Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Dalliance with Trolls

During the early to mid 1980's, which was the high point of my gaming life, (you know, those high school and university years that I should have spent studying my course material instead of game rules) I played as many different games as I could get my hands on.  But given the prolification of games in those years it would have taken a very dedicated and financially independent person to collect them all.  And sadly, given my very limited finances at the time, I had to choose carefully what I spent my money on.  Consequently there were a lot of games I passed on, and which I've spent the subsequent years wondering about.  The most prominent of these was Tunnels & Trolls.

Published in 1975, T&T was first of many, many games inspired by D&D, and given its prominence, it's odd and unfortunate that it never captured my fancy in those early years.  I certainly remember looking at it at my local game store, but whether I regarded it as just another D&D clone, or was turned off by its reputed silliness, I always put it back on the shelf and moved on.  Until now.

My interest in T&T was recently kindled as I read reports of the new Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls rule book arriving in the hands of its Kickstarter supporters, and I was thrilled that to see that Flying Buffalo is still in business, and that Ken St. Andre is still at the helm of T&T, which is both gratifying and impressive for a fourty-year-old game.  Unable to wait until DT&T was available for retail purchase, I turned to Noble Knight Games, and picked up an inexpensive copy of the 5th edition rules (shown above), which is the edition that I remember from my youth.

After reading the rules, my only disappointment was that I hadn't picked up this game decades ago.  Tunnels & Trolls has such a simple and elegant set of mechanics that it is an ideal game for introducing newcomers to roleplaying.  For anyone unfamiliar with the game I'll provide a brief summary.

Combat is exceedingly straightforward: instead of rolling to hit and again for damage, each combatant on either side rolls their combat dice (weapon dice plus attribute bonuses) and the total results of each side is compared.  The side with the highest roll wins that round of combat and the losing side takes an amount of damage equal to the difference between the two rolls, which is divided among the players on the losing side.  It's easy and fast - there's no fiddling around with initiative, nor does each player need to wait his or her turn.  Every player rolls at once, and since the results are combined even the weakest combatant can contribute to the group's success.

Attribute scores are generated, as was usual for those early games, by rolling 3d6, and characters gain a +1 bonus to combat for each point of Strength, Dexterity, and Luck above 12.  At each new level, characters get a number of points equal to their new level to distribute among their attribute scores, so the initial 3-18 range quickly moves up into the 20s and even the 30's allowing for some truly remarkable characters.  One of the endearing features of T&T is that it isn't terribly concerned with realism or balance; powerful, unbalanced characters with over-the-top magic items is no unusual thing - it's all part of the fun.  And because the monsters can be ramped up just as easily, death is always a misstep away.

There's a lot to like about Tunnels & Trolls, but the mechanic I like best - the one that really makes the game stand out - is its saving rolls.  Saving rolls are made on 2d6 plus the relevant attribute score (T&T uses only six-sided dice), which must exceed a target number based on the level of the save - a level one save has a target number of 20, and this increases by 5 with each subsequent level.  If doubles are rolled the dice are rolled again (for each time that doubles are rolled) and the results added, so in principal you could succeed at any save no matter how difficult.  ("Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.")  This saving roll mechanic is also used for hitting opponents with ranged weapons, where the target's size and distance determine the level of a dexterity saving roll.  It also became one of the first task resolution mechanics ever used in role playing games, and is an elegant way to determine the success of just about anything you can imagine leading players to attempt some truly cinematic feats.

I was somewhat chagrined to discover that none of my youthful misgivings about T&T were valid.  It is nothing at all like D&D; the game is entirely different both in tone and play, nor is it a 'silly' game.  The rules have a more whimsical tone than, say, D&D, and it doesn't take itself too seriously, but the whimsy is similar to that of Jack Vance, or Fritz Leiber - it isn't over-the-top slapstick, which is what the rumour-mill had me believe back in the day.  Although I regret not having gotten into T&T long ago, in all honestly I'm not sure I would have appreciated it until recent years.  Back then I was very much into crunchy game mechanics, and T&T might have been too simple for my tastes.  These days, however, it suits me perfectly.

Within minutes of my first reading of the rules I was itching to play it, and so I've begun a campaign for my wife and daughter.  Over the next several posts I'll continue to discuss my ongoing exploration of T&T, as well as describe the campaign setting I've created, and the adventures as they happen.

Let the good times troll!