Monday, March 24, 2014

The Second Pandora

Art by Liz Danforth

Contemporaneous with the publication of Empire of the Petal ThroneTunnels & Trolls was “...perpetrated on an unsuspecting world.”  Which game is the “second” role-playing game is a matter of debate.  Regardless, both games are important in the history of the hobby and each has a distinct reason for being.  It is my belief that EotPT is more of an adaptation of D&D while T&T is more of a response to D&D.

Professor Barker saw D&D as a way he could express his invention, Tékumel.  The most important part of EotPT is, of course, the setting.  However, Barker did not use Tékumel as a backdrop for D&D ; he crafted his own rules.  Admittedly, they were “inspired” by D&D, yet he chose to implement certain changes not as a consequence of the setting, but because he felt the changes resulted in a better game.  I mean changes such as (to name a few) percentile characteristics, the workings of magic, and the introduction of skills.  Just as Tékumel was an artistic endeavor, so was the game.  Barker had a career; he didn't expect to make a living off of Empire of the Petal Throne.  The changes he implemented represented an intellectual exercise equivalent to artistry.  Esthetics applied to game design?  Gygax thought so.  He wrote in the foreword for EotPT, “I simply state that it is the most beautifully done fantasy game ever created.”  Sure, Gygax had an interest in promoting the game; his company published it.  Still, there are many things Gygax could have written, yet he chose to describe the game as he did – as a thing that (in terms of beauty) surpassed his own creation.

One of the earliest versions of Tunnels & Trolls is currently available as a PDF.  In the introduction (technically it's a section called “Troll Talk”) Ken St. Andre states:
The people who created the game that T&T reacts against did the whole gaming world a tremendous favor in their pioneering of certain original concepts that all of role-playing gaming is based on.
It has been my impression that many gamers disdain Tunnels & Trolls.  I think they consider T&T to be a “rip-off” of D&D ; that T&T is an affront to the original role-playing game.  This is an unfair notion.  Quality and innovation are the products of diversity and competition.  Besides, in terms of actual “rip-off,” TSR did not have clean hands given their improper use of the intellectual properties of Tolkien and Burroughs.

As St. Andre indicates, Tunnels & Trolls is a reaction to D&D.  He recognized the wonderful potential of RPGs and tried to make a game that was more accessible than D&D.  While Barker focused on artistry, St. Andre focused on practicality.  To this end, he created a game (1) with a lower price, (2) that required only 'normal' six-sided dice as opposed to exotic polyhedrons, and (3) eschewed the complexities with which D&D was fraught.  While less complex, the rules were not altogether intuitive, even for people with D&D or wargaming experience.  Yet T&T continued to be developed and refined and, even now, “Deluxe” Tunnels & Trolls is in the works.  Regardless of it's longevity, Tunnels & Trolls let the genie out of the bottle or – perhaps more accurately – opened Pandora's box a second time.  D&D no longer had the field to itself; yes, Gygax and Arneson were the 'pioneers', but now the frontier was open to other creative efforts.  Among those efforts was RuneQuest, a game that diverged further still from the D&D paradigm.

RuneQuest dedication


  1. I was too much of a Gygax fanboi to pick up T&T. I didn't have a problem playing other games, even fantasy RPG's, but I remember Gygax and Loomis being kinda enemies. There was an open letter from Gygax to Loomis in an old Dragon (maybe #66?) that attacked him and Origins. It was impossible for Loomis to respond in that forum or to separately address the criticisms for all to see, but as I said I was a fanboi and didn't care.

    I later met Loomis at a Gencon (ironically, the last that Gygax attended) and he was a great guy. I meant to pick up T&T, but didn't get around to it. I thought about going in on the Kickstarter, but I have cut back on my buying RPG stuff just to have it, as I'd probably never use it.

    Still, I might pick up an old copy on Ebay if I see it for a decent price. That Danforth cover is off the first, spiral-bound edition, is it not?


  2. At least T&T has managed to endure the Curse of Gygax.

    That's the fourth edition cover above. The fist edition cover can be seen at this link.