Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Tunnels & Trolls: Back to the Books

If in 1990, I held the rights to a tabletop RPG that I wanted to turn into a computer RPG, I would have gone to SSI first. But if SSI already had the contract to produce CRPGs for my top competitor (which of course it did), there's no question I would have gone to New World Computing next. Origin was bungling almost anything that wasn't an Ultima; Interplay was hit-or-miss, mostly still stuck in Bard's Tale mode; EA was capable of publishing good games, but anything they developed in-house was laughable; Sir-Tech had just hired the goofiest project director in RPG history; and almost anyone else, even if they had a good RPG, was a one-hit wonder. New World had a relatively small catalog, but every one was a home run. Most important, in the first two Might & Magic games (which remain in my top 10 despite having been played more than 120 games ago), the developer showed an appreciation for side quests and role-playing encounters that are key to Tunnels & Trolls but absent from every other CRPG to date.

Unfortunately, New World subcontracted the programming to Japanese developers, and the result was a game with New World's production values, like Mike Winterbauer's beautiful cover art and game map (link is to his site with examples of his work) and Neal Hallford's excellent game manual, but with a slightly unsatisfying approach to gameplay. It's not bad, I hasten to add, just a little odd. Chief among its quirks is a tendency to resort to large passages of text and gamebook-style encounter options instead of using the game's actual interface. This approach often makes it feel like the rest of the interface is just window dressing for a traditional gamebook in which you press option #3 instead of going to paragraph 33.

In a way, the approach makes sense, as Tunnels & Trolls was perhaps better known for its gamebooks--which it calls "solo adventures"--than it was for actual tabletop RPG gameplay. There were around 25 solo adventures published between 1976 (Buffalo Castle) and 1991 (Dark Temple), plus some additional limited editions and "pocket solo adventures." A number of them form the basis for the plot and encounters of Crusaders of Khazan. In preparation for this re-boot of my Tunnels & Trolls experience, I purchased two of the solo adventures on which the game is based, The City of Terrors (1979) and Sewers of Oblivion (1980), both by prolific RPG-designer and fantasy writer Michael Stackpole. Both are set in the city of Gull, the opening city of the CRPG.

The gamebook on which the opening of the computer game is based.

Before we begin, we need a little memory-refreshing. Almost a year ago, I was about 2/3 of the way through Crusaders of Khazan when I suddenly had to take a work-related hiatus from blogging. When I finally got back, I said:

It's been so long since I played Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan that I no longer remember what I'm doing. I'm thinking it makes sense to start the game over with a new party; I'm also motivated to do this because my characters seem to have suffered an irreversible loss of attributes. But I don't want to do that right away, so I'm temporarily removing the game from the active list and moving on to Lord of the Rings, Vol. I to the next position. I'll come back to Khazan later in the year.

That was a mistake. I should have just sucked it up, figured it out, and finished the game. I'm sure it would have come back to me if I'd just started playing. Now, however, it really has been too long to remember what I was doing, and I need to read all the documentation again and start a new party.

To recap (links to my first five posts on the game are at the bottom), Khazan takes place on the Dragon Continent, most of which is under the control of an evil empire ruled by a half-elf/half-orc named Lerotra'hh and her deputy, Khara Kang. Four hundred years prior, they overthrew the benevolent Emperor Khazan and invited evil monsters to reside with the sentient races. Though an uneasy balance was maintained for centuries, the monsters have lately been getting the upper hand, and a party of adventurers is needed to ultimately oust Lerotra'hh.

The game comprises 24 maps of 16 x 16 squares each, replete with towns, dungeons, caves, and a huge variety of special encounters. It starts in Gull, an island city free of Lerotra'hh's empire. The player creates between 1 and 4 characters of four races (human, elf, dwarf, or hobb), three classes (warrior, rogue, and wizard), and random rolls for strength, IQ, luck, constitution, dexterity, charisma, speed, combat bonuses, age, and gold. With each level up, you can increase one or two attributes. There are no "derived" attributes in the game--wounds do direct damage to constitution; spells deplete directly from strength--meaning that some attributes get out of whack with the others fairly quickly.

Creating a new character.

Combat occurs on a special tactical screen on which you can control every movement or let the computer fight for you. At least in the early game, strong melee skills are vital since spells are expensive (wizards and rogues generally purchase them, though you get some as quest rewards) and you only have enough strength to cast a few of them in any given combat.

I'll blog about the computer game over the next couple of weeks, but for now, let's talk a bit about the solo adventures, which also take place in Gull. Each has between 200 and 250 short entries along with some introductory text and explanations of the character creation and combat systems. For character creation, the books instruct you to find three six-sided dice, a pencil, and a piece of paper and begin by rolling for the six attributes. You then choose a race and class and make various adjustments accordingly. The City of Terrors has tables for weapons and armor, with appropriate prices, and it's assumed that you can return to your inn and buy new stuff in between paragraphs unless otherwise stated. Sewers of Oblivion starts without these tables and largely assumes you already have a character from The City of Terrors or Deathtrap Equalizer.

The cover provides a great example of the "Absurdly Spacious Sewer" trope.

My prior experience with gamebooks is relatively limited, consisting only of Joe Dever's Lone Wolf and World of Lone Wolf series plus at least one book in Steve Jackson's Sorcery! series. I soon remembered two things. First, dealing with combat and inventory logistics is a huge pain in the neck. I'm glad we have CRPGs to do it for us. Even after I spent some time modeling everything in Excel, I kept getting confused with all the mathematics. Second, resisting "save-scumming" is even harder in a gamebook than a CRPG. I mean, what are you really supposed to do when you die? Force yourself to read all the text again, even though you know what happens? Meticulously re-fight battles that you already know you can win? I gamely tried, but after a few character deaths, I started just assuming that I won each combat so I could uncover more of the plot.

The Lone Wolf books helped you out with a character sheet, a random number table, and relatively simple combat mechanics. You really just needed a pencil to play. None of that for these solo adventures. You're expected to have your own paper, pencil, three six-sided dice, and a stack of index cards from which to shuffle and draw "wandering people" every time you come to an intersection. You're also largely expected to have a copy of the T&T game rules.

The City of Terrors starts with no backstory: you just wander into Gull and start adventuring. Sewers of Oblivion, on the other hand, has a short backstory that explains some of the names and events in Crusaders of Khazan. The Rangers--obliquely referenced but once in the CRPG--are a band of pirates threatening the city, and Biorom is a local wizard who has filled the sewers with traps to keep the Rangers from infiltrating the city that way. As the book begins, the player is ambushed by ruffians and tossed into the sewers.

Thanks to the books, I understand what this means.

I started to recount my adventures from the books, but the post was getting too long and somewhat boring. Suffice to say that many of the encounters in both The City of Terrors and Sewers of Oblivion have direct analogs to encounters in Crusaders of Khazan. Below are some paragraphs from the books with comparable screen shots.

115. This is the city square. Here is your hotel, along with a carriage ready to take you to your ship at 143, if you wish to leave now.
If you want to explore, you may go east on the Dark Way to 152. You may also go into the wilderness by going south to 189. To the north the Rogue Route will take you to the Black Dragon Tavern, 109. For those of you who are of a religious bent, you find your interests to the west on the Ranger Road, 113.

The paths in the game roughly follow the directions in the book. South does ultimately lead to the wilderness (passing through the docks) and the north route does eventually lead to the Black Dragon Tavern. The Temple of the Blue Beetle God is indeed to the west. There is no east in the game, however; the Dark Way is off one of the northern branches.

31. You should know that Gull is not a place to trust strangers. This is Barth Bladehand. He is a two-time loser thief who had both hands cut off. He has had them replaced with razor-sharp knives that look like hands. As he draws close to you, he extends a hand as if he wants to shake hands with you. You extend your hand, and he steps inside your guard and stabs you in the stomach. Take three dice worth of damage. 

Barth doesn't have a party in the book. He does in the CRPG.

59. In front of you is a cave. You hear a sound by the entrance and see a man, bloodied and obviously dying. You rush to aid him, but he is sinking fast. All he says is "Beware the Stalker!" and then he dies. If you wish to enter the cave, go to 195. If you don't want to go, go to 25.

The game offers a little more text.

130. In the brush, you find 300 warriors massed for an attack. You join them and, with a yell, they assault the house. Make two saving rolls at one level above your own on your LK [luck] to see if the orcish archers miss you. If you miss one of the two rolls, take 5 hits in arrow damage. If you miss both rolls, take 12 hits. Once you get inside the house, you will find that your men are outnumbered 3 to 1. You must fight three orcs, each with a MR of 40. Then when you are done with them, you must roll two dice--if you roll anything but doubles, you must battle two more. If you survive all that, go to 201.

The combat mechanics are naturally different. There are no archers in the computer game.

118. The Sheik laughs and says that his brother, the man you face, plays tricks. He tells you that if you look in your money belt, you will find a ring. You check and one is there. You are satisfied, but you continue to glare at the Sheik's brother. The Sheik has grown tired of his brother's tricks. He demands that you fight to the death for the ring. Go now to 90.

The game, unlike the book, allows you to try to get out of the combat.

Intro. "Hi, I'm Ignxx," the demon says. "This is your boat; I am your guide. I've been charged with the duty of wet-nursing every dude who falls in here until they get out. Don't use any magic; you can get turned into a fish by doing that stuff. And please don't die, I've got to get a certain number of you out of here before Biorom will forget about the gold-plated dumbwaiter."

Mercifully, the game replaces "dude" with "fools."

4D. The lock clicks open, surprising both you and the woman. "Great! Five hundred rats are dead!" she cries with joy. "Now I can leave!" She pushes the door open and you help her from the cage. She walks over to the south wall and touches a brick. A hidden door slides back and reveals a small room. She enters, dons some sorcerer's robes, picks up a staff and some other provisions. Set in the wall of the small room is a mirror. She waves a hand before it and an image of Biorom appears in it. She speaks to the mirror and you hear a mumbled reply. 

Quite a large difference between the book and the game here. The subsequent paragraphs in the book make it clear that the woman and Biorom are trying to trap you in the same cage to take the woman's place. A "successful" encounter has you locking the woman back in. In the game, Biorom gives you some advice about defeating Lerotra'hh and the woman, Jasmine, becomes a joinable NPC.

19A. At the far end of the table, a man rises from a chair. He sets a book down and greets you. "I am Leo Felis. I live here, placed by Biorom to monitor the sewers and to entertain people like yourself. Please help yourself," he says.

You draw closer and are impressed with the selection of cheese, and slightly puzzled by the lack of an equally wide selection of meat. Careful inspection of the meat shows it to be greasy and stringy. If you decide to attack this man, go to 40B. If you would like to eat some cheese, go to 24A. If you want to sample the animal flesh, go to 34E. 

Only slight changes in this text.

In general, only about one-quarter of the encounters in the gamebooks made it into the game, but virtually every encounter in the game, as well as almost all the text, was originally found in the gamebooks. The books offer a lot more encounters that increase experience and attributes directly, while the game relies more on traditional RPG mechanics to do this.

I suspect if I went and purchased a bunch of the other pre-1990 solo adventures, we'd find that nearly the entire game originally appeared in gamebooks, perhaps with the exception of the main quest (which really doesn't show up in the CRPG until very late in the game). I don't mind the borrowing of encounters and text so much as I mind the use of gamebook-style choices in the encounters. I'm perfectly capable of opening  my inventory and lighting a torch, or using the regular game interface to cast "Freeze Please," and I don't want to see those show up as options in a wall of text. It defeats the purpose of playing a game rather than reading a book.

I'm going to spend some hours catching up on Crusaders of Khazan, and I won't bother blogging about old territory, so the posts will pick up when I'm close to where I left off last time. In the meantime, we aren't quite done with gamebooks. I've also purchased Steve Jackson's Citadel of Chaos (1983) in preparation for the 1984 computer version, which is more of a direct adaptation. The book is somewhat larger than either of the two T&T adventures, clocking in at 400 entries. We'll see a post about that before the end of Khazan.


Posts on Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan: One | Two | Three | Four | Five | Six


  1. "wizards and rogues generally purchase them, though you get some as spell rewards"

    Is this meant to be quest rewards? Or am I misunderstanding something?

    Also, what's the story on the meat that Leo offers you? The way the game sets it up makes me think it's human or something (or, given the name, perhaps rat).

    1. Yes, "quest rewards." Dumb mistake.

      I covered the encounter way back here:


      In short, Leo has been placed in the sewers by Biorom to help deal with the rat problem. He's pretty stupid (he's a were-lion) and he assumes that anyone who wants cheese is a rat and attacks you. If you choose the meat, which is rat meat, he assumes you're a friend and gives you a "cat ring."

  2. I'm perfectly capable of opening my inventory and lighting a torch, or using the regular game interface to cast "Freeze Please," and I don't want to see those show up as options in a wall of text. - Problem is, how do you mix options that have regular interface with those that don't in a single encounter?

    1. In many ways, this interface doesn't allow for it, since NPCs and enemies don't exist in the world outside the text encounters or combat. My comment was a criticism of the entire approach they took in programming the game, not the way they handled specific encounters.

    2. I mean that a lot of encounters in T&T have options that even a roguelike wouldn't have a generic command for. How would you do an encounter like this, for example, or the one described in this post without a wall of text even if the game had the most advanced interface ever?

    3. Those are fine. I didn't mean to suggest they were all bad. The ones I object to are more like this...


      ...where I'm navigating a dungeon and unlocking doors by text instead of, you know, walking through an actual dungeon and using the "unlock" command. There are other places where you actually fight battles from the text interface rather than through the game's regular combat interface.

    4. I think those are more likely to be there because they ran out of development time rather than some misguided ideology.

  3. Well, it sounds like a very faithful adaptation, no wonder the T&T fans pushed you to pick up the game again. And they'll certainly get a lot of articles on the game. Nice bridge you built yourself there to the next gamebook. If I recall correctly, Citadel of Chaos is not the only gamebook you still have to play in 1984.

  4. The Lone Wolf games are also coming out in 1984, I believe.

    1. I thought the early Lone Wolf games were more action than RPG though. There was a great Lone Wolf Neverwinter Nights module, but it was abandoned years ago.

    2. There's one on iTunes and Play Store though.

      Also, that NWN Module wasn't really faithful to the canon. It's fun but it could've been better.

  5. Sorry, I find both the physical and computer graphic quality to be repellent. I can see your point with going with New World, but the colors are all off for me. I prefer SSI's more muted tones.

    I wonder why Origin fumbled so often with non-Ultima projects? Did they just consign Moebius and other games' development to the crew in the mailroom?

    Still, thank you Chet for giving this another chance. Never encountered T+T in my youth so this is all eye-opening.

    1. I guess people just didn't want to play Origin's new stuff, just like nobody wants to hear Rolling Stones' new stuff. They want to hear songs written when they were young and creative.

      And neither Richard Garriot nor his immitators were that great game designers, really. Ultima 4 was such a success because Garriot had a little sparring match with Pat Robertson & Co.

    2. I think there is pretty broad consensus that Ultimas 5 through 7 are legitimately good games.

    3. I actually like Ultima 4 more than it's successors. I like the different character classes.

    4. Yes. My point was that they struck gold by accident.

    5. Origin Software released a lot of well-received games in several different genres. Dunno how that qualifies as accidentally striking gold.

    6. Yes, Origin made a lot of great games outside of Ultima: Wing Commander, Crusader, Bioforge and Cybermage. I love Ultima, and I hate E.A. for destroying it and using its name as a front for selling its terrible games.

    7. @Tristan Gall - I think kuniqs1 meant that all those later games were birthed from the gold that is U4. U4 was a huge gamble as there was no precedent for such a game before. They could have seen gold or they could have seen God.

  6. I don't know why but I just felt that Mindcraft (developer of The Magic Candle) would have been a better avenue too. It's easily in my personal list of Top 10 studios in the 80s-90s era, which is based on the quality (and its consistency) of their games.

    1. SSI
    2. Origins
    3. Interplay
    4. Mindcraft
    5. Sir-Tech
    6. NWC
    7. Westwood
    8. Sierra
    9. Broderbund
    10. Nihon Falcom

  7. My 10 favorite companies from that period:


    Most of those have been destroyed, but I still love Nintendo, Capcom and Taito.

    1. Whoa, hey. I was talking about CRPG studios, man.

      If we're talking about mixed bags, I'm going with Tecmo (hey-o, Double Dragon!), Koei (Bandit Kings of Ancient China is da bomb!) and Enix (before they were absorbed by Squaresoft). Terranigma and Soul Blazer I & II were just so beautifully crafted.

  8. I was trying to figure out the theme to your character names, so I googled them. Characters in Elia KAZAN films. Clever.


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