I actually bought this one back in the day. I never did play it, though… because I never actually came across a rule set for it. I held on to it for years… thinking I could maybe somehow adapt it to GURPS or something. Steve Jackson had said people might do that, but it was beyond my gaming powers. All I ever did was spend exorbitant amounts of time ogling Liz Danforth’s iconic illustrations and wishing that I knew how to run a role playing game…. I finally gave the precious thing away, not yet aware that this was basically the first ever “Choose Your Own Adventure” type solitaire game book ever made. Nuts! This was a work with a significance on par with Gygax and Arneson’s Dungeons & Dragons, Crowther and Woods Colossal Caves Adventure, and Scott Adams’ Adventureland. No one told me!!!
But everything’s changed now, because I can finally play this quintessential piece of gaming history. Not only is an updated version of this classic adventure available again, but I also have the 4th edition rules to go with it! Ah, but how does it hold up…?
First off, the Liz Danforth art is just as good as it ever was. There’s more of it this time around to boot. Second… the Tunnels & Trolls system actually is really well suited to solitaire adventures. (Steve Jackson wasn’t fooling around when he mentioned that in his introduction to GURPS.) Third… if you do have just those fourth edition rules to run this, the monster, magic item, and trap examples in this adventure will go a long way towards illustrating how the game was intended to be played. (The rules back then did leave all of that to your imagination, after all.)
However… if you’ve got a freshly rolled up T&T character you’re excited to play, then DO NOT EXPECT HIM TO SURVIVE THIS! Having a high Luck score is helpful if you ever want to make a saving roll in this, but you’re going to need at least four dice worth of attacks and probably even some “adds” on top of that. (Hint: buy a pilum if your strength is twelve or greater. No, I don’t know what that is. The weapons glossary was cut from the 4th edition rule book and I’m pretending that Wikipedia doesn’t exist yet.)
Probably the one thing that will make or break this game for a lot of people is the combat. In modern GURPSian terms, it’s a pretty well a straight ahead “contest of skills.” Each side rolls their dice and adds their bonuses. The losing side takes the difference as damage… with their armor supplying a reduction to that amount. Run strictly according to the rules, it will not bog down as you add players because each side rolls all together. You don’t roll individual initiative… you don’t even roll individual to-hit rolls. And there really isn’t even much of a sequence of play here.
If you’re happy with rules light “theater of the mind”, you can probably take this and run with it, making up all sorts of off-the-cuff rulings to embellish the action in an actual game mastered session. But this is a solitaire adventure. And the monsters are pretty tough. And 3d6-in-order for character generation can be a pretty fickle thing in this game. And there’s no system for bailing out of a fight once its started here. And there’s no way to sneak up on or outsmart the monsters in Buffalo Castle. And a certain amount of fighting is pretty well inevitable here. So, yeah. Spoiler warning: they’re going to eat you, man!
Which altogether makes for a fairly austere experience: there’s just not a whole lot of room for developing your tactics and your player skill. And if you thought you might slip in, grab a little treasure, and maybe come back again with the same character and with some better gear and all… forget it. The adventure is set up so that your character has only one chance to win the prize… and if you fail, you are too embarrassed to go back to town again. Doh!
This is not how one would design an adventure like this today. In fact, there is nothing here like anything produced today. The zany encounters and outright weirdness….The fantastic Liz Danforth artwork…. The raw excitement that charged the first comprehensible role playing system…. If you can overlook the foibles, then this is some seriously awesome stuff. Of course… at this stage of the game, the Tunnels & Trolls franchise was about 80% foibles. But what foibles!!!
I played this one three times and died horribly every time. I then sprang this on my eight-year-old daughter. (I’ve been searching for something that could be “our” game, but I may have beaten her one too many times at Incan Gold and Carcassonne.) I expected her to die quickly but… by golly, she beat this thing on her first try. I was floored.
Now… when rolling her attributes, she might have fudged a couple of dice rolls the few times that a D6 went flying off the table. (“That was a five!”) I pretended not to notice. Given the difficulty level of this adventure, she needed all the help she could get. Still, once she went in I adjudicated everything strictly by the book. In her first combat she rolled a perfect four sixes! I can’t remember seeing that happen with a 4D6 roll before. She was hooked from then on.
Anyway, here is my daughter’s first Tunnels & Trolls character:
Valeen — Warrior, Strength 14, Intelligence 7, Luck 15, Constitution 13, Dexterity 10, Charisma 15, Gold 815, Experience Points 1045, Pilum (4 Dice), Leather Armor (2 hits), +5 Combat Adds.
Note that although she leveled up after beating Buffalo Castle, she hasn’t added 2 to her Strength or Constitution or 4 to her Luck like she could. (Oh yeah, those attributes can go sky high once you get going!)
This is a delightful little game. I was surprised by how much enjoyment I got out of it…! It looks like you can have your old school gaming without the usual arguments that inevitably come with the D&D territory….