When I found out that Flying Buffalo was releasing a new T&T adventure for Free RPG Day 2011, I found a participating store and called to find out if they had anyone running a game of Tunnels & Trolls. With a wistful note in his voice, the owner said that there were no T&T games planned, and he sounded enthusiastic when I offered to make it happen.
After rifling through some adventures I had on file, by myself and others, I decided to write a new one for the event. In order to fit the action into the time available, I thought it was important to know the adventure inside-out. I also created character sheets, and prepared a CD with a hodge-podge of freely-available T&T resources— I found out that the Free RPG Day kit only included one copy of the Flying Buffalo offering, and I wanted to make sure everyone could take away a freebie from the event.
On the day of the game, I wasn’t sure anyone would turn up. When I got to the game store, there were a couple of games going on already, but the shop owner cleared a table and told me at least one player would be coming. Then he casually invited a twleve-year-old kid who had never role-played before to join the game, and she agreed with bright-eyed gusto. When we sat down, my ten-year-old daughter started coaching the other girl through rolling up a character, and before they were done, two other guys showed up to try out the game. I had each player roll up two characters to be ready for attrition, and before long, we had a party of eight delvers ready to explore the Haunted Tower!
Players’ names have been changed for their privacy.
- “Junior”, my daughter, played “Bob the Dwarf Warrior” and “Chloe the Hobb Rogue”.
- “Lexi”, the other girl, played “Dagger the Elf Rogue” and “Mace the Leprechaun Wizard”; Mace’s Talent was “Poison Expert”, which was prominent in the game.
- “Jacob”, a soft-spoken guy slightly older than I am, played two Human Rogues that he didn’t name.
- “Luther”, a role-playing veteran with thirty-plus years of gaming, played a Dwarf Warrior and an ill-fated Elf Wizard whose names I don’t recall. Luther claimed that he got one TARO† for the first character and two for his second.
[†TARO: Triples Add, Roll Over. Rolling triples on an ability score allows you to start with ability scores higher than normal, but it will generally happen once in thirty-six rolls.]
Here’s what happened:
- I explained some of the history of Northmarch, letting the players know about the war between the Northron colonists and the moroi, about the non-aggression treaty, and the Marshals who are charged with enforcing the treaty. For this adventure, players take the roles of Marshals of Northmarch.
- I set up the current adventure goal: During the war, the Northrons had a certain watchtower on the borderlands, overlooking a small village in the Gorbo Pass. The tower has been out of commission since the war ended, and the records are sketchy. The Marshals want to secure the tower, recover some Northron artifacts, and use the location as a supply cache. The party is charged with securing the tower and lighting its beacon.
- The adventure started with the delvers ariving in the village of Gorbo Pass. They immediately went to the general store to stock up, and after disposing of their starting cash, the leprechaun got into a scuffle with the proprietor and they were thrown out.
- They decided to question the local innkeeper before setting off, whom they saw outside mending barrels. My idea was to give them a variety of rumors of variable truthiness from several towny NPCs, but at the table I dumped the idea and just had the innkeeper tell them what they needed to know to get started:
- Four of the innkeeper’s daughters have disappeared over the past four months.
- Strange noises have been heard from the tower lately, and the locals believe it’s haunted.
- The elders think that a creature they call the Varcolac has awakened, a great wolf that devours the sun and moon, whose only weakness is white oak.
- When asked, he told the players about a grove of white oaks across the gap from the tower, but he warned them that it’s guarded by mischievous spirits and “we don’t go there”.
The players decided to ignore the grove and go directly to the tower after resting at the inn that night.
Path to the Tower
At this point, I decided to spring some enemies on the party. I let the players know that I was just throwing in a sample combat so that they could get used to the system. I had some index cards with some monsters I created for a previous adventure, and I grabbed the first one that seemed appropriate to the setting: Cave Wargs! Without giving much thought to the threat level, I randomly decided five of them would be an adequate challenge for eight characters.
Since they were at the tree-line in broad day-light, I told them that their characters heard howls and then saw wolves aproaching from all sides, and I gave them a few rounds to get ready. The girls had their characters climb trees, but one of the unnamed human rogues used it as opportunity to fire off three arrows at a single warg, bloodying the beast before it could close in to attack. Another character was able to finish it off in the first melee round.
The players quickly picked up effective tactics for melee in T&T: Find creative ways to interact with the fiction before dicing off in melee, and you can often get an advantage to offset unfriendly odds. Even so, the cave wargs turned out to be a much more challenging encounter than I expected: At MR 55 each, the two first-level wizards found out that they couldn’t be panicked by their Oh, Go Away spells. When those spells failed, they found themselves singled out by the wolves for attack, and they both went down. After four rounds or so, I could tell that the delvers were about to suffer a TPK— suddenly, they heard a lonely far-off howl, and the remaining wargs fled.
Since it was a sample combat, intended to demonstrate the mechanics, I told the players that their delvers recovered any lost hit points, but Luther said that to him “dead is dead”, and he abandoned his Elf Wizard there.
Entering the Tower
When they got to the tower, the party saw tracks in the snow near the door, and divined that at least one pair of footprints belonged to a teenager, likely a girl. When they went inside, they found an adipose human guard chowing down on roasted chicken. Dressed up like Grandpa from the Munsters, he warned them to leave because the tower was haunted, but he didn’t get up from his chair. To be continued!
Impressions and afterthoughts
I don’t know what to make of Luther’s starting characters. Since I was helping the younger players at that moment, I didn’t see the rolls. Although the odds are against it, he could have authentically rolled multiple TAROs, or he could have fudged the rolls to see if he could break the game with over-powered characters. He didn’t fudge any other rolls during the game, though, and he happily accepted defeat when his wizard died and when he missed Saving Rolls.
T&T isn’t concerned with game balance, and when it comes to T&T neither am I. You need more than high stats to make it: You also need some cunning, creativity, teamwork, and luck. Luther exhibited cunning and creativity in spades, but we’ll get to that.
- I’m glad that the party didn’t go to the grove. I had some interesting stuff planned for that location, but it would have taken too much time. The game went about an hour over with several loose ends, and going to the grove would have extended it. Turns out, they didn’t need the white oak after all.
- Pitting this party against five cave wargs was a bad call, but it served its purpose and the players were happy with the rip-roaring combat and the outcome. I didn’t plan that encounter at all— it was completely off-the-cuff. I knew I would need a throw-away encounter to demonstrate how combat worked, but without the grove guardians, I didn’t have anything particular in mind. As it turned out, this encounter was far more deadly than the “boss monster” I did prepare. Hopefully, I can get to that in my next post.
Unlike other popular RPGs, Tunnels & Trolls doesn’t have an “initiative” system to divide combat into turns for each player— everyone announces their actions, and during melee everyone rolls at the same time. But spells, ranged attacks, and other stunts can go off before the melee, and sometimes the melee can be divided into separate battles. I’m used to it, and I love the inherrent flexibility of the system, but I have to remember that it’s not completely intuitive to new players, especially those with a background playing games in which combat is more structured.
When I introduced T&T to the group with whom I played D&D Encounters, one player was annoyed by the apparent disorder, so this time I came more prepared. I carefully explained the order of actions (announcement, spells, ranged attacks, stunts, melee, and fallout), at the beginning of the battle, and I think everyone had a better grasp of the sequence than before. However, I think an additional layer of order would be helpful for new players, especially when the party is large. My idea is to formally go clockwise around the table at the beginning of each round to get everyone’s actions, instead of letting the players announce their actions through open outcry, my usual method. I’m not interested in imposing an ad hoc initiative system, just making sure that new players know that they have a turn, and this is it.