Friday, October 2, 2015

A Problem with Encounter Balance & Armor in T&T

This is a post about a problem I'm having. I'm hoping that the smart people reading this will have a solution for me.

What is Tunnels & Trolls?

Tunnels & Trolls (also known as T&T) was an early-comer to the hobby. It was the third or fourth RPG to be published. Because the earlier games have since vanished, or undergone such radical rules changes as to make them different games, I would say that T&T is now the oldest RPG still on the market.

One of the things I really like about T&T is the simultaneous combat system. Rather than each side taking turns swinging at each other, which never made sense to me, both combatants try to outdo each other, with the winner injuring the loser. This is, in my mind, simpler and more realistic than the D&D system. While the simultaneous combat system originated in T&T, I didn't discover it until the 90's when I saw it as an option in the Fudge rules.

T&T goes a step beyond, however, and combines the attack roll with the damage roll. This, too, makes sense to me. My attack roll represents the maximum amount of damage that I might have been able to inflict this round; my opponent's roll represent the same for her. If her total is greater, I should expect that she still had to "waste" some of her damage potential dodging and parrying my attacks. Thus I only suffer the difference between my roll and her roll.

It's a beautiful system. It's simple, and elegant. There's no need to look things up in a book, enabling play to just flow around the table. The arithmetic gets a little bothersome, but it's not too bad.

T&T also introduced armor that protects from damage, rather than making you harder to hit, which is a bit of a necessity is a game with no "to hit" roll. I first encountered this as "DR" in GURPS, but T&T is where it started. Again, it's a good rule, it makes sense, and it's elegant.

What is Encounter Balance?

"Encounter balance" is a relatively new term, but the concept goes all the way back to the very beginning of the hobby. In essence, encounter balance means that monsters should be tailored to abilities of the party. The idea is that an encounter so easy that the party can dispatch it without threat of injury is boring. Likewise, an encounter so powerful that the characters will automatically die just isn't very fun, either. Therefore there has to be a middle ground — a point where the monster is tough enough to endanger the party but not so tough that it can't be defeated. Ideally, in my mind, the monster should actually be tougher than the party, until someone does something brilliant to turn the tables. That means that players get tactical choices and that they are active participants in the experience rather then just sitting down to hear the GM tell a story.

What is my problem?

So the problem I have is this: I can't see how to make a challenging (but not overwhelming) encounter in T&T, because of the way that armor works. Let me illustrate with an example:

Boar is a human warrior is is battling his mirror universe self, Raob. Boar and Raob are identical in every single way, except that Boar sports a stylish goatee. Both of them have identical personal adds, and carry scimitars which do 4D damage. Both wear 10 points of armor, which counts as 20 points because they're warriors.

The very best situation for boar is that he rolls a "6" on each of his dice, while Roab rolls a "1" on each of his. In this case Boar does 24 points (plus personal adds, but they're cancelled out by Roab's personal adds) of damage while Roab deflects a pitiful 4. Bear has hit Roab for 20 points of damage — the very best that he can do! But, like Bear, Roab wears 20 points of armor, so he just laughs off the damage and the fight continues on for eternity.

That illustration might seem a bit contrived, so let me provide a real-life example.

In last Monday's game, the party of 4 PCs had a combined 16D+23 combat roll (that's an average of sum of 79), and between them they worn 22 points of armor. That means, on an average combat turn, they'll roll 79 points.

If I balance the encounter so that the monster sometimes wins the round and sometimes loses the round, then I would want an MR 90 monster. That monster rolls an average of 80 each round. In this case, the monster wins 52% of the combat turns, but fails to penetrate the party's armor 99.2% or the time! Clearly this is not a challenge, because the party will never be injured. Clearly a stronger monster is needed.

Balancing the encounter so that the monster has a 50/50 shot of penetrating the party's armor results in a monster with an MR of 119. In this case the players will lose the combat turn 99.3% of the time. Clearly that won't be fun for the players.

Splitting the difference, with an MR of 104, is a little better, In this situation the party wins about 10%, while the monster overcomes their armor about 10% time. But what that means is the nothing happens 80% of the combat turns. This makes combats a bit tedious and not as fun.

What is the solution?

I thought about Roll back the damage division pre-7th edition, so that the damage is divided evenly across the party. The would prevent the party from "pooling armor", but I think it will actually make the problem worse because the less armored PCs will start to wear more and more armor. My current, but untested, thought is to roll back the armor rules to pre-5th edition, so that the armor is "ablative". This seems like the simplest solution, and it provides nice RP opportunities to repair armor between combats.

Do any T&T players out there know how to handle this situation? If so, please comment below!

Thanks in advance!


  1. I make spite damage ignore armor, though my players like when spite damage will get soaked but reduce the soak ability of armor.

  2. Spite damage explicitly ignores armor, at least in 7.5. It's damage that gets through "in spite of" everything. Even if both sides are perfectly balanced in terms of damage done, one side will eventually nick the other one to death.

    That presents a different problem, though. A level 1 PC will have <20 CON, but a monster's hit points are equal to its MR. Imagine 4 level 1 PCs, each with 19 CON. That's a total of 76 CON. If you put them up against a monster with an MR of 104, the party is likely to die of cuts long before the monster does.

  3. And of course "stunting", which is the creative use of Saving Rolls to do cool stuff, including in (but not limited to) combat. Missile attacks are an example written in the rules: make your Dex SR, and if you succeed your missile damage comes off your opponent's rating (armour does soak) *even if* you lose the overall combat round.

    Then there's berserking: judicious use of that can push you out of the dead-end a purely rating vs rating might produce.

    But stunts can do more than that. You could use an SR to aim for an area not covered by armour, or to pull off or otherwise ignore an opponent's armour; you could use an SR to trip up or blind a foe, or throw sand in his eyes, so his HPT is halved on the next round. All of these things can be done on an SR; but remember that if you *fail* your stunt SR, then Something Bad happens to you. Depending on how much you've risked and what you stand to gain, this might include: having to halve your own HPT that round; losing your HPT entirely that round; dropping your weapon and having to fight unarmed until you make an SR to pick it back up again; losing points of CON or STR due to injury or fatigue (affecting your adds, maybe); and so on.

    The dice vs dice nature of T&T combat is the baseline; on top of that there's all kinds of cool stuff you can do to vary it up and break through deadlocks. Get creative! :)