Sunday, August 19, 2018

Dragons of Underearth

Art by Denis Loubet

The Fantasy Trip Kickstarter is in its final days.  For those of you who don't know, The Fantasy Trip is...well, let's let designer Steve Jackson (US) explain (from Heroic Worlds):
          The Fantasy Trip, or TFT for short, came into being in 1977, when I designed Melee for Metagaming.  Melee was intended to be a (relatively) realistic, but super-quick game, useable either as a combat system for fantasy RPGs or as a stand-alone game.  It used only two statistics: Strength and Dexterity.  Combats were quick and bloody, until you got about a dozen on each side; then they became slow and bloody.  But it was a simple and very playable system.
          While Melee was being designed, I toyed with a few spells, but did not include them in the final version.  However, by popular demand, they grew into a companion game, WizardWizard was actually the same game with one more stat (IQ) thrown in and magic rules instead of weapon combat.  Therefore, the two packages were totally compatible; a wizard could fight with, or against, a warrior.  These were the game's two “character classes.”
          Melee/Wizard became quite popular, due both to simplicity and to the very low cost (originally $2.95 for Melee, $3.95 for Wizard).  There was a great deal of demand for the “complete” role-playing system.  And, in 1979, after entirely too much time and work, The Fantasy Trip was released.
After TFT was published, Steve Jackson separated from Metagaming.  Jackson went on to establish his own game company.  Metagaming retained the rights to TFT, but Jackson further developed the concepts of TFT in forming the basis for GURPS.  Metagaming went out of business and TFT went out-of-print.  Now, however, Jackson has obtained the rights and is running the aforementioned Kickstarter campaign.

Metagaming published Dragons of Underearth before it closed its doors.  Dragons of Underearth is...well, let's let designer Keith Gross explain (from Interplay #8):
...DRAGONS OF UNDEREARTH has basically the same content as THE FANTASY TRIP in its full ITL [In the Labyrinth], ADVANCED MELEE & ADVANCED WIZARD form; the rules cover essentially all of the same subjects.  However, DRAGONS OF UNDEREARTH is much shorter (about 20 small pages) and much easier to learn and faster-playing.  It is slightly less realistic and leaves out some of the more esoteric weapons, spells, etc.  It does not have all the colorful descriptions and background information that ITL, ADVANCED MELEE, and ADVANCED WIZARD do, but many gamers do not need this.
The front of the box makes the declaration, “Compact Rules For Fantasy Role-Playing.”  The back of the box indicates:
DRAGONS OF UNDEREARTH gives you danger and glory in a complete, fantasy role-playing game where you are the hero.  UNDEREARTH simplifies play, giving you more time for action and surprise.  Included are character creation, magic, monsters and combat (introductory, intermediate & advanced versions for easy learning).  And, you don't need a game master or special dice.
Please note the claim of being “a complete, fantasy role-playing game.”  (The game also refers to itself as “a complete character role-playing system.”)  Yet, neither did Lawrence Schick include it in his Heroic Worlds, nor was it listed in The Adventurer's Handbook.  Perhaps Dragons of Underearth was considered too derivative of The Fantasy Trip.  However, the notion of publishing basic and advanced versions of the same game is hardly novel.

Keith Gross planned something called Conquerors of Underearth as a TFT adventure that would have “Adventurers entering a Goblin fortress and encountering organized military units, and as such often involves 10-20 or more fighters in a battle.” Given the number of participants, a battle in Conquerors could be “very slow and complicated.”  Gross fashioned a simpler version of TFT to make Conquerors more playable.  This simpler version became Dragons of Underearth, a distinct product.  Ironically, Conquerors of Underearth was never published.

Like TFT, players create characters in Dragons of Underearth by allocating points among three attributes:  Strength, Dexterity, and IQ.  Like TFT, IQ establishes how many talents a character may have and the variety of talents from which to choose.  Like TFT, talents such as Animal Handler, Physicker, and Theologian are listed.  Unlike TFT, only combat related talents are explained in Dragons of Underearth.  According to section 6.2, “Other talents are fully explained in the Magic Item Creation section of this module or in CONQUERORS OF UNDEREARTH.”  Also, per section 5.2, “Non-Combat spells are described in CONQUERORS OF UNDEREARTH™.”

If your product lists talents and spells, acknowledges that the talents and spells need description, and refers the reader to a separate product for those descriptions, your product fails to be “complete.”  If that separate product won't ever exist, insult is added to injury.  Ultimately, Dragons of Underearth only incorporates rules that relate to combat.

So, when can we consider a role-playing game to be complete?  Is The Future King complete?  That game does not allow for creation of original characters and there is only one adventure.  While Heroic Worlds does not mention Dragons of Underearth, it does list The Future King as a role-playing game.  Of course,  Heroic Worlds includes solo gamebooks as RPGs.

The rules for Dragons of Underearth are divided into two modules:  Character Generation (©1981) and Combat (©1982).  In addition to the obvious, the Character Generation module includes tables for armor, weapons, and monsters/beasts; rules for experience; and rules for creating original (combat) scenarios.  The Combat module has three tiers of rules:  introductory, intermediate, and advanced.  The introductory sections cover the basics (appropriately enough).  The intermediate sections bring into play ranged combat and (optionally) poison, creatures, and bare-handed attacks.  The advanced sections discuss spells and magic items.  Each tier has three scenarios incorporating the rules from their respective tiers (to facilitate learning).

The third advanced scenario is called 'Battle of the Chasm' in which two forces are positioned on either side of “a two-megahex wide pit.”  Only a narrow bridge crosses the chasm.  The 'Dark Power' force consists of six orc “swordsmen,” four orc archers, two trolls, and a greater demon.  Included among the 'Fellowship' force are two human fighters, a dwarf fighter, an elven archer, a wizard, and four halflings (one of which has a “Ring of Invisibility”).  This makes for an interesting situation; someone should write a book where this is a pivotal scene.  For dramatic tension, maybe the dwarf – no, one of the humans – wants the ring for himself.  Maybe the other human is really a prince or something.  Of course, no one wants to read about a Fellowship; that's too hokey.  They should be called the League of Murderhoboes or the Brotherhood of Death Dealers.

Why 'Dragons' of Underearth?  One dragon is featured in an intermediate scenario.  Perhaps someone at Metagaming hoped that the word 'Dragons' in the title would imply a likeness with Dungeons & Dragons.  Perhaps Metagaming had sitting around some Loubet art featuring a dragon.

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