Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday 14 December 2019

Simply Weird

Published by the Melsonian Arts Council, Troika! is a Science Fantasy roleplaying game of baroque weirdness that lies beyond eldritch portals that open into non-euclidean labyrinths which lie on the edge of creation under skies filled with innumerable crystal spheres and the golden-sailed barges that travel between them. It combines a simple set of mechanics with a world that is not so much described as implied in its thirty-six refulgent and empyrean character options. This is a world and roleplaying game inspired by Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series and  M. John Harrison’ Viriconium series, with just a little feel of Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth. Further, and although the mechanics of Troika! are not compatible with the majority of roleplaying games and scenarios for the Old School Renaissance, in tone and feel, it is not dissimilar to scenarios like Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Misty Isles of the Eld from the Hydra Collective LLC, Crypts of Indormancy and The Monolith from beyond Space and Time, and roleplaying games such as Monte Cook Games’ Numenera, Pelgrane Press’ The Dying Earth, and Lost Pages’ Into the Odd.

Characters in Troika! are very simply defined with three attributes—Skill, Stamina, and Luck plus a Background. Skill represents a character’s capabilities and prowess in combat, Stamina his Hit Points—if reduced to zero, he is dead, and Luck for just about anything else. Every character also starts with the same set of possessions. It is the Background though, such as Ardent Giant of Corda, Journeyman of the Guild of Sharp Corners, and Temple Knight of Telak the Swordbringer which defines the character in terms of origins, role, and advanced skills and possessions. Some Backgrounds also provide a special rule to do with an ability specific to them. For example, the Monkeymonger has spent his life herding Edible Monkeys, but has left his former occupation after falling or stepping off The Wall. He owns a Monkey Club, a Butcher’s Knife, a pocket full of monkey treats, and a herd of small monkeys too scared to run away from him. His advanced skills are climbing, trapping, club fighting, and knife fighting. The special rule associated with this Background has the Game Master rolling on a table to determine the Mien of the monkeys.

To create a character, a player rolls several six-sided dice for his character’s Skill, Stamina, and Luck, and notes the results down along with his character’s baseline possessions. Then he rolls d66 to generate a number between one and thirty-six and his character’s Background. The values listed for the Advanced Skills and the Spells are simply added to the character’s base Skill value to determine their final value. The process is really simple and easy, and between a group of players should create some interesting characters (although lose a few characters and the choices available in terms of Backgrounds may be limited to avoid repetition). The process is also fast. A character in Troika! can be created in a couple of minutes! 

Our sample character is a Claviger, a Master of Keys, obsessed and trained with the opening of doors and locks, both mundane and mystical. Ixyll is an orphan raised by the Grand Order of the Master of Keys and is obsessed by opening the doors, locks, and portals to furthest reaches of creation.

Background: Claviger

Skill: 5
Stamina: 20
Luck: 9

Advanced Skills: Locks 4, Strength 3, Trapping 3, Maul Fighting 2
Spells: Open 2, See Through 1, Lock 1

Possessions: Knife, lantern & flask of oil, rucksack, six provisions, festooned with keys (counts as Modest armour), a Distinguished Sledgehammer (counts as Maul), lockpicking tools

Mechanically, Troika! is disarmingly simple, if somewhat inelegant. To undertake an action, a player rolls two six-sided dice, aiming for a result equal to, or under, the appropriate Skill value. In an opposed roll though, the Skill value is added to the result of the roll and compared with that of the opponent’s to see which result is higher. Where Skill or an Advanced Skill does not factor into a situation, but a roll is still needed, the player instead rolls against his character’s Luck. This though, comes at a cost, the character sacrificing a point of Luck to make this roll. So essentially, a character’s luck (and Luck) can run out over the course of an adventure. Thankfully, this is not a permanent loss, and both Luck and Stamina can be regained once a character has taken the time to rest.

Combat  primarily consists of opposed rolls of Skill plus Advanced Skill plus the result of two six-sided dice, the roll determining which combatant hits and inflicts damage, whether that is mêlée or missile combat. Rolls of double six are criticals and count as Mighty Blows which inflict double damage, whilst double ones are fumbles and enable an opponent to inflict an extra point of damage. Mighty Blows can inflict a lot of damage on defendants and that includes the player characters, so Troika! has the potential to be fairly deadly in play. Thankfully though, character creation is quick, so bringing replacement characters into play should not too much of an issue. Other rules cover grappling, use of multiple weapons, armour and shields—both reduce damage, and so on. So simple and fast enough, but initiative is very different.

Initiative in Troika! requires tokens—a lot of tokens. These can be dice, counters, and so on, as long as they are in a mix of colours. Each player character requires two tokens of the same colour. All of the enemies require tokens in the same colour equal to their combined total Initiative value. One last token is needed of an entirely different colour. This is the End of the Round token. This collection of tokens, known as the stack, goes into a bag or container and shaken up. Then over the course of a round, the Game Master draws tokens one by one. When a player character’s token is drawn, he can act and when an enemy’s token is drawn, one of their number can act. This continues until all of the tokens have been drawn, or the End of the Round is drawn.

These Initiative rules are very different (at least for roleplaying, something like them being used in the board game, German Railways) and have an unpredictable, organic feel and flow. One clever extension of them is the aiming rule, which by letting a player character place one less token in the stack, lets his player rolls twice and take the best result when his second is drawn. However, the unpredictable nature of the Initiative mechanism means that the enemies might act before the End of the Round token is drawn and so prevent the player characters from acting in a round; some player characters might get to act, but not others before the End of the Round token is drawn; and all of the enemies might get to act before the player characters. Now barring the last one, which could occur in a standard combat engagement anyway, some players may be dismayed by being denied the chance to act, something which flies in the face of just about every other roleplaying game. What it represents, though, is a stronger ebb and flow of combat, of combatants hesitating, seizing the initiative and losing it, and so on.

Troika! includes some seventy or so spells. Each is treated like an Advanced Skill which needs to be rolled against when cast and also has a cost to be paid from the caster’s Stamina statistic when cast. A result of double one means that the spell is successfully cast, but a roll of double six means that the spell has not only failed to be cast, but that the caster’s player must roll on the ‘OOPS!’ table, which is given on the inside back cover. This can radically change the caster, whether that is deducting twenty-five years from the caster’s life or not, such as turning everyone nearby turning into pig, except the caster. The ‘OOPS!’ table definitely has an obsession with pigs! 

Monsters or enemies are treated in as simple a fashion that is in keeping with the rest of Troika! There are some thirty or so given from Alzabo and Boggart to Ven and Zoanthrop. The first is a ghoul-bear, the second is a grumpy Pixie, the third time travellers from the End of All Things, and the fourth, fashionistas who followed a fashion too far to be in touch with the animal kingdom and gave themselves partial prefrontal lobotomies… Every enemy entry includes a Mien table to quickly determine their attitude when encountered. All have slightly lower Stamina ratings in comparison to the player characters in order to make combat quicker to run and to balance against spell casters having to expend their Stamina to fuel their spells. 

Lastly, Troika! includes ‘The Blancmange & Thistle’, an introductory adventure. It is intended to be dropped into an ongoing campaign with little rhyme or reason, and sees the player characters taking rooms at The Blancmange & Thistle hotel in the city of Troika. They are forced to share a room because there is a big party on the roof to which they are also invited, but anyone and everyone is also going to party too. All of them just as weird, if not more so, as the player characters. The adventure really consists of the player characters having a terrible time in the hotel’s lift as one weird guest gets on as another weird guest gets off at his floor. The problem with the scenario is that it will fall flat if the player characters refuse to engage with it, but should they actually engage with the weirdness around them—and they have no excuse given just how weird they all are—then this is a lively, silly trifle of an adventure which has a feel of The Dying Earth about it. Writing adventures to fit this tone or indeed the feel of the world of Troika! may be a challenge for some Game Masters and the roleplaying game does not include any advice to that end—or indeed any advice. Although to be fair, the roleplaying game is not aimed at the inexperienced roleplayer. 

Physically, Troiki! Is very nicely presented. A nice touch is that the various sections—character creation, rules, spells, and the bestiary and scenario—are each done on different coloured paper, making them stand out a little in the digest-sized hardback. The writing is good and the artwork is suitably and weird throughout.

Mechanically, Troika! is undeniably simple, looking and feeling a little like the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure novels of the nineteen eighties. The application of Backgrounds though, not only make them more competent, they also provide ways in which the player characters can each be cool. The Backgrounds also suggest aspects of the wider world—or edge of the world—whilst still leaving plenty of room for player input. Ultimately, if Troika! is missing anything, it is more of this fantastically weird and baroque world that the Backgrounds and the scenario hints at, which as ‘The Blancmange & Thistle’ demonstrates really comes out in play rather than presented as chunks of information. Thus Troika! would benefit from further weird adventures rather than sourcebooks.

Troika! is a fantastic little book, a roleplaying game, which with its simple rules and rich character Backgrounds, possesses a superb pick-up and play quality. It would be fantastic to see that supported with a book of easy to pick up and run short scenarios, but the scenario in this book, ‘The Blancmange & Thistle’, is a fine start.


  1. Sounds like a riot. But just a quirky one off game?

    1. Possibly, which I make the point that it needs more scenarios.

  2. Yep, Troika is based heavily on the Advanced Fighting Fantasy system that was developed as an advancement of the original FF gamebooks.