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Monday, 30 December 2019

1979: Adventures in Fantasy

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


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Adventures in Fantasy is the only roleplaying game to be designed by Dave Arneson, the co-creator of Dungeons & Dragons following his leaving TSR. Inc. in 1976. Co-designed with Richard L. Snider, who would also designed Avalon Hill’s Powers & Perils—and who like Arneson, passed away in 2009—Adventures in Fantasy was first published in 1979 by Excalibre Games Inc. and then by Arneson’s own Adventure Games in 1981. Adventures in Fantasy is a classic Class and Level roleplaying which draws from the Medieval period for its inspiration rather than Tolkien—though monsters and magic are a mainstay—which comes as a boxed set. Inside can be found three books. These are the fifty-eight page ‘Book of Adventure’ and the ‘Book of Faerry and Magic’ and ‘Book of Creatures and Treasure’, both fifty-six pages.

Adventures in Fantasy opens with this forward (sic): 

“Many years back Dungeons & Dragons by Gygax and Arneson first appeared on the gaming scene and a veritable revolution took place. Soon dozens of supplements and imitations were also on the scene, vying for the ever growing attention of gameplayers throughout the world. Yet throughout this I have felt that the original spirit of the Role Playing Fantasy game has not been well looked after and that there have been few real improvements to that less than perfect original system. To this was added dozens of additional rules in a chaotic jumble of that buried the original structure under a garbage heap of contradictions and confusion. Any person without the aid of an experienced player was hard pressed to even begin to gain an understanding of the rules and even with aid it sometimes still proved to be impossible.”

The authors continued by hoping that Adventures in Fantasy would be as understandable to the novice as it is to the experienced player. Thus they threw down a gauntlet for themselves and potential players and set the standard by which Adventures in Fantasy—and to be honest, any roleplaying game—should be gauged. The unfortunate fact is though, that Adventures in Fantasy failed to meet that bar. From the outset, Adventures in Fantasy suffers from an unnecessary complexity in its design, one which apparent just four pages in, with the player needing to apply the following formula to generate a character’s Hit Points.

((Strength÷2)+(Stamina÷3)+(Dexterity÷4))÷5

A character in Adventures in Fantasy is defined by his Class, six attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma, Stamina, and Health, Social Status, Starting Age (with a chance of natural death before play has even begun!), and Education. The Attributes are straight percentile rolls—though Adventures in Fantasy being from 1979 means that these are rolled on two twenty-sided dice marked ‘0’ to ‘9’ twice, whilst Social Status and Starting Age are rolled on the given tables. Education is represented by a number of courses of instruction that a character has taken. To determine how many, first a player works how months his character spent being educated or trained and then spends the months learning various packages. 

Adventures in Fantasy offers just the two character types, Warrior and Magic-User. Neither can be called a Class in the Dungeons & Dragons sense. A Warrior simply gains a 1% bonus to hit at each Level, whilst a Magic-User it increases the number of Magic Points he has. (That said, Adventures in Fantasy appears not actually define what the Levels actually are, so the Game Master will probably need to define them herself).

Our sample character is Edgar Smith, a simple townsman who was conscripted into the local liege lord’s army before he could undertake an apprenticeship. Once that war ended, rather than coming home, he sort service elsewhere and has fought in many battles as a swordsman since. He is physically fit, but lacks stamina.

Edgar Smith
Class: Warrior
Social Status: Tradesman/Man-at-Arms (Rank 6) Age 28

Strength 96
Dexterity 65
Intelligence 74
Charisma 48
Stamina 31
Health 20

Hit Points: 15

Education
Physical Training I, Physical Training II, How to use a shield, How to use a sword, How to use a club

Key to creating a character and what he can do is the roll for Social Status (modified by the Starting Age). This determines the number of years of education he has and thus what courses he can learn. Any character who wants to use his full physical attributes will need to take ‘Physical Training I’ lest he only be able to use them at three quarters of their value. Similarly, unless a character has been trained in the use of a weapon, any time he attacks with it, his player will be rolling against a third of the base skill. An average character should be able to enter play with an occupation, for example, blacksmithing or huntsman, and some physical and weapons training. Yet roll well in terms of Status and Starting Age, and the character created is highly capable with a wide range of skills and training packages, a member of the nobility, and even perhaps a Magic-User. Conversely, roll poorly and a player character is essentially a peasant levy who has been drilled to use a pike. Lastly, this does not take into account the fact that a player might fail the course and literally waste the time devoted to it.

As this point, you would expect ‘Book of Adventure’ to start discussing the rules to Adventures in Fantasy, but the middle third of the volume takes a sudden swerve into Game Master territory with advice on how to set up a campaign, an adventure, and laying out and designing the underworld, plus random encounter charts. These include the chances of a party being detected or evading another group of individuals or monsters in an area. It supports this with a sample dungeon, ‘The Dragon’s Lair’, and the wilderness location of the Bleakwood Fief, including the tower of a sorcerer. This is a serviceable set of examples with rather plain maps, though the hex map of the Bleakwood Fief is decent enough.

Mechanically, Adventures in Fantasy uses percentile dice, rolled for most situations against a character’s attributes—with no obvious modifications. Combat though, is more complex. It involves comparing body types, so Human versus Human, Human versus Snake, Lion versus Human, and so on to provide a base attack value. This is modified by the combatants’ Dexterity values, size, and comparative Experience Levels. Damage inflicted is determined by a six-sided die roll—no matter what the weapon—with no damage modifiers. Alternatively, an option allows for a straight percentile roll to be made against the body type of the defendant, which determines the type of die rolled for the damage, which could be a four-sided die or it could be two ten-sided dice, whilst special results inflict damage directly against the defendant’s Dexterity attribute. Other optional rules take the effects of terrain on combat into account, provide an armour saving throw—shields block damage, but armour reduces it, and allow a Strength bonus to damage. Throughout though, both Game Master and players need to keep track of their combatants’ Stamina, as it is possible to fight until exhausted. 

Combat in Adventures in Fantasy is a wonky mix of the simplistic and the complex. The damage mechanics are either too basic or too complex, neither effectively modelling character skill or attributes unless the Game Master includes the various options. Further, none of the options would be regarded as options in any other roleplaying game, including Dungeons & Dragons. Similarly, the rules for Experience Points for both Warrior and Magic-User require yet more arithmetic which only gets more complex the more player characters are involved in defeating an opponent.

Magic in Adventures in Fantasy uses Magic Points, a Magic-User gaining more Magic Points as he rises in Level. Spells are divided into non-alignment spells and three alignments, Law, Neutral, and Chaos—with no real explanation of what these alignments are—and once a Magic-User has selected a spell of a certain alignment, he cannot select those of the others. The spells are a mix of the usual, like Light, Fly, and Open Door, but also the odd like Insolence—which forces the target to be rude, Abandon—the target gives up all actions and devotes himself to cavorting about as if in an idyll, and Persecution—the target feels constantly persecuted by invisible demons. The target of a spell always has a saving throw against any spell, this being a percentile based on the number of Magic Points the spell cost to cast.

As well as normal spells, a Magic-User can cast permanent magic, typically on buildings, statues, swords, rings, and so on. This takes weeks of time and a Magic-User has a limited lifetime supply of Permanent Magic Points which rises slightly as the Magic-User gains Levels. Magic-Users can also enter into sorcerous combat, another complex sub-system which echoes the Psionics mechanics of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Then again, Faerry Magic, the magic of Dwarves, Trolls, the Faerry, and Elves is a simpler and flavoursome, divided between songs and runes, but essentially a reinterpretation of the spells for Magic-Users.

Besides the details of Dwarves, Trolls, the Faerry, and Elves, Adventures in Fantasy provides a wide range of creatures and monsters. Quite possibly the best done book of the three in Adventures in Fantasy, ‘Book of Creatures and Treasure’ is comparatively simple and accessible, with fun rules for creating quite varied Dragons, and a decent mix of creatures and monsters familiar and unfamiliar. The treasures and various artefacts are of a similar nature.

Physically, Adventures in Fantasy is decently presented, each book on a heavy buff paper. It needs editing in many places, as the writing is often clumsy, but the artwork is simple and clear enough throughout, having what would be called an ‘Old School’ look and feel. On the downside, the decision to colour-code the books and use colour rather than plain black text has repercussions. The use of red text in the ‘Book of Creatures and Treasure’ makes its content all but unreadable.


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Unfortunately, Adventures in Fantasy received mixed reviews at the time of its publication. Writing in Ares Nr. 4 (September, 1980), Eric Goldberg wrote, “The design of Adventures in Fantasy is, in every way, a direct lineal descendant of D&D, and is, in many respects, superior to its forebear. The resemblance unfortunately applies to the massive disorganization and frequent incoherency of the rules. Given the success of D&D, perhaps this is a good marketing strategy; it does, however, make the rules slightly indigestible.”, before concluding that, “AIF would seem to have many things against purchasing it. The price, the graphics are terrible, the rules are worse, and many of the systems are overly complicated, However, when played, the game is a lot of fun. Of course, some of the burdensome rules must be streamlined, but that work is not excessive.” (Note that Adventures in Fantasy cost $20 in 1979.)

Clayton Miner, in Pegasus #01 (1981), said, “Admittedly, this game does have its fascinations, especially to those who are interested in running a game with the flavor of medieval tales, rather than as Middle Earth. This is a game that should be avoided by those people who derive enjoyment from running a wide variety of character classes, as the only ones available are Warrior and Magic User. It is unfortunate that what could have been a superior project has turned out to be a disappointment in terms of playability and quality.”

Referring back to the introduction to Adventures in Fantasy in Space Gamer Number 30 (August, 1980), Ronald Pehr  commented that, “D&D might had ‘contradictions and confusions’ as Mr. Arneson points out on page 1 of ADVENTURES IN FANTASY, and he may be correct that ‘Any person without the aid of an experienced player was hard pressed to even begin to gain an understanding of the rules…’ However, we now have other games which aren’t full of confusion, offer some excellent role-playing, and can be handled by beginners, and don’t cost $25!”


—oOo—

Adventures in Fantasy is all but forgotten today, but its legacy is ever so slightly interesting. Most obviously, co-designer Richard L. Snider would go on to design Powers & Perils for Avalon Hill, but Adventures in Fantasy influenced other designers too. Notably, Jonathan Tweet took the concept in Adventures in Fantasy that a character marking a magical item would pay a permanent cost to do so and applied it to Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. In Adventures in Fantasy, the cost is paid from a limited supply of Magic Points, in Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, it was paid in Experience Points.

Adventures in Fantasy is a mess of complexity and simplicity with uneven explanations. It is not hard to see what the designers are trying to do, but all too often they make the game inaccessible and unnecessary hard work. They would go on to release a second edition in 1981, but how many of the issues in Adventures in Fantasy were fixed or addressed is another matter.

Ultimately, Adventures in Fantasy is more curio than roleplaying game. Essentially what Dave Arneson did next after Dungeons & Dragons and what he designed in response to what he saw Dungeons & Dragons had become. Unfortunately, the result is dense and fiddly, and hard work, in places incomplete, and undoubtedly not what either of the authors intended, at best a set of their house rules, at worst, a sideswipe at Dungeons & Dragons.

2 comments:

  1. >"They would go on to release a second edition in 1981..."

    I was unaware of this 2nd edition. Does it look the same?

    Great examination of AiF! Linked to this from my AiF blog post.

    https://waynesbooks.games/2019/08/15/adventures-in-fantasy-1979-a-post-dd-project-for-dave-arneson/

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  2. Thank you. I have not seen the second edition. A preview appears in Different Worlds #14, so there are some changes.

    ReplyDelete