Saturday, April 29, 2017

1e Tunnels & Trolls, Part 12: Where Did All the Magic Items Go?

Naked Doom (painting by James Talbot)

22. Where Did All the Magic Items Go?

1st edition Tunnels & Trolls has no magic items list.

Indeed, there is no section, paragraph or sentence in the entire document specifically devoted to discussing or explaining magic items.

However, it is clear from a close reading of the original text, that a Tunnels & Trolls fantasy world is expected to be one where magic items exist, if not in abundance, then at least with some semi-regularity. Magic items are mentioned. But there is no explicit guidance presented anywhere in the rules as to, say, what a "magic item" actually is or what sorts of properties such a thing might have.

Reference to magical items comes only in the form of asides:
Under most circumstances warriors may not cast magic spells, although they can use enchanted objects to their benefit [p. 7].
It was Greg Brown who first suggested that [wandering monsters] might carry treasure on them, and made a chart to determine the fact. Roll 1 die. If you get a 1 or a 2, the monster has treasure. If it has treasure roll 1 die again. A 1 or 2 yields copper; a 3 yields silver; a four yields gold; a 5 yields jewels; a 6 yields a magical item. It is up to the D.M to quickly determine how many coins, jewels, or what kind of magic the creature has [p. 10].
Magical items found or acquired in the dungeon will also be worth e.p. [experience points] to the characters that acquire them if they can bring said item safely to the surface. The D.M. will determine the value of such objects individually. (Try to make them worthwhile, D.M.s or everyone will steer clear of all your magic) [p. 14].
Near the entrance to very tunnel complex are great super-markets for dungeon-delvers. In these general stores, the arrant adventurer with enough cash can buy practically anything he wants to take down with him, although such stores are usually quite short of magical items with the exception of staffs for magic-users [p. 17].
The world of 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls does not appear to be a "low magic" world. Two out of the three player classes may cast spells, and there is a powerful and ever present Wizards Guild (or perhaps a set of them) that trains new magic-users, attempts to regulate the use of magic and does a brisk business in selling magic staffs and spells. Also, according to the rules, more than 5% of all wandering monsters carry magic items around with them (which is arguably much more than you ever got from wandering monsters in OD&D). So, one assumes that the intention, if there was an intention, behind not talking about magical items was not to de-emphasize them.

Instead, one might initially postulate that the idea was to leave out an explicit list on the grounds that it would be a constraint on imagination. Fair enough. But in honesty, there's nothing in the text to spark the reader's imagination (on magic items), either. This is in contrast to the treatment of monsters in 1st edition T&T. Recall that fabulous monster paragraph I referenced in a previous review, where 77 diverse and fantastic entities are named - from "fire-breathing dragons" to "jub jub birds" to "drooling maniacs" to "mantichores, and lots more."

Contrast the absence of magic items in 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls with their prominent place in Dungeons & Dragons, where a fairly long and detailed list of magic items - everything from talking swords to cursed scrolls to enchanted elven boots - was one of the central features of the game from the very beginning. This list would expand as the number of supplements and the length of editions expanded.

For OD&D, in addition, the importance of magic items was arguably built into its class and experience mechanic. For example, the power of a high-level fighting-man would usually be partly based on the fact that he was almost expected to possess and wield, say, a +3 sword and wear +4 plate armor. In turn, the value and survivability of a low-level magic-user was enhanced by his unique ability to use scrolls. And so on.

Was the assumed presence of magic items also built in to the rules of 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls - perhaps as an expected feature or enhancement to level progression, for example? It isn't clear. The rules do not say, nor even hint, at least in that original edition.

Now, at first I assumed the relative silence on magic items was simply an oversight of the quasi-draft form 1st edition, and that it would be "rectified" in later editions. Not so. The 4th edition (1977) adds 12 pages of supplementary material, including an "Easy Jewel and Treasure Generator," a "Jewel Generation Table," an explanation by Rufus the Morose on "the effects of having charisma," an "Optional Size and Weight Chart for Men and Monsters," a sort of imported bit from the spinoff game, Monsters! Monsters! (1976) on "Experience Points for Monsters," recommendations on how to assign monster ratings to monsters on different levels of the dungeon, expanded and alternative rules for bows and marksmanship, rules for using two weapons in combat, a lengthier explanation of "The Logic of Magic," an expanded section on poisons, and even a poem (!), but nothing more on magic items.

Or almost nothing. There is now this little extra little aside in the Easy Jewel and Treasure Generator section:
...Doubles, on the other hand, indicate that the treasure is some kind of magical object. (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) [4th edition, p. 6].
So that helps a bit, especially for readers such as myself who often get fixated on "why" sorts of questions. But it still might be asked, especially by a reader new to this sort of thing, what is a "magical object," and what guidance is there for a D.M. to make up his own list?

Now, I don't think a "just use your imagination" sort of retort is sufficient here. It is only because of the example set by Dungeon's & Dragons that we have perhaps come to assume that there is this obvious and almost infinite cornucopia of magical objects that anyone even remotely interested in fantasy would, so to speak, have floating around in his imagination. I'm not sure this is true even now, but it certainly wouldn't have been true in 1975. It just wasn't really in the fantasy or science fiction culture, even for the most well-read fans. To take just a few examples: Robert E. Howard's Conan stories go easy on magic. Jack Vance has the occasional bizarre contrivance that's more often annoying than anything else. There are some obvious magic items in Narnia and Middle-Earth but not as many as one first might assume. And so on.

5th edition T&T (1979), extensively edited and re-written by Liz Danforth, almost doubled the length of the rules again, and incorporated even more supplementary material, including a detailed and illustrated glossary of weapons. But it stays on form by providing no magic items list nor explicit guidance as to what such a list - if created by the D.M. - might look like. However, there are a few more hints:
MAGIC: Characters should have listed here any magical implements they manage to pick up, and what they do. At the start, Fang has none [Creating Characters, 1.3.3].
Also. GMs often let you run across magical treasure which improve (or worsen) your luck, so ratings of 30 or even higher are not unheard of [Saving Rolls, 1.8.1].
The GM may decide to reward you [in adventure points] for figuring out how to play the magic harmonica you just found [Adventure Points, 1.9.2)
Once upon a time experience points were given for treasure and magical items found and carried off, but no longer!...a magical iron ring that bestows on its wearer an additional 10 Luck points is also its own reward, and should not give 'adventure' points as well [Adventure Points, 1.9.2].
Warriors ... recognize the value of magic and magical artifacts and while there may be an undercurrent of mistrust of magicians, warriors will cheerfully utilize any magical artifact that comes to hand [Character Types, 2.11].
[R]oll one die - ...6 = gems or magical item ... Do be very careful with magical items (or delete them entirely) because an orc with an ounce of sense will make use of a really good item against the party - he wouldn't leave a 10-die sword flopping at his bely while he attacked the party with claw and fanfics. Either don't give such items away (from Wandering Monsters, at least) or give the party a taste of a special item before they lay hands on it [Wandering Monsters, 2.42].
It is a good idea [when stocking the dungeon] to put in...more gold than jewels or magical objects [How to be a GM, 2.5.1].
Every other jewel created will have a single magic gift which can be used but once; after it is gone, the jewel is non-magical but still of full value. The magic gift adds to a Prime Attribute. Roll 1 die: 1=ST, 2=IQ, 3=LK, 4=CON, 5=DEX, 6=CHR. Roll 1 die again and add that amount to the attribute indicated [Trollstone Caverns - a sample mini-adventure, 2.7.2].
Once again, there is no general passage or section where it is clearly explained what sort of thing a "magical implement," "magical treasure," "magical item," "magical artifact," "magical object," "magical gift" or whatever else it might be called might be. The attentive reader would perhaps assume, based on the passages, above, that the only major purpose of such items was to raise attribute scores (although, once in a while one might find a really powerful sword or an enchanted wind instrument).

One might even say that opportunities to hint at the wondrousness of magic were basically blown. After all, adding to one's prime attribute scores is almost mundane in T&T, in the sense that it's already built in to the experience mechanic. A warrior advancing from 4th to 5th level could increase his Luck score by 10 on his own. Of course, that's not to say that a player-character wouldn't love to have a device that would do it "for free." But in terms of setting a fantastic tone for the world, it's not anywhere near as evocative as, say, a black sphere of annihilation, or cursed boots that make you dance or even a ring of invisibility (all, obviously, examples from OD&D).

Given that early Tunnels & Trolls is quite evocative in all sorts of other ways, I find its thin and, arguably, boring treatment of magic items to be extremely odd.

Let me add another oddity into the mix. In 1st edition T&T, there are two spells to create magic weapons and armor:
Zappathingum (7th level spell - cost: 24 strength points): "Enchants any weapon permanently to triple its ordinary effectiveness."
Zapparmor (8th level spell - cost: 30 strength points): "Enchants armor to triple its current protection value. Armor also mends itself between fights so it is always full strength unless completely destroyed in one fight."
I assume that Zapparmor is implicitly permanent, even as Zappathingum is explicitly so.

These two spells seem insanely overpowered to me. Not only do they triple the value of the item, but they do so (or in the case of Zapparmor, seem to do so) permanently. And of course, there's no reason why, after resting up and regaining your strength each time, you couldn't use them to pump up the armaments of every member of your party. Who needs to find a magic sword or magic armor when a mid-level magic-user could easily create sets of them - and with a power (triple strength!) that would sent any OD&D warrior into a berserker frenzy of jealousy.

Interestingly, in 5th edition, these spells are scaled way back such that they only last 1-6 hours.

Here's another bit of data. There were plenty of magic items in early Flying Buffalo Tunnels & Trolls published adventures. There were probably more of them, on a per room basis than your typical D&D published module, and many of them were extremely powerful:

From Buffalo Castle (the first published T&T solo adventure - 1976):
7E: You have found a magic sword. It is worth 1000 g.p., it doubles your strength while you are carrying it, it takes 20 hits for you every combat turn, and it wards off all evil magic up to 20th level! Go to 19E.
From Naked Doom (the fourth published T&T solo adventure, authored by the original author of T&T, Ken St. Andre - 1977):
Magic Treasures
Roll 1 die (1 - 6) and go to that number on the list below to see what you found.
1. ROBES OF TUCHMI K'NOTT: Flowing robes in the Roman toga fashion that are magical armor. When wearing these robes you can take up to 200 hits in a combat turn before you can be hurt...
2. A RING OF FIRE: It enables the wearer to cast fireballs worth 100 hits each combat turn...
3. A 20th LEVEL ANTI-MAGIC BELT: Whoever wears this belt cannot be affected by any other spell...
From The Dungeon of the Bear (the first published T&T standard multi-player adventure - 1978):
In the first chest is the infamous "Badger Gem." It is a large white diamond of 500 g.p. value. However, the first delver who touches it finds the gem absorbed into his flesh, and he is changed into a badger with a monster rating of 35...
The second chest contains a pair of Seven League Boots. These allow the player who puts them on to move at two times normal speed...
Do not misunderstand my purpose with the above. I think these items are great. (For the first two "killer dungeons," getting one's hands on one of these hugely powerful items is probably necessary to make it out of the dungeon alive - this is explicitly confirmed by St. Andre in the introduction to Naked Doom.) But there isn't that much to help the aspiring D.M. who wants to know what to put in his "non-killer" long-term campaign. One might also ask, to the extent that The Dungeon of the Bear provides a few hints, why should someone need to buy that separate adventure in order to acquire them? Wasn't the whole point of T&T that it was a game you could just purchase (for a fraction of the price of a D&D rule set), read, understand and play?

Also, do not misunderstand my purpose for the overall post. My intention is not to criticize T&T for, so to speak, gypping customers out of their natural entitlement to a magic items section, guaranteed by U.N. charter or whatever, but to point out a quirk or anomaly in the early editions of the rules that I find interesting and (to me) a bit mysterious.

It's possible some of what was going on was worry over copyright infringement. Perhaps, to not include magic items or much guidance about them was another way of buying a bit of insurance if Tactical Studies Rules ever came after Flying Buffalo for too closely imitating Dungeons & Dragons.

Indeed, as early as late 1975, there already had been a little back and forth going on. In 1st edition, Tunnels & Trolls, St. Andre a number of times mentions Dungeons & Dragons by name, and while he is upfront about what he didn't like about that game - prompting him to write Tunnels & Trolls - he is also gracious:
Our thanks go out to Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson who created the original D&D...
However, in the 2nd edition of T&T, "Dungeons & Dragons" and "D&D" were deleted and replaced by an "X." St. Andre added this somewhat humorous (in hindsight) note:
The people who manufacture game "X" have informed us that they don't want us to mention their game in our advertising ..."
Tunnels & Trolls had been noticed. So perhaps it was better not to poke the Gygax bear with a potentially derivative looking potion list.

Finally, even though this review series has focused on the 1st edition of the game, I should point out that a section on magic items was added to Tunnels & Trolls for it's more recent 21st century editions, including 7th (2005), "7.5" (2008) and, most importantly, the current Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls. The Deluxe edition gives six and a half pages of double-columned guidance on the issue, describing "Potions, Wards and Magical Trinkets," among other things, and even implying that some of them might be available for purchase. It's also explicitly stated that more powerful items should probably be created by the GM, and, thus, no long lists are provided. (For reasons that are unclear, a discussion of magical swords, including a table listing their potential properties, present in 7.5, was not included in Deluxe.) The section begins this way:
Wizards not only use tools in their spellcasting, they create magical things for their own use or to sell to others. Potions, wards, and magical items have a long and storied history in games, in novels, in comics, and in myth—all of which T&T draws upon for inspiration. Logically, every imaginable spell or magical effect could be embedded into a physical item for easy transport and convenience of use. Healing potions come in handy when a medicmage isn’t available. A ring of invisibility works pretty much like a personal Hidey Hole. A necklace that deflects all spells from the Conformation school of magic keeps the Circe-like swine-makers at bay. A gigantic fire opal carved as a shield could absorb all fire spells and fire them right back at your foes, twice as strong.
So fear not, you can now read Tunnels & Trolls, confident in the fact that your U.N. sponsored human right to having a magic items section in your RPG has not been infringed upon.

A wag might ask what took them so long? (Or, what took them until 7th edition in 2005?)

That's an interesting question (a few wonky historical types might think). I don't know the answer.


This is a multi-part review series focusing on the 1st edition of Tunnels & Trolls. I also discuss the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D), the early history of the hobby, later developments in Tunnels & Trolls and game design in general.

The 1st edition of Tunnels & Trolls was authored by Ken St. Andre in the spring of 1975. It was a 41 page, typewriter-written document, from which 100 photocopies were created. These were sold to friends and fellow gamers in Phoenix, Arizona, with some of the remainder being offered at the Westercon 28 gaming convention in Oakland, California. Within a few months, St. Andre entered into an agreement with the play-by-mail wargame company, Flying Buffalo, and a 2nd edition of Tunnels & Trolls was officially published at the end of the year. Many more editions followed, including the iconic 5th edition in 1979, which would remain in print, in much the same form, until 2012.

In 2013, as part of the Kickstarter campaign for Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, St. Andre donated his only remaining copy of the 1st edition to be used as an incentive. Flying Buffalo later released a PDF of that copy, based on a precise scan of the original document, and including a new one-page introduction by St. Andre and a new back cover. It can now be purchased on RPGNow for $1.95.

At that price, it is now the best "steal" in the hobby. And it acts as a fascinating historical introduction to one of the best values in the hobby, the comprehensive 386 page current edition of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls.


  1. When we first encountered TnT (1976?) I somehow assumed that each GM created their own magic items, just as we created our own monster descriptions, so that our players wouldn't know what to expect. Already we'd seen and experienced the ho-hum another +2 Codpiece of Loki type ennui. D&D didn't regain that wotizit suspense until Supplement IV, and then only partially.

  2. I used to work in the art and editorial department at Buffalo from 1980 to 1984 and I recall many discussions in regards to not "spoon-feeding" to much to the players and GMs. They really wanted to encourage creativity among the fans - so certainly that was part of it. However I do think you have a good point that more guidance should have been given to how and when to create magic items. But hindsight is often 20-20... Really enjoying your in-depth study of the the 1st edition and then weaving in how the game developed over the subsequent editions. I can tell you that certain things that were in version 7 & 7.5 were purposely NOT used in Deluxe either because it was felt to be poorly thought through or for legal reasons with the publisher of those editions.

    1. Thanks! Yes, that sounds right about the differences between the 7s and Deluxe.

      By the way, by total coincidence while making breakfast this morning I was listening to the Roll for Initiative podcast on Grimtooth's Traps. So, I went to take another look at it and saw your name as illustrator. Great job! That must have been fun.

    2. Thanks Oaks - Yes that was me drawing all those Traps books. Someone had to do it! LOL

  3. During my brief experimenting with T&T I was a little dull on magic items basically haning weapons and armor witnadds +3,+5,+7,+10,+15 and +20. along with potions, scrolls, amd wands that held standard spells useable for 1/2 Strenght costs or for free. Honsetly however with a spell list a game really does have magic items covered, just duplicate spells.

  4. Just so you know your articles inspired us to finally put 5th edition T&T on Drive-thru since so many people have been asking about it after reading your articles. In fact we even mention your articles in our article. SO thanks! Here'a link to our article...