Tuesday, April 13, 2021

"Pulsipher's Sanctimonious Pile of Crap"

In my posts about each issue of Different Worlds, I generally pass over commenting upon the letters pages. Most of the letters aren't all that interesting in their own right and even the interesting ones are frequently very "inside baseball" in terms of the content. However, there will certainly be occasions when a letter catches my eye and I think it worthy of mentioning. Issue #10, for example, includes this brief letter:

The article that so enraged Ken St. Andre appeared in issue #8. Its author, Lewis Pulsipher, discussed various refereeing styles, one of which he called "silly" and of which he considered Tunnels & Trolls to be an exemplar. 

The degree to which T&T actually is a silly game has long been a matter of debate. I've written previously about my own feelings on the subject. While I readily concede that there's perhaps more nuance here than many, including Pulsipher, might admit, I also think T&T is itself to blame for this common perception. From the beginning, Tunnels & Trolls has presented itself in a more lighthearted way than, say, D&D or RuneQuest. Its spell names, for example, are notorious for their humor, if that's the word, and have no doubt contributed greatly to how outsiders perceive it. I've often wondered if T&T's reputation might have been different had it had a more conventional list of spell names.

36 comments:

  1. Lighthearted does not equal silly.

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  2. " I've often wondered if T&T's reputation might have been different had it had a more conventional list of spell names."

    I do think this is the major factor in the perceived silliness. I love various aspects of T&T- The spell system, the the lack of clerics and other classes, it's S&S tone as presented in the solos and modules. But it *DOES* embrace silliness as written. It's combat system (whether you love or hate it) is also polarizing- As in some modern games like Dungeon World, you have to "unlearn what you have learned" coming to T& from D&D. Some people just cannot wrap their heads around games like T&T, DW, etc because they have become conditioned to D&D.

    I think you have to look at T&T combat mechanically like "Dungeon" (the board game) combined fictionally with comic book panels. That took me alot of years to get my head around.

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  3. Oh, I'm sure T&T would have fared better with more conventional spell names. It would have had a certain reputation for its simpler mechanics and for its solo adventures, but those repuations would have been more on the mark and more respectable.

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  4. It's kind of impressive how every single thing that Ken writes makes me like him less, no matter when he actually wrote it. The guy has a real knack for making me hate his guts.

    T&T is one of the biggest wastes of potential in gaming history IMO. It could and should have been the perfect rules set for Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser-style sword & sorcery gaming in an era when competition would have been good for D&D, but instead it got saddled with Ken's "humor" and a combat system that inevitably leads to either death spirals and TPKs or a slew of house rules to produce a playable game. It's spent well over 40 years as an also-ran that few people have ever actually played, and many of the ones who did realized how much work it needed to be worth playing and walked away.

    You can count me in that latter category - but it's Ken's inability to listen to his critics and fix the damn game that really makes me angry. That letter just shows he's always been like that and he's never going to change, any more than he'll ever make T&T what it should have been from word one.

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    1. Have you seen Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls? It does address some of the issues with earlier editions, although perhaps not in a way that you would like. In any case, it is evidence of some desire to improve the game.

      I am a long-time fan of Tunnels and Trolls, and would dispute your claim that "few people have ever actually played" it. That said, I will agree that Ken has a knack for being annoying. This may be as good a place as any to note that he was in a serious car accident not long ago; although he seems to have recovered, we nearly lost another significant early figure in RPG history.

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    2. The truth is I like Ken. I met several years ago and he even played in my Dwimmermount game. He was frustratingly mischievous at times but I know he meant it all in fun. He also gave me some excellent advice that has stuck with me all these years.

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    3. Also, yes, I have seen Deluxe. I actually played in a session of it and rather enjoyed myself.

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    4. I've seen Deluxe. Slightly improved but still a combat system that's far too prone to one-sided massacres IMO.

      I stand by "few people have played" at this point. It might have been a fairly common experience for gamers in the 80s and even the 90s but try polling around people in the 30 and under age bracket and see how many of them have ever played T&T. Those Millennials and their kids are the majority of the RPG community these days, and they're driving the RPG boom that (for better or worse) is feeding 5e's incredible sales figures. Very few of them have played or show much interest in playing games from the early days of the hobby, although thankfully its not universal.

      Which might be just as well for T&T. You think WotC takes heat from the politically correct crowd? Imagine what that mob would say about the "Yassa Massa" spell from older editions if they took notice of it.

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    5. "Imagine what that mob would say about the "Yassa Massa" spell from older editions if they took notice of it."

      Already happened and was scrubbed from the PDFs on drive-thru. Luckily I have the pre-scrubbed versions on my computer.

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    6. I get why people chafe at political correctness, but are people really ready to die on the “Yassa Massa” hill?

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  5. Yeah "Take That You Fiend" instead of "Magic Missile" and "Poor Baby" instead of "Cure Light Wounds" do set a certain tone. But so does naming the main continent on your game world "Ralph" and making it dragon-shaped. I suppose that someone could run a serious game with T&T, but you're fighting the flavor baked into rules and setting at that point..

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    1. Well, you don't have to set your game in Trollworld, so you don't have to fight the setting unless you want to. I didn't. As for the spell names, I did an experiment a few years ago with some younger friends (early 20s) who had heard of T&T but didn't know much about it. I gave the persons playing wizards a spell list with renamed spells, never letting on that I had renamed them. They found the game to be a fun rules-light experience, and there was no sign that they found it too silly (or silly at all). The game's not silly; the rulebook is (or was; dT&T is less so than T&T 5).

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    2. If I could find a copy of Deluxe T&T easily, I'd take a good, long look at it with an unprejudiced eye. Finding it in Canada is rough, though.

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    3. There's a copy on ebay right now at ~$60.00. About as good as you're likely to see for hardcopy. DTRPG has a pdf version for $40 normally, appears to be on sale at ~$20 right now. If you really want it, those are pretty much the best options.

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    4. Sadly, most eBay sellers charge an arm and a leg to ship to Canada, so that's not an option. Oh well.

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  6. Replies
    1. If you think that was me angry, you're sadly mistaken. Ken's just tiresome, not infuriating. I save "angry" for politicians.

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    2. "Just tiresome" elicits "The guy has a real knack for making me hate his guts." ?

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  7. I think the comic book analogy is very apt. Ken has always been a comic book fan, and made no secret about it. T&T is definitely influenced by that kind of story telling.

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    1. What's the famous quote? "Tunnels and Trolls is like The Lord of the Rings as done by Marvel Comics"?

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  8. What's Ken's beef with Serbo-Croation anthropology?

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    1. Hey, he doesn't think much of English literature either.

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  9. I'm definitely adding a spell called "Pulsipher's Sanctimonious Pile of Crap" to my games.

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    1. I cannot tell a lie: when I clicked that that title, I was expecting (and hoping!) for a truly outré magic item. :-)

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  10. The conflict that surfaced here in 1980 was brewing for a while.

    Lewis Pulsipher already wrote in White Dwarf #1 about a style of gaming he called "escapist." That included, on the one hand, gamers "who prefer to be told a story by the referee," and also gamers "who like a silly, totally unbelievable game." Silly was the word he used, and he hated that style, because he thought D&D was supposed to be a wargame. So, Pulsipher had been against "silly" for a while. (Cue the Colonel from Monty Python: "Stop being silly!")

    Now, if we look at the first edition of Tunnels & Trolls, Ken St. Andre gave a few bits of direct advice to Dungeon Designers. The third bit was "Use as much humor as you can, but don't be silly or juvenile."

    Humor--but not silly.

    In other words, both Pulsipher and St. Andre were explicitly against silliness in their RPGs. Ultimately, the issue is humor, not silliness. Some people will find any jokes in a "wargame" to be silly--wargames are such grim business, after all! (wink)--whereas others will find the same jokes genuinely funny. Different tastes, as usual, can lead to schisms among fans of the same hobby.

    A lot of newcomers to RPGs, from the beginning, regarded emulating fantasy as so ridiculous that it required a dose overt of humor to make it palatable.

    I think of the Star Wars Holiday Special, from the same period, 1978. The makers thought of the Star Wars fantasy as pretty ridiculous, and it shows. How little they foresaw the dire seriousness of the Star Wars fandom decades in their future, and how stupid the seriousness of fans made their lame Holiday Special in immediate hindsight.

    Silliness has helped fantasy fans to get into the fantasy without feeling too self-conscious.

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    1. There was some discussion of Ken's guidelines last month in the comments to this post: https://grognardia.blogspot.com/2021/03/general-rules-for-dungeon-designers.html

      In general, I think his guidelines are solid. Whether T&T actually abides by them is a separate question.

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  11. I've never met or corresponded with either Lewis or Ken, and I assume that they're both good fellows. I have purchased several Flying Buffalo products in my time, including T&T and Grimtooth's Traps. Having had no knowledge of this controversy, if you were to ask me whether there are any "silly" RPGs, I would have said T&T without reservation. Between the spells like TTYF (and many others), the dragon-shaped continent, the crossbow-trapped toilets, etc. Yes, T&T is the silly RPG and always has been.

    I guess you could split hairs and say "well it's humorous, jokey, chortletastic and guffawological but definitely NOT silly. Silly is totally different and has nothing to do with trapped toilets, cursed graffiti or books that are 90% jokes. Silly describes only humor that I don't like" etc. OK, sure.

    On second thought, let's not go to Trollworld. 'Tis a silly place.

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  12. Question: has anybody played Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes? (I own copies of a very old edition of T&T and also everything produced for MS&PE but I never did much more than read them).

    I wonder if MS&PE system would be an adequate "fix" to T&T, or if the result would be too far from the original spirit of T&T.

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    1. I wish I had a better sense of that myself. I've long been intrigued by MS&PE, but I've never played it. I, too, would love to hear from people who have.

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    2. MS&PE is kind of T&T with a skill system. Some people think that is just what the game needs. I think it is neat, but I kind of miss the wild and crazy feeling from T&T.

      It's totally devoid of silly spells.

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    3. MSPE became our "modern" (i.e. WW1, through Pulp action all the way to early 80s James Bond-esque superspies and commandoes) game of choice, BITD. It's an excellent system with even better support products/adventure materials. As I recall it's quite deadly compared to typical fantasy games, so maybe not the best choice for Heroic Fantasy, but good for a gritty style game. It even has a conversion section of sorts called "Tunnels & Thompsons" for use with T&T.

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  13. I've played some MSPE, though not as much as I've played T&T. Andreas is right to describe the system as T&T with skills. Task resolution is the same (make a "saving roll" based on relevant skill/attribute) and the combat system is basically the same, with the expected difference that there's more missile combat (gunfire) and less hand-to-hand. The tone is more serious than T&T, both because of the subject matter and because Ken didn't write it. It's a good rules-light system for pulp/espionage gaming, especially if you want to include a bit of fantasy.

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  14. On the Gygaxian/Arnesonian axis, T&T seems to be positioned far more towards the latter; if the party's caught up in a 'death spiral' combat then they should either run away or persuade the GM of the validity of a novel change of tactics to even up the contest.

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  15. Ken St. Andre definitely injected a lot of humor into Tunnels and Trolls, to the detriment of any real mythopoeic elements. Add to that the constant scrabbling for cash by people unable to run a business, and their persistent focus on everything BUT what most buyers liked about Tunnels and Trolls and the tragedy of why it never "caught on" is easily explained. It pandered to the nerdiest of nerds, at the expense of any sort of general audience.
    I still think a DMG type book compiling all the arbitrary rules from the solitaires would be a better basis for a rules set than weirdly different rules editions and a belated attempt to popularize the Khazan world. So many of the best parts of T&T are in the solitaires and the concepts, along with the aforementioned bizarre rules and matrix tables. THAT is what sets it apart in a good way from everyone else as much as Gygaxian rules lawyering and alignments set apart D&D.

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