[Review] Triumph of Death (Storygame); Misery Tourism at its finest

[Core Game]
Triumph of Death (2018)
Karl Larsson (Mutant Chiron Games)

Variety is the spice of life. I figured I’d change up the formula a little bit and do a review of a non OSR game that looks sufficiently metal every once in a while. After all, I wouldn’t have discovered Xas Irkalla if I’d have stuck with the Oldschool corner of the elfgame universe now wouldn’t I? Unfortunately for me I discovered several pages in that Triumph of Death is a storygame and I HATE storygames. As a test of my abilities I have decided to review it anyway, with the bonus objective of making the review sufficiently intelligible so that even PEOPLE THAT LIKE STORYGAMES would be able to figure out if it was something for them or not.

Triumph of Death is named after the famous high medieval painting depicting what I can only assume to be a typical South American country after the implementation of socialist policies…

The-Triumph-Of-Death
Something something something equality something something something historically inevitable something something something never been implemented properly

…and takes place in a pseudo-historical Europe based off one of the darkest and terrifying events of European History; The Black Plague! Death reaps a bountiful harvest! Wealthy and poor! Young and Old! The sinner and the pious alike! The End Times are upon us! None are safe from the Grinning Death!

Sadly my initial enthusiasm diminished a fraction upon reading the introductory fiction. The vocabulary is contemporary, clumsy though intelligible english in a place that really needed medieval-ish english to properly establish the tone and setting. It’s subtle and therefore hard to explain but it bugged me. Nevertheless, the description of the plague’s terrifying effects upon its victims as well as its near instantaneous onslaught set the stage reasonably well.

My enthusiasm positively plummeted when I read that instead of Kingdom Come; The Black Death, I was going to be treated to a game that was not about grimdark heroism and dashing swordplay against the backdrop and anarchy of a world consumed by the Scourge of God but was instead about awful things like ‘exploring themes’ and ‘looking for purpose in a world that’s falling apart’ and ‘what it would be like to kiss a boy’ which is all well and good but can I at least enjoy myself some grimdark heroism and dashing swordplay while I do so? No? Damn it.

Triumph of Death takes place in pseudo-Europe and I can understand why this choice was made. While it easy to accuse the author of laziness the use of a setting that is essentially similar but not identical is a correct one for two main reasons; One) because a storygame is fundamentally about exploring a theme or idea with the mechanics being designed to do that thing and that thing only (and often not even that), and setting the place in historical Europe would burden both the author and the GM with a deluge of research which would only serve to create a promise of historical emulation that is outside the design parameters of the game and Two) because the game relies on the Grinning Death operating a certain way which is directly tied into the game mechanics which has no known counterpart in historical pathology. In order to avoid the Dark Albion problem [1], filing off the serial numbers was indeed the correct way to go about it.

The eponymous Grinning Death is extremely contagious (the people have no idea how it spreads, they suspect it spreads itself through sight) and manifests itself suddenly, through fits and seizures (the dance of death) and ends abruptly in death, the victims facial features drawn into a hideous rictus. This sudden onset is a key part of the game mechanics and ties into the theme of the game, which is how one maintains relationships, ideals and goals in a world fraught with seemingly random death.

Character creation

In true storygame fashion, the mechanics are insufficiently complex to properly facilitate normal gameplay and can exist only with liberal applications of GM’s Discretion. Character creation is so open-ended as to beg the question of whether one is still describing a ruleset or merely some sort of meta-character generation treatise.

Your character is some sort of medieval dude or dame of whatever station you can come up with and is defined by a Concept, Six Descriptiors, a Cause and a Relationship. That sounds really fucking vague but you cannot grasp the vagueness properly until you experience it for yourself.

Character concept is any typically medieval character as long as he has some sort of dynamic tension to him. The game recommends going beyond say, the character concept ‘a knight’ into something that creates more friction like ‘an elderly knight with a stolen title’ but then quickly backpaddles in the final paragraph which feels like its trying to be nice to the moron players that are too stupid to come up with an interesting character concept.

There is also a case to be made for simple and plain concepts.
First of all, the story of the character is in the future, not in the past. How they used to be might not be that important as the potential that lays ahead. Secondly, some players prefer to get to know their character as they play them, and don’t want to burden
their creativity with a too detailed concept. 

Speaking as a veteran roleplayer, if you cannot describe your character concept in less then three sentences it is a piece of shit and you should replace it with something that is recognizable. Players that try to Ryan Johnson the shit out of everything with their ‘not your typical elf’ bullshit should just get bent. Vampire the Masquerade players are by far the worst offenders, followed by anyone who plays a tiefling but any game without a wholesome class system to give structure to these idiots is a potential moral hazard that bears watching. So the above is actually good advice, it just contradicts the paragraph that precedes it.

Next up is your Cause, the central driving force behind your character. Since your cause is central to the theme of maintaining some sort of continuity in a world fraught with uncertainty and death, it should come as no surprise the game spends all of 7 sentences on it and comes up with examples like ‘to be chivalrous’ or ‘to have a good time’ which comes across as simplistic to the point of banality. On the other hand, a straightforward goal or cause will probably hold true and survive where the more elaborate backstoryfagging is sure to be cast aside after a session or two but literally anyone can come up with this sort of stuff. Try harder.

Descriptors are where it’s at, essentially the Ability Scores of ToD. Unlike Ability Scores, they are essentially ordinal, and add a single dice to the character’s dice pool whenever ‘they would be significant.’ That’s pretty fucking vague right there. Descriptors are subdivided into Body, Mind, Favor, Flaw, Standing and Faith. You are supposed to just jot down the first thing that comes to mind, even if it is vague or would technically cover multiple descriptions. Take note that Descriptors always ADD a dice, even if they are negative. So even if you pick the Mind Descriptor “DULLED BY AGE” that descriptor can still give you a bonus. Even the Flaw descriptor gives you a bonus. It really doesn’t matter if you pick “scrawny midget holocaust survivor body” or “Adonis-like robot-mech,” they both add a maximum of one dice “when relevant”. What a bunch of fucking bullshit.

Last is the Relationship. Each character starts off with one Relationship with one other character which is “best if it has some dynamic and tension in it.” Gee thanks genius.
How about instead of giving us solid advice like “games should be exciting and fun and not boring and filled with faggotry” you actually give us some damn advice on how to go about that. A handful of short descriptions and we are cast into the cold to fend for ourselves. You’d think a central game mechanic would be given a little more elaboration but FUCK YOU. We sort of have an idea when “Kirk thinks Spock is good at math but also autistic” would be “relevant” but this is all so bare bones and open ended they might as well have dropped the whole fucking thing.

Characters don’t really gain in strength or ability, but they change as they complete ‘Tales,’ which is kind of lame and fatalistic. Every time you complete a ‘Tale’ you can change your Cause, Relationship, Descriptor or opt to gain a Mystic ability if appropriate. The last one is the closest thing your character can get to levelling up, and these abilities are consequently the most interesting by far. They border on the miraculous but leave the existence of the supernatural open to interpretation, which I love in a historical setting. Holiness (win theological discussions with a few words, resist all temptation), Witchcraft (craft remedies, terrify with a curse), True Sight (detect all lies, see what is hidden), Animal Speak, Visions and the badass Divine Suffering! Resist ANY PAIN and survive the most heinous injuries. You can just see the blood-cacked flagellants marching though the muddied streets piled with corpses while carts ridden by plague masked doctors ride by accompanied by the tolling of a great bell. Some cool medieval abilities entirely in keeping with the theme of the game. I mean, they don’t have a mechanical impact in the form of dice but you can theoretically find something to do with them, maaaaybe?

And that was character creation. My recommendation is to change this game into a roguelike, use the descriptors as modifiers to base statts with actual mechanical components and just assign them randomly at character creation, thus incrementally increasing the strength of your character as you survive tales. Ah las that can’t happen because it would be too much about winning and fun and this is a serious meditation on death yadda yadda yadda. On to the mechanics.

Mechanics

Mechanics are fairly simple. All conflict is resolved via rolling several d6s. A roll of 1-3 means failure, 4-6 means success. The highest number in the pool counts. To add a little graininess to the game, 1 is a critical failure and 6 a critical success, while 3 and 4 are conditional successes and failures respectively. Just exactly what constitutes Additional Failure or Success is left up to the GM and is left so open it may as well be meaningless, but to the game’s credit subsequent examples are given.

Once again, there is no variation in difficulty so talking your way past a drunken gate-guard has the same base chance of success as singlehandedly fighting your way past an entire army armed with only a whiffle bat and some harsh language. The closest thing to difficulty is the Impact of the event, which is actually determined BY THE NUMBER of dice that are cast. Because of the nature of probability, this also means that your character is MORE LIKELY to succeed as the scope and impact of the problem increases, which is bizarre and counter-intuitive. The consequences for failure are also meant to increase here, and in a rare break from the usual storygaming fare, it is ACTUALLY possible, though very unlikely, to die during combat if you roll a Momentous Defeat against a story-significant enemy, though the game is quick to remind you that you should give players ONE chance to turn the tide.

Dice pool is a minimum of 1 and a maximum of 3. You can add an additional dice if you have an appropriate descriptor, Cause or Relationship Dice (the game is very vague on when exactly you can apply this). The ONLY good mechanic in the game is a risk reward mechanic called the Plague Mechanic, which is central to the atmosphere and theme of the game.

If you roll doubles on any dice save your Descriptor Dice, you have rolled a Plague Result! That means the narrative shifts dramatically as a story significant NPC nearby is now stricken with the plague and will die. A triple result means YOUR CHARACTER DIES OF PLAGUE, even though all your characters are already plague survivors that have suffered the wracking visions. This mechanic is actually somewhat interesting in how it models the uncertainty of living in a plague stricken world and keeps everything exciting and unpredictable, even for the GM. It drives the central model of adventure in Triumph of Death, that the PCs are survivors wandering from community to community, settling down, before being forced to move on as the plague destroys more lives.

Structure

The game takes some time to explain what it envisions an actual adventure or “Tale” to be and if it weren’t for the horribly broken and unworkable mechanics, it doesn’t sound that terrible, albeit a little on the tedious side. The idea is that your band of plague-wracked survivors finds some sort of community (consisting of a number of individuals having some internal conflict), settle down for a short while and get to know the band only to have the onset of plague disturb whatever solace could be found. Each tale ends in two ways, death or the PCs having to move on again, starting a new cycle.

There is some sort of pretentious section on different types of Tales labelled Danse Macabre, which uses latin dance metaphors to outline different forms of pacing for different tales but the form serves only to confuse, not to clarify. If one criticism can be levelled against Triumph of Death, it is that it is often to vague as to be useless, and this section suffers the most from it.

And now the only section of the game that deserves credit and that has genuine merit. Normally, in what is your typical lazy storygame, the goateed, beret-wearing author is content to lean back after he has dispensed his half-baked mechanics with the occasional clever idea with maybe a single bit of setting information (setting in storygames is meaningless and treated only as a vehicle to facilitate the all important THEME), but full credit where it is due, Larrsson is by no means lazy.

More then half of Triumph of Death consists of descriptions of the pseudo-historical Storbst Valley, and each is essentially an adventure scenario or ‘tale’ for ToD. Each is essentially a location coupled with a collection of NPCs, some of which tend to have contradictory objectives or attitudes, existing in a precarious balance before the PCs show up. The ideas here are good, and makes one hope, nay even believe, if only for a second, that this game can actually be played.

A leper colony that houses outcast plague survivors and the two camps are about ready to go to war. A caravan where all travelers have a hidden past. A secluded pagan community that has started offering up human sacrifices to ward off the plague. A city just recovering from the worst effects suffering another, even more terrible plague. Noblemen’s sons playing flute and making merry in the hills to defy apocalypse. The scenarios are vivid, fit the theme perfectly and the NPCs are interesting enough to serve their purpose.

I can argue a little bit about the at times hokey names like “Einsamen plains” and WineLant but the simple, almost brutish nature of the place names actually drives the atmosphere. Each tale is given a tagline to explain the theme it is meant to explore, and generally delivers on its promise.

Verdict

It is verdict time. I don’t rate Storygames since I don’t think they are proper RPGs but Triumph of Death is at least alright for what it is. The public domain medieval art (all of death, naturally) helps drive home the atmosphere, the scenarios are alright and the plague mechanic is inventive. If it had not been for the utterly broken nature and maddening ambiguity of the core mechanics,  this one would have been alright. Rework it to an OSR chassis, make randomly generated variable traits, keep the plague mechanic and turn it into a roguelike or something. And for godssake, stop outsourcing to the GM what is best handled by mechanics (combat, effective conflict resolution) and outsourcing to the mechanics what is best handled by the GM (tension, story pacing). Memento Mori bitches. This is Prince, signing off.

[1] The problem whereby immersion is ruined by postulating a world that is identical to our own with a supernatural phenomenon which would disrupt the formation of said world in a thousand different ways.

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