Sunday, February 8, 2009

How to Detail the World Without Really Trying

There is an old saying "fake it till you make it". This goes double for world building. You don't actually have to have a fully detailed world all mapped out and meticulously recorded for it to seem like you do. All you need is mastery of two techniques.

The first is record keeping. Everytime you add a detail to your world or even just have a flash of inspiration, write it down. Any kind of notebook, card file, or what have you will do. Just be sure and write down what you came up with so you can refer to it later. Over time these random jottings will accumulate into a fully fledged world.

The "world map" can be as simple as a large blank sheet of paper with the names of major geographical features jotted down in their relative positions until you fill in what else is there. Just being able to see that the Boiling Sea is south of the Avacado Jungle of Death can help you decide where the Cold Wastes should *not* go. (Hint: they would be unlikely candidates for southeast of the AJD)

Record keeping also allows you to have recurring themes. If you establish a group of raiding bandits in one adventure as the "Riders of the Red Hand" your world will grow more depth if the next time the players hear rumors of nefarious activity it is also attributed to agents of the Red Hand. (NB: you do not have to establish at this point who or what the Red Hand is. Simple repetition of the name will give the world depth and resonance.)

The second technique to practice is broad stroke improvised description.

A colourful, ineresting name, such as "Riders of the Red Hand", will set the players imaginations to wondering who or what the Red Hand is. Much more interesting than just "you are attacked by a bunch of wandering bandits". Keep notes of what your players guess or speculate. It may or may not prove to be correct, but it is always a rich source for later inspiration.

Keep mental tabs on interesting bits of news, pictures, etc. They can often be recycled for game use. A current news example is the ice floe that broke off in Lake Erie carrying away about a hundred ice fishermen with it. This presents the germ of an idea of a large piece of land/ice/flying castle drifting off with the players (or their goal) on it. Will it break up before they complete their mission/escape/rescue? Why did it break off in the first place? Lots of possible adventure seeds.

National Geographic or other magazines that give one or two word summaries of the articles inside can also be a great idea generator. Just look at the subjects and try to think of some way to tie them together. A glance at today's Yahoo headlines gives huge wildfires in Australia, China diverting rivers to combat drought, and huge numbers fleeing a Sri Lankan warzone. Tying these together gives a huge population of refugees fleeing a war between two wizards. One wizard is a master of fire and is sending flame elemantals to devastate his rival's kingdom. The defending wizard is diverting rivers from their beds to combat the fire elementals. The players could be siding with eiother wizard, or just caught in the middle.

Or perhaps the story above is ancient history or local legend, and the adventure is a quest to find some powerful artefact left over from the now ancient conflict? I don't know, I just picked the headlines and made up the story while I was typing.

Making different Kindreds have unique cultures is just as easy. Pick an interesting culture (or even just an interesting practice) and give it to one of the Trollworld Kindred. My lizardman at left is based on a photo of a Maori warrior and a marine iguana. Adding these two together gives us lizardmen who are culturally similar to Pacific islanders, catamarans, tebutjes, headhunting, and are also vegetarian (iguanas are herbavores) they likely are in demand as sailors and perhaps are skilled navigators. Instant unique lizardmen. No longer crocodile or aligator like swamp dwellers.

For centaurs, how about combining plains Indian culture from the Old West with knights of high chivalry? Armoured fighters who contest with lances to score the first touch (or the first fall) then seek another opponent. Proud, haughty and independant. Living in mobile tent cities, raiding other tribes and engaging in very formalized mutually agreed upon wars. Vey different from their classical Greek origins, yet it still works.

What about the Aztecs? Feather bedecked jaguar and eagle knights, pyramids and bloody sacrifices. Perhaps Urooks? Or a tribe of bloodthirty Hobbs?

A long as you can come up with a vivid image or two on the spot, and something that hints at deeper levels no-one will know that you don't have the whole world built in detail.

JRR Tolkien admits in the preface to Lord of the Rings that "the tale grew in the telling". In the Hobbit, the Necromancer, the elf-goblin wars, Gondolin and even the Ring itself were not fully developed in Tolkien's thought. It was only with time that they became the threads that wove the Hobbit into the tapestry of Middle Earth.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

H'rrrothgarrr's Rough Guide to Tunnels and Trolls

Here are some thoughts and ideas for those new to Tunnels and Trolls

You've Got “Class”

For players coming to T&T from other games the selection of character types can seem very limited. No Thieves, Druids, Clerics, Assassins, Paladins, Bards, Illusionists, Monks, etc. Even Rogues are very different, being “Rogue Wizards” rather than rogues in the sense of con-men, burglars, and thieves. This is in part due to what a T&T Character “Type” represents. At the most basic level a character who has no ability to work magic is a Warrior, a character who has both the aptitude and the training to work magic is a Wizard, a character who has the aptitude but for whatever reason lacks the training is a Rogue

Often what would be a character's class in other games can be thought of as the character's occupation or focus in T&T. For instance a thief is a person who steals for a living. Thieves can be of any character type. Early in his career the Warrior Conan was a thief. The Grey Mouser a Rogue Wizard is a thief as is his Warrior companion Fafhrd.

For most of the classes that seem to be “missing” from T&T careful selection of Talents will shape the character as desired. A Monk is a Warrior with a Talent in unarmed combat, alternatively a Monk could be a Rogue or Specialist Wizard with a Talent for unarmed combat and spells chosen to reflect the spiritual disciplines of martial arts.

Clerics and Druids are both priests or worshipers of divine entities. These could be Warriors, Rogues or Specialist Wizards focusing on spells relating to their deity's sphere of influence.

Illusionists are clearly specialist mages, Assassins are simply hired killers, Bards can be any Type with a Talent for singing.
Some characters may be Citizens with a couple of Talents or Special Abilities. The village Wise Woman could easily be a Citizen who knows the Poor Baby, Healing Feeling, and possibly Too Bad Toxin spells, allowing her to put a little extra punch in her potions and salves.

In standard T&T rules wizards are individuals who are able to psychically manipulate the magical energy around them, but lack martial training. Thus they can wear any armour, but are restricted in weapons training. As an option for those who cannot picture wizards in anything but the traditional robes, allow wizards to use any weapon, but not wear armour.

What About Race?

In T&T characters can be of any Kindred the GM deems to have sufficient intelligence to be playable. Not only the traditional Elves, Humans, Dwarves, Hobbits, etc are available, but also Orcs, Goblins, Trolls, Balruhks, Centaurs and more. Depending on where the character is in the campaign world a character is any Kin may be found as accepted members of society. In some cities there is an Orcish quarter where orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, bugbears, and kobolds freely walk the streets, in other cities orcs and the like are considered vermin.

Stunts, Skills and Saving Rolls

This is where T&T gets interesting. At first glance it appears to totally lack any system for skills, stunts and special abilities. On closer examination all of this and more is provided for by the Saving Roll. This is mentioned in the rule book but is worth emphasizing. For any action a character wants to take the GM can choose an Attribute and assign an appropriate level of difficulty for the task. The player then rolls an SR. If the action is appropriate to one of the character's Talents then the Talent is used instead of an Attribute and the player can add the character's level to the roll.

Some examples of common tasks for various attributes: Strength: Bending bars, lifting gates, forcing open doors, moving boulders, crushing objects, etc. Constitution: Resisting the effects of drugs or alcohol, holding your breath, eating a nauseating meal served by goblins. Dexterity: Dodging, avoiding traps, climbing walls and cliffs, balancing, juggling, picking locks. Speed: Running, playing slap jack. Intelligence: Remembering, reading maps, deciphering documents, speaking foreign languages, puzzle solving. Wizardry: Casting, resisting and manipulating magic. Luck: Gambling, dodging traps, being in the right place at the right time, catching a lucky break. Charisma: Personality, leadership, persuasiveness.

GM Tips or “How Do I Run This Crazy Game?

I am indebted to Weird Ollie for summing up the spirit of T&T. “The game is 90% player and GM imagination and 10% rules. For T&T being 'rules lite' isn't a deficiency, it's freedom to be creative."

This is important to keep in mind. T&T has few hard and fast rules. In fact it has been intentionally designed to be backwards compatible. As of this writing both 5.5 edition and 7.0 edition are being supported with new material, and version 7.5 is in preparation for publishing. Although some of minor details have changed from edition to edition, the core rules have remained the same. This allows 7.0 edition characters to be used in adventures written for 5.0 edition or vice versa quite freely. (Author's note v7.5 is now available from Firey Dragon )

T&T has a very loosely defined default setting of “Trollworld” based on the game world shared by the original designers. But even this world is not set forth in great detail and the details can change from adventure to adventure. Many T&T GMs will build a world to set their adventures in, but really the world can be as simple as “the City”, surrounded by “the Wilderness”, and having one or more entrances to “the Dungeon”. As the game continues the world will grow in detail as new places are discovered and new people met.

Balancing encounters is always a delicate act, but a rough guide is to try to have the monsters and the delving party roll roughly equal numbers of dice. Thus the GM can total the characters' weapon dice and multiply by 10 to get rough MR. This MR can be one large monster or several smaller monsters. Remember that smarter monsters that use missile weapons, magic, or clever tactics may be more of a challenge than their MR would indicate. For special encounters the monsters can be fully developed characters just like the Players, but for most encounters a simple MR suffices.
Magic items can be relatively straightforward items that cast one or more spells from the rulebook. These can have a set number of charges, draw WIZ from their user or draw WIZ from the world around them. GMs should also feel free to create special magical items that have unique effects. In Norse mythology the giants challenge Thor to a drinking contest and give him a drinking horn which is magically connected to the sea. Try as he might even this mighty god is unable to drain it. Other enchanted items could include objects that raise or lower attributes permanently, teleport the user to a new location, change gender, Kindred, or character Type.

Build a Better Monster!

Monsters in T&T can be as simple as an MR score. Higher MRs can mean larger or more dangerous creatures. These can be easily fleshed out a bit by giving them a name and a brief description.

For example the “Gakk” with MR 13.
As it is it's not very interesting. It rolls 2d6+7 in combat, about the same as a Sax or Kukri. Let us begin to flesh it out and make it more interesting. The name “Gakk” suggests something slimy and disgusting. So let's make the Gakk a sort of cross between a banana slug and a leech, with a mouth full of raspy teeth. They live in swamps, sewers and other damp slimy places.

The Gakk shows one of the easiest ways to create descriptions of monsters, just pick a couple of animals and combine some features.

A second source of monsters is literature and mythology. With creatures drawn from these sources the abilities and description have already been established, although you should feel free to add your own twists.A straight forward example of this type is the venomous sheep found in Celtic myth. These were powerful enough that a flock of them killed three hundred warriors! We will give them an MR of 95 (10d6+48), this is equivalent to a Dire Wolf. Remember they come in large flocks! Their venomous bite can be treated as Spider Venom or other poison as the GM prefers. Their thick wool provides 2 hits worth of armour. Mix them in with a flock of normal sheep to give your Delvers a nasty surprise.

A third source of inspiration for creatures and monsters is Spells, weapons, or equipment from the T&T rules. While reading through the Codex Incantatum I came across the various book and library related spells. One of these included the note that the spell would even allow blinded creatures to read. From this was born the “Blind Librarians of Karthank”. This is an order of monastic librarians who use the various book and library spells to archive and retrieve information in their vast libraries. Sensitive information is “blanked' by magic and then read by magic, this prevents the unauthorized from reading over the Librarian's shoulder. The Librarians dress in long flowing robes and wear masks that cover their eyes completely. They speak only in hollow whispers. They do not really need MR or other stats as these are unlikely to become an issue in play.


Welcome to H'rrrothgarrr's Hovel! This is a blog dedicated to my ramblings about the Tunnels&Trolls RPG. Expect new creatures, spells, equipment, random musings, links to inspirational stuff, and more.

I have been gaming T&T and other games since the late 70s and have quite the febrile imagination as a result.