Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Game Review (Part 8): Tunnels & Trolls, 1st edition: Monsters!

Liz Danforth illustration from the Tunnels & Trolls spinoff Monsters! Monsters! (1976)

18. Monsters!

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 quiteThe 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.

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.

One number.

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.


  1. The comparison of T&T to ODD, B/X is much appreciated! Your posts show great innovation on St Andre's part, and I am now kicking myself for not buying T&T along with B/X back in the day. The mechanic is relatively simple and seems to be geared for storytelling. I believe that is where AD&D went off the rails (in whatever version people believe the worst version of the lot).

    This is a great series! Keep it up!

  2. I like how that one rating and how it relates to combat does a lot of lifting with few darned rules.
    An MR 20 monster attacks by rolling 2d6+10 (or 20 depending on GM). That Monster suffers 12 points of damage and it's now attacking as 1d6+4 since it's current MR is 8. When I played T&T some of my monsters also had a speed score, a fixed armor score and some kept their full original adds even if wounded (only dropping in dice rolled to attack) if they were meant to be extra tough or strong.

  3. I have always thought the Monster rating to be the single most useful and inovative rule in T&T. One simple number and I know how tough it is to kill the monster adn how hard it fights.

  4. I'm simply amazed by this series. I never knew anything about T&T, never once met anyone who played it. [I'm 55 and played ODD and AD&D in my teens.] Yet you are making me regret my snobbish decisions.

  5. Not sure if this is mentioned in 1e and earlier editions than 5th, but you can add variety by having two MR scores. a fighting MR and Constitutional MR, It doesn't sound like much but you can have balanced - CMR 30 FMR 30, tough but not dangerous - CMR 50 FMR 10, or dangerous but fragile CMR 10 FMR 50, as that along with standard MR scores, and the two ways to generate stats for monsters in 5th, gave you quite a few ways to surprise players. Whihc is another good thing about T&T, there no way players can study all your monsters and know what to expect by pouring over a monster manual. Every GM's monsters are going to be different.

  6. Love this series! Keep up the good work! I have been a fan of T&T since I first picked up the 5.5 edition box back in 2005. I have since bought as many solos as I can find, The Corgi 5th ed, Monsters! Monsters!, the 1st ed pdf, the 30th anniversary 7th ed, 7.5 ed, and just recently the Deluxe ed. I love the witty writing style, the simplicity, the explicit command from Ken to make it your own with house rules! I just wish I could talk my d&d friends into playing :(

  7. Fantastic! Thanks for this series - I come at it from a T&T perspective and it makes me reconsider some of my 'snobbishness' in the other direction.

  8. Enjoying your series.
    Around about 10 years ago I began what was to become a four-year-+-long T&T campaign. I was long a prolific poster at Vinn's TrollBridge forum and generally a T&T fanboy. I've long since come back around to old-school D&D (specifically S&W:WB but now White Box: Fantastic Medieval Adventure Game).

    As I ran T&T exclusively for that long stretch of time and fell completely under T&T's spell and delved into and critisized every aspect of every edition/iteration of the game I feel I have to belch my input here at least (perhaps on other posts time permitting)...

    The MR is a case (as many things that 'sell' T&T) of the double-edged sword.
    It seems SO EASY to create monsters, but you have to create monsters.
    The single number seems easy but you still must derive the dice and adds and if you don't utilize a so-called "CON MR" each round you have to recalculate the MR and thus the dice and adds yet again. (Can you imagine running D&D and having five orcs fighting the party and after round one flipping the pages and saying, whilst you find the stats, "Um, okay...now you're facing...four...goblins." and scratching down their stats and utilizing them for round two and so on and so on? Yeah.

    Using MR "as is" (death spiral and all) seems great for mooks but, again, you have to recalculate each round.

    On the other hand, T&T's combat mechanic works for group vs. group, one vs. four, one vs one, etc. That seems so great. It is another selling point.
    Though none of this reduces the fact that one has to roll a bunch of dice, add them up, subtract the resultant sums, dole out the remainder in CON damage and reduce such for armor points.

    Were one to read a much reduced description of OD&D and T&T combat, T&T would seem to be faster. After all, it's all done simultaniously in "one roll" while the other requires an attack roll, a damage roll, subtract damage from hp, THEN...the OTHER side does the same thing TOO.
    But, to be brutally honest, the D&D method plays at the table much faster.

    It's interesting however to note that, while the 3LBB-only OD&D method of combat and monster attacks means that the monster's single, abstract attack results in: "The gargoyle claws and bites the fighter." and later iterations require muliple rolls for the "attack routine" that result in: "The gargoyle claws the fighter, claws the magic-user and bites the elf." while T&T rests in the middle, resulting in the latter description but with a single simultaneous roll/result.

    Still, though I no longer use nor advocate T&T, I do love it so but I have to allow folks to know its rules don't tell the whole story. Don't believe it's faster because its rules seem to suggest so. Don't imagine it's easier to not have a bestiary because monsters are "only" one number...you are still responsible to fill your entire campaign with your own stats. Stats you'll have to adjust through trial and error and recalculate right there in the moment, at the table during play/combat.
    Adding special abilites grants one some latitude for fun and that's cool (a DEX SR to avoid the giant spider's web-spinning?, etc.) but, again, that more work for just one creature, let alone all the beasties and drunken town guards you're sure to need for your game...

    1. That sounds reasonable.

      From this outsider's perspective, there seems to be a huge unknown in how to properly stock dungeons - in terms of power levels, etc. And the rules explicitly make many different suggestions that are difficult for me to evaluate simply by reading.

      I've been looking at some of the published non-solo dungeons to see how they do it. But, of course, that tells one little about how things actually worked out in play.

      It's unclear to me how often people just assign MRs vs. assigning all 6 stats. It also seems like, whatever you do, there might be more of a premium on deciding beforehand what a monster's tactics might be, since those tactics seem to take on even more importance given the nature of combat momentum - will there be "shock combat" or not, etc. And if you make a "mistake," you might have to resort to fudging or quick readjustment, as you say.