Last day of vacation and the boys wanted one more game of Tunnels & Trolls. This time Miles joined his brother, Jack, adding a dwarf warrior, Brendan, to the party.
This second game in reminded me of some of the inherent chaos and ridiculousness of T&T (and I mean that as a good thing, mostly). For instance, there’s no real reason to ever play a human in this system — the starting attribute advantages afforded to elves and dwarves are just too powerful to ignore. The dice can give crazy outcomes, too. The height and weight table decreed that Miles’ dwarf was 3′ 4″ tall and 360 pounds. We took awhile to get our heads wrapped around that one (and laughed a lot).
There were a lot of saving rolls in this game, and not just for player actions — wizards need to make a saving roll every time they cast a spell under 7.5, and all of those rolls yield experience points. Add in the experience points earned for spending Wizardry in casting and that’s a lot of little book keeping going on (and also a lot of experience for our wizard, who is advancing faster than his warrior pal). All the dice rolling and recording of XP in fives and tens can get old.
But it also keeps the action level up, and leads to fast character advancement, both of which went down well with the kids. I do need to more fully shift the burden of figuring out saving rolls, recording experience, and totaling combat values to the kids if we are to continue playing, though.
Outfitted with a pick axe and a spike shield, Brendan joined up with Calanon and went in quest of orc ears. They battled a two-headed snake in the woods, and would have died (mostly from bad luck) had their street urchin pal not trailed after them, and dragged their bodies to safety after the snake slithered back into the brush. The second foray into the forest was little better, with our heroes running from (and narrowly avoiding) a swarm of lightning bugs that would have killed them had it come to combat.
This comical lack of progress led to the usual T&T outcome — characters screaming at each other, and then coming to blows. Calanon cast Unlucky Bees on Brendan, which actually served to improve the dwarf’s woeful luck (and I ruled on the spot that Brendan was immune to further stings, or they could have driven his luck attribute right up to equal his constitution, over time … there’s that T&T chaos again!)
With their frustrations worked out, the lads plunged back into the woods, and used some reasonable tactics to take on the Blood Monkeys that were scavenging the bodies of dead woodcutters (but missing my clue about their blood-curdling screams, failing to stop up their ears with mud and having to pass constitution saving rolls to avoid freezing with panic). They still managed to take out the alpha males and thus drive off the rest of the pack.
This successful encounter restored the party’s spirits, and they picked up the days-old trail of the orc raiders, finding their way to their cave lair as the sun was going down. The boys impressed me by waiting until nightfall and letting the orcs go raiding before sneaking into the orc cave and looting the treasure. With a few fits and starts they managed to kill one of the orcs when they returned in the morning, and used Little Feets spells (and a bit of luck) to get away with a nice chunk of treasure (created by — you guessed it — the totally chaotic treasure tables). Taking out a couple of wandering trolls on the way back to camp was just icing on the cake.
And so this adventure was everything you expect of T&T — lots of fighting, lots of saving rolls, plenty of laughs, some clever rules-bending and oddball plans, lots of little experience points rewards, and a bit of treasure. The characters are better learning how to fight effectively, and they’ve earned enough to armor up and get some decent weapons.
Now it’s on me to come up with a decent adventure … I think I am at my limit for making this stuff up on the fly!
My evaluation of T&T vs. D&D is that Tunnels & Trolls is still the better choice for starting players, because the rules are light and they don’t get in the way, but if anything, the game runs almost too fast. There’s little chance for a DM to catch his breath with this game — you are on, and on all the time, with everything happening at once and no rules look-ups or long breaks in the initiative order to look ahead to what happens next.
Mechanically, the game is all over the place, and good luck finding any kind of game balance — I nearly killed the party a couple times with what looked like easy encounters, but then the heroes knocked out a couple trolls as easy as kiss-your-hand. Much depends on how the heroes are able to separate out individual monsters from a group (divide and conquer!) and how clever they are in applying their magic. I did find myself missing the guaranteed balance of level-appropriate encounters afforded by D&D but when you cut loose from encumbering rules you lose some stability too.
The value of that stability shouldn’t be underestimated. D&D lets a DM be a little sloppy. You can roll the encounter out there and it will kind of grind along on its own if that is what you want. There are all sorts of deadman switches in the system, too, that guard against sudden player death so long as you remain with level-appropriate encounters. A T&T DM really needs to be on his toes, though, because the all-or-nothing combat system can generate blowout results that run against the players as easily as they go in their favor.
It is easier for players to find themselves screwed in T&T — a couple bad die rolls, and through no fault of their own they can be dead. A T&T DM has to be more prepared to intervene and overrule the dice than his D&D counterpart, unless he’s ready to fully abide by the chaotic and capricious currents of mad Mr. St. Andre’s universe.