In 1987 I was a sophomore in High School. A teacher had an after-school class where he taught us to play Melee and Wizards. Our characters battled each other with spells and weapons on a wide open hex grid. Little cardboard punch-outs with terrible drawings marked our places on the map.
I loved it.
Decades later, as an adult, I payed someone $40 US for them, because I kept thinking about them. Together Melee and Wizards made up a combat system. The Fantasy Trip was the Role playing system built around it to compete with D&D.
I never got to play them with anyone, but then The Fantasy Trip’s Kickstarter came out and I threw my money at it. Fun combat system combined with the joy of D&D Role Playing?! Sign me up!
Now I have it, and I’m trying to figure out if I should use it in my next campaign.
This is a long post. There’s a summary of my thoughts at the bottom if you don’t have time for it all.
Comparing and Contrasting
So, what’s the difference? Why choose one over the other? The way I see it there are four notably different aspects. I’m going to cover each below. There will be a lot of simplification.
- Character Stats & Rolls
- Source Material
Before that, I’d like to put an idea in your head. It’s a bit of an oversimplification, but I think it works. In D&D adventurers go from being slightly gifted individuals to demigods of incredible power. In TFT adventurers go from being slightly gifted individuals to exceptionally skilled individuals. It’s more of an “athletic child” to “Olympic Track and Field gold medalist” kind of scale.
- TFT: The Fantasy Trip
- D&D: Dungeons and Dragons
- DM: Dungeon Master. The person running the game. In TFT they’re Game Masters. I’ll use DM throughout for simplicity.
Character Stats, Creation, & Rolls
The Fantasy Trip
In The Fantasy Trip you have 3 stats:
- Strength: health level & literal strength
- Dexterity: how easy it is to hit or dodge things & literal dexterity
- Intelligence: how smart you are & how powerful the spells you can cast are.
It only uses a D6 (six sided die). You almost always roll 3 of them. You’re also always trying to roll under whatever your stat is.
There is also a concept of “adjusted dexterity” (adjDX). It’s a bit fluid and varies based on what you’re wearing and relative positioning of enemies.
When you need players to roll for something they know they’re going to need 3 dice, and they’re all going to be D6s. You probably won’t have to tell them which stat to roll against either.
If I said “roll to see if you can avoid the falling rock” it’s pretty obvious that you’d be rolling against your Dexterity. You’d also roll 3d6 because that’s what you always roll.
This allows for much more free-form interactions. I don’t have to tell you to roll a specific check for something. A player can say “do they have a heartbeat?” and the DM can respond with “roll to find out!” I don’t have to tell them which stat. Intelligence is the obvious choice, as Dexterity was for avoiding a falling rock.
- 3 stats that are extremely easy to intuit
- 1 kind of die and almost always rolling 3 of it.
In D&D you have 6 stats. Each one has a “modifier” which is relative to how much above or below 10 it is. For every two points you add ( or subtract ) 2. I’m not going to go into each one because, there’s just too much.
Each of the six stats has an associated “Saving Throw”. Rolling for a “Strength Saving Throw” for example is a D20 + your Strength Modifier.
There are 18 “Skills”. Each skill associated with one of the 6 stats, and it’s not obvious which one. Rolling for one of these skills uses a D20 + the modifier of the associated stat. Different races might give you a bonus to certain Skill Checks.
Characters are also “proficient” in some skills. If you are proficient in the skill the DM asks for then you also add your “proficiency bonus”.
Your “proficiency bonus” starts at 2 and increases by one, at levels 5, 9, 13, and 17.
When the DM asks for a skill check or a saving through it’s always a D20, but players have six different dice in front of them. I can not tell you how many times I’ve seen players ask “what do I roll?” even many many sessions into their 1st campaign.
Depending on the class you choose you have a different Hit die. Usually a D8 or D6. Each time you level you roll it again, and add your constitution modifier to see how many Hit Points you have.
When a player asks “Do they have a pulse?” The DM needs to instruct them to “Roll a medicine check!”. It’s not obvious to the player what check to roll otherwise. “Investigation” seems reasonable, as do “Perception” and “Survival”. Even “Intelligence” isn’t a crazy idea.
New players will usually respond with “what do I roll?” and then “what do I add to that?” They’re not sure what Stat Modifier it’s associated with. They don’t know if they’re Proficient in it or not, or what they have to add if they are Proficient.
- 6 Stats
- 6 Modifiers (one per stat)
- 6 Saving throws (one per stat)
- 1 proficiency modifier
- 18 skills (some you’re proficient in, some you’re not, each associated with a non-obvious skill)
- 6 different kinds of dice
Both systems encourage players to create interesting backgrounds for their characters. You want them to feel like living beings. Players know how to roll play a situation, because they know what this character’s life has been like.
D&D’s 5th edition has worked hard to make it easy for players to create rich backstories for their characters. It is spectacular for players who are new to Role Playing or aren’t very good about coming up with stuff like that. They also keep adding new background creation tools.
The Fantasy Trip is, in essence, a reprint of a book from the 80s, where they hadn’t figured out how to do this well.
In TFT you have humans, elves, dwarves halflings, orcs, goblins. This affects your starting stats, but not much else.
In D&D you have those, and many more. Different races have different starting bonuses, and abilities. More importantly, they have different histories, personalities, and places within the social fabric.
With almost every new book D&D introduces new playable races. Each new race helps people explore and express different aspects of their personality. It helps them to find their place in the wide world of role playing.
Wizards of the Coast deserves tremendous praise. Every image they provide is another starting point for your imagination. They’ve made sure to show women and people of color as player characters in these scenes. They’ve been working very hard to make D&D into a space where everyone is encouraged to participate. We need so much more of this.
Back in the late seventies, when The Fantasy Trip was first published, only the six-sided die was easy to acquire. Steve Jackson described it best in _The Space Game_r #10 (Feb-Mar 1977) where he wrote:
“The special dice are expensive and sometimes hard to find; it is monumentally aggravating, for instance, to purchase D&D and then find you can’t play without laying out more money and waiting another couple of weeks for dice.
When watching people play, the most visible difference between TFT and D&D is how they handle combat. TFT’s rules originally came in little rules pamphlets for Melee and Wizard. Those pamphlets are really small. You could probably print all the combat instructions on two sides of an 8 1/2“ x 11” sheet. D&D’s rules come in a book about ~200 pages long, but it turns out, very few of those pages are actually combat rules. I wanted to get a sense for the relative complexity of combat, so I flow charted them both.
The details aren’t important at the moment, and I’ve made this image low-rez so that we don’t get caught up in them. What’s important in this image is the relative complexity of each.
So, is TFT harder / more complex? Well. Yes?… and no.
In D&D everything about combat is simplified to the point of being hand-wavey. From the standpoint of the rules, everyone is just a floating blob of Hit Points. Do you want to stab someone in the back while they were looking the other way? Not gonna happen. D&D doesn’t care what way they’re facing. Is your friend between you and the enemy while you shoot that arrow? No worries, you literally can’t hit them. The D&D fans are yelling about “natural 1” now, but nothing in the rules says “and thus shalt thou hit thine friend!” It’s all the DM improvising. Improv like that is great. It is the heart of great RPG, but at the same time it feels like it’s verging closer to a simple board game.
“Hold on, lemme dig through my backpack. I know I’ve got something I can use… just… I think it’s under my bedroll. Yeah I know we were trying to kill each other but gimme a sec… sheesh!”
TFT doesn’t get crazy nit-picky about switching weapons but it does have a concept of a “readied” weapon. So, having a dagger on you doesn’t mean you’re constantly able to stab someone with it.
In its defense D&D, only lets you switch weapons without dropping if you spend your action doing it. There’s never a movement penalty, but most DMs just say “sure, grab & stow!” D&D encourages this attitude of making it simple for the players. TFT is striving for simple but trying to balance that with keeping things a bit more plausible.
In TFT if you’re shooting an arrow past your friend, you might hit them. With a spear, you’re more likely to hit from 10’ away than you are from 20’ away. When someone’s looking in the opposite direction it’s easier to stab them.
TFT also has some optional rules about “aimed shots” and “crippling hits”. For example, you could attempt to cut off someone’s leg and then they wouldn’t be able to walk around. In D&D it doesn’t matter how much damage you do to someone or where. They are never affected by it until they’re dead.
I’ll cover magical healing in a minute, but what about regular “natural” healing?
D&D wants players to heal up and be ready for whatever comes next regardless of what’s happened to them.
In D&D you have “Hit Dice”. You get 1 per level.
A short rest is a period of downtime, at least 1 hour long, during which a character does nothing more strenuous than eating, drinking, reading, and tending to wounds.
A character can spend one or more Hit Dice at the end of a short rest, up to the character’s maximum number of Hit Dice… For each Hit Die spent in this way, the player rolls the die and adds the character’s Constitution modifier to it.
So, in theory, you could heal any amount of damage during a short rest. You can take many of these during a day, but you can never roll more than your total hit dice during the day. If you have 4, rolling 2 now and 2 later is fine.
And then there’s the “long rest”…
At the end of a long rest, a character regains all lost hit points. The character also regains spent Hit Dice, up to a number of dice equal to half of the character’s total number of them (minimum of one die).
A good night’s sleep heals all wounds. Literally.
The Fantasy Trip takes a somewhat more realistic approach.
Physical damage can be healed in 3 ways:
- Someone with some First-Aid training (a “Physicker”) can give you First Aid, and heal 2 points of damage. 3 points if they’ve got advanced training (a “Master Physicker”). It takes five minutes to do, so it won’t happen in a battle.
- Potions that heal 1 point of damage only.
- Sitting around and healing at a rate of 1 point a day.
D&D has many magical healing options. The more powerful spells require touch, and the stronger potions are fairly expensive. Many of the classes have access to minor healing abilities. To put it another way, while death is always a possibility, healing is relatively easy to come by.
In TFT there are healing potions, but they they cost $150 and only heal one point. Their biggest value is preventing someone who just dropped to 0 points from dying.
There are no permanent healing spells. This probably seems crazy to most D&D players. In 2019 Steve Jackson (TFT’s creator) proposed one on their forum and the resulting conversation says a lot about playing TFT.
I thought this quote summed it up well:
Having played TFT for years with no healing spells, rare fragile healing potions that cost $100 for one dose that heals one point of damage, and having to devise ways to survive years of adventure anyway (making sure you have enough people and a physicker, and/or finding safe places to heal and actually resting), I still feel your original design was best.
It makes injury significant. There are ways to survive and triumph despite no healing spells, and I still find that more interesting and satisfying than the typical alternative of easy healing, which I find tends to make injuries less relevant, and actually tends to up the stakes of combat as players expect to be able to fight people and get hurt but then heal up relatively quickly for no really serious consequence. – Skarg
Healing Consequences on Gameplay
The consequences on gameplay are huge. In TFT characters typically have less than 40 points total spread over 3 stats while creatures roll at least 1d6 per hit. Damage is mitigated by armor and such, but when you’ve got maybe 15 or less Strength points to begin with, every point counts.
In D&D players are self-regenerating killing machines. They start with ~8 HP and can end up with well over 100 as they level. As long as they can get a rest in between fights they can keep going.
Barely survived a fight? There really aren’t any consequences if you can get a night’s rest.
It TFT players have to be much more careful, or they need to pull a cart filled with carefully protected potion bottles behind them. ;)
I don’t think either is better. It’s more a question of what feels right for your campaign and / or your players. That being said, making a long “dungeon crawl” survivable is going to take a lot more work on the DMs part in TFT.
Magic in The Fantasy Trip
I love the idea behind how magic works in TFT. There your magical forces comes from your physical health. When you cast a spell it saps your strength. Strength (Hit Points) lost via magic regenerate at 1 point per 15 minutes (notably faster than physical damage). You can kill yourself by casting too many spells.
More powerful spells require more strength. So you can’t save up your really powerful spells for the end because you won’t be able to power them.
If you read the Dragonlance Chronicles, this is very much like Raistlin. He’d cast a powerful spell and then become weak and wracked by coughing fits.
As you grow more powerful you can store up “mana” in your staff and use that to power your spells instead of your own strength. However, it caps out at the same level as your IQ, (maybe 20 points max) and you have to spend your experience points to make it instead of leveling your stats.
There’s a catch though. Excluding what power you can store in your staff, you can’t store very much. You need IQ to be able to cast powerful spells, but you need Strength to be able to survive the spells you cast, and the enemies that you encounter.
After you use up you staff’s mana each spell will drain you physically. Meaning, every spell you cast, also makes you easier to kill. It doesn’t matter how healthy you are at the start of the fight. Every casting brings you closer to death.
There are balances though. Every wizard is also an enchanter, infusing magical items with spells they know in their downtime. The process takes weeks, or months, and frequently require the help of other wizards. Magical items can enable Wizards to do things that might otherwise be impossible during combat, but many still drain your health. So, no free fireballs.
Unlike D&D everyone who casts has access to the same pools of spells, and can all create new ones, and can enchant items. The only limitation is their intelligence and access to strength for powerful spells. Everyone can cast a spell in theory, but Wizards study for years to be able to learn spells more efficiently.
There are roughly 250 spells to choose from and creating your own is something explicitly mentioned in the rule book. You memorize new spells by spending experience points.
Spells are typically very simple. They come in 4 flavors:
- Missile: used to damage someone (roll to hit)
- Thrown: act on a creature but don’t hurt it.
- Creation: bring something into being (images, illusion, etc).
- Special: anything else (Teleportation, Dazzle, etc.)
Here’s a complete spell description from the book.
IQ 10: Dispel Missiles (T) Dispels any missile spells (or missile or thrown weapons) aimed at the spell’s subject. They simply vanish. Cost: 1 ST to cast, 1 to continue.
That, is it. The “(T)” means it’s a “thrown” spell.
Magic in D&D
In D&D there’s a limit to what you can cast, but doesn’t hurt you. Casting doesn’t make you easier to kill. Some classes have fewer spells, but get them back after a Short Rest. Some have more spells, and flexibility in spell choice, but only get them back after a Long Rest. Some spells can be cast as a “ritual” which takes longer but doesn’t use up one of your available casting “slots”.
What class you are affects what spells you have access to, and how many of them you can cast at each level. While you can create new spells it’s not generally done, and enchanting items is something only specific classes can do, and it’s way more limited than in TFT. That being said, there are a lot of spells to choose from.
The fact that it’s not tied to your health means that you can save your really powerful spells for the end… “just in case”. The fact that they’re tied to neither intelligence, nor health means that as you level you will eventually become a demigod of power.
Spells can be created by players but generally are not. That’s not a big deal though because there are literally over 500 to choose from.
Spells have 10 aspects each:
- Casting time
- Range / Area (can be a distance or a volumetric shape of a specified size)
- Components (verbal, somatic, and/or material)
- School (mostly ignored)
- Attack / Save (is a roll required? if so, who rolls?)
- Damage / Effect (what kind, how many dice are rolled, what kind of dice, any plusses)
- Classes that can cast it.
- Info on how the spell changes (or not) as you level.
The Components are great for role play, but are frequently ignored in favor of just using a “focus”.
In both systems you gain Experience Points (XP) as you play.
In D&D these experience points eventually cross a threshold and your character levels up. Every time you level you get more Hit Points. Melee classes get more abilities. Casting classes get more spells and access to more powerful spells. Each subsequent level requires more experience points to reach.
In TFT there are no levels. You spend your experience points to improve your basic stats, to learn new spells and talents, for gold, for a Lesser Wish spell, or to improve your magic staff’s Mana stat. Each stat increase requires more and more XP to reach, and the cost is based on your total stats.
D&D lets you choose from carefully curated lists that are relevant to the class you chose. Some levels don’t get you much. Some levels are an exciting set of decisions “ooh I could take this spell, or that one, but ….which?!”
TFT is more “With study and practice you can be whatever you want to be!” Players will save up for the thing they’ve been looking forward to, or the thing they really “need”.
This is a very unfair comparison.
TFT is, as I mentioned, basically a reprint of a book from the 80s. In that time Wizards of the Coast has been iterating and perfecting what they do. In addition to the time to do this their recent popularity has given the financial resources to create more content. Steve Jackson Games only recently reacquired the rights to TFT and hasn’t had a chance to create much of anything new for it.
If we’re lucky folks will start playing TFT and demanding more from its creators.
As it stands though… There are some spells. There are some monsters. The choices pale in comparison.
Some monsters have stats. Some don’t. None of them have stats organized in a consistent way. There is no sense of relative difficulty between them. Many don’t have images, and the ones that do tend to be very mediocre quality black and white (literally black, and white, not grayscale). The descriptions are decent.
Planning an encounter is frustrating and difficult for people who aren’t intimately familiar with the game.
There are some “pre-programmed adventures” (as there were called) but they’re short. The one that comes with it is 24 pages. Many are much shorter. By comparison The Curse of Strahd for D&D is a 256 page hard cover book with many beautiful illustrations and maps.
D&D has tons of source material. It is gorgeous. It is well organized. You don’t have to come up with everything from scratch. You don’t have to tweak everything to make it work. Tons of monsters to spark your imagination. Lots of “modules” (pre-planned adventures) to steal ideas from, or send your players on if you don’t have the time or inclination to create one yourself. There are short community ones, and epic ones from Wizards like the The Curse of Strahd.
Everything about spells and monsters is more complex, but it is presented with such consistency, and predictability, and structured “stat blocks” that it doesn’t matter.
D&D also has an incredible wealth of high quality fan content. I think much of this can be attributed to their Open Game License. This basically says you can include lots of their spells, and creatures, and other intellectual property in your content and software, even if you’re selling it as long as you don’t try and claim it’s yours. As a result, people can create new adventures for you without having to create all new monsters or spells.
I love the simplicity of TFT’s stat system. While I can see the argument that it’s too simple, D&D’s stats and rolling things are way too complex. I realize that 5e is a dramatic simplification from 4e but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s way more complex. There are way too many complications when it comes to answering the question of “what should I roll?” and “what do I add to that?”
I love how much more plausible combat feels in TFT. D&D has brushed over complications like shooting through spaces occupied by your friends. It ignores how it should be easier to stab someone that’s facing away from you. Accounting for that in TFT adds complication, but D&D isn’t much better. It may actually be worse. The simple case is easy in both. D&D can get very complex when you have multiple buffs, and debuffs, from friends and enemies, each potentially involving different dice.
I really like D&D’s use of different polyhedral dice. They’re just more fun. Having all those “choices” may add confusion for new users, but combat is “roll a d20” and then find and roll the right dice for damage. I think the confusion is more tied to the myriad stats and modifiers. The lack of confidence from that bleeds over into combat.
I want the simplicity of being able to say “roll to find out” and knowing that a TFT player will have confidence in what to roll, and against which stat. D&D requires more explicit telling, and more calculating by the player who is rolling.
I’m unsure about the fragility and lack of healing in TFT. My gut says that it would encourage DMs to create small encounters separated by weeks or months of game time. The short length of every TFT module I’ve encountered seems to confirm this.
Those adventures are fine, but what about the epic journeys through enemy lands in search of… whatever? There seem to be DMs who have been playing epic campaigns without altering the healing rules. I need experience playing it to find out how much of a problem this is or isn’t. I suspect that the secret to keeping wizards alive is having them craft magic items.
In contrast, D&D feels too much like the adventurers are 1970’s Super Heroes. They get crazy powerful and it doesn’t matter how badly hurt they were in the last comic. They’ll all be healed and ready to go in the next issue. “Oh, did they run you through with a spear? Take a nap Dear. You’ll be fine in an hour.”
Judging how powerful a TFT character is, is very difficult for a new DM and there are no guidelines. D&D’s levels provide a very simple, albeit rough, way to judge that. Their “Challenge Rating” of monsters is flawed, but generally sufficient to building a balanced encounter.
In TFT there’s no clear progression of monster difficulty. There’s no easy way to choose reasonably balanced monsters for my players to encounter. I’d love to be able to take the monsters from the D&D monster manuals and “translate” their stats for use in TFT but no-one has come up with a good way to do that. It may not be doable because of how characters progress in TFT, and how varied their choices for spending their Experience Points are.
TFT players seem to use “attribute points” in place of levels. Where a D&D module might say “for levels 3-4” a TFT module would say “for 32-35 point characters”. As a new TFT DM it’s not clear what that really means in terms of how much damage a character can dish out. With D&D it’s clear that as you progress in levels you dish out (and can withstand) more damage. Characters are guaranteed to have more hit points each level. Every few levels they’re granted access to more powerful spells or abilities that do more damage. Maybe I’m worrying over nothing, and “attribute points” are a perfectly good scale. Either way, I still don’t know how to compare that to monsters.
After going through all this, I want to play TFT even more, but I want to do the work of creating a campaign in it even less. If Steve Jackson Games released a Monster Manual that was as well written and organized as D&Ds, I would have no hesitation.
Note for the nit-picky geeks. Yes, I am aware there are oversimplifications in this, like saying you “always roll 3 dice” in TFT. I know there are exceptions.