The new edition of the classic Tunnels & Trolls game arrived in my mail box last week. Weighing in at 367 pages long, it is a positively monstrous tome. It is far from imposing, however. The core rules are simply not terribly different from the earliest editions. There are many refinements, but the spirit of the game is intact. And anything that has been altered is usually explained in a sidebar– with the implication that groups are inevitably going to adapt these rules as they see fit. As with the earliest groups of OD&D devotees, the Tunnels & Trolls crowd seems especially apt to modify the game to suit their preferences.
The 165 pages of the Basic Game section are all you need to start playing. There are not a great deal of rules to keep up with, though they will require a certain stripe of creativity to apply. The designers are simply not hung up things like balance or realism or completeness or engaging in any sort of arms race of gaming cruft. They’ve organized things and tightened a few things up… but the best aspects of the freewheeling ethos of seventies gaming are preserved.
In order to convey the sense of the game as concisely as possible, I’m just going to dive in and start playing it. Tunnels & Trolls is different. It just doesn’t make the same kind of assumptions that classic D&D does. And that’s part of the charm. The intent seems to be for people to just take it and run with it rather than get hung up or bogged down on overthinking anything, so let’s do just that.
Just to dip into things here, I’m going to roll up a character and put the basic system through its paces. First off, I roll 3d6 in order eight times to create a set of “Prime Attributes”.
STR 11 CON 9 DEX 10 SPD 13 LK 14 IQ 10 WIZ 9 CHA 16
Now one cool thing about Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls… if I had rolled triples during this sequence, I would get to do a TARO: “Triples Add and Roll Over”. Not only would I get a much higher score for that attribute, but I would also gain an additional perk for being a specialist. (Note: this is not really defined in the core rules, so it can be just about anything your game master will allow. More specific ideas for that are in the elaborations section. Even there it’s not really nailed down, so prepare to make stuff up in the even that you roll triples for any attributes!)
Do I really see a character in that pile of numbers? Well… not really. Just someone that’s quick, lucky, and persuasive. Which gives me an idea. I could be a run-of-the-mill scrappy human character just like the dozens I’ve played in D&D over the years. But this is Tunnels and Trolls. I think that I will instead play an off the wall “good kindred” that’s totally different than what I’d do with any other game. I’ll play a Leprechaun!
This runs my attributes through a set of multipliers, making them look like this:
STR 4 CON 6 DEX 15 SPD 13 LK 21 IQ 12 WIZ 13 CHA 16
And it’s funny… but this system for playing non-human races seems to actually work. Those attributes really do look more Leprechaun-ish. I can only wield the wimpiest of weapons. My hit points are pitifully small. But my luck score is high enough that I start the game at level two! (That’s right, your level is based on your highest attribute score. As you play, you collect Action Points that can be used to improve any of your stats.)
Adding up each point of STR, LK, DEX, and SPD over 12, we get a total “Personal Adds” equal to 13. (Earlier editions would have given me a penalty for low strength, but not this one!) This guy is a formidable combatant in spite of his small size. This number is added to all of my damage rolls in combat… and as you’ll see, this one value conflates offense and defense into a single number. When things go well, my opponents take more damage. When things go poorly, my character will take less.
Now… there are only three classes to choose from in this game: Warrior, Wizard, and Rogue. I think it might be smarter for this character to play a wizard, but in my mind it doesn’t really fit the literary antecedent of this particular strain of kindred. I really do think Rogue is a good fit for this guy. And besides, Leprechaun Wizards don’t get the benefit of the Wizard’s Guild like the human wizards do.
So “Leprechaun” Rogue it is!
Rogues start with a single spell– any one that fits with their DEX and IQ rating, even if it’s a high level spell. The relatively low IQ of 12 limits my character to choosing either a first or second level spell, though. I could, for instance, take the iconic Take That You Fiend! which costs six WIZ to deal damage equal to my IQ. (And seeing as I’m second level already, I can double the WIZ cost to deal double the damage. Pretty potent!) Alternately, the second level spell Vorpal Blade costs 5 WIZ and doubles my weapon’s dice for a single combat turn. Given my lousy physical stats, that’s just not going to be that much. Spell choice in this case seems like a no brainer.
(And I have to say… I really like how the spell capabilities interact with IQ, WIZ, class, and level. There is a lot of flavor here that goes well beyond the standard Sleep routine of classic D&D.)
As a Rogue, my character starts with two talents instead of just one. While there are lists included in the rules, these really can be just about anything– just like with the perks the “specialists” I mentioned previously get. Now… there are probably no Tunnels & Trolls products that will cater to what I want to do with mine here, so in practice… my choice of talents indicates to the referee just what sort of game I’m keen on playing. In this case… I choose one broad talent called “Planar Cosmology” and one narrow one called “Underearth Survival Skills”. The former gives me a +3 to any attribute that’s subjected to a Saving Roll whenever my talent is relevant. The latter gives me the same bonus… and also reduces the level of the Saving Roll by one or two.
(And yes… it appears that the concept of “Saving Throws” from OD&D was seized upon by Ken St. Andre to make what became first generic task system in role-playing games. Practically everything in Tunnels & Trolls not related to combat chases back to what amounts to an ability check that is modified by a difficulty rating. Of course… in the earliest days of the system, all of these ability checks were against the Luck attribute, but generalizing it to other uses was trivial.)
Rolling up height and weight I get 5’8″ and 185 pounds. Adjusting that down for being a Leprechaun, we get 1’11” and 19 pounds. The guy is short!
For equipment, I’ve got 110 gold to spend. The best melee weapon I seem to qualify for with my attributes seems to be a standard dagger which does 2d6+2 damage, costs 20, weighs 15, and has a range of 15 if thrown. I can get a set of five war frisbees that do 2d6 damage and cost 20, weigh 15, and have a range of 20 yards. Finally, I can’t afford cloth armor, but I can get a buckler shield that blocks 3 hits of damage for 15 gold and 75 in weight. That eats up half of my funds right there! Fortunately, even with a strength of 4 I can still carry all this stuff without breaking a sweat. (400 weight is my max load, but lugging around even half that is liable to tire me out.) Rounding things out, I take a backpack, two sacks, 50 matches, and 5 torches for 8 gold and 38 weight.
Well, that’s all I really need to get a playable character. Let’s go adventuring!
Referee: Okay, you’re in The Forest of Deep Foreboding. What do you do?
Player: I want to look for a passage into Underearth.
Referee: What’s Underearth?
Player: Well… it’s sort of a dark and deadly mystical underworld. This Forest here has a deep sense of foreboding because the boundaries between these two worlds is so thin. There has to be an access point somewhere around here!
Referee: (Sets aside the planned adventure for the moment.) Well… okay. That entrance is going to take a level two Saving Roll against IQ for you to find it.
Player: Great. My IQ is 15… but I’m going to add three to that due to my talent in “Planar Cosmology”. 25 – (15 + 3) comes out to a target of… 7. Okay, here goes! (Rolls 2d6.) Hahaaah yes! I got a twelve! I get to do the DARO thing– “doubles add and roll over”! (Rolls 2d6 again.) Okay… seven and twelve make… nineteen!
Referee: Good grief. You completely smashed that roll. You get… 19 x 2… uh… 38 adventure points right out of the gate. (Player marks that down.) Okay, you found a rotten stump and inside is a passage leading deep into the earth.
Player: Great, I go in!
Referee: It’s pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by a grue.
Player: Oh, well I light a torch then.
Referee: Okay, you’re now in a maze of twisty passages all alike.
Player: I want to go downward as far as I can. Any passageway will do as long as it’s descending.
Referee: You travel for a good long while. You’ve arrived at some kind of underground lake now. There are a couple of big boulders there… and one really big column that seems to go all the way up to a ceiling you can’t see.
Player: Ah, those boulders there. There should be some sort of lichen or fungus growing on the lake-facing sides.
Referee: How do you know all this?
Player: Oh, come on! Everyone knows this stuff about Underearth!
Player: I use my dagger to collect some and put it into a sack.
Referee: Alright. While you’re working on that… a hulking fish-man emerges from the lake. He’s coming right at you with his terrible slashing claws!
Player: Doh! I cast Take That You Fiend at double strength. That’s 24 points of damage at a cost to me of 12 WIZ.
Referee: Fair enough…. (Rolls four dice for the monster… getting a total of 21. Two of the rolls are sixes.)
Player: Oh no!
Referee: Four dice there plus half the monster rating of 30… that’s 21 + 15… uh… 36 damage!
Player: He beat my total by twelve points!
Referee: Right… and subtracting three from that for your buckler shield, you end up taking nine points of damage. That’s more than your CON rating of 6, so that’s it for you!
Player: I’m dead!
Referee: Well… knocked unconscious. You, my friend, have been taken captive by the Fish Men of Underearth!
Well, I wasn’t sure how that would shake out. If the Fish-Man’s Monster Rating was less than 24, the Leprechaun in this situation could have killed it on the first combat turn with no problem. With a monster rating of 30, the creature is rolling four dice and adding fifteen. When the monster’s result is higher, the player takes the difference between his damage total and the monster’s as damage against his Constitution if his damage total is less. If the player can survive, the monster would still be throwing four dice… but its “adds” would drop down to half of whatever its remaining hit-points are. If the Leprechaun had survived the first combat round, can his roll of 2d6+2+9 beat the monster’s 4d6+3? Probably. But even if the player is hitting then, he’ll still take “spite damage” if the monster is rolling any sixes. So… to be sure to win in this situation, the Leprechaun would need to have more CON, better armor, or else have the monster roll really really poorly on that first round!
That’s a lot different than the usual initiative, to-hit, and damage sequence of classic D&D. But that’s Tunnels & Trolls for you…! And with this quick run-through of character generation, saving rolls, and combat, maybe you can see if this is the sort of game you’d like to try out yourself.
The new edition of the game is already supported with the following supplements which were delivered to me in PDF format as part of the Kickstarter campaign’s perks:
There is a lot here to play with and there’s more on the way. For more information about the game and where to get it, see the Tunnels & Trolls website and/or the Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls blog. And note that if you’d prefer to run the original version of the game, both first edition and fourth edition are available at RpgNow. (Note however that among connoisseurs of vintage games, the fifth edition of the game may well be the definitive version, in no small part thanks to the editing and development provided by Liz Danforth. If you see one of those at the thrift store, you may want to grab it!)
One thing is that Rogue is not a thief. Rogue is a person with magical talent that has not been formally trained in magic. The rogue also can use all weapons types.
Thanks for the wonderful review. I purchased the pdf and have been playing it ever since. This would not have happened without thing your review. Thank you very much!