Escape From Terminus

rating: +197+x

cthulahoop 05/05/15 (Tue) 17:19:19 #5572301


Box-art for Escape From Terminus.

Before Dungeons & Dragons — before Empire of the Petal Throne — before Chainmail, White Bear and Red Moon, or even Siege of Bodenburg — there was Escape From Terminus.

Considered by some to be the father of modern table-top role-playing, Escape From Terminus was first distributed by Albion Games in 1965. One year later, the company folded — of the seven hundred initial prints, less than fifty were sold.

But in the years leading up to the gaming explosion of the 70s, Escape From Terminus became an underground hit. Loose-leaf binders filled with dog-eared photocopies of its three-hundred and forty-three page rule-book made the rounds at VCON (a Canadian fantasy and sci-fi gaming convention) in 1973 — along with perforated cardboard sheets that could be folded into the special dice needed to play.

Despite the rabid interest, most of these binders were incomplete. Entire chapters were missing. People desperate to complete the game filled these gaps with home-brew rules; others would mistake these pages for originals and insert copies into their own rule-books. Over time, this made it all-but-impossible to tell which pages were authentic and which were written by over-zealous players.

Interest in Escape From Terminus waned in the late 70s and early 80s. Simpler and more accessible games (Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, Rolemaster) rose in popularity. Nevertheless, it retained a small and active audience who sought to outwit the cruel and relentless Minotaur.


One of Escape From Terminus's original '7-sided dice'.

The game is set in a sprawling complex of 'hexagon-shaped chambers' connected by doors on all six sides. Players navigate this infinite maze of hexes one move at a time, adding each room to their map as they go. The content of a hex is determined by rolling dice and consulting reference tables. A room can contain traps, items, messages, rations — even the bodies of previous players. With no combat mechanics, the game focuses on exploration and survival. But what made Escape From Terminus unique was how you played it: Alone, with no companions and no 'Dungeon-Master'.

Once you died (either from a trap, starvation, or the Minotaur), the hex you perished in was marked. The map was then passed on to another player, who started again. When entering a room that had been explored previously by someone else, new reference tables simulated the passage of time and the actions of the Minotaur. You could also leave behind items for the next player, or provide hints written in chalk (these messages were included with the map in sealed envelopes marked by the hex's number).

After years of playing, each map developed a life of its own. Players recognized landmarks and paid their respects in hexes where previous runs met their untimely end. Others created elaborate strategies tailored to the layout of their map. Rooms could contain dozens of messages that had accumulated over decades of play. Even the Minotaur's behavior felt unique to each game — as if its personality was dictated by the map in which it lived.

Eventually, the sheer size of the map required multiple sheets with meticulous notes regarding how each part fit together. In some cases, it grew so large that it could no longer be shipped from one player to the next. The longest ongoing session of Escape From Terminus started in 1974 between a group of friends in Minnesota; it was then passed on to their friends, who passed it on to theirs. In 1985, the map grew so large that it had to be moved into the basement of a local game shop. Before the last player vanished in 2008, the map allegedly included well over two hundred thousand hexes and six hundred messages — only a handful of which were ever even read.


The Minotaur (source unknown; posted in IRC chat on 10/27/2011).

In 2005, a web-forum ("Terminus Velocity") was established as a hub for Escape From Terminus players eager to beat the game. Participants scanned every map and rule-book they could find. They then combed through gigabytes of hand-written data and produced the first attempts at an optimum strategy.

Everything in Escape From Terminus is resolved via a complex mechanic that uses six seven-sided dice in addition to a coin flip (producing the probability range of an inverted bell-curve). The result is checked against several hundred reference tables with different outputs. Modifiers (plus or minus) are applied to the roll according to circumstances, items, and even adjacent hexes. The game ends when someone finds the 'Escape Hex' — a hex containing the stairs out. Since each hex is randomly generated, optimizing Escape From Terminus meant maximizing the chances of spawning this hex.

But there was a problem: The Minotaur. Every time someone came close to spawning the hex, they fell prey to Escape From Terminus's unseen nemesis — either via a trap it set, a door it locked, or an object it destroyed. Maximizing the chance of an 'Escape Hex' also maximized the chance of the Minotaur's presence. Despite years of frantic attempts, most players eventually recognized that spawning an exit and not dying was virtually impossible.

Once players realized the game was effectively unwinnable, most of the community went silent. The web-forum unexpectedly dropped off-line in 2012, taking most of what we know about Escape From Terminus with it. An incomplete rule-book or box filled with pages from an abandoned campaign will occasionally show up at a yard sale somewhere — but otherwise? Escape From Terminus has become an obscure footnote in the history of table-top games.

One last thing — two days prior to going off-line, "Terminus Velocity" experienced a brief flurry of activity. A new thread managed to generate more replies in 24 hours than every previous thread combined. The post in question:

Hey guys, Randall Petrov's son here (he was part of Albion Games in the 60s).

I know he would be so honored by, and proud of, everything you've done here. You all have gone far beyond what he and Albion ever hoped, and gave new life to the Terminus story. It's so exciting to read all the different variations. I wanted to ask, though: whose idea was the Minotaur?

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License