Review: Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls

The most steady way to RPG for me is solo adventures; tabletop and online are great when I can do it, but they’re flaky, irregular activities depending on other people; I write my own computer RPGs in the style I like to play, but this takes a long time. In between, I do freeform self-GMing, or with boardgames like Barbarian Prince, solo modules like XS1 Lathan’s Gold, or solo gamebooks, such as Lone Wolf, Fighting Fantasy, and best of all Tunnels & Trolls.

So first, if you’ve never tried Ken St. Andre’s Tunnels & Trolls, go grab Tunnels & Trolls Free RPG Day: Goblin Lake. Just a few pages of simple rules, and a solo adventure where you play a Goblin to learn the rules. I promise you’ll have fun, and probably die in a pit. Later, more serious solos like City of Terrors can be run with the same minimal rules. Flying Buffalo Inc sells the books, dice (standard 6-sided), and many tchotchkes.

I’m mostly going to address what’s new or different from that minimal solo version, or the full 5th Edition of 1979, or 5.5 of 2003. While I have 7th & 7.5 Edition, I didn’t really use them.

Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls is a 368-page tome, an inch thick, like every game today. This is good for sales on a store shelf, it looks like great value for the price; but it takes away from the “tiny book in your pocket” value. It has great black & white art by Liz Danforth and others, with a signature of color pages.

Happily it’s still very rules-light, and half of the book is setting.

Characters

Prime Attributes (stats, ability scores) are the usual Strength, Constitution (used directly for hit points), Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma, plus Luck, Speed, and Wizardry. Luck is your catch-all saving throw, Speed is used for reaction speed and adds to combat, and Wizardry is the energy for casting spells (replacing the use of Strength in previous editions). One quirk is that Speed now represents some traits of agility, but so does Dexterity; I would prefer if DEX had been made purely manual dexterity.

Combat adds in Deluxe are a little higher than previous editions, since you get them for Speed, and no longer take a penalty for low attributes. Missile adds are no longer separate, which is fine, that’s the kind of fussy detail T&T isn’t for.

Character types (classes) are the Warrior, Wizard, Rogue, and Specialist.

Warriors now get a weapon bonus, the old armor bonus, and of course cannot use magic. The sidebar for Warrior acknowledges that some playtesters found the +1d6 per level melee weapon bonus very high; I’m with them, and I use just +1 damage per level with any weapon. Having armor wear down for being doubled is fine (a return to early edition rules), it gives Warriors something to do with their money. Warriors used to be fairly disposable cannon fodder, but now you have some reason to keep them alive to higher levels.

Wizards are the same, they get all 1st-level spells, can reduce spell costs as they level, and can use a magic staff to reduce spell costs even more, but cannot use weapons over 2d6 base damage. Wizards have always worked fairly well, but magic now using Wizardy means you don’t inevitably have super-buff wizards who can only use a dagger, but can punch a dragon to death.

Rogues weren’t in the solo/free edition, but were in the full rules, a competent fighter and magician. As before, they do not lower their spell costs, cannot use magic staves, but in Deluxe they start with a single spell, can learn spells past 7th level, and get one or more free talents. They can choose to switch to Warrior or Wizard at 7th level, but are no longer forced to.

Specialists are just a special case for characters with a TARO (Triples Add & Roll Over) attribute, but there are more advanced rules in the Elaborations section.

Warrior-Wizards (now called Paragons) and Citizens are moved to Elaborations, and aren’t really meant for players anymore. In the old editions, Warrior-Wizards would eventually dominate everything.

The basic Kindreds (races) are the usual Humans, Dwarves[sic] (two types), Elves, “Hobbs”, and then Fairies and Leprechauns, and you can use most monster types given in 13.2 Peters-McAllister Chart. Each kindred has a multiplier for each attribute, such as from 0.25 (Fairy STR) to 2 (Dwarf STR). You can roll your attributes, and then see if a kindred would maximize your adds or magical power.

Now, by default this pushes a group of only non-Humans. There are a couple of balances. One is a new rule to give Humans a second chance at all saving rolls (or only 1d6 times per session); I find this kind of cheaty, and problematic if applied to NPCs, but it’s functional. There’s more on this in 17.5 The Other Human Advantage, with other ideas.

The best solution is tucked away after the Illkin (“evil” kindreds) in 13.1 Playing Non-Human Characters: Non-Humans don’t get to be Warriors, Wizards, Rogues, or Specialists. They’re rogues without the extra talents. You can still make culture-specific training and spell lists for non-Humans, but now a Dwarf isn’t inherently twice as good as a Human Warrior.

Character advancement is massively changed, no longer a D&D-like table of XP to level, now you use your AP (Adventure Points) to directly increase attributes, and your highest attribute determines your level. Now you get a little bit better every session, and can evenly distribute attribute gains, rather than every few sessions getting one giant DING! and spending a bunch of points on one or two attributes. One warning, however, I find that old adventures were generous with AP because it didn’t help that much. Now an award of 500 or 1000 AP is a huge deal, and you should probably halve or quarter those.

The new character sheet is nicely designed, so much better than the old typewriter-on-index-card forms. But you can’t fit 4 per page, which you may need in a killer dungeon! Darkshade’s half-page character sheet is a little more practical, perhaps.

Equipment has one of the most exhaustive, complete sets of weapons (including gunnes), armor, and general goods, alternate materials and improvements for custom gear, and poisons. The already-long lists from 5th & 7th edition have been extended, and there’s a Weapons Glossary in the end of the book describing and illustrating almost every weapon. This is where T&T often shines, instead of wasting time on rules, it has content you’ll use. One thing that hasn’t improved is the “Basic delver’s package” is still the only equipment kit, it would be helpful to have a handful of different kits for faster startup.

Rules

Saving rolls (SR, attribute checks) are explained better than in previous editions, now using a target number of 20 – attribute for level 1, 25 – attribute for level 2, etc.

Talents (skills) are bonuses to specific actions or knowledge, and the basic system or even the multi-level system in Elaborations are both very simple additions to saving rolls, but they work well enough. Both are simpler than Mike Stackpole’s skill system in 5.5 or the talent system in 7th.

Combat is largely unchanged from 5th edition, but has a few additions. Spite damage occurs on every die roll of 6, inflicting a point of damage on the other side ignoring armor. In 7th edition, almost every monster had some special effect on various amounts of spite damage, and that’s gone and good riddance (with the sole exception of poison being inflicted on spite damage).

Missile weapons are more clearly advantageous, letting you inflict damage directly if you make your Dexterity SR to hit, and adding to your side’s total if not. Gunnes, unarmed combat, and berserkers are now in the main combat chapter.

Magic has the addition of schools of magic, many new spells, kindred-specific spell lists (hidden in 12.13 Wizards), and magic artifacts. The spell names are just as silly as ever, though a few have been renamed, but “Sux2BU” is eye-rollingly bad. Silliness aside, the spells are powerful and can be powered up so they never stop being useful, and it does a fantastic job of modelling pulp swords & sorcery wizards.

Elaborations has a few pages each on languages, more complex talent rules, miniatures, a slightly longer gem table (but still no other random treasure tables), wandering monsters, a calendar, locks & traps (but not explicitly what SR is needed to lockpick), and other knicknacks.

Bestiary

Basic monsters are represented, as they have been since time immemorial, as a single number: Monster Rating (MR). A Giant Spider (MR 16) or an Orc Assassin (MR 100) are mechanically very similar. Unlike previous editions, the combat dice from MR are no longer reduced by damage, so that Giant Spider does 2d6+8 in combat at full health, and 2d6+0 after taking 15 damage. Large numbers of monsters are much more dangerous in Deluxe.

Much of the Monsters! Monsters! roster and some new beasties have been included, so you can stat them all up individually, though this is slower than MR combat.

I’ve discovered and confirmed with Ken that stats for Half-Elf & Half-Orc are missing, and Dwelf are incorrect or very optimistic; instead for all half-breeds you should just average the parents’ stat multipliers.

New monster kindreds are: Dakk (dark Dwarf), Hobgoblin, Kobold, Selkie, Pixie, Redcap, Keeraptora, Lizard People, Policani (Dogtaur), Ratling, Ghargh (Gargoyle), Rhynon (rhino-men), and Forest & Jungle Trolls.

Some were renamed: Hobbit to Hobb, Black Hobbit to Rapscallion, Balrog to Kauter, Worm to Common Dragon, Wyvern to Young Dragon (in stats, but these lose the character of Worm and Wyvern), Dark Elf to Vartae, and Yeti to Man-Ape.

Missing beasties from M!M! are: Gorgon (Medusa), Shadowjack, Living Statue, Snollygoster (still appearing in the setting chapter), Mummy, Sphinx, Zombie (but see the Zombie Zonk spell), Slime Mutant of Florida, Ghost, Night-Gaunt, Giant Slug, Shoggoth, Snark, Chimera, Basilisk, Gorilla, Warg, Unicorn, Giant Spider, Hydra, Griffin, Elementals, Chinese Fox, Rock Person, and Tsathogua.

The new beasties are useful if you’re converting adventures, but others are only appropriate to some areas of Trollworld. The missing beasties are a huge loss if you run a monster-heavy game, so go get Monsters! Monsters!. 7.5 had a basic monster list in the book, and Monstrum Codex with dozens more, but these are often pretty weird, and rely on special abilities.

The classic laundry list of monsters is gone:

A dungeon without monsters would be dull stuff. What lurks and slithers in your imagination, I don’t know, but in mine there are fire-breathing dragons, crocodiles, unicorns, snarks and boojums, black hobbits, giant spiders, cave lions, pythons, centaurs, toothy nonflammable dragons, werewolves, balrogs, basilisks, ghosts, jub jub birds, slithy toves, cave bears, sphinx, enchanted warriors, reptile men, flame fiends, harpies, orcs, mushroom monsters, cockatrices, giant slugs, banshees, mummies, barrow wights, goblins, ogres, living statues, trolls, shoggoths, wraiths, demons, leopards, octopi (giant economy size), vampires, gnoles, minotaurs, slime-mutants, drooling maniacs, two-headed giants, half-orcs, hydrae, living skeletons, bandersnatchi, jabberwocks, pithecanthropi, ghouls, mad dogs, poisonous vipers, blood bats, night gaunts, lamiae, cannibals, witches, warlocks, rabid rats (ulsios), three-headed giants, chimaerae, wyvverns, hags, giant slimy worms, yeti, tigers, gorgons, zombies, bigfoots, griffins, invisible stalkers, were-creatures of all varieties, misanthropes and misogynists, mantichores, and lots more.

However, there is now 17.2 Wandering Monsters which has a few monsters and animals, with trivial, serious, and deadly MRs for each. 17.9 Steeds lists types of weird mounts and stats for barding, but not even MR or movement rates for the steeds.

Setting

The Trollworld Atlas, the remainder of the book, has a fairly extensive setting. 5.5 edition had a bit of timeline for Trollworld, but the older editions had almost no setting, except some implied setting in the adventures.

The newly expanded history paints a constant war between the Human-like races and the Illkin, and the Humans often lose, or are pushed back. The gods/omnipotent wizards seem to want to teach the mortals tolerance, shapeshifting wizards into the form of their “enemies”, but they rarely learn from it.

There’s not really anything like “pseudo-European fantasyland” in Trollworld, though you might think so if you don’t go far from Khosht. For worldbuilding and sense of wonder, as you go out and learn more, that’s great. For recasting existing fiction and adventures into Trollworld, it’s inconvenient.

There are four continents/regions, each location in each region only has a sentence or paragraph of description, but more details are given for the monstrous city of Khazan and its sewers, the mostly Human city of Khosht, and the pirate city of Knor. Gull (from City of Terrors) is given a short story tour by Mike Stackpole. I could use more detail, especially leaders, rough population, fortifications, and wealth for each town, given that players are often murderhobo Human-likes or monsters on raid.

The short solo adventure Abyss, where dead delvers have a chance to escape Hades and return to life, is in the book. An odd choice. I’ve often let players (and my own characters) have one chance through it in the little pamphlet edition, but Christian-tinged Greek myth is out of place on Trollworld, and starting the adventures off with death doesn’t work.

Three GM adventures on Zorr, the Eagle Continent, go from fairly easy exploration and adventure, to a much harder wilderness quest, to an extremely dangerous dungeon with a harsh, unforgiving time limit. I think you’d have to force-feed AP to starting characters to make them competent for the end if you ran it straight through, but it’s great to see a long GM adventure with a strong setting for T&T.

I rather miss the 5.5 edition’s tiny intro GM adventure of Trollstone Caverns, and the more extensive solo of Buffalo Castle. But you can also get a ton of solo and GM adventures from Flying Buffalo or 3rd parties on DriveThruRPG (I have 50-odd in my Adventures folder, plus another score in print), so it’s not mandatory.

The book ends with a weapon glossary, a rules index, and a setting index.

There are newly updated Deluxe solo books of Agent of Death, Buffalo Castle, City of Terrors, Deathtrap Equalizer, and Dungeon of the Bear, and new spell books for each of the kindred.

Rating

  • Presentation: ★★★★☆ Mostly just 2-column black & white layout with only a few callout boxes, one signature of color pages, no “hyperlink” page references as in some current books, but it’s easy to read and attractive.
  • Organization: ★★★★☆ Several elements are hidden away in awkward places. If you’re not diligent about reading every section, you can miss something useful. But the core rules are very easy to find in the usual case-point manual numbering.
  • Rules: ★★★★★ Wizardry, Spite, and Talents fix almost everything I ever had to work around in older editions. Balance for kindreds & types is a little higher-powered, but that’s subjective and fixed by choosing different optional rules.
  • Setting: ★★★½☆ Trollworld’s fine, and has interesting conflicts, and Khazan and Khosht are excellent, but it still needs another pass of detailing everywhere else to be a first-class world. The GM adventures fill in a previously-unknown continent, but Abyss is out of place.
  • Utility: ★★★★☆ Full of little mechanics, tables, and setting bits that can be directly applied in a game. You could easily pick up this book, read it, and run great fantasy games forever.
  • Average: ★★★★½ If you liked that Free RPG Day booklet at all, if you’ve ever liked solo gamebooks, if you have a sense of humor about your gaming, get Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls.
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1 thought on “Review: Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls”

  1. Thanks for the extensive review, Mark! Too bad we didn’t have it before we put the final volume together. 🙂 I could probably spend the rest of my writing career filling in places of interest on Trollworld, but it’s better to let the players discover them for themselves, I think. Anything could be there.

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