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

Sunday 12 March 2023

The Other OSR—The Big Squirm

Troika City is rocked by scandal! The wealthy families and institutions of Downgate Arches, where their homes and headquarters hung suspended over a great toxic gas-filled chasm, have lost enormous sums of money with the collapse of the Scarf-Worm investment bubble—and no one knows who is responsible! Worse, the uncertainty and recriminations have unleashed a war of assassins across the district, adding yet further to the chaos and uproar. Yongardy House of Law wants the war to assassination to end so that the process of legal murder and trial combat can resume. The House of Peace & Love is aghast at the outbreak and wants it to end, including sending out its own Executor-Executioners to bring that about. The Lodge Half-Sinister Twistblade wants better regulation of the war of assassins. The Crew of the Floating Autonomous Zone Orb has mutinied against its captain and thrown him overboard after discovering he put their pay into  Scarf-Worm investment bubble and now want to find the culprits and get paid. The Bank 10,082 Stepped Heaven want the Scarf-Worm investment bubble investigated since so many of its clients have lost money. The Left Yellow Gang is annoyed because it was making money selling fake Scarf-Worms. The Prodrumus family has disappeared aboard its golden barge, Nargeboll, and The Band of the Wandering Plume is having a party with themselves that has so far lasted several weeks… And the Scarf-Worm? It is warm, fuzzy, and quiescent creature the fur of which transcends the concept of colour and so is in much demand as a fashion statement. Enter the Player Characters.

This is the set-up for The Big Squirm, a scenario for Troika!, the Science Fantasy roleplaying game of baroque weirdness published by the Melsonian Arts Council. It is a rococo noir inspired by Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep as much as the historical South Sea Bubble and the Dutch Tulip mania of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively in which the Player Characters are hired by one of the factions to determine who was responsible for the speculative run on the Scarf-Worms, or at least bring about an end to the War of Assassins, or even just to ensure that they are definitely, absolutely not responsible for the situation. The Player Characters are investigators, but can be of any character given in Troika! They are free to proceed how they want according to the wants of their client and this leads to the obvious problem with The Big Squirm—where to begin.

The Big Squirm is written as a toolkit. This toolkit consists of some twenty-three locations, each drenched in dissolution, couched in corruption, invested with intrigue, and described in detail; seven factions, each with its own goals, methods, and rewards; and six rival detectives, working for rival factions and desperate to out do each other and the Player Characters. The mystery itself is bound up in some nineteen facts—or clues—and their individual sources and locations—which can be rolled for or picked from the ‘d66 Facts’ table as necessary by the Game Master. Not only will the players and their characters need to track the clues, but so will the Game Master, not just to note which facts the Player Characters have acquired, but also because the value of the information in a clue degrades within a few days and becomes general knowledge. They will also have to track the relationships between the Player Characters and the various factions and investigators wrapped up in the mystery. The format means that The Big Squirm does not have an easy beginning, middle, or end, and whilst the middle and end are going to be determined by the actions of the Player Characters, the lack of easy beginning means that starting the scenario needs some set-up upon the part of the Game Master.

Once the scenario has started though, the contents of the toolkit the Game Master is presented with is rich, weird, and diverse. Downgate Arches consists of the mansions of the rich suspended on massive chains, whilst the servants and their families, as well as the rest of the district’s populace reside in blocks which cling precariously to the walls of the chasm. Access to the mansions and other buildings is primarily via barges, although the daring—including the various guild assassins—might climb down the chains. The highlight is the description of a family estate, fastidiously ornate and opulently cluttered, its security handled by some very caring robots—in fact, too caring as there is the danger of a ‘TPK’ or ‘Total Party Knockout’ if the players are not careful—and its care by concerned staff. All this whilst the family pets sue for autonomy! The estate is at heart a dungeon, but one designed with thick carpets, silk hangings, tasteful lighting, and multiple kitchens. Whole sessions of a playthrough of The Big Squirm will involve exploration of the house and interaction with its various denizens.

Besides the richly detail locations to describe, the Game Master also has a great cast of grotesques and odd personalities to portray. These include Xloss Sanss, a fur coat wearing Slough Lizard accompanied by four Orcs, who stores the facts of the case as murder-sculptures made from mammalian pets and Maciej, a vicious little tyke who is pandered to because he is believed to have the gift of prophecy. The others include the complete crew of the golden barge, the Floating Autonomous Zone Orb, fractious and undecided on what to do, and the Graneneck Hotel, the floors of which are grandiosely themed, and its guests, such as the Goblin King and The Porcelain Speaker, an ancient skeleton encased in a porcelain exoskeleton.

Physically, The Big Squirm is beautifully presented. The advice for the Game Master is decent, the book is well written, and the artwork painted to match the tone and nature of the descriptions. Again and again, the Game Master is going to want to show the book’s illustrations to her players as they encounter an NPC or visit a location. The look has the look and feel of thirties futurism, but seen through a byzantine lens.

The Big Squirm is a big adventure, a dark, twisted, and intriguing investigation across a bizarre landscape and through a baroque society that will confound the players and their characters again and again with one strange encounter or location after another. It is an impressive set of tools for running a fantastically weird mystery, but does require a bit more set-up than is given for the players to get their characters involved, but as soon as they are, they will find themselves in a brilliantly recherché, delightfully outlandish noir.

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