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Feed the Trolls

September 21, 2016 Leave a comment

tunnels_and_trolls2_6431

Amazing the things you can find on the Internet. Idly searching led me to the startling discovery that I have a blog.

No guarantee that I’ll ever update this thing on any sort of regular basis, but on the plus side I rarely have much to say.

There are exceptions, as you can hear by listening to the recent episode of The Grognard Files podcast, in which archaeologist of the arcane Dirk the Dice digs into gaming history and chats about his finds. In this case it’s Tunnels & Trolls and Dirk asked me along to chatter enthusiastically about the game. Previous episodes, covering various RPGs,  are well worth a listen.

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Tales of the Staggering Zombie

January 6, 2013 10 comments
Mightier than the sword.

Mightier than the sword.

“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.

TandT rulebooks 1

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.

Mike Stackpole, an unnamed geek and Ken St. Andre at an Arizona restaurant.

Mike Stackpole, an unnamed geek and Ken St. Andre at an Arizona restaurant.

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.

Selling the family silver

March 22, 2012 2 comments

Dice not included. Except when they are.

Surprisingly with a title like that, this is not a post about the budget. Nor is it a post about the family silver, since we don’t actually have any. Mind you, after that budget announcement the nation as a whole doesn’t have any either (ooh! politics!)

No, Gentle Reader, this is a post about freeing up some space, trying to get a little (probably very little) cash and taking a look at a hobby I’ve enjoyed for*cough* thirty years or so.

Games, role-playing games in particular, are something I’ve loved since I stumbled across confusing references to them as a child. Back then, with no Internet and limited understanding of “hobby” games in the media, deciphering what something like Dungeons & Dragons was and how to play it (indeed, how to actually find a copy to buy) was not an easy task, as I’ve briefly mentioned before. It’s no accident that the bulk of players who discovered the games back then tended to do so because of an older sibling or friend – or friend of a friend – who had themselves stumbled across D&D in some odd, random way. Since the games are essentially social activities – direct, face-to-face across a table social activities – it’s understandable and appropriate that word of mouth was the main way in which news of them spread at first. This was made all the more important given that the first games of this type were rarely written clearly and were particularly bad when it came to explaining how to actually play them. The concept may have been brilliant, but trying to convey just what it was and how to do anything with it was tricky: “It’s like a boardgame… except there’s no board and you can do anything you want… Except there are rules, so you can’t just make it up… Well, you do make it up but…” and so forth.

Like any number of kids who loved to read (mostly science-fiction and fantasy for me at that time) role-playing games were instantly attention-grabbing. Creative, exciting and fairly cheap, things started to make a lot more sense once I heard about the upcoming Fighting Fantasy games from a newspaper article and fantasy games became a pretty big craze for a time. I bought several, along with numerous books about them such as the reassuringly directly-titled What is Dungeons & Dragons? Over the years I’ve bought more and sold many, although a fondness for the history of the hobby means that I kept all of those “how to” and “what is” books.

These days I still play the games, face-to-face with friends as a social activity after work and more recently via web-based video through Google+. I can only play so many, though; and a good number of the games I’ve picked up over the years either don’t suit me or are simply never going to make it onto the schedule. It’s a slightly awkward point as far as the business of making RPGs goes, but if you buy one that you like then you need never buy another; indeed, you need never buy any extras for it either. A game like Marcus L. Rowland’s wonderful Forgotten Futures, based on the “scientific romances” which preceded the modern form of science-fiction, not only has enough material provided with it to last a lifetime, but it also has a virtually inexhaustible supply of adventure ideas and background details available in the form of the original stories (often free to obtain electronically) and period magazine articles. The Internet makes discovering such things easy and more or less free, so how many new games and supplements are really needed?

All of which brings me to a hard look at the books and boxes on my shelves and a long overdue paring down to the games I actually get to play or find particularly enjoyable to read. A few things have found their way onto eBay already, but in the case of a couple of rare items and a number of quite recent titles I’m not sure that’s the best way of selling the surplus. For now I’m popping a list of some of the books I intend to sell here, partly as a way for me to organise myself and partly to see if anyone has any good ideas for what to do with them or would like to make me an offer for one or more. Links provided for more information, where possible:

Obviously many of those links lead to the publisher websites where the games are offered for sale. If you’d rather buy new than used then I doubt they’d mind. I might cry just a very little, though.

A couple of other games are trickier, since they are rarer and reasonably valuable in these editions, but not necessarily hotly sought-after. If you can find a copy then the price is high, but an eBay listing isn’t likely to attract many bids unless I’m very lucky:

  • High Fantasy, along with its three supplements and adventures: Adventures in High Fantasy; Wizards & Warriors; Goldchester.
  • The Book of Mars: a combat system, 1st complete edition.

And if I do manage to sell anything then I promise not to blow all the cash on games.