The Word for World is Dungeon

I’ve been reading The Mansion of E pretty much every day since 2003 (Robert Cook publishes every day, I just sometimes had months of slacking off and catching up). If you like weird fantasy/science fiction about worldbuilding, go start at the first comic and just read forward about 5000 comics until you’re caught up.

The current week’s Mortimer plot and the Saturday in the Basement plot make clear something I’ve long theorized: These beings (I wouldn’t call most of them “monsters”) have never been out of the dungeon or the forest directly above it. The Pales have worldwide distribution, but the ones in the Mansion area are different.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying listening to The Iron Realm podcast, which narrates a solo D&D dungeon crawl in a world with no surface, just endless dungeons. Rather than being a smash & grab mission in & out, the Iron Realm’s a horrible afterlife for souls from destroyed worlds. Survival gaming in a barren stone maze.

I haven’t finished my Veins of the Earth review yet, I want to actually test some of it first, but it fits in the Doomed category, and gives more tools for dealing with this idea.

Philip José Farmer’s The Dungeon was an anthology of Farmer-like stories in an endless multiversal dungeon, though many of the “levels” are nearly entire worlds. I read these when they came out, and they’re awesome and gameable (in the past I’ve used the old Pacesetter Sandman rules for it), ★★★★★.

And very far afield, the Minecraft 404 Challenge.

Of course, this is the premise of Rogue, and several of my iPhone/computer games, Brigand and Reaper’s Crypt currently, but a CRPG is hard to get a mood of slow desperation and claustrophobic doom in.

So, the premise:

The surface world was destroyed by:

  1. Atomic fire.
  2. Plague.
  3. Ice giants.
  4. Kaiju infestation (99% of Humanity is destroyed in Godzilla: Final Wars).
  5. Martian ants
  6. Gods appeared/awoke and the world you knew vanished like a bad dream.

Life moved into the dungeons, and sealed off the entrances, the surface can never be returned to. Generations later, you have never known sunlight or open air, nothing but an endless subterranean maze.

The party is out on their own:

  1. The tribe is starving.
  2. The tribe is destroyed by raiders.
  3. The tribe is destroyed by cave collapse.
  4. You offended the gods (the tribal shaman doesn’t like you).
  5. Prophecy demands one party per generation leave and seek The McGuffin.
  6. Stupidly thought adventuring was a good idea.

Issues:

  • System:
    • Easy option: Stick with Tunnels & Trolls and Monsters! Monsters!, pillaging a lot from Veins of the Earth and/or Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide. While there’s no crunchy survival mechanics, T&T doesn’t scale up too fast until around level 10, lets you make any monster as a character, and saving rolls are a great universal mechanic for the weird situations this is going to produce.
    • RuneQuest 2E. Stafford’s Glorantha evangelism has wrecked modern RQ and killed BRP, but the old one’s still playable in random non-Glorantha settings, and had a ton of monster races. 2E starting skills rely on student loans and time studied, which would need to be fixed. “Experience levels” are needed to match the dungeon floor, but ((highest skill – 30) ÷ 10) is probably about right without the student loan system.
    • Rolemaster would fit the survival tone better, but A) The company doing business as the corpse of “Iron Crown” can’t get their shit together to publish any current edition (3 years and counting!), and B) that would be a lot of bookkeeping to do it right, and C) there are very few survival skills in it, unless you add in a bunch of RMSS skills and then make a custom professional skill DP table.
    • D&D 5E is too super-heroic, and D&D 0E/OSR scales up too fast and for the wrong reasons. Pathfinder is crunchy and can kill characters, but still scales up too fast.
  • Air: Let’s presume there’s a connection to the elemental plane of Air, or moss that cleans air & produces oxygen, or some other BS explanation because death is too certain without magic breathing amulets or SCUBA gear otherwise. Moss is interesting because if you desperately eat the moss or burn it away with say a fireball, you’ve made that area airless until it regrows.
    • Mansion of E posits a tree that grows thru all the tunnels and gives air, light, and fruit, but that’s far, FAR too generous.
  • Water: Underground rivers, drippings, steam shafts, wells down to ever-lower aquifers, etc. are all pretty reasonable. The spelunking term for dry caves is “dead” (water carving out caves is “living”), and that’s what you are if you stay there.

  • Food: Moss & lichen, mushrooms, bugs, rats, & other scavengers as bottom-tier meat, maybe plants that use some other radiation. Anthropophagism as your primary diet is a losing strategy, you can’t afford the injuries you’re going to take hunting “the most dangerous game”. Eating whatever you killed for other reasons is fine, if they’re edible.

  • Light: Don’t give any races or monsters true Darkvision, only Nightvision maybe doubling distance seen with light, or different enhanced senses. There’s some great discussion on light in Veins of the Earth; the economics are nonsensical, but otherwise this is the core book on darkness.

  • Disease: Half of the Iron Realm episodes have been them sleeping off “The MALADY“, which is a coughing sickness with exponential damage for resistance failure. Actually kinda boring except as a prod, I’d go back to Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor disease tables and only when characters don’t set up proper latrines, fail to clean at least weekly, squat too long in closed rooms, traipse through sewers, etc.

  • Monsters/Races: Here it comes back to food. This is a “Gygaxian Naturalism” environment if ever there was one. The challenge is in finding resources, so if monsters just spawn or regenerate endlessly, there’s no real challenge after setting up a troll slaughterhouse or whatever; any Minecraft player who’s set up an automated farm knows how boring it gets after that.

    • The Mansion of E has four or more large caverns where each of the major races live and tunnel out, for SPOILER reasons, and then the rest of the tunnels are a DMZ and occupied by the minor races.
    • That’s per-floor. So Goblins, Kobolds, Humans, and Gnomes are the floor 1 races, plus a bunch of “wilderness” areas for animals. Orcs, Gnolls, Dwarfs, and Elves are the floor 2 races, etc. There might be some out-of-level characters, but the big tribal spaces determine if characters ever get any safety and support.
    • Probably very political; adventurers will have to “grind faction”, kill enemies of a tribe and carry out quests to earn brownie points to get any support. Another mouth to feed or a reckless “ally” could push an entire tribe to extinction.
  • Maps: Here’s the great part. Take every dungeon map on your shelf. Mash them together with some new tunnels. Figure out how inhabitants of dungeon A interact with neighboring dungeon B. Connect the home tribal caverns on the edges of several maps. Stonehell connects to Quasqueton (B1), the lower floors of Ravenloft (the castle having been razed & sealed, the tombs now silently waiting for fools to rush in), the sewers of Waterdeep, and Dyson Logos’ Private Jakalla. When adventurers have angered one tribe too much with their predatory ways, they flee down dark tunnels to another dungeon.
    • You could actually keep some castles/surface areas in the style of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Outsider, but that much potential freedom is ruinous to a game of unending stone corridors, so there must be ever worse terrors to drive adventurers back down.
  • Objective: What’s at the bottom of the dungeon that you’re trying to get to? There has to be some reason you don’t just level up and then sit on floor 1 eating Kobold leg BBQ with a chaser of Goblin blood every day. What’s the pressure making dangerous things head downwards? Needs a carrot and a stick.
    • Carrot: On each floor, there are vaults which can only be opened by the possessors of specific artifacts, and puzzle-solving and arms & magic of certain power. Inside are more artifacts which will save a tribe. The artifacts wouldn’t be simple magic weapons and such, but innate spells that aid the group.
    • Religion: Maybe the contents of the vaults are the gods, driven from the surface. There would be no true clerics until adventurers open the first vault, then only of that one random god, and another on the next floor, and so on.
    • Stick: The Black Sun Deathcrawl radiations and monsters only affect those of power above their depth. As long as you stay on the dungeon floor equal to your level, you adventure normally. When you ding another level, you have X turns to reach the next dungeon floor or you’ll be hunted by Black Thoughts, Terrible Thoughts, and Teeth, or transformed into something horrible.

This post title’s a bit flippant, since The Word for World is Forest is an interesting book wrecked by being one of Le Guin’s top 3 preachiest, most didactic screeds, and a preposterous premise (shipping wood across interstellar distances, because you can’t grow it on Earth; even aside from the moronic premise, post-DNA, that Humans didn’t evolve on Earth). I’m not suggesting you fuck little green hobbits or do Avatar-in-the-Dungeon.

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Rarr Tunnels & Trolls Bundle of Stuff

“Rarr! I’m A Monster Publishing” Tunnels & Trolls Bundle

  • Caustic Trollworld: Post-apocalypse Gamma World-like rules for Trollworld. Touched and Tainted mutants, like Wild Cards’ Aces & Jokers. While the mutations are mostly playable, the 3d6 tables are badly organized, with weaker powers at the unlikely ends, and powerful abilities common; and sometimes modifies stats, other times gives a bonus to save rolls. Pick a common mechanic! I don’t like the division of Touched and Tainted mutants, so I’d probably reorganize them all on a d36 table or some such.

    Sometimes writes “Caustic Earth”, and clearly this started life as a different kind of apocalypse. The monster section is dull but adequate for classic wasteland crawls. No adventures or characters, just a rule hack.

    ★★☆☆☆

  • Cyber.net.ica: Cyberpunk setting material converted to T&T rules. Character types are Vanilla (skilled), Tweak (cyborg), Techmaturge (magic cyberspace shaman), Tekxorcist (cyber-cleric), Data Rogue (magic cyberspace thief, what, not Tekroughe or some such?). Weaponry skips over the 20th C. and just has rocket launchers, lasers, and Spetsdods (??? needleguns).

    Tweak mods are just neural processor programs, wired reflexes, etc., there’s no chrome body mods or giant stompy robot shells. The Cybermancy spells are weird… I can’t tell if they’re suposed to be used in the “real world” or only in Cyberspace. Some only make sense as software hacking, some parts say this is “magic or psionics”. The cyber-bestiary has a variety of program/life forms, but not well defined as to what they can do. “Web spiders – MR 24 – Malicious daemons used to collect data from unsuspecting nodes.”: Fine, but HOW?

    There are 15 “adventure seeds”, ranging from “2. Is the new MMORPG really recruiting for a cult?”: Yes, to “14. Cyberdrugs?”: Are you on them, writer? And then “Appendix M: Monkeys on Juice”, where cyber-monkeys rebel and run loose. With 15 more adventure seeds, for whatever that’s worth.

    ★★★½☆, could be a good SF setting with a little sanity editing.

  • Hobb Sized Adventures: 5 short and 1 reasonably long solo adventures, great cover art. Haven’t played all of them yet, but:

    • Tomb of the Toad: Atmospheric little swamp tunnel, chased in by “a rampaging Slorr” (who you gonna call?). Has the illusion of choice but actually all paths lead to the same 3 rooms and an interesting boss fight. ★★★☆☆
  • Monster Menagerie: 8 weird races for Monsters! Monsters! or just any T&T game, short writeups with a custom spell list for the Eeeks (Ewoks/Little Fuzzies). The Shroomkin art is cute and deranged, little mushrooms armed with tiny weapons. Immediately useful, creative, and fun. Could use some adventure hooks or backstory on each, but does what it sets out to do. ★★★★½

  • Pocket Delve 1, Deuce, 3: Maps from donjon.bin.sh, no descriptions. But there’s tables for wandering monsters, treasure, room monsters/events, and 3 detailed bosses. Not really even solos, but tools to make solos with? ★★☆☆☆

  • The Big Book of Alternate Settings For Tunnels & Trolls: Five settings adapted from other indie games into T&T rules, often awkwardly, with no connecting material. Three of these could’ve been combined into one setting and become far more interesting, but as it is this is weak sauce.

    • The Robot Invasion From Planet 01000101: Robots want our women. Weapons. Robot stats. Cat-Women who are superior to all Human chars. No scenario or point. ★★☆☆☆
    • Undertakers: Horror setting in a small town, kind of like Phantasm, but with hellhounds instead of flying balls? Very minor psychics, and fear rules. While weak, it is a scenario and could be played as written. ★★★½☆
    • Xenomorph 1, 2: A set of tables, like Chainsaw Warrior (using dice instead of cards) with Aliens. No real backstory, barely even a game, and Xenomorphs only have basic MR, no cool abilities. ★☆☆☆☆
    • Beauty Queens vs. The Undead: Zombies want our women. Weapons (4 inch heels!). Zombie stats. No scenario or point. Sweet zombie Jesus, make a map and stat up Bob Barker, at least. ★★☆☆☆
    • The Librarians of Doom: Evil librarians vs. ancient knight order vs. anti-librarian militia. Buncha weapons & spy gear. Monster stats for librarians and zombies, demons, shoggoths. Is this a joke about Ken St. Andre being a librarian? No scenario or point, but hey, a little bonus for being completely bugshit crazy. ★★★☆☆
  • The Goblin Gambit: A short (6-page) GM adventure. Spooky woods tables are fine, then a linear adventure to a single staged fight. Could’ve been a solo, certainly not even an evening’s game session for beginner players. ★★½☆☆

  • The Island of the Conatiki-aru, or the Lost Island of the Sea Rogue!: A very nice hex-crawl island map, descriptions written in pirate-speak (which wears thin after 1 paragraph), “Th’ beaches in this area are rough as thar are bones ground into th’ sand. ’tis where th’ great White Apes dispose o’ th’ remains o’ thar meals.”

    However, the stats are given in the back in T&T (MR only, no character stats), QADD, OSR, and USR (“Unbelievably Simple RP”) systems, but not next to descriptions of anything. Flip flip. The map scale is maybe 2 miles/hex, not clearly specified? There’s no hex-crawling rules in this, which is fine in D&D but other games rarely have such technical details.

    ★★★☆☆, could easily have been higher with less pirate-speak and a little more detail.

  • Sanctuary of the Sorcerer -T&T Edition: One-page dungeon with a few tricks & traps. The lightest but one of the least dull of the things I’ve read so far. ★★★☆☆

  • Snollygoster 1-7: T&T fanzine, typically quite short, occasional useful idea or magic item. Neither appalling or awesome. ★★★☆☆

Overall: Mediocrity, relieved only by Monster Menagerie and Hobb Sized Adventures. Price was reduced from $22.50 to $12.00, which it is barely worth.

Dragon+ Magazine

Dragon+ magazine has some interesting content, mostly in the maps and some paintings (Hasbro can certainly afford good artists).

But the reader is a cruel joke. What is Hasbro doing? There’s an iOS app, Android app, and web version, but no PDF. It’s free-as-in-kittens content, why do I have to page thru this abysmal UI they’ve cobbled together? Or why can’t it just be a series of static, usable web pages, which might even be searchable?

D&D Survey

Hasbro has a D&D Survey which you should take, if you think the current edition’s direction needs adjustment.

My feedback comment:

Lack of PDF editions of 5th edition makes it a complete non-starter to me. I have the SRDs, which are fine for understanding the game if I’m ever in a group which will only play it, but if Hasbro can’t be bothered to publish in the format I use, I won’t buy. Meanwhile I can get every other game and module ever made as a PDF on my iPad.

While I liked Greyhawk back in the ’80s, I’m not a fan of necrophiliacs digging up Gary’s grave looting his setting and breaking everything because they didn’t take the time to understand it. Most of Hasbro’s would-be module or setting writers are hacks who can’t publish a novel, so they wreck settings or write linear trash adventures.

Compare basically anything published for 5th ed with anything by Lamentations of the Flame Princess or Venger Satanis, and it’s just laughable that anyone would choose Hasbro.

Do better or stop trying.

Tunnels & Trolls App

MetaArcade’s Tunnels & Trolls Adventures mobile game is out!

So, after many runs through Naked Doom (the free adventure) and a couple tries at Buffalo Castle (less successfully), I made it out of Naked Doom, alive but poor (I rolled 11 guards at the end, who “shared” all my loot! 😡)


So what works:

  • 3D dice roller is decent, reasonably fast but lets you see the dice wobble around. However, sometimes they get stuck crooked, which shouldn’t happen.
  • Adventure adaptation is fine, from what I can see. Buffalo Castle lets you see a map (of the complete structure, not just what you’ve explored) fairly often, but it’s not always on-screen. There’s no map in Naked Doom, but where would you write it, and how?
  • Dying in an adventure just returns you to start with nothing lost or gained.
  • Actually completing an adventure saves your progress.

What doesn’t work:

  • Only Warriors currently exist. They say they’re adding Wizards (and hopefully Rogues?) later, but I really much prefer to play a Rogue in T&T.
  • It’s mostly 5th Edition-like, with 6 stats, levels based on AP which give you stat points, rather than AP improving stats which determine your level.
  • Starting you out with only Naked Doom, no equipment store in the game, is kind of lame. The initial shopping trip is one of my favorite things in T&T. Nope, you get whatever gear you can scavenge from an adventure.

SIGH:

  • Unlocking adventures uses IAP currency, which is… not fine, disappointing but typical. I guess I should be glad they’re not offering revives or bonus gear for IAP currency (yet; don’t get bad ideas, guys).
  • Buffalo Castle, which you can play for free on the web and has usually been the freebie pack-in adventure, costs 40 gems = $4. Golden Dust Red Death, Seven Ayes, and Grimtina’s Guard “mini-solos” cost 10 gems = $1 each. And of course they sell gems in units of 10, 50, or 110 (for $10), not 70 which is what “unlock all” would be.
  • Playing an un-purchased adventure costs 1 “heart”, which you can apparently get more of by watching video ads. You’re going to need quite a few tries for most of these, so figure 5 or 10 videos per completion.
  • The art is a mix of styles from 1970s Liz Danforth and others, to some cheesy Fiery Dragon Press-type work, and not every room or foe is illustrated. There’s little sound other than a repeating music track which got turned off quick.

Compared To:

  • Sorcery! mobile games, which have lovely maps, pretty heavy amounts of classic and new art, and are paid-up-front. All 4 Sorcery! games are $17, but they have working sorcery. Play time’s probably longer but more frustrating in T&T Adv than a single Sorcery! game, but all 4?

Rating:

I think I’ll stick to tabletop T&T Deluxe, and buy more solos. This is cute, but not that cute.

★★★☆☆

Beyond D&D

Just a quick note, the D&D Beyond site is now up.

Character creation seems OK, though I was unable to pick a multiclass before rolling ability scores, so the workflow there is backwards. It exports a decent PDF form, but only listed my “prepared” spells, leaving off two known spells. Still some work to do.

Compendium lets you buy digital rulebooks… Which seem to be only on the site, not PDFs, and rather hilariously have all the subclasses as DLC/addons/Pay-to-Win. No shit, you pay $1.99 to be an Assassin. Or $3.99 to choose from backgrounds like Charlatan, Urchin, or Pirate. I can’t even tell if this was a joke that went too far, or what. It’s a fucking role-playing game, man, you can write whatever you want in your background.

The entire set of “content” is $279.99. I am, uh, kind of awestruck at Wizards of the Hasbro’s chutzpah and greed.

Stone Halls & Serpent Men balancing act

This is pretty close to a final version of the main rules. I’ll eventually do the other lands (and more importantly the rules to support them) as a second volume. Now I just need to fix the page layout, and do some interstitial and cover art!

  • Redefined starting characters. Level 1 now gets 2 Professions, Level 2 gets +1 Profession, and “journeyman adventurers” start at Level 2. The super-fragile Level 1 experience is more “fun” with limited skills, and actual adventuring is more fun with a second hit die and enough MP to cast a few spells.
  • Earthborn “race”. Half the secondary world fantasies have an Earth person transported to Faerieland (Three Hearts & Three Lions), Barsoom, Witch World, Lord Kalvan’s paratime, etc. and forced to survive. L.Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt’s Harold Shea goes exploring mythology. Magic resistance makes them good witch-hunters.
  • Social Status rank.
  • Social Status to Communities.
  • Encounter rates for communities.
  • Dwarf & Kobold tech notes.
  • Personal goal GP costs.
  • Option for Fixed “Holmes” Initiative. I played and ran Holmes (D&D 1977) for a very long time, and prefer that mechanic, but find most players like more randomness.
  • Spells: Pyrokinesis, Acid Arrow, Magic Trap. Cure * spells heal more detailed injuries.
  • Curses: now 20 for lesser and greater.
  • Androids. Everybody loves androids. Androids have feelings, too.
  • Satyrs.
  • Treasure Value, establishing the economic scale for adventures.
  • Action Cards. This is a fairly major addition, a way to bring a lot of player control into both combat and non-combat play. After a few levels, players have interesting tactial choices from a hand of several cards. It does increase character power some, and the Referee needs to use named NPCs with cards to balance them out.
  • Shrine ideology.

Dungeon Music

So I was thinking about what the right mood music is for dungeon-crawling. Heavy, moody, and most importantly weird. Not just old, but a certain kind of old. So not-too-arbitrarily, 1979 is the cutoff.

Thin Lizzy and Blue Öyster Cult are for town and roleplay-heavy sessions, down low but telling you to go be bad guys. Led Zep, Rush, and Hawkwind for travel and exploration of weird places. Slam on the Sabbath, Priest, Rainbow, UFO, and Uriah Heep for the actual dungeon full of madness.

I know some people prefer more ambient like Midnight Syndicate or Unquiet Void, and I’ve tried that, but it’s too mellow for anything but very quiet investigation like Call of Cthulhu. Others are into death metal, which does fit better, but makes a large population of players angry and upset. And both are pretty rare before the ’90s.

Back in the day, owning everything was hard, and flipping vinyl or a mixtape was a hassle. But now you can make a streaming music playlist and just hit play. I suggest not shuffling songs, though, these are albums meant to be listened straight thru.

  • Black Sabbath
    • Black Sabbath (1970)
    • Paranoid (1970)
    • Master of Reality (1971)
    • Vol. 4 (1972)
    • Sabbath Bloody Sabbath (1973)
    • Sabotage (1975)
    • Technical Ecstasy (1976)
    • Never Say Die! (1978)
  • Blue Öyster Cult
    • Blue Öyster Cult (1972)
    • Tyranny and Mutation (1973)
    • Secret Treaties (1974)
    • Agents of Fortune (1976)
    • Spectres (1977)
    • Mirrors (1979)
  • Hawkwind
    • Hawkwind (1970)
    • In Search of Space (1971)
    • Doremi Fasol Latido (1972)
    • Hall of the Mountain Grill (1974)
    • Warrior on the Edge of Time (1975)
    • Astounding Sounds, Amazing Music (1976)
    • Quark, Strangeness and Charm (1977)
    • 25 Years On (1978)
    • PXR5 (1979)
  • Judas Priest
    • Rocka Rolla (1974)
    • Sad Wings of Destiny (1976)
    • Sin After Sin (1977)
    • Stained Class (1978)
    • Killing Machine (1978)
  • Led Zeppelin
    • Led Zeppelin (1969)
    • Led Zeppelin II (1969)
    • Led Zeppelin III (1970)
    • Led Zeppelin IV (1971)
    • Houses of the Holy (1973)
    • Physical Graffiti (1975)
    • Presence (1976)
    • In Through the Out Door (1979)
  • Rainbow
    • Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow (1975)
    • Rising (1976)
    • Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll (1978)
    • Down to Earth (1979)
  • Rush
    • Rush (1974)
    • Fly by Night (1975)
    • Caress of Steel (1975)
    • 2112 (1976)
    • A Farewell to Kings (1977)
    • Hemispheres (1978)
  • Thin Lizzy
    • Thin Lizzy (1971)
    • Shades of a Blue Orphanage (1972)
    • Vagabonds of the Western World (1973)
    • Nightlife (1974)
    • Fighting (1975)
    • Jailbreak (1976)
    • Johnny the Fox (1976)
    • Bad Reputation (1977)
    • Black Rose: A Rock Legend (1979)
  • UFO
    • UFO 1 (1970)
    • UFO 2: Flying (1971)
    • Phenomenon (1974)
    • Force It (1975)
    • No Heavy Petting (1976)
    • Lights Out (1977)
    • Obsession (1978)
  • Uriah Heep
    • Very ‘Eavy Very ‘Umble (1970)
    • Salisbury (1971)
    • Look at Yourself (1971)
    • Demons and Wizards (1972)
    • The Magician’s Birthday (1972)
    • Sweet Freedom (1973)
    • Wonderworld (1974)
    • Return to Fantasy (1975)
    • High and Mighty (1976)
    • Firefly (1977)
    • Innocent Victim (1977)
    • Fallen Angel (1978)

Old-School Modules, Part I

I need to post more often. A new update of Stone Halls & Serpent Men is coming, but needs some more work and testing, since I’m making a significant change: Level 1 characters will only receive 2 Professions, they’ll get a 3rd at Level 2. There’s also a major gameplay & player control tool, and some other goodies.

In the mean time, I thought I’d go thru the collection of ancient modules, and see which ones are suitable and interesting to run with Stone Halls & Serpent Men. Since I expect most people don’t have the oldest rules (even though you can buy all but Holmes currently on DriveThruRPG), I’m just going to include their maps to show what they’re like, but I won’t do that for the standalone modules. All map rights held by Hasbro/Wizards of the Coast/TSR, except Outdoor Survival by The Avalon Hill Game Company.

This first installment will just cover original D&D, Holmes, Moldvay, and B1.

Dungeons & Dragons Book III Underworld & Wilderness Adventures (TSR, Gary Gygax & Dave Arneson, 1974)

The underworld adventure consists of a side-view of 6 levels split into several parts with interconnections, but no key.

There is a partially-keyed map for level 1. Not really usable as an adventure by itself, and the other levels are not detailed.

The outdoor map is the Outdoor Survival boardgame, with some features changed into fantastic equivalents, but it’s unkeyed.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Barely a sketch.

D&D Book 3-pg 3
D&D Book 3-pg 4
Outdoor Survival

Dungeons & Dragons, Basic Set (TSR, Eric J. Holmes, 1977)

There’s a much better side-view map of The Great Stone Skull Mountain, 7 levels including a domed city. But again there is no key.

The sample dungeon has a setting (sadly not the interior of the Great Stone Skull), a nearby town, and is fully keyed, with stats for the NPCs. I’ve only used this dungeon a couple times ever, but it’s nearly a modern adventure. Interesting points are the multiple entrances (stairs, tower, and sea cave) and multiple loops; it’s unreasonably hard for a defender to hold this dungeon, but that’s good for a starter adventure, where an overly powerful enemy can be avoided.

Rating: ★★★☆☆ Acceptable, if bare-bones.

D&D Basic-pg 39
D&D Basic-pg 42

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Basic Set (TSR, Tom Moldvay, 1981)

The side-view doesn’t even have named levels.

The sample dungeon of the Haunted Keep has one tower mapped with a few small rooms but a sort of interesting maze, fully keyed with example rolls from the tables. The scenario backstory about wererats, the second tower, and the 2nd-3rd levels are not mapped. I’ve never used this, and it’s kind of a sad little stub of an adventure.

However, note the dungeon key, by this time dungeon notation’s become standardized.

Rating: ★½☆☆☆ Incomplete.

Basic D&D-pg 58
Basic D&D-pg 57
Basic D&D-pg 58-key

Basic Dungeons & Dragons (B/X), Expert Set (TSR, Dave Cook & Steve Marsh, 1981)

The sample wilderness is the Grand Duchy of Karameikos with a hex map and 3 barely-described towns, and an unkeyed “Gnome Lair”. But it does have a terrain notation key.

Rating: ★☆☆☆☆ Nothing there.

Expert D&D-pg 61
Expert D&D-pg 62-gnome lair
Expert D&D-pg 62-key

B1 In Search of Adventure (TSR, Mike Carr, 1979)

Two complex maze-like levels, completely filling a page each (starting the very artificial pattern of an 8.5×11, north-facing dungeon map, easily predicted by players), with about 8 themed areas. Quasqueton is a funhouse trap dungeon built by an obviously unstable wizard and his murderous militant partner. The descriptions are often evocative of the tone of a well-run facility degraded into the den of a few scavenging monsters. This is not a “mythic underworld”, it’s not Gygaxian Naturalism with ecological notes and political interactions mapped out, but somewhere in between.

There is no side-view, and it’s not absolutely needed, but there are multiple connections between the levels. A more 3-dimensional dungeon would probably be too hard for novice players to map.

The monsters and treasures are given in separate lists at the end of the module, not assigned to specific rooms, whether to throw off players who have read the module, or because TSR was trying to teach novice “Dungeon Masters” how to distribute items, though I don’t think they succeeded at that.

There’s a good section of character lists (12 of each class), for pregens or henchmen, with randomized personality, arms, armor, level, and spells.

The handout/background sheet including a Sutherland illustration and adventuring tips is interesting. And the occasional interior art, mostly by David C. Sutherland III and some “DIS & DAT” with David A. Trampier of Wormy fame, is both informative and a little wacky.

In general, this dungeon is less deadly and more forgiving than one designed to test experienced players. It is designed to be fairly challenging, however, and is by no means “easy.” Careless adventurers will pay the penalty for a lack of caution—only one of the many lessons to be learned within the dungeon!

The dungeon itself is ready to run, and I think it’s an interesting challenge even 38 years later. I’d replace the every-monster-in-the-book tables entirely with a smaller number of themed monsters, and work out patrol paths and zones where they can hear alarms and come running. Make the dungeon a living community instead of a prison where you murder inmates. The treasures are almost acceptable in value (maybe halved, with the really good ones hidden or guarded better than usual), but there’s no flavor text for any of the magic items, which I consider unacceptable, so I’d have to expand those.

Rating: ★★★½☆ The page-fitting maps and fill-in monsters & treasures hurt an otherwise respectable challenge dungeon.

B1-pg 31

If all attempts to escape fail, the persons trapped will be doomed to their fate.

Indeed.

Next time I’ll look at Blackmoor’s Temple of the Frog and B2.

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.