Monday, September 21, 2015

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part 5: Tunnels & Trolls Character Creation and Combat

Dungeons & Dragons was, of course, the first published RPG. However, when it was first released to a wide audience in 1974, it was quite expensive (thanks to the magic of inflation, those original three little books cost the equivalent of $50 in today's money - and dice weren't included, bringing it up to $65!), and was not well-distributed.

So it was that a young man by the name of Ken St. Andre heard about D&D late in 1974, and thought the concept sounded interesting, but was unable to find a copy to buy, or even peruse in his hometown of Phoenix... until one evening in April of 1975, when he visited the Flying Buffalo game store, and found that someone from out of town who was there that evening had a copy with him. Ken got to spend about an hour looking over the books, and, to quote him, said, "What a great concept! What a lousy execution! I’ll write something that me and my friends can play."
Over the course of the next week, he did exactly that, and then played his new game with friends the following weekend. It was a hit, and over the course of the next two months, more and more of his friends and their friends wanted to play... and many wanted copies of the rules.

Ken had done fanzines before, and decided to publish his game as a proper book. They'd been simply calling it "Dungeons & Dragons", but he knew they couldn't publish it with that name, so a discussion was held, and the name Tunnels & Trolls settled on. Ken prevailed on a friend to draw some illustrations, took the results down to the university copy shop, and had 100 copies made and stapled together for $60, planning to sell them to his friends at $1 a copy to recoup his costs. He also decided to spend $10 to register copyright for it.

He managed to sell 50 copies of that original print run to his friends, and persuaded Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo to try to sell the rest at a convention. Those copies sold out, Rick became interested in helping to publish the game, and T&T was off to a running start!

But we're about mechanics here. So, how did T&T differ from D&D?

Ken was a gamer, but he wasn't a miniatures gamer - thus, T&T had no "inches of movement" - indeed, it had no means of measuring movement at all, the presumption being that the action would simply be envisioned in the heads of the GM and players. It did encourage making maps on graph paper, but this was simply to aid the GM in keeping track of what was where in the dungeon, not to be used as a playing surface.

Characters had a very similar set of attributes to those from D&D, with the only difference being that Wisdom was removed as being too similar in concept to Intelligence, and Luck substituted in its stead. Just as in D&D, the attributes were generated by rolling 3d6 six times. Everything was done with six-sided dice, because Ken knew of no way to obtain polyhedral dice... but had plenty of six-sided dice from games that used those. As noted in part three of this series, OD&D made very little use of attributes. Tunnels & Trolls, however, made much fuller use of them, which we'll describe below.

Classes, levels, and races were features of T&T, but they were quite different from those in OD&D. To start with, the fantasy works that Ken was familiar with featured religion only in minor ways - and thus, he dumped the D&D cleric class (which went quite naturally with removing Wisdom as an attribute). The fighting-man and magic-user were retained (although "fighting-man" became "warrior"), and a third class was added: the rogue. This, however, was not a thief-type. Rather, it was a character who combined the ability to fight and do magic, along the lines of the Grey Mouser or Cugel the Clever. (The name going with them being "rogue magic-users" - people with the necessary talent, but who weren't members of the magic-users' guild.)

Levels worked very differently as well. In D&D, a character's level determined their combat ability and hit points. T&T, however, based both of these things on attributes. When a character gained a level in T&T, they could increase an attribute, with Strength or Constitution rising by the number of the new level (e.g., a character advancing to level 3 could choose to add 3 to their Strength or Constitution). This could be split, with each rising by half the level. Luck could be raised by double the new level, or one of the other attributes (Intelligence, Charisma, or Dexterity) could be raised by half the new level.

In addition, all three classes used the same experience table. Rogues were limited to 8th level, and could then choose to become either a full warrior or magic-user, becoming 5th level if they chose warrior, or 3rd if they chose magic-user.

The term "race" was avoided - T&T instead referred to "type", or, in later editions, "kindred". Types gave attribute adjustments, but via multipliers rather than adding or subtracting from them. Thus, a hobbit in 1st edition T&T has 1/2 their rolled Strength, but twice their rolled Constitution, and 3/2 their rolled Dexterity. The list of types was different as well, including D&D's dwarves, elves, and hobbits, but adding leprechauns and fairies. Multipliers were also given for giants, trolls, ogres, half-orcs, orcs, goblins, and gremlins, for the benefit of game masters who might wish to personalize their monsters a bit.

Available money was generated randomly, and used to buy equipment. Carrying ability was based on Strength. Weapons in the optional "Elaborations" (i.e., expanded rules, which were in the same book, just a different section) had minimum Strength and/or Dexterity requirements to use. Armor had no minimum attribute requirements, but did have weight, so low-Strength characters could not wear the heaviest armors.


As in D&D, combat was assumed to be a major activity in the game. A character's combat ability was based on their attributes, however: Strength, Dexterity, and Luck over 12 gave "combat adds", while those same stats gave minuses for values below 9. Thus, a character with Strength 14, Dexterity 10, and Luck 8 would have "combat adds" totaling +1.

These "adds" were added to the "dice and adds" that came from the character's weapon. A dagger gave 1 die (1d6, that is), a standard sword 2 dice, a flamberge 3 dice + 3 adds, and a poleaxe a massive 6 dice. Magic-users were limited to using only 1 die weapons, and did not receive combat adds for high attributes... but could still get penalties for low ones. This was meant to reflect that they had no training with weapons. They could wear armor.

Combat resolution was by each side rolling their dice and adding any adds they had to generate a total, which was referred to as their "hit points". The side with a higher total won the round, and the difference between their total and that of their opponents was done to the opponents as damage. This damage was to be divided between the members of the losing side as evenly as possible, with the note that magic-users should take the least if damage could not be divided evenly. Damage came off of Constitution, and when that was reduced to zero, the character was dead. Armor increased Constitution, absorbing damage until it was destroyed.

Before we get into further details of combat, a few observations. First off, the phrase "the best defense is a good offense" fits this system very well. This makes quite a bit of sense - a longer weapon helps keep a foe at bay, and also offers a greater area with which to defend. Attacking a competent sword-wielder with a dagger in real life is quite likely to get you killed without significantly hurting your opponent.

Second, the system of having players (and monsters!) add their combat rolls together makes a good deal of sense as well. Essentially, it abstracts the idea that party members are going to be assisting each other in combat. A poor combatant might not be a threat to the monster at all on their own - but by teaming up with someone else, they're creating a distraction, and they might be able to slip behind the foe and get a jab in while it's occupied with the fighter who's the "real threat".

This system abstracts melee to a much greater degree than D&D. There, each player rolls "to hit" separately, then rolls for damage if they did hit. Some gain more than one attack, and these attacks are resolved separately. Who dealt damage and to whom is definitely known. On one level, this all makes logical sense. On another level, however, it breaks down in conjunction with the details of the D&D combat system. Specific numbers of attacks per round, the use of defender facing in determining hit probability, parrying rules, the use of weapon length and speed, and using miniatures on a map all contributed to the feeling that D&D combat was supposed to be detailed and realistic... but the abstracted nature of hit points, armor that lowered the chance to hit rather than absorbing damage, and the one-minute melee round all argued for an abstract system.

Tunnels & Trolls' melee system, however, doesn't even allow attributing damage done to a particular combatant when there's more than one on each side. (Missiles and magic do, however, as we'll see.)

At the same time, though, the text of Tunnels & Trolls encourages the GM to adjust things as needed based on logical considerations. To quote:
"Each combat is a unique and individual experience that must really be played by ear. It is impossible, when you think about it, to have all 14 people in the party fighting three 30' high giants while in a passageway only 10' wide and 10' high. In the first place the giants couldn't get into the passage. Likewise if the tunnel is only wide enough for a single-file passage, you can't have all 14 hew into that cave bear that just came around the corner."
A couple of pages later, we have:
"[When] the group has enough time to prepare a plan, the caller will decide who is fighting what. He may say we're all attacking all the monsters [...] or he may specify that Furd is fighting the cave troll with his slingshot while Jiriel and I, Yardoom stand off the blue-fanged trolls."
So, T&T allows for such tactics as fighting in a narrow corridor so your stronger combatants can keep enemies off the weaker ones, forming a wall to prevent a monster from reaching someone, and so forth. When these things happen, the PCs and monsters would form multiple groups in the same combat, each group with its own opponent group. This allowed the players some level of control over who took how much damage.

For missile attacks, things worked very differently. If the target was a PC, they would make a Saving Roll to avoid being hit. If this failed, the GM would roll the monster's normal attack, but the PC would use their Luck as their defense, taking hits equal to (monster's attack total - PC's Luck).

If the target was a monster, the Dexterity and Luck of the PC would be added together, and the monster would roll its "monster dice" (which we'll discuss later on). If the monster's roll was lower, then it would be hit. The PC would then roll their attack dice for the weapon being used and add their combat adds, but adds (or minuses) from Dexterity would be doubled. The monster's roll of their monster dice would be applied as defense, so that (PC's attack total - monster dice total) would be the damage done.

This is an uncharacteristically complicated procedure for T&T, and would change in future editions.

We've just mentioned Saving Rolls and Monster Dice, so let's talk about those things quickly.

Saving Rolls

Where D&D's "saving throws" were mostly focused around avoiding the effects of magic, T&T's "saving rolls" were not. The rules state that they "are used chiefly to try and save a character from some form of mechanical (as opposed to magical) trap, for dodging missile weapons, for immunity to poisons, etc."

They were based on Luck, with the player rolling 2 dice and adding their Luck, trying to get a total of 15 + (5 x dungeon level) - i.e., 20 for the 1st level of a dungeon, 25 for the second, and so on. This however, was expressed a bit differently, as needing a roll of "20-luck number", "25-luck number", and so on. T&T continues to express saving rolls in this way even in the most recent edition (Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls), which somewhat puzzles this writer, since most people find addition easier to do than subtraction.

Doubles on a saving roll allowed the player to roll again and add, continuing to do so as long as doubles continued to be rolled. This gave even low-Luck characters a chance of making difficult saving rolls. However, on the opposite end, a roll below 5 was always a failure. In modern versions, this has been changed to "a roll of 3 is always failure" - a moment's thought will show that these are equivalent, because of the way doubles are treated.

Unlike D&D, saving rolls were not normally allowed against magic - whether in the form of spells or magical items.

Although not seen in this edition, in future versions, it would be mentioned that saving rolls could be based on other things than Luck - so, for example, a character with better Dexterity than Luck might use Dexterity to avoid a trap, Intelligence might be tested to try to spot a trap, and so on. While the idea of saving roll levels would remain, it would be decoupled from the dungeon level, making it simply an expression of difficulty.


As mentioned above, there were optional rules for treating the more humanoid sorts of monsters like player characters. However, in general, T&T used (and still uses) a very simplified system for monsters, called Monster Rating.

In this system, Monster Rating (MR) is the only statistic that most monsters have. In combat, a monster in 1st edition T&T gets a number of attack dice dependent on monster rating. They also receive combat adds dependent on MR, equal to MR/2 the first round of a combat, and MR/4 each round thereafter.

MR also doubles as the monster's damage capacity. The rules in 1st edition do not specify whether the monster's combat dice and adds fall as it takes damage. My understanding is that GMs interpreted this in several ways, from "yes, they do", to "no, they don't", and some using a middle ground of "adds fall, but dice stay the same". The last is the current rule in Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls.

Since monsters had only a Monster Rating and no Luck score, saving rolls worked differently for them as well, with MR used in place of luck, and difficulty being 50 + (50 x dungeon level). Unlike PCs, monsters could automatically make saving rolls. Of course, monsters with player-style attributes simply used their Luck.

Because the MR system is so simple, the original T&T rulebook had no monster section at all - the GM could simply make up any monster, assign it an MR, and be done. The general T&T rule of "adjust when it makes sense" applied, of course - as the quotes about combat mention above, a 30' tall giant shouldn't be allowed to enter a 10' tall passage. A dragon's breath weapon would simply be treated as a missile weapon attack. Any additional abilities a GM might want to give a monster could be represented via saving rolls (e.g., a poisonous snake with a low MR, but whose bite requires a saving roll to avoid death), or, in rare instances, by allowing the creature to cast one of the system's spells.

There was a suggestion that "puny monsters, like rats or dogs" should have ratings below 30, that a troll would be between 26 and 40, that a balrog might have MR 250, and a dragon MR 500. Lastly, it was specified that invisible monsters should have their MR doubled.

MR continues to be the standard method of handling monsters in T&T to this day. On the positive side, this means that T&T, unlike other systems, has never needed extensive bestiaries. The MR system also has the bonus that it makes balancing fights very easy on the GM - in general, an MR that gives dice and adds comparable to those of the party as a whole will give a balanced fight. (Of course, old-school games didn't worry about balance in the same way that modern ones do; rather, parties were expected to flee from obviously superior monsters, and to find ways to try to even the odds against others.)

On the negative side, in the hands of a new or unskilled GM, this system tends to cause all monsters to feel the same - it's up to the GM's narrative ability to make fighting different types of monsters feel different. Further, if players choose to interact with a monster in a way other than fighting it, it's entirely up to the GM how that will work. Saving rolls can be used for a general mechanism, but early versions of T&T don't even suggest that.

Next time, we'll discuss the magic system of 1st edition T&T, and talk about how the system compares vis-a-vis the original Dungeons & Dragons.

1 comment:

  1. In my early gaming days I always preferred T&T's simplistic setup to D&D. I never played under the original rules, they iterated quite quickly up to the 5th edition I used most of the time, after all.
    If you felt lucky, or had obvious superiority over the enemy, just rolling the dice and narrating the combat was fun.
    If you were outmatched, trying to come up with ways to 'even the odds' via roleplaying / skullduggery / abuse of the magic system was always encouraged. It was a narrative style game long before anyone thought to make that a term. Make it fun, keep it flowing, and let the bodies fall where they may.
    T&T character creation was simple to a fault, but it also allowed for large parties where players ran bunches of fodder troops. As the fodder wore down, the ones that survived could pick up a level or two and start breaking into meaningful levels of power from the attribute improvements.
    The GM's job was made both easier and harder by the lack of monster books, since as you mentioned, keeping the game entertaining could be a challenge.
    If every fight was just another roll 15d6+20 against the party's 14d6+30 and do simple math -- it could get old quick.


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