Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Category Archives: Tunnels & Trolls

Justifiably Infamous: Tunnels & Trolls Fourth Edition

This book is something of a time capsule. Given the number of controversies surrounding the early days of Dungeons & Dragons and the amount of conflict there is concerning the way that each edition of that game lends its own spin and emphasis to the form, it is fascinating to be able to compare all of this to how someone in the mid-seventies adapted the game to fit their own preferences and understandings. And given that the earliest editions of D&D on the market at the time were practically incomprehensible, this is all the more intriguing.

Here are some observations from my read-through:

  • The section on the “The Basic Game” gives the Tunnels & Troll‘s premise as being set in a world sort of like Middle Earth. It’s full of “enchanted tunnel complexes” that are loaded with treasure and monsters and traps. Your characters are going in just because… and you pretty much win the game whenever you make it back alive. [This is pretty much the same essential take on the game that the Holmes, Moldvay, and Mentzer basic sets lay out.]
  • The game assumes that the purchaser of the book will immediately set about “digging” and stocking a dungeon. (Alternately, the game could be played with some solitaire adventures available seperately.)
  • The game assumes that the players will have someone acting as “Caller”, though several other names for that are mentioned here. This is interesting because it used to be considered important to play this way, but this aspect of group management seemed to atrophy over the course of the eighties for a variety of reasons. (My theory on this is that group sizes were going to be greater than six on the average… whereas later game groups probably trended down to five or six players most of the time.)
  • The designer explicitly declares the rules to be guidelines, and gives players explicit permission to change things around. And yet, the game master is not explicitly given final authority for managing all of this, so this is arguably not exactly a “rule zero” game.
  • After all of the prefacing and introductions, this game immediately gets down to business. The first real section is on “Digging the Dungeon.” This is a surprise because usually this is in the back of rpg books in the gamemaster’s section or something. These guidelines emphasize theme over hard and fast rules. The idea that things get tougher the further down you go is firmly enshrined here. The idea put forth here about every trap needing a way to be overcome or avoided seems to me to indicate a desire for more Zork-like puzzles than the more usual “save-or-die poison trap with a skill check.”
  • The treasure and jewel generator is loaded with stuff… and seems to couple the treasure types to level rather than monster type. I love this line: “I have my own list of magical objects that can be found, but it would probably be better if every DM made up his own list of magical items to be found.”
  • Character creation! 3d6 in order is still how its done… and starting gold is still 3d6x10. The the cleric class and the alignment system are conspicuously absent. Just like in Moldvay Basic, you can be any sort of class you want regardless of stats. However, the game has some odd rules regarding level limits and changing class. Rogues can actually get pretty good at spellcasting.
  • Monster creation! There is no monster manual here– just a table of suggestions broken down by dungeon level. Strangely enough, a balrog on the first level is going to be much weaker than a balrog on the sixth level! Really, all you get here is a single, monolithic rating that determines how tough the monster is… along with a number appearing range. A page is taken from the game Monsters, Monsters! with some suggestions for experience point awards for players that take on the role of the monsters.
  • Heh. This is a better explanation of D&D combat than anything in D&D: “Combat is not usually a blow-by-blow description of who did what to whom. Instead, it is meant to be a running appraisal of how well the battle is going as looked at from discrete moments in time.” There are no elaborate miniatures rules– instead there are common sense guidelines for who can attack what depending on the situation.
  • Experience points are awarded for individual actions beyond just the traditional rewards from killing and looting. When you level up, you may improve your attributes with one of several methods. It is possible for someone to level up while inside the dungeon! Needless to say, the tracking of experience on an individual basis will make for a very different game. All classes level up at the same rates, but I’m curious as to which ones might gain experience faster in practice.
  • There’s a store at each dungeon entrance… and the rules mention the possibility of a character purchasing a magic sword while inside the dungeon. This is reminiscent of Nethack and other early computer adventure games. (You don’t have to develop a “town” area in order to play this game correctly.)
  • The hireling rules are delightfully comprehensible. Slaves are even created with a point-buy system.
  • Spells are essentially skills that can be purchased with money… and casting spells costs strength points which are then gradually recovered. Low level spells cost less energy as you go up in level. Players are encouraged to come up with their own spells when they reach fifth level. There are also rules for making up new spells on the spot during a game and/or casting too-hard spells by working together with other spellcasters.

I like the breezy free-form nature of the rules. You can tell that the author had a sheet of paper and a single topic in mind and then just typed it all up to fit exactly that space. This rule set might have been entirely different had it been written with a word processor. The voice of the designer is likewise very strong. It’s almost as if you have someone right there with you helping you through the game. Given that a good number of people were (as James Maliszewki has noted) initiated into the hobby, I think it was very important a game like this was produced so early. Finally! A role playing game that you can learn from the rule book!

Another thing that comes through is the do-it-yourself attitude. The editorial voice is often breaking in with comments on how other people do things and other ways that the game can be tweaked. The complete lack of a magic items list is pretty well striking, but the fact that the game essentially opens up with the dungeon design guidelines is equally telling. The absence of any sort of “monster manual” is a huge deal. Its almost as if Tunnels & Trolls provided people with a toolkit for reskinning D&D into whatever homebrew setting they could want. And the simplicity of the rules means that it would have been that much more likely for novice DM’s to pull this off!

This game strikes me has taking the essence of  D&D and then going about half way to where Steve Jackson would have gone. Attributes mean something beyond a couple of odd bonuses; they’re integrated with the entire system. The most difficult to explain aspects of D&D are quietly omitted: everything from clerics and pantheons and alignments to elaborate hex-crawling systems. And yet the quintessential elements of D&D are here: sprawling dungeon complexes that get harder the further down you go… and the license to create all the traps and monsters and strangeness that your heart desires.

This is game that deserves to exist: a rules-light take on the original Dungeon as Mythic Underworld theme. It is also eminently playable. You can get it here for the same price that you would have payed back in the day!