Sword & Sorcery in Tunnels & Trolls

As we started remastering the classic Tunnels & Trolls adventures (as promised, more on that in future dev blogs), we quickly realized we needed to describe the tone and aesthetic behind this complex, brutal, and occasionally whimsical setting. We were doing this to refine the narrative aspects of these stories for digital play, but, more importantly, to help future creators create compelling and interesting adventures.

Obviously, Tunnels & Trolls is fantasy – but what kind? After all, Game of Thrones, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings all can be described as ‘fantasy,’ but they are starkly different in many ways.

Specifically, Tunnels & Trolls is a role-playing game in the ‘sword and sorcery’ sub-genre. To quote Wikipedia, sword and sorcery comprises “… fast-paced, action-rich tales set within a quasi-mythical or fantastical framework. Unlike high fantasy, the stakes in sword and sorcery tend to be personal, the danger confined to the moment of telling. Settings are typically exotic, and protagonists often morally compromised.”

Many writers and artists have contributed to the sword and sorcery genre over the years. Robert E. Howard’s Conan, Fritz Lieber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, Janet Morris’ Tempus of the Sacred Band of Stepsons – these are just a few representatives of the pantheon of adventurers created since the beginning of the last century, who, in turn, have inspired countless other works.

The journey of a ‘low fantasy’ protagonist and their role in the world is very different from what one might expect upon hearing the word ‘fantasy.’ Heroes and heroines of sword and sorcery are not out to save the world; their motives are diverse, but mostly personal. They may experience world-changing events, but rarely take starring role in them; their fortunes rise and fall unpredictably, subject only to the whim of merciless gods (or, in our case, a roll of dice). Rather than being ‘the chosen ones,’ these protagonists are often just trying to survive, and thus must make difficult moral choices: compared to the ‘civilized’ people of the societies they adventure through, they may appear as selfish, opportunistic, or outright criminal. Yet, despite their occasional outlaw status, they often demonstrate universally human virtues: bravery, compassion, and even self-sacrifice. 

Art by Peter Laird

Art by Peter Laird

Tunnels & Trolls fits the bill perfectly. The history of Trollworld – where, after centuries of strife, the ‘monsters’ achieve dominance – leaves ample room for moral ambiguity; death is usually swift and sudden (as anyone who has played Naked Doom can attest to); and the protagonists are mostly driven by global events, rather than shaping them. In particular, we think that this focus on personal experiences fits the concept of interactive fiction very well: it is much easier to write stories that one can relate to, rather than come up with complex universal plots. Besides, there are only so many times one can save the world, and focusing on personal stories helps create a more plausible narrative.

Art by Chris Carlson

Art by Chris Carlson

Among the writers influenced by sword and sorcery, one stands out in particular: the late Sir Terry Pratchett. Although Discworld started as a parody of the genre (among many other things), its component novels are full of warmth, kindness and humor, and have brought joy to millions of readers. His long-time collaborator, Josh Kirby, created many illustrations for Tunnels & Trolls, and we are very excited to be partnered with the Josh Kirby Estate to include some of his amazing art in the Tunnels & Trolls Adventures.

Art by Josh Kirby

Art by Josh Kirby

Like classic science fiction, sword and sorcery traces its roots back to early pulp magazines. Despite this humble pedigree, it has evolved throughout decades into a diverse and interesting genre with many merits of its own. Now, we can’t wait to bring it to the next medium, as we release Tunnels & Trolls Adventures on mobile platforms this summer.

Stay tuned!