Blast From The Past

To my surprise, Jack asked to continue his D&D game today. After a bit of discussion, though, it became clear that while he wanted to role-play, he really didn’t want to play D&D. He wanted a game that played faster, with simpler mechanics, with an easier-to-understand character sheet, and with more focus on narrative/free-form play than tactical, map-based encounters. He still wanted canonical elves and dwarves in an orc-killing world that would be familiar to a World of Warcraft player, but he didn’t want encounter powers, dice roll modifiers, healing surges, multiple (and different) actions per round, or ten or more long grinding encounters before he could level up.

In short, he wanted to play Tunnels & Trolls.

Confession — I’ve known all along that T&T is the game I should be playing with Jack (and Miles too). I’ve resisted T&T with the kids in favor of D&D for a couple reasons.

First, if I wanted to teach the kids a RPG they might be able to play with other kids, and for better or worse, D&D is the lingua franca of RPGs. Second, I wanted to get them hooked on a game with a vibrant support system where we could, you know, actually walk into a store and buy something if we wanted. But mostly I was avoiding T&T because I have played this game since well before it looked like this …

… which is not in any way to slight Liz Danforth’s wonderful cover art, which I prefer to the current look from the Fiery Dragon editions! No, I avoided bringing T&T to the table because I’ve played it since I was thirteen and I’ve kind of been there and done that, and as much as role-playing with the kids should be about the kids, I thought I could be a little selfish and also scratch my itch to try something new and finally play D&D after all of these years.

But after twice trying real hard to make D&D 4e stick with my kids I think it is time to wave the white flag and admit that T&T is the better game for them. Better yet, it is time to embrace T&T as their game of choice and imbue them with a love of tabletop role playing before D&D drives them permanently into the arms of World of Warcraft.

I think Dungeons & Dragons 4e is a great game, particularly in its Essentials form, but I find it fun for all the wrong reasons (for my kids, at least). I like that it has a rule for everything, that it is a quasi-tactical miniatures skirmish game, that it rewards rules hacking and wargaming as much as it does role playing. I like that it is mechanically deep and that it rewards skillful play by players who learn to express themselves through the rules. I like that it is ubiquitous and in print and on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. I like that it is played on a map and that there are legitimate differences between goblins and kobolds. I like that it takes an hour to play out an encounter between four heroes and a half-dozen monsters.

I really do like those things — they scratch a real nerd itch for me, and give me a wargaming buzz at the same time as a RPG buzz. The problem is that all those rules (even an optimized set like Essentials) starts to feel something like this …

… which is not something my kids are interested in at all. If Wizards of the Coast really thinks this edition of D&D is going to win kids over by being more like World of Warcraft then, well, they haven’t got a clue, at least insofar as my kids are concerned. My experience with my Arnath Marches campaign shows that Essentials can somewhat hold the attention of aged 40-something gamers that love mechanics and rulebooks, but when it comes to hooking a couple of imaginative tweeners it has been a miserable failure.

Of course I could always run D&D “lite” by taking out most of the grit, running encounters without a map, simplifying the rules and throwing out most of the resolution mechanics in favor of hand-waiving and free narration. But why go to the effort to undo almost everything that D&D does (and does well) to turn it into some other game, particularly when I already have something like T&T on the shelf? Practically everything in D&D 4e drives the game toward a slow, tactical, procedural, rules-driven experience built around combat encounters. You can certainly use it for other things, but you are swimming against the tide. Worse still, you are swimming against the tide with that marble stack of books on your back weighing you down.

So how did my T&T game with Jack turn out tonight?

That about sums it up.

More in my next post.

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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!
This entry was posted in Tunnels & Trolls and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Blast From The Past

  1. So I’ve been following since you decided to play the Essentials line with your buddies, and have to say I’m intrigued in hearing about the process you and your children are going through. Since i’m not an old-hat at RPG’s and just a noob myself, my children haven’t really been around it. In fact with only one game night in and still just a lvl1 Halfling Rogue running around Winterhaven killing kobolds, we’re still mostly figuring out how to wield our weapons and explore the areas in roleplaying fashion.

    I’m not a WoW player, nor do I have the money to allow my children to be, so they may not even see that in my house. So I’m watching while you encourage your childrens imagination and opening up the world of gaming for them. It’s neat. Thanks for it. Keep it up.

    • Hello, Dean!

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      You have to take my comments regarding my kids and their RPG preferences with a grain of salt. Both of my boys have learning disabilities that make things like game rules and character sheets difficult to digest. I do think the current edition of D&D is too complex in places, and the information display of the stock character sheets really is a mess, but I’m sure dedicated tweeners can kinda puzzle it out and play a largely correct game. I’m just not completely sure why they’d do it when easier and more vivid RPG experiences (such as World of Warcraft) are available to many.

      You also need to filter my experience with T&T. It was easy to slide into last night and run a great adventure for Jack because I’ve been playing the game for thirty frickin’ years (!). The rules-as-written are easier to understand that D&D, and I think more fun, but they have plenty of their own issues, and in fact their lack of structure might prove just as difficult to a newbie as the rules-heavy approach of D&D. What I can say without reservation, though, is that T&T far better suited the style of game that Jack actually wanted to play — a game more about narration than game mechanics, that raced quickly from one vivid encounter to the next, with a sense of “go anywhere and do anything” that is frankly difficult to achieve in a map-based series of encounters like we see in D&D.

      D&D is a great game, and I hope to keep my campaign alive with my adult friends in one form or another in 2011. Maybe after a couple years training in T&T my kids will grow into it, too. But right now there is no doubt in my mind that T&T is the superior RPG for them. Now I just have to create some material for them to explore … last night’s game was run entirely off the cuff!

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  4. thess says:

    Its funny because I have been teaching my tween son and almost tween daughter to play Tunnels and Trolls also ( using the old brown cover 5th edition book) and it has gone really well. I myself WANTED to start with TnT, so that we didn’t have to deal with so much overly complicated rules oriented stuff, but just leaned on creating something imaginative and exciting. It has worked out really well, and I ordered 7.5 from Amazon for Christmas this year

    • 7.5 is nice to have for completeness sake (and the twist on the experience system), but I think the 5th edition is definitive. It has the best layout, the best art, and just the best spirit of all the editions. The T&T crew was at the top of their game when they did that version — it really is a classic work.

      Thanks for writing and let me know how your games go.

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