Let's Talk About Tunnel Goons

Props to James Smith (@st23am) for pointing me in the direction of Tunnel Goons even though I follow Nate Treme (@NateTreme) on Twitter and probably should have paid attention to this rule set sooner.

Let's talk about Tunnel Goons, folks. If you're not familiar with it, you can PWYC* [HERE], and until 5 SEP 2019, Highland Paranormal Society is running a Goon Jam to encourage people to hack Tunnel Goons to suit their own ends [LEARN MORE HERE]. It'll maybe take you ten minutes to read the whole thing if you're a slow reader. Do it, then come back here and we can talk.

At first blush, Tunnel Goons is simple and flexible and could be used in just about any circumstance to create an on-the-fly RPG in nearly any genre. I can see using Tunnel Goons as an impromptu rule set for those occasions (which seem to happen to me fairly frequently) where I'm called upon to run a game on a moment's notice. And all of that is a very good thing. Simple rules, simple character creation, mechanics that are hyper-flexible. After James Smith pointed me toward the ruleset and jam, I immediately wanted to write something that fits my sensibilities but realized that that's not how I work with tools like this. My mind wants to see Tunnel Goons as a set of tools to use to build a game, but not in a premeditated fashion.

But of course, this is Nate Treme's ruleset, his groundwork, and so it's coded for his brain, not mine. While I was first thinking about things I could build with Tunnel Goons, I realized that I actually needed to re-code some parts of the rules to allow my brain to parse the ruleset more intuitively, and that's what we're going to talk about: the (slight) changes to Tunnel Goons that will help my brain navigate hacking the shit out of it.


I love parallelism and alliteration and consonance and anything that makes a pattern out of similar things, even if a pattern isn't necessary. I naturally connect things that don't exactly need to be connected. Sometimes, this helps me remember things better, sometimes it helps me understand them better, who knows. "This is not an isolated incident" is a phrase that keeps popping up in my thought and creative processes, and so I decided that a few things in Tunnel Goons need more consistent naming for me to intuit them better.

Grit, Guile & Genius

Tunnel Rats codes both Ability Scores and Character Classes into three "classes," representing a degree of expertise with a certain sort of thing: Brute, Skulker and Erudite. These three don't have equal weight in my mind. Two are adjectives, two are nouns, all of them are meant to apply to a collection of traits and none of them are categorically used to describe their particular purview. "Brute," for example does cover some "brutish" things, but there's a connotation of connection to Strength and Constitution as well as the Fighter class and possibly subclasses (this is not a tacit connection, but with the use of the term "class," a gamer with old school inclinations is naturally prone to find the connection implicit). And yet not all of those things can, to my mind, be governed by the term "Brute." Instead, I propose a different set of "classes:" Grit, Guile & Genius.

First, there's consonance (or, alliteration with consonants, which works even if "genius" uses a soft "g" sound). Second, all three terms follow the same linguistic rules (they're all nouns, though "genius" can also be used as an adjective). Third, it allows for more latitude when thinking about how characters might do things (my Fighter might be more skilled in Guile than Grit which, I feel, has a different connotation than if he's more Stalker than Brute), pigeon-holing them less into particular roles.

Grit - Strength of body and will.
Guile - Degree of acumen and wit.
Genius - Degree of intellect and inspiration.

These three concepts measure what I'm most interested in when it comes to character ability and makes interesting associations and, for me at least, are a natural reposition of the "classes" of Tunnel Goons. 

Health to Stress

Yeah, I know, this is a very Blades In The Dark change, but it's one that I think is more interesting than talking about just Health. It's hard for me to read Health as anything other than "health of body." There are so many other kinds of health that we can be talking about -- and, indeed, are coded into Tunnel Goons' concept of "Health" -- that considering them all in terms of physical health (even if we're only using language normally reserved for physical health) seems to leave a lot desired.

Whenever a player misses a roll in Tunnel Goons, they take a number of Health points in damage equal to the difference between what they rolled and what they needed to roll. In normal fighty-fight combat, that makes a lot of sense and follows the Dungeon World model of "you miss, you take damage." I like that system a lot; there are consequences to attempting violence. So, if we can do this for Dangerous Actions, why can't it be done for everything?

I know there's been some chatter in the Twitter-RPG-o-sphere lately about "social combat" and how it hasn't worked out for folks, and that may seem close to what I'm talking about here. In fact, I'm talking about advocating for an even broader interpretation: let's treat all conflict like a Dangerous Action. If it's not Dangerous, why are we bothering to roll at all, right? If there's nothing on the line, rolling dice is pretty pointless.

However, if a Dangerous Action is a verbal confrontation with, say, the Gourmand of Shugab goes south and you flub every die roll, you'll naturally take Health damage, right? There are TONS of ways we can understand that. Mental Health damage, Social Health damage, etc., but it feels like  making sure that each type of Health is tacitly covered by Health takes up too much space, both in print and conceptually. Instead, I propose calling it Stress, which removes much of the implicit connection to physical well-being that's natural to the term "Health."

What I'd Make With It

Other than "whatever game my players wanted me to run at any given moment," there are a few ideas I've kicked around that I think Tunnel Goons would be a great fit for. Way back in 2013, I proposed a "Swords & Colonialism" game based on Whitebox Swords & Wizardry, but I feel it would be much better served by going with Tunnel Goons instead (not to mention the fact that I'm in no way interested in writing anything for S&W now). Why not a Cyberpunk game (since that's all the rage now) with classes of Chrome, Connection and Cool? I even thought about rewriting Dwimmermars for Tunnel Goons, but I very much want that to hold true to my vision of a reimagined 1974 D&D given some narrative chops for the ol' Dwimmermars. Really, any half-baked idea that I come up with and think "I oughta make a game outta that" could easily be fit into the Tunnel Goons format, and maybe I will. Personally, though, I think I'm most likely to use my recalibrated version that I've outlined above to do one of my favorite things: invent games on the fly.

Back in 1993, I went to my first GenCon with this other kid who was a year younger than me, Andrew Minnick. At the time, I was 15 and Andrew was 14 and I had gotten Andrew into gaming about six months before. Somehow, Andrew talked his grandfather into taking us from northern Indiana all the way up to Milwaukee for a weekend and somehow I convinced my parents to say yes. (To folks keeping track, 1993 was the year that Wizards of the Coast released M:tG. The cards I went home with from that GenCon helped me pay for a semester of college in the late 90's.)

Andrew and I blew all of our money, every last dime, and walked away with only a handful of games. Lots of Magic cards and a playtest packet for a shitty GURPS wannabe and a copy of It Came From The Late Late Late Show, but that was it. In the back of Andrew's grandpa's station wagon, we started playing an on-the-fly game that very quickly had its own color and character and by the time we hit Chicago, we had a very bizarre campaign in full swing. Rolling dice in the back of that car would have been a nightmare, so we figured something else out (playing cards, maybe?), but now, looking back, I wish we'd taken 2d6, put them inside a vending machine bubble and used Tunnel Goons to hack up what I still remember as one of the best gaming experiences of my life.

*Pay What You Can, which is a much better line of thought that Pay What You Want. Thanks to @guilhermedenovo for the logic.


  1. Thanks for a cool review + diversions.

  2. How about grit grace guile genius glibness

  3. Perhaps viewing a bit less of classes and more similar to an approach, as in fate accelerated or in a wicked age.. How does one overcome a given obstacle, through grit, grace, guile genius or glibness


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