The Other OSR: Death Test

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It is impossible to ignore the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and the effect that its imprint has had on the gaming hobby. It remains the most popular roleplaying game some forty or more years since it was first published, and it is a design and a set-up which for many was their first experience of roleplaying—and one to which they return again and again. This explains the popularity of the Old School Renaissance and the many retroclones—roleplaying games which seek to emulate the mechanics and play style of previous editions Dungeons & Dragons—which that movement has spawned in the last fifteen years. Just as with the Indie Game movement before it began as an amateur endeavour, so did the Old School Renaissance, and just as with the Indie Game movement before it, many of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance are being adopted by mainstream roleplaying publishers who go on to publish retroclones of their own. Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games is a perfect example of this. Other publishers have been around long enough for them to publish new editions of their games which originally appeared in the first few years of the hobby, whilst still others are taking their new, more contemporary games and mapping them onto the retroclone.

Yet there are other roleplaying games which draw upon the roleplaying games of the 1970s, part of the Old School Renaissance, but which may not necessarily draw directly upon Dungeons & Dragons. Some are new, like Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World and Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style!, but others are almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons. One of these is The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming Concepts in 1980. Designed by Steve Jackson, this was a fantasy roleplaying game built around two earlier microgames, also designed by Steve Jackson, MicroGame #3: Melee in 1977 and MicroGame #6: Wizard in 1978. With the closure of Metagaming Concepts in 1983, The Fantasy Trip and its various titles went out of print. Steve Jackson would go on to found Steve Jackson Games and design further titles like Car Wars and Munchkin as well as the detailed, universal roleplaying game, GURPS. Then in December, 2017, Steve Jackson announced that he had got the rights back to The Fantasy Trip and then in April, 2019, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Steve Jackson Games republished The Fantasy Trip. The mascot version of The Fantasy Trip is of course, The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition.

The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition is a big box of things, including the original two microgames. So instead of reviewing the deep box as a whole, it is worth examining the constituent parts of The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition one by one, delving ever deeper into its depths bit by bit. The first of these is Melee, quick to set up, quick to play game of man-to-man combat. It is designed to be played by two or more players, aged ten and over, with a game lasting roughly between thirty and sixty minutes. The second is Wizard, which brings in more options in terms of tactical play because it introduces magic to the arena. Although the two integrate well, Wizard is more complex and harder to learn, yet offers more for a player to get into. The third is Death Test.

Death Testactually consists of two adventures—‘Death Test’ and ‘Death Test 2’—both originally published as MicroQuest 1: Death Test and MicroQuest 1: Death Test 2 in 1980. The new, combined edition comes in a box which contains the two adventures and some sixty-six new counters. Both require the map from Melee and can either be played using just Melee or a combination of Melee and Wizard. Both can also be played in a number of ways. They can be played solo, one player or several players against the adventure, instructions being included in the text as to how any monsters or NPCs will react to the player characters. They can be played with a Game Master controlling and rolling for the monsters and NPCs, whether is with just one player or several. They are designed to be played by between one and four characters. Ideally, these should not be beginning characters, but unfortunately ‘Death Test’ does not say how experienced the player characters should be. In addition, although having more characters in play will provide more tactical options—especially if they include a wizard, they do reduce each character’s final score at the end of the test. If they get to the end of the test, that is. In this way, ‘Death Test’ sets its own difficulty. It is easier with more characters, but the rewards will be less.

The background to ‘Death Test’ has the character—or characters—travelling to the city of Ardonirane, which is ruled by the famous and powerful war leader, Dhallak m’Thorsz Carn. He is once again hiring mercenaries, but will accept only those that pass a test—enter the labyrinth beneath his palace and there fight animals, monsters, prisoners, wizards, and rival would-be employees—and survive! Although there is treasure to be found, what matters to Thorsz is the mercenary’s or mercenaries’ performance. The more foes they defeat or kill, the more they will rank in his estimation and the higher position they will attain in his army.

The labyrinth consists of twelve colour coded rooms connected by a series of corridors. There are no doors, but entrances and exits are marked by black curtains, or rather black magical illusions which the player characters can sometimes pass through and others not, but which they can never see through. This means that in order to find out what is in a room, one or more of the player characters must enter said room. Most of the time, they can leave the way they came. Each room then is its own discrete encounter and with just a dozen of them, it allows for variety of denizens and challenges. ‘Death Test’ is not a dungeon in the traditional roleplaying sense though, the focus being more on combat—as the background suggests—than exploring, finding traps, and so on. Nor is it really a roleplaying adventure, a ‘programmed adventure’ certainly, but not a roleplaying adventure as there is very little, if any, roleplaying involved. That said, run ‘Death Test’ with a Game Master and one or more players and then there are opportunities for the Game Master to roleplay and bring some of the NPCs to life and thus for the player characters to interact with them rather than fighting them.

Consisting of one-hundred-and-sixty-seven entries over seventeen or so pages, there is a greater physicality to ‘Death Test’ in comparison to other solo adventure titles. This not surprising though, for Death Test is an expansion for a man-to-man combat game. So instead of sitting down and reading through a book and rolling dice as necessary, this is definitely an at the table affair with the map, the counters, and the dice in front of you. In further comparison with those other solo adventure books, ‘Death Test’ has a greater replayability factor. Only score enough points to get hired as a recruit? Well, why not try again to see if you can attain a better position or try it with a different mix of characters?

‘Death Test 2’ is double the size of ‘Death Test’. Again, it can either be played using just Melee or a combination of Melee and Wizard, but it can also be played using Into the Labyrinth, which covers roleplaying, character creation and experience, and advanced magic and combat rules for Melee and Wizard. Like ‘Death Test’, it can be can be played solo, one player or several players against the adventure, instructions being included in the text as to how any monsters or NPCs will react to the player characters. They can be played with a Game Master controlling and rolling for the monsters and NPCs, whether is with just one player or several. This is certainly the case if ‘Death Test 2’ is run using the rules from Into the Labyrinth. Unlike ‘Death Test’, ‘Death Test 2’ is intended for a party of four characters rather than between one and four, and it includes advice as how experienced the player characters need to be, for like ‘Death Test’, it is not designed for beginning characters. ‘Death Test 2’ can also be run like a traditional dungeon adventure, and this is supported with advice on adding it to a campaign and on expending gained Experience Points.

The background to ‘Death Test 2’ is that Dhallak m’Thorsz Carn is unimpressed with the candidates to join his army who succeeded at getting through the labyrinth in ‘Death Test’. So he has another built, one which is more involving and more challenging. Consisting of some two-hundred-and-eighty-seven entries over thirty-six pages, ‘Death Test 2’ only adds a few more rooms in comparison to ‘Death Test’. The increased number of entries allow for more detail, more things to happen, and more things for the characters to do. There are traps and puzzles, a greater range of monsters to encounter and magical items to find, players will find their characters tested in other ways than combat—‘Death Test 2’ includes the need to make Saving Throws. This is a richer environment for them to explore and no mere complex of arenas to enter and fight in. This does not mean that ‘Death Test 2’ is not a combat focused adventure—it very much is—but it is written far more like a traditional solo roleplaying adventure and presents a richer playing environment, so is far more engaging.

Physically, both ‘Death Test’ and ‘Death Test 2’ are plain, simple booklets with paper covers. Behind the full colour covers, they are black and white throughout. Each is lightly illustrated, but the artwork is excellent throughout.

Of course, of the two, ‘Death Test 2’ is better than ‘Death Test’. It is more detailed and offers more options than just combat, plus it supports more roleplaying, especially if Into the Labyrinth is being used. On the downside, because it has more secrets to be found, it is not as readily replayable. In other words, there is less of the simple board game to its play than there is in ‘Death Test’. Yet ‘Death Test’ should not be discounted. Its simplicity means that it can more readily be replayed, and it is easier to both set up and play. At its very simplest, ‘Death Test’ provides a reason to play Melee and/or Wizard than just fights in an arena.

Death Test is a good combination boxed set, presenting two solo adventures of differing complexity and detail that offer a great deal of flexibility in terms of their set-up and play options. More so than traditional solo adventures. If you have Melee and/or Wizard, then you should put yourself through the Death Test—both of them.

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