Sunday, May 17, 2020

Our Debt to Tunnels & Trolls

I was the only kid I knew who had a copy of Tunnels & Trolls. I still never met anybody who advocated for T&T. I bought it in the Fifth Edition box set, published in 1979, in the seventh printing from 1983.

I did run T&T for a few friends, but the main appeal was the solo adventures and the ease of play. I found that the game runs much more easily than D&D. In the modern (and mistaken) term, it was pure "OSR," in just every way.

No other games were available for solo adventures like those, except for the bounty emerging from the UK as the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (from 1982), Steve Jackson's related Sorcery! four-book series (1983-85, by far the best of all the gamebooks), and the exciting Lone Wolf series (1984 onward) along the same lines. There were lots of T&T solo adventures, many of them not good, but some of them fun and interesting. They kept me engaged and I played them over several times each, at least.

(Solo adventures address the same need as play-by-mail, both using text by somebody else to stand-in for a face-to-face Referees.)

Tunnels & Trolls was regarded as a non-serious variety of D&D. It cost less. It weighed less. All of these features were by design, in fact the reasons for which it was created, as explicitly stated. Its artwork, for which I have a soft spot due to early exposure, was far less polished than that of TSR in the same period (during the bloom of Dragonlance), and its supplements were distinctly light-hearted and full of irrational, weird encounters. As Ken St. Andre advised DMs in the first edition of T&T, "Go wild. You can do anything you want to. ... Use as much humor as you can, but don't be silly or juvenile."

I'd say that, mostly, T&T authors wrote material that followed these guidelines. As for avoiding the juvenile, I'm not sure what to think of the colorless sex romps with fantastic lovers that my characters would run into in the published T&T solo adventures. Does that count as mature or juvenile? It was quite unlike anything my adolescent self had encountered. But, for solo play, I always preferred the gamebooks from the UK for mood, deeper story rationale, great maps, and artistic support from the likes of Gary Chalk and John Blanche.

I want to discuss the legacy of Tunnels & Trolls.

A cheap copy?

In his superlative book on the formation of the role-playing game hobby, Playing at the World (which every reader of this should buy), Jon Peterson addresses the originality of T&T with skepticism. I have heard it before, and I think it underestimates what T&T did. Peterson calls T&T a "knee-jerk imitation" of D&D. Yes, he reluctantly acknowledges, it was the second role-playing game ever released, just weeks before Empire of the Petal Throne in 1975. Even though T&T was released as reproductions of a booklet written by a typewriter, with cartoon scribbles for art, it was "Not Bad for Number Two!" as Ken St. Andre wrote in a subsequent, more polished, edition.

St. Andre wanted to make a game that was affordable, easy to understand and play, and fun, purely as "theater of the mind" (not his term) without miniatures, and that didn't use funny dice (d6 only). Doesn't this sound, in important respects, a lot like the so-called OSR today? The game was supposed to minimize the money you sent to a game company that claimed authority, increase access to role-playing games, and maximize participant creativity with a DIY spirit and amateur black-and-white art. In modern terms, T&T even had the same motives as the recent "Old School Revival," in that it was a strong reaction to the shortcomings of D&D that aimed to make it more playable.

Criticism of T&T

Peterson, whose book is overall amazing, does not find merit in T&T. It concedes only a few game mechanics as distinguishing T&T from its antecedent, D&D, implicitly questioning its originality. I see it differently. The features that distinguish T&T from D&D are core features of the mechanics, and there are more differences than he notices.

(At first, T&T explicitly credited D&D for starting the whole thing. When TSR threatened to sue if they didn't drop the flattering references to D&D, they complied. In later editions, St. Andre still refers to TSR, not by name but obliquely, as having "made their game into almost a big business," but expresses "sincere gratitude and appreciation" for their "tremendous service" in initiating the genre of the role-playing game.)

As for the features differentiating T&T from D&D, Peterson mentions that there is a Luck stat, which he suggests is a substitute for D&D's Wisdom. He also specifies the combat system as rather different and the use of a spell point system instead of D&D's "memorize and spend" system. The implication is that T&T is not different enough to claim it's a different game.

Let's linger on these differences.

Luck versus Saving Throws

The Luck stat is not a substitute for Wisdom. The latter had no conceivable place in T&T, which had no clerics--an important innovation in itself, considering that the first D&D book had them, hard-baking the "cleric" into generic fantasy from then on.

The Luck stat is rather a complete reworking of the workings of the saving throw, tying it to one core stat instead of using D&D's big chart for saves versus "death rays" and "dragon breath" and other uncommon forms of attack. D&D's saving throws are complex and not rationalized. They vary with ad hoc numbers for every level of every class. It was never clear to me what story sense could explain those numbers. D&D's saving throws were just a vague attempt to attain "game balance" without rationale.

T&T thus created an entirely new, and simpler, way of dealing with impersonal hazards in role-playing games by reducing this to one Luck mechanic tied to a personal stat that varied by character, not by class. It was emulated by RuneQuest and almost all Chaosium games as well as the influential Fighting Fantasy system. If you have played Call of Cthulhu or Warlock of Firetop Mountain, you owe this innovation to T&T.

It's not to be underestimated. When an impersonal hazard affects your character, should the Referee decide by fiat whether you are injured or not? The use of dice adds suspense and keeps the Referee impartial to a degree. Luck stats also implicitly invoke a rationale. It could be story sense of the kind that explains why Bilbo didn't die many times over before he made it Back Again. Or it could be divine forces. It could come down to quick reflexes or alertness. Whatever makes up Luck in a game, it drastically simplifies saving throws and enhances Referee impartiality. Most importantly, it works.

Combat as a contest rather than alternating strikes

D&D's wargame mechanics simulate characters taking turns trying to hit each other, like pieces firing across a board, each taking its turn. You roll to hit; roll for damage if you hit. Next: other guy rolls to hit, rolls for damage if it hits. It can feel like two mechanical transactions alternating, like cave men taking turns bashing each other against no active resistance but a static number (Armor Class). To me, the D&D combat mechanics do not represent the wild exchange of battle.

Ken St. Andre devised a combat system that intuitively represents different sides in a contest against each other in an exchange of blows. The goal is to get the higher total with the dice in a mutual clash. The difference between the totals is the damage done by the winner to the loser. This is a brilliant and effective rewriting of D&D's wargame mechanics, which are its core features. Combat is a contest, not a series of unopposed blows.

It is also another type of mechanic borrowed by Fighting Fantasy as one of its core features. In FF, as in T&T, combat is a contest, not figures each taking turns whacking each other.

T&T's combat system was innovative and, unfortunately, seldom emulated, but not without offshoots.

Magic in T&T

T&T dumps the silly "memorize and forget" mechanic for spell casting in D&D. (I don't care if it comes from Jack Vance. That doesn't mean it's good for a game, especially without the explanations provided by Vance's setting.)

T&T spells are learned only with an INT prerequisite and powered by a character's Strength stat. You spend STR points to cast spells, and you rest to recover them at a fairly rapid rate, as if winded. Certain means to reduce the STR cost are available.

The spell-point variant was one of the earliest fan efforts to revise D&D's mechanics, as Peterson shows. It seems to have taken off in southern California in 1975, along with the name "Dungeon Master" instead of "gamesmaster." Ken St. Andre has both features in his game, so I assume that his first contact with D&D came by way of sci-fi fandom in southern California (which is also inherently more likely given the patterns of movement of people across the US then and now).

Of course, spell point systems have become widespread. Basic Role-playing system games, The Fantasy Trip, and GURPS all continue this line of game development, as do many others. T&T led the way.

Hit points and advancement in T&T

Peterson doesn't mention some of the other differences, easily overlooked by those who have not played T&T.

Hit points are the central feature of D&D's rules. They are the goal of the game in several respects. D&D arose, in part, as a way to explain how the "hero" and "super-hero" pieces on the miniatures battlefield came to endure four or eight hits, respectively--the underlying root of hit dice. Experience points evolved to explain the "hero" miniature on the sand table. Experience implies a continuous story.

By contrast, T&T dumped hit points. Your CON is your HP. Though you can raise your CON stat, you don't get to jack up hit points to absurd levels in T&T. Almost all other widespread early role-playing games emulated this from T&T, using a core stat as hit points. Look at Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying system games, look at The Fantasy Trip, look at GURPS. They all follow T&T in their use of a core stat as hit points, a number that does not become inflated over play.

T&T did borrow D&D's multivalent concept of levels (character levels, dungeon levels, spell levels) directly, but what levels mean in T&T is different. Going up a level means that you raise one of your core stats, and your increase in ability is based there, not in artificially class-bound fixed gains. In T&T, core stats matter more than anything else. In D&D, core stats do very little in the odds of success and failure, yet they are the one feature players fuss about most when they roll up their character.

T&T gives experience for a variety of endeavors, including daring. By 1979, it had dropped the XP for GP rule, because treasure is its own reward.

An incomplete game?

Peterson suggests that T&T was incomplete because it lacked systems that D&D had. The idea is that players had to rely on D&D to fill gaps left by T&T. For example, there are no rates of movement in the original T&T rules. Peterson suggests that this is because T&T players just used D&D and Chainmail rules for that. This doesn't hold up when we remember that T&T was not designed for use with miniatures. Movement in T&T is handled in a relative and narrative way without a board. This is a gap in the rules for a wargamer, but not for T&T, which was designed for pencil-and-paper imaginary play. (Later, T&T developed a Speed stat to address these relative movement differences.)

But there is more to this than Peterson suggests, and there are more innovations besides that, too.

What does T&T borrow from D&D?

T&T borrows the premise of D&D and acknowledges that borrowing up front: this is dungeon adventure. It takes the same template of core stats, as almost every single RPG ever since has done. How many games lack an equivalent of the Strength stat? It borrows experience points, levels, and basic classes (warrior, wizard, rogue).

What's innovative is what catches my attention more. It amounts to a lot. To repeat: T&T innovates in the combat system entirely. No hit points, no Hit Dice, no Armor Class, no spell charges, a different idea for how turns work. The bizarre early D&D saving throw system for impersonal hazards is completely rewritten. Character advancement does work by levels but it means something different in play. You get experience points for casting spells and making Luck saves as well as for beating monsters and for daring. You also get experience points for going deep in the dungeon. There are no clerics. The list goes on.

T&T is a different game and it is a success in that. It has been highly influential although that is seldom acknowledged. It's all the more remarkable as a new design by somebody who, by his own testimony, did not understand the D&D rules (like many players then--look at the original D&D layout to understand why), but understood the concept of role-playing adventures in mazes.

The achievement of T&T

Readers should also note what Ken St. Andre noted, when threatened by a legal grumblings: Game systems cannot be copyrighted. T&T does not plagiarize D&D.

Ken St. Andre has been put on the defensive for decades, as it seems, in interviews. He's been asked over and over about the originality of his game. Whereas Gygax was eager to grab control of the whole hobby in the '70s and '80s, the producers of D&D today are asking for others to emulate them. Why? Because they know it feeds their own market. People keep playing D&D.

In 1975, what St. Andre did was brave and creative. New game designers are praised today for what Ken St. Andre is still faulted for doing forty-five years ago. Also, why aren't game designers today asked about all the mechanics that they borrowed from T&T?

Tunnels & Trolls has had an enormous impact on the hobby. It showed, right away, that other game systems can support the kind of play that D&D encourages, and it did so one year after the publication of D&D. Beyond that, its influence has been through intermediary games that emulated T&T. The debt deserves to be acknowledged.

In the '70s, game designers knew it. Steve Perrin wrote in the credits page of the first edition of RuneQuest (1978): "Dedicated to Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, who first opened Pandora's Box, and to Ken St. Andre, who found it could be opened again."

You might say that Ken St. Andre (and his friends) liberated role-playing games from TSR and showed, in print, however humbly, that the hobby belongs to the players, not companies.

The unacknowledged debt

These days, innovators produce "hacks" and "clones" of the same old D&D, the same rules over and over with tiny changes, but people still look askance at T&T as if it was a bad copy. Players today complain about Wizards of the Coast and the big expensive books with too many rules and "railroad" modules. They do their best to get back to old D&D that players in the '70s were struggling to get away from. Without realizing it, they are reenacting an old struggle, forgetting that there were dozens of other game designers who broke away already in the 1970s and early '80s, when Gygax tried and failed to control the entire hobby.

Today, "DIY" game innovators think they are emulating Gygax, when in fact they are emulating Ken St. Andre.

OSR gamers of the last decade who resent the control and the glossy design style of Wizards of the Coast, who design new fantasy adventure games for themselves, holding up the DIY flag, are walking in the footsteps of Ken St. Andre, not Gary Gygax. St. Andre stood up for amateur creativity; Gygax attacked it and threatened to sue.

Today, the owners of D&D have a different strategy: the Open Game License. OSR gamers take up the OGL as an official sanction, not realizing that it hooks them to the rules from which they want to slip away.

St. Andre's game was the first major step in functioning, complete, coherent, light game mechanics for role-playing fantasy games. The major shortcoming of T&T was that it stayed slightly wild and crazy when gamers were trying to emulate serious fantasy drama from fiction and film. T&T seems always to have been more of a hobby, not a business, for its makers. But that was part of the point: it was never a big corporation, the route taken by D&D's producers.

But you can still use T&T to play "serious," grim adventure games just as much as bizarro tales. Isn't this what OSR-aligned players claim they want?

Tunnels & Trolls. The name was a joke, the game was for fun, the supplements embrace silliness. But try the game mechanics, hack them as you wish, and try to make them work for your own story ideas. What if you took T&T and not D&D as your basis? No clerics, no cumbersome monster stat blocks, no spell slots, no AC, no hit points...

If you play GLOG, if you play Knave, if you play Troika!, if you play any of the other genetically modified and re-imagined post-OSR fantasy games that shrug D&D mechanics off and play a new way, it's time you raised a glass to Ken St. Andre and his friends in sunny Arizona of 1975. You're walking on the trail St. Andre blazed, not simply because he was there first, but also because his mechanics ideas were awesome, enough to be imitated throughout some of the major genealogical lines of RPGs until this day. You may be playing them without knowing it.


  1. Great article!

    As a child, I repeatedly borrowed T&T from both a friend and the library (the Corgi paperback was ubiquitous in the UK). But the system *seemed* both too simple and hard to work out, so I never played it then. To a kid who'd started on the streamlined Runequest, T&S's simplicity was just as baffling as AD&D's complexity.

    Last year, though, I ran it for some friends (including the one who had lent me the rules decades before). I loved it. Some of the players weren't too keen on the abstracted combat system, but all embraced the buckets-of-dice approach - and the saving rolls.

    The game's greatest innovation, surely, is its saving roll as universal mechanic. When we played, I think we used other stats than Luck for the roll if they were more appropriate (I'd read that this was standard practice among T&T enthusiasts - and perhaps sanctioned in a later version of the rules). The joy of the system is the way in which the 'death spiral' combat system forces the players to come up with off-the-wall stunts when the dice go against them - diving through an ogre's legs as it swings its club down for the coup de grace, for example.

    But that magic is quite heavily buried in the rules. What I failed to grasp as a kid was that you could actively place yourself in saving-roll situations rather than just wait for the GM to throw them at you. Once you get that, you've got a game that's as fluid and flexible as Apocalypse World and its ilk - but designed decades before.

    In last year's game (an all-night one-off that involved multiple raids on an underground city), I eschewed all T&T zaniness for a fairly dark sword-and-sorcery scenario. And as you say, there's nothing in the system that gets in the way of that.

    And for all their gonzo wackiness, there are some great ideas lurking in T&T modules. The Dungeon of the Bear is, in its own way, superb.

    1. Yes, T&T has long included saving throws based on other stats (as D&D 5e does now). They work. It's an interesting point that one can use them for refereed stunts voluntarily undertaken by the players.

      You must be the only other player I've met to have run T&T and to have formed opinions about it based on experience with it.

      I'm also glad to learn that it suited your dark scenario adequately. I really think T&T would have gone farther if packaged with prettier pictures. If current OSR favorite artists decorated a new edition of T&T, people would say it was innovative!

      As for the combat system, I find it no more abstract than the D&D system of exchanging swipes. T&T's system may even facilitate livelier narratives of the contest of melee.

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

    2. By contrast, T&T's sweet spot seems to be a smallish party (which makes the combat mechanics much more interesting) and a weirder, more fantastical environment. Our party was three-strong and spent almost as much time in a subterranean pub ( as they did fighting!

    3. Interesting you should say that! By the 1979 edition of T&T, Ken St. Andre had added this advice (also relevant to the discussion of party leaders and callers):

      "Characters and players should speak for themselves. But, with everyone trying to talk at once a game can rapidly degenerate into a shouting match (that can be fun sometimes, too), so it is recommended that the GM keep the number of players in his party small -- two or three players with up to four characters apiece is ideal. When it is necessary for a GM to try and cope with more than three players, it may be necessary to limit the number of characters they can use at a time to one, and/or to invoke some form of parliamentary procedure to determine who gets to talk one."

      He goes on to add, "Hint to the GM: do not allow one player to dominate play, even if that player has all the best characters -- that will make the game less interesting for the other players. The game will be more enjoyable for all if everyone in it participates."

      He has more to say along these lines, indicating that it was a matter of serious concern, at least in his circles, in the late '70s.

      To me, it's interesting that he doesn't mention combat mechanics, the issue that you just raised, but he did develop the idea, early on, that a party of three is ideal.

  2. This was a great blog post.

    As someone who first started playing T&T in 1977 with the 4th Edition, I fully agree with the arguments in this post regarding the innovations T&T brought to gaming and the injustice of its role being largely ignored or shrugged-off as being derivative. I am not familiar with the Peterson book referenced in the piece but it would appear that the book perpetuates these injustices either from a lack of understanding or a lack of research (or both).

    One item missing from your analysis that I would add as a pioneering innovation from T&T was/is solo playing an RPG. Back in 1977, which was what I personally consider the tail-end of the "originalist" era of RPGs, it was still very hard to find other like-minded people with whom to play these strange new games. It's sometimes hard to assess the full impact of this innovation because the adoption of it is, by virtue of its design, solitary. Anecdotally, however, were it not for this innovation, my adolescence would have been deprived of much gaming fun as other players were just not readily available.

    Cheers -

    1. Thank you!

      I agree about the solo play. As much as I like T&T, I probably would not have played it nearly so much without those weird solo adventure books.

      As for Peterson's book, Playing at the World, it is an extraordinary compilation of painstaking research on the formation of role-playing games. Nobody can fault it with respect to depth of research. We are very lucky that anybody put this much work into it. I just happen to disagree with his take on T&T, which occupies only a little space there. I would, rather, recommend Playing at the World to anybody armed with the zeal to read hundreds of dense pages of documentation about what happened to bring this hobby about. (I even put a link to Peterson's blog on play-by-mail, which I think has a close connection with solo gaming.) In probing the roots of the hobby, the connections Peterson draws between character classes and chess pieces, or between ascending levels and "kinging" pieces in checkers, to give just two examples, are insightful and new. And for the social history of early RPGs, he has combed countless inaccessible zines to make the relationships between the founding figures more visible.

      I think you're quite right about the nature of solitary gaming: it does not leave much of a "paper trail," and so it is easy to overlook its importance. I think Fighting Fantasy is even more influential in this way.

      These days, it seems that there are solo gamers who write up their adventures and blog about them. I'm just becoming aware of this, myself!

  3. Hi-

    T&T players are a more niche group than the D&D crowd, but we exist:

    The Trollbridge has been around for a loooooooong time-visit when you have some time on your hands!