Thursday (Kinda) Review: Tunnels and Trolls

This week I haven’t really had that much time, because of a lot of crazy stuff, but I did do a little looking over of a game that I’d always sort of overlooked: Tunnels and Trolls. In particular, it’s somewhat interesting because of the fact that it’s an older game; and, of additional interest, one that has a relatively low profile among most of the gamers that I know, despite the fact that its age and legacy speak for themselves.

My review is going to be more generic, since I’m interested mostly in the mechanics; there are so many different off-shoots of Tunnels and Trolls that I don’t even know what edition I reviewed, so today’s going to look more at the mechanics design than whether or not there’s a sales-ready product. It’s going to be more akin to my game design case studies than to a review, but at least I don’t try to sell you anything at the end. For those interested, I enjoyed my experience, though I don’t have any resources for those looking to grab a copy.

From the get-go, Tunnels and Trolls is immediately shown to be a relatively simple game; the player typically rolls a few dice and adds that to a fairly large pool of “adds” (what would be called modifiers in other systems). The most common modifier is the player’s attributes, though a special pool of adds is used for melee and ranged combat (with a slight difference between the two).

One of my biggest gripes with the mechanics is the fragmentation that seems to occur; I’m a huge fan of one-size-fits-all systems, which is why I didn’t really like the magic system in this. I’d give it a rank slightly above WEG’s D6’s magic, which was huge and bulky in a game that was really slim, but for a game that was intended to be a “user-friendly” counterpart D&D it’s only slightly better; using the Strength attribute (a source of adds in combat) to power spells also accentuates the fact that making a wizard will result in quick death in close-quarters, since if they use any spells that are powerful enough to drain their strength (all must, but some do so insignificantly), they will be at a loss for future combats.

The system lends itself to stalemates rather heavily, since combat success or failure is by degrees and armor can reduce damage after this; Fighters can easily get 20 points of armor and an average attack rating of 30-40; identical fighters with this equipment would be incapable of harming each other. Still, this isn’t the end of the world; the game seems to lean more toward adventuring and killing monsters than fighting heavily armored combatants, though such scenarios may come up in play rather easily (smart GM’s would be wise to avoid this, however). The edition I played had no recourse for this, but apparently in other editions there was a rule where certain results on combat dice would always result in damage regardless of armor reduction, greatly speeding up play.

So what are some things that Tunnels and Trolls can teach us about game design? Let’s break it down:

  • Highly static (50-70%+ of combat results come from adds)
  • Simple system (Characters have a race, class, and six attributes, and while a couple things are calculated from this characters are largely the same if their attributes match)
  • Highly fluid (quick comparison results, even if success is not always possible)
  • Predictable (some results will never be possible)

A lot of Tunnels and Trolls’ statistics come from focusing on giving the players a really streamlined experience, and while this means that there’s not a whole lot of stuff going on it also means that it’s pretty easy to pick up and play; I was able to play within minutes without any real difficulty, though this is less of a feat for someone well-versed in games with a foundation to build upon T&T is much more easy to explain than most games would be.

The static experience is something that perhaps is interesting because at first glance I think most gamers would hate it-I did, when I realized that I got killed off in a solo adventure because I hit a “success not possible” moment. However, it wasn’t until too long after that that I realized that it forced me to be prudent; I couldn’t rush into combat with a horrible monster unless I had the gear and stats to back it up. While this goes against what modern gaming conventions demand, it’s actually not that bad an idea-being both realistic and beneficial to the narrative-since it meant that I had to get in-character and evaluate things rather than just go for the prize at the end. Of course, this doubles up with being predictable, which means that solo adventures can be somewhat dull since you may not even wind up needing to roll dice and await the result, since you’ll already know what’s going on and invest less in the events, but it’s a design choice that has its own merits.

Another thing that I did really like about Tunnels and Trolls is that I knew what was going on almost before it happened; since the results of anything sat just a roll away, I could do the math to figure out likelihoods and decide what I was going to do, though the solo adventure I played was careful to keep me on my toes.

So in short; Tunnels & Trolls is an example of a game in which the design’s highly static structure is used  to create an experience that can allow for depth and engaging game-play without burdening the player with complexity, at the cost of occasionally causing foregone conclusions or stalemates.

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