When I first began gaming, I was the young kid breaking into a pastime from a bygone era. Dozens of war stories from family and friends built up the mysticism of the hobby. For years, my good friend and mentor would tell me about how he missed the glory days of gaming. He’d tell me how new systems were so complicated and lost sight of what gaming was really about in a tangled nest of rules and modifiers. And every now and then he would wax poetic about a game he missed from the old days, some little heard of system from the ancient times, Tunnels and Trolls. We later discovered that the system is still very much alive.
What follows is not a review of the T&T system, but a simple (in no way comprehensive) retrospective glance at a game that has survived half a dozen revisions while staying surprisingly intact. This is a breakdown of some of the basic concepts for rules and game play and a historical look at the game.
We start in 1975, one year after the release of Dungeons and Dragons first published edition. The author of Tunnels and Trolls, Ken St. Andre, sought to develop a system similar to D&D, but simplified for ease of use. The game was published by Flying Buffalo Incorporated, who to this day still licenses the product to its new publishers Fiery Dragon.
Like most first edition gaming paraphernalia, original copies are almost impossible to find. Most players of the system have instead learned any edition between 5th and the latest 7.5 – released in 2008. Savvy investigators may note that the game is actually missing the bridging 6thedition, instead making the leap to 7th and ultimately 7.5. This is because the community for Tunnels and Trolls took over the game, adding house-rules from the designer and their own. Several versions known as the Mythical 6th Edition started to appear, created by a growing fan base and one even published by third party company Outlaw Press, run by Jim Shipman. While this version may have been part of what kept Tunnels and Trolls alive during the 1990s, it unfortunately has generated a fair amount of controversy as well. In December 2009, Jim Shipman was asked to cease publication of the printed Mythical 6th Edition due to law suits Outlaw Press faced regarding art theft. The RPG and artist community took a strong stance against Outlaw Press at the time. Ken makes it clear that while all of the Mythical 6th Edition content is usable for Tunnels and Trolls, “Outlaw Press, despite their claims, has neither right nor sanction in publishing it.” -taken from an e-mail received from Ken on the matter.
Whether it is the notorious 6th Edition, rare 1st-4th, or brand new 7.5 Edition, T&T has managed to remain remarkably simple and true to its core ideals. Three classes are available, a shocking option in comparison to modern day class overloaded RPGs. Players may choose to be a Wizard, Warrior, or Rogue, which may then specialize later in their career into more specific roles and descriptors. Other play options do allow for hybrid or otherwise non-standard classes to be chosen, including three new classes in the 7.5 Edition. This is just one of the game’s many available adjustments, designed for maximum customization to a given play group.
In a similar nature to many other games, the Tunnels and Trolls character sheet features a list of attributes, which are rolled against to determine success or failure for a given action. What is unique to the system is that most combat actions, aside from possibly magic or missile combat, are handled as a group rather than individually. When the party melee attacks, all players attack together on each round of combat. All melee dice are rolled at once, and the result added and compared to the result of the group of enemies. This is an unusual mechanic and difficult to grasp at first, but speeds game play along to waste no time. Sometimes goofy, spells in Tunnels and Trolls are generally open to a little haggling with the GM to determine exactly how they work. It would seem that Ken St. Andre holds an interpretation of magic that is as whimsical as it is powerful. Spell names like Take that you Fiend! and Hold that Pose!, coupled with melee fighters intended to be Conan-esque heroes, show the high fantasy inspirations the designer must have taken in.
In all of its iterations, Tunnels and Trolls is a system that leaves a great deal open to decipher. The burden of storytelling falls to the Game Master, not the system; T&T forces GMs to put a little less work into monster preparation, but far more into rules interpretation.
In addition to rules revisions, T&T has seen the rise and fall of fan-made online magazines, comics, video games, and quality adventures. The game has also innovated game play for Solo or Solitaire use. This seems to be one of the greatest strengths the system has, having been easily adapted for small groups or one-on-one play, without even the necessity of a GM. All of this adds to the game’s appeal for the casual play market niche.
It is important to note that Tunnels and Trolls was a game that was not created with the intention of milking money out of players, which it seems is a growing trend in any market in modern business. Ken is reported as having said that he chose to make the game a six-sided die system, specifically for this reason. Players simply could use what they could strip from board games and wouldn’t need to buy expensive dice packs. Ken also runs a community at Trollhalla, where he consistently puts out week to week updates and content for his fans as a free service. The mentor I mentioned above puts it best when he says that T&T is a game that has culture, and in the course of 25 years has kept that running as a driving force behind the game.
If nothing else is said about the system, it is absolutely certain that no game exists like it. T&T is a bizarre throwback to days long gone. Even if the game play is a bit strange, a little goofy, and very different from what you know today, it represents a sort of underdog story that will never give up, and a long grown nostalgia for the gaming community.
Author and designer Ken St. Andre has agreed to an interview for Troll in the Corner, and we need your questions! Post in the comments here, or at the Reddit link below, anything you might like to ask Ken, whether it regards the future of Tunnels and Trolls or what color socks he is wearing. We’ll be back sometime next week with his responses. We need you to make this work, so please do ask your best question, or ask several and we’ll pick the best! Submit all questions by Friday, June 18th 2010.
[tag]Retrospective, rpg, T&T, Tunnels and Trolls, role playing games[/tag]