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[Tunnels & Trolls] Killed me a player-character (spit)

Started by Ron Edwards, April 29, 2003, 08:28:13 PM

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Ron Edwards


We played Tunnels & Trolls, fulfilling a (h'mm, umm) 24-year-old dream of mine. Yup, I bought the Fifth Edition in 1979 and read it to pieces; I even still find my notes from back then stuffed into the book. It took a little hunting, but I even found my old mapping paper.

However, T&T really wasn't my game of choice at the time. I was to discover what I actually wanted a year later when The Fantasy Trip line came out with Advanced Melee/Wizard and In the Labyrinth. I'd figured out that Gamist strategizing wasn't what I was looking for, and the whole T&T philosophy of "Roll to see how much you suck, then count on pluck and quick thinking to get ramped up to badassery" didn't look like any fantasy fiction I'd read. Grimtooth's Traps and the aggressive Gamism, as I now recognize it, in Ken St. Andre's and Bear Peterson's dungeon designs seemed like pure sadism. H'm, in retrospect, they still do, but that's neither here nor there. The point is that I never did see the later adventure scenarios (Sea of Mystery, Captif d'Yvoire, Beyond the Wall of Sleep) which, as I now recognize it, represent a radical shift to Narrativist play spearheaded (I suspect) by Mike Stackpole and Liz Danforth. I can see the same transition, or more accurately, a division of response, in the articles and editorials of the Sorcerer's Apprentice magazine, the T&T mag that represents - to my thinking - among the most powerful early literature of the hobby.

Anyway, 24 years ago, I just put T&T aside and wrote it off as "more D&D." Every so often I'd turn back to it, mainly in appreciation of Liz Danforth's art and some niggling suspicion, based on my single issue of Sorcerer's Apprentice I had at the time, that something about it wasn't quite as wargamey as I thought. It wasn't until a couple of years ago that I figured it out. That's not the point of this thread, and I'll reserve it for the Gamism essay.

The point of this thread is the session we played on Sunday, the first of many to come as our intrepid heroes (and their successors, should they die; rinse, repeat) explore the depths of the Dungeon of the Spike-Crowned Throne.

Umm, where to start? Well, I did kill a player-character fairly early in ... Maura had managed to roll a truly sucky character with a big bankroll, so they all decided to include this character for outfitting-the-party purposes. I should clarify that I had all three players roll up two characters apiece, then pick which one they'd start with. Assumed first-level mortality is not always borne out in T&T play, but it's better to be pleasantly surprised when they live to second level, rather than otherwise. Anyway, the character managed to survive a couple of encounters until the group was cornered by berserk bandits, and only a couple of imaginative saving rolls kept the other two alive long enough to sprint the hell out of the ruins.

Maura, no slouch, and a veteran of both Hero Wars and kill puppies for satan, was not to be forestalled, and she swung into play with her barely-better warrior hobbit ... who in the second half of one session, has already earned Potential Favorite Player-Character of the year. I don't even know the little fucker's name and she's an utter nutbar. "That's the body of my last character, right? I take the lantern and the short sabre." "I chase the bandits around with the hand" [that she'd just cut off of one of them] "and get them all pissed off!" "Let's kill one of them so gruesomely that it shocks all the rest of them out of being berserk!"

Combat in T&T works like this. Let's say my character has a sword with does 3+2 (roll 3d6 and add 2) and I have +4 personal adds (which are derived from my attributes). So I roll 3d6 and add 6. Everyone else does the same thing with their weapon and their adds. Got it? Add'em all up! Meanwhile, the GM rolls a fistful of dice for his monsters and adds a number as well, based on something called a Monster Rating.

We compare the numbers - say the GM's total is 86 and the players' is 61. 25 points of difference gets spread evenly across the player-characters as damage, with the odd point basically being assigned gratuitiously or something. So then the characters subtract their armor from that individual damage and take the rest off their Constitution scores, which are basically 0-you're-dead. If those totals had been reversed, then the GM would have subtracted 25 from the monster's (or monsters') Monster Rating and reduced its fistful o'dice accordingly.

Fuck! I just realized I did something all wrong last Sunday ... I forgot to add half the Monster Rating to the monsters' totals. Those snakes would have been a lot more dangerous, wouldn't they? Oh well, that's the first session of old-school Gamist play for you. I don't think I've ever played such a game without the GM bollixing up the rules somehow during the initial session. When we played the 1976 D&D, we thought all rolls to hit were 13 or higher because that's what the example did; we didn't figure out armor class until much later. But I digress.

If basic T&T combat strikes you as incredibly abstract, you're right. There's no roll-to-hit; it's all encapsulated in one roll. The group rolls as a unit. The combat-round represents two minutes of in-game time. It is pure dice and pure arithmetic, and since we're rolling 8-10 dice on each side and (essentially) taking the difference, the bell-curve effect is extreme - in other words, highly predictable outcomes.

Magic isn't much different - you spend your Strength points (0 Strength = you're dead, what you expected "fall asleep" or some nonsense like that?) and cast your spell. I especially like the raw cynicism of the spell-acquisition system; you just pay through the nose and that's it. Even better, if you're playing a rogue, then the Guild won't sell spells to you, so you are limited to buying them from wizard player-characters at whatever rate their players feel like (the rulebook is very explicit about this; NPC wizards don't count).

So where's the fun? I shall quote from my comments in a recent thread called Sell me Tunnels & Trolls!:

QuoteT&T wants nothing to do with verisimilitude - it's all about strategy. You've got attributes, weapons, armor, and spells. Fighting's all about what weapon and armor you've got (attribute dependent), magic is all about your Strength resources. Effectiveness is all about your Strength, Dexterity, and Luck.

Levels just add to your attributes. Money pays for more spells, more armor, and more weapons. (That's right, never mind "learning" spells. Buy them. Get over it.) Your characters will die, probably. Make up a few and make sure that the dead characters' maps make it topside so your new ones can use them.

What makes all of this more interesting than a mere statistical grind is what the rules call, in their 1979 blessed innocence, "Saving Rolls." They are not frigging Saving Rolls - they are attribute checks. You have seven attributes and the Saving Roll rules apply all the time, in the most open-ended, mind-bogglingly flexible task resolution system ever.

Let me illustrate - my li'l 2nd level fighter stares in horror at the balrog. If we use the Weapon + Adds vs. Monster Rating method (the standard system), my character gets roasted and eaten post-haste. But I can come up with any strategic action, base it reasonably off any attribute that makes sense, and the GM will assign me a "Saving Roll" at some difficulty level. If I make it, we just ignore the combat system and carry on with whatever I wanted to do. Maybe my character jumps onto the balrog's head and then hops off behind him (DEX). Maybe he suddenly sells him a used sword (IQ). Maybe it's a chick balrog and ... (CHR).

Way before "raises" in L5R. Way before skill checks and skill lists. Way before so-called free-form role-playing or any silliness about roll/role. It's all right there.

[In our game], the hobbit character made a DEX "saving roll" during a fight scene, in hopes of slicing a hand off a foe, at the player's request. She succeeded. During the next round, the player stated that the character *chases the other bandits around with the hand* during combat.

I awarded her another Saving Roll, this one on Charisma, to see if the character was so obnoxious such that the other player-characters got free shots at the bandits. She succeeded.

Dude, this game is ... unspeakably simple (and even bloody-minded), and yet as you play, this incredible secondary system kicks in and you suddenly realize that Amber and Over the Edge had merely re-invented or simply drawn attention to elements of an already-existing wheel ...

What else happened? H'mmm ... they managed to kill Belvius and his mob of ensorcelled bandits, although the mystery behind their maddened behavior and their glowing blue eyes remains a mystery. They racked up enough coinage to get some decent weapons and armor, which they will need. They are puzzled by what seems to be someone cleaning up the first level, including mopping the floors. They are further puzzled by these magic goblins who keep appearing and attacking them when they try to leave the place. And why are there snakes all over the place? Especially when the locals insist that snakes have been mysteriously absent from the countryside nigh on several years now?

Join us again for blood-maddened mayhem, rampant pillaging, yet more corridors beneath the ruins by the lake, and more! Is it all just a random GM-doors & traps fest? Or is there some actual "thing going on" that gives this dungeon a reason to delve in it? Will that "thing" be funny and wicked without turning into some God damn story? Will the name of the nearby town (which just happens to stock any imaginable weapon, armor, or spell) ever be revealed? Could it be that the delvers might actually see the glimmerings of second level before being skewered, eaten, and or burned alive?

It is so different to prep for this game ... it's like a whole 'nother brain lobe or something.



Ron, I copied the link to this post to RadioFreeTrollworld, and got a response from the Trollgod himself, which I post back here:

Quote from: Ken St. Andre
From: Ken St <>
Subject: Re: [RadioFreeTrollworld] Great T&T post on the Forge

Ha, that was a cool post in the Forge.  It's always a blast to see someone discover that the essence of T & T is not head to head your dice versus mine, but roleplay using your imagination and the saving roll system.  He probably thinks that serendipity happened by accident.  Maybe it did, but my phoenix gang of players caught onto the idea real fast, and we'd go after anything.


Also, for a walk on the gamist wild side, Ken's been posting writeups of his original Gristlegrim dungeon to the web for awhile now, they are collected at:

Jack Spencer Jr

Interesting. I was a part of the on-line T&T thing, such as it is, mostly lurking and I recall rumblings of a 6th edition of T&T when D&D 3e was going to come out. The fans thought it would be cool to wear shirts that read 6e with all of the 3e stuff going on, but I digress.

The only solid thing that came of this was Ken had announced that he & Mike decided to meet to discuss the possibility of a new edition, which unfortunately or fortunately did not produce any fruit. That is, pity no new edition but probably for the best if Ken was going gamist and Mike was pulling for narrativist. There are enough incoherent game on the market.

Thanks for the post, Ron. I may dig up my T&T collection and read through some stuff.

Ron Edwards

Hi there,

It's wonderful to get Ken's feedback, even if it's second-hand. I met Mike Stackpole at the GAMA Trade Show and really enjoyed our conversation, and it's one of my dreams actually to meet Liz Danforth, whose art has always provided class, humor, and grace to any book it's in. All of the above are welcome at the Forge, any time.

His word "discover" isn't quite right, as I've perceived the hidden power in T&T rules for a long time (a search on the Forge will show some of it). I can live with that, though - we certainly agree on the point.

Cruising around the relevant websites over the last few months, I discovered all the talk about a sixth edition, and you know? I guess I'm a boring monkey, because I really like good ol' Fifth just the way it is. A new printing of the 79 edition (with the Danforth art) would be especially wonderful, but that's just a matter of availability, not revision.


edited to provide a key adjective which I'd been stupid enough to miss typing the first time around (in bold above)


Well, there's always Ebay.  I just picked up a copy myself based on the linked thread at and this thread.  Specifically, I'm curious about whether I can use ideas from it for my own Thugs & Thieves.  Two games, same initials... Coincidence?  Well, yeah, but it's still amusing...


Flying Buffalo *is* in the process of reprinting the current edition.  Actually, it's going to be edition 5.1, as it will include Buffalo Castle, Ken's house rules, and if I remember correctly, a page or two of new material from Michael Stackpole.  Should be shipping in a month or two.


At first I was thinking "This will be interesting" having been long titillated by mentions of T&T gaming in various places. However, when you described the system -- prior to the quote -- I lost interest. It was way too "boardgame management" for me (which is an interesting reaction on my part given my proclivities). When you mentioned the Saving Rolls and what they did, by the Gods, I suddenly started drooling.

So, I went from interest, to no interest, to desire. Bring it with to GenCon, I serioulsy demand we play a session at some point during the long weekend!
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Ron Edwards

Hi Nathan,

Raven's referring to my comments in my first post. A "Saving Roll" in T&T is only superficially similar to the mechanic of that name in the earlier versions of D&D and AD&D. In T&T, it's an attribute check.

The rules use the concept of first level, second level, etc, Saving Rolls. This designates a number: 20 (1st), 25, 30, etc. You subtract your relevant attribute from the number, then try to get that result or better on 2d6.

Example: I have DEX 14, so for a 1st level DEX Saving Roll, I subtract 14 from 20 to get 6, then try to get 6 or higher on 2d6. For a 2nd level roll, it would be trying to get 11 or higher, and so on.

Two things to keep in mind. (1) In T&T, the attribute values are utterly non-Sim, so at least a couple values of 25+ are common in characters of 2nd or 3rd level. (2) Doubles for Saving Rolls explode (i.e. you re-roll and add).

Let's take a look at the math again, and do some algebra, using the 1st level example ...

20 - DEX = TN on 2d6 (roll to equal or exceed)

Hey! That means ... DEX + 2d6 = 20 or higher! In other words, it's a classic attribute check and graded difficulty TN system. Look closely, folks - this is where this resolution technique was invented.

As I said before you have six attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Luck, and Charisma; seven if you count Speed. You can make Saving Rolls on all of them. That's a hell of a lot of player-character activity and options spread across these features, in any given situation.

The rules are very explicit that either a GM or a player may call for a Saving Roll (the buck stops at the GM to permit it and to set the difficulty). What that means is that pure Social Contract must evolve in each group regarding when and how this flexibility applies - which I now realize is a precise parallel with the Social Contract for defining and applying Humanity in Sorcerer. In T&T, the issue is in-game events, the logistics of conflicts, and even the nature of conflicts; in Sorc, the issue is value judgments regarding decisions.

I hope that helps a little. I think Raven is enthusing about how sophisticated the system is, in terms of flexible/complex outcomes using very simple rules.



Our first session of Tunnels and Trolls was a lot of fun, and Maura definitely gets the Sam Raimi award for inventive torment with a hand.  Here is a synopsis of part of the OOC conversation:  

M--I'm gonna be poking them with the fingers.
J--Won't you need to stop occassionally to straighten the fingers as they curl  into the palm?
M--Nah. I'm holding the hand palm up so they natually extend out [demonstrates with her own hand, still attached]

The system requires a bit more number crunching than the games we've been playing lately, but it is straight forward number crunching.  I like that attribute scores do not immediately pigeonhole a character into playing a warrior or a wizard--very different from my past experience with AD&D.  My wizard character's highest attribute is strength which so far has worked well since spell casting drains strength.  This seems to be a good example of a strain based magic being discussed elsewhere (see">Exhaustion/Strain based Magic ... ).   As strengh drops not only is spell-casting impossible, but plain weapons based combat becomes less effective.  I also like the ADDS score, what Ron referred to above as effectiveness, even if I mis-applied it, in my favor no less, during the first half of the game.  

I'm looking forward to our second session.  And if Ron didn't make the monsters as dangerous as they could have been, we will need to take more advantage of that saving throw mechanic!



Hey Ron,

I both own and have played T&T, so I'm familiar with the system. I was just wondering why the saving roll mechanic particularly sparked Raven from "yawn" to "drool." It's always seemed pretty basic to me.

J B Bell


What a trip down memory lane.  I'd forgotten the saving roll stuff.  Remember the mass-market paperback edition of T&T?

This was my first role-playing game ever.  My first character ever, Torrac the Dwarven Wizard, made it to 13th level (my friends and I played insane Monty Haul and cheated like crazy on the solo modules).  It's all about Dwarven wizards, baby, because they come with the Big Strength Battery.

I started hating its Gamism as a GM early on (my friend was VERY Gamist, quite happy to stay up until 3 AM playing Rogue or Moria on the computer, something I still boggle at), but we had some good times with it all right.

I never exploited the Saving Roll thing much.  Dang, now I want this game again.  Priorities . . . gotta get Trollbabe and Charnel Gods first.


P.S. I also totally failed to get clever cultural references like "Death Spell Number Nine" . . .
"Have mechanics that focus on what the game is about. Then gloss the rest." --Mike Holmes

Mike Holmes

Quote from: J B Bell(my friend was VERY Gamist, quite happy to stay up until 3 AM playing Rogue or Moria on the computer, something I still boggle at)

Dude, I just gave up playuing Angband in marathon sessions so I could start up with Troubles of Middle Earth (TOME) which combines the best of all of the Roguelike games, AFAICT. Including elements of Omega.

I can do pure Gamism like nobody's business. :-)

But I find that "programmed" stuff like T&T or CRPGs serve this need best. The thing is that with RPGs I see the ability to do more; stuff that can't be done in T&T or a CRPG. So when I play an RPG, I want some Sim or some Nar (and preferably both). Not that these games have to be devoid of challenge, but that they should have the other explorative elements in as well in some measure.

Now, one can inject these into T&T. But that's a drift I'm not willing to make myself. Not when a bejillion other games exist to serve that need. :-)

I'm not saying it's a bad game, I'm just saying that it's a highly Gamist game.

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Quote from: Paganinijust wondering why the saving roll mechanic particularly sparked Raven from "yawn" to "drool." It's always seemed pretty basic to me.
Academically: because it's so completely ahead of its time.
Play-wise: because we're talking the ability to do that cool stuff in D&D that you have to plot out with ridiculous amounts of moves or while suffering huge penalties, or that require feats or skills, or which aren't even possible given the system.

I mean...she cut off a hand! Don't you see? CUT OFF A HAND!

To do that in D&D means rolling at -8 penalty (or worse) AND doing enough damage that the DM will say, "OK, you cut off the hand" -- if s/he even allows the action in the first place -- AND dealing with the fact that all the DM is going to do is knock a few hitpoints off said maimed opponent, and maybe use it for a future plot-twist if the opponent runs away.

But this saving roll idea is so completely and utterly different that, well, wow! It boggles the hell is this in any way, shape, or form basic? It's such a division from the standard methods of gaming even today!

Mechanically: its simple. Really, really simple. I have wanted something like that for D&D for years. And here it has been sitting in this old first-generation RPG this whole time.

Why wouldn't this be a cool thing?
Rev. Ravenscrye Grey Daegmorgan
Wild Hunt Studio

Ron Edwards


One of the things that Mike Stackpole and I discussed at the GTS was the difference that appeared in the solo adventures as time passed. In the early ones, the choices (i.e. which numbers you chose to go to) were mainly whether the character decided to turn left or right, or to ignore something or approach it. I've mapped out quite a few of these and found them to be roads-to-Rome - no matter which you choose, if you live, you'll eventually get to the same number. The scenario is basically a linear string of Romelets.

These adventures were also marked by a particularly savage kill-count, in that occasionally just choosing to go left would wax you, or forcing obscenely difficult Saving Rolls with dire consequences for failure. It always made sense in terms of that solo's philosophy of play (what's "smart" and what's "dumb") but, as pointed out in the introduction to Beyond the Silvered Pane, those philosophies differed quite a bit. That's not a bad thing, but an interesting point about Gamist design right there. Some writers/GMs were all about cautious and information-based tactics, and others were all about chutzpah.

Anyway, the later solos based their reader/player options on something very different - literally, ethical choices. You go to #X if your sister's life is more important to you than exploring the interesting path, to #Y if it's not. You throw the dagger at the woman who's just sat up in bed, or you don't. Mapping these solos out shows that whole sections or areas of "the solo world" could be missed and that was OK. In a very few of them, who or what a given NPC actually was (good guy or bad guy) even depended on these choices. Also, in these solos, the difficulty of the Saving Rolls and the monsterosity of the foes was a calculated function of the character's own level, not a fixed quantity per book. One of my favorites is "Rogue's Quest" in Sorcerer's Apprentice #8, but the published Sea of Mystery, Beyond the Wall of Sleep, Captif d'Yvoire, and Sewers of Oblivion all had many elements along these lines.

A very Gamist (and wonderfully successful at it) game, yes. But Gamism-absent-Simulationism is very similar, procedurally and philosophically, to Narrativism-absent-Simulationism. Change the prevailing Social Contract, back it up with scene framing and with the reward system, and the one quite easily becomes the other.

Now, in our present game, I'm doing nothing of the sort. My goal is to kill the player-characters in circumstances in which I deliberately do not power-up the opposition too far above them. I am providing color, temptation, and plenty of rope for them to hang themselves, as well as a generous dose of potential for Bad Luck to strike as well. The players have their resources, their ingenuity, and their pluck, and we'll see if any of them can be a winner.