Monday, December 7, 2009


Have I expressed my love for Melee on this blog yet? My undying love? If not, then surely it is time. I had to think really hard to remember if I got my copy of Holmes D&D first or Melee. I'm now sure it was D&D but it couldn't have been by much. I bought Melee in the Fall of 1979 or early 1980.

Now for those of you who may not know, Melee is a game of man-to-man combat (or man-to-creature for those so inclined) published in the late '70s by Metagaming. It was designed by Steve Jackson of GURPS fame. In fact it was the basis for GURPS. Melee was a microgame and came in a clear plastic pouch which contained a 4 x 7 inch rulebook, with a whopping 18 pages not counting covers, an 8 x 14 in. hex map and a sheet of cardboard counters. Small package, big fun. I think the hours, nay days, weeks even, of fun I derived from this $2.95 purchase is the best ratio of cost to entertainment value of anything I have ever purchased. The beauty of this game is that it was a simple game that could easily be played solo and Metagaming supported it with several solo adventures.

Although Melee itself wasn't a full blown role-playing game it did have several qualities that made it rpg-like. The combatants had two characteristics, Strength and Dexterity. Each starting character began with 8 points in each and distributed 8 more points between them. You then selected weapons and armor. Each weapon had a minimum strength rating. Strength also determined how much damage you could sustain. Armor affected your Dexterity. The heavier your armor, the lower your adjusted Dexterity. Your last statistic was your Movement Allowance. This was also determined by your armor. The heavier the armor, the slower your Movement.
Melee is a roll under system. To hit in combat you needed to roll equal to or under your adjusted Dexterity on three d6. You automatically hit on a roll of 3, 4 or 5. You automatically missed on 16, 17 or 18. Combat was divided into rounds. You rolled for initiative and the winner had a set list of actions he could take depending on in game circumstances. Then the other side went. Once the actions were determined and any movement executed then combat rolls were taken in order of adjusted Dexterity. Each weapon did a certain amount of damage. For example, the short sword did 2d6-1 damage. Armor reduced damage by a certain number of points. Chainmail absorbed 3 points worth of damage. Any damage that got through was subtracted from your Strength. When your Strength reached zero you were dead. Good, solid, gladiatorial fun. The other rpg-like trait the game had was experience. You received a certain number of experience points for surviving and/or winning the combat. Accumulate 100 experience points and you could increase one of your attributes by one point.

Metagaming came out with a companion game of sorcerous combat called Wizard. It was based on the same system as Melee but added an attribute: Intelligence. Intelligence determined the number of spells available to a wizard as well as the level of the spells. An Intelligence 9 character could memorize nine spells of 9th level or below. Each spell cost a certain amount of strength to cast. The wizard who’s Strength dropped to zero was either dead or unconscious. Although I own and like Wizard I have always preferred the straightforward combat of Melee. Just my preference. I have a tendency to prefer fighter-type characters in general and low magic settings.

As I mentioned early, there were several solo adventures published for the games. I originally owned Death Test, Death Test II, Grail Quest and Treasure of the Silver Dragon. Years later, I picked up Security Station and Master of the Amulets at a thrift store. My favorites were Grail Quest and Death Test. In Grail Quest you played an Arthurian knight attempting to find the grail. Good fun.
Melee and Wizard were stand-alone games that could be combined but they were turned into a full-fledged role-playing game called The Fantasy Trip when In the Labyrinth was published. Metagaming also published Advanced Melee and Advanced Wizard which expanded on the combat and magic systems of the originals by offering more options. Apparently a skill system was added as well. Oddly enough, I never owned any of these three. I don’t know why. I played it a little with a friend but only a touch. Someday I would like to get a hold of In the Labyrinth just to see what I missed.
Melee died with Metagaming but has two successors. As mentioned above, GURPS is based on Melee. Recently, however, a company called Dark City Games has started publishing adventures that are compatible with Melee. Ostensibly the adventures are for their house system called Legends of the Ancient World. Having read the rules for this system I think it is nothing short of a retro-clone for Melee. I own one of their adventures, Wolves on the Rhine but have yet to play through it. I am really excited to see that people are not only keeping the flame alive through personal websites but also publishing new adventures.

I’ve played Melee for nearly 30 years and still break it out occasionally. I’m going to introduce my oldest son to it soon. This game also had a long term effect on my life. The introductory fiction and the sample battle at the end of the book tell of a fight between a Roman legionary and a Germanic tribesman. This piqued my interest in the history of the times and history in general. I spent time researching the arms, armor and tactics of the era. This helped fuel a lifelong love of history, particularly ancient history, in me. I eventually went to college and majored in history, concentrating on ancient Rome and Greece. Not too bad for a $2.95 game, eh?

I love Melee.

Some Links of Interest:
TFT Codex 2000
An Review
A Fantasy Trip Site


  1. Hi,

    Just found your blog and I like it! I wrote the Wolves on the Rhine module for DCG. I tried cramming an open ended adventue into their pick a path format, and the results were not what I hoped. Currently working on my own RPG which is sort of a blend of TFT & D&D. It's called Roguish, and you can down load a free sample & adventure on Geekdo.

  2. Thanks for the compliment and welcome to my little corner of the web. I'm looking forward to checking out your work but it will have to wait til after Christmas.

  3. ...Smacks forehead...
    I think Wolves on the Rhine is very cool. I can't believe I forgot to mention that in my previous comment.