Game Review: Troika! Numinous Edition
|Troika! Numinous Ed. Cover Art,
By Andrew Walter, © 2018
Author: Daniel Sell
Publisher: Melisonian Arts Council
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, itch.io
Engine: Dungeoneer! / Fighting Fantasy
Troika! is a surreal fantasy role-playing game by Daniel Sell, published by the Melsonian Arts Council. Touted as the "Other World's Most Popular Role Playing Game", Troika! offers a surreal and otherworldly setting, strange characters, and unconventional challenges.
Troika! is powered by the venerable Dungeoneer (a.k.a Advanced Fighting Fantasy) engine, created by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone for their Fighting Fantasy solo role-playing books, and then the later Titan setting. the Fighting Fantasy games were immensely popular in Canada, Australia, and the UK when I was a child in the 1980s, and have made a recent resurgence. Troika! take some of the strange and surreal elements of those games, and turns it up to 11
For those who missed out, the Dungeoneer system uses three statistics Skill, Stamina, and Luck. Skill represents the characters ability to solve problems with a combination of their intellect, agility, and physical training. Stamina takes the place of hit points, and is depleted by injury and exhaustion, and restored by rest and eating. Luck is a statistic that a character attempts to roll under on a 2d6 to avoid surprise, dangers, or to serve as a tiebreaker in combat. Luck is a depleting resource, with the attribute slowly going down with each roll. It can be restored with extended rest, heroism, religious service, and moments of good fortune
|Dungeoneer cover, by
John Sibbick ©1989, Puffin Books
Combat and contested rolls are resolved by rolling two d6 and adding skill, then comparing results. Most other tasks are resolved by rolling two d6 and trying to get under Skill or Luck..
Troika! takes the best of the supplemental rules introduced in various Fighting Fantasy solo game books. It also makes characters unique by giving them a handful of advanced skills rated between 1 and 5. To test these skills, they are added to a character's Skill attribute (which is generally lower than it was in the old Fighting Fantasy books) to determine a target you must meet or roll under. That way, characters are only particularly good at resolving problems that match their character's background. In fact, the average character only has a 10 in 36 chance I was succeeding a task for which they have no background skills.
Character progression is handled by noting which skills were used in the last adventure, and allowing the character to choose three to roll for a chance to improve them by 1.
Overall, it is a good overhaul in modernization of a classic system. I am glad to see other systems from the early days of fantasy role-playing making a comeback. I have seen Troika! described as part of (or even a cornerstone of-) the BOSR, that is, the British Old School Renaissace, which focuses on building on games like Warhammer Fantasy and Dungeoneer the same way the broader OSR focuses on Dungeons & Dragons.
A lot of the difference between the OSR and BOSR is down to aesthetics. Older British role playing games tended to have a grimmer tone, combat was often a little less lethal than in Dungeons & Dragons, but could leave your character scarred and maimed far more readily. Dark humour and strange, alien monsters were a big part of what made the old British games unique.
I'm not sure I can really say as though Troika! fits the grimdark aesthetic of many British old school games, although, it certainly has strange and alien down. If anything, I would describe Troika!'s aesthetic as whimsical.
What I loved
Much of the setting of Troika! is either implied, or described in cryptic and flowery language. You wouldn't even know that Troika is supposed to be a city on the junction between multiple alternate realities if you hadn't read the early marketing material on their website, or done a fairly close reading of the introductory adventure.
This is intentional. The aim is to give you enough information to spark you are imagination, and then get you to invent in the rest. Many of the heavily flavoured sections of the book, such as the descriptions of the character backgrounds and monsters do more to establish a tone and aesthetic then a detailed setting.
Some sections are oddly specific about things, such as the proper way to capture Gremlins, or the reproductive process of dwarves, while others, like who exactly is the red priesthood and what are they interested in, are left entirely to your imagination.
But we can establish some things by piecing it all together. What can be derived is that Troika is a very 18th century feeling metropolis intersection of planes and alternate realities. We know some people travel here by science, some by magic, and some by bargains with otherworldly beings, and some by cosmic accident. We know that gods and devils running the streets, and that magic and high science live side-by-side (And are possibly indistinguishable). If I were to try to compare it to any media setting, I would say the resort town of Oil from Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away is the closest approximation I can point to.
In any case, the skill sets of the characters, the types of monsters described, and the introductory adventure definitely encourage you to take a tongue-in-cheek approach, and to aim for the strange, ssurreal, and absurd.
Certainly there is a tendency in the introductory adventure, "Blancmange and Thistle" and further hooks to present dangerous, but non-violent situations as a norm for the game. For example, in the introductory adventure, one of the encounters includes trying to help a giant sentient slug King get unstuck from a stairwell while dealing with his overzealous guards.
|"Gremlin Hunter" by
Dirk Lietchy © 2018
Character backgrounds are one of the most outstanding features of Troika!. there are a total of 36 of them, and they are determined for your character randomly by rolling a d66. They range from the conventional, like Burglar, to the bizarre, like the Befouler of Ponds, to the weird, like Poorly Made Dwarf, for the down right humorous, like the muscle-bound culinarian Fellow of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks.
The backgrounds in Troika! are one of the most unusual and colourful ones I've ever seen. They cleverly give you a notion of character, give you your character's abilities, come with built-in adventure hooks, and build the world all at the same time.
The sample adventure included in Troika! Numinous Edition, "Blancmange and Thistle" involves the player characters as several strangers who are new to Troika and trying to find a hotel room during a festival. Forced to accept to share a suite on the 6th floor, the goal of the adventure is simply to reach your hotel room.
Among the obstacles you can encounter: the giant slug monarch described above, a living cloud of gas that doesn't understand you need to breathe and has no concept of personal space, a mysterious entity that just popped into existence next to you that decides to adopt you as its family, and a trainer who insists on stuffing the elevator with nervous tigers.
This adventure creates numerous conflict and hazards without ever needing a character to draw sword. The encounters are almost entirely nonviolent in orientation, and require player creativity to overcome.
Moreover, it helps at making the setting of Troika! more interesting. It challenges the Game Master to come up with offbeat encounters that turn the everyday into The surreal and extraordinary. It challenges us to look at something like people being rude on an elevator as a potential challenge for role-playing scenario.
Troika! Has a generously open license:
Anyone may publish free or commercial material based upon and/or declaring compatibility with “Troika!” without express written permission from the publisher, the Melsonian Arts Council, as long as they adhere to the following terms:If your product declares compatibility with Troika! you must state the following in your legal text and on any websites from which a commercial product is sold: “[product name] is an independent production by [publisher name] and is not affiliated with the Melsonian Arts Council.”The Melsonian Arts Council takes no responsibility for any legal claims against your product.
This license has created a large and dedicated community that creates a lot of content for Troika!
"Gremlin Hunter" by
Dirk Lietchy © 2018
The artwork in Troika! can be scant in the rules section, but where it appears, such as Dirk Detweiler Lietchy's work the character background section, it is compelling work.
Character backgrounds are presented in a style reminiscent of Tarot cards. The artwork on them is a mixture of cubism art nouveau, and surrealism that uses colour line and geometry to express what the character archetype is about rather than trying to simply depict it.
I doubt the artwork in Troika! has universal appeal to all role playing game fans, but for a fan of modern art, I rather enjoyed them. It certainly is a different approach, which is welcome.
I also have high praise in particular for the cover and the hotel map at the end of the adventure
Too Big a "Mystery Box"
Troika! uses things like the character backgrounds and the adventure to suggest some details, while refusing to overtly explain anything about the setting. This works to encourage Game Masters to create their own interpretation, certainly.
However, taken to an extreme, expecting your audience to fill in the blanks for you becomes a vice. If you're unwilling to say anything definitive about the setting it can actually make it harder to imagine scenarios for it. I'm happy to play, and imagine a world in which the Red Priesthood hunts angels and demons, at the same time that the Sublime Society Beef Steaks pursue monastic personal perfection through the study of both Martial Arts & BBQ, and make both factions work. But, a little help in that regard would be appreciated. Troika! leans heavily on the imagination of the GM to the point of potentially causing option pata.ysus.
Selectively shrinking the mystery box a little bit would be very welcome.
It is, of course, not lost on me that part of the point of Troika! is that it is a doorway to alternate realities, and perhaps shouldn't be too concrete, and having hundreds of alternate versions of it would make a certain kind of sense.
Troika!'s art and prose certainly do not shy away from beating both artistic and artful. Certainly, one cannot afford to write game rules in the same vein as the introductory fluff. In the case of Troika!, however, the rule section is laid out like an ISO compliance manual with numerated sections and subsections filled with extraordinary terse and technical language. It gave flashbacks to my days as a software developer.
This juxtaposition is really jarring. I had to put down the manual for a moment the process it. A reorganization using multiple columns, written section headings, and a little prose might add a couple of pages to the book, but would do a world of good for the reading experience.
Deathtrap Dungeon cover by
Iain McCraig ©1989 Puffin Books
No Credit Given to Fighting Fantasy
I was unable to find any reference to Steve Jackson, Ian Livingstone, Dungeoneer, or the Fighting Fantasy books. I would have liked to have seen them credited or at least acknowledged. Especially as they represent a potential resource for new Game Masters. There you have five dozen pre-made adventures that can be bought in used book stores across the English-speaking world for a couple of bucks each.
NOTE: after talking to Daniel Sell, I gathered that the lack of credit is a choice of the current rights holders for Fighting Fantasy. I am baffled by it, myself. I am glad to be able to clarify the point, however.
One way or another, the old FF books remain an excellent resource once you are aware of the compatibility.
In the OSR community there's a certain chauvinism about dungeons & dragons. Because it was ostensibly the first in a genre of game, and the one many people started with, it tends to be the one that gets cloned, discussed, mythologized and documented. But it certainly wasn't the only one from the Golden era of role-playing games worth exploring again. Dungeoneer and the fighting fantasy solo adventure games or a huge part of the childhood of a lot of gen-xers and, was a much lighter system than almost anything else at the time. It still remains an excellent template for a rules late game
Troika also attempts to be a work of art as well as a game. It succeeds better at most that attempt it. I would suggest that the poetic narrative structure, making surreal the everyday, the expressive and representational artwork, all are very successful. I have yet to see a game i do a better job of mixing art and