Sunday, January 30, 2011

In Praise of Tunnels and Trolls

In my prior post on Tunnels and Trolls I mentioned that T&T was one of the earliest RPGs I ever played, second only to the Holmes + AD&D hybrid I started off playing in 5th grade. Now, revisiting the T&T rules via my newly-acquired Version 5.5 rulebook, I must say that I am forever indebted to Michael Oshiro for introducing me to this terrific game.

Unlike James Maliszewski, I never had anybody turn me against T&T in my early days. Sure, I was well aware of those early Golden Age "edition wars" James discusses, and I certainly had no truck with systems like Chivalry and Sorcery, Runequest, or Rolemaster in my formative years. But thanks to Mike O., I knew about T&T firsthand, and although I did not stick with the game after Mike and I drifted apart in junior high school -- I reverted to AD&D, which is what the majority of my friends played anyway -- I am forever grateful to have had T&T as part of my early RPG'ing experiences. For looking back now, I see that elements of T&T make up a palpable strand of my own "gamer DNA."

Perhaps this should not be surprising to me, since, as far as geekiness and game preferences go, I am more amenable to the "gonzo" side of the spectrum than the "rigorously simulationist" one. I have the brains and patience to learn complex wargames, and have played a few Avalon Hill games (like Blitzkrieg and Civilization) that certainly trend in the latter direction. But overall, I vastly prefer a rules-lite approach, because for me it is the creativity and role-playing of the people at the table that provides the real kick in the pants, NOT consulting rulebooks and memorizing figures and doing complex math. (This preference explains why I play Labyrinth Lord as opposed to Pathfinder.)

Furthermore, in general I love comedy and therefore am not averse to having some levity introduced into my FRPG experience. So T&T never really struck me as being horribly outside the pale. I knew, even as a 6th grader, that its tone was different from that of AD&D, but this did not strike me as a deficiency, just a difference. Paired with its very different (and vastly simpler) rules mechanics, the lighter tone of T&T's written rules and assumed game-world seemed par for the course.

To be clear, for the most part I am not a fan of 100%, no-holds-barred silliness in RPG's, and I do identify to a great extent with the sentiment James M. expresses in his excellent retrospective on T&T, for I came of age in the same cultural moment:

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.

I knew lots of gamers like this and even played in their campaigns. And I would say that I generally favor seriousness at the game table, at least insofar as major aspects of the game-world are concerned.  I do not want humor or levity to derail the possibilities for danger, fear, and suspense.  Yet, like James says,

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.

I agree with this wise assessment, and, in contradistinction to Maliszewski, I always loved (and still love) T&T's spell names.  "Take That You Fiend" would surely win any spell naming contest of which I was the judge -- pure brilliance! (Of course, I am the same guy who brought you "Scumbrella," so factor that in here). "TTYF" (as we used to shorthand it) tells you exactly what the spell does (delivers a mental energy blast) and yet it is also (IMO) quite funny. In my imagination, the wizard has to speak the phrase "Take That, You Fiend!" when casting the spell -- even better!

As for T&T's rules mechanics, I am now (as I re-read the rules 20+ years after my initial exposure to them) frankly amazed at the simplicity and effectiveness of the T&T combat system. No AC to keep track of, no combat matrices needed: just add up the dice + adds totals on both sides of the conflict, and deduct the difference from the losing side. Brilliant! Not to mention T&T's using CON as hp, a very efficient rules choice that makes great intuitive sense to me. In fact, would it be going too far to say that T&T solved the so-called D&D "dump stat" problem through its more active deployment of Attributes in the game? It feels a little that way, reading it now.

My final piece of praise must focus upon Ken St. Andre's writerly "voice" in the T&T rulebook. Such a friendly, down-home, concise writer! Everything makes sense without needing over-extensive description or wordiness (I'm looking at you, EGG!). As James M. puts it so well,

T&T is a very cleverly designed game: complete, simple, and flexible, yet easily expandable. [. . .] 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.

I couldn't say this better. And I wonder: should I invest in the T&T 7.5 rulebook for the sake of comparison / contrast / completeness?  Tempting.

In sum, I am immensely happy to have refamiliarized myself with this old, long-lost friend. Now all I need to do is play T&T again. Solo adventures, here I come. . .


  1. 7th ed is also a fine game, but it will look a bit jumbled compared to 5th ed. Liz wasn't involved and her editorial skills are needed. By all means, though, go buy it to get a glimpse of where Ken have headed since last time.

    As far as voice is concerned, I guess it do matter. I have voiced the opinion many times that I don't understand why people have harped so much upon the "silly" spell names.

    Now when reading your post I realize that this is just the same thing as when I at a tender age decided that Gary Gygax was a pompous fool with a stick up his arse, and that this AD&D thing wasn't for me.

    I still think that Gary come across like he takes himself way to serious in AD&D, but maybe my old position on that is just as silly as those who wont play T&T for it not being serious enough.

    You learn something every day...

  2. The 5.5 set is such a strange mix. I've had 5 for years, but it lacked all the TrollWord extras. In 7.5 the TrollWorld background seems to be standard.

    I love what you're saying about humour. I think when gamers were knocking the humour in the T&T rules, or eschewing KsA's informal in may have had more to do with the fact that players devoted to a different system (emotionally and financially) will look for anything to knock in the competition. As a younger player I found myself under incredible pressure to collect the TSR box sets and the AD&D hardbacks, but my T&T 5 was "complete" from the start - it an almost anti-capitalist statement. I confess that I had planned to call the spells by Middle Earthian names and added my own Magical Strength system, partly in an attempt to gain respect from fellow D&D players. Funnily enough the critics in my hometown were Monty Python fans - but the hold of AD&D were so very strong.

    It was wonderful buying 5.5 new in a box, recently - whereas my 7.5 rules are a printed PDF.

    Cool article/post, dude. :)

  3. Thanks commenters! Sounds like I SHOULD check out T&T 7.5, but that it may not necessarily represent an improvement on 5.5.

  4. I came across your posts here and hope you don't mind my saying an emphatic THANK YOU for liking what all of us were trying to do with T&T so long ago. I know Ken is in the throes of putting together a new companion volume (he asked me to about what cover art I might be able to supply), and I hope his fans will appreciate what it means coming so many years later. Again, thank you.

  5. @Liz: Wow, thank YOU for dropping by to comment -- you are a legend! And the praise I offer is well-deserved, I am (obviously) a big fan. Now I just need to get a T&T game going here locally. . .