Tunnels & Trolls: Combat

Combat is the true heart of any role-playing game.” – Ken St. Andre, Tunnels & Trolls v7.5

Combat is the first place that T&T is radically different from what went before…and what came after.  Combat is quite abstract, with turns taking 2 minutes each, during which there is

“probably 10 seconds of action and 110 seconds of maneuvering for advantage.  It can be considered a rapid exchange of strikes and parries by all the fighters involved. By arbitrary convention we stop and evaluate how the fighters are doing at the end of each combat round, but in your imagination you should conceive the action as hot and heavy until such time as the winners win and the losers either lie down and die or run away.”

Magic and missile fire are handled separately, but there is no blow-by-blow accounting taking place in melee combat.  In fact, T&T does away with the to-hit roll entirely.  Instead both sides roll damage, and the side with the lower total takes the difference in damage, spread among them as they like.

So that brings us to another thing about T&T combat: there’s a lot of arithmetic.  A sample combat between two parties of adventurers of 3rd to 5th level involved totaling 4d6+4 + 38 + 2d6+5 +2d6 +3 + 26 + 6d6+3 + 27  for a total of 162.  Then the other party rolls its combination of weapon dice and adds, and gets 154.   Higher level groups and monsters could probably easily see results in the many hundreds or even thousands.

It’s not particularly hard math, and each player except the GM handles a small chunk of it, but there’s a lot of it… if you play it a lot, I can foresee either getting quite good at multi-digit arithmetic or farming it out to a calculator.  For some larger monsters you probably need a dice-roller program even to calculate the damage.  A 3rd level fire-breathing dragon might have 88d6 + 440 as its roll.

For the most part, combat is just that simple.  Both sides roll all the dice for their weapons, add in any combat adds, and then compare.  The losing side divides the damage as they see fit, subtracts any armor, and applies the result against CON.  When a character’s CON goes to 0, they’re dying.  (At -10 they’re dead, dead, dead.)  Allowing the losing side to divide the damage among the characters is interesting; it means that the stronger, more heavily armored characters can effectively protect the weaker characters–at least for a while–and opens up the possibility of mixed-level parties where the low-levels aren’t automatically toast.  Other than that, there are no tactical decisions to be made in standard melee combat.

Magic and Missile fire happen at the very start of the turn, and have the unusual (for T&T) property of directly damaging a particular target as well as counting towards that side’s adds.  There’s also a rule (new in 7+) for “spite damage”… damage that happens despite win/loss or any armor: for every 6 rolled, the other side takes 1 spite damage (again divided as they see fit).  It’s entirely possible, though probably rare, that the losing side does more actual damage after armor than the winning side.  This apparently addresses the problem in earlier editions that even moderate amounts of armor could cause a fight to drag on forever if the parties are fairly equally matched.  Because you can choose specific targets for magic and missiles, this is your opportunity to try to knock out spell-casters and deliberately whittle down the effective members of the opposition, which can cause a steep drop in their side’s total damage if you can pull it off.

At its most basic, there’s not really much room for individual tactics in T&T combat….  It also has a moderately low pace of decision.  At least, it seems to me that unless you’re heavily outmatched, fights will go on for at least a few rounds.  One complaint I’ve seen on some boards is that thanks to armor, evenly matched groups stalemate and the only thing that counts is spite damage.

On the other hand, T&T offers a great deal of scope for rules-light RP modifications to combat.  That is, while there are no specific combat rules to cover any sort of facing, maneuver, special attacks like tripping, grappling, disarming, stunning or the like there is a single rule that you can describe what you’re attempting to do and the GM will give you a Saving Roll to accomplish it and rule on the results.  If you have a Talent that you can invoke, so much the better.  In one of the example combats in the rules, the centaur character decides that instead of attacking with her axe, she’ll try to kick an Ogre to knock it out of combat for a round or two.  The GM rules this is a Level 2 SR vs Dex, and the centaur succeeds by so much (rolling a 45 when she needed 25) that the GM decides that not only is the Ogre stunned and out of commission for 3 rounds, but it takes damage equivalent to the centaur’s Combat Adds.  Everything that crunchier systems handle by specific rules to cover each individual situation, T&T handles by the player specifically describing what out-of-the-ordinary feat they’re attempting to influence combat and the GM ruling on it and giving it a Saving Roll to see if it works.  For a “Rulings, not rules” approach, it’s pretty much perfect.

It’s easy to see why T&T is a success for solo gaming and play-by-post: with no blow-by-blow adjudication or maneuver you can easily and relatively quickly resolve combats even if they involve lots of characters.  And because combats can be resolved without much decision-making if you’re not playing real-time or with a live GM, it’s ideal for the sort of “if you beat the monster, go to 12A, otherwise go to 27B” thing found in solo adventures.  On the other hand, if you have a live GM and bandwidth for everybody to describe what they want to do, the sky’s the limit to what kind of combat you can RP.

Overall, I’d give T&T combat a B.  It’s simple, and flexible, can be explained to someone in a sentence or two, and there’s plenty of scope for clever ideas, though perhaps not a lot of tactics… but the sheer number of dice that need to be rolled and resulting arithmetic is a burden.  Play-by-post, with a handy die-roller, it’s no big deal, but I don’t like to be reliant on something like that for face-to-face play.

14 thoughts on “Tunnels & Trolls: Combat

  1. One question. Since the more dice you roll, the closer the odds are that you’ll end up at the average, why once you gain a level or two, doesn’t the losing side always run away after round 1, knowing that they’re likely to lose every round of combat? Can pulling “tricks” make enough of a difference to overcome the death-spiral?

  2. You would think that any logical person would see when they are losing and run away. Except that running away isn’t always the best choice when you’re losing. Sometimes there is no place to run. Sometimes, turning your back on a foe means dying now instead of several turns down the road. Sometimes you fight on just to damage the enemy as much as you can, or in hopes a miracle will happen and save you. Sometimes, in T & T, players do decide to duck out of a losing combat and they get away with it, after an appropriate saving roll or three. What I have to keep emphasizing to players is that they should roleplay through situations, not just give up and die when the numbers turn against them. Roleplay! Get creative! More fun will be had by all if you do.

  3. Doug;

    It does not really work like that. Rolling 4d6 gives a much larger distribution than merely rolling a single die. This would not be true if 4d6 was divided by four after rolling, in which case the average results would indeed be more likely.

    3+ dice are close to a normal distribution whose variance increases linearly with the number of dice rolled. So, the variance of 6d6 is double that of 3d6. Standard deviation is square root of variance and hence also increases, though not as fast.

  4. @Tommi – the problem is that the standard deviation doesn’t grow nearly as fast as the distribution. That is, on 1d6 the SD is 1.7…which means that you can expect to see the full spread of 1-6 reasonably frequently. Even on 2d6, 12 comes up 1/36 of the time. On 100d6, even though the variance is indeed 100 times as much the SD is only 10 times as much, so 99.9% of all rolls are within 51 of the mean of 350…you’ll never see a roll as lousy as 100 or as great as 600. You’ll never even see a difference between the die rolls of as much as 100. The vast majority of the time (35/36) the difference won’t even be as great as 34, if I’ve eyeballed that right. A simple fix, which I think was mentioned in earlier editions as a speed-up, would be to treat 100d6 as 2d6 * 50.

    @Doug – Technically there’s no actual death-spiral for PCs (there is for monsters, but I haven’t gotten to them yet); losing one round doesn’t make you more likely to lose the next, barring magic or having a character drop out, because the damage you do is independent of the damage you take. As long as you’re still standing you fight at full power.

    It’s true that if you’re outclassed, pure die-roll luck is probably not going to overcome the deficit, particularly because adds are usually larger than the expected value on the dice. E.g. a monster with 100 dice will typically be rolling 100d6 + 500 at the start of combat–if you’re not within about 17 of that total you have very little hope to pull it out in standard combat. (Spite damage might rescue you, I’m not certain.)

    But “tricks” and magic may well be decisive. If you can knock one guy out of combat for a couple of rounds (as in the example combat), via an RP save or a spell, that side can be down substantially. In the example they lost over a quarter of their firepower, since the Ogre was contributing more dice and adds than anyone else. If you’re facing a single monster and can get it to sit out for even one round, you can really put the hurt on it if you have teammates.

  5. I think it was in the 5.5 houserules section that Ken gave a few options for lessening the amount of dice used. It naturally develops, I guess.

    I think you’ll find that in most gamesystems two evenly matched opponents (or groups thereof) it will be a question about endurance. I find it oddly realistic for the abstract game T&T is!

    But, the solution is there in the combat examples. If it doesn’t go your way, do like the centaur!

    I have fashioned a combat worksheet which I find helps combat a bit. I’ll make it available soonish.

  6. @Andreas- nah. It’s true of game systems with a low “pace of decision”, but that’s not most game systems by a long shot. Any system with critical hits, for instance, can have a lucky die-roll decide combat in an instant. Other systems can depend crucially on maneuver, tactics, or even who goes first. Whether that’s a bug or a feature is a matter of taste, of course. For instance, I think D&D 3e depends far too much on whether you can prep your party with pre-combat buffs and catch the opponents flat-footed, but I have to admit it does add an element of strategy.

  7. Joshua; I’m well aware of that.SD is the square root of variance, so 4 times the dice means double the deviation, nine times the dice triple the deviation, and so on, while mean increases linearly.

    I’m just saying it won’t be a problem, because the absolute deviation is what matters and in my experience it increases fast enough when there are several dice so that the rolls remain random.

  8. @Tommi – I’m sure that it’s random enough, the question is whether the difference is generally enough to overcome armor, and if it does how fast does that end a fight? I’ll have to see if/when I have more experience with it…I’m a little concerned that a party with two Warriors and half-way decent armor can easily soak 48+ hits per round…

  9. OK, most systems might have been an exaggeration, but surprisingly many systems I’ve played work that way. Crits might be the way to end a fight (look at spite!) but otherwise evenly matched opponents fairly often seem to mean a dragged out fight. I think it makes sense.

  10. @Andreas- to the extent that’s true, I regard it as a flaw in the systems. With evenly-matched opponents, it should be 50-50 who wins, but that’s no reason to drag it out…particularly since most of the time as a GM you’ll be wanting to present relatively even challenges to the players.

  11. What would it do to the probabilities if you made the difference a modifier, instead of the damage. Say, the winner subtracts the difference from their damage taken, while the loser takes the full brunt of the attacks.

    So, if side A rolls 40 and side B rolls 50, side a takes 50 damage and side B takes 30 (40 minus the difference).

    I’m not sure how it would affect the odds, though. A 50-50 fight would decimate both sides pretty well. It would get combat the hell over with, anyway. 🙂

  12. You would be reducing it to essentially a coin-flip, since you might expect a difference of about 34 on a set of damage rolls that total around 850…

    I’d prefer the current situation of a stalemate broken by RP. Really, though, I don’t think it’s that big a deal. Rescaling everything to a quick roll of 2-3d6 times a multiplier would speed the combat right back up without changing the shape of the curve at all.

  13. And there’s nothing in the rulebook that says – “By the way, you can’t ignore all these combat rules and just flip a coin to decide who wins.”
    T&T combat makes me smile!

  14. I enjoy the fact that T&T combat is a furious melee rather than a que of turns. I always like players to pull tricks, use missiles or cast spells to swing the odds. Personally I outclass the party with an extra foe or two, knowing that a TTYF or arrow will likely secure victory but only after a round or two of severe beatings.

    Armour makes this trickier, especially with warriors. I tend to exploit the drawbacks of heavier armour (which is for warfare, not crawling through caverns) and encourage the group to be more mobile.

    Giving monsters special attacks and letting players use their brains breaks the stalemate well, usually using basic-melee warriors as blockers while the rogues and wizards do the small but crucial hits.

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