Dungeons and Dragons could be a complicated game. AD&D even moreso with its plethora of expanded rules. Enter Tunnels & Trolls whose first edition was released in June, 1975, almost a year after D&D arrived in 1974. Fans of Interplay’s Wasteland might even recognize the author’s name — Ken St. Andre — alongside another alum who wrote a few adventure books for the system, Michael Stackpole.
T&T took a more simplified and more light-hearted approach to role-playing systems than TSR’s such as jettisoning the Vancian magic system of memorized spells that evaporated every time one was cast. Instead, T&T spells were cast in a fashion that later CRPGs using spell points representing a caster’s power mirrored. It was also famous for being the first system to boast modules that solo adventurers could play through (as well as one where DM’s had to create their own monsters). The rules were easy to grasp, made themselves very open to interpretation, and today nearly 40 years later, it’s still going. The current publishers, Flying Buffalo, have also just completed a Kickstarter earlier this year to introduce a deluxe edition of T&T with the help of the original crew that put it together in the first place including Ken St. Andre.
Now back in 80s, Japan had a case of the munchies for Western RPGs as shown by their love of both Ultima and Wizardry. According to Computer Gaming World’s Scorpia, that love also extended to pen-and-paper systems like Tunnels & Trolls sparking the bizarre story behind Crusaders’ development. Adapted by New World Computing into a game with a scenario fleshed out by Elizabeth Danforth (who had also worked on Wasteland) aided by Ken St. Andre, the job to actually build the game was shipped off to Japan where it was programmed into reality.
Then it came back to the United States and re-translated back into English and ported to Western PCs. However, it also brought with it varying degrees of baggage depending on who you talk to. For Scorpia, that meant a bucket of bugs, a consequence of what she noted as a result of “no communication at all between the designers and the programmers”. For others, it stood out as an amazing translation of another role-playing system mimicking the mastery that SSI had shown with AD&D via the Gold Box series with a close eye to detail.
Crusaders was packed with atmosphere. The world the game took place in had a day and night cycle complete with a full calendar, named days and months (character age and feeding were also part of the deal), and a time cost attached to everything. New World had crammed the manual with medieval-inspired illustrations, fiction to set the world’s heroes and villains into motion, and loads of information fleshing out T&T’s classes, combat system, what languages were available to learn, and magic.
As for the story, it was the usual “great evil threatens the land and must be stopped” trope that was at the heart of many a CRPG in the day. In this case, long ago, Khazan united the land under one banner and led it into a golden age of prosperity for several centuries. However, the monster tribes eventually stopped fighting amongst themselves and united under their own banner held up by Lerotra’hh and laid siege to the empire Khazan had built.
The war ended in a stalemate with Khazan agreeing to go into exile after exacting a promise from Lerotra’hh to provide for both monsterkind and man alike. And so the war ended and Lerotra’hh was true to her word — for a time. And now, the call has gone out for heroes to end the reign of the Death Empress, to find Khazan after centuries of have never been seen in the world, and save the world.
Classes were kept simple, true to the pen-and-paper system the game was based on, with only three to pick from: Warrior, Rogue, and Wizard. Warriors were the fighting muscle with proficiency in all arms and armor, Wizards were the spellcasting powerhouses who also had healing spells, and Rogues were, well, a mix of Warrior and Wizard as surprising as that sounds. They did all the “roguish” things such as pick locks and disarm traps. They can also use any weapon, though not as well as Warriors, and they’ll have to find spells on their own as no Wizard’s guild will ever teach them. Four races were also available: humans, elves, dwarves, and “hobbs”.
Stats were also done differently than in D&D. Instead of a limit such as 18 signifying high strength, attributes were scored with much higher numbers from the low tens to above a hundred after investing improvements into them from leveling up. Rolling 20s or so during character creation wasn’t an unusual thing to see, though races could subtly affect the results as one might expect.
The mouse driven, Windows-like GUI for the game wasn’t the prettiest, at least compared to what New World came up with for Might & Magic, but it worked well. If you got tired of using the cursor to move your party icon around, you could always use the keyboard instead.
The party of four was represented along the bottom, the world was seen from a top down perspective Ultima-style in the upper left quadrant of the screen, and the right quadrant was reserved for the walls of text that decorated the atmosphere of the game itself with detailed descriptions and dialogue — though players couldn’t actually talk to NPCs the way they could in an Ultima game. Information was largely one way, to your eyes and into your notebook if you were keeping one.
Scorpia had also noted that combat was also similar to how the old Ultimas prior to Ultima IV used to do it by lining up characters along the bottom of the screen and enemies at the top, turn-based commands and movement determining who might be the victors. She also noted an unusual bug where invisible characters could still be targeted by ranged attacks. And it wasn’t the only one that she noted.
Whether it had something to do with the translation back over to the West after its release in Japan, Scorpia had noted a few clues in the game making little sense such as when a particular thief needed to be “taught” only that it was better to simply “kill” them instead. Or how a certain weapon needed to kill the final boss didn’t turn out to be entirely needed at all.
She had also noted how fragmented the game felt, blaming it on being a combination of several of those solo gamebooks created for the series, or how “trigger dependent” certain events were requiring the party to be on specific squares, or the general vagueness of clues leading a lot of wasted time spent in aimlessly wandering about to fill in those parts of the automap still left empty. Or of an exploit in the game allowing players to quickly twink characters. Saving also cited as a key piece of advice. Though suggesting it to die-hard fans of Ken St. Andre’s pen-and-paper alternative to Dungeons & Dragons, it wasn’t a title she could recommend to anyone else.
Not every critic was as unforgiving, however, and some found its strengths to make up for what it didn’t do well. The richness of the language system used to add cryptic color to untranslated pieces of the world, the close attention paid to the details in bringing the system over, the lavish manual, NPCs for hire (though they often paled to a player-rolled party), and the sense of adventure that its relatively open world encouraged. The gameplay was simple, easy to jump into, and was as accessible as its pen-and-paper counterpart. For a number of battle-worn dungeon delvers, Crusaders was a refreshing change of pace away from a few of its statistics-heavy peers.
The game received a wide release across a number of Japanese platforms – the FM Towns, PC-88, and the Sharp X1 and 68000. In the West, it was available for IBM PC compatibles running DOS. And that was it. Today, it exists largely as abandonware and was the only CRPG created based on the pen-and-paper system as it wasn’t quite as successful, or as polished, as New World Computing’s Might & Magic series. But for a moment, like its namesake, it provided another brief alternative, this time on the digital side of the dungeon, opposite that of SSI’s AD&D Gold Box juggernaut.