Daniel Sell (Melsonian Arts Council)
It is time to take another critical Artpunk darling to task! We’ve done Mork Borg, which is not without some problems but could certainly be used for some 1-3 hour sessions between serious gaming, so what about Troika! Winner of a million awards! Indie darling! Occasionally notorious for having a fanbase with maybe some mentally-unstable twitter activists! Le Ennies! Le Critically Acclaimed Writing! Le retenir un pet en faisant du vélo! The Avantgarde Art! Are you ready to have your socks rocked off by TRVE sophisticated highbrow entertainment?
Troika is a 120-page OSR-adjacent game based on the Fighting Fantasy ruleset and is probably a good illustration of the relative differences in strengths between the artistic crowd and the more conservative oldies. For adventures, random tables, dungeon-dressing, novelty, freshness, relentless creativity is an asset that can be wielded to create something extraordinary. DCO, Gardens of Ynn, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I am not an Artpunk fan but there are some gems there. The games are a different story. Game design is one part art and three parts engineering. You are building a complex framework of rules meant to simulate fantastical adventure. Troika! bypasses some of these initial difficulties by porting over its core rules from a tried and true albeit obscure source but the end result is still something with lots of ideas but mostly little idea how to harness them.
The premise is intoxicating with the promise of infinite potential. We are treated to an implied setting, the megapolis of Troika located somewhere in the heart of a universe of crystal spheres, kept together by star-spanning fleets of golden barges, a kaleidoscopic mixture of influences lifted from Moorcock, Book of the New Sun, Planescape and WHFRPG. These disparate nuggets, each with lovingly crafted whimsical prose, is meant to delight and astonish, and soon you, the innocent and neotenal OSR-newcomer, will be giggling with glee like a teenage girl after her first pony ride. But to me, the jaded, troglodytic OSR-gatekeeper, this provokes suspicious scowls and blubbers of dissaproval as I poke it mistrustfully with my reviewing stick. Yes you have promised me the sun but can you actually fly me there?
So! Troika! is peak Artpunk, all razzle-dazzle and quick dopamine hits, low on calories and vitamins. It uses a stripped down version of Fighting Fantasy, a game of which I knew nothing until I started reviewing this but which I might decide to pick up and play afterwards, sexed up with 36 disparate character options, Oooh! and Aaah! and trailing off somewhere near the tail end of the damn thing. Like I usually do, let’s just roll up a character and explain as we go.
Troika characters, like their more blue-collar FF cousins, have three attributes: Skill, Stamina & Luck. We roll 1d3+3 for Skill, which is a generalized competence modifier used for every check, 2d6+12 for Stamina (which is hp) and 1d6+6 Luck (sort of like a saving throw but it goes down every time you use it and is replenished by rest). This is all core FF. We roll dice, get a Skill of 6 (!), 16 Stamina and 7 Luck. We also begin play with 7 pence, a rucksack, a knife, a flask of oil + lantern, 6 provisions, which is fortunate since unlike its spiritual liege Troika doesn’t seem to have an equipment list of any kind, meaning the acquisition of new materiel is going to pose some problems. We shrug it off, roll d66 to generate one of 36 backgrounds, and continue on our blissfully unaware way.
The Backgrounds proper are adapted from the FF archetypes and represent an eclectic and colorful hodgepodge of the greatest hits of Gene Wolfe, Dancers at the End of Time, Planescape (or maybe Zelazny’s Amber), and weird twisty takes on classical tropes, with only Vance noticeable by his absence. The master of weird whimsey expelled from the canon of a weird whimsical fantasy game? Curiouser and curiouser. There are races of banished giants, journeyman assassins, exiled monarchs, gremlin-catchers (complete with Small and Vicious Dog!), thinking machines, petty spellcasters, mathomagicians and assorted ne’erdowells, each distinguished by a handful of advanced skills (which are added to one’s skill base when determining the total bonus), the odd special ability and some more equipment. Each is accompanied by character portraits ah la Banksy and ‘Le critically acclaimed writing’ to the maximum of a paragraph, presenting an initially charming facade, a kaleidoscope of wonder.
We roll 62, getting a Vengeful Child, with dead parents! which nets us an oversized Longsword with +1 to hit and damage while we use it, which might be one of the most powerful weapons in the game (the weapon list is mostly standard stuff with one or two plasma fusils added to it). We also get an old hunting bow with 12 arrows. Our Advanced skills are Longswordfighting 3, Awareness 1, Climb 1, Bow Fighting 1, Run 1, Swim 1, and the ominously titled Vengeance 1, which is not explained in the advanced skill list 😛
Our character has now been generated.
The idea of these advanced skills is that all resolution in the game is either 2d6+skill+advanced skill contested, or you roll 2d6 under your skill + advanced skill for static checks. The skill list covers most of the basics straight from FF (Disguise, Second Sight, Run et. al.), and includes a few new ones like Piloting the Golden Barge, or Astrology (which should be Astronomy but whatever). There is about as much description to the new skills as there is to the old skills and the whole is light but flexible.
I suspect Sell is a semi-hardcore FF fan? There are a few minor tweaks to the game rules that are alright (like simultaneous critical hits will cause both characters to hit and shatter their weapons) but the major innovation is terrible and I fucking hate it so I will rant about that now. The worst artpunk rule since the dice-drop. Initiative is resolved by taking 2 poker chips or colored crayons or whatever the fuck for each action the characters and monsters have [the monsters get initiative], then put an End of the Round Token in there and putting it all in a bag or maybe one’s butthole  and then drawing from the bag one at a time. The GM may take monster actions using any single monster, meaning if you have 7 goblins and 1 Worm that Will Devour the Sun, and you draw any enemy token, the GM can just take a Worm that Devours the Sun action. The GM is kindly requested not to abuse this ability as it would be to the deteriment of the game, which is certainly a way of resolving things. So variable turn length, actions are a chaotic mess, I have to get another poker chip set and a dice bag. Can’t we just do group initiative, 1d6, multiple actions per round? Whenever you must ask the GM to abide by the code of gentlemen and not use your system intelligently it might be better to simply put a hard limit there. It is a new way of resolving initative but I am not convinced it is a better way.
This innovation is ironic since some of the stripped down tinkering with the FF system  is not bad. You won’t find quite as many modifiers to, say, ranged combat as in AFF but there’s rules for firing into melee, Grappling, there’s an innovation where the location of your equipment will determine how likely it is you will be able to draw it and use it in a single turn…this is not bad. As written there is no limit to the amount of times you can inflict damage (every melee attack is an opposed check, with the winner inflicting damage on the loser), meaning that a character with high skill that is attacked often during a round has a very high chance of murdering all of his assailants. It reads very volatile and fast. I think going into the underpinnings and the understanding behind what some of these rules are meant to represent may be crucial for a long term game but there are bigger hurdles to overcome first. Damage is done by rolling 1d6 and referencing a table (an FF conceit, so if you roll a 1 for a sword you do 2 damage, but a 3 might do 4 fe), and FF’s armor dice has been folded out in favor of a static modifier to damage rolls. This means that as written armor can never REDUCE DAMAGE TO 0. You always take some hit point damage if you lose an opposed test. I’m not sure about that one. As written hit points never increase and you are restricted to 12-24, meaning your character is going to run out of gas pretty soon.
What else about the system proper. There is a rudimentary advancement system, another departure from FFA, every time you use an advanced skill succesfully you may put a pip there (up to 3 maximum), with a roll over mechanic to see if you increase them every time you rest, which seems like a monstrously fast increase if you don’t mind me saying so. There is mention of learning new skills and training costs but again, no cost specified. You have to do the work man. If you are going to have a game about adventuring and treasure you have to provide these sorts of prices or else it is not grounded in anything, and the wealth you accumulate has no context. This generates imprecise, short-lived tossfiddle, which I guess is fair if you want that, but then why bother with training costs at all?
There is an item list for some of the equipment you get at character creation but there is no equipment list proper, and no list of prices. I think this is a huge loss. Even in a game where you travel the multi-verse, you are going to have certain universally available goods, or perhaps you can come up with a clever way of exchanging all of that currency. Instead we get little, items give a +1 to skill checks involving certain tasks, a list of weaponry in the front (which is decent, I will say), and every once in a while you get a nice item or tibdit; Witch hair rope is immune to magical manipulation, Salt is used against demons as a poor man’s silver, Ruby lorgnettes are used to detect magical activity. These hints of flavorful background items are fun, but this needed much, much more. The omission of proper treasure & magic item tables, the lifeblood of any adventuring game, is missing, and this is a proper shame. You have an entire multiverse to play with and there is nothing here. A wasted opportunity.
There are of course precedents for omitting equipment tables or magic items. One can imagine that with a rules-light retroclone of standard B/X with some tweeks certain elements can just be ported over with minor adjustment only. Lamentations eschews both bestiary and magic items but this is a deliberate choice, meant to enforce deliberation and restraint in the creation of magical treasures and foes in this more low magic setting. The implied setting of Troika! is brimming with potential wonder and whimsey, one expects to see an entire catalogue of weird and wonderful items.
The magic system in Troika! is again, an stripped-down port from FF, ditching the various modifiers to the casting check and keeping the essential spells and with a handful of spells added if I am correct (I could not find any parallels to Life Line & Blood Shroud fe). Spellcasting is harsh, you pay 1-6 (depending on spell level) Points and must roll under your skill to succeed. The spell descriptions are reminiscent of OD&D, 2 sentences, and on occasion I prefer the FFA versions because they seem to anticipate common problems. Contrast this description:
With this one:
Its a little bit tighter, it covers a bit more eventualities and is a bit less ambiguous, like the difference between OD&D and AD&D. There are some interesting additions to the spellbook; Stepping between mirrors, linking your life-force with that of another caster, smearing yourself with Daemon’s blood to make yourself immune to their predations for hours or Smell people’s thoughts and feelings. Magic is made a bit more ‘weird.’ One curious omission here is the lack of baroque Vancian names for spells, which seems like a no-brainer. Someone will have to explain the omission of Vance from whimsical, wondrous magic. Why pass up the opportunity to go from Firebolt to Serten’s Igneous Projectile Caster for example? There is even the ominous Zed spell, which costs (?) points and causes all who attempt it to vanish, never to be seen again. Bravo!
Speaking of which, FINALLY I tease a fucking Vance reference out of you.
Was that so hard?
Maybe the next critical component of a new game, the bestiary! Creatures are easily put together, having stamina, skill, initiative and an armor score, along with what damage table they roll on, and maybe some special abilities. Bestiaries are probably the best doorway into an implied setting? The mixture in Troika is heady, initially dazzling, but lacks a certain coherence or purpose to it. The nigh infinite potential of the planes makes it seem like only a glimpse is caught. There is a second problem which is one of priority. Description focuses on being clever or poetic, in the manner of a bargain-bin Patrick Stuart, and we get our tingles, but we aren’t making a coherent world or even neccessarily learning anything game related about the creature. This is the type of writing I am talking about.
Contrast it with a good one;
Which has hooks and lore and demeanors threaded through it all in one and delivers the whole in 2 paragraphs. Cheff’s kiss muah! But you have an entire multiverse to populate and only 36 entries to do it with. Alzabo, Zoanthrope, Thinking Machine yes yes we enjoy our Gene Wolfe. The unique entries are all good stuff, witches that fly around in spirit form and drink the innards of sleeping men, or go about shapechanged as hogs, growing mineral tendrils, or the blanket-shaped space predator, or a snake that whispers sweet nothings as it crushes you, or mentions of a Palace filled with Tigers. It’s creative work, even hits like Manticores and Harpies have been given a new paint job. It inspires momentary delight but it does not cohere into anything more. I was looking for the spread, whether it covered a broad range of foes, and then it struck me; it doesn’t really matter. Any collection of whimsically endowed MM paint-jobs or cross-section from Fire on the Velvet Horizon would have sufficed just as well.
The main problem with Troika is that its individual component parts are potentially compelling but there is no framework or structure or even underlying coherence behind it, essentially relegating it to the ghetto of momentary diversion, a short-lived decadent spat of whimsey (?) which must ultimately fizzle out for lack of a staying power. It really needed more things like this;
It promises multi-planar space exploration adventure of infinite potential, sounds good sign me up, but provides no framework, structure, or even hint of what that would look like. It is a small wonder Troika 3rd party material is generally poorly regarded. It would be attractive to creative types yet it fails to provide that which creative types are most in need of and least interested in creating themselves; a solid framework which can be adhered to, tinkered with or even consciously rejected!
The Troika! campaign, is not covered. This is the section that was arguably most needed. Okay, you have sold me on the Golden Barges and the city of Troika! which is ambiguously ruled by the Autarch and suffers from Owls, great! I am ready to buy passage onboard a golden barge to travel to the Crystal Sphere of V’aalumquarth to hunt for the mad Thinking Machine gourmand Draxidor-9’s Penultimate Curry Recipe at the behest of Miss Kinsey’s Dining Club, what is the ticket price and how much Lammergeier-jerky rations do I buy?, and then the GM just starts drooling and crying and shaking her head and my adventure is fucking over. Some sort of progression, even as a suggestion, is key. It could be very simple. First you do a dice-drop…
No seriously. Planescape was wild, and you are essentially aiming for something in the spirit of that, albeit it less coherent and good. But Planescape never had a campaign format, it always seemed like there were too many options. Figure something out. You fuck around in Troika at lower levels, maybe in some sort of extradimensional labyrinth, buy passage onboard your golden barge at mid and at high some sort of domain play will probably be involved, probably centred on Troika, which serves as type of Sigil/Amber. Dimensional adventuring should take place at any level. You need something to do with wealth, something to aspire too, something to fear etc. etc. It doesn’t have to be like D&D, in fact, it probably shouldn’t, but it should be considered.
The sample adventure THE BLANCMANGE & THISTLE kind of underlines my point, that this type of creativity needs a scaffolding or a structure to cohere or it lacks weight. The idea is that you book passage in a hotel (I guess it is the only hotel?), there is but one room, and you must either take the elevator, and be subjected to various bizarre encounters, or take the stairs, and be subjected to various bizarre encounters, so you have your choice of two railroads. It comes across as much more dada-istic and surrealist then the previous subject matter.
The elevator is weird, you are bombarded with a host of surreal encounters and to the author’s credit, they are not straightforward combat. The largest threat comes from a hotel guest composed of poisonous gas which must either be endured, avoided or persuaded to not kill the guests. There is the possibility of offending the Mandril elevator-keeper. The stairway involves more combat with surreal hotel guests, bizarre environmental hazards like demonic water or a dreaming wizard creating bottomless pits in the ceiling etc. etc. Creative encounters, structured haphazardly.
The game ends with a list of hooks, sample provided here. Which goes full on surrealist bufoonery but again, there is no real framework, and that’s kind of the point. Do as thou wilt! has ever been the commandment of the Evil One, and the results have always been disasterous.
So what do we do with Troika? The answer is probably not that much. It feels like a game half-done, where all the creative work is taken to with admirable gusto and spirit but once it becomes time to get one’s hands properly dirty and stumble about in the greasy innards of Fighting Fantasy the author becomes desinterested and merely holds up his hands. I am astonished none of these supposed critics that were acclaiming the writing touched upon this point. This is something to read and be ensnared by momentary flights of fancy, put together something in an afternoon if the depression medication arrives on time, run one’s companions through it and then have a guffaw and a titter at one’s own wit, or perhaps have a screaming meltdown after it is discovered the house contains an insufficient number of poker chips for the initiative sequence, only to put it back on the coffeetable afterwards where it will remain. Certainly higher ambitions then Mork Borg, but to its credit Mork Borg can fall back on a traditional dungeon-crawling format, which Troika really cannot. I would suggest aspiring Artpunkmen looking for a meatier yet Artpunky alternative might be interested in Nightmares Beneath, which seems to be the real deal.
Prettily coloured, pleasant-smelling whiffs of smoke.
 This does not seem an entirely unreasonable suggestion considering its fanbase
 My frame of reference was Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2e
43 thoughts on “[Review] Troika! (Core rules); Artpunk Prime”
The worst thing about Troika for me and the thing that did the most to turn me off the system was the ridiculous behavior of some of its fans and fan-content publishers on Twitter. The trolling, the venomous attacks, the witchhunts, the smug sense of superiority…
That one can churn out shit tons of worthless shovelware filled with endless, unbalanced Troika classes, all for a quick buck, does not help the scene either.
“smug sense of superiority…”
And that right there is the number one reason I can’t stand many of the new, ultrahip rules-light game systems.
They may be well enough on their own merits… but their fanbase, players and other proponents are sometimes nauseating beyond belief.
I had at least a dozen conversations where someone was trying to sell me on the next, big ultralight rulessystem… and their whole demeanor was one of “I’m better than you because I play this.”… while talking absolute bullshit about their system from a game design viewpoint.
I’m still kinda pissed about the whole PbtA crowd acting like their system invented partial successes.
Like I played Vampire in 2006 and when my roll wasn’t enough to get shit done but still not a total disaster, my GM would throw me a bone and give me a “partial success”… and we didn’T tgreat it as a big revolution back then.
A Friend of mine as been playing “The dark Eye” since the mid eighties and he would grant partial successes to his players even then.
Ok, rant over -.-
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PbtA people annoy me more than anyone else in RPG design.
“Everyone should make at least one PbtA game.”
“Why? What’s all the fuss about?”
“You’ll just understand games so much better.”
“What’s so special about PbtA?”
And the answer is logorrheaic drivel. Every time.
From what I can tell it’s a universal basic mechanic: here’s 2d6, there are break points for what a good, bad, and shite result looks like, roll them and it’s my job to say “you fail in an interesting way.” I was tinkering with something like that in 2003. The playbook thing is an interesting way to frame a character sheet, arguably better than the lines of equations or the opaque “any dots combine with any other dots” approach, but that’s the biggest innovation I can see.
The Bakers’ notes are interesting in a “the map is not the territory” kind of way but I don’t feel like I absolutely NEED their elaborate models of design to intuit a lot of their conclusions; you need to read games and mind when your attention wanders, then play games and mind what pisses your players off. Elide or remove the nonsense and you have something fit for purpose. The rest is silence. But I’ve never been able to get an Ennie-award winning book out of that, so maybe I’m the idiot after all.
2 Stars? This is a LOT for a thing like this.
I can’t help it. It’s not good but it’s not *quite* in that level of absolute blackness where the worst of the worst must be consigned.
Very fair review. There’s a lot of unrealized potential with this game. If someone were to write a supplement that added some heretical grounding, this could become a playable system. But it would definitely be challenging to net all that creative whimsy into a coherent thing.
Melan is probably right that doing so would be a fool’s errand, but a boy can dream.
Another amusing review, hoss! A product with style and substance is hard to come by, naturally.
Core games are really hard I think. Hard sell, hard work.
Troika lost me right out the gate for two petty reasons: 1) the first thing that comes to my mind from its title is not the Russian vehicle or folk dance, but the soviet triumvirates, 2) I have no fucking clue what I’m seeing on the cover.
I’m not a fan of AFF either to be honest. While I admire the FF game books, and the Titan setting is awesome, I find the game (even its Advanced iteration) mechanically unsatisfying. It’s good enough for solo adventuring on cozy winter nights near the hearthfire or while riding a train, but for a four to six hours tabletop session of I want something with more crunch.
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I totally agree about FF rules being excessively light. I think a much better update of the mechanics occurs with the Warlock! RPG. In terms of rules, it’s a terrific blend of FF and WFRP, as strange as that sounds. I’m a big fan of the system, although I think the magic rules need a tiny bit of tweaking.
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Warlock! looks fine, though it’s a bit still more FF for me than I would like it, and not WFRP enough. Still, I would play that in a heartbeat – and was actually looking forward to joining a campaign, but the GM had to shut it down before it began due to work and other IRL issues. A pity.
Warlock! isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. No game satisfies everyone. But I think the difference between Warlock! and AFF is that the former IS a viable system for serious role-playing. I feel like if I were to run AFF for more than a single session, the smooth-brained mechanics would have me constantly shaking my head in frustration. “So I roll Skill to pick up a big rock? Whyyyyy?”
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I agree. Seriously, when I heard Troika was based off FF I was asking ‘Who the hell would want to mirror that system? That was one of the most boring and mechanically unsatisfying systems ever’ (and I thought that when I was 10). It’s ok for an actual FF book, but not a role-playing game.
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Andrzej Sapkowski, the author of The Witcher stories, wrote the best variation of the FF rules I ever saw. He got rid of luck and turned Skill into four stats: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Fighting, with the last one being an average of STR and DEX. STAMINA worked as it did in the gamebooks. He also randomized combat damage and wrote a simple magic system. That’s it. The result was a system with little campaign potential, but good for beginners.
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I remember some of the Fighting Fantasy Books, such as Scorpion Swamp, Seas of Blood and Vault of the Vampire, being quite good. But the system was barely adequate at best; in some of the books (Vault of the Vampire was one) if you didn’t have a skill of 11 or 12 it was hardly possible to win. Troika seems to be building on foundations of quicksand.
WFRP 1e (more flavourful) and 2e (better balanced) are sound systems. Why not use them?
WFRP and its children (Dark heresy ftw!), bless it, is mechanically much heavier then an OSR system, if the aim is whimsical adventure, the system seems a poor fit. If the aim is investigative adventure punctuated by brutal, mutilating skirmishes in a world plagued by supernatural evil and horror, then the system is a fine fit.
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One of the problems of not having decent official adventures is that you don’t really know what sort of escapades the party is supposed to attempt. WFRP 1e’s reputation rests not only on the rulebook, but also (maybe especially) on the Enemy Within campaign.
Even as a lightweight system, I’m no fan of the Fighting Fantasy rules. It is adequate at best, and the better books are those where the quality of ideas/writing transcends this.
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“One of the problems of not having decent official adventures is that you don’t really know what sort of escapades the party is supposed to attempt. WFRP 1e’s reputation rests not only on the rulebook, but also (maybe especially) on the Enemy Within campaign.”
Seconded, with emphasis. The entire reputation of the Mothership game was built on its excellent first adventure, Dead Planet. This should be considered by anyone who wants to release a new system.
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I’ve had a lot of playing experience with WFRP 2E; I wouldn’t say it is mechanically heavy/fiddly until your character picks up a lot of talents/traits (some of which modify damage/skills, and need to be tracked), maybe when they progress in their third career. I never thought the (modified) system worked quite as well for Dark Heresy 1E, as character sheets got cluttered quickly. If I understand correctly, you were playing guardsmen in your campaign, which would have helped.
Seems like a case of someone improvizing with no idea of the end goal of the process. It’s never a good thing to do.
Ha! The great white whale of snobby NuSR games. I have to agree on most points here.
Good things first. I like the art. Yes, it is arty art, but it has an avantgarde sensibility that works for me. Guess there is a little degene^H^H^H^H^H conoisseur in all of us. I suppose the “highly specific mini-class” idea is not bad? It is nothing new, since WFRP already did it in 1986, and I think Talislanta did something similar, but credit where credit’s due, this is not a bad way to encourage character variety without undue complications. I would like to try the initiative system, once. There may be some good drama there (even if it is one of the players flipping the table in inchoate rage).
Now then. This is also a game without focus. I would not be even as generous as Prince. It is a hodge-podge of incoherent themes that do not gel together, and end-up self-defeating. Old D&D is also a hodge-podge, but Gary had a particular talent to integrate its very disparate elements into a game that has a coherent structure, and even its own style. Here, the pretext does not work, and it all disintegrates. The lack of grounding, the missing meat and potatoes of a setting (something whose D&D equivalent is often decried as dull and vanilla) means it all hangs in the air. Since there is no contrast between special and regular, it offers an empty sugar high on HFCS, and it all becomes an unpleasant circus carnival of freaks and weirdos. (Please don’t cancel me again, this is not a description of the fanbase.)
Despite its connections to Fighting Fantasy, Troika!’s rules would not really support a game with the look and feel of the Fighting Fantasy books. Tamás is right, A/FF’s rules paradoxically do not produce a proper FF experience. I have seen Warlock! as well, and despite the Exclamation!-based title, it does not strike me as a good FF base either. These games are inadequate to support the richness and variety of FF campaigns. There is something about FF that remains a mystery, and which would have to be identified and distilled into a solid set of game procedures and “stuff” before it would start working in a coherent, satisfying manner. This work has not been done, although there are preliminary pointers in this ancient blog post: https://drbargle.blogspot.com/2012/07/titanic-bullet-points.html Troika! does not even start asking the questions.
Of course, the worst thing about Troika! is not even the poor game, or the deluge of inconsequential support material, but the fanbase, which seems to be exclusively populated by unpleasant, malevolent people, somehow even lowlier than your usual Something Awful goon. It is a good question why this specific game draws them in, but it happened, and there they are.
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Hah! The lenient Prince 😛
The careers did indeed put me in mind of WHFRPG, and I benevolently interpreted the Gremlin-catcher as a direct nod to that venerable game.
There is something about the hubristic impressionist game that strikes a chord in me. Perhaps it is mere muscle memory, or the promise of unlimited adventure, that makes me say, alright you pathetic vagrant, you may stay in the stables, but only for this night. The glimmer of aspiration, the whiffs of tinkering.
w.r.t the fanbase: It is an interesting question, how do you attract a clientele of literal gay retards? Let us examine. The system is minimalistic in a way that keeps out wargamers or anyone who enjoys greatly logistical or strategic gameplay. The font is colorful and the ideas are flowery and bright, but not coherent, selecting for open-ness to experience untampered by the critical palette, and there are literary allusions to non-problematic fantasy works that are perceived as ‘good’ like Wolfe & maybe Moorcock (I would have expected more M. John Harrison, Peake & Borges references but for this it was made a generation too late). Your adventurers are mostly not hard-bitten mercenary types, but travellers and popinjays, literal ‘tourists’ of the planes. Very important; the great variety of classes with the limited options for advancement preselect for a great deal of one-shots as opposed to long campaigns with the same group of people. It is a cosmopolitan game, perhaps all the better if you do not play it with the same crowd. Of course most of the people that claim to play it have enough trouble convincing another human being to be in the same room with them, let alone play a game, but there you have it.
I wonder if Wolfe is considered ‘non-problematic’ though? His great works are full of manly men who get pussy, believe in God and take no shit off fools, not exactly palatable for Current Year readers.
I am frankly surprised Vance has not been cancelled yet, considering how deliberately conservative his books tend to lean, and how they would basically count as deliberate anti-woke trolling in our day. Perhaps he is not known very well beyond the Dying Earth stories, and the only people left reading him are not the censorious sort. That’s a comforting idea.
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How do, Age of Dusk guy! A Troika illustrator here* (and coincidentally Slipgate Chokepoint co-creator). I genuinely enjoyed reading this review despite my obvious bias towards disagreeing with it.
– I could be wrong but I don’t know if Troika core has won any awards. Dan Sell has me listed as ‘EnNie Award Winning illustrator’ not in relation to this book, but the LOTFP based Fever Swamp. And he does it to deliberately wind me up because I told him not to. I am wearing the EnNie and not one but two monocles as I type this.
– No real connection here but it’s interesting you mentioned the lack of wargamers in Troika fans and also hated the intitiative system, as it’s directly cribbed from manly hex-and-counter wargames (which I certainly hope you and everyone else around here has an interest in?) where it’s known as the chit-pull mechanic, used to simulate the confusion of commanding multiple battalions/detachments or what have you. In Troika itself I personally find it works best when a monster counter grants activation to the entire side of the baddies rather than individuals. This, combined with the AFF style ‘if they miss you hit’ combat keeps things pretty severe and deadly and I have murdered many a Troika character throughout the spheres.
– As much as I’d enjoy seeing you eviscerate Slipgate Chokepoint, it’s actually a supplement for Stay Frosty, so it might not make a whole lot of sense without writing about that too.
– Fuck die drop tables, everyone hates those.
* I didn’t do the character background portraits that a lot of people hate, but I did do the doll-bird-robot cover that everyone hates. And @melan is being coy about his love of degenerawhotsit art because I’m also in a couple of his publications 😉
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Andrew: Welcome! Note, I praised the art, which is the one thing in the book I like, no qualifications and no excuses! That Detwiler Leichty chap is good (and mentioning others would be boorish).
Welcome Andrew! Any illustrator of Gabor, however occasional, is welcome in these hallowed halls. FWIW the illustration work in Troika is interesting, but I am not an art critic and so I generally neglect to comment on those attributes.
Besides being a partial recipient of the dubiously meritorious Salties, which has since been revoked by the purveyor of the aptly named Throne of Salt blog, Troika Core was nominated for a Ennie for best writing which it lost to Kult, probably on grounds of an insufficiency of mopey pretension.
Now THAT is interesting. I would cautiously maintain that an intiative or action limit would perhaps ameliorate what is currently reliant on the mercy of the GM, but I would have to see this system in action to reach a conclusive verdict on it.
[Stay Frosty/Slipgate Chokepoint]
I have played through Doom 2016 and the original on Ultra-Violence so I would certainly understand the proper context. *eyes donation cue nonchalantly*
It has become sort of the Emmanuel Goldstein for idiotic artsy game design, perhaps rightly so, but the Great Zzarchov Kowolski has in fact employed it succesfully in the creation of Scenic Dunnsmouth.
My thanks for reaching out and providing additional context.
The problem is that good FF books are carefully-tailored and curated experiences where the GM has ironclad control over what takes place (because, well, it’s a book). Their experience and feel are heavily tied to the individual books, and have basically nothing to do with the rules. They’re an excellent set of gamebook rules, and are critical to the books being good IMO, but recreating the feel of a FF book will have relatively little to do with the ruleset. FF books aren’t really a venue for character skill – player skill plays a role, but regarding your stats it’s combat, damage, whether you get lucky, and whether you found the right items.
I’m curious what you’d see as the defining elements of FF that could or should be brought into an RPG.
I DO think Warlock! is much closer to providing something workable as an FF RPG than any other FF RPG, if only because it has a sensible and intelligent way of dealing with skills (something AFF definitely lacked). That said, I don’t think it’s trying to be the perfect FFRPG – it’s impressively its own thing for something that is basically mashing WHFRPG and FFRPG together.
Were I trying to make the One True FFRPG, I’d probably move Warlock to 2d6 roll under (I’m not sure you even need to adjust the skill numbers much), limit careers and their interaction with character development a lot more (because almost all the protagonists of FF books can be simply described as “adventurer”), and adjust combat so it was less lethal and permanently damaging. I think that would produce something useful, that’s an RPG, and that allows for the right sort of play. But the right sort of play is still going to depend hugely on the scenarios and on the GM – the world of FF is both standard fantasy and VERY odd at the same time, and I’m not sure how to capture that well, especially because the more details you fill in the less unpredictable and odd it can be.
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If these people are as bad as you say, a duckduck of Trka has to make them appear at some point.
The basic Fighting Fantasy gamebooks (or especially the Sorcery series, which have a pretty good set of visual novel adaptations) are very much worth exploring – they’re quick, they’re fun, some of them are surprisingly creative and weird, and the Sorcery series has John Blanche artwork. If you like early British White Dwarf stuff, FF is largely the same people.
But it really does falter as a wider RPG system. It needs a sensible skill system. However, when first adapted into a more full-fledged RPG as Advanced Fighting Fantasy, it instead made all skills based off your Skill. You get as many points as are in your Skill to put into special skills, AND your special skills start at your Skill level.
So if you roll a 12 Skill (1d6+6 is standard for most of the gamebooks and first edition AFF), you end up with 12 skill points AND all your special skills are just better than anyone who rolls an 11. Having the usefulness of your character almost entirely dependent on a 1d6 roll was a hell of a system, and not in a good way. Even at the age of like 12 when I read it I recall thinking this did NOT seem like a good setup.
I’m told point buying is the usual way around this, and have a vague memory of someone using a tradeoff system where as your base skill increases you have fewer points to distribute.
Though the introductory adventure in the first AFF book does recommend throwing toy bones at your players during combat with an ogre and his minions, to simulate the half-chewed bones of the ogre’s meal. There’s a definite charm there.
And the illustrations are spectacular. Far better than contemporary D&D illustrations.
Also, the mass battle system from original AFF is genuinely quite good (it’s basically normal FF combat, but with decent morale rules). The more I look at it the better I like it.
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I used to use a tradeoff system like that. Roll 10, 11 or 12 Initial Skill? Welcome to your new career as a magic user (since each point in Magic knocks one off Initial Skill, and counterbalances the absurdly easy time those high-rolling starting characters would otherwise have).
Followup: having found a legacy version of Troika to look at for comparison, Warlock! is so, so, so much better than this. Someone needs to write Warlock Troika. Quickly.
There’s hardly a pressing demand for a functional Troika. That being said, I am not as immediately dead-set against AFF then some of the guests here, but then again I have not played it.
I’ll consider Slipgate Chokepoint but there is another game I will be covering first, mixed with my donation backlog (no spoilers)!
I see it more as ‘the gaping wound in the cosmos must be plugged, ere evil escape.’ The evil must be made right, and all that.
Also, the guy who does Warlock! has produced a lot of supplements for it, so TroiWarlocka is not an unnatural step.
I love FF. The AFF rulesets were tragic. Just…ow. They’re an interesting read, because rather good ideas often lie next to just godawful ones.
I remember seeing somewhere a recommendation to just use Troika as an aspect list for FATE. There’s a lot of flavor, but no meat or potatoes in the soup.
Anyways, do Slipgate Chokepoint next. I’ve been trying to drag people to that half finished pile of glorious nonsense since it came out.
Slipgate Chokepoint is actually cool. It has a plan, and it sticks to it. That’s on top of the cool art.
One of the major problems it has is that the book gives battle mats, but the game movement and rangebands are generic “short, med, long”
The most fun I had dming was when I defined the range bands, gave characters 6 squares of movement, and gave them one movement per action.
Quad rampages are amazing to watch on VTT
Thanks for playing Slipgate – the maps were an attempt to work with repeating pixel art textures a la 90s FPS games, but a lot of people perceived them as being squares to move on like a battlemat despite the deliberate omission of a scale. I tried to rectify this confusion in the follow up adventure for SGCP by removing anything that looked like a grid and indicating what the maximum possible range could be on any given map. They way you played it is as slightly less abstracted way I run it, basically.
I’ll have to pick that up then.
I’ve run Slipgate as a oneshot three times thus far, and it’s really been great for flexing my VTT map making skills and trying to plan out carnage. Spinning gears powered by a thunderbolt and guarded by shamblers, a courtyard with a river of blood running through it, a massive factory which slides prisoners through acid to prepare them to feed to the boss… The machine hell aesthetic of Doom, Quake, and more modern games like Dusk or Nightmare Reaper is just fun to spend an afternoon brainstorming.
So yeah, thank for writing a better space marine game then Deathwatch.
In Troika’s defence, I think it inherits its incoherence from Fighting Fantasy. I highly recommend you check out Refereeing & Reflection’s irregular series of FF reviews if you want to understand AFF: there’s a lot of insight into how the gamebook line developed and AFF is, in setting-book and monster-manual terms at least, an attempt to collate everything from those gamebooks that would just about fit together.
I also look at AFF as context for your observations about how Troika fails. Livingstone knows his tropes, and his obsessive hyperlinking of his own work with itself joins his continent of Allansia up. The gears are chunky and crude, suitable for a child’s hand, but they mesh and they turn. Jackson has his thing he wants to do – here are four linked adventures which experiment with YOU ARE THE HERO in different ways, here is a system hack for wizardry, here are some satellite locations developed enough to give context to all this, away you go, and his Old World is good enough to do that. Khul is the shit continent precisely because it’s where the one-and-done whimsies by freelancers and fans got dumped. Troika sounds like Khul.
As an old hand with AFF (it was baby’s first RPG, I had four out of the five books when I was about ten years old) I retain an enormous affection for it – but it is a crude lash-up of a system designed for experiences that are… superficial? Juvenile? Immature? Something like that. Remember that Jackson and Livingstone were originally pitching to the children’s market with Fighting Fantasy: they were published by Puffin.
In adulthood I have treated AFF in the same way that you, O Prince, treat Mork Borg: it’s good for an afternoon of smoothbrained fun with the troupes of dyscalculic thesps I seem to attract, but that’s about all.
Some of the design choices in Troika intrigue me. The “mini class” streamlines the point buying process – and point buying is surely the hallmark of The Enemy, O Prince, shouldn’t character creation be as quick and brutal as character death, no stopping to do sums on your watch? I’m amused by the “adventurers” in Troika being on gap years, as it were, rather than full time hardbitten S&S heroes. (I tried to do something similar on a D&D-ish framework with The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to Elfland, but I don’t think I went far enough – the accusation that indie/arty designers fail to sink in the required effort is pretty fair in my case.) I’m not even opposed to variable turn sequences to create a chaotic effect in combat, although I hate that there’s a “turn over” chip in the bag – that would be a dealbreaker for me, a round is a round with all things accounted for and the surprise early monster draw feels like enough of a nasty surprise.
The rules at least sound like some innovations on the AFF core. House rules, to the extent that that game needs them.