Monday, April 24, 2017

1e Tunnels & Trolls, Part 9: Combat

Shock combat (Rob Carver, 1st edition, p. 38)

I took a break for a few days. Apologies if you were taken aback because you thought the series had abruptly ended. Or, apologies if you were glad that it had ended. :)

19. Combat

As I argued in past review posts, much of 1st edition Tunnels & Trolls is very similar to OD&D. But there are also major differences. Some of those differences - spell points, for example - would be imitated or appropriated by other systems. But a few of them would remain relatively or almost entirely unique. The combat system is one of those.

Let's go back a step and review the OD&D combat system. Not surprisingly, it owed much to wargames and miniatures gaming. The basic idea is this: You have two opposing fronts or groups of units or soldiers. Let's say there's the group of units, A, B, C, D and E, and the group of units, X, Y and Z. The first player allocates his attacks - A and B attack X; C attacks Y; and D and E attack Z. You resolve those attacks. Then the second player allocates his attacks - X attacks A, B and C; Y attacks D; and Z attacks E. You then resolve those. That's it.

Of course, all sorts of variations on the above are possible, and there's lots of detail to fill in, such as how one resolves the attacks, the order in which things occur, and so on. But the general idea is ubiquitous in gaming. It was used in OD&D and all later editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and as far as I know, it's been the norm for most published fantasy role-playing games - at least those that have any sort of combat mechanic to speak of.

But not Tunnels & Trolls.

Rather, in its most basic form, melee combat in T&T is collective. Here's how it works: A, B, C, D and E sum up their attack power to get a resulting determinant. For monsters, this is the sum of the number of dice that each of them get to roll (based on their monster rating), plus, say, half the sum of the monster ratings themselves. Then, X, Y and Z sum up their attack power to get a resulting determinant. For player-characters this is the sum of all of the dice attached to each weapon used in the melee - a dagger might have 1 die, a great axe might have 4 dice, and so on - plus the sum of all the "adds" granted to the characters in virtue of possibly having attribute scores - in strength, luck and dexterity - that are higher than average. Each side then rolls dice and combines the result with their adds to get one number. The numbers of both sides are compared, and the side with the lowest roll then takes damage equivalent to the difference between the two rolls. Damage is then divided up evenly between participants, with odd numbers getting assigned in different ways, depending on whether the victims are monsters or player-characters. For monsters, damage is subtracted from their monster ratings. For player-characters, damage is subtracted from their constitution scores - although, crucially, armor might block some or all of it.

No other game system that I know of, in the over forty years since Tunnels & Trolls was published, even roughly duplicates this mechanic. That's quite incredible if you think about it.

(Obviously, I am familiar with the mechanics of only a small fraction of the literally thousands of role-playing games that have been published. And, of course, I am excluding those games linked to T&T - such as Mercenaries, Spies and Private Eyes.)

So, in the mechanic's most pure iteration, there is just one big collective fight. And only the losers potentially take damage, at least in that particular round (or "conflict turn," as it's called in the rules).

That's the basic idea, but there are all sorts of extras. Spells might come into play on top of it all, and their effects might be individual or collective, depending on the nature of the spell. Missile fire might also occur, which would also be individual, although, as with OD&D, it is probable that much or all of it would have already occurred before melee. Perhaps most importantly, some combat isn't entirely collective, but might occur in smaller independent chunks, depending on positioning and so on. In the 1st edition, Ken St. Andre described "shock combat" involving only part of a group, such as when the lead element of a party first reached a monster - or where a monster, perhaps by surprise, first reached, say, the rear element of the party.

Before analyzing the mechanic in general, let me touch on a few additional parts. I said, above, that damage to player-characters might be "blocked" by armor. In the 1st edition, some of this blocking was ablative. So, for example, a suit of plate could take 10 hits of ablative damage. That's not 10 hits per conflict turn but ten hits total! You would keep a record of how many points the armor still had, and once it was down to 0, it would become useless or fall off or whatever. When you took damage, you could decide to take it from your constitution or your armor.

This leads to a funny paradox. Since constitution losses are not permanent - you will regain them later (unless, of course, you die in the interim) - and untouched or damaged armor will always be there to block all damage until, well, it can't, then it would seem better to first or even always take losses directly to constitution, as opposed to armor, at least until your constitution score gets close to 0. This way, if you come out of the dungeon alive, at least you would have a chance of coming out with some of your armor intact.

Curiously, shields were not ablative. While blocking fewer hits - only 1 to 4 depending on the kind of shield - they would continue to potentially absorb the same number of hits each conflict turn without losing anything.

I should note that the ablative nature of armor would be changed to a "straight" blocking or absorption effect by the time of the publication of the 4th edition in 1977. Many Tunnels & Trolls players are unaware it ever existed.

What to say about it all?

Certainly, from a D&D player's perspective, the T&T combat mechanic is more than just interesting or different. It's positively alien.

One knee-jerk criticism of the mechanic is that it's not "realistic." Now, I happen to think that criticism is totally off-base. It's true that the T&T mechanic is not as fine-grained as that of OD&D, but many (including me) prefer OD&D to other more complex systems, in large part because OD&D itself is not as fine-grained and fussy as those systems. So, it isn't clear that sliding down one more notch on the grain scale, so to speak, is necessarily a bad thing. One could even argue that the T&T mechanic is more realistic, in that it better tracks the messy and largely collective nature of a mass melee in a dimly lit dungeon. Everyone is just fighting everyone else in a fast-moving and ever-changing swirl, rather than, say, forming evenly spread conga lines and then sequentially trading blows.

Of course, a good referee and imaginative players can to a large extent surmount the conga line problem. But I think the formal mechanic still matters in influencing the players' conception of what is happening. And so it's not implausible that the T&T mechanic might track the "reality" on the ground better. T&T partisans have also claimed that the nature of the mechanic almost forces referees and players to narrate their actions in a dramatic way - "I climb onto the back of the spider and sink my spear into one of its eyes." Of course, you can (and should!) do this in OD&D as well, but it's possible that it's harder when looking down at the conga line - your metal or plastic figure isn't climbing anything, after all, he's just standing there.

I think a more appropriate question to ask is whether the 1st edition T&T mechanic structures combats in interesting and constructive ways. For example, in a particular battle, Is there a good amount of suspense as to who might win and who might lose? Are there interesting choices for the players to make in combat (over and above interesting ways for players to narrate their choices)? And so on.

After writing nine general review posts and doing a fair amount of thinking about T&T combat, I have to confess that I'm still pretty much at sea on the matter. I think these questions simply cannot be answered without actually playing the game, or, more accurately, playing a lot of the game. I can report that many players swear by the T&T mechanic - it's simpler and more exciting (it is claimed) without sacrificing meaningful player choice or suspense as to outcomes.

But it's also been said that the mechanic is too rigid - it's difficult for an inferior foe to pull off a win - or at least too tippy - once you start losing rolls, your ultimate loss almost becomes inevitable. Of course, those complaints are in some ways almost contradictory, and for better or worse, one might also apply them to OD&D.

A large part of the problem, if it is a problem, is the perhaps counter-intuitive statistical phenomenon that when you roll a large number of dice, the variance in results, expressed as a standard deviation, actually decreases. This implies that the more powerful side will have only a small chance of rolling a lower total then the least powerful side, and if it does, it won't take much damage. At the same time, evenly matched sides may spend many turns in a state of quasi-stalemate, where the "wins" inflict minimal damage (or no damage, if there is armor), until one of the sides succeeds in tipping things just enough to, so to speak, start an avalanche effect

I see two possible responses to this. The first is to, in effect, say, so what? Battles have to be won or lost by someone, and superior foes usually beat inferior ones (would it be better if the inferior foes usually won?). And, of course, stalemates are certainly also a feature of OD&D. They're not always bad (perhaps they sometimes act to heighten the suspense), at least when enjoyed in moderation.

The second response is to invoke various referee techniques or house-rule type measures that might have the effect of poking or spicing up the seeming iron discipline of the dice bell curve. T&T players have come up with all sorts of ideas along this line, many of which made it into later editions of the rules. And, undoubtedly, many of the referees and players in St. Andre's original extended Phoenix T&T groups were up to all sorts of things. It's not a criticism to idly wish that more such recommendations or options had been included in these original rules, even though the format of the document - a brief 43 page booklet - probably precluded it.

Is the original T&T combat mechanic simpler than that of OD&D? It would initially appear so. Among other things, using the mechanic would seem to be less time consuming. On the other hand, some have argued that by the time you have added up the totals on the different dice, and performed the mathematical calculations of dividing up damage and subtracting armor protection, and so on, that it's not really any less time consuming than quickly resolving combat under a sequential mechanic. I can't really adjudicate these competing claims one way or another. What I can know with virtual certainty is that it's much simpler than combat in many other games, including all later editions of Dungeons & Dragons. But, of course, that does not speak to the question of how it compares to OD&D.

Some have argued that it's unrealistic or unsatisfying that only one side takes damage in a conflict turn. Later editions of Tunnels & Trolls would try different remedies for this, including "spite damage" - all rolls of, say, sixes, inflict damage on the other side, regardless of who the winner is. Personally, I don't see it as a very big issue. In OD&D (and T&T), damage is largely abstract anyway - representing being worn down or having your luck gradually run out or whatever - so the fact that one side might completely miss out on "damage" for just one conflict turn isn't a deal breaker to me. It might even make slightly more sense.

I want to take a moment to talk about ablative armor. I like the idea. For my own published game, I included rules on weapon and armor breakage, in part because I think it's truer to the actual experience of quasi-medieval combat. St. Andre, who was once a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, has said much the same thing. In addition, having things wear down or break also creates interesting strategic choices. Do you take extra weapons with you, perhaps extra shields? (The Vikings usually did, by the way.) But, while my own attempt added fussiness, St. Andre's was built right in to the mechanic. The author has also suggested that he included ablative armor because it gave warriors something else to spend their money on (for their part, magic-users had spells that they had to purchase). I like that idea.

But the problem is, ablative armor just seems too severe in 1st edition. Either your armor takes no damage, or it's just gone, or at least gone soon enough. And if it's gone, then you are probably gone. I assume this is largely why the armor rules were amended in later editions.

(St. Andre also notes that ablative armor, as presented in 1st edition, involved a bit of potentially annoying extra bookkeeping. You had to keep track of hits on your constitution and keep track of hits on your armor.)

On the other hand, to me, at least, taking away the ablative effect completely, seems to make armor almost too powerful. For example, in later editions of Tunnels & Trolls, plate armor absorbs 14 hits - that's 16 hits with even a modest shield. Put 5 such armored knights together and they would have to lose a battle by more than 80 points to suffer any damage at all (you'd need more damage than 5 x 16). Fair enough, one might say. Armored knights are tough. But if those armored knights are challenged by a foe capable of inflicting more than 80 hits, then suddenly a different problem is created. Presumably if a foe is powerful enough to inflict more than 80 hits, it would be quite capable of inflicting much more. But if it were to inflict, say, 150 hits, most if not all of the knights would be instantly killed. 150 - 80 = 70. 70 / 5 = 14. 14 is 3.5 points higher than the average starting constitution score. It would take two level gains to top that, and low-level warriors have other things to add to besides their constitution. And this of course leaves out what might happen to less well-armored characters who might find themselves involved in such a fight. Increasing the level of the hypothetical characters doesn't really solve the problem, either, as the monsters would also be increasing in power and need even higher rolls to do any damage - higher rolls that have the potential to kill if they, so to speak, overshoot.

T&T players have proposed various solutions for these sorts of issues or problems, and, again, the recent addition of spite damage might be one of them - spite damage automatically gets through armor.

But I'm digressing. To return to ablative armor, it's one of the things that upsets the assumptions created by D&D - in a good way. I would love to find a way to make ablative armor work. I'm just not sure how. One possibility might to make armor ablative per encounter, but that might be too fiddly.

Let me also briefly address missile combat. In 1st edition T&T, it's completely abstract. There are no ranges, no bonuses or penalties for the size of the target, etc. Whether you hit or not is based simply on your luck and dexterity combined perhaps with another roll on the monster's part. That's fine with me. Later editions would graft a more conventional missile fire mechanic onto things. Coming at this as an "outsider" and someone who has a natural bias in favor of early editions of things, I'm not sure that was necessary. I think there's an aesthetic value in preserving a bit of consistency in terms of the abstraction level. But, as far as I can tell, the question has long been settled in the T&T community.

To summarize, and to come back to the document itself, I find the combat mechanic fascinating. It's very different from OD&D without obviously suffering in the comparison. And part of what is presented in 1st edition - ablative armor, missile combat - is also quite different from what would be presented in the subsequent editions of Tunnels & Trolls that would follow quick on the heals of the original edition.

It's exciting to encounter as an eminently playable system - even if most Tunnels & Trolls players now use something slightly different - but it's also valuable as a window into the design thinking that was occurring right at the dawn of the hobby.

I should say that there are a few annoyances in the presentation of the combat mechanic. Some things that would seem to be quite important are left out (movement speed and surprise). Some things are confusingly presented or ambiguous (missile fire). And I could have used a bit more explanation or examples - how should shock combat be handled, exactly, and how precisely would a good tunnel master "break up" mass combats into separate units?

But it's hard to fault a 43 page booklet for not including everything. And, of course, relative to the notoriously abstruse and incomplete effort in OD&D's Men & Magic, the combat portion of 1st editionTunnels & Trolls is a lawyer's document.

Next: Weapons.


This is a multi-part review series focusing on the 1st edition of Tunnels & Trolls. I also discuss the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons (OD&D), the early history of the hobby, later developments in Tunnels & Trolls and game design in general.

The 1st edition of Tunnels & Trolls was authored by Ken St. Andre in the spring of 1975. It was a 41 page, typewriter-written document, from which 100 photocopies were created. These were sold to friends and fellow gamers in Phoenix, Arizona, with some of the remainder being offered at the Westercon 28 gaming convention in Oakland, California. Within a few months, St. Andre entered into an agreement with the play-by-mail wargame company, Flying Buffalo, and a 2nd edition of Tunnels & Trolls was officially published at the end of the year. Many more editions followed, including the iconic 5th edition in 1979, which would remain in print, in much the same form, until 2012.

In 2013, as part of the Kickstarter campaign for Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, St. Andre donated his only remaining copy of the 1st edition to be used as an incentive. Flying Buffalo later released a PDF of that copy, based on a precise scan of the original document, and including a new one-page introduction by St. Andre and a new back cover. It can now be purchased on RPGNow for $1.95.

At that price, it is now the best "steal" in the hobby. And it acts as a fascinating historical introduction to one of the best values in the hobby, the comprehensive 386 page current edition of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls.


  1. That's a really interesting take on combat, and you're right - removing any pretence of the "conga line" would boost the imaginative side of the game.

  2. Some players really didn't like the group combat when we played until they realized it was possible to use tactics to draw out monsters into single combat, or that ranged weapons and some spells could clearly be used to damage foes even if the round was otherwise lost. They also realized a really tough monster could be mobbed. We were playing 5th but no reaosn any of that cankt apply in's called tactics.

  3. OK, I have somethings to say about this:

    Firstly, any game that encourages players to have their characters run in butt-ass-neeked into combat automatically gets my seal of approval! _\\\

    I remember seeing a similar collective combat system used for WotC's version of D&D with their tactical rules, as well as their "swarm" and "mob" rules for counting a large mass of vermin or angry villagers as one big monster that will disperse at 0 hp. Mind you, this is all relatively new to D&D and it makes such encounters way easier to run.

    One strange benefit to this method of combat is to allow a GM to conduct the combat mechanics behind the game screen like a 'free kriegsspiel' game (and most video games), so the game would be less focused on raw math and numbers and more on description and outcome -- at least from the prospective of the players. (An Assistant GM or computer app could help pull the slack for the GM, by handling the rolls and calculations.)

    Early editions of any game needs hammering out, and 1st ed. T&T is no exception.

    I can see a surprise (or "shock") round handling like a normal round of combat, but with the side with the advantage having immunity to damage for that round only.

    With range combat, combatants with range weapons may attack first, with the whole party (including the non-shooters) taking damage. After that, any surviving combatants who did not shoot may attack in melee combat, and as before, everyone takes damage.

    (Both the above rules are based on the rules from a board game called Shogun, Samurai Swords and Ikusa. The former is how a defending army deals with a coastal assault, and the latter is how Bowmen and Gunmen conduct combat.)

    With ablative armor, a piece of armor could just loose one point of damage absorption per attack (after the fact). This would slow down the wear and tear on otherwise expensive suits of armor, and the wearers would still have to put money down to get them patched-up (repairs could cost per point could be a fixed number by type, or a percent of its total cost).

    Keep up the great review.

  4. Count me among those taken aback, I've really been enjoying this series.

    I'd only ever owned or read the "5.5" edition; this is some entertaining stuff to learn about.

  5. One way to we speed combat is to have one player do the totaling for the party while the GM totals for the monsters. Then you can do the subtraction and divide damage. Waiting for people to take their turns in a large game of D&D can be enough time to order and get pizza delivered