Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Wisdom of Tunnels & Trolls

One of the big changes in the new edition of The Fantasy Trip is that Steve Jackson has recanted on the old rule that IQ provided a harsh upper limit on the total number of spells and/or talents a character could have. The reason is… under the old advancement system there comes a point where attributes get ridiculously and pointlessly high. So Steve’s solution is to have players buy attributes early on in their adventuring careers… and then at some point switch over to buying more talents and spells when the usual method of advancement becomes cost prohibitive.

I like the idea, mostly because I’ve long been hung up on the old first edition AD&D Fighter/Magic-user multi-class ever since I saw it. A great idea, but a clunky implementation to be sure. The idea of slower advancement is preserved here under the new rules here for The Fantasy Trip: non-wizard characters are going to pay triple the experience points for each new spell they acquire!

But of course, Steve isn’t channeling the more baroque elements of the biggest fantasy gaming franchise on the planet. No, he’s merely rolling back to a key element of The Fantasy Trip’s predecessor, Tunnels & Trolls!

See, the justifiably infamous Ken St. Andre had this hilariously brilliant “Rogue” class. This one was not like any of the Rogues in more ubiquitous games of today. It was an offbeat first-class treatment of the fighter/magic-user hybrid. Rogues didn’t have double armor ability of the warriors, though they could still use any weapon that they had the strength attribute for. (Shades of GURPS and The Fantasy Trip!) They could cast spells like a wizard, but didn’t get the strength cost break that wizards got from magic staffs and from casting spells at lower spell levels than their character levels.

And note again… because Tunnels & Trolls had Constitution be a distinct stat from Strength when determined the energy reserve, T&T avoided the “Conan the Wizard” problem that The Fantasy Trip accrued to itself due to its overly elegant design framework! Problem solved way before GURPS even came close to being on the drawing board!

The real genius of Tunnels & Trolls lies not just in its development of the ultimate fighter/magic-user combo. It’s that additional spells were doled out in that game in exchange for gold, not experience points. Wizards pay a flat rate to the guild, of course. But Rogues have to learn from other player character wizards. And they have to pay whatever amount those players are asking!

This is awesome. Not only does it inject a healthy amount of old school “XP for Gold” into T&T’s gameplay, but it also keeps the wizard players out in front of the rogues when it comes to spells. Not only are rogues limited to selecting from the spells the wizards have already purchased, but wizards can also relieve the rogues of all their spare cash… and then turn it over to the guild for even more spells!

This is particularly brilliant because the stupid stuff players do to min/max character generation and advancement is always inferior to the hi-jinx that ensures when the players start playing off of each other.

Score another one for Ken St. Andre, y’all!

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Melee: Killing JON of the ISLES

It didn’t add up.

I mean I knew that an ST 12/DX 12 character would have an significant advantage in Steve Jackson’s classic Melee microgame. This is just one of those iconic artifacts of gaming legend– right up there with stats for the original G.E.V. counters having to be revised due to actual players doing stuff with them that the playtesters never imagined.

But it was too much. “JON of the ISLES” was way too awesome. He cut down hulking crossbowmen and nimble swashbucklers with ease. Soon the body count was up to seven; his ST pumped up to 13 and his DX at 14 via the oft-lamented experience system… the guy pretty much couldn’t miss. It was awful.

But more was at stake here than everyone else’s chances at nabbing a prized continuing character and bragging rights over the week’s lunchtime game sessions. The natives were restless, frustrated. Rather than seeing a challenge worth rising to, they saw a pointlessly insurmountable obstacle. “Your game’s broken,” they told me. Sour grapes to be sure! But also fighting words. They’re talking about one of the greatest designers in history. Nobody’s going to besmirch the legacy of Steve on my watch. Not going to happen!

So I made my challenge and spent ten minutes carefully perusing the rule book. There had to be a way! And there was.

JON of the ISLES was played by someone that had neglected to mine the equipment list for every conceivable advantage. This wasn’t much, but it was enough to counterbalance those additional ST and DX points that looked so unbeatable. The biggest problem that I could see was the guy didn’t have a backup weapon. Maybe there would be a way to punish him for that?

Ah, yes there was…! The hand-to-hand rules say that if I can move onto his hex, he has a very good chance of dropping his weapon. I started to work up a dagger-wielding figure just for this purpose, but then I looked again. Yeah, if I move into JON’s front hex I would have to stop. And then once engaged, I could take the “Attempt HTH Attack” option. But… it’s not that easy. There are only a few very narrow circumstances where this is allowed, having a higher Movement Allowance being chief among them. And the stats just weren’t there for that.

But there was a way that it could be pulled off. Not a surefire method… but a solid chance. Spears do less damage than broadswords. But… being much longer, they have the capacity to short-circuit JON’s dexterity advantage. I’ll have a chance to seize the initiative with that! But there was more…. A character that takes 8 or more hits in a turn immediately falls down. And prone figures can always be engaged in hand-to-hand. A spear’s 1d+1 damage was never going to pull that off, but if I could lure JON into charging me or else allowing me to charge him, I’d have a better than even chance to knock him down!

The day of the battle arrived. I was allowed to my one charge in. (An unforced error!) I then got just enough damage to knock him down. I won the initiative for the movement phase and moved into HTH range. We both dropped our weapons in the hex. I got lucky with a HTH attack and did another 2 hits of damage with a punch, putting him beyond the -3 to all attacks threshold. He was stronger than me and could conceivably hurt me in a HTH scenario… but not after the deathspiral was in motion!

At this point JON’s player did not feel he could retreat. He didn’t have a backup weapon and didn’t want me to pick up the spear and use it to finish him off. So he stayed to trade punches and was finished off with a flurry of 1-point hits.

(For what it’s worth, I will say that my chest-beating at this point wasn’t too obnoxious.)

Now… does this mean that the game is broken in just a slightly different way than we first imagined? No it doesn’t!

The spear charge / hand-to-hand combo can be countered in two ways. First… you can merely close to a distance of two hexes and accept a spear jab there the turn before you engage. Maybe not ideal, but hey… you gotta give spear carriers their due!

And though this auto-knockdown seems out of control (especially combined with 2-in-3 chance of a defender dropping their weapon in HTH combat), also note that armor makes it MUCH less likely that you’re going to get knocked down. It takes 8 hits of injury to trigger the auto-fall, and plate armor pretty well ensures that that’s never going to happen, even if you charge a spear carrier!

So there you go. There’s definitely more to this game than closing to melee range and taking turns wailing on each other until somebody goes down. Dagger-toting goblins with MA 12 are going to be a real problem under these rules. And if you’re used to fighting naked like the Irish did back in the day, you’ve got good reason to rethink that here. The penalty to adjDEX is harsh, but getting knocked down is even harsher!

(And do note if you’re irked by the dweebie wizards hauling around new school staffs to power their spells… lobby your opponent to let you combine Wizard with Melee, cast Summon Wolf and get up in his grill. You’ve got a better than even chance of making him drop the darned thing!)

Anyway, the integrity of my game is preserved. The greatness of 70’s Steve is demonstrated yet again. Granted, you can develop the nuggets of these rules into something with more nuance and granularity. (See GURPS.) But you cannot beat Melee for either elegance or excitement.

It’s a thing of beauty!

I am saddled with being accused of staying up all night analyzing a pitifully small 24 page rules pamphlet, sure… but I can live with that!

Long live Melee™!

Steve Jackson’s Melee is Back!

This game is so rad.

I get it out to show it to people, as if to just explain what it is and show off the components…. But then, if you have time to explain it, you pretty much have time to play it. And once you play it, you gotta play it again!

The sample character cards from the recent Fantasy Trip “Monster” Set make this even easier. Just pick a card. Pick one at random, even. Man, it’s just so easy.

And then somebody gets a character that’s grabbed enough experience to plus up those attributes. And then people have to keep playing just for the shred of a chance that they’ll be the one to kill this runaway player character.

Melee has the “just one more” effect in spades. A masterpiece of game design!

And best of all… getting players is drop dead easy. This is one of the best gaming values on the market. Get your copy today!

“Spears of Clontarf” by Robert E. Howard

This is a great story, a fascinating piece.

In the first place, it shows us up close the sort of peoples, Christian and pagan, that produced the bedrock of the myth and legends that would define our base concepts of fantasy and heroism. But it also presents the notion that we are descended from people that were every bit as heroic as Conan and Solomon Kane. And being written by Robert E. Howard, you can’t help but end up being persuaded!

So many good lines here:

My lords, it may be God’s will I fall in the first onset– but the scars of slavery burn deep in my back this night, and may the dogs eat my bones if I am backward when the spears are splintering.

Also:

The issue was greater than to decide whether Dane or Gael should rule Ireland; it was Christian against heathen; Jehovah against Odin; it was the last combined onslaught of the Norse races against the world they had looted for three hundred years. It was more; it was the titanic death-throes of a passing epoch– the twilight of a fading age.

It’s awe inspiring. With not one iota of snark, contempt, or subversion.

This is what fiction is like when it’s written by someone that doesn’t hate his audience. Check it out!

A Key Line of Influence in the Development of Roleplaying Games

One of the ways that it becomes clear that Appendix N is more than just a list of books is that there are clear lines of influence running through it, chains of authors that inspire each other in succession. Everyone has been reminded by now that Leigh Brackett’s entire career was predicated on her reading and emulating an Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter novel. Fewer have marked the fact that there would have been no Conan were it not for Tarzan, but it’s true all the same. Jack Vance, Philip Jose Farmer, and Michael Moorcock each wrote books that even if they were not outright pastiche nevertheless hewed closely to Burroughs’s template.

But there’s more to it than just Burroughs being the real author of the century. Science fiction legend Jack Williamson set his sights on imitating the Lord of Fantasy A. Merritt. August Derleth and Margaret St. Clair each continued on in the same vein Lovecraft mined. And Lovecraft’s career in fiction was in turn directly inspired by the work of Lord Dunsany.

There’s a story there, a sprawling conversation that spanned decades. There are lights there that shined so brightly, voices so powerful that they defined how even the idea of fantasy could even work.

Another such conversation played out in the mid-seventies as the foundations of the roleplaying game hobby were laid down.

Some of the lines of influence are pretty obvious, of course. Traveller in its original incarnation was released as a set of three “little black books”– a very careful adaption of original D&D’s “little brown books” to a science fiction theme.

The core rules to GURPS have been called a “Basic Set” from its initial release because it was originally patterned after the phenomenally influential Basic D&D sets created by Holmes, Moldvay & Cook, and then Mentzer.

Looking at the precursor to GURPS, Steve Jackson’s The Fantasy Trip… it’s hard to imagine such a tightly engineered masterpiece of design could have been produced when TSR was in the process of developing the nigh incoherent early D&D rules to the ponderous and outright unplayable AD&D system.

The man that set the stage for this incredible little game was none other than Ken St. Andre, the creator the second role-playing game system Tunnels & Trolls. That game system did much more than blaze the trail for solitaire gaming modules which would inspire Steve Jackson from his earliest Fantasy Trip and Car Wars supplements. It would remain a cornerstone component of his vision even in his magnum opus of GURPS.

But look back into the offbeat T&T variant Monsters! Monsters!– which was published by MetaGaming and edited by a very snarky Steve Jackson– and you’ll find key innovations that were very quickly embraced and refined by Steve:

  • One of the six core attributes– constitution– is used for hit points instead of having a separate hit point stat. In The Fantasy Trip, Steve Jackson would trim things even further, folding the idea of both constitution and hit points into the strength attribute!
  • Instead of having a weird set of off the wall saving throw stats that are a function of class and level, Ken St. Andre used a more generalized “saving roll” against the luck stat. Again, Steve Jackson generalize things even further by making nearly every roll in his system be against one of his very few core attributes.
  • D&D has an elaborate tradition for statting up monsters and foes that is entirely distinct from the one used to generate player characters. With Monsters! Monsters!, Ken St. Andre showed how to make monsters a first class element of the game system, giving them all the same attributes and means of advancing. Steve Jackson would maintain this approach within The Fantasy Trip.
  • Weapon choice (and thus damage output) in Tunnels & Trolls is a function of the strength attribute. This concept is carried forward into The Fantasy Trip.
  • Magic staffs are used to reduce the cost of spells cast in Tunnels & Trolls. In The Fantasy Trip, staffs are used as mana repositories.
  • The primary benefit of being able to level up in Monsters! Monsters! is that you may increase your attributes, which define the lion-share of the character’s capabilities. In The Fantasy Trip this is taken even further and the concept of class and level is (finally) removed altogether.

There’s more. And its well worth your time to pick up copies of both Tunnels & Trolls and The Fantasy Trip to go delve into every nugget of all this.

Another thing you’ll see in Monsters! Monsters!, though, is a great number of references to what would later become known as the books of Appendix N. Balrogs from Lord of the Rings, of course… but also Living Skeletons from Fritz Leiber’s works, Lovecraft’s, Shoggoths, the demon from De Camp’s The Fallible Fiend, and a full page illustration of Roger Zelazny’s Shadow Jack. (Hilariously, in a footnote, Steve Jackson corrects Ken St. Andre on the proper way to stat up The Grey Mouser in the Tunnels & Trolls system!!)

Gary Gygax and Ken St. Andre might have had their disagreements when it came to roleplaying game design, but one thing’s sure: they had an almost identical conception of  what the best works of fantasy were.