclone.

Yet there are other roleplaying games which draw upon the roleplaying games of the 1970s, part of the Old School Renaissance, but which may not necessarily draw directly upon Dungeons & Dragons. Some are new, like Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World and Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style!, but others are almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons. One of these is The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming Concepts in 1980. Designed by Steve Jackson, this was a fantasy roleplaying game built around two earlier microgames, also designed by Steve Jackson, MicroGame #3: Melee in 1977 and  MicroGame #6: Wizard in 1978. With the closure of Metagaming Concepts in 1983, The Fantasy Trip and its various titles went out of print. Steve Jackson would go on to found Steve Jackson Games and design further titles like Car Wars and Munchkin as well as the detailed, universal roleplaying game, GURPS. Then in December, 2017, Steve Jackson announced that he had got the rights back to The Fantasy Trip and then in April, 2019, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Steve Jackson Games republished The Fantasy Trip. The mascot version of The Fantasy Trip is of course, The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition

The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition is a big box of things, including the original two microgames. So instead of reviewing the deep box as a whole, it is worth examining the constituent parts of The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition one by one, delving ever deeper into its depths bit by bit. The first of these is Melee, quick to set up, quick to play game of man-to-man combat. It is designed to be played by two or more players, aged ten and over, with a game lasting roughly between thirty and sixty minutes. Inside the box can be found a twenty-four page rules booklet, a 12” by 22½” game map, a set of eighty-six counters, and three six-sided dice. The presentation of the game is rather plain and simple. So the layout of the black and white rulebook is clean and tidy, as the game map, which is marked in two” Hexes, each with a centre spot, every seven Hexes forming a Megahex three standard Hexes in width. The standard Hexes are used for movement and facing in melee combat, whilst the Megahexes are used to determine range in missile combat. The various counters provide a range of opponents, including animals and monsters, plus condition counters and dropped weapons and shields. These are done in a range of monochrome colours, but all are different and include a pair of giants whose triangular counters take up three Hexes! All of the counters have a skull and crossbones on the other side to indicate when they have been killed. Lastly, the set of three wine-red six-sided dice add a spot of colour to the game.


Play of Melee begins with the creation of a fighter. Each has two attributes—Strength and Dexterity. Strength covers how many hits a fighter has, what weapons he can use, and how effective he is in hand-to-hand combat. Dexterity covers how easily a fighter can hit an opponent, disengage from the enemy, and how quickly he can attack. These begin with a value of eight each, to which a player distributes another eight points. Then a player chooses the fighter’s arms and armour. Weapons determine how much damage a fighter does, whilst armour provides protection, but reduces a fighter’s Dexterity and movement.


For example, Osgar the Unready is a Saxon who has been called up to the fyrd. He is armed with an axe, carries a shield, and wears leather armour. The armour and shield reduce his Dexterity (adjDX) from 13 to 10, whilst the armour sets his Movement Ability to 8. Creating a fighter takes a few minutes at most and the amount of information can be easily recorded on an index card.

Osgar the Unready

Strength 11
Dexterity 13/11/10
MA 8
Small Axe 1d+2
Javelin 1d-1
Shield (2 Hits front), Leather Armour (2 Hits)


Melee is played out over a series of turns consisting of six phases—initiative, movement, the opponent’s movement, combat, forced retreats, and dropped weapons. None of which happens simultaneously, but it takes place across a five-second round. Whether a fighter is Engaged or Disengaged, he has numerable options. If Engaged, he can ‘Shift and Attack’, ‘Shift and Defend’, ‘Change Weapons’, ‘Disengage’, and so on. If Disengaged, he can ‘Move’. Charge’, Dodge’, ‘Drop’ (to prone), ‘Ready New Weapon’, make a ‘Missile Weapon Attack’, and so on. The ‘Cast Spell’ and ‘Disbelieve’ options are included, though their actual use comes into play with the companion game, Wizard

The rules also cover the extra reach of polearms, enabling the user to jab at an opponent, the use of the left-hand dagger, shield-rush attacks, hand-to-hand combat, thrown weapons and missile weapons, disengaging, defending and dodging—fighters rolling an extra die to attack a defending or dodging target. When it comes to the actual attack, whether missile or melee, the attacking player rolls three six-sided dice in an attempt to get a result below a fighter’s adjDX. This is the attacking fighter’s Dexterity adjusted by the armour worn and shield carried, the facing of the target, the wounds suffered by the attacker, and various other factors. For missile weapons, it includes range, but not facing—single Hexes for a thrown weapon, but Megahexes for other missile weapons.

After a successful hit, a player rolls for damage his fighter’s weapon inflicts. From the roll, the defender subtracts hits for the armour he is wearing and shield he carries. A roll of three though, will triple the damage, whilst a roll of four will inflict double damage and five is an automatic hit. A roll of seventeen always misses and the attacker drops his weapon, whilst a roll of eighteen also misses and the attacker’s weapon is broken. Suffering five or more hits in one blow imposes a one-time penalty to the defender’s Dexterity, whilst if a defender suffers eight points, he is knocked prone.

Sigrunn

Strength 15
Dexterity 09/06
MA 6
Battle Axe 3d
Chainmail Armour (3 Hits)
For example, Osgar the Unready finds himself facing Sigrunn, a brawny Viking raider. When first spotted, they are ten Hexes apart. Both players roll a six-sided die for initiative at the beginning of Round One. Sigrunn’s player rolls a five against Osgar’s player’s three. Sigrunn’s player declares that the Viking will ‘Move’ as quickly as he can to attack the Saxon, whilst Osgar’s player states that Osgar will heft his light spear (javelin) and make a ‘Missile Weapon Attack’ at the charging—lumbering?—Viking as soon as he comes in range. So in the Movement phase, Sigrunn rules his full Movement Ability, which is six Hexes. At this point, Osgar hefts his spear at the Viking, who is four Hexes away. Osgar’s current adjDX is ten, but because Sigrunn is four Hexes away, it is reduced to six. Osgar’s dice roll is a five, which means that the spear has struck the Viking. Osgar’s player rolls a six for damage, but this is adjusted down to five for the weapon (1d-1) and Sigrunn’s armour deducts another three points. Sigrunn suffers two hits.
In Round Two, initiative is won by Osgar, whose player decides he will ‘Ready New Weapon’. This enables him to move up to two Hexes and ready another weapon, in this case, his small axe. Sigrunn’s player has the Viking ‘Move’ straight at the Saxon to be able to attack on subsequent rounds. He is not close enough to make a Charge Attack, which would allow Sigrunn to also attack. So at the end of Round Two, the two fighters are facing off against each other.
In Round Three, it is Sigrunn that wins the Initiative. His player declares that the Viking will ‘Shift and Attack’, whilst Osgar’s player has the Saxon ‘Shift and Defend’. The ‘Shift’ aspect enables both fighters to move a Hex and act. Osgar cannot attack, but the effect of his ‘Defend’ action is that instead of Sigrunn’s player rolling three dice for his attack roll, he will roll four dice. Sigrunn’s player does and gets a result of twenty-two! This is so bad that the Viking drops his battle axe! Of course, Osgar cannot attack this round, but because Sigrunn has to ‘Ready New Weapon’ in order to pick up his battle axe in the next round, the likelihood is that the Saxon will.
So in Round Four, it does not actually matter who wins Initiative. Nevertheless, Sigrunn does and scrambles to ‘Ready New Weapon’, whilst Osgar will ‘Shift and Attack’. The Viking grabs his weapon, but the Saxon attacks, rolling a four. This means that the attack inflicts double damage. Osgar’s player rolls 1d+2 for his small axe and gets a result of four plus two, which is doubled to twelve. Sigrunn’s chainmail will protect him for three hits, reducing the damage taken to nine hits. This is enough to knock the Viking prone, meaning that he will have to get up on the next Round with a ‘Stand Up’ option. Things are not looking good for Sigrunn…
Melee also gives rules for fighting with nonhumans. These include bears, giant snakes, gargoyles, and giants as beasts and other creatures to fight in the arena, but also adds the means to create fantasy-themed fighters. So Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Goblins, and Hobgoblins. For the most part, they are given adjustments to their base Strength and Dexterity, but Elves are nimbler in light armour, whilst Halflings are good at throwing things. These feel somewhat underwritten to be fair, especially in comparison to other roleplaying games. Lastly, survivors from the arena can earn Experience Points, typically fifty Experience Points per combat. These can then be spent to improve a fighter’s Attributes at a hundred Experience Points per point.

Physically, Melee is well presented. It has a ‘Old School’ monochrome feel, but the writing is excellent and the rules clearly explained, and the new artwork in the rulebook is very nice. With the Roman Legionary on the front cover of the box, there is a gladiatorial aspect to the game, and this is continued inside the front of the rules booklet with a short vignette detailing an encounter between Flavius Marcellus and a German tribesman, which is then given a turn-by-turn explanation of the encounter in the inside back cover. The first of these sets up the prospective player, whilst the latter explains how everything works.


Melee is a little game, but offers quite a lot of tactical play and options in terms of its rules, much of which will be later seen in Steve Jackson’s GURPS. It is pleasingly self-contained—there is room inside the box for another set of dice and index cards to record the details of every fighter—and easy to set up, play, and teach. If there is anything missing, it is perhaps the lack of rules for terrain, making Melee solely an arena style game (it will be up to subsequent supplements to cover this). There is a level of detail in Melee not really found in the games of its time—though RuneQuest would certainly do something very similar—which still makes it very playable. Forty years on and Melee is still a short, brutal battle of a game.

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