So I GMed my first game session of Tunnels and Trolls today (5th edition). I found it very interesting, it was fun, but a number of rules questions came up. Anyway, here’s what happened.
So the setting of the game is my own; some of you may recognize where my inspiration for this comes. The evil queen Aletheia, recently released from centuries of imprisonment, and her right hand mage Judore, took over the realm of Varhold, enslaving its inhabitants. From there, she called all the remnants of the Elven diaspora to her. Together, they continued enslaving and conscripting humans and other races into her army, and began a campaign of imperial conquest. None seem to be able to stand against her forces. Desperate for any chance, any hint of weapons or items to fight against the evil queen, rulers of the surrounding territories are willing to pay high prices. So, brave adventures roam the land, exploring caverns and ancient ruins in search of such treasure.
In the dwarven town of Boltheim, refugees fleeing from the depredations of the elven forces have found that their trials are only just beginning. The locals tell of how strange creatures are coming into town and abducting people, who are never seen again. Recently, a teenage abductee successfully escaped, and told how she was held captive in some sort of cave, where she could see chests full of crystals glowing with strange magic. Pleading for someone to help rescue her family, she gave directions to the location from which she escaped.
So the adventure begins with the player characters in front of an iron door leading further into the caverns. I was GMing for two players, each of who controlled two characters, who included warriors Hayoshiko, Atticus, and Enneada, and Sezerain the rogue. The characters were able to enter the door, forcing it open with a combined strength roll. One rules point here: the fifth edition rules talk about saving rolls, but these are really attribute checks. The easiest way for me to understand them was that the player rolls two dice (doubles explode), and adds the relevant attribute value to the total. They need to equal or exceed the difficulty number, which is five times the difficult level +15. The level of difficulty is determined by the GM. So 2d6+attribute >= 15 + (difficulty level X 5). This is mathematically equivalent to what the text describes, but it is more intuitive for me.
The characters quickly found themselves in a room with a fancy rug on the floor, and three doors to choose from. They noticed the rug was clean and looked pristine, so they were quite suspicious of it and avoided stepping on it. I asked for some IQ checks here as basically perception rolls; for those who didn’t roll a 20 or above, I just gave very basic information. One character rolled above 20, and I mentioned how they could hear people screaming faintly in the distance, and that the doors to the east and south were closest to the sound.
The players open the door to the east, and see nothing inside, except a chest and another door. They are suspicious, and don’t go in. They then proceed to the door to the south. One character opens it, and because they didn’t use the key, it triggers a trap. Three giant, hungry spiders are released from above them, and proceed to attack.
Now, when creating the spiders, I gave them the following features. I thought I would give them a monster rating of 20 – but that would mean they’d roll three dice each, and add 15. This seemed too harsh, so I gave them three dice and an add of just five. I was then worried this would make them too easy, so I thought that I would make it so that they didn’t get weaker (roll fewer dice) until they were down to a 5 constitution. In other words, instead of them taking damage to their monster rating they’d take damage to their Constitution of 20. In addition, I gave them a web spinning attack: they can spit out webs, forcing the targeted character to make a dexterity save of 20 or be trapped; once entangled, a character would have to make a Strength roll of 25 or above to escape.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize just how challenging the spiders would be. A giant spider managed to corner one of the characters, Hayoshiko, into a one-on-one battle. This became a bit of a grind, as the character was a warrior with 12 points of armor. After several rounds where no one did any damage to each other, we quickly instituted the spite damage rule: if you roll a six, then someone on the opposing side takes one point of damage, regardless of armor. Slowly, they were each getting hurt. Hayoshiko tried to retreat to join the other characters so they could fight together. I interpreted this to be a dexterity roll. Unfortunately the character failed (they rolled less than 20). Now here is the first rules question: when someone does a stunt like this, how to adjudicate the attack from the opponent? Normally, you compare the total of weapon rolls from each side, but when one side isn’t using a weapon roll, how to determine the result of the opposing attack? In this particular case, I rolled for the spider as usual, and compared this total to the player’s total for their dexterity roll, basically substituting it for the weapon roll. The spider’s total was less than the player’s. So I interpreted this to mean that the character was not able to reach his companions, but also the spider was not able to damage him. But I’m not clear on how this works in general.
Meanwhile, Enneada, Sezerain, and Atticus were fighting together against two spiders. The first round goes well for them, and they’re able to do 20 points above the spiders' total, so do 10 points of damage to each spider. The spiders then unleash their web attacks. Atticus and Enneada fail their dexterity saving throws, and are entangled. Facing two giant spiders, Sezerain backs into the room with the chest, hoping to use the doorway to keep both spiders from attacking him at once. I winced inwardly as the player told me this, because I knew there was a pit trap just inside the door to the chest room! The pit trap opens. However, the player makes their saving throw – they needed a 25, and they got a 26. So I say they’re able to roll to the side, their lantern rolling onto the floor beside them.
So now we have three separate fights going on. Hayoshiko is fighting one spider to the west side of the room, one spider is attacking the entangled characters, while another spider is trying to get at Sezerain, who is in the room with the chest, balanced on the edge of the pit trap.
Over the course of several rounds, Hayoshiko tries a number of maneuvers, retreating and trying to get back out the main entrance, trying to get the spider to flee using his torch, and again trying to reach the other characters. Unfortunately, each maneuver fails. I interpreted them as dexterity rolls, with maybe one luck roll in there. Now, the way that I read the rules, when someone does a stunt like this I should give them the difficulty level, consequences for failure, and the benefit of success. The benefits of success were easy to determine each time, but I wound up being continually confused about what failure would mean, in particular how to adjudicate the spider’s attack after the player failed. What I wound up doing was just applying the spider attack to the total of the players dexterity roll. The result was a slow grind, with spite damage slowly wearing away at each combatant.
Sezerain fought the giant spider with his spear, and the results were similar to Hayoshiko’s battle: they were slowly grinding each other down. Meanwhile, the third giant spider made free attacks on the entangled Atticus, eventually killing him. Enneada tried several strength rolls to get free, failing several times, helpless to prevent the spider from savaging the poor Atticus.
The battle continues, Enneada fails to escape, and gets bit for some damage; Sezerain keeps fighting the spider and finally kills it. Enneada finally breaks free of her web, and attacks the spider. Sezerain throws his spear at the spider, so I interpreted that as a combined melee attack. This attack is able to take that spider out.
At this point, after several failed rolls, Hayoshiko is fighting a giant spider in the dark, armed only with a rock. Sezerain and Enneada want to quickly join him, so I gave them a choice: Enneada can help Sezerain across the pit trap quickly with a combined strength roll; if successful, they’ll be able to reach Hayoshiko in time to make a combined attack against the remaining spider this round. Or, they can play it safe, Sezerain can cross automatically without a roll required, but they won’t be able to reach Hayoshiko until the next round.
Here’s where another rules question comes in. They each made a strength roll, Enneada succeeding, but Sezerain failed by rolling a 4. Now their combined total was more than enough to beat the level of difficulty of 25 – but because one of them failed their roll, how to interpret the results? In this case, I erred on the side of harshness, saying that Sezerain almost slips but he manages to get across, but not in time to help Hayoshiko this round.
Regardless, Hayoshiko and the spider do only a slight bit of damage to each other from spite damage. The next round, the characters join up, and are able to take the spider out with their combined attack.
I felt a little bit embarrassed, because I hadn’t meant the spiders to be that much of a challenge. They were powerful enough to almost take out the entire party. But I suppose that’s just my inexperience with the system. I felt sorry for the characters, and wanted to change the spider stats on the spot to help them out, but the players saw what I was doing and spoke up, refusing to let me go easy on them, which of course was the right call.
The rest of the game went smoothly in my opinion. The characters cleverly disarmed a trap in the chest by pushing it into the pit trap so that it broke open. The sleeping gas it contained was released, but it dispersed sufficiently that it didn’t get anyone. The party proceeded further into the caverns, and found where the screams were coming from. They observed humans tied onto stone slabs, their blood being slowly drained and dripping into containers which glowed, gradually getting brighter the more blood dripped into them. In addition, they found a humanoid mushroom tied onto the one of the slabs, with a battle hardened Elven veteran and a pair of orcs experimenting on it, trying to get it to bleed. They also saw a couple of human slaves, with iron collars on their necks. One of the slaves noticed Enneada, but turned their head, not acknowledging her presence.
After a brief discussion, the party decided they were too wounded to attempt a rescue, and took the treasure they found and ran back to town. And that’s where that session ended.
Overall I had a lot of fun, but I admit that, during prep, I had a very hard time understanding this text of Tunnels and Trolls. I’m speaking of the fifth edition here. To me, some of the most important parts of play were completely left out. It’s like, the game text makes perfect sense if you already know how to play the game – but if you don’t, it’s very difficult to know how to play from reading the text. I often find this problem; the authors are so familiar with their game that some of the most important practices or rules are so obvious to them that they don’t even think of writing them down. However, these are not obvious to most other people. Without exception, when I’ve heard a game designer say, “it’s obvious that you’re supposed to do such-and-such in that situation,” or the like, they’ve been completely wrong. Certainly their point was not obvious to me at all.
Anyway I would appreciate any feedback on how to interpret these rules, or what useful practices you bring to this game, or my GMing, or any other observations y’all might have.