The Edge of Specificity - Troika! and Acid Death Fantasy Review
Originally posted on www.therewillbe.games -
Back when I was primarily a board gamer, I found myself quite often wondering why the fantasy worlds described by games are so hidebound â€“ itâ€™s always Howard, Tolkien, some post-World of Warcraft junk, or â€“ god help us â€“ steampunk. Maybe the seasoning is a little different, but the taste is usually the same. What I would look for were games more like Gene Wolfe or an Alejandro Jodorowsky comic, stuff that was more psychedelic or surreal. It turns out that all I had to do was take the tram on down to indie RPG town and there was plenty of that kind of thing. One of the first games I picked up when I started exploring the world of indie RPGs was Daniel Sellâ€™s Troika, published by Melsonian Arts Council.
It's a small, 111 page book offering a rule set based on the old Fighting Fantasy system of all things.. Itâ€™s a streamlined three stat system using only D6s- Skill, Stamina, and Luck. Skill is your basic all-purpose test and you add relevant skill ranks to it to generate a roll-under number. You burn luck when you test it, but if it runs out you can recover it. Stamina is used to cast spells and is also your defacto hit point metric. Combat is based around contested rolls and the initiative mechanic allows for variable round lengths, which I really like. There are a few more details provided; more in fact than some of the more minimalist â€œrules-lightâ€ RPGs afford but weâ€™re still looking at an RPG system with just ten pages of rules â€“ less than most board games these days.
The rules are easy and fun, but where Troika takes flight is in its intentionally vague, open-ended setting. The brilliant phrase â€œtouching the edge of specificityâ€ is a tone that carries through the entire Troika book. This is not one of those ridiculous games where there are endless maps, paragraphs and paragraphs of lore, and extensive details of the fiction. In fact, the setting is barely even a paragraph â€“ portals, extraplanar spheres, non-euclidian labyrinths, et cetera. Itâ€™s suggested that Troika is a city, and maybe thatâ€™s enough to go on? I love this line from the introduction â€“ â€œâ€¦the adventure and wonder is in the gaps.â€
When I first discovered Troika, I was trying to pull together one of those big, book-based campaigns for the Leading Brand of role-playing games. I was doing all of this prep work, reading about all these events, characters, people, lore, faction politics, and so on and it was just completely exhausting me. And thatâ€™s before trying to tie in player charactersâ€™ backstories and the events of our ongoing game. But here was Troika, where your randomly-generated character background might be Cacogen, a Rhino-Man, or a Parchment Witch. Or a tops-and-tails wearing magician rabbit like what my daughter decided to play. Thereâ€™s a small description and a skill list for each stock background, but the rest is up to you. It's easy enough to create your own backgrounds as well, and of course there are tons out there in the community. Thereâ€™s â€œjust enoughâ€ of everything, from rules to details, to make Troika work as a conduit for endless imagination.
The spell list and bestiary are likewise â€œjust enoughâ€, right there at the edge of specificity. But also too, this is a book rich with Sellâ€™s gentle guidance â€“ for example, each bestiary entry has a Mien table which gives the GM a one-word random reaction or attitude with which to potentially present the encounter. The spells are mostly familiar fare, but the descriptions open up new possibilities with allusion and unique interpretations. I love the description of â€œExchange Shape â€“ â€œwhat looks like a hug is in fact fell wizardry!â€
There is an introductory adventure included which does a lot, I think, to set the tone of the game apart from the standard fantasy RPG tropes. Itâ€™s a hotel-set scenario called â€œThe Blancmange & Thistleâ€ and it is like some kind of madcap, farcical cross between Lewis Carroll, classic Warhammer Fantasy adventures like A Rough Night at The Three Feathers and Discworld. PCs arrive at the titular hotel and are trying to make it to their sixth floor room. Thatâ€™s the adventure. There are Mandrill bellhops, a sweet old lady met in an elevator offering up magical bonbons, a stairwell full of spiteful owls, and a raging rooftop party. It is stuffed to bursting with plenty of foundational hooks for future Troika adventures.
Troika is loose, freeing, and unafraid to let a GM and the players run amuck with wild ideas without stiff rules or fake histories interfering with the joy of creating a bespoke science-fantasy world. But it does require that both the GM and the players be up for a potentially more absurd, more whimsical, and more unfettered experience than what many RPGs offer. Iâ€™ve found that it suits the kinds of games I like to run the best, because for the most part I believe that RPGs are as much about improv comedy as they are about heroic adventure bullshit. Iâ€™ve also found that Troika is great to run for kids or very inexperienced role-players. These kinds of players are more likely to appreciate the leeway they are given and are much less likely to be fussed that one character background is unbalanced or that a turn of events doesnâ€™t make logical sense.
The new second printing of Troika is out there now (I recommend buying direct from the publisher or Exalted Funeral), and itâ€™s a lovely book with clean design and some outstanding illustrations including several from Dirk Detwiler Leitchy, one of my favorite RPG illustrators currently working. They also did that cool thing where helpful tables and information are printed in the inside covers. Definitely one of the top titles in the current RPG renaissance that is going on right now.
Now, Melsonian has also just released Luke Gearingâ€™s Acid Death Fantasy. The title alone made this one a must-have as far as Iâ€™m concerned because it more or less sums up exactly my tastes. This is a 45 page hardcover that is something of a setting book for Troika but perhaps â€œinspiration bookâ€ is more appropriate, all things considered. I think there is a big miss here in that this book doesnâ€™t have a introductory scenario like â€œThe Blancmange & Thistleâ€, because this book really takes Troika into a different â€“ and more specific - direction while still carrying forward that â€œedge of specificityâ€ design brief. I really would like to have had a kick-off scenario here if only to have something ready to play out of the gate.
Whatâ€™s here though, is gold. This post-apocalyptic world sits somewhere between Dune, Dark Sun, and Jean-Girard Moebius. So, frankly speaking, Mr. Gearing had me from page 1. By page 2 he was done describing the setting of Acid Death Fantasy and I was left to my own devices. But there is a little more to work with in terms of raw materials â€“ just donâ€™t expect detailed dungeon maps, extensive descriptions of the Thousand Sultanates, city descriptions and so forth. Thereâ€™s a rough map and a â€œstuff to doâ€ list of potential activities, and of course lots of nuance and subtle detail comes out in the list of PC backgrounds (all of which are compelling) and a new bestiary. There are other places to find nuggets of inspiration for storylines, plot hooks, or random weirdness, such as a â€œCurrent Fad of the Momentâ€ and a â€œTrouble Afootâ€ table.
In short, this book offers plenty of elements for an Acid Death Fantasy one-shot or ongoing campaign, but it will require the GM to do a little more work to develop storylines or campaign material. But note that when I say that, Iâ€™m still not talking about the kinds of massive prep chores that some players of the more popular RPGs conduct. If you do all of that, I think you are missing the point of games like Troika, where improvisation and making things up as you go is where the magic happens. This is a game where, in its intro adventure, it suggests that you make up a skill mid-game to give players for a specific test.
Both of these books are light and liberating, artful and absurd. I love (and own) almost all of Melsonianâ€™s books and in the coming weeks Iâ€™ll be covering some of their other releases. So stay tuned. One of the great rewards of writing about games is to be able to expose folks to offbeat, progressive, and under-the-radar titles and it is my great pleasure to vouch for these excellent books.
As usual, There Will Be Games does not accept payment for any of our content but Melsonian kindly supplied us with a package of review copies.
There Will Be Games | Melsonia | September 2021
Troika is Amazing British Weirdness
Originally published at technicalgrimoire.com:
"Troika is really good. Iâ€™ve written and re-written this review several times, and i eventually settled on just rambling about why I like it. I hope you can follow the meandering nonsense.
So if youâ€™re just looking for a review, Troika is a really interesting and fun RPG that provides a nice contrast to D&Dish games we see so much of. You should buy it. Be sure to get the physical copy if you can, because itâ€™s VERY pretty and well-organized for use at the table.
Also I made a handy rules reference for Troika. Oh! and a mobile-friendly character generator. Did I mention that I really like this game?
Also, Also I donâ€™t use the word â€œweirdâ€ as a negative thing. Especially in this review I use it to mean a breath of fresh air, something unique and exciting.
A Quick History Lesson:
Dungeons and Dragons was published in 1974 and was very popular (perhaps youâ€™ve heard of it). Most of the games that Iâ€™ve played are either derived from D&D, or are actively being different from D&D. Itâ€™s hard to find any game that hasnâ€™t been affected by Gygax.
However in Britain there was a game called Fighting Fantasy (published in 1982) that really took off. Similar to â€œChoose Your Own Adventureâ€ books, Fighting Fantasy expanded the concept with a simple RPG system that included character creation, combat, and overcoming obstacles. So it might say something like â€œRocks are falling on you. Roll a Luck test. If you succeed, turn to pg 34, if you fail turn to page 97â€. The book itself was your GM! What a cool concept.
I donâ€™t actually know how much/little Gygax impacted FF, but it FEELS very different from D&D.
I had never heard of Fighting Fantasy until I started doing research for Troika, and now I wish I had grown up in the UK. I really loved CYOA books as a kid, and the idea that a D&Dish book adventure existed would have blown my 8 year old mind. Heck, it blows my 28 year old mind!
Troika uses FF as the base for its rules, but is a more traditional RPG (requires a GM, multiple players, etc). And to further set itself apart from Fighting Fantasy it injects a huge dose of quirky British fantasy weirdness into the game.
The Importance of â€œFlavorâ€
My first RPG was 4th edition. I played as a Deva Healer. I read the race description, all the rules, the culture, etc. But it didnâ€™t really come to life. Perhaps I should have read more, or invested more energy; but my race felt more like a collection of skats and skills rather than a backstory.
Compare that to Troika, where every character background is overflowing with evocative imagery.
Sorcerer of the College of Friends: â€œAs an integral part of your tutelage in the sub-dimensional academy of the Cordial Wizard God you spent your childhood learning about the fate of pixies, the colour of magic, ritual grammar, and endless other theoretical topics. Now youâ€™re out in the world, discovering that your education hardly accounted for any of the things that youâ€™ve seen.â€
Canâ€™t you immediately see how to play that kind of character? Unfamiliar with market haggling, doesnâ€™t know about local politics, perhaps naive or snobby. And thatâ€™s one of the more common/familiar backgrounds. Go click the character generator a few times, and youâ€™ll get a good feel for the kind of flavor Troika provides.
The praise for â€œflavorâ€ is pretty rare for me; Iâ€™m usually more of a mechanics-first kind of gamer. Luckily Troika delivers in that area as well.
I Love Skills
I dislike intensive, drawn out character creation. I also prefer games that allow for flexible character advancement. Picking from a huge list of 1000 pre-made feats doesnâ€™t count! Kintsugi and Clink were both heavily focused on building your character through play, rather than frontloading everything.
And Troika has a similar way of learning and growing character skills. Instead of increasing stats or health, characters can only learn/improve skills. This is not a limitation, but a freedom! Skills are a flexible system for representing character ability. Even spells are skills! Skills can include stuff like:
3 Spell - Life Link
So far my players have really enjoyed the potential that skills bring, and theyâ€™re eager to learn more.
And now some random facts that made me fall in love with the game:
Troika includes an adventure with the book. Is it a dungeon crawl? Maybe a monster hunt? No, itâ€™s a strange hotel filled with colorful characters and strange situations.
Initiative is handled by placing tokens into a bag and pulling them out to see who goes next. And one of the tokens is the â€œEnd Roundâ€ token. This makes combat unpredictable and crazy.
Luck is one of your primary stats and is rolled whenever something happens TO you (dodging an explosion, avoiding detection, bandaging a wound, etc). And it goes down the more its used; so characters end the day out of luck and close to danger.
Weapons use a â€œdamage chartâ€. So a sword might have a chart like the one below:
1 2 3 4 5 6 7+
3 3 3 6 6 7 12
Which means you roll a d6, add any modifers to the roll, and consult the chart to see how much damage it actually does. This allows weapons to have VERY different damage spreads and flavor.
As I said at the top, itâ€™s really good. And different. And weird. You should buy it.
Melsonia | Melsonia | September 2021