Monday, September 28, 2015

Toward a History of RPG Mechanics, Part 6: Tunnels & Trolls Magic and Miscellany

Last time, we started off looking at the second-created RPG, Tunnels & Trolls, with a bit of delving into the character creation and combat system. Now, we turn to magic.

Magic-Users and Spells

Having already seen how Ken St. Andre chose to make attributes more meaningful in T&T than they were in OD&D, it should come as no surprise that he continued this with the magic system. OD&D's magic system is based purely on class and level - while we're told that Intelligence is the primary attribute for magic-users, the magic rules of pre-Greyhawk OD&D do not actually use the character's Intelligence in any way. Instead, what spells they can possibly cast depends on the character's level, and how many spells they can cast does too. Spells are also assigned a level, but spell levels do not have a 1-to-1 relationship with character levels.

In T&T, spells are still organized into spell levels, but what determines whether you can cast spells of a given level is your Intelligence (IQ, as T&T abbreviates it) and Dexterity (DX). 1st-level spells are not given an IQ requirement, but higher level ones require an IQ of (8 + 2 x spell level). All spells require DX of (7 + spell level). The highest level of spells given in the 1st edition of T&T is 17th, requiring IQ 42 and DX 24!

As in D&D, however, magic-users do not automatically know spells simply because they're theoretically capable of casting them. They do start off knowing all 1st-level spells, but gaining access to higher level spells requires learning them. T&T, however, posits a magic-users' guild, which teaches spells. Thus, characters can spend money to learn new spells, with set amounts being given for each level (in contrast to D&D, where the acquisition of new spells for magic-users was left essentially to GM fiat in placing spell books as treasure, and/or deciding what spells NPC magic-users would teach and for what price).

Strength (ST) was also a considerable factor for magic-users. Instead of using the D&D 'Vancian' system, with a set number of spells of each level that a magic-user could memorize and cast, T&T instead gave each spell a cost to cast, measured in ST points (taking the fairly common fantasy idea that casting spells fatigues the caster). For 1st level spells, these costs ranged from 1 to 10 ST (excepting the Detect Magic 'spell', which was described as an inherent power that cost no ST to use). Spell costs tended to increase at higher levels - the lowest cost for 3rd and 4th level spells was 7 ST, the lowest for 5th level spells was 15, and the 17th level spell "Born Again", which could allow the magic-user to reincarnate another PC or even themself cost a whopping 208 ST! Spent ST would recover at 1 point / turn (10 minutes of in-game time).

There were, however, two ways to lower the cost of a spell. The first was by gaining levels: a magic-user of higher level than the spell they were casting had the ST cost reduced by 1 for each level they had over the spell's level. Thus, a 3rd level magic-user casting a 1st-level spell had the cost reduced by 2 points. This could not, however, reduce the cost below 1 ST - Detect Magic was the only "free spell", no matter how good a magic-user you were.

The second was through use of a magic staff. One could either be bought or made, and either type reduced the cost of casting any spell by the magic-user's level (again, to a minimum of 1). Self-made staves would "burn out" once the magic-user had used it to cast spells with a total ST cost of 2 x IQ, but bought ones would last forever. Of course, any player of a magic-user would make it a point to buy a permanent staff as soon as possible. Thus, in practice, a magic-user would almost never pay 'full price' to cast a spell.

T&T also designated several spells as being able to be cast at higher levels. Doing so increased the cost of the spell - adding one level to it doubled the cost, adding two levels tripled it, and so forth. However, it also doubled the potency of the spell for each additional level it was cast with, giving an exponential increase in spell power. When cast in such a way, however, the new level of the spell would be what was compared with the magic-user's level when calculating any discount on the ST cost. (The new level would also be used for the IQ and DX requirements to cast the spell - thus, you couldn't "boost" a spell up to a level you weren't qualified to cast!)

For an example, let's use the basic attack spell of T&T: "Take That, You Fiend". This 1st-level spell allows a magic-user to use their IQ as a weapon in combat, and costs 6 ST to cast. A 3rd-level magic-user casting it in its basic form, using a staff, would pay only 1 ST for the casting (6, -3 for the staff, -2 for being 2 levels higher than the spell). Casting it at 2nd level would cost 10 ST (6 doubles to 12 for boosting a level, -3 for staff, -1 for being one level higher than the new spell level), and casting at 3rd level would cost 15 ST (6 triples to 18, -3 for the staff)... but would add 4x the caster's IQ to the party's combat total! Since the minimum IQ to cast a 3rd-level spell is 14, this would be at least 56 points.

Interestingly enough, the rules of 1st edition T&T do not limit a magic-user to casting spells of their own level or below - hypothetically, a 1st-level magic-user lucky enough to have IQ 18, DX 12, and ST 14 could cast the 5th-level "Dear God?" spell, if they spent the 2000 gold pieces to learn it!

A total of 69 spells are presented in the original T&T. These are heavily weighted toward low-level spells - while they go up to 17th level, more than half are 4th level and below. However, 27 of the spells presented can be boosted in level. Many of them are similar in effect to D&D spells, but they often vary significantly in level from their D&D counterparts. There are also quite a few that do not correspond to any D&D spell, including several spells meant to boost the effectiveness of other party members by enchanting their weapons and armor. These include some effects that D&D would add to its spell lists later on - Wall of Thorns, Ghostly Going (an astral projection spell), Summoning (to call up demons), and even Take That You Fiend (which is effectively D&D's later-added magic missile).

Several D&D spells don't have equivalents in the original T&T. These are mostly spells that would be useful outdoors, such as move earth, hallucinatory terrain, and massmorphPass-wall is also given no equivalent, which, together with the others, may betray a focus on the 'dungeon' environment greater than that imagined by Gygax. Several of the more Biblically-oriented clerical spells are left out as well, such as turn sticks to snakes, part water, and insect plague.

But while most of the individual spells are similar to D&D ones, the system as a whole is definitely very different. T&T's magic system would be an inspiration to the writers of many other early fantasy RPGs, much more so than D&D's, as we will see as this series continues.

Odds & Ends

It's of note that the original version of T&T gives nothing to warriors to give them any sort of advantage over rogues. Magic-users are limited to one-die weapons (if they wish to retain combat adds), disadvantaging them significantly in combat; rogues start off not automatically knowing any spells, and can only learn new ones if a magic-user who knows it is willing to use the Teach spell to teach it to them (they can't learn spells by reading them, and can't create new spells). They also don't get the ST cost discount for casting lower level spells that magic-users do (it's unclear whether they can use a staff in 1st edition).

This is likely the motivation behind limiting rogues to 7th level. Interestingly, 1st edition T&T does allow characters to switch classes, with the limits that a character who began as a warrior can never become a magic-user, and that anyone who switches classes loses all previous experience points and must start over at 1st level. They apparently also lose all the ability score advancements they had gained, since the rules comment that they might as well just roll up a new character. Rogues, then, get a special benefit here, since at 7th level they can choose to become a 5th level warrior or 3rd level magic-user. Whether they kept ability advancements isn't stated, but it seems likely that they did. Indeed, the rules suggest that if you have a character whose Luck is their highest ability (thus, making them good at surviving saving rolls, if nothing else), that you start them as a rogue. This would make good sense if you could earn XP as a rogue and advance the attributes you need for the class you plan to eventually take.

The rest of what's in 1st edition T&T is a bit of a grab-bag. There's a page of adventuring equipment, rules for weapons that are made of things other than steel (iron, bronze, copper, or stone), various GM advice on creating and stocking dungeons and running the game, and rules for berserkers. Let's look at that last:

PCs with IQ 8 or less always go berserk when they are eligible to. Those with IQ 16 or greater never do, unless forced to by magic. Characters using missile weapons do not go berserk. A character has an opportunity to go berserk when they get doubles on their combat dice, or get a 6 if they only have one combat die.

While berserk, the character gets no combat adds or subtracts (making it very appealing for characters with low combat attributes!). They still roll their normal weapon dice, and if two or more of their dice come up with the same number, they re-roll those dice and add them to the previous total, continuing to do so as long as they still have matches. Each matching group is treated separately, however, so a character with 5 combat dice who rolled 1, 3, 3, 5, 5 would roll the pair of 3's and see if they came up with another pair until they failed to do so, then repeat with the pair of 5's.

Those with only one combat die simply get an automatic six. A character with only two dice who does not roll a pair lowers their higher die to match their lower one to make a pair, then continues from there.

Each round that a character is berserk, they lose 2 ST. If their ST goes to 5 or less, they become too weak to fight, and stop berserking. Otherwise, they can be stopped either by someone with a Charisma of 15 or better choosing to calm them down, or by making a saving roll for them to recognize their friends and stop; this saving roll can only be tried once. Lastly, any magic-user spell that knocks them out also ends their berserking (so, a Sleep spell can be useful to stop them!).

An exhausted Berserker (reduced to ST 5 or less) cannot fight, but can still be in a fight - that is, can still take damage if the other side wins a round. Lost ST from berserking recovered the same as that used for casting spells - at 1 point / turn.

Man-like monsters could also go berserk, but had very different rules for it:

They would go berserk on a reaction roll of 2 (worst possible) or if cornered alone and 'facing certain death'. Further, when half or more a group of monsters was slain, the GM was to roll 2d6 for each remaining monster: on a 10 or higher, that monster would go berserk; otherwise, it would try to run away.

Berserk monsters got to roll their normal dice and use 1/2 their MR as adds. Further, they would get to re-roll 1s on their monster dice and add. Their combat score would be taken separately from that of other, non-berserk monsters instead of being added in. Thus, berserk monsters do not coordinate with others!

They would lose 5 MR each round, but would never become exhausted - the rules say "they continue snapping feebly at your boots until they have gasped their last gasp."

Summing Up

The authors of Runequest put this dedication in the second edition:
This book is dedicated to Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax, who first opened Pandora's box, and to Ken St. Andre, who found it could be opened again.
Tunnels & Trolls wasn't really needed to show that - plenty of others were working on other RPGs at the time. However, it did expand the field of RPG mechanics in some important ways. The first was the emphasis on using attributes to do things, instead of class and level. Outside of its use to lower the casting cost of spells, level in T&T was nothing more than a track of when and how much you'd get to increase attributes. This in turn pointed the way toward the idea of level-less and class-less systems.

Second, it was the first deliberately simplified RPG, a reaction to the confusing mass that D&D was, with 112 pages split into 3 books (156 if you include Chainmail). T&T managed to put its basic rules into 31 pages, with 10 pages in the "Elaborations" (excluding the magic rules, which I'm counting as part of the basic rules). The smaller size made T&T easier to learn, and also meant that finding things was not as painful as in OD&D, where, for example, to find all the abilities that an elven player character had required looking in all three books (the basic description of the elf PC race in Men & Magic, the special abilities of elves mentioned in Monsters & Treasure, and the rules for finding secret door in The Underworld & Wilderness Adventures).

The use of attributes directly as "hit points" and "mana pool" was a simple and seemingly obvious jump that many RPGs would borrow. T&T also introduced the idea of exploding rolls, with the "doubles add and roll again" rule for saving rolls, permitting any character to have a chance, however slim it might be, of succeeding at any saving roll.

Third, as Dale Newton pointed out in his comment on the last column, T&T was leaning in a narrativist direction before there was such a term. Gygax spent a good deal of effort on realism - we can see that in the weapons vs armor matrices of Chainmail, which would be brought into the D&D "alternative combat system" in Greyhawk, and make another appearance in the first edition of AD&D. Ken St. Andre chose to model T&T primarily after 'sword & sorcery' fiction, but also brought in elements of superheroes and of children's fantasy (the Wall of Thorns spell actually states "as in Sleeping Beauty"). While D&D also it emphasized the use of common sense and going with 'what makes a good story', the size and detail of the rules presented tended to drown those admonitions out somewhat. T&T's smaller size lent proportionally greater weight to the admonitions in it.

Also, Gygax presented the D&D rules largely as a fait accompli - as if they'd sprung fully-formed from his and Arneson's heads. In contrast, T&T was written with a tone more as if Ken was talking to you, with phrases like "if anyone ever gets more than a million experience points, let that person decide what the higher levels are up from there", examples mentioned of what other people had done in their games (with their names!), Ken addressing the reader with "I" when describing how he did certain things, but finishing with the suggestion to try it a few different ways and see which you liked, and the crediting of certain rules to other creators.

The net result is that T&T's rules invited those using them to tweak and change them, in a way more clear than D&D did. By the time I joined the hobby, in the early 1980s, Gary Gygax was regularly making admonitions in Dragon magazine that the AD&D rules should not be changed or tinkered with, but T&T never lost its open, somewhat 'gonzo' feel.

Next time, we'll be stepping on to the first RPG to step outside the fantasy genre - Blume & Gygax's Boot Hill!

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