Back to the Tunnels & Trolls - Kung Fu City

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My Dungeon World game was winding down after 26 sessions, and the players wanted to try something different. Namely, Tunnels & Trolls. After such a riveting—and often “serious”—ride through Dungeon World, the zany and madcap spirit of T&T sounded like a welcome change.

I found a few other resources in my library for inspiration and sent out the pitch: “I’m thinking about a kung fu ghost mystery dungeon ruckus. Did you ever think you’d see those words together?”

I thought we might do another session to conclude the Dungeon World game, but a new zone of my brain opened up to ponder the impending shenanigans, and soon I had a handful of house rules to season the Classic T&T rules with a certain wuxia flavor.

Session 1

The game night was scheduled, but I didn’t know if we would play out a finale to our 26-session Dungeon World game, or start the new T&T game—so I didn’t have much in the way of prep.

After a quick deliberation, we decided to let the Dungeon World campaign remain paused for now, because a new player was joining us, and he would be stepping into a very storied and complex chain of events.

So I set out my 5th edition character sheets and we got started.

Cast

Untergon (Human Warrior)
Untergon is a street person who found a gladius in a dumpster a few weeks ago. A hooded figure known as “Gravitas” took interest in him, offering Unter a big windfall if he gains prestige in the Adventurer’s Guild.
Unter got caught up in a brawl between Flint and Glint, who were so preoccupied with their quarrel that they didn’t see him. Unter parried an axe that almost killed him, and he doesn’t like Flint as a result. Flint admires Unter’s gladius skill. Kai witnessed the ruckus, and joined the crew to relish the fights between the twins.
Flint and Glint Fireforge (Dwarf Warriors)
Twin brothers, they were roughhousing so violently that their mom told them to go outside. So they went to the city to find an adventure. Flint doesn’t like Kai because Kai seems feminine, and “he thinks girls are gross”.
Kai (Nelwyn Rogue)
Kai is always seeking rare new stones for her rock collection. When she met Ra, Ra began contributing to Kai’s “adorable” rock collection. Kai doesn’t like the pebbles that Ra gives her, though.
Ra Oewi (Elfin Wizard)
Trapped in an arranged marriage, Ra’s groom promised her that he would have the marriage annuled and give her a comfortable alimony if she takes down a troll. Ra took notice of one of Unter’s meetings with Gravitas, and she thinks he is gullible.

Events

  • At the Black Lotus Tavern, the party saw a notice on the secret job board that said Trollstone Caverns was “ripe for the picking”.
  • Unter met with a one-armed man at the Black Lotus and got some nonsensical information about a door in Trollstone caverns that could be opened by arm-wrestling or “making a deposit”.
  • Ra met with a geographer who gave her a map to the Caverns.
  • Kai met with a geologist who told her about the Trollstone, a carved piece of obsidian that could be used to unlock the troll’s treasure.
  • Flint recalled from his primary school days that Trollstone Caverns was known to be infested with red demons.
  • On the way to Trollstone Cavern, they passed Catherder Village, where Unter attempted to tame a cat to no avail. On a path through the tangled woods, they followed tracks of two-toed bipeds to a cave formed from the upheaval of great plates of rock.
  • Ra lit a torch and they entered the cavern, where they came to a large door with 3 strange features. Flint overcame the door in an arm-wrestling bout, and they passed through.
  • On the other side, they came to a 3-way intersection, where 4 horse-sized bristling wolves awaited them snarling. Fight!
  • Flint was knocked down and a wolf bit him in the face. Ra was killed when Kai’s shuriken missed a wolf and hit her instead. A wolf began devouring Ra’s body, but Unter killed the animal and looted her body.
  • The party departed the dungeon to recover before any further exploration.

The funniest thing I remember was when Ra wanted to make a ranged attack, but she didn’t have any missile weapons. Looking at her hands, she saw the torch—the sole source of flickering light! Lobbing it at a wolf, she aced her Saving Roll and dealt massive damage. So the torch got lodged in the wolf’s mouth while he was burning and choking on it. And then, darkness fell over the scene.

Getting up and running, and fast

Something I like about Dungeon World is that it gives the workaday perpetually-pressed-for-time GM a bunch of tools to spin up adventure on the fly without much prep. The character sheets, for example, are specialized for each character class, and they offer the players a bunch of choices about highly-evocative story-rich elements that create meaningful implications for the fictional world around them.

One of these elements is something Dungeon World calls “Bonds”—they are statements that you fill in with the name of another character, creating an instant relationship between the characters and background for their adventures. One of the Bard’s bonds, for example, is “I sang stories of _______________ long before I ever met them in person.” If the player fills in that bond with another character’s name, the GM will ask them questions about it to develop a mini-flashback, right there at the table.

T&T doesn’t have bonds, and that’s perfectly fine. After all, instant death is on the table, and sometimes it’s better for the party if we haven’t invested too much in getting to know the deceased. ;)

But being the GM without all my adventure stuff ready, I thought it would help stall for time launch the party into action if we had something to go on. In lieu of formal bonds, I simply had everyone take a peek at their neighbor’s character sheet and say one thing that they liked about that character. We fleshed out those ideas to some extent, and then they looked at the sheet on the other side, and named something they disliked about that character. As you can see above, some of the ideas were more entertaining and adventure-licious than others, but we weren’t going for Pulitzer prizes here.

Another Dungeon World tool I used was leading questions. Normally the way that works is, the GM asks the players questions about the story-rich choices they made in character creation—including homelands, quests, relationships—anything they can mine for ideas. As the fiction gets filled in and the world around the characters becomes more vivid, the questions often get more specific, until a conflict surfaces that becomes the inciting situation of their first adventure.

I didn’t employ the technique to the fullest extent here, because I intend to run the game as a sandbox, by seeding in adventure hooks and letting the players lead the way entirely. But for this “tutorial” session, I only had the 5th edition rulebook, the house rules and “GM sheet” I printed up, and 5 imaginations.

So I assumed, for the sake of simplicity, that every character in the party had some burning reason to visit the Trollstone Caverns adventure site in the rulebook, and asked the players what it was, and we fleshed out the situation from there.

After that, I went around and asked each player one thing they did to gather information about the dungeon in advance, and we narrated little cutscenes for each to cover their preparation.

Reaction Rolls

One thing that surprised me was the part reaction rolls played throughout the session.

I can’t remember if I ever used reaction rolls back in the day, or ever. My first memorable exposure to the concept was the Mega-Gargantuan reaction table in GURPS 3rd edition, and I’m sure I did not use it. (As a result, players who chose Advantages or Disadvantages based on the reaction system were mainly taking on traits for fictional positioning, which would hardly ever come into play mechanically.)

By the time I stumbled upon T&T, I “knew” that it was a pointless mechanic. When I was the GM, it was almost always obvious to me how a given NPC would react in any situation that came up in play.

For some reason, I saw the Reaction Table in a new light when was refreshing my brain on the 5th edition rules last week, and I printed it on my GM sheet. Instead of determining reactions by simple fiat, I decided to roll on the table whenever there was a new encounter—and if I wanted to “put my finger on the scale” based on fictional positioning, I simply applied a bonus or penalty ranging from -4 to +4.

Reaction rolls came up a lot more than I expected and it was a lot of fun not knowing what would happen. I used them for all of their “research” efforts and several other interactions before the delvers left town. And when I narrated that they passed “Cat-herder” Village and a player asked if he could take one of the cats, it seemed obvious to use a reaction roll for that. When they encountered the cave wargs, I rolled with a -4 modifier, since I figured the animals were put there on guard duty and would be disinclined to parley.

Since Kung Fu City is the name of the game, it ought to have a lot of opportunity for social interaction in the fiction. I expect reaction rolls will be a really handy piece of game tech for this campaign. But it’s certainly something I never saw myself being jazzed about. Maybe I’ll even re-read this supplement by Courtney Campbell, which I seem to remember uses the OD&D reaction table to turn social encounters into gameable puzzles for the players. (DTRPG tells me I own it, but I haven’t read the text in a long time.)

I also recall reading this blog post recently, about using reaction rolls to generate flavor while re-stocking the dungeon. That might be cool to play around with, too.

Firing into Melee!

During the combat, I’m afraid I got carried away with the fictional action and I didn’t quite showcase how the action is sequenced in T&T very well. One player told me it felt a lot like Dungeon World as a result.

Of course, the players frantically calling out their actions contributed to the chaotic feel, and that’s something that running Dungeon World for the past year built up a tolerance for. The frantic energy is great for the game, but bad for teaching the basics, and I realized I need to slow down next session to explain what’s going on step-by-step.

I made sure to prime the players in advance, and remind them at intervals throughout character creation and play, that these were starter delvers. They would all probably die. Still, I could tell it took seeing to believe it when Ra was killed by a stray shuriken.

Honestly, it’s a situation that never came up in my T&T experience before. In the past, when players were shooting, all the delvers were on one side of the “field” and all the monsters were on the other—so there wasn’t any thought about “friendly fire”.

But this time, Kai did a summersault under a warg and wound up on the other side. Then she threw the shuriken when one of the wolves charged Ra—so it was established that the wolf was between them, putting Ra right in the line of fire.

Kai missed her Dexterity Saving Roll to hit the wolf, so it seemed intuitive to call for a Saving Roll on Luck from Ra’s player. It was only a Level 1 Save, but she failed. The damage was too much to mitigate by my Speed Dodge house rule and Ra’s 9 Constitution combined. She had one last chance, with my Save or Die house rule, which was still only a Level 1 Save on Luck—and she failed again.

I did have at least one mental model for the situation, which is covered in the rules for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy RPG:

Firing into mêlée with a missile weapon is a very uncertain thing. If doing so, randomly determine who in the mêlée is actually targeted—the firing character does not get to choose—before rolling to hit.

(The Labyrinth Lord or Basic D&D rules that LotFP emulates might have the same rule, I just can’t remember.)

In hindsight, though, I realized that if it weren’t for Kai’s 17 Missile Adds, the damage would have only been 1d6, and Ra might have lived. Since Adds represent your fighting skill and luck, it makes sense to me that Adds would not be included in a missed attack. That’s probably how I’ll run it from now on if this ever comes up again.

I notice LotFP has a similar rule:

Dexterity modifiers [the D&D equivalent of Missile Adds] do not apply, for either the firing character or the targets, when resolving missile fire into mêlée.

In light of this consideration, I’ll bring it up next time we meet. I don’t mind admitting if I’ve made a mistake, and I’ll ask the player if she wants to revive her character or bring in a new delver.

In the past, I was comfortable making rulings like this on the fly with T&T, but I guess I’ve gotten used to running a game with more buttoned-down rules. For shame!

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