Class Construction in early Tunnels & Trolls

The early editions of Tunnels & Trolls are a good example of two class design schema:

  • Classes to fill holes
  • Classes on a spectrum

The two base classes are warrior and wizard. The warrior is a straightforward arms and armor type, noted in the game’s fifth-and-a-half edition as being based on Conan. Wizards have a mix of dungeon utility spells and combat spells.

T&T‘s mechanics are somewhat more regular than D&D‘s. “Take that you fiend!,” the equivalent of “Magic Missile,” simply allows the character to wield his intelligence as a weapon.

The spectrum element comes in when rogues are added to the basic mix. Like D&D‘s thieves, they appear to have been modeled on the Gray Mouser, but they are essentially fighters with who dabble in magic. They represent an in-between space between the warrior and wizard class, illustrating the spectrum principle.

Initially, rogues were required to choose to become either warriors or wizards as they leveled up… a choice the Mouser himself made at a young age. In practice, apparently, players tried to avoid making this choice, and thus T&T introduced a mirror-class: the warrior-wizard.

The warrior-wizard is interesting not only in that it completes the spectrum of character classes, but in that it requires the rolling of unusually high attributes at character creation. The combination of fighting, spellcasting, and attribute requirements is suggestive of D&D‘s paladin (though I doubt there’s a direct line of inspiration). As of T&T 5.5e, then, the classes form a sort of circle.

Unlike most fantasy games which followed, Tunnels & Trolls embraced Dungeons & Dragons‘ milieu of dungeon delving wholeheartedly, but casually rejected many of D&D‘s other additions to the fantasy genre, such as the thief-specialist and the fighting cleric. In other words, it absorbed D&D‘s gameplay innovations while ignoring its class design.

It’s particularly tantalizing to imagine a version of D&D with the more elegant class structure of T&T. Indeed, while the thief has only occasionally been imagined as a subclass of the fighter, reimagining the cleric as a variant wizard has a long heritage. The “White Mage” is a fixture of franchise like Final Fantasy, and is echoed in TSR’s mid-90s Lankhmar boxed set.

It’s almost criminal to go this far down into an article about Tunnels & Trolls without mentioning that the game’s far more lighthearted than D&D grew up to be. The spell names are, largely, cheap jokes. The tone of Liz Danforth’s 5.5e is tongue-in-cheek, and rather charming.

I was raised on two kinds of fantasy gaming. The first were the Sierra and Lucasarts adventure games, which were full of puns and jokes. Although the humor was  of a slightly different breed, they fit well with my readings of Fritz Leiber and Jack Vance, as well as Robert Aspirin, J. R. R. Tolkien1, and, dare I say it, Piers Anthony.

The second were the Dungeons & Dragons variants and The Lord of the Rings, plus the Elric books. Though all three have more humor than they’re generally given credit for, they are by comparison dreadfully serious. I think Aaron Allston makes it through the Rules Cyclopedia without so much as an ironic aside. The third edition of Dungeons & Dragons admonishes (though not absolutely) against the use of cheap gags in your characters or campaign.

At this stage of my life, I appreciate the humorous side of fantasy gaming more. I’m compelled by Conan’s rarely-detailed “gigantic mirths,” and the heroic laughter of Fafhrd and the Mouser in “Adept’s Gambit.”2 I’m attracted by the absurdity of creations like the rust monster and the beholder. That makes a review of Tunnels & Trolls rather a welcome evening chore.

  1. Yes, I mean The Hobbit.
  2. Which, it turns out, is of rather cosmic significance.

3 thoughts on “Class Construction in early Tunnels & Trolls

  1. I think that part of it is also that the rogue was usually the “sidekick” character in early sword-and-sorcery lit. Howard was the one who inserted the idea of theft-as-shenanigans, Tolkien’s worldview didn’t see anything honorable about theft.

    The second-tier classes (rogue, ranger, cleric) were always either originally MEANT for sidekickery or to fill in a “magical” need to the Five Man Power Ranger Team. Clerics, for instance, are just medics, but with a magical gloss of them, and rangers, even though they proudly stem from Tolkien, were nevertheless not meant for dungeoneering, but for aboveground tracking/envoy work.

    Then, of course, as is pretty common, players get tired of playing sidekicks. This is why WoD Ghouls/Wolfborn/Acolytes/etc. are problematic for Storytellers as well, when somebody wants to actually play one.

  2. …oh yes, and then you get to the THIRD TIER classes, which are combinations of First Tier with Second (bard, warlock, monk). These are also known as the “GM’s Girlfriend” classes.

  3. “Tolkien’s worldview didn’t see anything honorable about theft. ”

    Well, except for that novel he wrote about where an ordinary suburban man is entangled in a revenge plot when a family friend persuades him to pass himself off as a career criminal. Thus begins a saga of lies, kidnapping and murder that will leave him rich… or dead.

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