Classic RPG Review #5: Tunnels & Trolls

boxed set, fifth edition
by Ken St. Andre
1975, 1979 Flying Buffalo

Even in the early days, some people found that D&D was too expensive, too complex, and too commercial. One of these people was Ken St. Andre, and he wrote a simpler dungeon delving game called Tunnels & Trolls. It was cheaper, and it used six-sided dice, which were at that time much easier to obtain than the multifaceted twenty-siders, tetrahedrons, octahedrons and dodekahedrons needed for D&D. The D&D people were not amused, and did not see why they needed competition.

St. Andre thanks the people of the No. 1 game for their groundwork though, and states that his game is sufficiently different to deserve a place of its own. Is it different? Well. Yes and no. Dungeons & Dragons tries to mask that it's mostly a game of search, destroy and loot. Tunnels & Trolls squarely admits that's the whole concept of the game. You build a Dungeon, fill it up with traps, treasure and monsters, and then you invite the demolition team. Once the demolition team has done their jobs, you restack the same Dungeon, change a few things, and invite them in again.

No need for an adventure rationale, no need for a complex storyline, no need for a well conceived backdrop. The Tunnels just are. Like the trenches in the first world war. And that's where the delvers go, to gain glory, gold and power – or to die.

Dying is a lot more likely than during the mid-levels of D&D, so it is advised that players play more than one hero at once. Players do not control a single hero, but they have a whole team of three or four at their disposal. Making a new hero is easier than in most games, probably also because of the death rate. Once you get the hang of it a new hero is made in minutes. It won't have much depth, but where is the need?

Monsters are even easier to make. You just give it a Monster Rating, a figure from 1 to 100 or more, which determines how tough it is. And that's it. You can think up a name for the creature, try to imagine how it looks, or give it special abilities. But for the game you do not need to.

Combat is a team effort in this game. Both combating teams add up all their dice, add all their bonusses, and the highest team wins. This part is especially fun if you have a lot of dice in your home – the rattling sound! The losing team divides the difference equally among it's members, and takes that as damage – either on their armour, shields, or their constitution. Monsters take damage on their monster rating of course, no need to make things complex there. If your constitution or monster rating reaches zero, you're dead.

Heroes with a high IQ may also become wizards. These may cast spells, often with silly names, instead of just adding dice to the pool. As long as the wizard knows a spell, he or she can use it at the expense of strength points. There is no need to decide beforehand what one might need, like in D&D, and that makes the game a lot more flexible and fun. Most later games systems copied this feature, though spell casting then typically drains other statistics than strength. Not all wizards are as muscular as those in T&T.

All in all, the game is fun to play. It's simple and straightforward, even if you have to do a lot of dice rolling and adding up. There are nice illustrations by Liz Danforth, and there is something attractive about mindless slaughter and dungeon demolition. But it also has virtually no depth. So as a player I quickly moved on.

(rules are simple, elegant, open ended and not very realistic)
2/5 (the game has a thrill of it's own, but source material is limited, and the backdrop is maybe overly simplistic, avoiding any storyline)
2/5 (although the game plays fast and easy, it also bores easily)
(mindless slaughter and looting in a fantasy setting, human based but with dwarves, elves, halforcs, ogres and the like, combat with pooling each side's many six sided dice, limited professions, magic accessible to those of higher IQ)


1 comment:

  1. T&T was before my time, so I've only heard about it as the earliest Lite adaptation of the "dungeon crawl" mode of games.

    Kinda interesting to see that the humungous dice pools apparently introduced by T&T, crop up in RPG design every so often. Paranoia had it if I recall, and 1st Edition Shadowrun also had dice avalanches. Good fun, but after a while it felt just as cumbersome as Dungeons & Dragons can be.