A Lifetime Of Experience

I have a long history with Tunnels & Trolls and a deep emotional attachment to the game. Someday I will blog about the crazy ant-trail path that saw me drop out of high school in 1980 and wander out to Phoenix, Arizona, where I went to work for Flying Buffalo and ended up editing (and largely writing) Grimtooth’s Traps. That was the beginning of a thirty-year career in creative work that now finds me a partner in my own iPhone game development studio. I owe a lot to this game and the people who made it, especially author Ken St. Andre, and Liz Danforth, the primary artistic guiding force behind the game (and my boss at Flying Buffalo).

some classic Liz Danforth art, from Monsters! Monsters! (I think)

It’s been years since I played T&T, and most of my play was with the old 5th (and earlier!) editions — I still have those treasured old books, but they’ve practically fallen apart with age. I always try to buy something when I run into Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo at a convention, so I actually had the more recent Fiery Dragon editions of T&T on my shelf, and I grabbed the latest “7.5” edition when Jack said he wanted to play T&T last night.

Despite some cosmetic differences, this is still T&T as I remember it, with some portions of the text feeling nearly unchanged from the 3rd edition where I first encountered the game. Differences from the classic (and I think definitive) 5th edition are mostly in the layout, although Ken has added a few tweaks here and there, mostly in character creation, spellcasting, and the experience system.

It is in the experience system where I think this new edition makes it’s greatest breakthrough. T&T began life as a fast-follower to the D&D “White Box” edition, and used many concepts of that game wholesale, such as experience charts that required you acquire many hundreds (thousands!) of experience points before going up a level and earning new powers. Character levels were always a weird fit in T&T, as they had little do with the game — the measure of a T&T character was in its attributes, not its level, whereas in D&D there was (and is) a tight connection between a character’s level and its in-game abilities.

In this edition of T&T Ken has cut the cord with levels almost entirely — turned it inside out, really. There are still character levels in T&T — because it is fun to watch your levels go up, and there is still some mechanical connection to levels for spellcasting and saving rolls — but in 7.5 Ken indexes a character’s best attributes against character class to determine a character’s level. So your level as a warrior, for instance, is driven by having a high value in an attribute critical to that class, such as strength.

It seems a small and even a weird thing, but it has an important impact — by focusing character advancement on improving individual attributes to go up levels (and qualify for things like better spells), Ken has dispensed with a traditional leveling experience (where rewards are separated by dozens of hours of play) in favor of a far more incremental system that provides more frequent rewards. To improve an attribute by one point, you need only cash in ten times its current value in experience, so to boost your Strength from 10 to 11, you need earn only 100 experience points (which in T&T you can achieve quickly, with a couple fast monster fights and some good saving rolls).

For kids raised on video games, a more frequent reward system is critical. In last night’s game, Jack twice hit the minimum experience thresholds necessary to increase his Dexterity attribute, which unlocked some second level spells for him (owing to the natural spellcasting acumen of his “Combat Mage” class). His character level never increased, but his character improved in incremental ways, which really helped bind him to the game.

This T&T 7.5 reward system really is more in tune with something like World of Warcraft, where a starting player might level two or three times in his first hour of play (to say nothing of Farmville, where rewards are near-continuous). Compare this to the D&D 4e system, which suggests players defeat ten-odd level-appropriate encounters before leveling, practically guaranteeing character advancement rewards will be spaced out by five or ten hours of play.

I think this is too long — it is too long for the adult players in my Arnath Marches campaign, to say nothing of my kids — and looking at it now I am surprised that Wizards of the Coast opted for such an extenuated leveling process in a game intended to defend the franchise against World of Warcraft.

At this point I suppose Mr. Old School is stroking his beard and intoning that good things are worth waiting for and that playing through two or three sittings of a game to earn a level makes that level mean something, but to that I would say … do you want to be right, or do you want to win? I design video games for a living, and I know first-hand the importance of compelling and frequent reward systems. Making players wait several sessions between rewards undermines player retention. Besides, rewards are fun, and there’s nothing to say that D&D couldn’t have given out little rewards along the way while reserving big rewards for traditional leveling moments.

They just missed the target, is all.

I meant to post more about our actual in-game experience with T&T 7.5 last night, but this has run on long enough and turned into a game mechanics examination, so I’ll cut it off here and talk about our game in my next post.

9 thoughts on “A Lifetime Of Experience

  1. Ha! Thanks for the commentary. Yes, I think changing the way adventure points are used and how attributes increase is the best change in the game, too. Too bad it took 30 years to think of it, eh? Now I’m starting to build that attribute increasing experience into solos by reminding the player that they may use the points they just got for killing that troglodyte and bring an attribute up a point.

    1. This fast-paced rewards are a real break-through, Ken … I take care to remind the boys about bumping their attributes during play, too, and it helps keep them involved. Paraphrasing Carrie Fisher, the problem with immediate gratification is that it takes too long. Wise words for game designers.

  2. I have, lately, begun to see some sense to the old way of raising different stats at different speeds, though. Maybe there is a way to combine the two?

    I will think more on that.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Andreas!

      In the original editions it made sense to ponder how to boost attributes — “do I improve STR by X or CHR by Y?” — because level thresholds were so far apart and leveling was a big event. With the faster-paced and more incremental improvement scheme of 7.5 I think it makes sense to keep it simple and fast, as it will often happen during play and you don’t want to slow things down and make other players wait while someone weighs leveling decisions.

      The trade-offs are already pretty simple … you will usually concentrate on improving an attribute related to combat adds, unless you are close to a character level threshold, or you are trying to improve STR/DEX to qualify for a spell level or specific weapon. The system is straight-forward and quick and I don’t see a lot of benefit to adding depth to this particular decision.

  3. I started running T&T for my mates using the 7e rules a couple of years ago after many years of solo and other system play. Once I got 7.5e I changed the advancement from 100 xp/attribute to 10 xp/attribute. It made a big difference 🙂
    Players were increasing their stats mid saving roll. I think they appreciated it all the more because they had initially been grinding forward slowly.
    Increasing stats directly rather than through level raises is a real design breakthrough.
    I would not have different cost rates – characters will naturally increase the stats that are important in play, and sometimes play catch up with lower stats to prevent incompetence.

    1. Did 7.0 advance on 100x XP? I bought it from Fiery Dragon at Gencon but I think I only played once. I like 10x much better, the rapid rate of advancement is a real breakthrough for this edition. Although learning that Ken adjusted his key experience multiplier by a factor of ten between two editions of the rules (half an edition?) serves to further point our his proudly chaotic nature! He says version 8.0 is going to be the “Chaotic” edition of T&T so lock up your daughters … who knows what he’ll roll out??

    1. Hey, Greg, thanks for writing.

      It’s been a loooong time since I was a Buffalo, but if there is anything specific you would like to know I will try to recollect for you. I was only there for eighteen months or so, in the very early 1980s, but it was a peak time for Tunnels & Trolls and Buffalo in general. We had an ace production crew with Liz Danforth, Mike Stackpole, Dan Carver, Larry DiTillio, at Pat Mueller all in-house, and our solo dungeon business was roaring so cash flow was good.

      I learned a lot from those guys and I’m grateful they took me under their wing at a tender age. I think I was all of seventeen when I started that job. Hard to believe I was ever seventeen, much less gainfully employed in creative work at that time. It’s been a strange ride.

  4. I disagree that the faster, more incremental experience system is essential. In fact, the kids I’ve played both editions with prefer 5.5 over 7.5 for experience purposes.

    That said, it’s not a big deal either way.

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