I had a strange experience at UK Games Expo, in Birmingham, earlier this year. While running a demo game, the voices at the next table frequently erupted in uproarious laughter and bubbling exuberance mildly disrupting our ability to hold cross-table conversation. At the end of my session, I checked with the neighbouring to see what had caused all the fuss – and discovered they’d been playing Tunnels and Trolls.
In context, Tunnels and Trolls, written by Ken St. Andre and published by Flying Buffalo, has been available for almost 40 years. Published as an antidote to the perceived complexity of Dungeons & Dragons, the game boiled almost everything down to a single dice throw – though sometimes the pool of dice involved might be quite a large one.
Tunnels and Trolls never really had much of a setting to it; but in the wake of this convention experience I found myself looking at recent news on the game’s web site, and came across the recently published Porphyry – World of the Burn.
While Porphyry – World of the Burn does not have a cover that excites, we should all know that you never judge a book on this alone. The interior art of this setting and sourcebook, rendered in crisp black and white by Jez Gordon, is positively stunning.
I have found images in this book that I just can’t get out of my head now that I’ve seen them. Jez has really grokked the setting of Porphyry and produced dozens of silhouette-like images, as well as a double spread map of the world.
Illustrations aside, the rest of the book comes in a two-column format, well-spaced, broad margined, and in a serif typeface. Kyrinn S. Eis, the author, has structured much of the content around the sub-sections of the Tunnels and Trolls 5th edition, allowing you to make direct reference between the two.
At heart, Porphyry layers thematic changes on the core T&T rules that flavour the mechanics to fit the world, so this structure works perfectly.
Porphyry presents a post-apocalyptic setting, perhaps best – and advisedly – described a science-fantasy. The Burn, descended from the heavens, laid waste to the landscape and the civilisations that dwelt there. Many centuries have passed but The Burn remains, contained in the northern reaches of the world, a corrupting influence upon everything it touches.
The Burn has made magic possible, supporting the coercion of matter through force of will alone, and raised animals up from dumb creatures of burden, play or consumption into self-aware Beastfolk. The new rises from the ashes and detritus of the old, and the player characters scrape a living just surviving.
A bit like The Burn, the key features of Porphyry thematically corrupt and transform the blank slate of the Tunnels and Trolls system. Without adding too much complexity to the mix, Kyrinn expands and expounds on mechanics that add depth and richness to characters and their interactions with the world.
Professions extend many facets of a character. From a selection of 130 options, each profession provides a handful of skills and expertise for which characters get a positive modifier when making saves. In addition, each details extra gear suited to performing their job and provides some context of how the character earns a living while not risking life and limb roaming the trackless wastes of the wilderness.
Reminding me of the grim and grimy livings pursued in the Warhammer Fantasy Role Playing Game, Professions run the gamut from Archaeologist to Rat Catcher. Thematically, the author advises Players and GM alike to combine the standard T&T Classes of Warrior, Wizard, Rogue and Warrior-Wizards with these varied Professions to come up with novel combinations and occupations – a bit like subclasses – and it works remarkably well. At the same time, like the influential Trade and Craft Guilds of the Middle Ages, Professions integrate a character into the shared networks and structures of the world, inextricably intertwining them with contacts, rivals, favours and reputation.
As well as ten pages of descriptive text roughly sketching the compass points of Porphyry, lying around a great circular ocean, the supplement also includes more than 40 new creatures to defy the long-term career prospects of the player characters. Each creature includes name, statistics, a brief description and another one of those great Jez Gordon illustrations. You can find creatures fae, infernal, feral and mechanical in here – taking in the full sweep of the science-fantasy setting where survivors vie for power, notoriety and continued existence (at an absolute minimum).
Page 53 features a stunning illustration that takes the battle from the front of the 5th Edition of Tunnels and Trolls – where an adventuring party pile on steel and spell against some form of troll – and turns the scene it on its head, with terminal consequences for a female rogue.
The third key feature Porphyry delivers are rules for social combat. This might seem odd, but it makes sense when you consider the two extremes that often occur. You either have a situation where a player outwits an opponent with a single throw of the dice, or execute a protracted role-playing exchange where the person at the table with the best real world oratory (or improvisational) skills browbeats the GM or another player into quivering submission.
Porphyry’s social combat takes aspects of each, using the more involved mechanics of combat common to most role-playing games while accepting the influence of solid reasoning and good argument through the setting of clear goals for those parties involved in setting target numbers.
Professions, Social Combat, and other tweaks suggested around character creation, development and interaction within Porphyry emphasize the evolving development and influence of characters. In the simplistic core rules of Tunnels and Trolls this doesn’t come across, with black and white principles of strength and weakness, possession or deficit. Porphyry lurks in shades of grey, an invitingly tempting shadow prone to grow ragged claws and sucker-slash you without the slightest provocation.
Perhaps you’re wondering where I’m going with this review, discounting the thought of picking up Porphyry – World of The Burn because you don’t play Tunnels and Trolls. I would suggest you give it some more thought.
Kyrinn S. Eis has collated tweaks designed for a specific system and layered in an atmospheric world of dust, flame and hopeless despair, but the simplicity of the ideas makes them a practical template for application to other games.
Professions might form the basis for a richer life path approach in games with simple classes, while the simple mechanics of Social Combat could transfer alongside them to provide a structured, goal-orientated approach to character influence. A GM can adapt the background of The Burn and the bestiary of monsters that flavour it to meet their own gaming needs as a backdrop to adventure or a new campaign.
For me, Jez Gordon’s illustrations sell this volume all on their own, showing how an artist and a game designer can work in concert and bring a setting to life. That Jez has accomplished this in such stark and simple terms impresses me all the more. If you want to try something new and, perhaps, raise the same exuberant excitement as I experienced at that convention, you should try the simple pleasures of Tunnels and Trolls messed up – like an ice cream sundae laced with cyanide and razor blades – by a heavy dose of The Burn.