Welcome to the Flaming Faggot

Callovia is called "the boundless empire" yet you have managed to find its northern border - a notorious roadhouse deep within the Madrasan Marches on the edge of the wilds of Llanvirnesse. The sign above the door reads "Flaming Faggot," which would suggest a cozy, homey inn with fresh biscuits served at teatime if not for the severed troll heads mounted on pikes at the gate.

As you cross the threshold the raucous din quiets momentarily as all eyes dart to the door and calloused hands drop instinctively to well-worn sword hilts. The threat, instantly assessed, is dismissed and roadhouse patrons go about their business hardly missing a beat.

Grim, hard-eyed men huddle around tables in close conversation thick with conspiracy; caravan guards gamble away their earnings; Caemric rangers sit close to the fireplace cooking the damp of the Black Annis from their clothes as they warm their innards with Red Dragon Ale; minstrels play and buxom wenches dance for the pleasure of men who pay them little attention - until they need a companion to warm their bed.

As you approach the bar, a huge, bald barman with a greatsword slung across his back slides a mug of freshly-pulled ale towards you, its frothy head dripping over the rim.

"Pull up a seat, lad," he says, "and let me tell you a tale of high adventure."

Friday, April 22, 2016

A Character Record for Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls

Ever since I started playing Tunnels & Trolls, back in November, I've been on the lookout for a good character sheet, and to date I haven't found one that was able to accommodate all the information that I like to have on hand, especially adequate equipment and spell lists.  After all, the well-prepared dungeon delver is going to want to be fully equipped to deal with every eventuality, and you need a character sheet to keep all your stuff organized.

So I decided to make my own; it's a two page file in landscape view, which is meant to be printed on both sides of a single sheet of paper and then folded in half to create a compact 5.5" x 8.5" booklet.  I've posted images of what the pages look like below, and anyone who is interested can download the PDF for free from DriveThru RPG:  http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/189318/Deluxe-Tunnels--Trolls-character-folio?src=hottest_filtered

Front and Back Covers

Interior Pages

Monday, April 11, 2016

Delving the Depths of Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls

I've finally gotten my Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls softcover, and now that I've had some time to read, digest, and even begin the process of adopting some of the new rules to my current T&T campaign, I thought I'd share my thoughts.  This newest version of the venerable Tunnels & Trolls role playing game, which was first published in 1975, making it the second-ever rpg, is not so much a new edition as the ultimate expression of the game according to its creator, Ken St. Andre.

This is a weighty tome of 367 pages, beefy enough serve as a shield if  need be.  By contrast the popular 5th edition rules were a lean 90 pages.  The book is comprised of four parts.  The first part is the core rules, which have changed only a little since the 1979 5th edition rules that I'm currently using, and most of the changes are likely to be embraced by players.  Low attribute scores no longer give negative modifiers, all classes now have two type-specific abilities and one type-specific detriment, the list of spells has been expanded, and weapons can be customized with bonuses that depend on the materials they are forged from and the ability of the weaponsmith who crafted them.  The biggest change is that in place of the traditional method of gaining a new level once a certain experience point threshold has been reached, characters now spend their earned experience points to improve their attribute scores, and their level is equal to their highest ability score divided by 10.  So a character whose highest attribute score is between 3 and 19 is a 1st level character, and a character whose highest score is between 20 and 29 is 2nd level, and so on (this means that after factoring in racial attribute modifiers it is possible to begin the game as a second or third level character).  The experience point cost to improve an attribute by one point is equal to its current value times 10, so it would cost 150 experience points to raise your dexterity score from 15 to 16, for example.  This introduces some interesting choices for players to make: does one focus on increasing their highest attribute to gain new levels, albeit at an ever-escalating cost, or spend those points to more cheaply improve other attribute scores.

The next section of the book is devoted to elaborations, optional house-rules you can use to customize your game.  This part of the book is the gravy.  T&T, by the virtue of its simple open-ended rules, embraces the do-it-yourself homebrew ethic in a way that no other game has since the three little brown books of OD&D, and it has been doing so for more than 40 years.  Where previous editions have taken it for granted that players will tinker with the game's simple and elegant resolution mechanic to suit their individual tastes, DT&T takes it a step further by providing some neat examples just how flexible the system can be.

The last two sections of the book consist of an atlas of Trollworld, Ken St. Andre's campaign setting; and two adventures, one GM adventure and one solo adventure.

There's a lot to like about the new Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls, and it is refreshing to see the game updated without losing any of its old-school charm.  That's a very rare thing, and owes a lot to the fact that the game has remained in the loving hands of its creator since its inception.

Apart from the rules themselves there are things that I like and things I dislike about this book.

Art and Layout - the book is beautiful, inside and out.  Editing and layout was done by Liz Danforth, as was the cover art and most of the interior illustrations.  She chose a comfortable font size and generous line spacing that makes DT&T a treat for the eyes, which is something I'm coming to appreciate more and more as I get older.  Small, densely-packed text would have reduced the page count considerably, but I'm grateful for the easy to read, attractive text and I'm more than happy to pay a little extra for this.  The artwork itself is stunning.  If you aren't familiar with Liz's work on T&T over the past few decades, you may have seen her illustrations in I.C.E.s Middle Earth Role Playing Game, and her paintings in the Middle Earth: The Wizards collectible card game.  She has been the lead artist for T&T since the 1970's, and this gives the game a very consistent look and feel.

Physical Construction - the book uses high quality matte paper, which I really like.  Many modern rpgs use gloss paper, which I absolutely hate, and I'm so glad that DT&T steered away from it.  The binding, at least of my copy, is very good, which is an important consideration for a nearly 400 page softcover.  With cheap binding this book would fall apart very quickly, but I can see this one lasting for a long time to come.

Editing - While I have no problem with increasing the book's page count to allow for comfortable font size, line spacing and profuse illustrations, I am an absolute bear when it comes to excessive wordiness, as can be attested by anyone whose work I have edited.  To quote Strunk and White, 'vigorous writing is concise.' A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, and a page no unnecessary paragraphs.  This does not imply that one should strive to be brief for brevity's sake, but to make every word count.  DT&T often suffers from rambling prose, and many of its paragraphs convey little if any information.  There's many a page that could have been reduced to a single paragraph, and this not only needlessly increased the page count, but served to confuse rules that could have been explained far more clearly and concisely in half as much space.

Index - a book this size needs a comprehensive index, but the index in DT&T is nearly useless.  For any rule you look up there is a long list of page numbers where that rule appears in the text, but no indication (by bolding or italics, as is the convention) of the main entry where the rule is explained - so you need to visit each and every page until you find what you are looking for.  To make matters worse, many of the index citations are incorrect, probably because some of the text was edited and rearranged after the index was compiled.  It's actually faster to flip through the entire book to find the rule you're looking for than it is to consult the index.  I know from first-hand experience how much work it is to compile a comprehensive index of such a large body of work, but given that this is likely to be the ultimate incarnation of T&T it would have been worth the effort to get it right.

So there we have it: despite a few things I wish had been done differently, Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls is a labour of love on the part of its authors, and a fantastic legacy for its creator, Ken St. Andre, and I'll be enjoying this game for years to come.

So you might still be wondering 'is Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls for me?'  It might be if:
1. You are looking for a simple, fast-paced, easy to learn rule system that is readily customisable and very easy to house-rule.
2. You enjoy having full creative control of a system in order to modify it to suit your campaign setting.
3. Are willing to put in the work to make this game your own.
4. Interested in exploring an important facet of rpg history.

It probably isn't for you if:
1. You're looking for a game with detailed rules for every situation.  You need to be able to make rulings on the fly in order to really enjoy this game.
2. Don't have the time or desire to customize the game.  There is no bestiary, and only a very rudimentary treasure table, so you'll need to create monsters and magic items yourself.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Tower of Mazzarin Part 2: The Crystal Cavern

The second session of our new Tunnels & Trolls campaign picked up where the last session left off: with the characters resting in the de-goblinized ruined tower of the fabled wizard, Mazzarin the Magician.

Arya and Zelda opened the door concealed behind the tapestry in Mazzarin's arcane laboratory, and entered into a huge cavern.  Its calcite walls glittered in the torchlight revealing a veritable forest of stalagmites growing from the cavern floor.  In the center of the cavern a huge stalactite hung from the ceiling, dripping water into a large pool that lay beneath it.  The bottom of the pool was strewn with gold coins - hundreds, maybe even thousands of them.

Eyes alight with the glow of unbridled avarice, Arya reached in and grabbed a big handful of coins.  As soon as she did so, the water began to churn and darken, and a nymph appeared in the pool, wroth to see the two mortals stealing gold from her pool.

She declared that they would meet the last fool who dared to take her coins, then she disappeared and the corpse of a drowned man dragged itself out of the pool and shambled towards them, its dead eyes staring blankly, its cold, wet fingers reaching for Arya's throat.  The corpse was little match for the two doughty adventurers and they quickly put it to rest.

The water in the pool cleared and became still and, reassured that the threat was dealt with, Zelda also grabbed a handful of coins.  The water roiled again, and this time two drowned corpses emerged from its depths.  While one dead thing was an easy fight, two was more than they could handle, and they might have perished had Zelda not cast Oh-Go-Away on one of the corpses, allowing her and Arya to divide and conquer. Tired and hurt, they wisely resolved to leave the pool alone and not provoke the Nymph's wrath any further.

On the far side of the cavern were two passages that led off in different directions.  Choosing the passage on the left, the pair followed it only a short way before it led to a large oval wooden frame, intricately carved with vines and leaves, whose center was filled with a swirling opaque mist.

One must always be suspicious of mist-filled portals, so Arya and Zelda experimented by throwing things through the portal, tying one end of a rope to an item, tossing it through and reeling it back, before Arya finally, timidly, stuck her hand into the mist.  Since her hand survived intact, she and Zelda threw caution to the wind and stepped through.

They passed through the mists and into an ethereal woodland glade.  They explored for just a few minutes before hearing the sound of something large crashing through the bushes, coming toward them.  They hid behind a tree and waited, then saw a leprechaun run past, pursued by an ogre with a butterfly net.  After the two had passed by, Arya and Zelda decided to travel in the direction from which the leprechaun and ogre had come.  They soon came upon what they supposed was the ogre's ramshackle lair.  Among the ogrish detritus, the hut was filled with wooden cages, one of which was occupied by a captured fairy.

The rescued fairy introduced herself as Flinx, and invited Zelda and Arya to return with her to the Faerie Court so that King Oberon and Queen Titania might pay their respects.  They agreed and traveled with Flinx who presented them to the Faerie Court.  Oberon and Titania welcomed the mortals graciously, and explained that the ogre, Galoot, had been making a pest of himself of late, abducting their subjects for his fairy collection.  They offered Arya and Zelda a bounty of gold and gifts if they would get rid of Galoot for them.

Arya and Zelda returned to Galoot's home, and found that he was still away.  They rigged a noose trap by the entrance to his hovel, hid behind a tree, and waited for him to return.  When Galoot finally returned and stepped into the rope noose, Arya and Zelda heaved on the rope, which they'd slung over nearby tree branch, but despite their combined efforts they were unable to even budge the mighty ogre.  What they had hoped would be an easy capture turned into a bloody brawl that ended with Arya decapitating Galoot with a mighty swing of her voulge.

When they returned to the Faerie Court, Oberon and Titania recoiled at the sight of the bloody head and explained that when they said 'get rid of' Galoot, they meant drive him off, not kill him.  Oh well.
Arya and Zelda were rewarded with gifts of gold and elven rope that could move on its own and even tie and untie itself to objects on command.  Afterwards there was a great feast, and the two humans ate, drank, and danced late into the night before finally going to the portal in the glade, and returning to the mortal realm.

Exiting the portal, they went back to the crystal cavern and proceeded down the passage to the right, which they had not yet explored.  Some yards down the passage the way was blocked by a huge jade statue that opened its eyes and spoke:

"Answer me these riddles three if you would pass me by; but take heed for if you fail you shall surely die."

The statue then asked its first riddle: Poor people have it.  Rich people need it.  If you eat it you will die.  What is it?
This riddle stumped Arya and Zelda for a long, long time, and they were beginning to despair of ever finding the solution when they finally guessed 'nothing,' which was the correct answer.

The statue asked its second riddle: The man who made it doesn't want it.  The man who bought it doesn't need it.  The man who needs it doesn't know it.  What is it?
They thought for a while on this until Zelda blurted out 'a coffin,' which of course was correct.

The statue asked its third riddle: What must be broken before it can be used?
The statue had scarcely finished the question when Arya answered 'an egg,' which she had eaten for breakfast that morning and came readily to mind.

As soon as they answered the third riddle the statue moved aside and let them pass.  The passage led to a small chamber that contained only an amazingly detailed statue of an old man in robes.  Zelda guessed that this might actually be the long-departed Mazzarin, and she cast the Pygmalion spell from the scroll she found in the Wizard's study, which will restore petrified people to life.  Sure enough the statue transformed into an old man.

This was, indeed, Mazzarin the Magician, who had been betrayed by his beautiful young apprentice, Druantia.  Ensnared by her beauty he let his defenses down, and she was able to enslave him with a ring of Yassa Massa, forcing him to teach her everything he knew.  Once Druantia learned everything she could from the old master she turned him to stone and abandoned him in the cave, presumably for all eternity.  That was two centuries ago, and Mazzarin was incensed to learn that his tower had crumbled and had been infested with goblins.  He was grateful to Zelda for freeing him of his enchantment, and though he had nothing of value with which to reward her, he promised to mentor her in the arcane arts, to teach her his secrets in hope of making up for having trained the evil sorceress, Druantia.

The session ended with Arya and Zelda returning to the village of Caer Darrig, shocked to find that several years had passed while they feasted in the faerie realm, and that they had been declared dead in their absence, and their homes and property auctioned off...

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Tower of Mazzarin

We kicked off our new Tunnels & Trolls campaign over the holidays and have gotten in a couple of sessions.

Character creation went quickly although a spate of bad luck left both my wife and daughter with abysmally sub-par attribute scores, so I let them keep rolling up characters until they got ones they could live with; thus was born Zelda the wizard, and Arya the voulge-wielding warrior.

For their first adventure, Arya and Zelda decided to explore the ruined Tower of Mazzarin, located just a couple of hours west of their home town of Caer Darrig. Mazzarin the Magician disappeared more than a century ago, and his crumbling tower has been shunned by local inhabitants ever since, but in recent weeks area farmers were reporting missing livestock and pets, and the legend of Mazzarin's ghost gained new traction in town.

The tower was built into the side of a cliff in the foothills of the Mistmorne Mountains, and was visible from the road on the far side of a small lake.  The tower could be approached from a path along the base of the cliff on the west side of the lake, or by going through a bog on the east side of the lake.  The duo decided to take the latter route because, while the going was tougher, large cattails would conceal their approach from any observers in the tower.

The bog was not as safe as it appeared, however, and Zelda and Arya were ambushed by a hungry giant frog.  But instead of an easy meal of fresh meat, the predator met only the point of Arya's voulge and died quickly.

Making their way into the old tower, the pair discovered tracks in the dust of the rubble-strewn floor, along with dirty blankets and animal bones.  It appeared that something other than the spirit of a long-dead wizard was responsible for the animal disappearances.  They passed a stair case winding up the west wall to the crumbling remains of the second story, and headed for a set of double doors in the north wall of the tower.  Before reaching the doors, they heard someone say, "UH-OH!" from behind and above them.  Whirling around, they looked up and saw a startled goblin on the second floor ruins snatch up a small bow and begin to shoot arrows at them.  They dashed up the stairs and killed the goblin in short order.  It was obvious that the creature had been a sentry tasked to watch the approaches to the tower, and they saw a rope net strung above the entry of the tower.  If they had approached from the west instead of going through the bog they would surely have been caught.

The doors on the north side of the tower opened into a short hallway with another set of double doors at one end, and a door on the right wall.  Easing the door to the right very slowly open, Arya spied three goblins roasting rat-kabobs in the kitchen fire place.  The goblins immediately noticed the intruders and rushed into combat wielding rusty kitchen knives and kabob skewers.  It was a long and bloody conflict that nearly ended in the duo's untimely demise until Zelda decided to use the last of her spell points to cast vorpal blade on Arya's voulge, which tipped the odds in their favour, allowing them to finally beat the vicious creatures.

After a short rest to regain some of Zelda's spell points, the two decided to investigate the double doors at the end of the hallway.  These opened into what was obviously once a wizard's laboratory, filled with arcane appurtenances: collapsed bookshelves, piles of tattered, crumbling books, a verdigrised brazier, and on the far wall, a tapestry of the heavens.  Warming herself by the fire was a goblin spell-singer who had clearly claimed the wizard's lair as her own.  Alas, her spells failed her and she quickly fell to the two adventurers.  While looting the corpse, they pried a ring off the dead goblin's finger, which Zelda immediately determined to be magical.  A thorough search of the laboratory and its adjoining study revealed a doorway concealed behind the tapestry and, amid what papers had not already been used by the goblins for toilet paper, two arcane scrolls containing the spells Pygmalion, and Dear God.

The first session ended with both characters bloodied and exhausted but still alive, and they decided to rest and recuperate for a few hours before venturing on to explore door behind the tapestry.

This was our first experience with Tunnels & Trolls and we had a blast.  I really liked the cooperative nature of combat, in which all players combine their results to defeat the enemy.  In general, combat is very fast paced, except when the two sides are evenly matched, such as the fight against the three goblins.  Because large numbers of d6's are rolled by both sides in combat, the totals tend toward the median results, which means that when both sides are rolling the same number of dice, the winning side usually beats the losing side by only a few points, which can lead to some very long and drawn out battles.  The only way to break this stalemate is to try and tip the balance.  This can be accomplished by the use of spells, which is how Zelda and Arya finally beat the goblins, or to attempt some kind of stunt or feat using the saving roll mechanic.  Because this was our first session and everyone was trying to get a handle on the game, I veered away from suggesting that they try any fancy maneuvers because I was afraid it might get confusing, but as we get more comfortable with the rules I'll start encouraging them to use their imaginations to come up with some combat maneuvers.  This is also a great way for warriors to do more than just add a large number of dice to the combat result, and will make combat a lot more interesting and rewarding for them.

In the next post, Arya and Zelda delve further into the Tower of Mazzarin.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

A Dalliance with Trolls

During the early to mid 1980's, which was the high point of my gaming life, (you know, those high school and university years that I should have spent studying my course material instead of game rules) I played as many different games as I could get my hands on.  But given the prolification of games in those years it would have taken a very dedicated and financially independent person to collect them all.  And sadly, given my very limited finances at the time, I had to choose carefully what I spent my money on.  Consequently there were a lot of games I passed on, and which I've spent the subsequent years wondering about.  The most prominent of these was Tunnels & Trolls.

Published in 1975, T&T was first of many, many games inspired by D&D, and given its prominence, it's odd and unfortunate that it never captured my fancy in those early years.  I certainly remember looking at it at my local game store, but whether I regarded it as just another D&D clone, or was turned off by its reputed silliness, I always put it back on the shelf and moved on.  Until now.

My interest in T&T was recently kindled as I read reports of the new Deluxe Tunnels and Trolls rule book arriving in the hands of its Kickstarter supporters, and I was thrilled that to see that Flying Buffalo is still in business, and that Ken St. Andre is still at the helm of T&T, which is both gratifying and impressive for a fourty-year-old game.  Unable to wait until DT&T was available for retail purchase, I turned to Noble Knight Games, and picked up an inexpensive copy of the 5th edition rules (shown above), which is the edition that I remember from my youth.

After reading the rules, my only disappointment was that I hadn't picked up this game decades ago.  Tunnels & Trolls has such a simple and elegant set of mechanics that it is an ideal game for introducing newcomers to roleplaying.  For anyone unfamiliar with the game I'll provide a brief summary.

Combat is exceedingly straightforward: instead of rolling to hit and again for damage, each combatant on either side rolls their combat dice (weapon dice plus attribute bonuses) and the total results of each side is compared.  The side with the highest roll wins that round of combat and the losing side takes an amount of damage equal to the difference between the two rolls, which is divided among the players on the losing side.  It's easy and fast - there's no fiddling around with initiative, nor does each player need to wait his or her turn.  Every player rolls at once, and since the results are combined even the weakest combatant can contribute to the group's success.

Attribute scores are generated, as was usual for those early games, by rolling 3d6, and characters gain a +1 bonus to combat for each point of Strength, Dexterity, and Luck above 12.  At each new level, characters get a number of points equal to their new level to distribute among their attribute scores, so the initial 3-18 range quickly moves up into the 20s and even the 30's allowing for some truly remarkable characters.  One of the endearing features of T&T is that it isn't terribly concerned with realism or balance; powerful, unbalanced characters with over-the-top magic items is no unusual thing - it's all part of the fun.  And because the monsters can be ramped up just as easily, death is always a misstep away.

There's a lot to like about Tunnels & Trolls, but the mechanic I like best - the one that really makes the game stand out - is its saving rolls.  Saving rolls are made on 2d6 plus the relevant attribute score (T&T uses only six-sided dice), which must exceed a target number based on the level of the save - a level one save has a target number of 20, and this increases by 5 with each subsequent level.  If doubles are rolled the dice are rolled again (for each time that doubles are rolled) and the results added, so in principal you could succeed at any save no matter how difficult.  ("Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1.")  This saving roll mechanic is also used for hitting opponents with ranged weapons, where the target's size and distance determine the level of a dexterity saving roll.  It also became one of the first task resolution mechanics ever used in role playing games, and is an elegant way to determine the success of just about anything you can imagine leading players to attempt some truly cinematic feats.

I was somewhat chagrined to discover that none of my youthful misgivings about T&T were valid.  It is nothing at all like D&D; the game is entirely different both in tone and play, nor is it a 'silly' game.  The rules have a more whimsical tone than, say, D&D, and it doesn't take itself too seriously, but the whimsy is similar to that of Jack Vance, or Fritz Leiber - it isn't over-the-top slapstick, which is what the rumour-mill had me believe back in the day.  Although I regret not having gotten into T&T long ago, in all honestly I'm not sure I would have appreciated it until recent years.  Back then I was very much into crunchy game mechanics, and T&T might have been too simple for my tastes.  These days, however, it suits me perfectly.

Within minutes of my first reading of the rules I was itching to play it, and so I've begun a campaign for my wife and daughter.  Over the next several posts I'll continue to discuss my ongoing exploration of T&T, as well as describe the campaign setting I've created, and the adventures as they happen.

Let the good times troll!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Otherworld Miniatures Skirmish Game

As is typical of me, although this news has been out for a while, I've only just heard about it: Otherworld Miniatures is producing a tabletop skirmish game!  I thought I'd pass the news along in case there are others, like myself, who remain inexplicably oblivious to various happenings in the gaming world.

The game, which is due to be released this summer, is a small-scale skirmish game using small warbands that can be constructed with a point-buy system using any miniatures in Otherworld's line.  The game will apparently remain true to Otherworld's old school aesthetic, and capture the feel of classic D&D adventures.

I'm obviously pretty excited about this. I've already got a fair-sized collection of pig-faced orcs; more than enough to make a decent warband, and I'm always happy to see another alternative to the increasingly rapacious Games Workshop.

Here's a recent Youtube video interview with Otherworld at UK Games expo from the Duke of Blood Keep.

And here's an older post from last summer with more details about the game from Wargame News and Terrain.

Friday, March 28, 2014

In memoriam: Dave Trampier 1954 - Mar 24 2014

I was sad to learn of the passing of Dave Trampier earlier this week.  It was his art more than any other that I came to associate with Dungeons & Dragons, and he was certainly my favourite artist ever to illustrate the game.  I have no idea how many times in my life I've looked to his illustrations in the Player's Handbook or Monster Manual for inspiration, and I have no doubt that I will continue to do so for many years to come.

Here's to well-earned treasure at the end of the adventure: