Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 24 September 2010

White Box Fever II

We come to the end of September and already we are in a new age of Dungeons & Dragons, one of the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials line that began with the publication of the publication of the Dungeons & Dragons Red Box Set by Wizards of the Coast. To celebrate that fact, Reviews from R'lyeh is running a series of reviews devoted to RPGs that aim to bring new players into the hobby. I began with the original Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game Starter Set for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition before getting up to date with the latest releases – Tower of the Stargazer and New Weird World – for one of the mostly highly anticipated retroclones, Weird Fantasy Roleplaying. This week I go back in time to just after we got Dungeons & Dragons. Not to do a review the original Dungeons & Dragons or an “Edition 0” version thereof – though I will come to at least one of those in the next few weeks – but a review of something that came hot on its heels, Tunnels & Trolls.

Tunnels & Trolls is thirty five years old in 2010. Which means it was published in 1975, a year after Dungeons & Dragons, and in the same year as Boothill, the first non-fantasy RPG to be published; and Empire of the Petal Throne, the third fantasy RPG to be published and the first to come with a setting. I mention the latter because Tunnels & Trolls was written by its author, Ken St. Andre in response to not only the complexity of Dungeons & Dragons, but its expense. This at a time when Empire of the Petal Throne was considered to be quite expensive at $20! The resulting game was lighter, faster, came with a universal mechanic for everything bar combat, used only six-sided dice and as evidenced by spell names such as Cry Baby, Cry Baby! and Take That, You Fiend, a healthy dose of humour. In the first decade of its publication, Tunnels & Trolls was very well supported, primarily in the form of scenarios and well regarded solo adventures. One title of note during this period was Monsters! Monsters!, a variant of Tunnels & Trolls that let the players be the monsters. In the years since, there has been less and less support for the game, but it has never quite gone away. Thus we have Tunnels & Trolls 7.5, published by Fiery Dragon.

The first thing that you notice about this version is that the box is very full. Inside can be found three spiral bound books, three much smaller staple bound booklets, three character sheets, three sheets of counters, a map, and four six-sided dice. The three spiral bound books are the rulebook, the Codex Incantatem, and the Monstrum Codex, while the staple bound books are the Monsters & Magic Book Special Edition, and two scenarios. For the GM there is Hot Pursuit, while Strange Destinies is a solo dungeon.

Everything you need to know to play is in the rulebook. It covers character creation, combat, and magic, and it is here that some significant changes to the original rules appear. These are not new to Tunnels & Trolls, having previously appeared in the seventh edition that came out for the game’s thirtieth anniversary. The first of these are two new attributes – Speed and Wizardry that join the traditional Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Luck, and Charisma. Speed is a character’s reaction time, while Wizardry is a character’s ability to cast spells or use magic in general. A spellcaster’s Wizardry score also represents the number of points that he has to spend on casting spell.

Likewise, many of the game’s character classes remain, including the Warrior, the Wizard, and the Rogue. It should be noted that the Rogue is not so much the Thief we know and love of Dungeons & Dragons, but more of a “rogue Wizard,” who have limited spellcasting abilities and access to spells, but not the same restrictions in terms of arms and armour as the Wizard. To these are joined the Citizen, the ordinary person of a GM’s Trollworld or campaign world; the Specialist, which comes in three flavours – Specialist Mages (who focus on one type of spells such as combat, healing, or communication), Rangers (superb archers), and Leaders (who are very persuasive); and lastly, the Paragon, which replace the Warrior-Wizards of previous editions.

All characters have an additional new feature: a Talent. This is a skill or ability that adds a bonus to an attribute when it applies. It might be Persuade +4 or Pottery +3, but it will go as a character goes up in level. It is added when a character is required to make a Saving Roll to which it applies. It should be noted that a character’s level is no longer dependent upon a character having acquired a set number of Adventure Points. Rather these are spent to raise a character’s attributes and when the highest rises to twenty or more, he is second level, and so on.

Character generation is still relatively easy. Roll three six-sided dice for each attribute – it should be noted that rolls of triples add and roll over, choose a class, a Talent, a Kindred (or race), and buy equipment. That said, a full example of character generation would have been useful. So looking at Gomol the Small, our sample Dwarf Warrior, we see that he is incredibly fast for a Dwarf – I rolled three sixes, followed by seventeen, but his Luck always, always, lets him down. Perhaps his Speed can be accounted for by his small size? In all likelihood, Gomol is often mistaken for a Hobb – what Tunnels & Trolls calls Halflings or Hobbits – who is wearing a false beard. Anyway, Gomol is not much of miner – he specialises in breaking rocks very, very quickly, so has probably decided to try his terrible luck out in the whole wide Trollworld.

Gomol the Small, Dwarf, Level 3 Warrior
Strength: 26 Constitution: 18 Dexterity: 8 Speed: 35
Intelligence: 12 Wizardry: 5 Luck: 3 Charisma: 10
Height: 3’ 2” Weight: 160 lbs.
Talent: Appraisal (Intelligence +1) Drinking (Constitution +2), Mining (Constitution +3)
Combat Adds: +30
Equipment: Sledgehammer (4d), Dwarven Mask (1 Armour), Leather Trousers (1 Armour), Hard Boots (Ankle High); 1 silver piece.

Tunnels & Trolls is not a game that relies heavily on skills and skill checks. What the game has instead is Saving Rolls, usually made against a set attribute, for example, Luck or Dexterity. Simply, two dice are rolled – doubles roll over and add – and added to the attribute in question to beat a set target. For a Level One Saving Roll or “L1SR,” this target is twenty, and then goes up by five for each level. So Gomol would really be in trouble if he had to make a L1SR on Luck, but would walk it if it was on his Speed.

Combat in Tunnels & Trolls has changed relatively little in thirty five years. Each side involved rolls up their dice and adds the results to get a total. This total is compared with the opponent’s, the highest winning that round. The difference between the two rolls is inflicted on the loser! In fact, this was always so easy that it was very straightforward to write computer programmes that would handle the process for you. Then again, rolling the dice was always much more fun.

While monsters can have full statistics similar to that of player characters or NPCs, they can also be simplified to a Monster Rating or MR. A creature’s MR is rounded by the nearest ten to get the number of dice rolled each round, while half the MR is the value added to the roll as its “adds.” So a Smudgebrow Orc with an MR of 64 rolls 7d6 and adds 32.

There are two significant changes to combat. The first is that damage inflicted on a monster is not deducted from its MR, but only from its “adds.” This means that a monster’s MR never changes, thus avoiding the spiral effect of previous editions in which damage reduces a monster’s MR, thus reducing both the number of dice it rolls and its “adds,” and thus its effectiveness in combat. The second change is the “Spite Damage” rule in which any six rolled in combat inflicts a point of damage on an opponent, ignoring armour in the process. This nicely allows a character to inflict damage even if he misses!

So for example, Gomol has been surprised by a Smudgebrow Orc, his terrible Luck letting him down. With an MR of 64, we already know that the Orc rolls 7d6+32 in combat, while Gomol rolls 4d (for his sledgehammer) and adds 30. The Orc rolls 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, and 6, to which its adds 32, for a total of 57, with one point of definite Spite Damage for the 6 rolled. In response, Gomol rolls 5, 5, 6, and 6, to which he adds 30 for a total of 52, and two points of definite Spite Damage for the 6s rolled. So deducting the Orc’s hit from Gomol’s, we see that Gomol takes five damage and another point of Spite Damage. Some of this stopped by his armour, but only the one point, so his Con is reduced by five! The Orc takes two Spite Damage, reduces its “adds” by two, meaning that it rolls 7d6+30 next round... Looks like Gomol has a tough fight on his hands...

What is exceptionally good about the core rulebook is the number of examples of combat. We get to see combat between monsters and monsters, between two characters, and between two groups of characters. All of the examples nicely showcase a combat system that is relatively quick and easy with lots of dice to throw. The rest of the Rulebook is devoted to a discussion of how magic works and a grimoire of spells. Spellcasting uses the Saving Roll system, based on the caster’s Intelligence and limited by his Wizardry attribute which he spends on “Kremm,” the energy that fuels magic.

More spells are added in the Codex Incantatem, while more monsters appear in both the Monstrum Codex and the Monsters & Magic Book Special Edition, the latter having appeared in the game’s Thirtieth Anniversary Edition. All three books are useful and should extend the life of the game, whereas the two scenarios should be there to get both the GM and the players started. “Strange Destinies” is the solo adventure, one that casts either a fairly tough Warrior or a troll or Ogre into the Fungus Forest beneath Troll World. It contains over two hundred entries and is a fairly grim, nasty affair that should be completed in an hour or so. The standard adventure, “Hot Pursuit,” should last about three hours or so, and sees a party of adventurers coming to the aid of a village beset by Scorpion Men raiders.

Both adventures are decent enough, but they do not feel quite suited for use with someone who is either new to Tunnels & Trolls or to roleplaying. They are essentially too deadly for first level characters. Another issue is with the lack of a setting. One is suggested with the map of the World of Kaball. This “Troll World” is also given a chronology which runs from its creation to its destruction mere millennia later. The GM is free to set his game anywhere along this timeline, but as to when and how, he is on his own. The Tunnels & Trolls boxed set comes with neither background nor advice on running the game. Neither is not going to be a problem for the experienced GM, but for a new player, this is a major omission.

Ken St. Andre does not know me from chocolate digestive, but he once suggested that I review Tunnels & Trolls. I never did. Not because I did not want to, but because I never had the time or the reason. There was always something more immediate that needed a review and who wanted a review of a game that was over thirty years old anyway. This does not mean that I did not want to review Tunnels & Trolls, but rather that I was waiting for the time to do it, and this series of reviews is that perfect time and place. The other reason for my reviewing is that I have not touched Tunnels & Trolls since I was fourteen and was at grammar school and twin brothers in the year below me would run me through some of the dungeons available back then. It was fun, there was a lot of rolling rather than roleplaying, but this was at lunchtime.

Coming back to Tunnels & Trolls and it still feels fun. There is a slight gonzo feel to the game that plays fast and easy. It is just a pity that this could not have supported except through mechanical means with more spells and monsters. Advice on playing and running the game should have replaced the extra monster and spell books, along with a dungeon specifically written for rank one characters. The inclusion of the Codex Incantatem and the Monsters & Magic Book Special Edition feel out of place given what was already in the box, almost as if they were put in as afterthought to fill up the box. A little thought could have gone into making this is much rounder, more fully formed boxed set.

The point of the “White Box Fever” series is to look at games that should serve as solid introductions to the hobby that is roleplaying, that should make the purchaser or receiver go “Wow!” upon cracking open the box or the book. So does Tunnels & Trolls achieve either of those goals? And the answer to that question is, not quite. The sheer amount of contents in the box is impressive, and they include everything necessary to play. Plus if there is a GM who knows how to write his own material, there is enough here to support his game mechanically for some time. Yet, the lack of an example of character creation is a hindrance, and the lack of a setting and GM and player advice works against anyone new to the game and hobby.

Tunnels & Trolls v7.5 certainly hits the nostalgia button and it is fun to play. Yet it still needs an experienced GM if someone new to the hobby is going to play it.