Sunday, April 6, 2014

Combat in Tunnels & Trolls

Art by Liz Danforth

In the early editions of Tunnels & Trolls, Ken St. Andre includes a paragraph with the heading “COMBAT” in the middle of the section on monsters.  This is five pages before the actual combat section begins.  The placement of this paragraph in the monster section is somewhat peculiar.  It isn't about monsters especially, other than – as St. Andre begins the actual combat section – “T&T is built on the conflict between men and monsters.”

In the monster-section paragraph, St. Andre says, “Each combat is a unique and individual experience that must really be played by ear.”  He then briefly describes three types of combat:  missile, melee, and shock.  Missile combat, of course, occurs at a distance.  Melee combat occurs “when both parties...are all mingled together and everybody fights.”  Finally, shock combat refers to “a one on one or two on one encounter when a monster reaches the leading element or rearguard of a group.”  So, in essence, the three types of combat are largely defined by distance and movement.  Strangely, rules for movement are not provided in early T&T beyond the observation that monsters and characters may want to flee combat if they seem to be losing and injuries and encumbrance will likely reduce a person's speed.  We are also left with unanswered questions such as, 'At what point does shock combat become melee combat?'

According to the Players Handbook (p. 104):
The 1 minute melee round assumes much activity rushes, retreats, feints, parries, checks, and so on.  Once during this period each combatant has the opportunity to get a real blow in.
This is consistent with St. Andre's notion of a (two-minute) combat turn:
Combat is not usually a blow-by-blow description of who did what to whom.  Instead it is meant to be a running appraisal of how the battle is going as looked at from distinct moments in time...Two minutes is a long time in personal combat, but if you regard the 2 minutes as filled with dodging, slashing, maneuvering, warding of harmless blows, etc., it is not excessive.
Combat in role-playing games is necessarily abstract to some degree, as the above quotes plainly indicate.  In Tunnels & Trolls, combat is more abstract than in many traditional RPGs.  Basically, for (melee) combat, each side rolls a number of dice, modifiers are applied to the results, and the side with the lower total suffers damage equal to the difference between the two totals.  That's it – no initiative, no distinction of 'to hit' rolls from damage rolls, no individual character versus an individual target.

How many dice does the monster roll?  As discussed previously, monsters roll a number of dice based on their 'monster rating.'  A fraction of their monster rating is added to the result.  Damage sustained is subtracted from monster rating; meaning monsters become weaker as more damage is done to them.

How many dice do the player characters roll?  Players roll a number of dice determined by the weapons their characters use.  (Originally, a terbutje did the same amount of damage as a sax (i.e., 1d6+5).  Preposterous!  Fortunately, in later editions, common sense prevailed and a terbutje now does 3d6+5 while a sax does 2d6+5.)  Modifiers are applied to the results in the form of “adds,” which could be positive or negative based upon a character's Prime Attributes of strength, dexterity, and luck.  Damage sustained is divided equally among the participating characters.  A character's armor, if any, reduces the damage he or she takes.  Any damage that gets though a character's armor (if any) is subtracted from the character's Prime Attribute of constitution.

One argument against this system is that only one side takes damage for any given combat turn.  St. Andre attempted to address this in different ways.  One way is for the 'winning' side to take a number of hits equal to 10% of the hits they inflicted upon the 'losing' side.  Another way is for each member of the winning side to attempt a saving throw (based on the Prime Attribute of luck).  A character who failed would suffer a number of hits equal to the difference of the roll result from the number needed.  In a later edition, St. Andre would adopt the notion of 'spite damage.'  Each 'natural' six rolled by the losing side in a combat turn, would be applied as one point of damage to the winning side (without the benefit of armor).  If the damage inflicted by the winning side fails to exceed the armor of the losing side, the losing side still sustains one point of damage per 'natural' six rolled.

For some people, T&T combat may seem too abstract.  You can't please all of the people all of the time, but combat in Tunnels & Trolls is simpler, smoother, and faster than D&D and its ilk.  Players are not disenfranchised; they still make decisions and they still roll dice.


  1. A pretty big jump in damage for those two weapons between editions - did the character's ability to take damage increase as well, or armor get better, or what?

    Both the 10% thing and the spite damage seem like lipstick. I appreciate your efforts to be fair, but do you actually like the combat system? And what decisions can a player make?


    1. Armor did get better with later editions. I assume weapon damage was calibrated so there would be a greater 'spread' among weapons. Unarmed damage (for most PC races or “kindred”) was established to be 1d6; any weapon, of course, would have to do more. Additionally, weapons were assigned minimum requirements in terms of strength and dexterity.

      As I said above, T&T combat is simpler, smoother, and faster. Does that make it better? Not necessarily; it achieves those ends at the cost of greater abstraction. I intend on discussing choices a player can make in next week's post. Granted, T&T combat allows for fewer choices. (For instance, you cannot select a specific target in melee.) Still, tactical decisions can be made – In an edition 5.5 combat example, a PC attempts to lead an opponent away from a particular area.

      Do I actually like the combat system? Yes, but that doesn't mean I prefer it. In a hypothetical situation of a PC party plus several NPCs against a horde of low-grade humanoids, I would prefer the T&T system; it would be much more efficient than multiple 'to hit' rolls and keeping track of which characters have acted/not acted in a given turn.

      If you consider the underlying system to be a pig, then spite damage et al. will seem like lipstick. If you adopt a kosher paradigm, it's just tweaking. I guess that's the whole point – looking at things differently to see what's possible. No reason to get angry.

  2. Cool, looking forward to the next post. But now I am absolutely furious.

    Interesting that the armor improved with later editions. Be nice to cover that a little, as well.

    Your undying enemy,


  3. Basically what Ken did (once upon a time) was look over the Little Brown Books (OD&D) and wondered why there was so much crunch to a game where you simply tell a story of adventure. So he made a game that focused on story a whole lot more than dice mechanics. So one plays T&T to just have a fantasy adventure where the dice just solve only some of the issues that come up in play. If you cannot wing it most of the time, then you may need the structure that other games (like D&D) provide. It is all personal preference (I know...that is not a profound statement). A good T&T GM will take those abstract dice rolls and spin a narrative from it of what actually happened with the dice. It is a further stretch from some other RPGs where...

    *Rolls Dice* "You were hit by the orc. Take 2 damage"

    ...without this GM narrative, T&T can be quite dull as you just watch a bunch of 6-siders hit the table and everyone starts adding them all up.

    I fell out of love with the T&T/MR system as it turned into a huge pain in the ass because a GM might have to roll 72 dice for a demon's attack. Sure, the players are rolling 5 to 10 dice...but 72 for the GM...does he even have that many?

    I also didn't like the loss of personal attention for combat. The entire group rolls their 6-siders and they compare their entire value with the group of monsters' value. is the easiest mass combat system I have ever seen in an RPG...but it just wasn't for me.

    Overall, I like T&T (5.5 is my favorite edition) and what it stands for. The rule book is super thin and the character sheets have a small amount of information needed to play (you could use an index card). I just didn't care for the combat and monsters having only an MR value. I did make a bunch of house rules to change this stuff to my own gaming style, which I posted at my site in the Wizardry & Warriors section. If you want to try and use T&T combat BtB, then read all of the examples (they have them in version 5 of the rules) and you will get a pretty good feel how combat is run in the game.