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

Saturday, 1 February 2020

The Other OSR: Wizard

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 campaignSteve 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 was followed by Wizard, a companion to Melee which sends wizards into the arena to duel against each other. 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 19” by 23” game map, a set of sixty-two counters, and three six-sided dice. It also includes an eight page Wizard Reference Pages, which summarises all of the spells in the game as well as character actions and monster and beast stats.

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 is the game map, which is marked in two inch 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 area effects. 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 and dragons who take four and seven 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 eggshell-blue six-sided dice add a spot of colour to the game.

Play of Wizard begins with the creation of well, a wizard. In Melee, each fighter had just the two attributes—Strength and Dexterity, whereas Wizard adds a third, IQ. All three it turns out are important to spellcasting magic-users. Just as in MeleeStrength covers how many hit points a wizard has, what weapons he can use, and how effective he is in hand-to-hand combat. Dexterity covers how easily a wizard can hit an opponent, disengage from the enemy, and how quickly he can attack. For a wizard though, Strength represents how many spells he can cast, each spell having a cost that is paid in Strength points, not only to cast the spell, but also maintain it if necessary. Dexterity also represents a wizard's ability to hit a target with a spell. Intelligence or IQ, the new attribute, governs the number of spells a wizard knows, the maximum level of spells he knows—each spell has an IQ rating between eight and sixteen which the wizards IQ must match for him to know, and his resistance to illusions and Control spells. 

All three attributes begin at a base value of eight each, to which a player distributes another eight points. Once done, a wizard receives a staff, though it can be a staff, a wand, a rod, or the like, through which he casts spells. It is not a physical weapon though, but Wizard does cover physical combat should a wizard resort to using a dagger or his fists. Once a player has selected his wizard’s spells, the character is ready to play.

For example, Sibbe Stigandidottir, a Seeress from the north who is studying at a secret academy in the warm south. Her rough manners have made her the target of other students and when she struck out at one of her tormentors, Alzono, he challenged her to a duel in the academy’s arena.

Sibbe Stigandidottir

Strength 09
Dexterity 10
Intelligence 13
MA 11
Wizard’s Staff
Spells: Blur, Clumsiness, Confusion, Control Animal, Dazzle, Destroy Creation, FreezeMagic FistMage SightReverse MissilesSleep, Stone Flesh, Summon Wolf

Image result for Wizard SJG
Wizard lists some sixty or so spells. They are rated according to the minimum Intelligence or IQ a wizard must have to learn them. Each has a cost in terms of Strength points which need to be expended when a wizard casts the spell and many have an ongoing cost if the wizard wants to maintain them. They are catagorised into four types. These are Missile spells such as Magic Fist and Lightning,  which are direct damage spells; Thrown spells, like Blur and Slippery Floor, which can be cast on a target, whether that is a person or a location, but which do not inflict damage; Control spells such as Control Animal and Control Person; and Creation spells, being further divided between spells which create an actual object like  Summon Bear and spells which create illusions like  Illusion

Wizard is played out over a series of turns consisting of six phases—initiative, renew spells (or spell upkeep), movement, the opponent’s movement, actions (physical attacks, spell casting, attempts to disbelieve spells, and so on), and forced retreats, and dropped weapons. None of which happens simultaneously, but it takes place across a five-second round. Now in Melee, the primary objective in play is for the combatants to close with other and fight, essentially go from Disengaged to Engaged. This provides the fighter with a number of 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. All of these options are available for the wizards in Wizard, but in the main, it will not be the wizards who will enraging with each other at such close range. Rather, it will be the things that they have summoned, whether that is wolves, bears, myrmidons, gargoyles, giants, and even dragons, or illusions—of them and other things—which can also inflict damage if the defending wizard fails to disbelieve them, which are likely to be engaging in close combat.

Which in main means that wizards will be dueling it out with each other at range. Mostly obviously this means casting missile spells at each other in order to do direct damage, but with four types and sixty spells to choose from, a wizard has more options available to him than a fighter has in Melee. Spells like Blur, Reverse Missiles, Spell Shield, and Iron Flesh all provide various forms of protection, whilst Slow Movement, Clumsiness, and Trip will hinder a target. These though are spells that target either the casting wizard or his opponent, but a wizard has access to spells which can the environment between himself and his opponent. So spells like Shadow fills a hex with black shadow, so hindering sight; Create Wall places a wall which blocks sight and movement; and Slippery Floor makes a megahex slippery, which forces anyone entering it to make a Dexterity check or loose their footing. It is also possible for a wizard to hide in the arena, either by casting Invisibility or slipping into a hex containing the effects of the Shadow spell. 

Being companion games, both Melee and Wizard share the same mechanics. This is essentially a Saving Throw, rolled on the three six-sided dice, made against an attribute. Typically, this will be a roll against the wizard’s Dexterity in order to hit an opponent or object with a spell, but roll against a wizard’s Intelligence to avoid a Control Person spell, disbelieve an illusion, and so on. Damage is dealt in six-sided dice, more damage being done by spells by a wizard expending more Strength on the spell when cast. Damage is deducted from a wizard’s Strength, a wizard being knocked unconscious when it is reduced to zero and killed when it goes below that. Wizard duels in the arena are either to the death, arena combat, or practice combat, each awarding fewer—fifty, thirty, or tenExperience Points to any survivors. It takes one hundred Experience Points for a wizard to increase one of his three attributes.

Alonzo Bianchi
Strength 11
Dexterity 10
Intelligence 11
MA 11
Wizard’s Staff
Spells: Blur, Control Animal, Control Person, Freeze, Illusion, Magic Fist, Reveal Magic, Reverse Missiles, Rope, Shock Shield, Summon Myrmidon
For example, Sibbe Stigandidottir and her challenger, Alonzo Bianchi enter the arena and stand ten hexes apart from each other. Each player rolls a six-sided die for initiative, Alonzo’s player rolling a two, Sibbe’s player rolling a five, so she acts first. She knows that Alonzo wants this duel over and done with as quick as possible, so suspects that he will launch an attack as soon as possible. So she casts Reverse Missiles. This costs two Strength to cast and one to maintain. Her player tells Alonzo’s player that Sibbe has cast a spell, but not what, and notes it down. 
As she suspects, Alonzo casts a missile spell—in this case Magic Fist. This is a telekinetic blow which will do 1d6-2 for each point of Strength powered into it. In this case, two points. Alonzo’s player makes a roll against Alonzo’s Dexterity—there are no adjustments for range—and rolling three six-sided six, hits with a result of a seven. Unfortunately, because Sibbe has cast Reverse Missiles, her player reveals the the Magic Fist rebounds and hits Alonzo. His player rolls 1d6-2 for each missile, getting a result of a three and a one. Adjusted, this would be a one and a minus one, but since the damage can never be less than the Strength points put into the spell, the adjusted damage is two and two, for a total of four damage! 
At the start of Round Two, Alonzo has a Strength of five, having lost two for casting Magic Fist and four for the damage that spell would have inflicted. Sibbe has a Strength of seven from casting Reverse MissilesAlonzo’s player rolls a six for initiative, whereas Sibbe’s player rolls a one. Alonzo, reeling from damage that should have struck his opponent, fires of a quick Freeze, which would hold Sibbe in place for several rounds. It costs him four Strength, leaving him with just one! Sibbe will need to make a Saving Throw to shrug off this effect to act, her player rolling fourteen, so not enough to hold her in place. She will be held immobile for seven Rounds. 
In Round Three, Alonzo’s player rolls a four for initiative, whereas Sibbe’s player rolls a six. She gets to act first and her player makes another Saving Throw, this time with a result of seven, which means she throws off the effects of Freeze and acts, casting Summon Wolf. This costs two Strength to cast and one to maintain. The creature appears and Sibbe directs it to hound Alonzo. Being left with just one Strength, he can only hope to hold off the wolf long enough for Sibbe to use up her Strength, but otherwise it looks like the end of the duel for Alonzo...
This is just a simple duel, but with the range of spellcasting options available in Wizard, players have a lot of choice terms of what spells they cast and when. Duels can become tense, tactical affairs, especially when summoned creatures and illusions come into play because then the wizards will not be fighting against just each other, but multiple opponents. One type of spell missing from Wizard is the healing spell, though were there any such spell, a wizard would in effect be expending Strength to cast it in order to increase his Strength and so have more points to cast spells and withstand damage. Rounding out Wizard are rules combining Wizard with Melee, which will provide more options and tactics, and provide for a more involved game. Together, they also lay the groundwork for a proto-roleplaying game, but that will have to wait until The Fantasy Trip: In the Labyrinth.

Physically, Wizard 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. The cover artwork for the box is also excellent. The game is also supported by short piece of fiction which is explained with a fully worked example of play.

Wizard, much like 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 wizard—and easy to set up and play. Unlike Melee, this game is not as easy to teach and certainly not as easy to master, for Wizard offers more options and more tactics, than simple armed combat. Learning them and mastering them will bring players back to Wizard as they try out different spell combinations and tactics, providing a magical counterpart to the brutality of Melee.


  1. Thanks James. I plan to review further titles for The Fantasy Trip soon.

  2. I don't know if my memory cheats me, but I think one of the purposes of Melee & Wizard was to serve as alternate combat & magic systems to D&D

    Certainly I saw it used that way

    1. We TRIED to use it this way, so long ago. But it proved - for us - incompatible. The games were of different spirits and scales, and their glories, totally different. As a GM of the original Melee system and second edition D&D - best to let them do their own thing.

  3. I played both Melee and Wizard, out of the bag (this was before boxes) and I owe the game a lot. I simply love it. I backed its return and I love having it on my shelf. I will say this, however: this is a short tactical game. You or your opponent will be dead super-fast. Maybe I didn't remember this, but its KEY to calibrating what you want out of an evening. Death Test, notably, can't be played without putting a lot of experience into your brave dungeon fighters...

  4. I love both Melee and Wizard. I didn't have In the Labyrinth back in the day but I got it when I got the "Legacy Edition" and plan to use it at some point.

    And as a side note to your wizard builds above, the standard MA for humans is 10.