Thursday, 29 October 2009

SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK



"Many of these role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, RuneQuest, Traveller and Warhammer, are quite complicated, and their manufacturers recommend them for twelve-year-olds and over."

For me, this was where it all started. Already a big fan of the Fighting Fantasy books I was excited beyond all measure when this turned up at my primary school's bookshop, promising to be a multi-player game like this mythical, mysterious Dungeons and Dragons that I kept hearing about from my Father, of all people, who had reported it being played at the Technical College at which he taught. I can clearly remember the day I bought it and reading it in the back of my Father's Austin Maxi while the family drove over to Kinver Edge for an sunset walk on a balmy September evening some 25 years or so ago. The imagination got fired (here was a game where I could write my own adventures and they could contain anything) and frankly I don't think I've ever been the same since.

Being somewhat settee-ridden the past couple of days (akin to being bed-ridden but slightly less serious) I dragged FF off the bookshelf and re-read it with an eye to a modern review. After all, it's the book that gave this blog it's title.

Fighting Fantasy (The Introductory Role-playing Game) was written by Steve Jackson in 1984 and published alongside the more regular FF gamebooks (Warlock, Citadel etc.). In it Jackson presents a version of the usual FF game system and a very good, concise account of how an RPG runs for an audience that probably have never heard of such a concept. He does this by cleverly re-running the start of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain but as if it were an RPG. This is an excellent section and it works - I'm proof of that - and if I wanted to tell somehow how an RPG works, I'd lend them this book - except that this copy is a bit fragile and of considerable sentimental value. Perhaps I'd get another via eBay first and lend that one.

Mechanics

Mechanics-wise the book pretty much copies everything that the early FF gamebooks did. Adventurers are represented by three attributes, the familiar SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK (nearly always capitalised).

SKILL is generated as d6+6. This is a general measurement of how competent an adventurer is - nearly every test is made against skill (2d6, score equal to or lower). It's essentially a generic measurement to describe swordsmanship, intelligence, strength and dexterity/reflexes.

STAMINA is generated as 2d6+12. It's hit points basically.

LUCK is generated as d6+6. This is mechanically interesting. Tests that would be blind luck are made against this with 2d6, but after every test, the Adventurer's LUCK is reduced by 1. This seems to represent some form of divine favour that slowly dribbles away as it is used. Literally, your LUCK can run out. Tunnels and Trolls likewise had a similar attribute (LK) but this didn't reduce from use. This is an interesting concept and not one I've seen used in other games.

Something that FF introduced me to has stayed with me in virtually every game I've ever run. Advocates of the Old School will be delighted to hear it's a fine example of ruling not rules. Any test where the Adventurer's manliness comes into play is a straight 2d6 versus SKILL. Anything that relies upon the Adventurer's luck is a Test Your Luck, another straight 2d6 but versus LUCK this time (with the obligatory burn of 1 point for testing). Everything else is a simple n-in-6 chance. Pick a number between 1 and 5 and throw a single d6. A 3-in-6 chance is a straight 50/50 with a positive result occuring on a 1,2 or 3. If you ran a game where the Adventurers never fought anybody (a game of political intrigue for example), a whole game could be run off this single "ruling not rules" mechanism.

There is absolutely no concept of character advancement, equipment lists or presumably re-using the same adventurer in a subsequent adventure. Chargen is performed before an adventure and Adventurer's are generic fighting men with pre-defined equipment - A sword, a lantern, a backpack, a number of provisions (each restoring 4 STAMINA) dependent upon the expected length of the scenario and a choice of one potion. If you are reusing a character from a previous adventure all you are really doing is reusing a name - the Adventurer gets rolled afresh and he carries no equipment or loot over from a previous session. This is implicit not explicit. The game seems designed around what we now call one-shots.

Adventurers have no access to magic, the effects of which seem to be entirely unavoidable. Some of the denizens in the scenarios have magic spells, if they cast them they happen. End of.

Combat in FF was very simple. 2d6 plus your SKILL, monster rolls 2d6 plus your SKILL. Lower score loses 2 STAMINA. Repeat until someone drops dead. There is a rule for Testing Your Luck to change a 2 to a 3, 4 or 1 but nobody ever did that because LUCK is too precious to squander upon making tiny changes to damage dealt or taken.

FF the RPG adjusts this slightly by adding ATTACKS. ATTACKS is basically the number of opponents that a Monster can attack in one round - leftover attacks are wasted. The Giant Octopus in the first scenario has 8 ATTACKS so can attack up to 8 Adventurers - he can't claim multiple attacks on a group of less than 8. Multiple ATTACKS creatures roll one attack roll and compare this to all their enemies. If three Adventurers fight two Orcs (1 ATTACK each) then one Adventurer will have the luxury of dealing damage to his target Orc if his ATTACK SCORE exceeds that of the Orc, and taking no damage at all if it doesn't.

Time

FF is played in realtime. If it takes 10 minutes to resolve an encounter, then 10 minutes in game have passed. The second scenario even offers the option of a teleport spell delayed by 2 hours to time the game to 2 hours and teleport Adventurers from the dungeon once the time has expired. The FF GM will therefore need a clock or stopwatch. I struggle to think offhand of another RPG that does this, and think for the game it is it's quite right and proper - look at who confusing OD&D's turns and rounds get with their need to record the passage of time for the expiration of spell effects and new Wandering Monsters roles.

Scenarios

FF comes with two dungeon-bashes, the 18 location scenario The Wishing Well and the larger, 39 location Shaggrad's Hives of Peril, possibly the strangest named scenario ever. Both are traditional late 70s arrangements of occupied rooms that exist totally in isolation of each other, with no rhyme, reason or logic. To be fair, and harking back to the opening quote, for Jackson's intended audience this was probably fine. Each encounter location has it's own full-page monochrome illo (in the same style of as the gamebooks) and each location text has a mini-map with the current room highlighted with an arrow to dispense with the need to keep turning back to consult the main map.

These scenarios differ from general practise in that the Adventurers are not expected to bring any other solutions or equipment in with them. As a result, The Wishing Well looks very similar to a Zork-clone text adventure game in that it's a closed system - everything needed to resolve a puzzle or obstacle can be found within. For Wishing Well the Adventurers will need to befriend the wizard Nandras who will offer them the Crystal Key to gain access to the Spider-King's quarters, but only if they defeat the Mummy for him which respawns twenty minutes after death (twenty real minutes remember) unless burnt - for which they will need the flaming torch from the trophy room of Marg the Slaymaster. Once in the quarters of the Spider-King, they will need the spell to open the Treasure Room, which can be found in the Spellbook in the chamber of respawning Zombies. It's very text adventure-like and should the same players go on to tackle Shaggrad's Hives of Peril (I hear you can get a cream for that...) they won't possess either the Crystal Key or the flaming torch.

Presumably you'd have to construct scenarios in this fashion. The party won't have a 10' pole with which to prematurely trigger a trap, so if that's needed, it will need to be left in the dungeon design somewhere.

In Play

As it happened, despite all the excitement and enthusiasm I never played FF when it was new. Before long, September turned to October and by November, encouraged by the firm grasp of this strange new gaming concept that I'd developed from re-readings of FF, I'd requested the good old Red Box for Christmas, and the baby steps of GM-ing were all undertaken with what I regarded as the "real" game. The FF scenarios got restatted to the "proper" thing. I ran Well but never did Hives.

And that was that until the early 1990s.

At that time I was gaming at a wargames club in Stourbridge and playing with a bunch of guys who went to a bunch of different schools and sixth form colleges. Pre-mobile phone and all the other communication tools, internal communication between this group wasn't very good and periodically the Friday session would be disrupted by no-shows and wargames where only one army had turned up or someone had been grounded or unhelpful parents were whisking their brat off to visit some Aunty somewhere and devil take the four or five other kids who'd expected him to be at the end of a bus ride in the rain and were sitting around wondering where he was.

That was there FF came into it's own. Since the rules could be committed to memory on first read-through and were essentially seared into everyone's mind from an early age it turned out to be no real hassle to quickly knock up an improvised dungeon bash and dive into that, playing without access to the book (not needed really) and feeding off player suggestions in the sort of fashion that much later got codified in the likes of Donjon.

Would I ever play this again? I'm not sure. Some of the simple decisions to allow the game to work with a pre-teen age group actually look quite modern these days and tightly focused (one-shot PCs, realtime clock, use of one attribute for a million things). Perhaps for this type of game I'd stick with the greater flexibility of OD&D but I'm loathe to rule out a return to the SKILL, STAMINA and LUCK and two wooden dice looted from the family Monopoly set.

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this! I've been a fan of Fighting Fantasy since reading The Warlock of Firetop Mountain in the early 80s, and it's been a major influence on how I approach RPGs ever since.

    I've never seen the Fighting Fantasy RPG, and was never sure how similar to the gamebooks it was.

    The way they handle time in the game is excellent, and fits nicely with the speed that FF combat runs at.

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  2. I started with this too, although for some reason we skipped straight through the Games Workshop stuff to Shadowrun, and never really got into D&D. I ran a very long campaign with Dungeoneer, the "advanced" version of this game, and it was great fun until the brokenness of the system got in the way and everything fell apart.

    I keep thinking about putting together a free retroclone of FF, but I also keep thinking about the stuff I'd change (1d6+6 for STAMINA for a start, as it's too high for a multiplayer game as is). One day, maybe.

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