The Origins of Tunnels and Trolls by Ken St. Andre, July, 1997

The Origins of Tunnels and Trolls by Ken St. Andre, July, 1997

Tunnels & Trolls News & Info

This essay is here to set the record straight on the creation of Tunnels and Trolls. I ought to know–I created it.

Something About Tunnels and Trolls

Although I’ve done a lot of things in my life, and in gaming, it looks like the creation of Tunnels and Trolls ™ will always be my main claim to fame. If you want to know why there is a Tunnels and Trolls game, then read on–otherwise, say goodbye.

I’ve always been a bookworm and a gamer. I invented my first games at the age of six when I turned Monopoly into an obstacle course race. As I grew up, I customized lots of games into my own versions of things. For example, after reading Chessmen of Mars, I built a Jetan set, but before I did that, I invented Combat Chess. (Combat Chess plays just like regular chess except that the attacking piece gets to roll 3 six-sided dice (3D6) and the defender rolls two six-sided dice whenever one piece tries to take another. The high total wins, and the loser is removed from the board. Special rules: doubles and triples add and roll over. In order to checkmate the King, you have to actually take him–there’s always a chance that he may fight his way out of the trap. Try it–it’s fun, and it changes chess strategy a good deal.)

I’ve always loved fantasy and science fiction. From earliest boyhood, Tarzan was my hero. Later, Conan the Cimmerian took over as the number one guy. I collected escape fiction, especially swords and sorcery. (I still do.) About December of 1974, I began to hear about a new game called Dungeons and Dragons–a new kind of game involving role-playing, and set in a pseudo-medieval/fantasy world. Wow! That was right up my alley–I really wanted to get involved with that. There was only one problem. The rumors came from California and I lived in Phoenix. Nobody I knew actually had the game or played it.

Important Announcement

In those days, I was a gentleman of leisure, out of library school, but unemployed. My wife Cathy supported me very nicely on her earnings as a children’s librarian, and made it possible for me to spend days or weeks at a time writing things like new games. Without her physical and emotional support, none of this would have ever happened.

Then in April of 1975, I stopped by the Flying Buffalo game store with some friends one night, and David Sleight had a copy of the first edition boxed set of Dungeons and Dragons with him. No one was playing it. Wargames were supreme at that time. I borrowed it and sat down to read it. I must have spent about an hour puzzling over those first crude rules. It was mostly unfamiliar to me. I was not a miniatures gamer. I had never seen four, eight, ten, twelve, or twenty-sided dice. What’s all this stuff about campaigns? What’s all this religious alignment doing in the game? I didn’t read the whole booklet–just the parts that made sense. But I knew what they were trying to do. I remember saying out loud, “What a great concept! What a lousy execution! I’ll write something that me and my friends can play.” (Note the grammatical error–that’s what I actually said.)

So, I went home that night filled with inspiration. In the morning I went to the Phoenix Public Library and checked out a large supply of books about medieval weapons and fantastic beasts. I plundered my knowledge of mythology for monsters. The black puddings and purple suets of D & D sounded pretty stupid to me, when I could have trolls and griffins and unicorns, and sabretooth tigers, and giant apes and so forth. After a couple days of reading and note-taking I started to write–pounding out the simplified basis of a fantasy role-playing game. My objective was to make the game easy to understand, quick to play, and as humorous as I could. Multi-sided dice were the first to go. My game would use six-sided dice that anyone could get from games they already had like Monopoly. Next to go was character alignments. Why should characters be Good, Evil, or Chaotic? Nobody I knew fit into such a neat scheme.

Then I threw out attributes that didn’t make any sense. What the heck did Wisdom have to do with anything? Who needs Hit Points when the character already has Constitution? What did Charisma mean, anyway–I started out thinking of it as personal beauty and pretty quickly translated it first into leadership and then into impressiveness. I’d remember something from the D & D rules, and then I’d change and simplify it so that it made sense to me. I didn’t know that other gamers all over the country were doing the same thing. Between 1974 and 1980, there must have been 10,000 variants of D & D played all over the country. The first thing any Dungeon Master (this was before the days of the politically correct term Game Master.) would do when starting a gaming session was explain the house rules to his players. My difference was that I wrote my rule changes down and published them as an independent system. So did Dave Hargraves who created Arduin.

In about a week, I had a 20 page rough draft–mostly tables of weapons and spells and equipment that could be used as the basis for a game. I took an afternoon, and some graph paper, and “dug” my first dungeon–Gristlegrim. I invited some friends over and we tried it out. They loved it, when the trapdoor opened beneath their feet and plummeted them into the cell of a hideous female troll who told them they’d either have to mate with her or die. Out came the swords and battleaxes, and the first Tunnels and Trolls melee began. When the session was over, and about half the original party of adventurers had literally dug their way back to the surface, everyone had to have their own copy of the rules. Photocopiers were hard to find in 1975. We all went out and made a few copies for my immediate group of friends. What I didn’t anticipate is that they would try the game quickly on their friends, who would also want copies. My original draft got beaten up very quickly.

It didn’t take very long before people began making suggestions. Why not have rules for bows and arrows and other missile weapons? Why did you have to play a human? Why not a Dwarf, Elf, Hobbit, Fairy, Leprechaun? Those five were the first suggested, and along with Humans became known as the Six Good Kindreds.

A week after creating the game, I was forced to make my first major re-write of the game. I added all the stuff that actual playtesting had taught us. Then everyone wanted to copy that. At that point I decided it was time to publish. I had already done some fanzines–I knew it wasn’t that hard to get something published at your local photocopy store.

If I was going to publish it, I’d need some illustrations. At that time, I knew exactly one artist–a college kid named Robin Carver. I took the manuscript and went and camped out in his dorm room for an afternoon and got him to draw me some cartoons to illustrate the rules. Armed with all that, I pasted up a manuscript, and took the whole thing to the Arizona State University print shop to get 100 copies made. For a 40 page booklet with stiff covers, it was going to cost me $60 to print 100 copies by photo-offset. That was a lot of money for me at the time. I was out of work and newly married, but I figured I could peddle it to my friends for $1 a copy and get my money back. So I took the chance. Thus, in June of 1975, Tunnels and Trolls became the second ever published fantasy role-playing game in America. I did one thing that I considered very important. I copyrighted the game–got the forms, sent copies to the Library of Congress, paid the $10 copyright fee, and printed my copyright notice in the booklet. The first edition of Dungeons and Dragons was printed without copyright–Gygax and Arneson probably never even thought of it.

At first we all called my game “Dungeons and Dragons”. We thought that was a generic name for games of this sort, but when I was ready to publish the booklet, I knew I needed some other name.

It was Friday night and a bunch of us were over at Bear Peters’ bachelor pad playing either Risk or D & D, as we called it, when I told everyone we couldn’t call the game Dungeons and Dragons–that name belonged to Gygax and company. But, I wanted that alliterative sound to the game, and since our adventures were, up to that point, all underground, I suggested that we call it “Tunnels and Troglodytes!” (There was a popular rock song around 1974/75 called Troglodytes.)

Jeez! The gamers almost laughed me out of the room. After the hooting died down, Rob Carver offered an alternative, “Tunnels and Trolls” and by popular acclamation that night, that was the name we decided on.

Well, I did all the writing, typing, and publishing on that first crude edition of Tunnels and Trolls. By late July all of my friends had copies, and I still had about 50 left over. In November I saw Rick Loomis, who I knew slightly from having visited his Flying Buffalo (Starweb) business a few times, and I asked him if he’d try to sell the rest on consignment. He took my extra copies to a convention and sold out–it was kind of funny–he was sitting in a booth next to Gary Gygax who was still flacking his first printing of Dungeons and Dragons. T & T was the simpler and cheaper game and it outsold D & D at that convention. Gygax took a dislike to me and Flying Buffalo that endured for years.

The complete history of Tunnels and Trolls is far too long to tell here. Besides, I wasn’t really taking notes at the time, so only a few high points remain, and they are colored by how I remember things. Loomis saw an opportunity to make a profit off this new game, and we struck a deal that is still in effect over 20 years later. Tunnels and Trolls has gone through a lot of changes and improvements since that first crude effort, and has received a lot of modification and development by people like Elizabeth Danforth, who started as my artist for the second edition, and Michael A. Stackpole, who is now a best-selling Star Wars SF author. Steve McAllister, a friend of mine, came up with the idea of solitaire dungeons in 1976 and Rick Loomis created the first one ever–Buffalo Castle–in that same year. (I did the second one–the Deathtrap Equalizer later the same month.) That was the very beginning of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” craze where R. L. Stine got his start. The whole history of T & T is a lot more than I’m going to tackle here, but over the years, we came up with a lot of innovations that are part and parcel of the fantasy gaming world now. It would be nice if we could get the credit for them, but I don’t suppose that will happen. (Examples: FBI published the first fantasy gaming calendar–TSR was second a year later though they had the money to do it in a big way with color art and all. Monsters! Monsters!, which I wrote in 1976, was the first game to encourage the players to be the monsters instead of the good guys. White Wolf has certainly made a fortune off that idea. FBI did the first, and still the best solitaire adventures for frp gaming. Over 20 years, we did a lot.

So, that’s my tale, or at least as much of it as I’m going to put on this web page.

–Never look a gift troll in the mouth!
Ken St. Andre, July, 1997

Khenn Arrth

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