Monday, 9 July 2018

T&T Adventures Japan (review/readthrough)

I came across something pretty intriguing in my FLGS this weekend.

I'm often talking about my love for Japanese TRPGs, and bemoaning the fact that so few of them get translated and make it over here. There's a wealth of creativity going on in that design space.

So from a low shelf, a flash of brightly coloured katakana text caught my eye.

T&T, Tunnels and Trolls, is not a Japanese RPG; it was published by Flying Buffalo in '75 as a more lightweight, lighthearted take on D&D that was most notable for its solo play adventures. It was quickly translated and actually came to Japan before D&D did.

Apparently the Japanese market embraced it - I'd imagine the solo play element as well as the fact it only uses d6s were boons to a fledgling roleplay scene - and it's still popular there to this day. They run a magazine that includes adventures, "replays" and other stuff.

This book is a collection of materials from the first three issues of that magazine, translated into English and published in a one-off magazine-style booklet, along with a "mini rules" version of the core book.

... I mean, that's pretty fascinating, right? I dunno. Maybe it's just me. I hadn't heard about this anywhere, so it took me by surprise. I was just browsing, but I had to pick it up!

This isn't going to be an in-depth review, but I'll skim through the book and point out things that got my attention.

pics taken with my phone, can only apologise. Digression: even with my toddler-level Japanese I can tell that the text above the logo reads "Tunnel THE Troll Magazine", not "Tunnels and Trolls". An old quirk of translation? Is Tunnel a character? Mysteries abound.

First off, this is a breezy little 60-page paperback. There's a full, weighty tome of rules for T&T's current "deluxe" edition, which the book makes reference to, but it shreds those core rules down to the essentials for this introductory version. The rules themselves only take up only a couple of pages actually, which makes me wonder why the full book needs 200+.

Also noteworthy: the game is still published by Flying Buffalo, and the original designer from the seventies, Ken St. Andre, edited this book and is still writing content! I don't think there's any other company from that era that's still running, still producing the same product line and still has the same designer making the game? That's pretty cool.

when she says "Berserk is my favourite anime"

We open on a manga story of some game characters having an adventure. These comics are called "replays" in Japan and are hugely popular - rulebooks normally begin with a huge pagecount of story, told through pictures and reported text, of an actual game session.

The culture around replays is a big part of TRPGs in Japan. The print industry is still chuggin' along there, and it's how a lot of folks find and consume new media, with replays fitting in nicely in your local bookstore's manga section. Some core books are basically just story, with a few pages at the back of "here's how you can do that yourself" rules. Sometimes replays become their own series - anime like Record of Lodoss War started as actual play reports.

This manga is clearly more focused on introducing the reader to the game than being a story, which is to be expected. The character conversations are all very meta - I wonder if there's a humour to this that gets lost in translation.

The translation and tone seems very kid-friendly - not what I'm used to in RPGs so I was a bit disarmed at first, but I warmed to it. The whole book has that tone and I think it's valuable in context, since kids are going to be picking this up off the shelves like a comic book.

The art is also fun, it's like manga meets old D&D art.

ah, a wall of text, tables to roll on and paragraphs about what a saving throw even is. familiar territory for the RPG fan
The rules themselves are scant, but functional. The layout is a bit haphazard, and this isn't really a functional artefact for the gaming table - we're lead through character creation in a rambling, roundabout way. Helpful for reading and learning, maybe, and the friendly tone leans into the kid-friendly aspect I mentioned. But it doesn't make for a great reference book.

The editing is also slack - one part refers the reader back a few pages to another rule (by implication only!), but the rule being referred to is only mentioned as one that's left out of this mini rules edition.

The rules themselves are decent. Roll for stats, you have 8 of them which seems excessive but the game makes use of fairly well. There are "kindreds" for being an elf, dwarf or fairy, which give stat buffs and debuffs, and the three standard classes. Classes are done really well: wizards get spells but can't use weapons well, warriors are great with weapons and armour but not magic, and rogues aren't good or bad with either, they just have to work it out themselves. No builds or level up bonuses.

A big thing is that bonuses are the whole attribute: it's not "16 STR means +3", it's "16 STR means +16". The larger number ranges seem unwieldy at first, at least to me as someone who's more familiar with newer, tighter systems, but the logic is sound and the maths behind it all is solid. The whole game is tied up in those attributes as well: you level them up individually by spending XP, and take damage to them instead of a Hit Point pool. It's all very neat, in a slightly endearingly clumsy way, if that makes any sense.

Magic works on a kind of MP system, only the MP is one of your attributes, which again is nicely neat. The spells are standard old school dungeoneering fare, with adorable names in the vein of Japanese TRPG Ryuutama. They have a nice amount of flavour and some even have shenanigan potential, something I've talked about before as being a spell's most valuable asset.

Overall, not bad. I don't know how T&T played in previous editions but this seems fairly similar to some modern OSR-style games in the way it takes elements of play from older systems and slims them down. It's a little jumbled, but nicely light and comprehensive enough to run with. I'd play it.

For GMs, there are treasure tables and monster stat guides, kind of. Roll difficulties are codified, rather than just being "uh, GM picks a number that sounds about right". It's a decent start, which I suppose is all they were aiming for.

oh no! that's me!
There are a bunch of adventures in here! A tiny starter one, a solo play one, and another GM-ed one that seems designed to lead into a campaign. All these adventures are written by the Japanese publishers and designers, and have been translated specially for this product.

They're decently written, a little railroady but a solid start for a new GM. There are nice moments where the adventure sets up an obstacle and just sort of goes "yeah, doesn't look good for the players, does it? they'd better work out what they're gonna do, hadn't they?" which is a good lesson for new GMs. Again, this would be such a great little physical thing to give to a kid.

The starter adventure is cute, very short but inventive enough, nicely self-contained and surprisingly lethal, which works in its favour. There's a strong old-school sensibility running through things here. I haven't played the solo adventure so I haven't looked through it but the setup is intriguing enough that I want to at least give it a shot. It reminds me a lot of old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, in article form. And the campaign-starter is serviceable, again with a fun premise.

It's essentially standard fantasy. There's nothing groundbreaking in here, but that's fine. I'm maybe selling it a little short here in fact, since I'm used to reading adventures from blogs that blow my mind with every random table entry - while there isn't much going on here outside of goblins, witches and trolls, the adventures at least use those elements in fairly engaging ways. The players get shrunk and can fall into a goblin's kitchen through the extractor fan. It's not going to win any awards, but it's more interesting in a few pages than Lost Mines of Phandelver is is many more.

there's a flippin' mail-order catalogue at the back where you can get adventures and dice and fridge magnets! kawaii~

And the witch, by the way, looks very classic cartoon with her green skin, but it turns out that's just makeup to hide the fact that she's from a cannibal race with skin like glass. The adventure text specifically says that perceptive characters will notice this by being able to see into her throat when she opens her mouth to speak. There you go, there's some New Weird for ya. Not bad.

Oh, and one cool thing that's noted when the manga characters come back at the end: in this world, every magical creature is as sentient and intelligent and varied and "boring" as humans. It's a small thing, but it gives the game both a sense of fairytale fun and sets up a game world where "I stab the orc" isn't going to be anyone's first port of call. Makes me think of The Hobbit, where Bilbo talks to the trolls and listens to the spiders and all that. Very cute, very gameable.

what more do you need in your elfgames?

Well, that's about all that stood out to me at first glance. There's a decent amount packed here, and while it's nothing that's going to revolutionise the gaming scene, it's a fun little product that's worth the price, especially as a gift to any youngsters in your life who are fantasy fans.

It's also got me yet more enthused about the role of zines, pamphlets and other shortform media in RPGs. I shared a cool twitter thread on G+ the other day about this, and it's been on my mind since. After picking this up, along with the Dungeon Crawl Classics starter set which is a magazine-type thing, I'm sold.

Shortform is cheaper than a tome on both producer and consumer, easier to carry and use, great for light rulesets and, if you're good at what you do, you can stuff a few pages full with a whole lot of goodness. I'll be announcing a little project of my own fairly soon, and I think a booklet format is the way to go :)


Steve Crompton said...

Thanks for the great review! You pegged it very well. Our goal is to get new players for T&T. A lot of our current players have kids now and we wanted to give them something that would help them learn to play. And with the Japan version of T&T over there and the popularity of All things Japan in the US it seemed like a perfect way to reach out to a new generation!

D. G. Chapman said...

Thanks for reaching out! You've done fantastic work, count me in as one of the new generation of T&T fans :)

ToyingWithDestruction said...

Be cool to have the full Japanese version translated. My group greatly prefers the static racial miss over the fractions. I've had to make some up since extrapolating didn't work. The feel of the book is neat.

Steve Crompton said...

We've seen that some players keep using the T&T mini-rules, but have expanded them by taking specific things they want to add from the main (larger) rulebook. Picking out a kindred they want to use or weapons, or adding additional spells for example. But they are still using the mini-rules overall.