On Being Human in Tunnels and Trolls

Recently there’s been some discussion at the Trollhalla Inner Sanctum about the advantages and disadvantages of playing human characters in Tunnels and Trolls. I personally seldom play a human character, because I like having a couple of attributes that start out significantly higher than normal. Since I also prefer the magical types over brawny types, I’ve always played more elves than any other kindred, but have played my share of dwarves when in the mood to play the brawny types. So for me, Trollworld’s adventurer population consists primarily of elves and dwarves, with a smattering of other kindred thrown in occasionally to mix things up. Though humans are the baseline, they aren’t the predominant kindred for adventurers in my games.

It might not even be the case that humans outnumber other kindred as NPCs in the solitaires I’ve played. Tunnels and Trolls solo designers like to provide variety in their adventures, and as a player I like it that way. I suspect most other players like a good variety as well. So while there are indeed human NPCs to be found, there are a goodly number of NPCs encountered who are of non-human and monstrous kindred. (The stats for occurrences of each kindred as NPCs in games I’ve played would of course depend on exactly which solos I’ve played, and which paths I’ve taken in those solos. The stats for the game at large, however, would require someone to go through every single T&T solo available for play today and tally the number of times each kindred appears in an NPC role. Any volunteers?)

Beyond the mere gaming benefits of certain non-human kindred, there is one other benefit enjoyed by characters of non-human kindred that shouldn’t be overlooked. Part of the joy of role playing is to take on roles that we don’t have in real life, and I’m guessing that everyone who plays T&T is human. (Yes, I’m talking about you, not your character.) By playing PCs and encountering NPCs who are not human, we get to escape from our everyday, mundane human role that has been forced upon us by nature. Trying to change the human kindred game rules to compensate for this can only serve to create a human kindred that is indeed no longer human, and thus defeats the purpose.

If the idea is to make humans a more desirable choice to play for players like me, it won’t be easy. Since human is the baseline, you can’t give them any multipliers other than 1. You can grant extra benefits to human characters, but once you start delineating benefits for one kindred, players may start asking where to find the list of benefits for others. T&T has in the past delegated this task to GMs in GM-moderated games, and has simply left kindred benefits unmentioned for solo players, so they can basically do what they want. Based on many discussions I’ve read, a significant number of solo players (myself included) prefer to adhere as closely as possible to the rules as written, because anything else feels like cheating. Solo players might thus like to have a list of PC kindred benefits, although it could easily turn out that humans again get the short end of the stick game-wise if benefits are created for every PC kindred. Either that, or you have to give non-human characters disadvantages that make them less desirable to play.

As a player, I don’t like having characters who must operate under lots of restrictions; I hated it when the 7.x rules introduced both spell resistance and SRs for spell casting in one fell swoop. I still fail to compare WIZ scores sometimes. But even worse, throwing disadvantages onto the non-human kindred would be yet one more step in the direction of making T&T a rules-heavy game. I like the simplicity of the 5.x magic system; the one change I wanted was an attribute other than STR to be used to power spells, so my elf wizards could perform better. Ken St. Andre has often indicated that he doesn’t care much about game balance, but then he makes rules like this that to me are obviously all about limitations to bring more balance to characters perceived as too powerful. Giving disadvantages to any non-human kindred is another step in that same direction. If that’s the direction future editions of T&T are going, I’m against it. Unlike those gamers who grew up with D&D, I don’t like having lots of different skills and feats and powers and the like to have to keep track of and never use because I’m saving them for the really big encounter that might be coming next. As for disadvantages, it’s really easy to forget your character has them when they do apply. This was true even when I was a much younger fellow with more of my brain cells fully functioning.

Perhaps it would be okay to give one simple benefit to the human kindred, and try to leave it at that, so as not to be tempted to journey further down the road of creating lists and lists of benefits and disadvantages for every possible kindred. The rule would be: Human characters can do something special. Now come up with the something special. What might it be? Whatever it is, it’s unique to humans; no other kindred has it. And you have to be careful here; if you give them a benefit that has the same effect as altering their attributes, then you’ve also moved humans away from representing the attribute baseline. So granting some benefit that alters SRs, for instance, might not be the best idea, because SRs are based on attributes. Allowing them to wield weapons that are too heavy for them without penalty might not be so good (even with limitations), because “too heavy” is based on character attribute values.

It’s not easy to come up with a benefit for humans that isn’t in some way related to attributes, and thus is in danger of blowing the baseline. That’s because so much of T&T is based on one of two things: attributes or character types. I wouldn’t like to see human-centric character types; that’s almost as bad as treating a kindred as its own character type, reminiscent of early D&D, where Elf was a character class. That just feels wrong to me.

If you don’t create a benefit for the human kindred based on either attributes or character types, what’s left? Talents? You could allow humans to start with an extra talent. That’s related to attributes, but in a very narrowly defined way, specific to the talent in question. But would that be enough to make players want to play humans more often? Not in my case, unless it was something as powerful as Roguery, and if it’s something that powerful, you’re kinda messing with that attribute baseline that humans are supposed to represent.

What other aspects of the game could we alter for humans? How about starting money? You could allow human characters to start with more gold. The amount of gold one is carrying is not an attribute, and there’s no real reason why humans need to be declared the baseline for starting gold and equipment. Now that might be enough to make me want to play humans a bit more often. I’m almost always wishing I had more starting gold every time I roll up a new character. Tell me I can have a multiplier of 2 or maybe even just 1.5 for my starting gold if I play a human character, and I’ll probably start playing more human characters, because I can make up for my lack of high attribute multipliers through the use of equipment. Even in the real world, humans have proven themselves to be adept at using tools / devices / equipment. Sounds to me like a plausible benefit to give them.

Would something like this need to be explained in the game’s setting? That’s not difficult. Perhaps non-human parents don’t want to help their children take up such a foolish career as adventuring. Human parents, on the other hand, either can’t wait to kick the kids out of the house or can’t bear to see them go without trying to prepare them for every eventuality. So the beginning non-human adventurers tend to not have as much financial support from their parents as beginning human adventurers have from their parents.

In the 7.x editions of T&T, starting out with a PC whose attributes are lower than those of another PC is not such a great disadvantage, assuming both PCs survive their initial encounters. The PC with lower attributes can raise them quicker, because the cost is less. Having more starting equipment might be just enough for the human character to survive long enough to earn some adventure points and start raising those low attributes.

What do you think? Got any other ideas for what might be a good benefit for human characters, that non-humans wouldn’t also be expected to have, and that doesn’t push the human kindred away from being the “baseline” kindred with respect to attributes?

m4s0n501

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Michael K. Eidson

I'm a software engineer, an author, and a music lover. I've written and published a few speculative fiction short stories, online tools for gaming and fiction, and a number of Tunnels and Trolls supplements and adventures. I'm currently writing my debut fantasy novel, currently untitled. I listen to all sorts of music, primarily with female vocalists, while I'm working on all my projects.

8 thoughts on “On Being Human in Tunnels and Trolls”

  1. Excellent post. Increasing starting money seems like a logical, real world solution. Human parents, I believe, would definitely try to help their kids as much as possible.

  2. Increased starting gold would be an excellent benefit for humans, and wouldn’t even have to be based on cultural norms (parents wanting to get rid of kids earlier). Instead, it can be justified by economic principles and already-stated in-game demographics: humans are considered the baseline and (by implied statements in the rulebooks) are more numerous than the other common kindred. That means that the human economy is larger than the others, and (assuming the economies are similar in governance and basis) likely to be richer. More, or at least more valuable, starting funds are likely to be available.

    Please note that there are a GREAT many intangibles glossed over by this argument. The individual Game Master can use those to justify pretty much ANY startup funds adjustment he feels is appropriate. This argument is simply to show that it can be done without making humans in general to be heartless monsters who pay their offspring to simply go away.

    1. I love your argument for justifying more starting funds for human characters. I still think that either of the two reasons I proposed are viable, but yours makes a lot of economic sense. Thanks for the comment!

  3. If humans are the ‘baseline’ (which seems fair enough – human ‘Citizens’ are everywhere!), then it seems not unreasonable, in addition to an increase in starting gold, for human adventurers to be stronger than ordinary ‘Citizens’ (after all, that’s why they’re adventurers). Rather than gaming this as modifiers to initial Prime Attribute scores, you could run a ‘cherry picking’ rule which says human characters can roll 4 d6 rather than just 3 d6 during initial character generation, & take the best of the dice rolled (including choosing triples), coupled with limiting TARO to human characters (to reflect the propensity for human characters to benefit from a greater range of experiences during their formative years – if humans are the ‘baseline’ & everywhere by extension, then it’s possible for young humans to be exposed to many more areas of life than their dwarvish, elvish etc counterparts, & to become exceptional as a direct consequence of their human upbringing).

    1. You make a reasonable argument, Dhrrru, as to why non-Citizen human adventurers might have higher than baseline attributes, without destroying the baseline that humans represent. But cherry picking only for human non-Citizens presupposes that a player has made up his mind beforehand as to what kindred and character type a new character will be.

      I have this habit of rolling the dice first, seeing what the numbers are, and then deciding on the character type and kindred. This order is supported by the official rules. So while cherry picking sounds like a reasonable option, it’s likely not one I would practice often, and the end result might be that I ended up playing fewer humans than I would have otherwise. But then that’s just me.

      Thanks for the comment!

    2. Michael, you’re right about having to choose the human kindred before rolling (otherwise a ‘cherry picking’ rule can’t work), which is indeed a departure from the character generation process described in the v5 & v7 T&T rules.

      I worked up a spreadsheet of the effect of the ‘cherry picking’ house rule suggestion on (a) the chance of a human character being a ‘freak’ (i.e. ‘cherry picking’ plus TARO gives them one or more starting Prime Attribute values > 18) & (b) the chance of a human character being (i) a Warrior-Wizard under v5 T&T rules or (ii) a Paragon under v7 T&T rules.

      Approximate probabilities are:
      (a) 32.03% (vs 10.18% without ‘cherry picking’);
      (b) (i) 7.33% (vs 0.31% without ‘cherry picking’);
      (b) (ii) 3.17% (vs 0.05% without ‘cherry picking’ – it’s hard to roll up a Paragon in v7 T&T!).

      I know Ken’s not too fussed about play balance (exhibit A: the TARO rule in v7 T&T; exhibit B: logarithmic rather than arithmetic or geometric level advancement in v7 T&T), but I think a ‘cherry picking’ house rule is maybe too powerful – its adoption by a gaming circle would mean that Warrior-Wizards/Paragons would almost always be human, & that you’d only ever encounter ‘superhuman’ dungeon delvers. How important is it to the game of T&T for the human kindred to be played as PCs rather than NPCs anyway?

    1. Thanks for the comment, artikid. Giving a bonus to experience to humans could work at low levels. But at higher levels any benefits a non-human had at character creation time fades away. So I’d consider taking the bonus away from humans after they reached, say, level 3, or maybe even level 2.

      A permanent bonus to experience would let the human character outpace all other character kindreds at higher levels. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe that is the incentive to start with a human, knowing that later on you’ll be better than your non-human buddies. Could work. Would like to see some playtest results.

Any thoughts?