|Liz Danforth illustration from the Tunnels & Trolls spinoff Monsters! Monsters! (1976)|
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 quite. The 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.Boom!
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.
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.