Gen Con 2017: Talking and Testing ‘Tunnels & Trolls’

When I played the demo version of the Tunnels & Trolls Adventures app at last year’s Gen Con, I was impressed with the way the digital update of the classic solo adventure “Naked Doom” combined a pencil-and-paper roleplaying game feel with digital story telling elements like music, sound effects, and on-screen decision making. I only got one run-through that day – and I couldn’t get my character out alive, like about 97 percent of the folks who gave it a test run.

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Based on feedback and conversations with beta users, MetaArcade refined the game and launched the completed versions iOS and Android just in time for this year’s Gen Con. I took a couple test runs there in Indianapolis, and then installed the app once I got home to give it a more in-depth whirl.

Speaking with MetaArcade founder David Reid, I got caught up on some of the things they altered – from making the user interface more intuitive to completely overhauling the way the characters level up – and learned a little more about how the game works, as well as MetaArcade’s plans for the future.

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Android screen shot from “Naked Doom.”

The app itself is free, and includes a very short tutorial adventure, as well as the full-length “Naked Doom.” It also comes with four pre-generated characters, or you can create one right from the get-go, rolling stats and choosing a race, and selecting from a range of illustrations. Your characters are persistent, unless you choose to delete them: They’ll accumulate adventure points and treasure and weapons, and level up, becoming more formidable with success.

“So if you die in an adventure, you can start again,” Reid said. “You lose the progress…but you keep the character. It’s a bit more forgiving than the 1970s Tunnels & Trolls where you’d close the book and tear up your character sheet.” He stressed that in the spirit of the traditionally character-chewing Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures, truly “winning” isn’t easy. In fact, there are often ways to complete an adventure “book” without meeting the ultimate goal, but still surviving to fight another day as a more experienced adventurer.

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Johann (my custom-created character) versus six goblins. Things did not go well for Johann.

You don’t really need to know combat and or ability check mechanics to play, but the knowledge will serve you well as you play through scenarios and level up characters, so here are a few basics worth noting: In the combat screencap above, Johann’s only rolling two dice against the six total dice from the goblins, so he’s likely to be outrolled. The more dice you can roll at once – and the greater the difference between you and your foe – the better chance you stand at surviving the fight. Ability checks work like this: You might have to roll for strength to see if you can jump a chasm. The game sets a challenge number for that task – say a 25 – and then subtracts your character’s Strength ability (say, 16) to create a target number – in this case, 9. So a higher ability score makes for a lower target. You then roll two dice to hit that number. And what if the difference is greater than 12 – which it often is in the tougher adventures? Well, two things: 1) If you roll doubles, you get to keep rolling and adding to your total, so you’ve always got some chance of success, no matter how slim. Or 2) Be prepared to fail and come back when you’ve bumped up that ability score.

As of this writing, there are two full-length adventures available from the extensive Tunnels & Trolls classic catalog: “Naked Doom” and “Buffalo Castle.” Five available mini-adventures include “Seven Ayes” and “Grimtina’s Guard,” by T&T creator Ken St. Andre; and “Golden Dust, Red Death”; Stop Thief!”; and “Hot Pursuit,” all written by Michael Stackpole, better known these days as a creator of Star Wars fiction. And MetaArcade, Reid said, is “feverishly working to remaster those 40-plus classic Tunnels & Trolls adventures” for the app.

The game and adventures are free to play, but like almost all gaming apps, there’s a pay-to-play option for those who’d like to buy complete adventures outright. Let’s talk hearts and gems: Think of hearts like the quarters in a one-life arcade game. Spend one, and you get one run-through of any adventure – and if you die in the first room, that’s life, kid. MetaArcade includes 20 hearts at your startup, and if you find the game as addictive as I did, it’s pretty easy to burn through them quickly – you can either purchase additional hearts in bundles of 10, or earn a new heart by watching a video ad.

You can also buy “gems” that serve as currency, at an approximate value of 10 cents each, and purchase the adventures outright. They’ll run $4-5 worth of gems for full adventures (Right now “Buffalo Castle” is the only one besides “Naked Doom”) or about a buck for the mini-solo adventures. I went ahead and bought one of the minis so I could work at leveling up my human warrior, Johann.

While the adventures don’t change, there’s still a good bit of replayability, even in the mini adventures, due to the chance element of the die rolls, and the fact that different characters’ strengths and weaknesses will have an impact on those rolls. And again, as your character levels up, you can go back and try to make it past obstacles that thwarted you in the past. You can even make things a bit grind-y if you’d like: A few plays of the mini adventures, and you’re likely to figure out which paths are short and successful, depending on what character you’re playing, and how likely you are to succeed at certain rolls. It’s worth noting that the guidelines saying some adventures are for “mid-level” characters really mean it: Even at Level 6, Johann died on the first highly-intimidating roll when I attempted “Stop Thief!”

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Hey: It’s a start!

An in-game Trophy Room also serves as a fun way to track progress, especially since you never can tell what’s going to land you an award. Sure, completing a quest is an obvious one – but defeating a creature and finding you’ve earned a “Calamari Sushi Chef” trophy? Bonus.

As with the demo, the sound effects and music add wonderful atmosphere. And since the digital format of these classic adventures has necessitated the creation of new art, Liz Danforth – one of the original Tunnels & Trolls artists – has found herself in the unique position of coming up with new illustrations to accompany and evoke the feel of those she did decades ago. “It wasn’t an abandoned house in my heart, but it was one I hadn’t visited in a long time,” Danforth said during Gen Con, noting that she has been inspired by “the joy and love of the game that David [Reid] brings.”

Content-wise, it’s classic sword-and-sorcery fare, so parents may want to play a few games to get the feel before turning it over to younger kids, since there are descriptions of alcohol consumption, for instance, and in one of the adventures, your character is tasked with smuggling drugs into a city (Although whether you complete this mission as assigned or attempt to alter the outcome is up to you.)

Maybe the best thing I can say about the app is that while writing this review, I kept taking breaks to play more; to reach the next level; to try something different; to go back and see whether my stronger, luckier character would survive the challenges.

Playing these Tunnels & Trolls adventures is fun: To a lot of us, building them sounds even more fun.

Releasing the Adventure Creator that the company itself has used to craft most of the “books” has always been part of the plan, and although it’s still indevelopment, MetaArcade did have a demo at Gen Con this year, with an eye on a winter release.

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Map of a MetaArcade’sAdventure Creator project. Each box represents a screen in an adventure.

The system seems pretty intuitive: You’ll basically map your adventure out page by page, creating descriptions and setting up challenges and options and forking paths, adding art and sound effects from MetaArcade’s library.

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Creating an individual adventure page.
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Selecting sounds…
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..and picking pics.

Ultimately, creators should be able to publish their own playable adventures, sharing revenue with MetaArcade. (There are also plans to permit creators of art and music to add their materials to the available library, also making them eligible for revenue-sharing whenever someone uses their work in a game.)

MetaArcade is shooting for a winter release of the Adventure Creator, and I’m itching to give it a try.

In the meantime, Johann’s got some more questing to do.

 

Writer John Booth lives in northeast Ohio with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the book "Collect All 21! Memoirs of a Star Wars Geek – The First 30 Years."