It turns out; writing up an article on a company is an excellent way to solicit their attention, and now I’ve some good news. In a first-ever for Geek Native, I can present a follow-on, a part two to the Trollhalla Spotlight with this interview with Ken.
Ken, of course, is more than just the founder of Trollhalla, he’s the creator of the world’s second-oldest roleplaying game; Tunnels & Trolls (T & T).
Why do you think Tunnels & Trolls has survived all these years, continuing to pick up new fans despite all the competition?
There are several reasons why Tunnels & Trolls is still going strong–actually stronger than ever. I will list the first half dozen or so that occur to me.
1. Tunnels & Trolls is a good system for roleplaying. From the beginning, it has emphasized storytelling above game mechanics. Some people respond to that. It has also been a light system. It’s easy to learn, easy to understand, and easy to play. And it doesn’t cost as much money as TOG.
It has humor as a basis. It’s based on probability just like real life. Attributes matter intensely in T & T, and they are variable, just like in real life. People get stronger and weaker, smarter and dumber, more and less dexterous, luckier and unluckier. Overall, T & T paints a better picture of a real fantasy world, and a wilder fantasy world than TOG does.
Editor’s note: TOG stands for ‘The Other Game’, whatever that could be.
2. I never gave up on the game and went off to support something else. If a creator sticks with something for a long time, he/she/it will build up into something substantial and interesting.
3. Talented support. T & T may well owe its continued existence to the efforts of people like Liz Danforth who supported it with her art, and more importantly, her intelligence, from the beginning. (I have friends, and for the most part, they are smart, talented, good people who do things and make contributions to the world.) I brought my friends into the game from the beginning, and they added so much to it.
For example, the first draft of the game had only humans as playable characters, but in less than a week my friends Bear Peters and Steve McAllister came to me with a chart of what they called the good kindreds and asked: why can’t we play other kinds of characters? Why can’t we be elves, dwarves, hobbits, leprechauns, or fairies?
Great question, right?
Why not let people play any kindred they feel an affinity for? I incorporated that chart into the proto-rules on spot and named it the Peters-McAllister chart. That’s only one example. I could go on for pages about how important it has been to incorporate good ideas from other people into the game.
I’ll give a second example from the early days. My friend Steve McAllister worked as a mechanic for Boeing, repairing airlines. He had programmed instruction manuals for his job. They would give if’/then examples. If X is wrong, do Y to fix it. He shared the idea with me and Liz and Bear and Rick Loomis at a local science fiction convention.
We all thought it was a great idea, but Rick did something about it. He went home that weekend and wrote Buffalo Castle, the first-ever solo adventure and playable gamebook.
Yes, we did it before the Choose Your Own Adventure books came out, before Lone Wolf and Fighting Fantasy and others. Because of its relative simplicity, T&T lends itself to solo adventures. I did the second one with Naked Doom.
4. Rick Loomis and Flying Buffalo. Rick was a great man. He was a game designer, an entrepreneur, and a diplomat. Since he wrote the first solo adventure and published the 2d edition of T&T and could sell it at game conventions, he never let it go out of print and encouraged the development of new products for it.
With Rick and I and Liz and Bear and new people coming on board all the time, the game has grown slowly but steadily for decades. Being personal friends with your main publisher is never a bad idea.
How has Trollhalla Press helped change Tunnels & Trolls?
Somewhere around 2002, I decided to give Tunnels & Trolls an online presence and website different from the Flying Buffalo purely commercial page.
I wanted a clubhouse built within the framework of Trollworld itself–one where fantasy world and real-world could intermingle. I had long found that Flying Buffalo was not big enough to support all of my creative efforts and ideas.
In 2010 I retired from the Phoenix Public Library System, thus giving me even more time to be creative. In 2011 I decided to start writing short solo adventures. Flying Buffalo was at a low spot in resources and couldn’t publish them all, so I decided to do it myself. (Typical, eh? No patience for waiting for other people to get things done.)
The early Trollhalla Press allowed me to get back to my fannish roots, publish new stuff, meet new people. Then drivethrurpg.com came along, and I realized I would have an outlet where I could reach the world instead of just a few dozen people at a time.
I jumped in. Never made any real money, but it showed the world that T&T still existed and was still doing new work. That led to bigger and better things over time.
Flying Buffalo imitated me and now has a large presence on drivethru. I think you could say that TP has given me things to live for, and jumpstarted mass sales of T&T online.
It has also opened the field for other companies like Peryton Press and Tavernmaster Games to publish T&T-related items. Do a general search under the term Tunnels and Trolls (rule system) and just see what comes up.
What’s the difference between Trollhalla Press and Trollhalla Press Unlimited?
The two entities are related, but not the same.
Trollhalla Press is my personal publishing house, and it does what I want it to do, sometimes to the dismay of more business-oriented companies like Flying Buffalo (Picture Daffy Duck here saying “Mine! . . . Mine, mine, mine!”).
Trollhalla Press Unlimited is an actual business (a sole proprietorship in my name technically, but actually a partnership between me and Steven S. Crompton formed with the idea of doing larger projects that may be related to Tunnels & Trolls, but beyond the capacity of Flying Buffalo to handle.)
Trollhalla Press Unlimited bought the Tunnels & Trolls Adventures app from Metagaming when David Reid decided to pull the plug on that project, and so the phone app is still alive and well and gradually improving. TPU did a successful Kickstarter this year that raised about $35K and had over 1000 supporters to produce Monsters! Monsters! 2d edition and the latest version of THE TOUGHEST DUNGEON IN THE WORLD.
Other ambitious projects are planned.
Over the years, it seems like lots of different publishers have been involved with Tunnels & Trolls. Can anyone write for the game?
I always maintained that anyone could write for the game. For years Flying Buffalo solicited outside products and published the best of them.
They were pretty terrible in the beginning but introduced some new ideas. I believe in freedom. I always told the world that Trollworld was not just one place, but a nexus of possibilities, infinite universes where characters could move from one to another, sometimes without even realizing it.
Every GM runs their own world. Rick always maintained that if people wanted to write and publish and sell Tunnels & Trolls products, that they needed a license from Flying Buffalo. He made the license as inexpensive as possible so that even individuals could create and sell their own material.
Most of the companies on drivethru bought that license and pay a small royalty to me and/or Flying Buffalo for their sales. (Drivethru makes that very easily done.
They collect the money and distribute it for sales. Any royalty paid comes off the top and doesn’t count as income, but Flying Buffalo gets paid. (Slick, eh?)
The answer is that legally almost anyone is allowed to write, publish, and sell Tunnels & Trolls material, but first, they should talk to Steven Crompton, the acting manager of Flying Buffalo and get that license.
There’s the Tunnels & Trolls Adventures app for smartphones available today and the 1990 Tunnels & Trolls: Crusaders of Khazan PC game. Has exploring different media always been important to you?
Yes. I’m old. I watched computers take over the world. I knew it would happen from the time I was a teenager. I could have been a millionaire today, I think if I had gone into computer science in college instead of English literature. I knew that computers and computerized gaming would be big back then, but I didn’t think it through, and I hadn’t created T & T yet.
I’d love to see an MMORPG version of T&T. I’ve made various efforts to make that happen, but unsuccessfully so far. Oh well, never give up!
To see what I’ve done outside the normal print and publish area, look at computer games like Wasteland (the original from 1988) and Adventure Construction Set. I would be totally on board with a VR version of T&T.
In recent years, the roleplaying hobby changed again with virtual tabletops to facilitate online play and people sharing their games with live broadcasts, sometimes with many cameras, over the internet. Has this change made the hobby better, and is it something that feels appropriate for Tunnels & Trolls to you?
I don’t know if it’s made the hobby/industry better or not. Better is a value judgment that I won’t make in this case.
It has certainly opened up the game to a worldwide audience. I have little experience with virtual tabletops, video, and other ways of producing and playing the game. I have friends who do it quite successfully. I’m not personally interested in playing online in that way, but I support their efforts. And I could be persuaded to jump in, but right now I’m busy enough without taking on that whole lifestyle.
How disruptive has 2020 been for you?
Moderately disruptive. I’m not really hurt financially the way millions of people have been because I’m already retired and on the government dole (social security and city pension), but it has hurt a lot of my friends, and that in turn, has effects on me.
I miss gaming conventions and science fiction conventions. Online substitutes don’t really do it for me. I miss sports and parties, and I think the world has over-reacted to the Covid-19 disease. Yes, it is a very serious disease, and society was unprepared to cope with it adequately. Diseases and viruses will always be with us. Some people will die; some will suffer lasting effects from them. The actual total mortality rate is less than half of one per cent, and that mostly comes from older people (like myself, yikes!) with pre-existing conditions that would have killed them sooner or later in any case.
It’s safe to say that the pandemic has made me very unhappy, but I have my own plan for getting through the crisis, and it seems to be working so far–I’m not daring you to hurt me, Universe. Please don’t!
How do you find the energy and imagination to keep going?
How does anyone find the energy to keep going? I eat food and try to remain healthy. That’s where energy comes from. Ha ha ha. Really, I have rules to live by.
Rule number one is: KISS.
Number two is: Never give up. (I may tell you that I give up or surrender, but I’m lying. I’ll retreat, change tactics, pretend to be beaten, hide, and sometimes change my mind or decide something isn’t worth the effort, but I’ll never really give up.)
I’m still planning to live forever (big grin). The world is full of wonderful things and people, and I’m not tired of it yet. I love (pleasant) surprises. Not so fond of the other kind, but they do make the world more interesting. (Danger is always interesting. And danger isn’t danger if it can’t really hurt you.)
Can you share with readers any news about new projects?
I’d be happy to. At this moment I’ve completed my work on two big projects that we haven’t found time or energy to publish yet.
One is called Grimtina’s Rescue — a solo adventure sequel to Grimtina’s Guard that I did originally for Metagaming to help promote the smartphone app.
I can’t force that into production because it uses properties that belong to Flying Buffalo (Grimtooth) and Steve Crompton (Grimtina). Hopefully, Flying Buffalo will find the resources to publish that someday.
The Second is called TREASURE OF THE MUMMY QUEEN. That’s a fairly large solo adventure written by my British friend, Andy Holmes, and illustrated by the incomparable Simon Lee Tranter. I edited it and made it dT&T compatible.
I wanted to publish it on Trollhalla Press. Mr Crompton thinks it has wider commercial possibilities and wants to do it as a Kickstarter project for Trollhalla Press Unlimited. That would make a lot more money and so I’ve held off.
Another possibility is Power Trip — a superheroes variant of Tunnels & Trolls. The basic T & T rules are so flexible that they can be fairly easily adapted to any time or place in the multiverse.
Power Trip would be a big project that would require a successful Kickstarter to finance. An earlier version of the game was done in about 2005 — I don’t remember exactly, but I now have the resources to do a much better job with it.
Also, I set a goal to produce at least one new book a month for Trollhalla Press on drivethru. So far, so good, though nothing has come out for August yet.
I have a book called MURDER AT THE RUPTURED TROLL ready to publish, but I’m holding it because of a slight conflict — caused by my partner who had a brilliant idea.
I recently created an alternate combat system to use with the game. It’s deadlier than the system in use now. I plan to publish several books on Trollhalla Press using the new combat system to see if people will try it and use it. I’m calling it Deadly Combat.
The first of those new books will be Battle School: Deadly Combat.
I’m also working on a big solo adventure set inside Steve Crompton’s CITY OF THE GODS universe. Crom only knows when I’ll get that done.
And there are a few dozen other more nebulous projects that are further in the future (Grin). It bugs me that I’m officially old. (I think I hit that dividing line at 65.) And so, I’m trying to make up for it by being even more creative and productive than I was when I was younger. I’m also trying to get all my older material (that’s worth saving, IMO) into a printed form that will outlast me (maybe).
Yeah, I plan to stay busy for the indefinite future.
Thank you, Ken!
What are your thoughts? Strike up a discussion and leave a comment below.