Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Treasures Buried in Time

Metagaming's Microgame series, which began with a now-classic sci-fi wargame, quickly expanded to include the realms of fantasy. The company released the medieval/fantasy combat game Melee as its third microgame in 1977, and the sequel, Wizard (#6), a year later. Melee pitted human and humanoid fighters against one another in an arena, with barebones statistics for the combatants (just Strength and Dexterity), melee rules that linked most game dynamics to those stats, and a hex map to govern movement. Wizard added a new statistic, Intelligence; a point-based spellcasting system; and an array of fantastic creatures. Both games came from the mind and pen of Ogre's designer, Steve Jackson, who disliked the complexity of early fantasy boardgames and wanted a more elegant system. Grognards doubtless considered both titles lightweight. Today we can see them, in their simplicity, as ahead of their time.

Melee and Wizard sold well enough to generate a spinoff series of solitaire adventures, known as MicroQuests, and a role-playing game, The Fantasy Trip. The former were mostly conventional dungeon-crawls, but two, Treasure of the Silver Dragon (#4) and Treasure of Unicorn Gold (#6), had some exceptional features. These titles were programmed wilderness adventures that each contained clues, supposedly, to a real-life buried treasure. I shouldn't say "supposedly," as a gamer named Thomas Davidson discovered the treasure in Silver Dragon (a silver statuette and a $10,000 check) just a year after the adventure's release.* I don't believe anyone found the Unicorn Gold treasure before Metagaming folded, though there are some online rumors about its possible location.

The other spinoff, The Fantasy Trip, comprised three cheaply-made softcover books, Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and a GM's guide, In the Labyrinth. All added more "chrome" to the original microgames - more weapons and spells, magic items, monsters, a set of skills/proficiencies for adventures, and rules for underground adventuring - along with a few eccentric minor features, like black-powder firearms and intelligent goblins. TFT did not become a great success. Designer Steve Jackson disagreed with the company's production decisions and left Metagaming shortly thereafter to set up his own company. Metagaming hung onto the property but decided to reboot it as a sequel to another, separate Microgame, Keith Gross's Lords of Underearth (#18). The 1981 base publication was an agreeable wargame pitting dwarves, humans, and orcs against each other and various monsters, within an underground city displayed on a geomorphic map. Metagaming followed this with Dragons of Underearth, which combined LOU with a streamlined version of the combat and spellcasting rules from TFT. Conquerors of Underearth, the prospective role-playing rules, sank with the rest of Metagaming's works-in-progress when the company went bankrupt. Steve Jackson, meanwhile, took some of the features of The Fantasy Trip and incorporated them into a rather more successful role-playing game, GURPS, in 1985.

* The statue was buried at Sunspot, New Mexico, near an experimental solar power station; one of the clues in the adventure was the nature of the eponymous silver dragons, which gained life energy by absorbing sunlight into their scales.

No comments:

Post a Comment