An Endzeitgeist.com review
This rules-lite RPG clocks in at 111 pages if you take away the front cover, TOC, and introduction; a simple character sheet is included in the deal. NOT included in the above page-count would be the inside of front cover and back cover two-page spreads, which contain the most referenced rules – this decision btw. makes running the game much smoother. If you include these in the content count, we’d arrive at 115 pages instead. My review of this RPG system is primarily based on the hardcover print version, which is 15.4 x 1.4 x 21.6 cm in size, but I have also consulted the pdf-version.
Now, at this point, I have to note something important – while this game indeed is an “old school renaissance-”type of game, it is NOT one based on D&D or its iterations, instead using Advanced Fighting Fantasy as its basis, a game I admittedly wasn’t familiar with until I got into Troika. Much like “Into the Odd” and similar games, we do deviate from the classic 6-attribute set-up, though Troika! Deviates imho even further from the classic set-up. While I have thus tagged this as “OSR” due to its aesthetics, it should be considered to be its own beast. If anything, Troika behaves more like a Post-OSR game than any others I’ve covered so far.
Instead of d20-based mechanics, you only use d6s. Regarding dice notation, d666, for example, would mean rolling 3 dice in sequence and then adding the results together, with each denoting e.g. the 10s, 100s, etc.: Rolling a 3 on the first d6, a 2 on the second and a 5 on the last would mean you’d consult entry 325. Most checks will be done using 2d6, which you use to try to roll under or against a target value. The latter is known as “roll vs.” in the system. A double 6 is a failure.
Character generation is a swift process: First, you roll d3 +3 to determine Skill, argueably one of the most important values in the game. Skill behaves as a kind of proficiency bonus – you add it to all skills you have, and these do include spells.
Then, you roll 2d6 +12 – this is your Stamina. Stamina is your hit points. If it’s reduced to 0 and your turn would come up or a turn ends, you die. In non-combat situations, your friends get one chance o prevent your death. Going to negative Stamina kills you instantly. Resting for 8 hours lets you regain 2d6 Stamina, and you can eat provisions to regain d6 Stamina, but only 3/day. I like this – it makes food matter, and means you are less reliant on heal-bot-y classes.
The third important value would be Luck. You roll d6 +6 to determine your Luck. When the GM calls for the “testing of luck”, you attempt to roll under the current luck score. Regardless of whether the test was successful, you reduce the current Luck score by 1. You may always choose to NOT test your luck, which is an interesting angle here. Resting for 8 hours lets you regain 2d6 Luck, to never exceed the starting maximum. Finally, if you have a tie in combat, you can test your Luck – on a success, you break the tie in your favor; you can also test your luck and, on a success, add +2 to the damage value. I strongly suggest playing with the optional rule to test your luck to avoid death – on a success, you instead are wounded, incapacitated, etc.
And that is basically already the core chassis of the engine, though combat does work in a pretty radically different and interesting way: During combat or in situations where determining sequence of action is important, you assemble a bag (the game calls this Stack): You take a container, put an assortment of differently colored dice, chits, coins or similar markers inside; all enemies share one color, and one chit or marker is included per enemy; a player is assigned a color, and there will be a final token of a distinct color that marks the end of the round. The GM will then proceed to blindly draw a chit/die/marker from the container, its color determining who gets to act. It should be noted that players get two such markers each, and that enemies with e.g. abilities like (initiative 2) get 2 markers each. Henchmen contribute 1 marker, and are played by the GM. After acting, the drawn token is removed from the stack. Once the end of the round token is drawn, all tokens are put back in the bag. Magic, poison, and similar ongoing effects are resolved at the end of the round. If enemies grossly outnumber the PCs, or are essentially mooks, you can make use of an enemy initiative limit for them; this is a neat variant rule, for it lets you maintain the danger of facing e.g. a mob, while also keeping sheer enemy numbers from necessarily overpowering the PCs. At the end of the round, once the round-end-token’s been drawn, you shuffle all drawn markers back into the stack.
As you can glean, this makes combat a pretty risky and chaotic endeavor – particularly combat against many enemies; while you only rarely will be doing nothing due to the tendency to roll versus as a response to attacks, combat as such turns out to be fast and lethal. It also manages to feel pretty different from similar rules-lite systems. The unique initiative system of Troika! does an excellent job of portraying the chaos of combat, but it also means that tightly-formulated plans and tactics will only very rarely work as intended. This is obviously a design goal of the game, but it is one to bear in mind and explicitly call out, since some groups enjoy that. The focus of the game, obviously, is more on individual contributions to combat, and improvisation in the chaotic fray, less about party-encompassing tactics and strategies.
There is a card-based initiative alternative available, but I do not own the cards, so I can’t comment on them.
Now, the pdf does codify pretty tightly how combat actions work, what’s possible, etc., and delaying has you put your chit back in the bag, so it’s much less reliable than in comparable systems. Attacking is a roll versus. Ranged attacks are opposed by shield or dodging, melee attacks by other melee attacks; ties mean that neither managed to hit the other in the case of melee attacks. Moving more than 12 feet takes up an action, and shooting into melee has all targets associate random numbers and determine who is hit; casting spells requires Stamina expenditure, and that you roll under your spell, or roll versus a target.
Interesting: In order to draw an item in combat, you have to roll equal to or higher than its position in your character sheet, making item retrieval chaotic, but also allowing you to plan your inventory. It’s simple and exceedingly smart. Like it! When you win a Roll Versus an adversary in combat, you inflict damage – you roll a d6, and consult the charts inside the book’s front cover (again, smart placement!) – roll and weapon (or monster size) determine the damage caused, which is deducted from your opponent’s Stamina. If you roll a double 6 while attacking, you strike a Mighty Blow, win the exchange and inflict double damage – and yes, the engine notes what happens if both combatants do so. Double 1s mean that you fumble and lose the exchange, and the opponent increases their damage roll on the chart by 1. If both parties fumble, they deal damage to each other, with both adding 1 to the damage roll referencing the chart.
Now, to give you an idea: A few weapons ignore up to one point of armor (which btw. serves as Damage Redcution), while others require at least two hands to use. As noted, you roll a d6 and reference the damage tables.
A sword hit can deal anything from 4 to 10 damage; 4 of its 7 entries (d6, plus one entry for damage rolls with bonuses, i.e. 7+) dealing 6 damage; an axe only deals 2 damage on a 1 or 2 on the damage roll, but can deal 2 more damage on the highest 3 entries. This is more easily illustrated with hammers, which have a minimum damage value of 1, and a maximum of 12. Two-handed weapons, particularly fusils and greatswords, are obviously king when it comes to maximum damage capabilities, clocking in at mighty 18 and 24 for the 7+ entries. The two spells causing direct damage are also included here, and, for reference, the minimum damage caused by dragon fire is 6, the maximum a whopping 36 (sans bonus still 24)! And yes, all of these values do not include the potential for mighty blows. The maximum starting Stamina you have is 24. Did someone say overkill?
Cover makes it harder to hit, shields impose a penalty on damage rolls. Armor imposes a penalty on the damage incurred, but does take up item slots. Armor comes in three categories, ranging from -1 (lightly armored) to -3 (heavily armored), and armor takes up as many inventory slots as TWICE its protective value, so 6 slots for heavy armor! To give you an idea of how much armor can matter: Let’s say, someone is hit by a greatsword, and the damage roll comes up as a 6 – that’d be 14 damage! If the victim was wearing heavy armor, they only take 8 damage, as though the damage roll came up as a 3.
Now, regarding these inventory slots: You can only carry up to 12 items. Small items (or ones with a low weight) only take up one slot – e.g. arrows. Unless you go overboard – though that is left to the individual group’s discretion. Large items, like pretty much anything unwieldy or two-handed, take up 2 slots, and carrying more than that imposes massive penalties. So, if you want to play a heavily armored guy with a gretsword, you have a grand total of 4 slots left…choose wisely.
As noted, attacks are executed as rolls versus. But how do you roll that? Well, it’s 2d6 + your Skill value, + advanced skills, if any. Advanced skills are the catch-all term for pretty much anything ranging from spells, to skills, to other abilities. Stealth, Acrobatics and the like are handled the same way as e.g. mathmology (esoteric insight into math, pressure, angles, etc.). Thankfully, the game comes with a pretty well-codified list of such skills. Riding, running, making poisons – all handled as advanced skills. (And yes, being a pilot of a golden barge, for example, is very much part of the deal.)
How are advanced skills determined? Well, they are determined by the Background you choose. A d66-array of those is provided, and these basically represent both your race and class. Each background gets their own distinct page, which, while aesthetically-pleasing, also means that there is quite a lot of dead real-estate in this section. On the plus-side, each of the backgrounds comes with a genuinely novel artwork.
You could end up as a member of the society of porters and basin fillers, as a rhino man, a poorly-made dwarf (endlessly mocked by your fellow created dwarfs), a monkey monger, a parchment witch…or something more mundane.
What’s a parchment witch, you ask? Well it’s one of the things that make Troika! stand out. In many ways, this game has two draws – the uncommon engine, and the implied setting.
Littered throughout this gaming supplement, you’ll have tantalizing, deliberately obscure hints at an implicit setting that truly did capture my interest. Why? Because e.g. the world/plane-model employed, as well as the tone, reminded me less of traditional D&D-esque games, or even other science-fantasy settings, but instead made me flash back to a distinctly British artistic movement, namely the metaphysical poets. This sentence can be found in the introduction: “A science-fantasy RPG in which players travel by eldritch portal and non-euclidean labyrinth and golden-sailed barge between uncountable crystal spheres strung delicately across the hump-backed sky.” There is a very British, subtle humor underlying the setting, and indeed, quite a few of the backgrounds feature herein are, in a way, illustrations of poetic conceits. If that sounds too brainy, let me try explaining it in a different way: Know how Tolkien’s fantasy is pretty much the corner-stone of D&D-esque aesthetics? Troika is at once pre- and post-Tolkien; it is aware of the conventions and has room for them, but instead of being defining fundamental features, they are but one tiny aspect of the implied setting, which instead draws upon both ancient/well-established and contemporary aesthetics to create something radically different.
As a less theory-burdened example: Parchment witches, just fyi, would be undead that can’t give up on splendorous living, thus coating themselves in perfect paper skin. Rain and flame and not popular among them…And yes, several of these backgrounds do actually sport additional rules beyond the list of advanced skill values and possessions. The book also provides some guidance to make your own backgrounds. If you do want to play a renegade rhino man golden barge pilot, that ought to be possible, for example. Consequently, the growing 3pp-scene for Troika has a LOT of backgrounds out there.
This focus on the strange and fantastic is a huge strength of Troika – however, if you’re like me and enjoy lavishly-detailed settings, you won’t necessarily find the like here; Troika, by design, implies rather than states. It does not as much introduce a sample setting, as it introduces a sample aesthetic, which you then proceed to apply in variations to your respective spheres.
This notion of permissive creativity does also extend to the sample spells noted: the classic sentry-spell, for example, has the wizard pluck out a piece of his mind and is risky: It distracts the caster and destroying the smidgeon of the caster’s mind can cause a nasty shock. If you cast “Zed”, you disappear, never to be seen again. Magic is just as odd and weird as the plethora of backgrounds; numbers in brackets after spell names denote the Stamina cost, btw. Presence (1), for example, makes you feel as though watched by a patriarchal figure – some might take solace from that, others not so much. In case you were wondering, the book does include a bestiary, and enemy stats are actually simpler than those of the PCs. Each of the monster entries does come with a d6-based generator to determine the target creature’s mien. The sample monsters cover both the new and old, with novel twists: Goblins serve as vanguard of a labyrinth-creation civilization, lizardmen gravitate to being dull and fat. I also loved to learn that manticores are bibliophiles, and a sympathy snake crawling up your leg may make you despair at the awfulness of life. Totally okay to let go, as the predator mourns with you your demise in their jaws.
Advancement is simple, fyi: Upon using a skill successfully for the first time, you add a tick next to it; upon resting, you roll 2d6 and try to beat your current skill-level. On a success, you increase the skill by one, but you may only do so for up to 3 per rest; after a rest, you delete all ticks made. Improving past 12 requires rolling another 12 to improve by one point. This does mean that characters with lower Skill values will probably have a quicker experience of enhancing their advanced skills.
Anyhow, I was talking about aesthetics, and this is probably one of the strongest features of this RPG – beyond the artworks by Jeremy Duncan, Dirk Detweiler Leichty, Sam Mameli and Andrew Walter, the physical book also does something exceedingly smart – the matte paper of the hardcover is tinted in different shades – one shade for each chapter, making the book look a bit like a pastel rainbow on the side. Making characters? Yellow. Basic rules? Green. Advanced skills and items? Blue. You get the idea. This makes using the book easier, and speeds up the instances where you might need to look up something. The book also does a good job cross-referencing materials. I never felt left alone with a question, I always knew where to look. So yeah, the aesthetics of the implied setting and its presentation form a rather tight unity.
This edition of the game also features an introductory adventure of the most uncommon sort in many ways: The “Blancmage & Thistle” takes place in a strange hotel (with mandrill guards!) of chrome and gold, and focuses very much on jumpstarting a new game and teaching the rules. The adventure is about reaching the “Feast of the Chiliarch” on the 6th floor of the hotel, with two per se very railroad avenues available; the PCs can switch between them, if desired – one would be the stairs, and one the elevator. Both are potentially deadly in genuinely novel ways, and I have NEVER seen a module like it. I usually loathe railroads like this, but it seriously worked for me. A minor nitpick: The adventure hooks available at the feast have their cross-referencing off by 2 pages – the table is found on pg. 106, not on page 104. *tumble weed rolls by* Yeah, I know – I had to find something to complain about, right?
The cartography by Dirk Detweiler Leichty is ART, and something I really loved seeing; that being said, I’d have very much appreciated a key-less version of it, and one could state that it is somewhat low on the utility side of things – I can’t picture dimensions of areas or the like from it, so if the like bothers you, that may be one thing to bear in mind. Now, I *could* comment on the individual challenges of the module, but I don’t want to spoil the details beyond components that are featured in the introductory scene. Let’s just say that the mandrill guards are the least weird thing. No, not kidding.
Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level, further improved since the first iteration of the game that I covered. Layout and artwork, as noted, as important to Troika! – they underline the sheer oddity of the setting, and their conscious refusal to employ tropes associated with most fantasy artwork create a unity with the uncommon system – the totality feels different from most RPGs, and this works particularly well because of how the aesthetics underline the system. The hardcover is a beautiful book; I usually am no fan of fancy pastel-colored paper, but Troika makes it work rather well. Paper is matte and thick, and the binding of the book is sturdy. The pdf has bookmarks for the respective chapter headers and tables.
The numinous edition of Daniel Sell’s Troika! game is a very different type of game from the ones I usually enjoy; as you all know by now, I am usually rather concerned about the consistency and balancing of systems and settings, and gravitate towards long-term campaigns. Troika is a lethal system, particularly sans the optional rules that allow you to prevent death. The exceedingly flat power-curve means that the game works best for burst-like games, shorter campaigns, and the like.
The PCs will never become truly robust, retaining a high degree of fragility. The advancement does allow you to quickly improve, and in many ways, Troika is perhaps best envisioned as a game that is perfect for groups that quickly are bored with a setting, with a character.
The game is lethal, but not in a “screw-you” kind of way; instead, it posits all the possibilities of the crystal spheres under a hump-backed sky and asks you “Okay, what can you envision playing next?” If you’re looking for long campaign play, this is not the best system for that; if you’re looking for a huge accumulation of jamais-vus, however? Then Troika delivers in spades.
Troika is NOT, I repeat, NOT a game competing with D&D, Pathfinder, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, etc. – instead, it is a strange and compelling vision of a game that plays differently, that has different aesthetics. For once, I definitely did not feel like an advertisement slogan lied to me – “The other world’s favorite RPG” hits the nail on the head for me. Troika will not replace DCC or an iteration of D&D for me; it doesn’t try to. If you want your vanilla Tolkien, or the oomphteenth rehash of Planescape, Spelljammer, etc., then this is not what you’re looking for. Instead, it shows you how different old-school roleplaying can be in experience, themes, etc. – and what more can you ask for? This is the game you want to check out if you want to see gaming as a cooperative artform.
As an important aside: The Melsonian Arts Council has done several tremendously awesome things: From community copies to different wealth levels that allow poor individuals screwed by capitalism to get the book, Troika is a system that not just preaches an aesthetic of being alternative…it genuinely lives up to that. If I ever get to meet the author, he’ll get a hug, a firm handshake, or a manly nod, and a beverage, if applicable, from yours truly for that.
As a whole, I consider the numinous edition of Troika, with its streamlined and gorgeous presentation, its unconventional aesthetics and its unique system to be a resounding success. If you’re burned out on the big, common systems, give Troika a spin – I am confident that it’s nigh impossible to finish reading this book and playing the game without having at least a few inspiring Eureka effects. 5 stars + seal of approval, highly recommended for pretty much everyone, particularly if you feel that your game has gone stale; even if you’re not interested in the game, the wealth of ideas herein may well jumpstart your imagination once more.
Endzeitgeist February 2020