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.