In Praise of Tunnels & Trolls

Posted: 2023-06-08
Last Modified: 2023-06-12
Word Count: 1367
Tags: nonreview rpg tunnels-and-trolls

A few (thousand?) words about this game.

It’s Old

It’s the second oldest RPG ever printed. Allegedly. I suspect some tiny forgotten homebrew D&D may have beaten it to “press”. But for now we’ll stipulate it’s second oldest.

T&T has never been as popular as D&D (nothing has been), or even as popular as RuneQuest (second most popular in the Long Long Ago). Maybe it’s too weird. Maybe the early T&T editions had too many D&D-isms like levels that made it seem like a cheap knock-off. Maybe Flying Buffalo never had the luck or business savvy to parley their game into a household name. Maybe they had too many irons in the fire with a play-by-mail business back in the day.

Even the edition history is a little spotty: 5 and 5.5 were the first editions to really garner some attention, perhaps the first not to be mimeographed. Then there was no version 6. (Some guy started distributing a bootleg 6 based on preliminary notes, so they jumped straight to 7). 7 and 7.5 were a big mess, so they brought back the editor of 5.5 to create the latest version, 8th edition. Which is definitely clearer and more consistent, but occasionally a little clunky. Maybe she felt the clunkiness was part of its charm.

It’s Not a Knockoff of D&D

Some might think T&T is a knockoff of D&D – they even sound the same but for consonant voicing – and indeed T&T seems optimized for old school killing things and taking their stuff, which I usually hate. But at least T&T has the virtue of optimizing the whole business while making it absurd. I still love this indignant T&T review:

The combat system in here is absolutely the worst I have ever read and would never consider using it, in any game. Terribly unrealistic and downright backwards, this was one of the first turn-offs for me of this system.

I’m surprised the reviewer didn’t also complain about the silly spell names. “Take That!” indeed.

The reviewer never considered that “realism” wasn’t the goal. The goal was to resolve combat faster. (I’ll describe how T&T combat violates the sacred principle of “realism” in a few paragraphs.) In my book T&T wins over D&D because I’m not totalling up attack modifiers and counting out squares (cough D&D 4 cough) or worrying about Attacks of Opportunity. One clash of dice per round, and that’s it. When one side is dead or fled, we can move on to the actual adventure.

It’s Simpler Yet More Profound Than That

Ken St. Andre wrote T&T because he thought (Original) D&D was too complicated. (Or so I remember reading somewhere. I don’t have a source.) And it does simplify a lot of things:

Classes vs. Types

D&D originally had three classes: Cleric, Fighter, and Magic User, even though Clerics also use magic. A supplement added Thieves. Fast-forward to today, where D&D 5th edition has eleven “standard” classes and who knows how many classes created by third parties. Pathfinder has dozens of “standard” classes.

T&T started with three “types” Warriors, Wizards, and Rogues, who despite the name were second-best at fighting and magic but had no skills, because the game didn’t have them. (Eventually they added rules for “Talents”, which are basically skills.) Later editions added other “types” based on what they rolled for their initial characteristics:

And that’s it. Really, what else do you need?

Combat Game vs. Game With Combat

D&D White Box relied on a skirmish wargame called Chainmail as its combat system, although you could always use the “alternate system” that rolled a d20. But you still had maps and 10’ squares and miniatures; ever combatant had to roll to hit then roll for damage.

T&T combat involves both “sides” rolling their damage dice plus “adds” (based on weapons, characteristics, and/or Monster Rating) then totalling the damage. The winners – the side with the higher damage total – inflicts the difference on the losers, who can distribute it how they like. My favorite review ever calls this the “most unrealistic” system he’s ever seen, and I laugh.

Magic Slots vs. Magic Points

D&D magic involves spell slots and levels and castings per day. We all know how it goes. For the most the system hasn’t changed, just the spells and the complexity.

T&T magic requires the caster to spend points – originally from STR, but more recently from a “new” characteristic called WIZ – to power their spells. To learn more complex spells, a caster must raise their INT. Oh, and nearly anyone (except Warriors1) can learn magic. Wizards just learned magic techniques and all the basic spells at Wizarding School.

“Races” vs. Kindreds

D&D used to represent Elf, Dwarf, and Hobbit Halfling as classes. Characteristics were requirements to take that class. Later editions let players be Dwarf Wizards, Halfling Fighters, Elf Monks, and so forth, and “races” simply gave characters small characteristic bonuses (or penalties) and some useful abilities.

T&T players could always choose other “Kindreds” like Elf, Dwarf, Hob, or anything else simply by applying multipliers to rolled characteristics. They even put out a variant called Monsters! Monsters! in which players could play the “Bad Kindreds”, a.k.a. monsters. Some Bad Kindreds eventually became Good Kindreds in successive editions.

More Profound?

And I could go on. But the gist is that T&T is simple, characteristic-driven (especially in the 8th edition), and a little gonzo.


Honestly, I was recently reminded of Tunnels & Trolls and how much I enjoyed playing the game, as shaky a GM as I tend to be. A lot of game systems, especially old ones, get lost in the shuffle of what Wizards of the Coast did this week or what new hotness is Kickstarting.

Let’s, then, take some time to appreciate the simple RPGs of yore where warriors were warriors, wizards were wizards, and rogues could do a bit of both and a little extra. Much as I think the Old School Rules cry of “just roleplay it” simply covers for inadequate game systems, there’s something to be said for games that handle the essentials – combat, magic, characteristic or Talent checks – and let players and GMs improv the rest as they need it.

  1. According to the T&T lore, Warriors were born without the ability to use magic, so the Warriors’ Guild trained them in fighting. Likewise, Wizards got special training in magic early in life, Paragons, Specialists, and Specialist Wizards are born special, and Citizens are born the opposite of special. Yes, characters cannot change Type at will. ↩︎