Thursday, 16 July 2015

The Worst:Trollstone Caverns

My First RPG
My first RPG was Tunnels & Trolls (Fifth Edition) in 1982. We only played it a few times before moving to Dungeons & Dragons, but I always retained a soft spot for T&T, especially Liz Danforth's fantastic art.

I knew it was more famous for solo play than for groups with a DM, but I have always assumed this was due to a distaste for the combined combat outcome - that is, whichever side wins each round takes no damage, the other side all take damage (lessened by armour).

The combat system, in brief, is: everyone makes a combat roll, you take the total for both sides, the losing side takes the difference as damage (distributed evenly) but reducing this by each target's armour.

The Kobayashi Maru
A couple of years back my son wanted to try his hand at DMing so I suggested T&T, and he ran us through the introductory adventure Trollstone Caverns. In the very first combat, which is apparently unavoidable and is evidently to introduce you to how combat works, we had to run away before we were all killed - and it appeared almost impossible for us to win the battle, in fact it appeared nearly impossible to even wound our assailants.

I thought my son must have got something wrong about the adventure, so later I looked at the encounter. You get one monster per PC in a one-on-one combat, of a random type. For example, the weakest monster has MR 16 which means it gets 2d6 + 8, the strongest is MR 24 with 7 armour which means it gets 3d6 + 12. If I tell you that the sample character included in the rulebook, Fang the Delectable, has 3d6 - 1 for combat, you can see he's in trouble against even the weakest of the possible monsters: he averages a combat roll of 9.5, while the weakest monster averages 15, even with 6 armour he's taking damage half the rounds, and is exceedingly unlikely ever to score a hit. Against the other monsters he's dead without a chance. And one monster is immune to non-magical attacks.

I just ran four sample combats of Fang against the weakest monster, and he died four times in succession (I would have run more, but they went on for ages). He only did 3 points of damage in total over all four battles. So the sample character in the rulebook is almost guaranteed to die in the first combat.

Now our characters (digging out the character sheets and the session notes) had:
  • Viper (Rogue): 4d6+7, 8 CON, 8 armour
  • Hawk (Warrior): 3d6+3, 6 CON, 24 armour
  • Flash (Wizard): 2d6 -1, 7 CON, 8 armour
Which is better than Fang, but my son rolled two Wargs (MR 28) and a Shadow Ghost (MR 12, vulnerable only to magic). It was only because we'd all played RPGs before that we knew to run away after a couple of rounds - if this had been our first experience of an RPG we'd likely never have played an RPG again.

So, the introductory adventure for new players to RPGs includes an unavoidable first combat, which has a high likelihood of being unwinnable!

(Evidently, like Kirk, we should have stolen the module the night before, and altered it to guarantee victory).

Digging Deeper
I initially put this down to a horrific lapse in playtesting this adventure, but this got me thinking about the combat system, so I ran a computer simulation. What I discovered was that given a particular character’s dice and adds there is a very narrow range of MRs between those monsters which stand almost zero chance of winning and those against which you stand almost zero chance of winning.

I ran a sample combat, and found that below an MR of 19 the monsters had less than a 1% chance of winning against my PC, and above an MR of 24 my PC had less than a 1% of winning.

If you have group combats against multiple monsters, combining the results from both sides decreases the chance of a freak result - the outcome of the combats become more and more certain.

For example, I ran five PCs versus one monster, and found that the below an MR of 110 the monster had less than a 1% chance of winning, and above an MR of 118 the PCs had less than a 1% chance of winning.

In addition, the average length of a combat went from a well balanced match giving an average of 9 rounds with one PC, to an average of 70 (!!) rounds with five PCs. Note that this is with minimal armour (5) - extra armour makes the combats yet longer: with 5 PCs and 10 armour it goes up to 1900 rounds. I think we call that a stalemate.

So with a party of characters, almost every combat is a fait accompli, and the few that aren't go on so long they're effectively a stalemate. I can't believe this system was ever played with parties of PCs as written.

A Saving Grace?
Any reference to T&T combat talks about the importance of Saving Throws in combat, but in Fifth edition this is only mentioned in the section on "Unusual Combat Situations", and the only example is a simple "I can't win this fight, so I try a daring do-or-die manoeuvre." If this fails you take all the monsters hits as damage (so you're likely dead), if you succeed then the monster takes all hits as damage (and if not dead, its MR is so reduced that you'll win). This is a "last throw of the dice" final desperate tactic - not an expected feature of combats.

Calling All Stations!
So has anyone actually any experience of a long running T&T multi-player campaign with the rules as written?

Is it really only suitable for solo play?

Do the combat manoeuvres and "spite damage" in later editions fix things?

Or is the excitement over the Deluxe Edition Kickstarter purely about nostalgia and love for Liz Danforth's fantastic art?

If you love the game and think I'm being truly mean, redress the balance and show me how I'm doing it wrong. Until then, I'll just look at the art.


  1. The power of any PC group should be assessed beforehand by the DM and the monsters' stats adapted accordingly.
    I used T&T both in solo and group play, and it works fine, but you have to think out of the box (see, for example
    Combat manoeuvres can definitely save your skin. Saving Rolls on Talents can be particularly useful (see, for example,
    Spite damage makes it possible for even the most powerful PCs (or foes) to die (with time). Multiple combats can be your doom in the end.
    The Deluxe Edition introduces a great array of game variations. The core rules remain basically the same, but you now have everything you need to fine-tune the game and adapt it to your needs and preferences.
    Not to mention the section about Trollworld and the many maps - in colour.

    1. Adapting the strength of monsters to the party is an option in other RPGs, but it seems in T&T that you have to, and there’s still the danger that 4 goblins is an auto win, but 5 goblins is an auto lose. Most suggestions to get round this are either sidestep the issue (e.g. your luring of the monster to the poisonous spores) or rely upon things not in Fifth Edition – which was the only edition played between '79 and 2005!
      How long was your group campaign, and which edition was it?
      The Deluxe Edition maps do look good.

  2. There is no such thing as automatic lose or win in T&T, but, you're right, the first thing that comes to mind is to sidestep the issue. My hobbit character once had to deal (alone!) with a mantichore while the rest of the group was elsewhere. I told the DM: my hobbit runs away (OK, make a SR on Speed) and throws his 10 caltrops behind his shoulder. The monster was unable to fly in the tunnel and had to step on the caltrops. Ouch! When my hobbit reached his friends, finishing the mantichore off was a child's play :-)
    Talents help a lot. Think about a talent for disarming enemies, or for acrobatics, or for monster charming/taming (again, see for examples).
    Missile combat (including gunnes!), poisons, and spells can change the odds in your favour when fighting powerful foes. In dT&T, warriors get 1D6 bonus per level and there are combat mages. There are even rules for breaking away from a fight (page 216).
    Berserk combat can be an option (the Deluxe rules offer a slightly enhaced system as compared with former editions): see page 81.

  3. P.S. Ah, and I played mostly one-shot adventures with different groups. I once played a small T&T campaign (3 games only) with one of my groups. Trollworld was described in detail un the Deluxe edition for the first time. I hope Flying Buffalo will publish a full Book of Trollworld soon! That could definitely help me to run group campaigns.