Tales of the Staggering Zombie
“Frankly, if I had to run a fantasy campaign today, I’d probably use the Tunnels & Trolls rules. Yes, they’re dumb, but they’re simple, and they’re adequate to my needs.” – Greg Costikyan, Letters, Space Gamer #76.
An old friend of mine is getting a facelift. More than that, really: major surgery, practically Six Million Dollar Man stuff. Mind you, I can’t say it isn’t needed… he’s not as young as he used to be and you can’t live on past glories forever. He was never rolling in cash, though, so it isn’t a surprise to see that he’s asking his friends to help with the financial side of things.
Yes, Tunnels and Trolls is on Kickstarter, gearing up for a new edition – a deluxe edition, no less! – of the venerable role-playing game. It’s always been something of an oddity, not the first such game (it’s generally believed to be the second) and never the biggest nor the most successful. It was the target of considerable snobbery and derision at times, seen by Dungeons & Dragons fans as a derivative upstart and a silly one to boot. For many people the famously light-hearted names of the magic spells in T&T remain an insurmountable obstacle: a healing spell called Poor Baby; a sleep spell called Rock-a-Bye; most famously, a “bolt of lightning”-type spell called Take That, You Fiend; and then there was the one to which I could see some valid objection, a spell to enslave the will of a foe called Yassa-Massa. Even the slightest appearance of a sense of humour in a game seemed to be taken by some gamers as personal mockery, which might not be surprising when you consider that the most enthusiastic players tended to be teenage boys, for who something like Dungeons & Dragons offered a hugely important channel for creativity and personal empowerment. We live in a world where people get into lethal fights about football teams, so a few noses put out of joint by choice of game is certainly par for the course.
Perhaps the oddest thing about Tunnels and Trolls is the most easily overlooked: it’s still here. Publisher Flying Buffalo, primarily a company running Play By Mail games, looked into selling off a lot of their properties in the mid-1980s, but T&T was apparently contractually tangled, so they kept selling the old stock, producing a slowly dwindling range of supplements, periodically reprinting books as things sold out and money became available. It ticked along like that for years, but it’s likely that only a small company such as FBI, reliant on other parts of the business more than this one particular game, would have kept T&T around at all. Tunnels and Trolls virtually slipped through the cracks of commercial good sense, surviving quietly, not making a fuss. And then along came the British and the Japanese.
There was a burst of interest around 1986. Corgi Books, an imprint of Transworld Publishers, put out modestly bowdlerised versions of the rules and some solo adventures, riding the back of the enormously successful Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (which themselves owed a considerable debt to the style, simplicity and format of the T&T solo adventures) and sporting covers by Josh Kirby, at that time responsible for the covers of the hugely successful Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett. Existing T&T fans grumbled about the removal of art by Liz Danforth, for many an integral part of the game, but there’s no denying that the familiar Kirby style (the red book in the photo above) and paperback format backed by a major publisher helped to spread T&T beyond the usual hobby shops. There had been British versions of the game before, published by Chris Harvey, which tended to be physically smaller than the American game but otherwise almost identical, and it seemed to me back then that the British gamers were a little more comfortable with the whimsical and silly side of T&T, although it never kicked D&D off the gaming throne here either. The game was published in translation in Japan (also using the Kirby cover, I believe) to an enthusiastic reception.
And then it all sort of faded again. In his ‘zine TnT the game’s designer, Ken St. Andre, commented that although the zombie may stagger on, T&T was dead. I started writing and illustrating a fanzine of my own due to that remark, Tales of the Staggering Zombie, which like many such projects never went anywhere, but I kept playing T&T, running games of it for kids at summer camp, giving away quite a number of copies to enthusiastic new players (thankfully Rick Loomis at Flying Buffalo very generously sent me some publications for the kids at one camp, where I was using T&T with campers whose native language was not English – they grasped it incredibly easily – as my evangelism was getting expensive) who loved the ease of play and sense of fun as much as I did. A fantasy world took shape in my head, not the meticulously mapped and lovingly detailed creations of many gamers but something tailored to my style of games run with little preparation. The city of Drollport, with its shifting geography due to my habit of forgetting quite where everything was supposed to be, on the shore of a floating island drifting across a sea connecting all times and places, a setting full of wonder, excitement and horrendously bad puns. One of these days I should probably write it all down.
When I was eighteen I wrote to Ken St. Andre about his ‘zine, which I’d seen reviewed in the Space Gamer, one of those wonderful gaming publications now sadly lost to another age. Ken graciously replied, saying that he had largely stopped writing it but if I was ever in the area he would be happy to let me have a few back issues. In the area… hm, as it happened I was going to be working at a summer camp in America that year (a fairly major adventure for me). The fact that the camp was near to Attica, New York, and Ken was in Phoenix, Arizona, more than 2200 miles to the south-west, didn’t seem to be too much of an obstacle: I caught a bus.
Let’s just skip the horrors of spending a couple of days on a Greyhound bus, shall we? Thanks.
So I made it to Phoenix, was put up by the wonderful family of gamer Mike Duckett, attended CopperCon and met all sorts of people involved with T&T, science-fiction and fantasy, fandom and gaming generally. They were generous and fascinating and humble and enthusiastic, because gamers usually are. And then I had to get back on the bus because my flight was leaving from New York… I’m going to skip that bit too.
Tunnels and Trolls has had its ups and downs since then. The Internet allowed fans to connect more easily and to play games via email. One such game, run by Ken and set in his famously fiendish dungeon of Gristlegrim, featured a character I named Big Jack Brass. Ken wrote up the adventure afterwards and you can still read it online. A sadly demoralising turn of events saw an apparently enthusiastic supporter of T&T turn pirate, publishing anything he could get his hands on despite having no rights to do so, even going so far as to steal artwork from non-T&T sources, which unfortunately became the first thing many younger gamers ever heard about T&T. Yet, things were stirring elsewhere. New publications started to crawl into the light.
And now the old gang is back together. Many of the original writers and artists who made T&T what it was in the ’70s and ’80s have been working on a new edition, bringing the presentation and content up to speed with the expectations of a 21st Century audience. As I write this the Kickstarter is a couple of days old and more than five hundred people have pledged over $34,000 to the project, a total which is likely to keep rising with a month to go.
Do I need a new edition of T&T? Strictly speaking, no, of course I don’t. There’s no reason why the game I’ve played since the 1980s is suddenly not going to work any more. The existence of the new edition, though, is hugely important to me even though I’m not involved with it. Like so many people I have wonderful memories of this game, of people I met and times we shared because of it. On Internet forums people are actually discussing T&T again, with curiosity and interest rather than simply nostalgia. The old guard gets to have a lovely new edition of the rules (and all manner of tchotchkes to go with it, if they want to splash out on the higher Kickstarter rewards), but from my perspective the Kickstarter does two more important things: the surge of giddy support lets the people behind it know that there are hundreds of gamers out there who absolutely love and cherish the work they did and are doing now; and the new edition is something younger gamers can engage with more easily than something from 1979. It’s time to share the wonder and let others build their own magical memories.
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