Long, long ago, some time after the oceans drank Atlantis and before the rise of the world wide web, there were a pair of delightful little games of fantasy gladiatorial combat: Melee and, a bit later, Wizard. They were written by Steve Jackson, and put out by a company called Metagaming. We enjoyed them so much, they quickly replaced the combat system we were using for Dungeons & Dragons (which was itself the “alternate combat system” described in Men & Magic, since the “real” combat system was Chainmail and we didn’t have a copy of that.) Eventually Metagaming released The Fantasy Trip, also by Jackson, and I enthusiastically glommed onto that, while my brother continued using the homebrew that grew out of that original grafting of Melee/Wizard onto D&D. Some time later, Metagaming went belly-up, and Steve Jackson tried to buy the rights to TFT back from Howard Thompson; Thompson wanted some ridiculous amount of money for it, so the deal never happened, and Thompson wandered off and that’s pretty much the last anybody ever heard of him. Jackson went on to do a new, unconstrained version of his vision and what emerged was GURPS, but that’s another story.
I played TFT for years. That and the Arduin Grimoire were my fantasy jam. Eventually I drifted away because of slight dissatisfaction with some elements of the system, particularly at higher power levels, and the thrill of chasing something new. (I gave GURPS more than a fair shake, when that came along, but… well, some other time maybe.) Mostly I ended up playing home-brews, often heavily influenced by TFT and its class-less, level-less “be anything you want to spend points on” system. When decades later I encountered the OSR and people who had never given up on their old systems, and/or people who’d newly encountered them in the form of various retro-clones that provided copy-right friendly versions of long out-of-print editions, mostly of D&D, it never actually occurred to me to look for retro-clones of TFT. It turns out, though, that there are several. One in particular, Legends of the Ancient World, by Dark City Games, deserves mention as a streamlined, stripped down version that compresses everything into 8 pages, and happens to be free.
A much more ambitious and complete (as well as more expensive) project is Heroes & Other Worlds, by C.R. Brandon, which has been described (paraphrasing) as TFT meets Moldvay Basic. It’s a very impressive offering, with pretty substantial additional support, particularly a monster & treasure manual (The Tome of Terrors & Treasures… flipping expensive, though, even for 425 pages), and a supplement of extra spells (The Magi Carta, 190 pages) both translations into HOW terms of OGL material, and several adventure and setting supplements (including a HOW version of my friend Rob Conley’s Blackmarsh setting Blackmarsh: Heroes & Other Worlds Edition).
I really dig Heroes & Other Worlds, although I haven’t had a chance to play it yet, both for the wealth of material that it provides and for the ways it has simplified some of the odder things in TFT, such as the way HOW eliminates the IQ minimums for learning various talents (in HOW called Skills). No more minimum of 10 IQ to learn the most rudimentary form of martial arts; it may have made sense as a game balance technique to prevent fighters from using IQ as a dump stat, but it’s pretty hard to justify on any other grounds. It also introduces some of its own new ideas, some of which are very neat indeed: I particularly like the notion of “reactions” that allow a character to Parry or Dodge at the cost of moving next turn, instead of taking a full turn (no attack) as in TFT, and the EN(durance) stat that allows for spell-casters with a lot of magical oomph who aren’t built like Conan. HOW does introduce some of its own oddities, like Tridents being as good on the average wielded one-handed as Halberds with two, but you could easily change them back to the original TFT rules (available from David O. Miller’s Melee & Wizard site).
It is kind of pricey, as retro-clones go, and you might want to start by dipping your toes in Legends of the Ancient Worlds if you want to try a TFT-like for free… but HOW and its supplements represent a good deal of work by Brandon and I don’t begrudge him some recompense for the labor. I’m looking forward to running TFT again in the near future, probably on a G+ Hangout some evening. For me it’s like putting on a comfy old sweater in a way that D&D never really was. Check it out.
Heroes & Other Worlds