Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Retrospective: Tunnels & Trolls

I've mentioned before that part of my initiation into the hobby was the adoption of certain prejudices about games other than Dungeons & Dragons. One of the main targets of such irrationality was Tunnels & Trolls, the second RPG published (in 1975) and whose greatest flaw -- aside from not being D&D -- was that it was "silly." You have to remember that, while 1979, the year I started gaming, was still several years before fantastic realism became the norm, it was nevertheless a powerful force in many places, including, apparently, among the people by whom I was brought into the hobby. Whimsy and humor were antithetical to "serious roleplaying" and so games that evinced either were seen as unfit for play by discerning gamers. Ludicrous though this position is, it's one against which I nevertheless have to fight even now and, while, I've been largely successful in keeping it in check, it still pops up every now and again, despite my best efforts to the contrary.

If I were to pick a single mistake I made in my gaming education to call "tragic," it would be my rejection of Tunnels & Trolls back when I had the chance to become better acquainted with it. A friend of mine purchased the 5th edition of the game sometime in the early 80s. He was quite keen on the game and wanted to free me from my regular refereeing duties by starting a T&T campaign with me as a player. If I recall correctly, I created a human rogue -- rogues being not thieves but rather hedge wizards -- modeled somewhat on the Gray Mouser and was initially excited about the prospect of playing him.

That is, until I read T&T's spell list. Among the 1st-level spells are Oh There It Is, Take That, You Fiend, and Oh-Go-Away. For some reason, I just couldn't accept these spells names and every tale I'd been told by the older guys at the hobby shop about how the game was silly came rushing back to my memory. I made a feeble effort to try playing the game, whose mechanics I found intriguing, but it didn't last too long. I tried a few more times later and got a little more into the game. By that time, though, my opinion had ossified and I wasn't willing to look beyond the surface of T&T, a situation I didn't rectify until this year, actually.

I made a point of acquiring both the 5th edition rules I played way back when and the latest edition (v7.5), along with a number of solo adventures. I also started lurking at various T&T oriented forums, including Trollhalla, to get a better sense of the game and what I might have been missing. And I've been missing quite a lot. T&T is a very cleverly designed game: complete, simple, and flexible, yet easily expandable. It's not math-heavy and looks to be quite amenable to the kind of off-the-cuff gaming I enjoy these days. It's also unambiguously old school, as its rules demand both player cleverness and referee adjudication for satisfying use. Likewise, both editions I own are paragons of verbal economy -- there's barely a wasted word in either and their page count is well within my limited tolerance.

And, yes, Tunnels & Trolls is a bit silly, at least compared to the stolidness of most other RPGs, but that's OK. Older and wiser now, I no longer see silliness as necessarily antithetical to seriousness. Indeed, I often think it's an important complement to it. My games nowadays are filled with whimsical asides and comedic moments, in addition to grim and perilous encounters and philosophical musings. This isn't an either/or situation, at least not in the way I used to think it had to be. Gaming is supposed to be, above all else, fun and, reading T&T, you can tell that author Ken St. Andre had a lot of fun with his creation.

That's as it should be with any RPG and, while I don't think Tunnels & Trolls should become a model for all other RPGs any more than I think that of OD&D, I do think the hobby might be a more enjoyable place for all if the ethos of T&T were more widely imitated. That, for me, is the greatest lesson I took away from my investigations into this venerable game, whose community, while smaller than that of my own preferred system, is no less enthusiastic, creative, and open to newcomers.

More creditable still is the fact that, after 30+ years, T&T is, essentially, the same game it was at its debut. Certainly there are differences between v7.5 and the 1975 1st edition, but those differences are minuscule compared to the differences between the LBBs and D&D IV. From where I'm sitting, T&T remains the kind of hobbyist game that old school D&D fans wish our game had remained and without the need for imagining an alternate history. In short, there's a lot to like about it and I wouldn't hesitate to play in a game if I were ever asked to do so again.

I still don't like the spell names, though.


  1. On the funny: I kind of like this article by Decker & Noonan --

    In short, you can like humor at your table without at the same time liking it all through your rulebooks. In limited sidebars, at best, for me. Not so much those unavoidable T&T spell names.

  2. For lazy reader who may want to click through to Trollhala, I note that the link is broken ("htp" instead "http").

  3. Like you, I passed on T&T in my early days because, if you were a "serious gamer," you played AD&D. (If you were a snob, you played RQ.) Years later, I realized I was the snob and a fool. I now have a copy of T&T 5e and, when I begin the long-delayed weeding of my game collection, it will be one of the minority that stays on the shelf.

    Oh, and the spell names make me smile. :)

  4. I don't like the spell names either.

    I can understand the desire for some levity... but spell names seem like they ought to be serious and imposing. Can you imagine some depraved sorcerer of Zothique using a spell with such a name?

    The spell names and the lack of a proper "animate dead" spell (it's just a staple of S&S to me) hold me back from getting into T&T.

  5. I spent much of my early RPG playing life with Flying Buffalo's Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes. T&T was mentioned several times in the various MSPE books I had, but I could never find the game. This year at GenCon I was thrilled when I stumbled across the Flying Buffalo table, MSPE is still in print! I bought a new copy of the old girl and was fianally able to pick up T&T.

    I have only been able to read through the game, but I really like the way it handles combat and throws balance to the wind. I don't mind the spell names, for the most part I would never use the actual D&D spell names either if I was trying to set up a "realistic" fantasy.

  6. The spell names were a problem for me too. The issue is that if you're going to do humour in your game it needs to be funny. T&T wasn't, so that left the attempts at funny looking just plain stupid and while many enjoy playing a funny game, no one enjoys playing a stupid game.

  7. I think the essential meter for humor in almost any context is "laughing with" or "laughing at". Does the levity lighten or does it trivialize?

    There's plenty of dour bombast to be found in the tropes of fantasy and its related genres which I don't mind seeing leavened a bit with humor, but suspension of disbelief can be laughter soluble.

  8. T&T's my true love, the game that really clicked for me early in my 'gaming-history'.

    I might point out that of all the things presented in a game book, spell names have to be among the easiest things to change to suit to taste...

    Thanks for the retrospective!

  9. For those to whom the spell names are an insurmountable hobgoblin, Corgi Books in the UK put out a digest size version of the 5th ed rules that uses boringized names for all the spells. You might be able to find a copy of that :)

    As for animate dead, there's a fairly low level spell that makes skeletons crawl out of the ground and fight for you! ("Dem Bones" I think?) Stick that in your S&S and smoke it! ;)

    Obviously for me, the T&T attitude (as epitomized by the spells) is a feature for certain types of gonzo play.

  10. All the derisive comments about silly spell names or the lack of certain kinds of magic are a bit silly, since its trivially easy to change or add them, and The T&T rules are rather upfront that the included spell list is only given as an example starting point.

    I got into T&T early in my gaming life. I'd started with Mentzer Basic D&D, but though I loved the concepts I never found it's cumbersome amalgamation of disparate subsystems easy to use. T&T was revelatory, the first time figuring out the rules wasn't a struggle and running a game seemed like it would be more fun than work. The tone was a big deal too. Despite some comments about modifying things to taste, at its core D&D was expecting me to play the rules as written. T&T however took the attitude of just a bunch of suggestions, "this seemed to work in our game, maybe it'll do for you, if not try something else." There was no tournament rulings to follow, no setting canon to obey. In fact my only difficulty with T&T came from trying to reconcile its play style with the misdirection I was picking up from TSR at the time; even if I wasn't playing their game, I was reading their books and magazines, which colored my expectation of role-playing to include the heavy narrative and primacy of "realism" that was their style at the time. It was years before I finally learned to let T&T do its own thing.

  11. Considering how many Monty Python references and routines I had to put up with at my game table back in the day, some stupid names for spells seemed almost appropriate.

    I never played or GM'd all that many T&T games back in the day, but I played myself through almost all of the solo dungeons (Naked Doom and Mirror World both favorites, and dungeon settings that I maintain in my major D&D city).

    Monsters Monsters! was what I ran for the group through several games, and that was a gigantic hoot.

  12. I admit I am silliness-friendly to a certain extent, and was lucky enough to meet a fellow in my early days of gaming who was a die-hard T&T supporter. So I got exposed to this delightful game early, and while I do not actively play T&T anymore, I would, anytime. I also LOVE the spell name "Take That, You Fiend!" -- one of the best spell names ever, in my view.

  13. James,

    I'm so pleased to read this post.


  14. I disagree about it being easy to change the spell names. You have to change like fifty individual things, and then make a PDF for your players that supercedes their rulebook and then hope that they actually use it.

    It's much easier to make a single sweeping rules change (like "reroll your hit points at every level") than it is to change fifty individual details. Imagine trying to go through and rename all the D&D polearms to something world-appropriate and see what I mean.

    "Take That Your Fiend" is not the worst spell in there, but it is stupid and not funny. "Dread Curse of the Outer Dark" or "The Unmaking of All Flesh" would be superior.

    Boring things like "Smite Foe" may be prosaic but at least they don't break the mood.

  15. I was such a TSR fanboy back in the day I never gave T&T a second look. I didn't know of its reputation for silliness back then. It just didn't have the three little letters on the corner of the box, and so I ignored it.

    A couple years ago, long after I'd gotten over my TSR fixation, I picked up the 5.5 rules from my local game store. Love it!!! It's the perfect level of rule complexity, seriousness (or lack thereof), and game orientation for me.

    It's easily at the top of my "own but never played" list of games, and if I were to start a group tomorrow would be one of the three or four games I'd suggest running.

    The spell names simply don't bother me at all. I'm not sure whether they would have bothered me when I was younger. Now, I'd tell players to use them about the same way I tell player to use level titles in D&D... If you like them, use them, if not, think of something else, and I'll happily adapt.

    I think the whole point is that you're supposed to come up with your own spells anyway.

    Anyone else notice the similarity between T&T's SR and the way Swords & Wizardry does saving throws?

  16. This is a delightfully odd coincidence. I won an eBay auction earlier last week for a copy of the T&T 5th edition rules published by Corgi (UK). It's my first experience with the game, but I'm rather enjoying it.

    Some spells have been changed in this edition:

    "Oh There It Is" becomes "Revelation."

    "Oh-Go-Away" becomes "Panic."

    "Hidey Hole" becomes "Concealing Crack."

    "Glue-You" becomes "Delay."

    "Little Feets" becomes "Swiftfoot."

    And so on.

    The UK editors didn't change "Yassa-Massa" however. So, on the whole, the book still contains some unfortunate spell names.

    In other areas, with regards to mechanics or presentation, I certainly see a lot that feels "right" in accordance with my current gaming preferences.

    Even if I never get around to playing a game of T&T in my life, I think I'll certainly take a lot from into my D&D games.

  17. Glad to see a retrospective on my favourite. Having been playing rpgs since 1986 or so, I didn't get into T&T until 2003. As with James I had ideas about being serious.

    For me it was those solos that did it. I figured a game with solo adventures must be a game for losers who can't find a gaming group! God, if I could go back and slap my younger me!

    I have, through my friends in the blogosphere, come to understand how they can be charmed by OD&D. While I see obscure rules, oddly phrased, they see possibilities. There's an intense experience of home made charm both in OD&D and T&T. The fact that T&T never made it big kept it charming and quirky. Now I love it.

    T&T really made me realize again that you can just make it all up and have fun! Imagine that being so hard to get. It uses all those S&S archetypes and lets you go wild.

    If it weren't for James' Grognardia and Ken's Tunnels & Trolls, I wouldn't be blogging today. Some might ignore that, but T&T made gaming fun again for me. I feel like "imagine the hell out of it" is appropriate.

    When I play the game I am too busy thinking of my next move, and gathering dice, to think about small details like the name of a spell. I am exploring dungeons and defeating fell monsters!

    There is indeed a spell to raise up the dead, as mentioned. Like James wrote, there's a lot in there. I always get surprised to see how much Ken managed to include!

  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Sorry, double post.

    Also a correction. "2005" not 2003.

  20. When I think of T&T and our attitude to it in 1982 the word prejudice comes to mind. We knew nothing about it and never saw it but were pretty unpleasant about it. It would have helped if any store or person we knew had it.

  21. I love T&T. The spell names don't bother me a whit.

    I change spell names quite often. I view the boring D&D names, or the funny effect based T&T ones as "generic labels". Wizards then create their own individual names.

    A big influence on me was Jack Vance, "The Excellent prismatic Spray".

  22. I don't know much about this game at all, although the system does strike me as interesting. One of the people in my local gaming club is always talking about it, and offering to run a game, so I may take her up on it next time! An acquaintance of mine did the cover art for some version of the sixth edition, so I may prod him for information too!

  23. The sillyness is part of it's charm. It's funny that you posted this at around the same time I started posting ideas for my T&T setting on my blog!

  24. Spell names, heh! In my imagination, no one actually uses spell names--they visualize the spell and cast it if they can. If you read my T & T novels and fiction you won't find a single Take That You Fiend! mentioned.

    Way back in the 1st edition I even had a rationale for the silly names. The Wizards War raged for thousands of years on Trollworld and did great damage. It left most common people hating wizards. Thus the wizards came up with silly names to disarm the hostility of the common people. In retrospect, that's a silly explanation for silly spell names, but really, wizards don't go around yelling out their spell names as they cast them--at least they don't if they're anywhere but Japanese anime.

  25. My early attitude towards T&T was the same as James's, and for the same reasons. But in the last few years I've done a total 180. I think it started with Jeff Rients's (of Jeff's Gameblog) post about the Greyhawk Construction Company - a whimsical device for keeping characters out of unfinished areas of the dungeon that first appeared in a story in Dragon #1 (I think). Since then my appetite for whimsy and Wonderland style nonsense and puns in my game has grown and grown. The other day I found an old Ken St. Andre gamebook called "Monsters!" (you play the monsters) at the used book store and snatched it up right away ($2). Inside there's a pic of an orc with a bazooka waiting for the good guys to round the bend. Classic. I hear Ken lives here in Phoenix - maybe he'll autograph it for me.

  26. Dr Rotwang! likes T&T. This simple fact should disarm all further quibbles.

  27. > I do think the hobby might be a more enjoyable place for all if the ethos of T&T were more widely imitated


    > T&T 5th edition rules published by Corgi (UK)
    > Some spells have been changed in this edition:
    > The UK editors didn't change "Yassa-Massa" however. So, on the whole, the book still contains some unfortunate spell names.

    Never had any problems with the spell names, personally; nor were those changed in the original UK edition (January 1977 per top-right; ) which was the first RPG published over here.

  28. T&T was the first RPG to do a number of things. It was the first game in which the stats actually made a big difference in combat. It was also the first game that based the saving role directly on the character's stats. There was a companion game Monsters! Monsters! which was the first game I know where you played the "bad guys". The spin off MSPE by Mike Stackpole was also a concise, modern RPG with tight character creation and skill rules, and great advise on the genre and refereeing.

  29. Ken (FunAtTheLibrary), thanks for that extra bit of detail regarding the spell names. :)

  30. Although I do own both Tunnels and Trolls and Monsters! Monsters! The game system suffers from a tragic flaw. The combat system! Your just not going to beat the troll's 6d6 with your 4d6 great axe very often and the fact the that amount of damage you take is equal to the amount he beat you by just adds insult to injury. However, Tunnels and Trolls broad support for solo adventures has done a good job of keeping the game alive. My wife also has very fond mermories of the tunnels and trolls game Rich Loomis ran her through at a convention long ago. Although she uses this to point out that a good DM is more important than the quality of the system, and that the adventure involved very few head to head combats.

  31. Imredave, you're missing the point of roleplaying in T & T. If the monster is too tough for you in a straight up fight, then you do something sneaky and underhanded using magic, or saving rolls, and beat it by role-playing. Alternatively, sometimes the best solution is to simply run away. Or, you might try talking to that troll. Some of the best game situations start with a character saying, "hey, you're just the guy I've been looking for." to that big baddie that just appeared.

  32. I've had plenty of T&T combats where 4d6 beat out 6d6, especially with standard "monster rating" foes, since injuring them decreases their dice & adds (or just adds, in 7th ed). And even when the fight goes in accordance with statistical likelihood, well, how unrealistic is that, after all? Throw in the spite damage rules and you have a decent simulation of the results of plenty of real-life fights--one side inflicts most of the damage, one side takes most of it.

  33. Imredave, you're missing the point of roleplaying in T & T. If the monster is too tough for you in a straight up fight, then you do something sneaky and underhanded using magic, or saving rolls, and beat it by role-playing. Alternatively, sometimes the best solution is to simply run away. Or, you might try talking to that troll. Some of the best game situations start with a character saying, "hey, you're just the guy I've been looking for." to that big baddie that just appeared.

    You wonder what Old School is? Read that section quoted above again if you are interested in the history of our hobby. Player advice from one of the designers who helped create that hobby. Succinctly put, Ken!

  34. Now I have this idea in my head of a Japanese anime game designed by Ken St. Andre. Aarrgh!

  35. Tunnels and Trolls annoys me. I recently read a review where the creator tries to convince us that Tunnels and Trolls was created completely independently of Dungeons and Dragons. What a load of lies. Even the name is a copy, a rip off, the whole thing is a parody and like many Hollywood parodies, not as good (or as clever) as it likes to think it is.

  36. When I was in junior high, my gaming group inherited a hand me down copy of T&T 5th edition from one player's older brother. I became briefly obsessed with it and was allowed to borrow the book for some time. I could never get my group interested in it; the only two times I ran it was with people outside our normal gaming group, including one who wasn't even a gamer.
    I found the game very easy to tinker with, but eventually I fell out of love with it because of the "Socialist Combat System." (Oh, how clever I thought I was) The spell names never bothered me, though I think they would now.

    Hmmm.... (wanders off to Ebay)

  37. Recursion King, would you care to quote and link where Ken St. Andre said that?

  38. The Recursion King,

    I think you've got it wrong. It did evolve independently and it's not a parody of OE. The game system is really very innovative and a lot of newer gaming systems couldn't hold a flame to T&T.

    I encourage you to just check it out yourself, you might be surprised.

  39. I agree with those who think of the spell names in any game as reference for GM and players, but that in the game world they dont' really refer to them by the (often) daft names.

    I also have to agree that, despite having ran and enjoyed the game in the dim past, I think of it very much as a somewhat parody of D&D (but maybe no more so than Arduin).

    The "socialist" nature of the damage dice (everyone on one side is hurt while the other side is unscathed) was the one big turnoff for me, and the main reason the game was mostly a passing fancy from when I was much younger.

  40. I really must read T&T sometime, I have a thing for silly games.

  41. Fun At The Library Said: "Or, you might try talking to that troll."

    Or "take a troll to lunch."

    It is a comment on later editions of D&D how trolls were made legitimate targets of player scorn and abuse. I think it's pretty clear that in the 70s, game creators had a different vision of how to interact with this wrongly maligned - but really quite friendly - race.

  42. Its interesting how now everyone is a chattin about T&T. Its such a clever simple and effective ruleset!

    I'd say more but between my blog and comments I have recently made elsewhere I am sort of commented out about how great the game really is.

  43. I still have my copy, along with a good number of modules. I think I even picked up Monsters! Monsters! at some point, but don't think I really read it. We mostly played the solos, but I did run a short adventure at some point. I enjoyed the game, although I didn't much like the spell names. I always wanted more details on the campaign world. Well, thanks all for the fond memories!

  44. Well; if silly spell names really bother you; there are a couple of T&T variants up on the trollbridge forum that might fit the bill perfectly - In fact I use a lot of the names in my current 5E+ game (basically 5th edition with spite damage and a POW stat added)

    the first is based on First Edition T&T:
    The "Wild Lands" Players Handbook:
    IMO particularly useful in that it lists the original T&T spell name in parenthesis next to the new one:

    and another very cool version based on 4th edition T&T:

  45. If it were a parody of D&D I'd play it in a heart beat.

    Sadly it isn't.

    It's a clone of sorts.

    The Author states in the intro he found D&D to complicated. So he wrote his own rules.

    It's been a long time since I read them, but there was something fun about it. Maybe because it was he isn't a serious about these games as Gygax was.

    There is certainly a tongue in cheek attitude to the game.

    Rules wise it didn't do anything for me. I already had one game about dungeon crawling, killing monsters and taking their stuff. T&T might have handle it all differently. But the rules never struck me as being sufficiently better.

  46. My older brother bought a copy back in '79. 5th edition. I was 14 or 15 back then.

    I recall being excited and amazed when I learned there was another RPG other then D&D/AD&D out there.

    I read the book from cover to cover. Several times.

    I remember for every thing I thought it did better then D&D/AD&D, there was some aspect I just could not get past.

    The spell names were one of them.

    I only attempted a serious game of it one.

    Some one else above claimed it is a "parody" of D&D- I only wish it were true.

    It'd be my game of choice today.

    What it is is the first "Clone" of D&D, one written by a guy who wasn't as serious about the hobby as Gygax....

  47. I just got a copy of the TnT 5.5 rules a few weeks ago. I think the game is genius. I like simple mechanics and the lighthearted way that the book is written. TnT is not a DnD clone. The game, mechanically, is totally different than DnD. It will be my game of choice in the future. I'll still play ODnD and Swords and Wizardry, but I primarily play with my wife and kids. They don't care for overly complicated mechanics. Now that I'm older I don't have time for more complicated games. The whole point of playing a game is to have fun. This game is fun to me and mine. Don't knock the rules until you have actually played the game. They didn't make sense to me at first because I've mainly played DnD and it's derivatives. The rules in TnT are elegant in their simplicity.

  48. I really don't think it is fair for anyone to knock a game until they have played it at least a few times. If you haven't played it, you might not know what you are talking about.

  49. You really think Gremlins, Pixies, Faeries, and other tricksters would have "serious" spell names? You're not reading GOOD fantasy. I like some pulp in my OJ, and Tolkien is dry.