Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Game Review (Part 10): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: Weapons

Ouch (Rob Carver, 1st edition, p. 34)

20. Weapons

So, I've spent a fair amount of space talking about how Tunnels Trolls imitated (or didn't imitate) Dungeons & Dragons. Now I'm going to look at a case where Dungeons & Dragons imitated Tunnels & Trolls.

When you consider the 1978 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, what's the first thing you think of? Okay, the art. What's the next thing you think of? For me, it's that extensive list of weapons, including the ones with funny and misleading names, such as Bohemian Ear Spoon and Lucerne Hammer. (Both of them were pole arms - the ear spoon wasn't a spoon and the hammer wasn't a hammer.)

The list was a huge expansion over the list provided in OD&D's Men & Magic, published in 1974, as well as the slightly longer list included in the first supplement, Greyhawk, published in 1975, and that of the Holmes Basic Set, first published in 1977.

Now, some of the Players Handbook weapons were first introduced in the second issue of The Strategic Review, released in the summer of 1975.

But the first role-playing game to feature an extensive weapons list in its rules set was, you guessed it, Tunnels & Trolls in 1975. Here's the breakdown:

Weapons in Men & Magic (18):

Dagger, Hand Axe, Mace, Sword, Battle Axe, Morning Star, Flail, Spear, Pole Arm, Halberd, Two-Handed Sword, Lance, Pike, Short Bow, Long Bow, Composite Bow, Light Crossbow, and Heavy Crossbow.

Additional Weapons in Greyhawk (3):

Hammer, Military Pick and Arquebus.

Weapons in 1st edition, Tunnels & Trolls (83):

Claymore, Flamberge (greatsword), Yataghan, Bastard Sword (hand & a half), Broadword, Talibong, Falchion, Shamsheer, Tulwar, Cinqueda, Cutlass, Damascus Sword, Epee, Gladius, Kris, Rapier, Saber, Scimitar, Shotel and Terbutje.

Pole Weapons
Billhook, Catchpole, Halbard, Harpin, Partizan, Poleaxe, Ranseur, Scythe, Voulge and Guisarme.

Hafted Weapons
Bec-de-corbin, Great Axe, War Hammer, Heavy Mace, Morningstar, Bullova, Heavy Flail, Light Flail, Broad Axe, Taper Axe, Mitre, Francisca, Pickaxe, Piton Hammer and Crowbar.

Bich'hwa, Bodkin, Misericorde, Dirk, Jambiya, Katar, Poniard, Sax, Main gauche, Stilletto and Swordbreaker.

Pike, Spontoon, Phalanx Spear, Pilum, Oxtongue (Hasta), Assegai, Spear and Javelin.

Arbalest, Cranequin, Light Crossbow, Dokyu, Prodd, Composite Bow, Longbow and Self Bow (small).

Other Missile Weapons
Staff Sling, Common Sling and Chakram.

Weird Weapons
Ankus, Bakh Nakh, Bola, Quarterstaff, Spearthrower, All-atl, Blowgun and War Fan.

For good measure, directly below Weird Weapons, there was also a short list of poisons to put on your weapons:

Dragon Venom
Hellfire Juice

By the way, the list of 83 weapons listed in 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls was actually 33% longer than the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook formal list. That one had only 59 weapons. I won't name them.

But here's another funny thing, and I hope the original author of Tunnels & Trolls, Ken St. Andre, gets a laugh out of this. In an earlier review, I mentioned that the list of spells in 1st edition T&T contained almost exactly the same number of spells as the list in OD&D's Men & Magic (69 vs. 70). Above, I said that AD&D listed 59 weapons, But the weapons list in the AD&D Player's Handbook also has additional pole arms and other weapons subsumed in the formal offerings. For example, the Ranseur "includes Chauves Souris, Ransom, Rhanca, Roncie, Runka." And the Scimitar "includes Cutlass, Sabre, Sickle-sword, Tulwar, etc." (I love that "etc.") If you add those 19 additional weapons in, and give an extra 5 points to the "etc." and the unnamed weapons alluded to after Short Sword - "includes all pointed & thrusting weapons with blade length between 15" and 24" - than the T&T versus AD&D weapons tallies come out exactly even at 83 apiece.

But, this time, Tunnels & Trolls got there first.

The T&T weapons list is yet another case where Tunnels & Trolls was actually more detailed than Dungeons & Dragons, even in its later editions.

I hope I've upset the assumptions of the, so to speak, role-playing game evolutionists, who imagine that weapon lists got longer and more detailed as the hobby progressed. Not so. They were right there from the very beginning (or almost the beginning) in the 1975 edition of Tunnels & Trolls.

It's also very important to note that St. Andre included detailed statistics for all the weapons - their dice and "adds", weight, cost, minimum dexterity needed to wield, minimum strength needed to wield and dexterity loss imposed when used with a second weapon, along with various special notes - from the utilitarian (a Main Gauche will absorb 1 hit for you if used with a sword in the other hand) to the whimsical (an Ankus may be used to control elephants).

These weapons varied in their effects, by definition much more than the weapons of OD&D's Men & Magic (where all weapons did 1 die of damage), but also varied more than the souped up variants offered in Greyhawk. Against man-sized opponents, a Greyhawk Two-Handed Sword only did slightly more than double the average damage of a Dagger (1-10 hits vs. 1-4 hits) but in Tunnels & Trolls, a Greatsword did triple or more the average damage of a typical dagger. To look at it from the two extremes, in 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls, you're much better off being stabbed by a Bodkin (1 die minus 2 hits) than impaled by a quarrel from an Arbalest (7 dice of hits).

Lots of weapons: Bad or Good?

Why have so many weapons?

Well, why not have so many weapons?

In various articles and interviews, St. Andre has said that in designing Tunnels & Trolls, he first went to the library (I assume that was not difficult - he was a librarian) and sat down with a stack of books on monsters and weapons. I can't know what he was thinking, but I imagine it was something like: D&D is a bit too boring and generic in the weapons department. This is swords and sorcery. You want swords? Okay have 20 of them (and 10 pole arms, 9 daggers, etc.). D&D had generic sounding names for mostly medieval, renaissance or even post-renaissance European weapons. T&T spiced up that list with further European examples, but also added ancient Greek and Roman, Persian, Arab, Indian, Japanese and even Central American weapons.

If D&D had a diverse monster list from many myths and traditions, why shouldn't T&T have a diverse weapons list from many different cultures?

As a small-time game designer, I've done much more thinking about weapons than is healthy. Or, rather, I've done much more thinking about weapon lists than is healthy. I don't think their purpose is to influence the game system one way or another (although once one has a particular list, their effect - their relative strengths and costs, etc., - will and should come into play). Nor, once one goes beyond a certain point, is player choice really the issue. Rather, the list itself sets a certain tone for your game. It's part - I think an important part - of the game's aesthetic. For example, including firearms, even primitive firearms on a list, whether the players will ever be able to locate them or afford them or not, says something about the aesthetic you're trying to create.

If I may say so, I think St. Andre's multiplicity of death dealing items was not inappropriate for the freewheeling and open-ended vibe he was trying to create. It was culturally neutral, not in the sense of D&D's neutral sounding names, but in the even-handed manner in which so many cultures were represented.

For my own game, Seven Voyages of Zylarthen, I almost included some of the middle-eastern weapons of T&T, or, rather, almost replaced some of the standard weapons with their more "exotic" counterparts. In the end, I didn't, preferring not to "prejudice" the tone too much. Or, I should say, preferring to let the slightly middle-eastern flavor come out in other ways. But it was a close thing.

When I first saw the T&T list, I felt that the author should have left some of the additional European pole arms and such, off. Quite honestly, I just don't like pole arms, especially all the renaissance and reformation quasi-ceremonial ones. One or maybe two are enough for me. Gary Gygax and I would have been enemies on that one. But then - on the question of the T&T list - I thought I was probably being too much of a Europhobic prude. It's T&T, after all, not Zylarthen, Al-Qadim or Bushido.

I'm sure St. Andre would say, if you don't like the Voulge, you don't have to use the Voulge.

A few final points. Most weapons in 1st edition T&T had strength minimums. So, one of the advantages of adding to one's strength score, as the reward of gaining experience, was to be able to finally use that Claymore (minimum strength: 15) or, Eureka!, that Great Axe (minimum strength: 21). A warrior with only a somewhat above average strength would have to advance two or three levels at a minimum to be able to heft those monstrosities. That mechanic is nice, and I think (if I recall correctly) it would be imitated by The Fantasy Trip and numerous other related systems that would shortly follow.

Finally, as far as I can tell, the original weapons list of T&T would remain substantially unchanged through its later editions. The only major change was the addition of a glossary in the 5th edition. I'm sure many people think glossaries are wonderful.

I don't. Why must everything be explained? Or, to put it another way, why must the author do all the work? Or to put it another way, why must the reader always be treated like a child who must not only have everything explained to them, but must also have pictures?

I didn't know what a Bich'hwa was until I looked it up a few days ago. It was fun looking it up. And yes, it would even have been fun, forty years ago, when I would have used a book. It also might have been fun not knowing. You know, like that ear spoon.

I'll let St. Andre have (almost) the last word on this (1st edition Tunnels & Trolls, p. 32):
Originally, we meant to give you a glossary along with this chart, but we have decided to let you do the work for yourself in order to save space. If you see an unfamiliar name just look it up.
You (the reader) are not a child. Someday, you might even be able to lift a Great Axe.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Game Review (Part 9): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: Combat

Shock combat (Rob Carver, 1st edition, p. 38)

I took a break for a few days. Apologies if you were taken aback because you thought the series had abruptly ended. Or, apologies if you were glad that it had ended. :)

19. Combat

As I argued in past review posts, much of 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls is very similar to OD&D. But there are also major differences. Some of those differences - spell points, for example - would be imitated or appropriated by other systems. But a few of them would remain relatively or almost entirely unique. The combat system is one of those.

Let's go back a step and review the OD&D combat system. Not surprisingly, it owed much to wargames and miniatures gaming. The basic idea is this: You have two opposing fronts of units or soldiers. Let's say there's the group consisting of units, A, B, C, D and E, and the group consisting of units, X, Y and Z. The first player allocates his attacks - A and B attack X; C attacks Y; and D and E attack Z. You resolve those attacks. Then the second player allocates his attacks - X attacks A, B and C; Y attacks D; and Z attacks E. You then resolve those.

Of course, all sorts of variations on the above are possible, and there's lots of detail to fill in, such as how one resolves the attacks, the order in which things occur, and so on. But the basic idea is ubiquitous in gaming. It was used in OD&D and all later editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and as far as I know, it's been used in most published fantasy role-playing games - at least those that have any sort of combat mechanic to speak of.

But not Tunnels & Trolls.

Rather, in its most basic form, melee combat in T&T is collective. Here's how it works: A, B, C, D and E sum up their attack power to get a resulting determinant. For monsters, this is the sum of the number of dice that each of them get to roll (based on their monster rating), plus, say, half the sum of the monster ratings themselves. Then, X, Y and Z sum up their attack power to get a resulting determinant. For player-characters this is the sum of all of the dice attached to each weapon used in the melee - a dagger might have 1 die, a great axe might have 4 dice, and so on - plus the sum of all the "adds" granted to the characters in virtue of possibly having attribute scores - in strength, luck and dexterity - that are higher than average. Each side then rolls dice and combines the result with their adds to get one number. The numbers of both sides are compared, and the side with the lowest roll then takes damage equivalent to the difference between the two rolls. Damage is then divided up evenly between participants, with odd numbers getting assigned in different ways, depending on whether the victims are monsters or player-characters. For monsters, damage is subtracted from their monster ratings. For player-characters, damage is subtracted from their constitution scores - although, crucially, armor might block some or all of it.

No other game system that I know of, in the over forty years since Tunnels & Trolls was published, even roughly duplicates this mechanic. That's quite incredible if you think about it.

(Obviously, I am familiar with the mechanics of only a small fraction of the literally thousands of role-playing games that have been published. And, of course, I am excluding those games linked to T&T - such as Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes.)

So, in its most pure iteration, there is just one big collective fight. And only the losers potentially take damage, at least in that particular round (or "conflict turn," as it's called in the rules).

That's the basic idea, but there are all sorts of extras. Spells might come into play on top of it all, and their effects might be individual or collective, depending on the nature of the spell. Missile fire might also occur, which would also be individual, although, as with OD&D, it is probable that much or all of it would have already occurred before melee. Perhaps most importantly, some combat isn't entirely collective, but might occur in smaller independent chunks, depending on positioning and so on. In the 1st edition, Ken St. Andre described "shock combat" involving only part of a group, such as when the lead element of a party first reached a monster - or where a monster, perhaps by surprise, first reached, say, the rear element of the party.

Before analyzing the mechanic in general, let me touch on a few additional parts. I said, above, that damage to player-characters might be "blocked" by armor. In the 1st edition, some of this blocking was ablative. So, for example, a suit of plate could take 10 hits of ablative damage. That's not 10 hits per conflict turn but ten hits total! You would keep a record of how many points the armor still had, and once it was down to 0, it would become useless or fall off or whatever. When you took damage, you could decide to take it from your constitution or your armor.

This leads to a funny paradox. Since constitution losses are not permanent - you will regain them later (unless, of course, you die in the interim) - and untouched or damaged armor will always be there to block all damage until, well, it can't, then it would seem better to first or even always take losses directly to constitution, as opposed to armor, at least until your constitution score gets close to 0. This way, if you come out of the dungeon alive, at least you would have a chance of coming out with some of your armor intact.

Curiously, shields were not ablative. While blocking fewer hits - only 1 to 4 depending on the kind of shield - they would continue to potentially absorb the same number of hits each conflict turn without losing anything.

I should note that the ablative nature of armor would be changed to a "straight" blocking or absorption effect by the time of the publication of the 4th edition in 1977. Many Tunnels & Trolls players are unaware it ever existed.

What to say about it?

Certainly, from a D&D player's perspective, the T&T combat mechanic is more than just interesting or different. It's positively alien.

One knee-jerk criticism of the mechanic is that it's not "realistic." Now, I happen to think that criticism is totally off-base. It's true that the T&T mechanic is not as fine-grained as that of OD&D. But many (including me) prefer OD&D to other more complex systems, in large part because OD&D itself is not as fine-grained and fussy as those systems. So, it isn't clear that sliding down one more notch on the grain scale, so to speak, is necessarily a bad thing. One could even argue that the T&T mechanic is more realistic, in that it better tracks the messy and largely collective nature of a mass melee in a dimly lit dungeon. Everyone is just fighting everyone else in a fast-moving and ever-changing swirl, rather than, say, forming evenly spread conga lines and then sequentially trading blows.

Of course, a good referee and imaginative players can to a large extent surmount the conga line problem. But I think the formal mechanic still matters in influencing the players' conception of what is happening. And so it's not implausible that the T&T mechanic might track the "reality" on the ground better. T&T partisans have also claimed that the nature of the mechanic almost forces referees and players to narrate their actions in a dramatic way - "I climb onto the back of the spider and sink my spear into one of its eyes." Of course, you can (and should!) do this in OD&D as well, but it's possible that it's harder when looking down at the conga line - your metal or plastic figure isn't climbing anything, after all, he's just standing there.

I think a more appropriate question to ask is whether the 1st edition T&T mechanic structures combats in interesting and constructive ways. For example, in a particular battle, Is there a good amount of suspense as to who might win and who might lose? Are there interesting choices for the players to make in combat (over and above interesting ways for players to narrate their choices)? And so on.

After writing nine review posts and doing a fair amount of thinking about the issue, I have to confess that I'm still pretty much at sea on the matter. I think that these questions simply cannot be answered without actually playing the game. (I tried setting up a super complicated Excel spreadsheet to simulate random combats, but gave up pretty quickly). I can report that many players swear by the T&T mechanic - it's simpler and more exciting (it is claimed) without sacrificing meaningful player choice or suspense as to outcomes.

But it's also been said that the mechanic is too rigid - it's difficult for an inferior foe to pull off a win - or at least too tippy - once you start losing rolls, your ultimate loss almost becomes inevitable. Of course, those complaints are in some ways almost contradictory, and for better or worse, one might also apply them to OD&D.

A large part of the problem, if it is a problem, is the perhaps counter-intuitive statistical phenomenon that when you roll a large number of dice, the variance in results, expressed as a standard deviation, actually decreases. This implies that the more powerful side will have only a small chance of rolling a lower total then the least powerful side, and if it does, it won't take much damage. At the same time, evenly matched sides may spend many turns in a state of quasi-stalemate, where the "wins" inflict minimal damage (or no damage, if there is armor), until one of the sides succeeds in tipping things just enough to, so to speak, start an avalanche effect

I see two possible responses to this. The first is to, in effect, say, so what? Battles have to be won or lost by someone, and superior foes usually beat inferior ones (would it be better if the inferior foes usually won?). And, of course, stalemates are certainly also a feature of OD&D. They're not always bad (perhaps they sometimes act to heighten the suspense), at least when enjoyed in moderation.

The second response is to invoke various referee techniques or house-rule type measures that might have the effect of poking or spicing up the seeming iron discipline of the dice bell curve. T&T players have come up with all sorts of ideas along this line, many of which made it into later editions of the rules. And, undoubtedly, many of the referees and players in St. Andre's original extended Phoenix T&T groups were up to all sorts of things. It's not a criticism to idly wish that more such recommendations or options had been included in these original rules, even though the format of the document - a brief 43 page booklet - probably precluded it.

Is the original T&T combat mechanic simpler than that of OD&D? It would initially appear so. Among other things, using the mechanic would seem to be less time consuming. On the other hand, some have argued that by the time you have added up the totals on the different dice, and performed the mathematical calculations of dividing up damage and subtracting armor protection, and so on, that it's not really any less time consuming than quickly resolving combat under a sequential mechanic. I can't really adjudicate these competing claims one way or another. What I can know with virtual certainty is that it's much simpler than combat in many other games, including all later editions of Dungeons & Dragons. But, of course, that does not speak to the question of how it compares to OD&D.

Some have argued that it's unrealistic or unsatisfying that only one side takes damage in a conflict turn. Later editions of Tunnels & Trolls would try different remedies for this, including "spite damage" - all rolls of, say, sixes, inflict damage on the other side, regardless of who the winner is. Personally, I don't see it as a very big issue. In OD&D (and T&T), damage is largely abstract anyway - representing being worn down or having your luck gradually run out or whatever - so the fact that one side might completely miss out on "damage" for just one conflict turn isn't a deal breaker to me. It might even make slightly more sense.

I want to take a moment to talk about ablative armor. I like the idea. For my own published game, I included rules on weapon and armor breakage, in part because I think it's truer to the actual experience of quasi-medieval combat. St. Andre, who was once a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, has said much the same thing. In addition,  having things wear down or break also creates interesting strategic choices. Do you take extra weapons with you, perhaps extra shields? (The Vikings usually did, by the way.) But, while my own attempt added fussiness, St. Andre's was built right in to the mechanic. The author has also suggested that he included ablative armor because it gave warriors something else to spend their money on (for their part, magic-users had spells that they had to purchase). I like that idea.

But the problem is, ablative armor just seems too severe in 1st edition. Either your armor takes no damage, or it's just gone, or at least gone soon enough. And if it's gone, then you are probably gone. I assume this is largely why the armor rules were amended in later editions.

(St. Andre also notes that ablative armor, as presented in 1st edition, involved a bit of potentially annoying extra bookkeeping. You had to keep track of hits on your constitution and keep track of hits on your armor.)

On the other hand, to me, at least, taking away the ablative effect completely, seems to make armor almost too powerful. For example, in later editions of Tunnels & Trolls, plate armor absorbs 14 hits - that's 16 hits with even a modest shield. Put 5 such armored knights together and they would have to lose a battle by more than 80 points to suffer any damage at all (you'd need more damage than 5 x 16). Fair enough, one might say. Armored knights are tough. But if those armored knights are challenged by a foe capable of inflicting more than 80 hits, then suddenly a different problem is created. Presumably if a foe is powerful enough to inflict more than 80 hits, it would be quite capable of inflicting much more. But if it were to inflict, say, 150 hits, most if not all of the knights would be instantly killed. 150 - 80 = 70. 70 / 5 = 14. 14 is 3.5 points higher than the average starting constitution score. It would take two level gains to top that, and low-level warriors have other things to add to besides their constitution. And this of course leaves out what might happen to less well-armored characters who find themselves involved in such a fight. Increasing the level of the hypothetical characters doesn't really solve the problem, as the monsters would also be increasing in power and need even higher rolls to do any damage - higher rolls that have the potential to kill if they, so to speak, overshoot.

T&T players have proposed various solutions for these sorts of issues or problems, and, again, the recent addition of spite damage might be one of them - spite damage automatically gets through armor.

But I'm digressing. To return to ablative armor, it's one of the things that upsets the assumptions created by D&D - in a good way. I would love to find a way to make ablative armor work. I'm just not sure how. One possibility might to make armor ablative per encounter, but that might be too fiddly.

Let me also briefly address missile combat. In 1st edition T&T, it's completely abstract. There are no ranges, no bonuses or penalties for the size of the target, etc. Whether you hit or not is based simply on your luck and dexterity combined perhaps with another roll on the monster's part. That's fine with me. Later editions would graft a more conventional missile fire mechanic onto things. Coming at this as an "outsider" and someone who has a natural bias in favor of early editions of things, I'm not sure that was necessary. I think there's an aesthetic value in preserving a bit of consistency in terms of the abstraction level. But, as far as I can tell, the question has long been settled in the T&T community.

To summarize, and to come back to the document itself, I find the combat mechanic fascinating. It's very different from OD&D without obviously suffering in the comparison. And part of what is presented in 1st edition - ablative armor, missile combat - is also quite different from what would be presented in the subsequent editions of Tunnels & Trolls that would follow quick on the heals of the original edition.

It's exciting to encounter as an eminently playable system - even if most Tunnels & Trolls players now use something slightly different - but it's also valuable as a window into the design thinking that was occurring right at the dawn of the hobby.  

I should say that there are a few annoyances in the presentation of the combat mechanic. Some things that would seem to be quite important are left out (movement speed and surprise). Some things are confusingly presented or ambiguous (missile fire). And I could have used a bit more explanation or examples - how should shock combat be handled, exactly, and how precisely would a good tunnel master "break up" mass combats into separate units?

But it's hard to fault a 43 page booklet for not including everything. And, of course, relative to the notoriously abstruse and incomplete effort in OD&D's Men & Magic, the combat portion of 1st editionTunnels & Trolls reads like an air-tight lawyer's document.

Next: Weapons

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Game Review (Part 8): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: Monsters!

Liz Danforth illustration from the Tunnels & Trolls spinoff Monsters! Monsters! (1976)

18. Monsters!

In 1st edition, Tunnels & Trolls, Ken St. Andre quickly sets the tone by putting forth some of his ideas for monsters:
A dungeon without monsters would be dull stuff. What lurks and slithers in your imagination? I don't know, but in mine there are fire-breathing dragons, crocodiles, unicorns, snarks and boojums, black hobbits, giant spiders, cave lions, pythons, centaurs, toothy nonflammable dragons, werewolves, balrogs, basilisks, ghosts, jub jub birds, slithy toves, cave bears, sphinx, enchanted warriors, reptile men, flame fiends, harpies, Orcs, mushroom monsters, cockatrices, giant slugs, banshees, mummies, barrow-wights, goblins, ogres, living statues, trolls, shoggoths, wraiths, demons, leopards, octopi (giant economy size), vampires, gnoles, minotaurs, slime-mutants, drooling maniacs, two-headed giants, half-orcs, hydrae, living skeletons, bandersnatchi, jabberwocks, pithecanthropi, ghouls, mad dogs, poisonous vipers, blood bats, night gaunts, lamias, cannibals, witches, warlocks, rabid rats (ulsios), three-headed giants, chimaerae, wyverns, hags, giant slimy worms, yeti, tigers, gorgons, zombies, bigfoots, griffins, invisible stalkers, were-creatures of all varieties, misanthropes and misogynists, manticores, and lots more.
I think it was that paragraph that first hooked me onto this game.

St. Andre's informal list might seem "gonzo," with the author adding creatures from Lewis Carroll and H.P. Lovecraft, among other things, to some of Gygax's offerings in Monsters & Treasure. But, in truth, it was no more gonzo than what was found in the original 3LLBs.

The original monsters of Dungeons & Dragons came from a diversity of different sources. Even though the game seemed to have a "fantastic medieval" tone (it said so on the cover), it was much more than that. As I wrote a few years ago, "OD&D isn't Chainmail set in Middle-Earth, it's Narnia plus dinosaurs and robots." But the publication of the Monster Manual, in 1977, effectively created a new fantasy canon that would make people forget the games's more freewheeling roots. And some of the more interesting monsters of OD&D - the Martians, robots, amazons, vikings and so on - would quickly fall out of later editions of the game, as the universe of Dungeon's & Dragons was made to more and more conform to what has been called "Gygaxian naturalism." Robots were too science-fiction. Amazons were too historical, and so on.

Narnia plus dinosaurs and robots became a renaissance faire run by the Disney company. It was a great loss.

This never really happened with Tunnels & Trolls.

Now, those familiar with Dungeon's & Dragons, or for that matter, pretty much any other fantasy role-playing game, would read that early paragraph of monsters in Tunnels & Trolls with anticipation, looking forward to the obligatory section that contained descriptions and statistics for all of these excellent critters.

Surprise! 1st edition, Tunnels & Trolls contains no such list.

When I first read the 1st edition rules, as a newcomer to Tunnels & Trolls, I assumed that the lack of monster descriptions was simply a consequence of the document's short length of 43 pages. Surely the later and longer versions of Tunnels & Trolls would contain the equivalent of a Monster Manual, even if simpler or more brief.

Actually, they don't, or at least, don't quiteThe 7th edition of Tunnels & Trolls features a section on monsters largely sourced from fans.  The recent Deluxe edition, clocking in at 386 double columned pages, has a section that includes descriptions, and in some cases, spells, for the various "monster kindreds" that inhabit "Trollworld," but no monster ratings or other statistics.

The point of not having a set of monster statistics and descriptions was to encourage a flexible and completely open-ended approach to monsters. Here is one of the most obvious ways that T&T radically departed from D&D. But for whatever reason, this innovation never really caught on in the genre. Virtually all fantasy adventure games over a certain length would come to contain a monster catalog (an exception might be the modern "neo-clone" Lamentations of the Flame Princess). It became one of the defining features of such games.

Not only did T&T not offer descriptions and statistics for monsters, but it implied that even within a particular campaign universe, monsters were not necessarily expected to have consistent or fixed power levels. The strength of, say, a ghoul or giant or blood bat might vary, depending on what level of the dungeon they inhabited. This would be explicitly acknowledged in later editions.

So was the tunnel master expected to dream up and assign the expected myriad list of statistics - hit points, number of attacks, armor, speed, magic resistance, special abilities and so on - for each monster (as he might be in, say Lamentations of the Flame Princess)?

No. In 1st edition (and all later editions) of Tunnels & Trolls, monsters wouldn't necessarily come with a list of statistics. Rather, they could theoretically be represented by only one number - the Monster Rating.
Very puny monsters, like rats or dogs who usually attack in packs, have ratings below 30. Very powerful monsters might have individual ratings up in the hundreds. Examples: Balrog Maximus Meany who lives on the fourth level has a rating of 250; Fafnirr the flame-breathing dragon of the fifth level has a rating of 500. Invisible monsters are twice as tough as a visible monster of the same variety would be.

Here was another radical departure and innovation.

I have repeatedly said that I didn't think that original Tunnels & Trolls was necessarily simpler than OD&D, but here is one area where it was clearly simpler.

One number.

The tunnel master could add more detail if he wanted. It was certainly permitted, if not encouraged, to add a few special abilities for some monsters - magic use or poison or what have you. (Note, however, that in the above example, an important special ability - invisibility - is simply baked into the monster rating.) Or, it was suggested a few pages later, the tunnel master could add a bit more complexity to monsters, or at least man-type monsters, by mapping a set of the six prime attribute scores on to them.

What are we to make of this?

One sort of knee-jerk criticism of the monster rating approach is that it's not "realistic." That's silly. Giving a monster one abstract rating is no less and no more realistic than giving it ten abstract ratings, or a hundred. What the critic could more profitably have said is that it's not fine-grained enough.

I think St. Andre's insight was that you don't need to make things that fine-grained, at least on the tunnel master's side.

I would explain it this way: You can give a monster one abstract statistic, or five or even ten, but from the player's or player-character's point of view, it doesn't obviously matter. The player doesn't know what the statistics actually are (unless he has previously peeked at the rulebook), and the player-character can't see abstract statistics (because they're abstract). What the player does see is that that giant lizard is a tough critter who keeps taking savage bites out of his party. The player character might only see red.

Turning back to OD&D, the monsters of Monsters & Treasure would only have a few important statistics - hit dice, armor class and, perhaps, movement rate. (Most monsters would originally have only one attack and do the same one-die of damage.) But the trend in later editions would be to add more variables - multiple attack routines inflicting varying amounts of damage, being the most prominent example. It has always been my view that that was a mistake. Just because a cave bear is biting as well as attacking with both its claws doesn't mean you must represent those attacks separately. Since combat is abstract anyway, you can just as well represent those multiple attacks with one die roll. Getting too fine-grained simply slows things down, without adding anything appreciable to the experience of play.

If you buy that argument (and, obviously, many don't), then it's not too much of a stretch to at least understand how reducing things, say, from three variables to one might still work.

It's difficult to fully see how this cashes out without understanding the Tunnels & Trolls combat system. I'll talk about that, tomorrow. For now, though, let me suggest that if you accept that the monster rating idea might work, it has at least two obvious benefits. Firstly, It greatly speeds up combat. Whether it speeds it up too much, eliminating some of the detail that some players seem to like or expect, is a separate question. But secondly, it makes creating or stocking a dungeon much easier and quicker. A good tunnel master could almost do it on the fly.

Sometimes a simple rule or mechanic contains within it, far more potential richness in play than its more fussy and complex alternatives.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Game Review (Part 7): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: Classes, Experience and Levels

Warrior with armor and sword, Magic-User with rose (Liz Danforth illustration from the 4th edition)

Yesterday, I looked at the 1st edition, Tunnels & Trolls rogue. Today I'll discuss the other classes, as well as the experience point and level system.

As in Dungeons & Dragons, in Tunnels & Trolls, once you have rolled up your six primary attributes, you select a character class. In the 1st edition of T&T, Ken St. Andre suggests that, considering the three primary attributes - strength, intelligence and luck - if strength is highest, you should choose warrior, if intelligence is highest, you should choose magic-user, and if luck is highest, you should choose rogue. But given that all three classes make use of all three attributes to some degree, and given that attributes can increase, those recommendations are only a guide.

13. Warriors

The primary advantages that warriors have (at least over magic-users) is that they can use more powerful weapons (magic-users are restricted to one-die weapons) and they get to add bonuses to their combat rolls if they have above average totals in strength, luck or dexterity.

When a warrior gains a level, he may increase his combat adds (by increasing strength, luck or dexterity) or his hit points (by increasing his constitution). In addition, an increased strength attribute may allow him to wield a heavier and thus more powerful weapon. For example, no 1st level warrior can use a great axe - one of the most effective weapons in the game. But a warrior with a starting strength of 16, 17 or 18 just might be able to wield one at 3rd level.

One implicit difference between OD&D and 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls is the importance placed on magic weapons. In the 3 LLBs, while only fighting-men can wield swords (magic users are restricted to daggers, and clerics to blunt weapons), there isn't technically any difference in the damage or hit probabilities of non-magical swords vs. any other weapon. All non-magical weapons do one die of damage. But fighting-men are the only ones who can wield magic swords. Indeed, a mid- to high-level fighting-man is almost expected to have such a sword (or two or three). Tunnels & Trolls has no list of magic weapons, and, even the existence of magic swords is barely mentioned. That doesn't mean, of course, that the troll master cannot seed his tunnel complex with such items if he so desires, but he is not explicitly encouraged to do so by the rules. One is left with the impression that the power of a fighter in Tunnels & Trolls is based much more on his own abilities than on what magic weapons he may acquire.

14. Magic-Users

Magic-Users may cast spells (obviously), which will require steadily higher intelligence and dexterity scores at each level. In addition, strength is also important, as most spells come with a strength "cost." And money also comes into play, as after 1st level, all spells must be purchased from the wizard's guild.

Magic staffs (apparently always available for a price) come in three versions, from "Deluxe" to a temporarily enchanted stick. These will to some degree ameliorate the strength costs of certain spells.

In 1st edition T&T, spells are more briefly described than even the fairly minimalist treatments they get in the 3 LLBs. This might seem to potentially lead to confusion or even "broken" results in some cases. But as with the 3 LLBs, the application of common sense rulings is implied and expected.

From a OD&D perspective, one natural question to ask is whether or not T&T magic-users can wear armor. The answer would appear to be yes.

What to say about this (especially if one thinks it is heresy)? I think there are three possible answers:

1. It's T&T, not D&D. Get over it.

2. While the rules do not explicitly say this, the carry allowances for different levels of strength might discourage magic-users from wearing armor, or at least, too much armor. After casting a particularly fatiguing spell, one wouldn't want to find one's self collapsing under the weight of one's own suit of plate.

3. If he felt strongly enough about it, the tunnel master could simply ban armor for magic-users (and perhaps do something similar for rogues).

Did early T&T players look at the armor issue as a feature to be embraced or a bug to be house-ruled away? I honestly have no idea.

15. Demi-humans

OD&D explicitly allowed players to choose three demi-human classes - dwarves, elves and hobbits. In general, these "race as class" categories had strong at-start advantages. The downside was that their level advancement was capped.

After describing Halflings, Gygax would then write:
There is no reason that players cannot be allowed to play as virtually anything, provided they begin relatively weak and work up to the top, i.e., a player wishing to be a Dragon would have to begin as let us say, a "young" one and progress upwards in the usual manner, steps being predetermined by the campaign referee.
But I think this advice was mostly forgotten.

For his part, St. Andre added leprechauns, fairies and were-creatures into the mix. And he introduced an attribute modification system for those who wanted to play these "bizarre folk." So, for example, T&T suggests that Hobbits should have half-the strength of a man but double the constitution. That some demi-human categories appear to have no downside - dwarves get double strength and constitution without any compensating decreases - or no upside - leprechauns get half strength and constitution without any compensating increases - is a minor annoyance that the referee can easily correct. (Later editions would also correct it.)

16. Experience

In OD&D, experience is gained primarily by finding treasure, but also for defeating monsters. 1st edition T&T uses these, but also includes four additional ways to gain experience points:

1. Daring: Upon returning the surface, characters get points based on the deepest dungeon level that they penetrated (or perhaps dipped a toe into).

2. Using Magic: Magic Users and rogues get experience points for casting spells that require a strength expenditure (pretty much all of them).

3. Magic Items: Characters receive experience points for bringing magic items to the surface. Of course, Dungeons Dragons would add this in later editions.

4. Saving Rolls: A successful saving roll confers experience based on the level of the dungeon it was made in.

These are all useful ideas - I particularly like Daring. Whether the list is an improvement or not depends on how one feels about adding a bit more complexity to the process of gaining experience. This is another example of where 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls was emphatically not simpler than OD&D. Whether this makes it richer or just more annoyingly fussy is a question of personal taste.

Interestingly, gaining experience for finding treasure would be eliminated a few years later in the 5th edition of T&T. Now, for fantasy adventure games, I've always strongly preferred an experience system primarily based on treasure. Among other things, it gives one a clear and obvious incentive for finding it (and an incentive to not necessarily always fight). One could argue, however, that because T&T had other uses for money - the most obvious one being the requirement that spells had to be purchased - assigning experience points to its acquisition was somewhat superfluous. But I'm not sure how this argument applies to warriors. After all, great axes are not very expensive.

17. Levels

Like OD&D, characters in T&T become more powerful by gaining levels - made possible by accumulating experience points. Players of 5th edition Tunnels & Trolls may be surprised to discover that the 1st edition had a robust list of level titles. Warriors went from recruit, warrior and veteran (levels 1, 2 and 3) to marquis, duke and count (levels 9, 10 and 11) all the way up to monarch, superhero and emperor (levels 15, 16 and 17). Arguably, a few of these titles didn't really make sense. St. Andre acknowledged this in the 4th edition, removing or changing the titles linked to economic class. And all level titles would vanish in the 5th edition. Whether this was due to copyright worries or other reasons is unknown.

Personally, I love level titles. My own view is that even an imperfect level title list is better than none. OD&D had its share of odd or silly titles (Vicar, anyone?). But all of them would be prudishly eliminated in later editions of D&D. For both T&T and D&D, the elimination of level titles was a loss.

In Tunnels & Trolls, while levels themselves have some mechanical effects - a magic-user at 5th level and above can "make up spells" but only if they are lower than his current level - they do not themselves increase one's general power, especially one's combat power, in the same hugely important way as they do in OD&D. Perhaps the most important effect of gaining a level in T&T is that it gives you the option of increasing the value of one of your attributes: You can increase an attribute by anything from half the value of the new level attained to double the value of the new level attained. So, for example, a character going from 5th to 6th level could, among other things, increase his intelligence level by 3, increase his strength by 6 or (hold onto your hats) increase his luck by 12.

It cannot be more strongly stated that this is a very different mechanic than that of OD&D. Whether you like it or not is, I suppose, in some sense subjective. But one of its obvious strong points is that it adds an interesting amount of strategic choice to the process of gaining a level. For example, Magic-users must constantly balance their need for more intelligence, dexterity and strength. And of course, everyone can also always use more luck and constitution.

Someday, Rufus may even acquire more charisma . . .