Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Game Review (Part 4): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: Clarifications

See, also the Introduction and Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

I want to offer some clarifications before returning to the main review of Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition:

Overall Approach of the Review

I gushed in my first piece that Tunnels & Trolls is brilliant, and I think that brilliance shines through in the game's 1975 1st edition. This review set is shaping up to be the longest set of posts I have yet written on this blog. Indeed, it's shaping up, embarrassingly, to contain more words than the document I'm actually reviewing. I wouldn't do that if I didn't think the subject made it worth it.

But despite that, or more accurately, because of it, I'm going to be quite critical, not in a "negative" way, hopefully, but in the cause of accuracy. I could do the same with the original three little brown books of Dungeons & Dragons, but that has been done to death.


The standard view, and one that was advanced at the outset by Ken St. Andre, is that Tunnels & Trolls is simpler and clearer than Dungeons & Dragons. That's undeniably true if you look at how both games progressed. Tunnels & Trolls would soon evolve a bit - adding clarifications, some new rules, supplementary material and the like. But it wouldn't change that much. It remained quite faithful to its first iteration. On the other hand, the rules-set of Dungeons & Dragons would expand exponentially a few years later with the creation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.

Of course, part of the beauty and value of the Tunnels & Trolls system is that it managed to preserve its original simplicity in later editions, in a way that Dungeons & Dragons did not. But this is irrelevant when evaluating the original versions of both games.

Yet in terms of the original conceptions, I'm not sure that Tunnels & Trolls was simpler. It was shorter, yes, but that's largely because it left out pages of description - on monsters and magic items to take the most obvious examples - as well as supplementary material, present in the three little brown books, on everything from arial combats to sea fights. That Tunnels & Trolls was not simpler, is not a criticism per se, even from the point of view that simpler is better. If you strip away the presentation, I think both rules sets are actually quite simple - especially when compared with the rules sets for other role-playing games that would soon follow.

Tunnels & Trolls might be more intuitive, though I think even that is debatable.

In terms of presentation, I don't think Tunnels & Trolls is obviously clearer. Original Dungeons & Dragons was notoriously hard to understand - perhaps impossible to understand without reference to certain principles and assumptions that were not actually written down, at least between the covers of the three little brown books The OD&D combat system is a great example of this - with its cryptic references to Chainmail and "alternative" combat mechanics and the like. But original Tunnels & Trolls is also confusing and incomplete in many places. Much of this would be cleared up in later editions, but in evaluating the 1st edition, that's technically irrelevant.


To save words, I'm going to from here on in, largely refer to OD&D (the three little brown books of Dungeons & Dragons plus, depending on the context, some of the first three supplements), and OT&T (which, since I don't have copies of the 2nd and 3rd editions, will refer exclusively to the 1st edition).


Two days ago I referred to the "comic bits" in Gygax's original Castle Greyhawk campaign - with elves manning turnstiles and the prowling presence of "Sir Fang," among other things. Actually, I should have said, not Greyhawk, but Dave Arneson's Blackmoor campaign. You can check this by consulting Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign, originally released by Judges Guild, which may or not be still available for purchase in PDF form.

But if I'm not mistaken, much of this comic element was also present in Greyhawk, and you can see a bit of this in OD&D's The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, with it's references to, for example, "a bowling alley for 20' high Giants."

I asked whether it made sense to criticize the "silliness" of OT&T - such as those spell names - against the background of the silliness in Gygax's and Arneson's first campaigns.

In response, Rick Stump of Don't Split the Party, advanced the argument that the neutral and even bland spell names of OD&D allow the D.M. and players to decide for themselves what level of humor they wanted to have, as opposed to OT&T where one particular approach was strongly implied.

While I'm still sympathetic to St. Andre's conception, I think that's a great point.

Tastelessness and Rants

In the original version of Part 2 of this review, I ended with a few paragraphs about preferring the "tasteless" jokes of OT&T - or at least an atmosphere where such jokes could be made - with the "corporate-vetted, politically correct pap" that "passes for writing" in today's RPGs. I stand by all of that, but I took it out (from the hit totals, it looks like maybe half of you saw it) because I wanted the review to be about OT&T, not about my own quasi-subjective, quasi-political opinions, especially when they threatened to attain rant level.

I might still do some ranting, but I'm going to save it for the conclusion.

If the word "sexist" still has any meaning, I don't think St. Andre is or was a sexist. I shouldn't even have to say that, and I hope by saying it, I'm not further keeping that appellation in play when it shouldn't be. I like writing that contains humor, style and personality, and clearly the hobby lost much of that when it went "mainstream." If you're writing for a small, relatively adult audience, I think the occasional "off-color" joke is just fine, if that's what you (the author) want to do - whether it might be a "sexist" joke about sex, or women or men or anyone or anything else. Indeed, in my more extreme moods, I think such "color" should be subsidized by the gods.

St. Andre interestingly included "misanthropes and misogynists" on his first casual list of monsters, along with goblins and jub jub birds.

And I'll say again what I pointed out in Part 1. St. Andre was the first to refer to both men and women when discussing player-characters. Beginning with 2nd edition, Tunnels & Trolls was also the first game to heavily make use of art by women (or at least one woman - Liz Danforth), and the iconic 5th edition, which is how most people were first exposed to the game, was also perhaps (I don't know this for a fact, but one can check it) the first major role-playing game to be extensively written and edited by a woman (again, Danforth).

In a perfect world, I suppose, one shouldn't be counting these things, but these days one almost has to, at least to rebut certain misleading narratives.

May the monsters be friendly and the magic benign!

And don't let the misanthropes or the jub jub birds eat you.


  1. C'mon get to the "highly detailed" monster stats and how they link up with the combat system and introduce fatigue and injury rules for the baddies without actually having to have rules for that stuff.

    1. I'm working my way through it. But I'm not sure I follow. Who said the monster stats were "highly detailed"? Also, re: fatigue and injury rules, are you referring to T&T 1e or a later version?

    2. I actually am just having fun with the marvelous simplicity of Monster Ranks and how it packs a lot into combat even when played in it's simplest form without needing a lot of rules to do so. Don't want to spoil your post on it as i could probably explain it all here in a comment.

  2. Been hooked on TnT for a verrry long time, and have always enjoyed the spell names. Even used those goofy, gonzo names when running original Runequest. Even though Liz changed many spell titles in Deluxe TnT to conform them to dullness, I still use the original names - even when running a D&D/OSR rpg.