The Fantasy Trip
was acclaimed game designer Steve Jackson
's first attempt to write a complete fantasy roleplaying game
Design work on the game started in 1977. Jackson was working for a company called Metagaming at the time. Metagaming was best known for making small, self-contained board and wargames that were shipped in small boxes that could practically fit in your pocket. Therefore, The Fantasy Trip started as two pocket-box games: Melee, which covered man-to-man combat, and Wizard, which covered combat with magic. The two games were completely compatible with each other.
The games represented Jackson's desire to fuse fantasy elements with his strong wargaming background. They were a much more realistic treatment of "swords and sorcery" than existed at the time, and as such soon developed a cult following. This cult following, naturally, clamored for a complete roleplaying game based on the pocket games.
Jackson began design on the full system in late 1977. Work progressed slowly. Although Jackson is a brilliant designer, this was his first RPG, and he is a perfectionist. The game finally appeared for the first time in March of 1980.
During this time period, Jackson had a falling out with Howard Thompson, the president of Metagaming. Relations had become increasingly strained between the two as Jackson missed deadline after deadline in his quest for the perfect RPG. Things reached their breaking point when Thompson decided to change the format in which the game would be published. Jackson had been promising his fans a boxed set that would include the game books, maps, counters, a referee's shield, and dice. The game was finally released simply as three standalone books that fans had to buy separately. Not only that, but Jackson was not allowed to view the proofs of the books, as Thompson was sure he would find things he was dissatisfied with and delay things again.
The result was that The Fantasy Trip was the last game Jackson did for Metagaming. He would found Steve Jackson Games less than a year later.
The Game Itself
As mentioned above, The Fantasy Trip started with the games Melee and Wizard. These games were small and simple and played fast once you understood the rules, yet felt realistic. This design philosophy would permeate the entire game.
When The Fantasy Trip was finally published, it was as three books of rules: Advanced Melee, Advanced Wizard, and In the Labyrinth. Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard covered their designated topics and were backwards-compatible with Melee and Wizard but were not standalone games any more - that aspect of the game was gone. In the Labyrinth was the game master's rulebook, and covered character creation, building labyrinths, running the game, and background information on the world of Cidri.
Most of the game's flaws stem from its wargaming roots. Characters only had three defining statistics (Strength, Intelligence and Dexterity) and no skills; improving a character meant raising those three statistics. Therefore, as characters grew, they became more similar as fighters increased their abilities to maximum and wizards learned every spell on the list. Some monsters were given such strict rules on play that players could easily memorize them and plan strategies accordingly.
But the game was still very good...good enough that when Jackson finally got the itch to write another RPG, his first thought was to obtain the license to The Fantasy Trip and rewrite it yet again. Unfortunately, a deal could not be struck, forcing Jackson to start over and design GURPS. Of course, the combat system was the first thing he designed, which he quickly released as a standalone game called Man to Man.
Heroic Worlds, by Lawrence Schick, ISBN 0879756535
The Fantasy Trip: Designer's Notes and Errata, by Steve Jackson, http://www.reese.org/tft/designnt.htm