Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Why Tunnels and Trolls is so important to roleplaying

I'm not going to say that it's a crime that Tunnels and Trolls isn't more popular, but it's a damned shame. What makes it worse is that it's one of the most important roleplaying games ever conceived and a work of genius. Why? Let me tell you.

The year is 1974 and two visionaries - Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson give metaphorical birth to a highly unusual game. But for some, Dungeons and Dragons was overly complex and relied a bit too much on its wargaming heritage. One of these people was Ken St. Andre, a Phoenix librarian without a background in miniatures gaming, but a healthy love of science fiction, fantasy and comic books. Ken loved the idea of a roleplaying game, but didn't like D&D's execution, so in 1975 he released his own version. Originally Tunnels and Troglodytes, Tunnels and Trolls was arguably the second roleplaying game on the market (it gets a bit hazy here because Empire of the Petal Throne was self-published in 1974 and released by TSR in 1975 - but this was still based on D&D rules).

T&T re-invented what the roleplaying game could be. Instead of tables, funny dice and complex rules, Ken created a ruleset for himself and his friends that felt a world away from D&D. He introduced a universal mechanic in the saving roll that could be applied to any situation. The Monster Rating invention allowed GMs to create monsters on the fly with just one number and some imagination, and the stripped back class system was much simpler than in D&D. T&T was indie before indie was a thing.

While D&D became more rules-heavy through subsequent editions, T&T remained refreshingly simple, which was partly due to Ken's ethos of wanting to make a game that the players can own. T&T has always been about empowering players to create their own rules in their own worlds - a mentality that has become much more prevalent in the indie gaming scene more recently. My own home game probably isn't the same as Ken's or Steve Crompton's or whoever. Mine are a splice of 5th, 7.5, Deluxe and my own ideas. There are few games that remain as maleable.

I can't go on without talking about the humour instrinsic in T&T. The first edition was nothing like D&D's. It was sprinkled with in-jokes, cartoons and an informal tone. It wasn't to the same professional standard as the other game, having being typed up and 100 copies created, mainly for friends. Granted, there are some dubious things written in the 1st edition, and the spell name Yassa Massa is infamous in T&T circles, but this approach solidified the game as one that you didn't have to take too seriously. Unfortunately, some of the silly spell names have held the game back from gamers who are probably a bit too po faced, but it was this kind of design mentality that immediately set it apart from competitors (plus, I've always thought magic missile was dull as dishwater, while Take That, You Fiend was far more evocative. I can see a curmudgeonly wizard booming the latter). There's something in the game that makes it feel incredibly light at the tabletop, that encourages a creativity I've not seen in any other game. My own players will attest to this. Maybe it's because characters are a little more throwaway, being so quick to create, so it's not such a huge deal if they die. But maybe it's that perfect mix of easy rules and humour that brings out the best in people at the table.

I'm not trying to say that one game is better than the other - I'm a huge fan of early D&D editions, but D&D is having its time in the sun at the moment so I wanted to talk specifically about T&T. This is a game that had the biggest weapons table ever (jambiya and pilum, anyone?), a game that had solo play before Fighting Fantasy was a thing, a game where you can become a gremlin wizard, a game that cast away those wargaming shackles and forged a new path for roleplaying games forever.