Friday, February 26, 2010

Some Thoughts on Tunnels and Trolls -- Why It Matters

Those who play Role Playing Games as a hobby know that it isn't always easy to find a group of like minded enthusiasts in order to form a regular "gaming group." As the hobby has expanded, gamers have been able to scratch the RPG itch by playing single player computer RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Planescape: Torment, video game console rpgs from Dragon Warrior to Dragon Age, or Massive Multiplayer RPGs like World of Warcraft and Dungeons and Dragons: Online. (You can watch videos for some of these games below.)

There hasn't always been such a rich market of available distractions for the gaming hobbyist. In fact, if you were a gamer in the early 1980s -- particularly a young gamer for whom college was a mere aspiration -- there were really only three solutions. You could used the "random solo dungeon" tables in the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Dungeon Master's Guide, you could play a Fighting Fantasy Gamebook, or you could play a Tunnels and Trolls solo adventure. As I mentioned earlier, if it hadn't been for Tunnels and Trolls your only option would have been the "random solo dungeon" tables in the DMG.

Tunnels and Trolls provided a much needed service for the gaming community with its solo adventures. Not only did they provide the inspiration for the excellent Fighting Fantasy Gamebooks, but the T&T solos provided hours of entertainment in and of themselves. They also demonstrated how the T&T rules system was an ideal RPG system for solo play. T&T's rules were simple, quick, and abstract, three things that are essential if one is trying to create a game for solitaire play. The early T&T solos were fairly crude in their presentation and content, particularly when compared to the Fighting Fantasy (and later Lone Wolf) Gamebooks, but as first movers they created a wonderful sub-category of adventure gaming -- one that I still enjoy today.

Buffalo Castle, the first solo module, was written by Rick Loomis of Flying Buffalo Games and is a very basic -- though sometimes wildly chaotic -- dungeon crawl. The castle's denizens don't make much sense, and "your" motivation for adventure is pure "profiteering" of the kind common in early RPG adventures. But there is something to be said for entering a room that Tardis-like is larger on the inside than the castle that surrounds it -- a room filled with a herd of buffalo. One imagines that Loomis' work in the Play-by-Mail marketplace may have been a part of his inspiration in drafting a solo adventure.

Ken St. Andre's Deathtrap Equalizer Dungeon quickly adapted the solo module format in a manner that attempted to increase repeat play. The module is best described as a "Gonzo Romp" adventure where death or success can happen at the turn of a page, and where the author punishes readers almost on a whim.

It wasn't until Ken St. Andre's Arena of Khazan and Michael Stackpole's City of Terrors that the solo reached a level of sophistication that made replay not merely fun, but more rewarding that playing through the adventure a single time. I still find myself returning to the Arena of Khazan in the hopes of attaining wealth and glory -- or freedom if I happened to have been "recruited" as a new gladiator like Spartacus in the new Starz TV series.

The solos are worth a look and a play through both as artifacts of the history of RPGs and as experiences on their own -- especially the later modules where narrative components become more important than the first few. I've never quite been convinced that T&T works well as a "group" game, its combat system lacks a kind of "cinematic granularity" that feeds the imaginations of the players with whom I have typically played. But I think that it has some core elements that could be translated into a great group game. This is especially true of T&T's underlying "Saving Throw" system, which I'll be examining in a couple of upcoming posts.

While D&D's influence on computer/video games is undeniable. One should not overlook the influence that T&T and its solo adventures had on that field either. Ken St. Andre worked on the classic video game Wasteland, which was the inspiration for the Fallout series of video game rpgs. Ian Livingstone, of the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks series, went on to develop a video game version of his own Deathtrap Dungeon with a little video game company he co-founded. It's called Eidos. Maybe you've heard of it. They did a little game called Tomb Raider.


Chris Tregenza said...

T&T Solo Adventures were how I first cut my teeth in RPG. I think I've still got them somewhere. Bad photocopies of photocopies supplied by a friend gave me a start in gaming (and they say piracy is a bad thing).

It was exactly as you say. The perfect solution for when I couldn't find a group to play with.

I occasional toy in my mind ideas for making modern, more sophisticated solo adventures but I can never come up with a better ones than those for T&T, written 30 years ago.

Michael said...

I rather enjoy T&T Solo Adventures. They are very 'Choose Your Own' with stats.