Sunday, April 9, 2017

Game Review (Part 3): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: A Digression on Spell Names

I know that last time I promised that Part 3 of the review would proceed sequentially and contain a bit more crunch, but for better or worse, I'm going to continue to jump around a bit as I muster and compose my thoughts on this neat game.

For other parts of the review, see the Introduction, Part 1 and Part 2.

10. Silly Spell Names

1st edition Tunnels & Trolls contained almost exactly the same number of magic spells as 1st edition Dungeons & Dragons - 69 vs. 70, by my count. (Of course, D&D also had a smaller number of extra clerical spells 26 - a few of which were identical to spells on the magic-user list.)

But because Tunnels & Trolls was less than one-third the length of D&D, its spell list actually takes up 25% of the text.

Most of the spells (though not all) are at least rough equivalents of D&D spells. I don't think there's anything wrong with this. After all, many if not most of the D&D spells were simply more rigorously defined versions of the sorts of things found in fairy tales and fantasy literature - Invisibility, Fly and so on.

But what stands out about Tunnels & Trolls are the spell names. Indeed, the spell names are perhaps emblematic of what distinguished Ken St. Andre's approach from that of Gary Gygax.

A few of the spell names are the same - Detect Magic, E.S.P., the Death Spell and (for some reason) all of those "Wall" spells - Wall of Iron, Wall of Stone and so on.

But the rest of the names are different. They're not just different in terms of finding another generic sounding word to avoid copyright infringement. They're different in tone.

They're silly.

That's not a criticism per se. So, maybe a better or more neutral way to put it is that they're less serious. Or, one might frame it even more positively by saying they're less bland and more evocative.

But I still don't think silly is too far off the mark.

Here is a sample list of spells. Their D&D names (a few of these first appeared in Greyhawk or later editions) are followed by the names of their Tunnels & Trolls equivalents:

Hold Portal = Lock Tight
Knock = Knock, knock
Detect Invisibility = Oh there it is
Magic Missile = Take That, You Fiend
Fear = Oh go away
Charm Person = Yassa Massa (yes, that's right, Yassa Massa)
Web = Glue you
Haste = Little feat
Curse = Curse You!
Transmute Rock to Mud = Slush yuch
Sleep = Rock a bye
Fly = Fly Me
Cure Disease = Healing Feeling
Cloud Kill = Smog
Enlarge = Bigger is Better
Levitate = Upsidaisy
Confusion = Mind Pox
Speak with Plants = Green Tongue
Control Undead (what clerics do) = Zombie Zonk
Disintegrate = Hellbomb Bursts
Stone to Flesh = Pygmalion
Teleport = Blow me to . . .
Astral Projection = Ghostly Going
Gease = Greasy Geas
Magic Jar = Hidey Soul

And so on.

I almost forgot my favorites:

Polymorph Self = Mutatum Mutandis
Polymorph Others = Mutatum Mutandorum
Cure Light Wounds = Poor Baby

Instead of experiencing Reincarnation, you're Born Again.

And instead of casting Contact Higher Plane, you can cast Dear God, which allows you to ask three yes or no questions of the D.M., which he must answer truthfully.

I think it's fair to say that most people either hate this sort of thing or love it.

A few years ago, James Maliszewski of Grognardia wrote a post where he chided himself for being sniffy and snobby against Tunnels & Trolls, back in the day. But he confessed that he still didn't like the spell names. Indeed, this seems the majority view even among Old-Schoolers who like the fact that Tunnels & Trolls doesn't take itself that seriously - "But those spell names go too far!"

I don't know. Let me briefly make three points.

1. There's an odd disconnect between the sort of silliness that people regularly engage in in play and the view that that sort of silliness should not exist in the rules. Dave Arneson's original Blackmoor campaign had such comic bits as elves setting up turnstiles to charge admission to the dungeon and a Big Bad vampire named "Sir Fang." Virtually every D&D group that I've ever run or played in has had players often giving their players silly or quasi-silly names. Someone rolls up a fighter with an intelligence of 6, so he calls him "Omental" (0-mental). A 17th century Irish character is given the surname "O'Bama" (the 44th president had won his second term a few days before). And so on. Now, maybe a few fascistic Ed Greenwood type D.M.s wouldn't allow this sort of thing, but I've never heard of it. I suspect such D.M.s soon wouldn't have any players. So, why can you do this when you're playing the game but not do it (at least to some extent) in the rules? Why is having elves charging admission to the dungeon okay but using a spell named, "Take That, You fiend!" not okay? I'm not sure I have an answer to that one.

2. Don't say that silly spell names aren't realistic. Who (in the fictional fantasy world) came up with spell names in the first place? Magic-users, presumably. But is it realistic to think that none of them had a sense of humor? Is it realistic to think that not one of them had a twinkle in his eye when it finally came to naming that spell he had been researching for the last two years? It's his spell, after all. No one thought of "Take that, You Fiend!"? (Most players that I know certainly would have, had they created the spell.) Or is it that, say, the gods might be offended? Maybe the gods think giving a spell a silly name is to blaspheme them or to blaspheme the heavens or whatever, and so if you try to do it, you'll be instantly struck down by a very serious bolt of lightning. Again, don't ask me the answers to these questions. I don't have them.

3. Even if you hate the spell names, why not just simply change them? It literally would take all of ten minutes (using the translations in this blog post will even save you a few of them). St. Andre said precisely this in one of his interviews. But I think it's fair to say that that answer isn't good enough for some people. Even many hard-core Old-Schoolers, who are always going on about how you should change what you like and make every game your own, etc., etc., seem to have this residual prejudice about the importance of what was originally written down. I know because I'm one of them. You can scratch out spell names and write in new ones all day, but at the end of the day you're still going to know that those spell names were originally there - with the memory of their silliness mocking you, as it were. It shouldn't make a difference to how you view the rest of the game, but I think it still does for many of us. That may be irrational, but there it is.

I have to admit I'm torn over the whole issue. I like the spell names and I don't. Perhaps the tropes of D&D are so embedded in our consciousness that we just can't look at things with unbiased eyes. It would be an interesting thought experiment to imagine if Tunnels & Trolls had been published before Dungeons & Dragons, and thus had set the standard for what was expected or acceptable. Would people in that alternative world have said, "Ah, yes, that neglected classic, Dungeons & Dragons. It had some great ideas, but oh my gosh, I just can't get past those bland spell names!"


  1. The biggest objection to your suggestion that one simply change the spell names to what one prefers, is that is *never stops*. Every future module and expansion will of course use the original name, so you are constantly required to continue to translate, over and over. Ugh. It's a quandary.

    1. Ten minutes of work, every time you buy a supplement or new edition? That's rough. :)

      But I do know what you mean. It shouldn't matter but it does. As you say, it is a quandary.

  2. The spell names set a certain tone that you may not want for your game. You can change them of course; the UK Corgi reprint changed the low-level spell names (on the fairly sound assumption that no one would ever make it to the higher levels of play due to the insane numbers of experience points required) as did I when I played the game a little further down the track.

  3. Here's why I like T&T's spell names: it's what the magic user would actually be saying. Big fighter hurt? "Poor baby," says the M-U with a smirk knowing that the brut won't knock him out for the disrespect because he's actually getting healed.