The following article appeared in Avalon Hill's "The General" magazine, back in November 1979. I recall reading it at the time, but it has become all the more meaningful, now, as I pore over early fantasy fiction in my exploration of Dungeons and Dragons' Appendix N.
I re-publish the article here on my blog (grabbed from this website) to preface what I will publish, later, in regards to the Appendix N inspirations for Avalon Hill's Magic Realm. So without further ado, I give you Richard Hamblen's...
Here is a pretty problem to perplex a game designer: how do you capture the magic of fantasy literature in a game? Games and books can both present stories but they cannot possibly present those stories in the same way – and the thing that makes fantasy literature come alive is the way it is told (the details; the depth and the descriptions of remarkable characters striving to cope in fantastic worlds). Fantasy exists only in the telling and is built entirely of skillful storytelling tricks and tools. If games by their nature have different tricks and tools, then it is almost a contradiction in terms to do a game that captures the essence of fantasy. If you don’t believe there is that much clash between games and fantasy, consider these examples.
First, variety. No matter how many times you read a book, it doesn’t bother you that it turns out the same way each time (in fact, it would bother you considerably if it turned out differently each time you read it). But you expect to play a game repeatedly, and you would be utterly outraged if it automatically turned out the same way each time you played it. In a book the hero may be portrayed as making decisions but, in fact he follows only one path of adventure. He may have the choice of joining a caravan bound for danger, leading an outlaw band, or seeking some lost treasure in the wild jungles, but he does only one of these and the others are mentioned only in passing. In a game the hero may want to change his adventure from one game to another and different heroes may want to do different adventures in the same game. So, in the game, alternate adventures have to be constructed and presented.
This is a major headache because of the second problem: detail. Fantasy adventures capture interest because they are explained in enough detail to make the experience seem real and to account for the hero’s thoughts and actions. Books can do this because only one adventure is detailed and the narrative can handle that quite nicely. In a game all possible adventures have to be detailed without much narrative (after all, you want to play a game, not read it).
Fantasy games do have one advantage, but it just leads to the third problem: creating a fantastic world. Games can invoke a whole fantasy world in detail just by mentioning a fantasy world that has been carefully fleshed out in literature. After all, the people who buy fantasy games have almost certainly read fantasy fiction first. The catch is that the fantasy book has fleshed out the world from only one vantage point. If nobody ever goes to look on the other side of a hill, there is nothing there. In a game the world has to be filled out from all possible vantage points, so the whole world has to be built right down to the nuts and bolts. Games based on particular works of fiction have an advantage here because only the parts of the world that are interesting in the book have to be built in. A game about adventure fantasy in general, a game such as MAGIC REALM, has to include all the aspects that are present in adventure fantasy generally or it does not invoke its world.
The headache is becoming gigantic, and there is yet a fourth problem: surprise. You get the most enjoyment out of a fantasy book the first time you read it because fantasy (like all forms of storytelling) relies heavily on surprise to entertain its readers and to create the illusion of real experiences. A game that entertains like fantasy each time it is played must therefore be able to surprise its players with unforeseen developments even after they have played it many times and have become familiar with its mechanics. (If being surprised by something that is familiar is not a contradiction in terms, I don’t know what is). In this case, a game based on the book is at a fatal disadvantage. If the game contains only the things that are in the book then it can hardly surprise you after you have read the book, and if it surprises you with things not in the book, it is hardly about the book. Fortunately, adventure fantasy generally is so full of variety that a game can be based on it and still provide surprises, but only if it can keep the players from becoming completely familiar with everything that can happen. Here the very size and complexity of a general fantasy game becomes a key advantage. All the poor game designer has to do is to build a world with all of the variety and diversity of adventure fantasy.
Well, that's the theory behind MAGIC REALM. It is meant to be a complete fantasy world so full of variation that the players have real choices to make. so full of diversity that no matter how many times it is played it can still surprise you with its situations, and so filled with detail that the illusion of a complete world is created. All of this is derived from the annals and possibilities of adventure fantasy. You can ride with a caravan or warrior band. you can lead a campaign or build an empire, you can seek a fortune or a good fight, you can meet and deal with the nobles or dregs of humanity. You can tamper with dangerous magical forces. You can never be sure of what you will find, or what will find you.
One problem with such a diverse little world is that it is complex, so it takes some time to master tactics and techniques. In fact, parts of the game were purposefully designed to be subtle so that it takes a single thought to figure out how to use them to your best advantage. The game is full of little puzzles that need to be figured out, and each game's puzzles are different (I am not referring to the rulebook, which is an inadvertent puzzle of a different sort).
With all of these possibilities in play, I am willing to have a little mercy and show you how to use certain game mechanics: you might call it a little guided tour of the MAGIC REALM, with some observations about the dangers and opportunities that can befall you including some advice on how to escape the dangers and make the most of the opportunities. The individual elements will be discussed in roughly the order they are introduced in the ENCOUNTERS. So, if you're only partially through the ENCOUNTERS and come to a discussion that sounds utterly unfamiliar, it probably refers to an ENCOUNTER you haven't reached yet (at least let us hope so).
On with the guided tour.
Start where the game starts, with the players assembling the 20 hex tiles to form the MAGIC REALM. Strategy begins here because the placement determines how the road net fits together, where caves are, what areas will be blocked by mountains and what areas are accessible only by secret passages or hidden paths. The characters have abilities that give them advantages in different types of terrain, so a player can gam an advantage in the game by constructing the board to favor the character he hopes to play in the game. Some of the characters’ advantages are obvious. The Dwarf is great in the caves and rotten outside of them, so he would like to see the CAVES tiles placed close to each other so that he spends as little time as possible when he moves outside of the caves. He would like them to be centrally located so they get in the other character's way. Characters who have an advantage in dealing with natives (such as the Captain, White Knight, Black Knight and the Wizard, because of his large number of friends) would like to see the VALLEY tiles containing the dwellings located close to each other. Characters who have advantages in certain tiles and who will work alone either because of weakness or special advantages should place their favorite tiles off out of the way, where other characters will not come in and mess things up (so the Witch and the Druid would like to see the RUINS off in a corner, and the Woods Girl feels the same way about WOODS ties generally) The Wizard would like to see paths and passages get in the way as much as possible. Other advantages are more subtle. The Dwarf likes caves partly because he is designed to face the slow monsters there instead of the fast ones in the mountains. The Amazon's extra move phase allows her to hide and move two mountain clearings so she would like to see mountains blocking the board to hinder the other players. Characters who can take a Spell allowing them to fly like to make normal movement as inconvenient as possible, partly by placing the WOODS tiles where they will cut off sections of the board once they are enchanted. And so on.
Once the board is complete, the Warning, Sound, Treasure Location, Lost City, and Lost Castle counters are scattered around to indicate what dwellings, monsters and treasures are in each tile, while the ghosts and four garrisoned dwellings are placed in the VALLEY tiles. The inhabitants of the other tiles remain secret, although each tile's terrain gives some idea of what lives there; small animals and nomadic tribes in the WOODS, treasures and slow, powerful monsters in the CAVES, and more treasures and smaller, faster monsters m the DEEP WOODS and MOUNTAINS.
This information is helpful when a player is planning how he will approach the game. Planning is important because each player chooses the conditions he must fulfill to win the game ahead of time, and because he has a choice of how to go about avoiding risks and gaining the power he needs to fulfill these conditions. It takes planning to deal with the dangers and opportunities in the MAGIC REALM.
The first considerations in a player’s plans are his character’s strengths and weaknesses. Each adventure he can undertake involves different tasks, dangers and rewards so a character should plan his endeavors to match his abilities. Once he has chosen his objectives, a character has the choice of going after them directly or going on minor expeditions to gain power first and then trying for victory. A character can plan a whole string of adventures leading to ultimate victory.
A player's second consideration should be for the cooperation, antagonism or indifference of the other players in the game. Characters who travel together and cooperate in combat and other activities greatly increase their ability to survive, search, trade and hire successfully. A whole group can profit from a leader's abilities and discoveries if they all FOLLOW him (so they move faster when following the Amazon. use paths and passages when following the Wizard and hide better when following the Druid or Elf), although the group should search as individuals. Unfortunately, greed and fear are powerful motives for one character to attack another so characters must be careful of the company they keep. This is a consideration that leads many characters to operate on their own. In particular, characters who are weak in combat (the Witch, Druid or Dwarf) have reason to fear a strong character (the Elf, Black Knight or Witch King). The stronger character, in turn, has reason to fear that weaker characters will combine against him. A balance of power within the group helps, but this balance can fluctuate wildly or vanish as the characters are weakened or strengthened during play. In addition, certain characters' powers are most effective when alone (the Druid's PEACE WITH NATURE) or at a particular location where others may not care to go (the Dwarf in the CAVES, the Woods Girl in the DEEP WOODS), which encourages these characters to go off alone. The net result is that the Druid, Dwarf, Elf, Witch, Woods Girl and Witch King often find themselves operating alone for one reason or another.
Operating alone is not a guarantee against being attacked, however, since a character can hunt another down during play (a strong character like the Black Knight can even make a living off of hunting down his fellow players). The system of recording moves and moving in a random order each day allows characters to track each other down once they are within a day’s journey of each other, since a pursuer can record a move to the quarry's location (and use the extra phases to search for hidden enemies, if the quarry is hidden). If the pursuer moves first and rolls successfully, the quarry is caught, and even if the attempt fails, the quarry is still within a day's journey and the tactic can be repeated until it succeeds. The Swordsman can move first perpetually to avoid being caught (or he can move first to catch up each turn when he is the pursuer), and characters with an extra MOVE phase (e.g. the Amazon or any character with horses) can outrun pursuit with a little care, but for most characters the only means of escaping pursuit is to duck into a path or passage the pursuer can't use. A character who anticipates being chased is wise to search and prepare a few escape hatches ahead of time.
Whether a character should seek or avoid combat depends on whether he can deliver the first killing blow. Each Round of combat is an exchange of blows in which each character plays a FIGHT counter and weapon to show the speed, strength and direction of his attack and a MOVE counter to show the speed and direction of his defensive maneuver. If a FIGHT's time undercuts its target’s MOVE time then it hits. Otherwise it hits only if the two match directions. To see which opponent has the advantage in combat, look at the fastest FIGHT counter that each is able to play which can kill with one blow if it hits. The character whose attack would be resolved first (due to FIGHT time or weapon length) has the advantage. He can rely on playing that FIGHT counter and a slow MOVE counter because in an exchange of blows, his attack will kill first. The opponent who strikes second must play a MOVE counter that cannot be undercut and a slow FIGHT counter because if he can't avoid the undercut, he is lost). However, if this slow FIGHT counter undercuts the first player’s slow MOVE counter then either player can be defeated by an undercut and the battle turns into a guessing game. If both players avoid being undercut then the battle will be decided by who matches directions first.
Striking the first blow in an exchange does not work against armor, because the target will survive to return the blow (except when the attack inflicts ‘Maximum’ damage). An armored character can maneuver so that any blow that matches his direction also matches the area protected by his armor, so only an undercutting attack from an unprotected area can circumvent the armor An opponent who can make such an attack can ignore armor, but otherwise, he must first destroy the armor. If unarmored, or lightly armored, he needs to undercut to destroy the armor quickly without being undercut himself. If his armor is stronger than his enemy's, he can play fast FIGHT counters and slow MOVE counters to bring on an exchange of blows to wear down the enemy’s armor. The battle is once more a guessing game in which lucky blows can change who has the armor advantage.
Wounds and fatigue become important as a character loses his counters because he loses his flexibility, his ability to avoid being undercut, and his ability to play undercutting attacks. Thus, a character with extra asterisks and counters will slowly gain the advantage in a prolonged battle.
Some characters' peculiarities affect their tactics. Those with weapons too light to kill their opponent or destroy his armor must use avoiding tactics and hope to stay alive long enough to wound him to death. Such is the case with unready bows which are unlikely to kill so their owners must rely on avoidance tactics until the bows are readied. Characters who can inflict ‘Maximum’ damage can ignore armor and use first-kill tactics The Knights must husband their easily fatigued MOVE counters carefully. The Dwarf' DUCK counter is his only fast maneuver, making it easy for opponents to match his direction. Against many opponents he must lust duck and hope his helmet holds out until he gets in a lucky blow.
The effects of the weapon times, armor bonus and weapon length optional rules are worth mentioning. Weapon length and weapon times change who has the first-kill advantage each Round, particularly on the first Round (when weapon length determines the order of attack) and each time weapons hit (because they become unready), so the characters should change tactics accordingly. Readied bows gain automatic first-kill status. The armor bonus makes armor harder to destroy as heavy weapons an no longer inflict 'Maximum' damage, medium weapons have trouble destroying armor. and light striking weapons cannot damage full armor at all!
A quick examination of their counters reveals the tactics that opponents should use and which of them is likely to win. An armored character has a clear advantage and a character with the first-kill advantage has a decisive advantage if he can undercut and avoid his opponent's armor. If both of the characters are armored and or neither can undercut then the outcome will hang on lucky hits where the directions match.
A character who wants to avoid being overmatched or to avoid swapping risky blows can escape by running away. His opponent must play a MOVE counter equal to his lowest MOVE counter to stop him, but the opponent's MOVE counter asterisks count against the opponent's two-asterisk limit that Round and thus prevent him from playing his fastest counters in combat. The opponent is wiser to not stop the character if stopping him would cause the opponent to lose the battle. This is particularly true when the opponents are equal in speed and armor. If one opponent is faster he can stop the other at little cost but since he is weaker than the other he would not want to. Rather, he should use his quickness to run away.
The characters should play the game with these tactics in mind. A character should avoid enemies with superior fighting ability, and he should engage equal opponents only if the prospective gain is worth the risk. A character who can run away can afford to let himself be caught by an enemy, but a character who cannot run away must concentrate on evasive tactics and hiding to avoid combat. An important point is that a character's combat ability changes as his armor is lost, his FIGHT and MOVE counters are wounded or fatigued, and his weapon is readied. This has two effects on play. A character should avoid battles that will weaken him severely (especially battles that will cost him his irreplaceable armor) even when he will probably win, and a character should prepare for combat so his combat ability is at maximum strength when combat begins. He should rest to recover wounded and fatigued counters, and characters with bows (or any weapons when the weapon times rule is being used) should alert them for the start of battle.
The same considerations apply when dealing with monsters – fight only when the reward is worth the risk, avoid dangerous monsters you cannot run from, avoid weakening battles, and prepare when battle threatens. Monsters, however, require different tactics.
In combat, monsters, have the disadvantages of being predictable, of having to attack and maneuver in matching directions each round, and of having only 'tooth/claw’ weapon length. When fighting a monster, a character can ensure victory by playing a killing FIGHT counter that strikes the first blow and either: 1) undercuts the monster's move time; or 2) matches the character's MOVE counter direction when the MOVE counter cannot be undercut (so the monster cannot hit without running into the character's first-kill attack). If the character can neither undercut nor avoid being undercut then he must get the first-kill advantage and hope for a lucky hit by matching directions. If he cannot get the first-kill advantage his tactic depend on whether he can survive a hit. If he cannot, then he must avoid an exchange of blows by playing a MOVE counter that cannot be undercut and playing a FIGHT counter in a different direction in hopes of striking an unreturned blow. If he can survive a hit, then he can use the normal tactics of undercutting or attacking and move in the same direction while avoiding the undercut. The character should choose a play that works regardless of which side of the monster counter is face up, but if he cannot then he should choose the less risky play, always remembering that the monster will probably not turn over.
A character facing a group of monsters should group them and treat them like one monster targets that gets the first hit. If he cannot survive their hits, he splits his MOVE and FIGHT counters. If he can, then he uses normal tactics. Obviously, the deadliest monsters are his first targets. (Note: When the monsters must be divided into three equal groups because the DEADLY REALM rules are being used, the character should concentrate the deadly monsters in one group and hope they keep missing while he picks them off.)
Groups of characters are deadly when they coordinate their actions in combat. A character can volunteer to be attacked by a monster and play his best MOVE counter to escape while the other characters use their best FIGHT counters to attack from three directions to ensure a hit. Against multiple monsters each character can volunteer to be attacked by the monster he can best avoid and attack the monster he has the best chance of killing, with the characters protecting each other from the monsters on their sheets. However, characters can easily double-cross each other in group combat by attacking each other or just abandoning a character to his own devices after he has committed himself.
Monsters on the APPEARANCE CHART have only a one-sixth chance of being active and appearing on the board each day, and even when they do appear they will land on a character only if he is in the same clearing with the Sound or Treasure location counter or in the same tile with the Warning counter that triggered them. A character can avoid these tiles and clearings once he discovers what the counters are. Monsters that are already on a tile are more dangerous because when they are active they will automatically go to the character’s clearing when he ends his turn in the tile, and even when they are inactive they block and fight characters in their clearings. This also means that when two characters end their turns in the same tile, monsters can appear in the tile when the first one moves and then go to the second character's Clearing when he moves. This allows characters to decoy monsters into each other's path, causing groups of characters to draw crowds of monsters. However, a character who is alone and who is cautious about hiding and choosing where he ends each turn is safe if he is just moving through monster territory.
It is when a character is spending a lot of time in a tile (to find, move to, locate and loot a Treasure location there) that the monsters become a major problem. Every day more monsters can appear and move into his clearing, and they will attack as soon as he fails a hide roll at the start of his turn. (The accumulation of monsters is extreme to the point of being ridiculous in the LOST CITY and LOST CASTLE where the treasures and monsters are concentrated.) Caution and cooperation are the tools needed to deal with this problem. A character who avoids ending his turns in the tile as much as possible (by peering into the tile from a mountain clearing in an adjacent tile to find the Treasure location counter, circling around outside the tile to move to it, and even dodging in and out of the tile while he locates and loots it) retards the accumulation of monsters there. Once monsters have appeared in the tile, he needs to hide each day, and if they are already in his clearing he needs to hide on his first phase or they will block and attack him. As the monsters gather, he can try to thin them out by fighting each group as it arrives, or he can move away and hide to draw them out of the treasure clearing and then go back when it is vacant. If a group is looting the treasure, one character can volunteer to move away, block any monsters he attracts and then run away during combat, leaving the rest of the group to loot safely and pay him a commission. Most importantly, when things start to get too hot, the character can just leave. Staying around to draw just one more treasure is the leading cause of character fatalities. Incidentally, notice that at a rate at two phases per day (one if you hide) it takes a long time to dig treasures out of a cave clearing, which gives the monsters a long time to gather.
Treasures can completely change the way a character plays the game. Each treasure confers an advantage in some aspect of the game, and if a character gets a treasure that changes one of his weaknesses into a strength, it can change the whole balance of power in the game. Treasures are only tools, however, and a character must study how a treasure's advantage interacts with his own strengths and weaknesses to determine what tactics he should use to get the best use out of the treasure, particularly when the treasure is interacting with another treasure that reinforces or cancels its advantage. Sometimes a treasure is useless to a character, either because he cannot use it or because his own strengths are superior to the strengths it confers It may be very useful to another character though, and this provides a real motive for characters to trade with (or plunder) each other, which is another reason why groups are helpful (trading partners are always handy).
Most treasures also have fame and notoriety values that show a treasure’s effect on its owner's reputation among the righteous and the lawbreakers, and show how it counts towards his victory conditions. These values are somewhat opposite, so treasures with a large value in one category often have a minus value in the other. Characters thus have the choice between holding onto (or discarding) treasures regardless of their values. Characters can also shuffle the treasures around to come to a balance of fame and notoriety that exactly fulfills their victory conditions.
Treasures can also be sold for gold, which can be used towards victory determination or can be spent to buy items or hire natives. Natives can have valuable and useful treasures for sale. as well as improved weapons, more armor, and horses to carry loads (to improve a character's movement and to protect the character in combat). Natives can also be hired to fight for a character, to defend him in combat, to help him search, and to go off in raiding groups to prey on monsters and characters while he stays safely behind. Friendly natives are a powerful asset who can turn useless treasures and gold into useful items and hired armies. So, a character is wise to operate in an area where friends are nearby, even if he has to wait at a dwelling to stop wandering friends when they appear. Hiring natives is a key to success. especially for characters who are operating alone or who have advantages in dealing with natives. One hireling can volunteer to face attacking monsters so his owner can escape or attack safely, and a whole group can defeat any monster or group that is vulnerable to their weapons. A character who saves up the gold to hires fewer groups and who chooses their opponents carefully (since natives will stand and fight to the last man even when they are doomed) has a big advantage, although hired armies usually do not come into play until late in the game when the characters have had a chance to accumulate gold.
Escorting missions to their destinations and taking treasures to the visitors who desire them are two ways characters can accumulate working capital without too much risk early in the game. Missions cost nothing except time, and once a character has a little gold he can buy items desired by the visitors and then sell them to the visitors for a fat profit, building up quite a bit of gold that he can then use to trade with or hire natives.
Campaigns offer the powerful advantage of gaining allies at the cost of some fame and notoriety and then trading with and/or hiring these allies. Characters need to undertake some small initial adventures to get the fame and notoriety with which to start a campaign, and some careful planning is required to pay the price and still fulfill one’s victory conditions, but a character who executes such a plan gains a huge advantage late in the game.
Magic is so powerful that it dominates how its practitioners play the game. Spells are powerful but very narrow in application, so a character has to plan his game very carefully, predicting the dangers and opportunities he expects to meet and then taking along the Spells he expects to need. Conversely, the Spells a character can take should determine his plans. Characters without combat Spells cannot plan on being aggressive, characters without protection Spells cannot plan on operating alone, and characters without Spells that can help a group cannot count on the group's protection. These limitations encourage different characters to follow different game plans. The Sorcerer and Witch King have the Spells to be aggressive and independent. The Druid, Witch, and Elf have the Spells to operate alone and avoid trouble, and the Pilgrim has Spells that make him valuable in a group. Only the Magician and Wizard have complete flexibility in choosing how they will play the game. The main danger to a magical character comes from the danger that contingencies will arise for which he has no Spell, so every magical character needs to learn all of the additional Spells he can from artifacts, books, Treasure locations and visitors
A magical character also has to worry about being able to cast the Spells he has. He should keep MAGIC and transformed color counters available, and he can greatly increase his power by transforming his tile (assuming it provides the proper color magic). Preparing magic is an effective way of ensuring that he will be able to cast his Spells, but it is expensive (it costs one phase to ALERT and then one rest phase to recover the MAGIC counter) and risks being blocked while the counter is fatigued, so it should be done sparingly (only when the character is in imminent dangers).
This completes the $2 tour of the MAGIC REALM. A more detailed description of tactics and ploys would be nice but out of place in a general article about the whole game. There are too many elements that determine the best tactics in a situation and these elements vary too much from situation to situation (the elements: different mapboard, different distribution of monsters as individuals and armies, and even different treasures and spells since only twenty percent of the possible treasures and spells get into play in any game – even change from game to game). The result is a game full of variation and surprises where the players have to figure out how to handle each situation as it arises.
The different characters use very different tactics both in combat and in the play of the game. Usually it takes several games with the same character before a player learns how to make the most at his advantages and the least of his weaknesses, and even then unforeseen situations can catch him off guard. Hopefully this article gives you a general idea of the tactics that are available and how they can fit together in a plan that leads to victory, or at least that leads to an enjoyable journey into a realm of fantastic adventure.