FUCK BALANCE, LET’S DANCE: Tunnels & Trolls Kicks Ass.

Tunnels & Trolls was created as a response to the wargamer nerdiness of the original, ’74 edition of Dungeons and Dragons. Written by Ken St. Andre (who was eventually joined by a host of collaborators like Liz Danforth, Steve Compton, Rick Loomis RIP, Michael Stackpole, and James “Bear” Peters) it’s D&D’s stoner cousin – loose, reckless, absurd, and pretty fun to hang out with. It’s an everyman game: easy to grasp, no funny dice, simple to learn and run. It’s also totally insane, featuring mechanics that encourage reckless behavior, and buckets of d6s.

Depending on how you count them, there have been something like 9 editions of this game, with 5.0 being a fan favourite. At least one was basically a pirate edition, another featured a CD-ROM and came in a tin box, and the most recent Deluxe Edition is a pot roast weight hardcover. To be honest, they are mostly simple iterations of each other – the core mechanics get tuned now and again, but the game’s identity has stayed the same since the 70s. Like Gene Simmons.

Character creation is the usual 3d6 in a row, but with a couple of extra attributes depending on the edition. Your CON is your HP. Armour is ablative. Decide if you’re going to be a Warrior, Rogue (think Han Solo with magic) or a Wizard. There are no clerics or thieves because fuck that. Build a character, pick and ancestry, buy some murdering equipment and get murdering. Sounds pretty vanilla, right?

It’s not.

LET’S ROLL UP DAVE THE LEPRECHAUN WIZARD

See, character creation is where you start to realize just how goofy this game can be. Roll a triple on 3d6? Cool, keep rolling. Roll another triple? Keep going. I once rolled a character with a STR of 30 and CON of 5. Picture that guy.

Like weird ancestries? Then you’ll dig being a leprechaun or a faerie. Yes, a faerie. A Badass Tinkerbell. Hell, depending on how fast and loose you’re playing, you can be pretty much anything. There’s an awesome table called the Peters-McAllister Table that provides multipliers to adjust your abilities to reflect a crazy number of ancestries, from centaurs to dragons. Your party is going to be a buffet table of the bizarre. Scores over 12 in certain abilities create “adds” that provide a baseline effectiveness in combat before you even swing a sword.

Speaking of combat…

LET’S ROLL EVERY D6 ON EARTH

I think having, say, 30 d6s on hand is a pretty good idea if you’re going to play T&T. Weapons do a base number of d6s in damage, but you’re all going to be fighting at once because you combine the weapon dice for every member of the party and roll them all to resolve combat, and then, er, add the accumulated party adds. The monsters will be doing the same. Highest total wins. Subtract lowest total from highest and that’s the damage that gets through. Whatever isn’t absorbed by armour counts as damage and is divided up among the party. This makes combat really fast.

“But, Robot Goblin, doesn’t that make combat boring?” No. No it doesn’t. Enter saving rolls.

LET’S GET RECKLESS

Saving rolls are what you do to dodge traps or jump over lava chasms or do something dope in combat like roll between a giant’s legs and stab him in the gnards. They work like this: the level of Saving Roll (think DC) determines how high a roll you need to make to pull off whatever ridiculous stunt you have in mind. Roll 2d6, add the relevant ability score (often Luck) and whoop, there it is. In combat this allows your PC to focus all their damage on a single opponent instead of spreading it out. SRs are also the backbone of missile combat. And they earn you experience (adventure points) which encourages their use to do all kinds of stupid things, because the harder the SR, the more adventure points you’ll earn. You can Leroy Jenkins your way to immortality. And since rolling doubles lets you roll again and add the result until you stop rolling doubles it’s conceivable that even the most mundane PC can pull off the impossible.

LET’S GET STUPID (IN THE BEST WAY POSSIBLE).

This is not a serious game. I mean, if you want to be a dick about it you could play it like Harnmaster or something, but that’s not really the intent. T&T is the opposite of Grimdark. It has a sense of humour. And I think that’s what has held it back. Because if there’s one thing old school nerds can be, it’s humourless.  Thing is, T&T is all out of fucks.

  • Get this: in early editions you spent STR to cast spells. This led to totally jacked wizards, which honestly is some next level Frazetta shit.
  • Spell names include “Take that You Fiend!” and “Poor Baby”. And listen, is that any more stupid than Bigby’s Clenched Fist? Look in the mirror, grognard – you know I’m right.
  • Monsters have a single stat – a monster rating or MR. It determines how much damage they do, their adds, and their HPs. It’s enough to make a Pathfinder fan’s head explode, but it works. Want your monster to do cool shit? Narrate it. Or stat out your Big Bads. In any case, stop being such a wuss about stats, Einstein. Turns out you can do without them.
  • All those goddamn d6s. And yeah, Professor, I know that sooner or later the numbers flatten out, but I failed grade 11 math, so fuck you.

LET’S BE HONEST

Tunnels & Trolls is weird. It’s unbalanced. It’s sense of humour can be deeply, deeply corny. But even though it’s almost as old as I am, it’s still a breath of fresh air.

The world is a dumpster fire. Let’s laugh our asses off and pour buckets of dice. There’s enough Grimdark in the real world. Let’s roll up Grass Stain the Faerie and Mongo Muscle Wizard and go beat up some single stat Fungus Spiders together.

Just make sure I don’t have to do the addition.

7 thoughts on “FUCK BALANCE, LET’S DANCE: Tunnels & Trolls Kicks Ass.

  1. And now I have a sudden urge to buy something T&T related. I love DCC RPG for the same reason too. Almost all of its sub-systems that can be abused for fun results until it backfires and bites someone in the ass.

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  2. Since the party works together in a combat, balance isn’t needed. The guy who does 3d6 and the gal who does 12d6 all fight together so you don’t have to worry that your 1st level character will never be able to hit anything or that you will get one shotted by a 6 HD monster.

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  3. I’m running Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls game: the party consists of an Elf, a human who eats his enemies (and feeds them to the party.) a Dwarf turned into an Ogre (due to ring of the Ogre that gives you the powers of the Ogre.) who has a Mushroom-flesh troll ( like a regular troll but his flesh is mushroom.) a vampire who hunts Orcs and Goblins, and a frost demon Hellboy. So yeah, the Menagerie of the weird and bizarre groups of Adventurers.

    It truly is one of the best games I’ve ever run.

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    1. I forgot to mention this: But Tunnels and Trolls did some amazing things back in the 70’s and 80’s: experience points for leveling up where all the same for the specialties! First time people got to play monsters in a game! It was probably the first game to have a woman work on game design and art ( and she’s a beast with her dungeons). a Skill systems (that Mercinaries Spies and Private Eyes, but they use the same system.)

      Also Talents in Deluxe is great because they give you a bonus to rolls but can litteraly be anything that’s not related to “I hit better in combat.” The Demon fellow has Devilish Charms which helps his charisma. The Dwarf/Ogre has Ancient Languages and first aid.

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