Games and Puzzles Magazine no. 57, Feb. 1977
Inventor Ken St. Andre recounts how he set about developing and marketing this fantasy game.
I want to give you some idea of the history of Tunnels and Trolls, and of how it is played, and what it takes. And, since I am the inventor, I wanted to make a few critical comments that I haven’t had a chance to express elsewhere.
In early 1975 I began to hear about a new game called Dungeons & Dragons, but since Phoenix, Arizona is somewhat of a backwater, it was April before I was even able to see the rules for D & D. After examining them carefully, and not understanding them very well at all, I threw up my hands, yelled phooey! and vowed to invent my own game, something simpler that I could understand. It had to be something that would avoid all the things I thought were wrong with D & D, notably the use of polyhedral 12 and 20 sided dice. (Before going any further with this history, though, I wish to give the inventors of D & D all the credit they deserve for inventing the method of describing characters by die rolls in terms of attributes. It was a tremendous breakthrough in gaming, and I am eternally grateful for the idea. However, once discovered, it is like the principle of the lever – something that rightfully belongs to everyone. Thank you, Gygax and Arneson, for setting my mind to running in that direction.) In about a week I had come up with something, which I immediately tried on my friends. They loved it, and they suggested improvements. In about 2 weeks T & T had spread to at least a dozen people around town, and it was much too difficult to go on making xerox copies of the rules for people who wanted to play. So I promised them that I would get the game printed up so that everyone could have a copy. It took about 2½ months to get the thing typed up in camera-ready copy, and getting some good artwork to illustrate it was even more difficult. I only knew one artist, a very talented but indolent fellow named Rob Carver, but finally he agreed to do some things for me. And it’s a good thing that he did, because his graphics illuminated what would have been a rather humdrum set of instructions. The first edition was printed at Arizona State University in 100 copies at a cost of $65.00 which was a lot of money to me then as I was totally unemployed, and the U.S. was deep in the recession. However, it wasn’t too hard to dispose of 100 copies. At the time of writing, Flying Buffalo have probably sold 5000 or more copies of T & T, and it is a steady money-maker for them. I think my biggest stroke of luck was in being near a professional game company that was willing to take a gamble on something new.
Having once tasted success, of course, I didn’t stop there. And so was born the sequel to Tunnels and Trolls, which has just been published by Metagaming, Inc. in Austin, Texas – MONSTERS! MONSTERS! It is the inverse of Tunnels and Trolls; instead of having human protagonists who go down into the tunnels in search of easy money and death-prone monsters, you have monster protagonists who invade the world of men to wreak destruction and take revenge on their human foes. It is a lot of fun, and is also good practice in seeing life from the other fellow’s point of view.
But first, for those of you who have not yet tried fantasy gaming, a word of explanation is in order. Tunnels and Trolls is a fantasy role-playing game of a type where the action takes place not on some map-board, but exclusively in your head. You play not with whole armies or nations, but with one or two invented characters, who, in time, come to have their own unique personalities. The setting is a world of imagination carefully and lovingly constructed by another player called the Game, or, Dungeon Master. The immediate object is to stay alive in a hostile environment (usually one that is populated with all sorts of hideous monsters and insidious traps). Your secondary objectives are to collect as much treasure as you can, and also to accumulate experience points. If you are successful, your player-character will eventually improve himself into some sort of demi-god or super-hero. If you fail, the character usually dies, and you can start all over again. The environment chosen for these mental adventures is most commonly a tunnel complex, but may be if the Game Master is inventive enough, a forest, a jungle, a throbbing metropolis, or an alien world entirely.
Primarily, the whole game of Tunnels and Trolls is built around the creation of the characters that you play with. We define a character, call him Ugluk, by saying he has certain attributes which can be assigned a numerical value. The greater the value of the attribute, the better it is for the character. We then define these attributes as Strength, Intelligence, Luck, Constitution, Dexterity, and Charisma. You roll 3 ordinary six-sided dice once for each attribute and record the totals. The lowest possible total is a 3 (which is terrible indeed) and the highest is 18 (which is damn good). Each of these ratings tells something about the character. Strength is a measure of how much weight a character can carry, and of how heavy a weapon he can use in combat. (Heavier weapons do more damage and thus are an advantage to the character who can use them.) Intelligence is used to determine whether you are smart enough to use magic, how many languages you can speak, and whether the character is supposedly smart enough to figure out certain traps or puzzles the Game Master may set for him. Luck is just what it says – a measure of how well you do in situations where individual good fortune is the most important thing. Constitution is a measure of how much punishment ·you can take before you die from your wounds. Dexterity is a measure of skill; for example, it serves as a relative standard of marksmanship in archery. Charisma is basically a criterion of personal attractiveness, sex appeal, etc. Where Tunnels and Trolls differs importantly from Dungeons and Dragons is in the fact that the attributes, once established, are not fixed for all time, but can be modified in a manner which causes steady fluctuation by magic, combat, changing levels, or other unusual circumstances. Generally, the tendency is for all attributes to steadily (or by leaps and bounds) improve if the character manages to live through several individual games.
Of course, it is all much more complicated than the paragraphs above imply. First, there are 3 types of characters: warriors, modelled after Conan the Cimmerian; magicians, modelled after Gandalf the Gray; and rogues modelled after the Gray Mouser. Then, it is also possible to create such non-human beings as Elves, Dwarves, Fairies, Trolls, Giants, etc., etc. Then one needs to arm the character with the appropriate weapons. The T & T rulebook has some 6 pages of medieval weapons charts. (Though there is no especial reason why a game like T & T need be medieval in concept – Flying Buffalo just put my latest game, STARFARING, which applies T & T principles to interstellar exploration, on the market – that kind of primitive fantasy is what appeals to me most.)
After more than a year and a half of intimate involvement with Tunnels & Trolls, my biggest criticism of it is that it is still too much like Dungeons & Dragons. Though there are many differences between the two games – say the differences between rugby and soccer – yet they are really very similar. The whole concept of experience points and the number of levels possible (17) was almost exactly the same as the system used in D & D. Also, many of the magical spells available to human magicians are just copies of spells that had previously been invented for D & D. There is difference enough in application and description so that you couldn’t call it plagiarism (and then much of what is common to both D & D and T & T is found in older fantasy material such as the general folk-lore of Europe) but still I must admit that D & D was a great influence on me back when I was first designing the game. I regret that now, and wish there were some way to widen the gap between the two games. You can bet that my next game, which is in the design stages now, will be vastly different, even though the same principles; namely role-playing, characters with dice-created attributes, a world in which magic works, and simplicity of equipment needed to play the game will remain the same.
In appraising Tunnels and Trolls I would say it is a good bet for people who would like to get into fantasy gaming at an elementary level for a very reasonable cost. It is not the Mercedes of fantasy games, but like a good dependable Ford, it will get you around very well as long as your imaginative fuel holds out.
Many thanks to Eric Solomon, the publisher of Games and Puzzles Magazine for allowing me to reproduce this article.
Visit Eric Solomon’s homepage
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And many thank to James Corwin St. Andre (Corencio) for providing me with the article.