Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Thank you, Tunnels & Trolls

In 1978 my older brother drove me over the Compleat Strategist in Hollywood, Florida. He had heard from some his friends about this game, Dungeons & Dragons, and took me over to see if they carried it. This was my first exposure to not only D&D, but to wargames in general. The proprietor looked a lot like me, only he was 20 years older and about two feet taller. He had blonde greasy hair, thick glasses, and he kept his fingernails long and manicured, which I later learned was so he could easily pick up the die-cut pieces of the massive World War II games he sold and played (eg. PanzerBlitz, Anzio).

I was in the store every Sunday and roamed the floor, looking at the miniatures, and flipping through the terrific selection of Taskforce Pocket Games and other micro games. But mostly I was hoping some other kid my age would come in and we could start a D&D game. No one ever did.

At home I played as many of the solitaire games I could find that had a fantasy or science-fiction theme, but I mostly just pored over the D&D rules, mapped out dungeons, and painted lead figurines.

And then one Sunday I walked into the store and the owner was ready for me. From behind the counter he pulled out a box, similar in shape and size as the D&D basic set. It was Tunnels & Trolls, a role-playing game that you could play ALONE.

There was something kind of strange and foreboding about the T&T rules. The drawings were slightly more sophisticated than in the D&D manuals, and they were a bit more... erotic, many by Liz Danforth.This one, for example, enthralled me and I spent many hours trying to copy it:

But it was the solo adventures that fed my need, a deep desire not only to roleplay, but to feel like I was part of this strange subculture that I knew existed, if only within the confines of the Compleat Strategist. It was a world that I had captured glimpses of, in the pages of things like Heavy Metal:

and the film Wizards:

But here in the T&T solo adventures was a place to explore it where I had agency. It wasn't much more than choosing page 10 instead of page 30, but it felt like I really was helping to construct a narrative. The solo adventures were fairly sophisticated for solitaire game experience. There were wandering monsters, saving throws, strange NPCs, and even some sex.

Eventually I met some kids at school who shyly admitted they played D&D and I finally got my game on with a group. But for a while, Tunnels and Trolls made gaming a living thing. I felt part of a culture that would continue to sustain me, a culture where the weird and the fringe were turned into creative and exciting narratives, where my imagination was allowed to freely express itself without fear of being marginalized. I knew then I wasn't the only 13-year-old boy role-playing alone. For all the others out there for whom Tunnels & Trolls was the only real way to explore this world, we were doing our thing together, all alone.


Heiner N. Tachy said...

I aways felt like part of that subculture of D&Ds, pulps and adventure movies, even if no one has ever introduced me to that.

Sorry for my probably bad english, im from a non-english speaking contry.

Btw, Wizards is a damn good movie, and its kind of erotic too, like you said that T&T was.

El Grego said...

Wow. This brings back memories.

I was at the Compleat Strategist many Saturdays in the early 80's. Not sure how the regulars put up with me, as I was in elementary school at the time.

If I recall correctly, the manager you describe was named Kevin. He was unfailingly patient and kind to an awkward kid who felt at home browsing the games and spending his allowance on everything from fantasy (D&D, T&T, and Lost Worlds) to sci fi (Star Fleet Battles, Cosmic Encounters) to military (Tactics 2, OGRE).

Thanks for the trip down memory lane! Looking forward to reading some other entries.

Liz Danforth said...

I commented on GoodReads but have to also add my two cents here. Thank you, Peter, for letting me (and the other folks from Flying Buffalo days) know how the game helped bring your imagination alive. I can think of no higher praise for what we did, lo so many years ago. Thank you!