If anyone is keeping up with me, I have now to report that the pandemic has created—at least for me—gaming opportunities. Two friends from my local group decided to start a new Swords & Wizardry campaign online, and I found a few likeminded Conan enthusiasts from all around the country to play Conan 2d20 online. As if that were not enough, I agreed to run Against the Darkmaster via PbP for one gamer, and two other gamers joined that experiment. It’s still active, which, for me, must be a PbP record!
But, even after all of this, I still have plenty of headspace with which to occupy myself. So I went in on a recent Tunnels & Trolls Bundle of Holding (containing, mostly, the solo adventures for which T&T is famous) and ordered a hard copy of the latest deluxe rules.
First to say, reading T&T is a delight! There is an energy to this game that I haven’t encountered in any other system. Obviously, I love old school D&D, but, perhaps because of so much time and well-known iterations of it between now and its inception, so much of it feels staid. T&T was published one year after Original. T&T, the “Original Hack,” not only re-envisions the rules but riffs on the menagerie of monsters from folklore and various literary antecedents—many of these, obviously, in common with D&D but often with slightly skewed perspectives that delightfully differentiate them.
Some of my impressions of T&T are at variance with what appears to be the inherited attitude regarding it. Many people consider T&T to be a more “accessible” simplification of Original D&D. I myself haven’t read the original iteration of D&D (again, my gateway is what is regarded as the much more transparent Swords & Wizardry), and I can understand this dominant perspective as long as (by all reports) Original is incomprehensible. Outside of this, however, in my view, any “simplification” made by T&T must be predicated almost solely on how it replaces all polyhedral dice with d6s—unless the original version of T&T, which I haven’t read, is significantly different from deluxe. In fact, T&T seems more complicated to me. This is because it involves so much more bookkeeping than I am used to.
In D&D, after making a character, a player has to keep track of hit points, sometimes spells, and usually gold acquisition. In Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, a player has to keep track of hit points (which is measured by a character’s Constitution), Wizardry (a resource that is used to power spells), gold acquisition (though, at least in dT&T, these don’t necessarily translate into experience points), saving rolls, spells successfully cast, and (if any of my characters ever succeed at actually defeating anything) the Monster Rating of any slain monsters. These last three are necessary for calculating “adventure points” earned.
Moreover, perhaps a live game is different, but, in the few solo adventures I’ve experienced, my characters’ various Attributes (eight of them to maintain, in dT&T, rather than the six in D&D) seem to be in constant flux, whether it’s because I approached a magical skull and was required to reroll all of my stats (luckily, in this particular instance, to my benefit, though that luck didn’t last long!) or because I pulled up a street cobble which revealed a poisonous spider that bit me and reduced my Dexterity by 3, which additionally caused me to recalculate my Combat Adds. Moreover, whereas in D&D spells are expended by the “slot” and recovered in toto every morning, in dT&T spells are powered (as already noted) via more granular “points” that recover at a rate of one every ten minutes (or every three paragraphs in a solo adventure I played), requiring much more attention and bookkeeping. I assume that this goes, as well, for Constitution (this game’s “hit points”), whereas in D&D it’s as simple as one a day (or a whole HD worth, if you’re playing “other versions”).
I guess what I’m saying is that people who claim that T&T is simpler either haven’t bothered to play it or they are focusing on more subtle aspects. It’s true that T&T uses one kind of die, it has one core mechanic—maybe two or even three. But in terms of work load, it seems to me to require much more.
Another common characterization of T&T, in contradistinction to D&D, is that it embraces a much more silly or wonky ethos. With this I agree, and this attitude comes not only from reading the (often cited) spell names and optional campaign materials (which are based on writer and designer Ken St. Andre’s original home game) but on the solo adventures themselves.
It’s been a very—[contemplative pause]—new experience entering into the T&T community. My primary interactions with it have been through its official Facebook group (which sees frequent activity from its writers, publishers, designers and Ken St. Andre himself!) and through playing the solo adventures. The solo adventures are—[again, contemplative pause]—not much more than choose-your-own-adventures, which, in most cases, would be a near-damning condemnation of a game experience. In this case, however, my reaction is much more ambiguous. To be clear, none of my characters (generated via the punishing old-school method of 3d6 eight times right down the line except for only one instance in which I arranged to suit because the adventure required a Warrior character), to this moment, have survived a single combat encounter. Only my Warrior character survived more than one round of combat; he died on the second.
So far, none of my dead characters even have “survived” the “adventure for dead characters” included in dT&T but have had to remain dead… except for my most recent character, who is in the following state:
It’s passages such as this one—and other subtle tells—that give me the impression that I have begun to engage in a fairly amusing discourse that has been going on since Rick Loomis published the very first solo adventure ever—even before Choose Your Own Adventure—back in 1976. In Buffalo Castle, Loomis writes.
Here Loomis expresses overtly what I have begun to feel: that the writers of these solo adventures truly are, across space and time and through the written word, standing in as my “Gamemasters.” By playing these solo adventures, I’m not so much engaging with narrative as I am simply playing a goofy game. It feels more like playing Atari than it does, say, playing a modern roleplaying game. It doesn’t even feel like I’m playing a Choose Your Own Adventure.
There is no plot to these games—at least not very much of one. Not everything in these dungeons make much sense. In fact, very little does. The GM’s attitude is dispassionate—even mocking.
But again and again, as every character dies, I think, “Can I go further? I know more this time.” And I roll up another character, and I know a little more (I even can narratively justify this “meta knowledge” as rumors about the dungeon that I’ve heard about town). I enter into the dungeon; I die again. I enter the Abyss (the adventure for dead characters); I remain dead. I start over.
I’m a GM myself, of course, so I find myself wanting to contribute to this discourse. I already was disposed to this frame of mind by recently adapting old Weird Tales into Conan 2d20 adventures, then alternately fiddling with them as rewritten, “original” fiction featuring a PC of my own construction or as solo adventures. Neither of these latter projects went much of anywhere—yet. But I’m interested in seeing how some of the dungeons from my ongoing Swords & Wizardry campaign translate to T&T solo adventures.
This seems to me to be an enthralling way of giving the rich subcreation of my gamers’ and me a second life. I’ve considered turning it into traditional fiction, too, in the way Weis and Hickman did (though their project of gaming and writing seems to have been consonant from its inception), or Erikson and Esslemont, or (as I suspect) Elizabeth Moon, or Raymond E. Feist (though I haven’t read Feist yet), and undoubtedly many, many others.