Thursday, April 13, 2017

Game Review (Part 5): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: Ability Scores

Liz Danforth illustration from the 2nd edition: "Hi. My name is Rufus, the Morose, and I'm here to talk to you about the effects of having charisma."

11. Abilities

It's crucial to understand that when Ken St. Andre was writing Tunnels & Trolls ;in 1975, he had no published example of a role-playing game to refer to except the 3 LLBs of Dungeons & Dragons. And St. Andre claims to have read that rules set only cursorily, putting it down after an hour or two. It follows that Tunnels & Trolls, to the extent that it differed from the earlier game, was innovatory in the most literal sense. That the role-playing hobby would soon develop in different directions is due in large part to the different examples set by the two games.

On the surface, abilities in T&T appear similar to those of the 3 LLBs. You roll six abilities in order with three dice. Those abilities include strength, intelligence, constitution, dexterity and charisma (intelligence would sometimes be called I.Q. in T&T). The only obvious difference is the substitution in T&T of luck for wisdom.

But the general conception of what those abilities mean as well as how they work in game play, would have two major differences.

1) In OD&D, abilities are for the most part fixed. With a few minor exceptions (modification by magical items and the like), abilities never change. But in T&T, abilities can (and probably will) increase with gains in level.

2) In OD&D, abilities either have only a minor effect on formal game mechanics, or have a greater effect only in so far as they impact (via applying bonuses and penalties) additional and separate values such as hit points. But in T&T, abilities generally have more of an intrinsic value.

Let me explain what I mean by going through the abilities.

Strength:

In OD&D, the only formal value of strength is to slightly influence the rate at which you advance in level (for fighters and, to a lesser degree, clerics) by potentially granting up to a 10% bonus in experience points earned. The first supplement, Greyhawk, published roughly simultaneously with St. Andre's work on T&T, added effects on carrying capacity, the ability to open doors, and penalties and bonuses (though the bonuses only applied to fighters) on hit probabilities and damage.

In T&T, strength strongly influences your carrying capacity - with a low strength, you can hardly wear metal armor - and modifies combat ability (though magic-users cannot apply bonuses). The modification is a bit more granular than it is in OD&D, giving added importance to each point at the higher and lower ranges. Strength also has additional varied minor effects. For example, you need a strength of 15 in order to use a battle-axe. Perhaps most importantly, though, strength also determines how many and which spells magic-users can cast. Each spell has a "cost" in strength, making strength a crucial part of a magic-user's effectiveness.

Intelligence:

In OD&D, intelligence slightly influences the rate the rate at which you advance in level (for magic-users and, to a lesser degree, fighters and clerics), and, at above average levels, gives characters extra languages. Greyhawk would add extra rules for how intelligence might affect the ability to learn additional spells, though this would not come into play in the early going.

In T&T, intelligence also grants extra languages - though not quite as many as in OD&D (in OD&D, you get one additional language for each point of intelligence above 10 - in T&T 1, you get one additional language for each point of intelligence above 12). But it also imposes minimum requirements to cast spells at each level. For example, casting a 2nd level spell require an intelligence of at least 12. Casting a 3rd level spell requires an intelligence of at least 13, and so on. (It's never explicitly mentioned. whether you need an intelligence of 11 to cast 1st level spells.)

Wisdom/Luck:

In OD&D, wisdom slightly influences the rate at which you advances in level (for clerics and, to a lesser degree, fighters and magic-users). But it gives no other formal benefit (even in Greyhawk), leading some to label wisdom a "dump stat."

In T&T, luck modifies combat ability (though, again, magic-users cannot apply bonuses). Much more importantly, luck is the exclusive determinant for your success at saving throws (or "saving rolls" in T&T). In OD&D, saving throws are primarily based on level and class.

Constitution:

In OD&D, constitution affects hit points, though in a "chunky" way that, at most, adds or subtracts only one hit point per hit die. Constitution is also a factor in what the 3 LLBs termed "chance of surviving." Greyhawk would slightly increase the hit point bonus for high constitution scores, and more explicitly described "surviving" as, among other things, applying to resurrection and being polymorphed.

In T&T, your constitution score simply is your hit point total. There is no extra hit dice or hit point roll.

Dexterity:

In OD&D, dexterity slightly influences your chance to hit with missile weapons, possibly adding or subtracting +1/-1 (out of 20) for high or low scores. Greyhawk would have dexterity slightly influence the rate of level progression for thieves, and added a dodging/parrying effect for those with high dexterity scores.

In T&T, dexterity influences your chance to hit with missile weapons (in a potentially more powerful and granular way than in OD&D), but, more importantly, acts as another minimum requirement for spell casting - you need an 8 dexterity to cast 1st level spells, a 9 dexterity to cast 2nd level spells, and so on.

Charisma:

Interestingly, for an ability that has nothing directly to do with combat - in a heavily combat driven game - there is more text about charisma in the 3 LLBs than any other ability. Charisma influences, among other thing, the maximum number of hirelings you can have, along with their loyalty, as well as your ability to attract monsters into your service. Gygax also added: "the charisma score is usable to decide such things as whether or not a witch capturing a player will turn him into a swine or keep him enchanted as a lover."

Interestingly, while ability scores in general have much more of a formal effect on game play in T&T, charisma is hardly mentioned. Your charisma score comes into play for a few spells, as well as influencing how monsters may be "tamed," but that's it, or at least that's it according to the formal rules. St. Andre would redress this in later editions by adding an entire page of explanation: "Hi. My name is Rufus, the Morose, and I'm here to talk to you about the effects of having charisma. I talk about charisma a lot, because I just brought mine up to a 7."

Summary:

When playing OD&D, the first great suspenseful event is "rolling up your character." But despite the importance attached to it, your ability scores actually don't seem to make that much mechanical difference. I would argue that they primarily help you to define your character in a role-playing sense, while at the same time not straightjacketing you in your choice of character class. A character's effectiveness and power is based much more on the character's level and other things like, say, what magic items he or she possessed than ability scores. Significantly, the most important score or value, from the point of view of your survival, at least in the early part of the game, might be your hit point total - a value that is separate and in addition to the first six abilities.

I actually like this approach, but it is subject to one obvious line of criticism: what's the point of ability scores, then?

(I think there's a good answer to that, though it is a bit subtle - see the third sentence in the above paragraph - but I'll leave that issue here for now.)

I think Gygax and others were sensitive to this criticism. And so, beginning with Greyhawk, each successive supplement or addition included more things for ability scores to do. This, in itself, added an inflationary element to the game. If you made strength more important (which helped fighters), then you also had to make intelligence more important (to help magic-users), and so on. In addition, once ability scores started to matter more, a new problem was introduced - what if you rolled up a bad character? To answer this, alternative methods for rolling up characters were proposed - best three out four dice, roll twelve characters and pick your favorite, etc., which of course, created an additional kind of inflation. If everyone had "good" stats, then even more bonuses were needed for the really high scores in order to differentiate them. This would finally culminate in using a quasi-point system to simply "build" your character.

Tunnels & Trolls never had these problems, and the reason is easy to see. The intrinsic value of ability scores was baked in from the beginning. Instead of rolling your constitution and then using that to potentially modify your separately rolled hit points, Tunnels & Trolls dispensed with the middleman, so to speak.

But what if you rolled up a bad character in Tunnels & Trolls? I think the game implicitly gave two answers to this: First, since you could and were expected to increase your abilities with each increase in level, having initial "low" scores in a particular ability didn't matter as much. If, for example, your initial rolled intelligence was only 12, barring you from casting 3rd level spells, you could always raise it to 13 (or higher) when you gained a level.

But the second answer is that from the outset, Tunnels & Trolls seemed to be more, if you will, laid back about things. Okay, so you rolled up a bad character. Maybe he'll survive and maybe he won't. But if he doesn't, you can always roll up another character. At one point in the 1st edition, St. Andre writes that his players in Phoenix kept a "stable" of as many as 15 characters in reserve.

There was an element of this lighthearted fatalism in OD&D, but in later editions it would gradually be replaced with a sort of ponderous tone that assumed that you would be playing your character for session upon session of a "campaign" in which death was rare. This might be fun if your character was heroic. Not so much of he were pathetic.

Or to put it another way, the downside of not dying is that you're stuck with yourself.

I wrote a "neo-clone" of OD&D where I embraced its minimalist aesthetic when it came to abilities. So I have no problem defending that approach. On the other hand, there's no question that St. Andre's alternative vision was arguably more logical, intuitive and in some ways simpler. It was also, perhaps, a bit easier to explain to a new gamer.

It's important to note that the fact that in Tunnels & Trolls ability scores can increase, changes what they mean. Consider strength, for example. In OD&D, strength was in large part, actual visible muscle. If you were one of the less than 1/2 of 1% of fit adventurers with a strength of 18, you probably looked like Conan.

But in Tunnels & Trolls, ability scores and changes in them are partly akin to more subtle changes in effectiveness - to some extent tracking level changes in Dungeons & Dragons. This must be true, otherwise a Conan who, say, has tripled his strength by 9th level (a possibility or even a probability for a fighter who lasted that long) would look like a hill giant. I assume he'd look much the same but he'd be better at harnessing his raw muscle. Or perhaps another way of putting it is that he would have more "inner strength."

I should note that, as far as I know, St. Andre nowhere states the above, but it seems like a logical extrapolation from the mechanics.

And this answers one of the sometime semi-complaints about the Tunnels & Trolls magic system - since strength is crucially important for spell-casting, wouldn't successful magic-users tend to all look like pumped up weightlifters? Well, since strength in Tunnels & Trolls isn't raw muscle, the answer is no.

For an OD&D-like system, I'm against too many ability score bonuses. That's partly because I think they're overly fussy - you roll your ability, which gives you a bonus, which then modifies something else - you don't want too much of that. If I were to go with a less minimalist ability system, I think I would choose Tunnels & Trolls, largely because it's less fussy. Again, in Tunnels & Trolls, there isn't, or at least usually isn't, a middleman between abilities and their effect.

I think this was one of St. Andre's primary innovations, though as often happens with innovations, it now might seem "obvious." And it would soon be imitated in many games. Chaosium would adopt some of it for its Basic Roleplaying System, including Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. And Steve Jackson's GURPS would also make use of much of it. But each of these rule sets would use the opportunity to add additional abilities, scores, skills and the like, perhaps taking advantage of the extra space, as it were. Tunnels & Trolls would itself do this in its more contemporary editions, though to a much lesser degree.

People split on whether this, so to speak, score expansion is a good or bad thing. I think it's bad. To the extent that 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls was simpler than OD&D, the value of that lay not in leaving more space for one to get more complicated later on, but rather in just being . . . simpler.

You can't simulate what you want to simulate with six scores? You must have seven or nine, or eleven scores (some rolled separately, some derived through multiplying an earlier score by a constant), plus forty-two (or whatever) additional abilities or "skills" grafted on top (with perhaps each of them broken down into general vs. specialist categories, etc., etc.)?

I'm not going to say that's evil, but you might first just want to step back and take a breath. After all, once you go that route, it's not clear where it really stops.

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Next time: 1st editions Tunnels & Trolls classes, experience and levels.

2 comments:

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    1. Thanks, again. I'm really enjoying it, too. It's been a while since I've been this excited about a "new" game.

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