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Saturday 23 March 2024

Whimsy & Weirdness

TROIKA! is the Science Fantasy roleplaying game of weird and whimsical adventure across the universe and beyond. Originally published by the Melsonian Arts Council in 2016, mechanically, it is inspired by the most British of roleplaying games—the Fighting Fantasy series of solo adventure books—and fiction as diverse as Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales, Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius adventures, and the baroque future of the Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe. With no limit as to where, and possibly even when, the Player Characters can go—whether by eldritch portal, non-Euclidean labyrinth, or golden-sailed barge from crystal Sphere to another, they are essentially the flaneurs of the far future. The game combines simple character creation and easy rules, but with rich character ideas. However, what strikes you about the new edition of TROIKA! is its format: a light softback book with spine cover unglued so that the front cover folds out and sits flat to show the map of ‘The Blancmange & Thistle’, the hotel that is the site for the adventure of the same included in the book. Not only does the front cover sit flat, so does the book as a whole on the table, making it physically very easy to read. That is in addition to the fact that TROIKA! itself is easy to read and digest.

TROIKA! begins with character creation. A Player Character is defined by his Skill, Stamina, and Luck. A player rolls for each of these, notes his possessions, and then rolls for his Background. Each Background provides several Advanced Skills, which can be actual skills or they can be spells. There are thirty-six of these, ranging from the ordinary to the outré—and there are definitely more of the latter than the former. So the ordinary include the Burglar, the Chaos Champion on a sabbatical from plunging worlds into chaos and speaks Kurgan no less, the Member of Miss Kinsey’s Dining Club whose members will and can eat anything that can be imagined edible, and Questing Knight, whilst the outré includes the Befouler of Ponds, high priest of the Great Toad and his reed filled waters; a Parchment Witch’ long dead sorcerer who wraps herself in perfectly beautiful paper skin; and many more.

Name: MacKack
Background: Monkeymonger
Skill 5
Stamina 19
Luck 6

Climb 4, Trapping 2, Club Fighting 1, Knife Fighting 1

Knife, rucksack, lantern, flask of oil, provisions (six), 4 silver pence, monkey club, butcher’s knife, pocket full of monkey treats, five small monkeys

Mechanically, TROIKA! is very simple. To undertake an action, including casting a spell, a player rolls two six-sided dice, the aim being to roll equal to, or less than, his character’s Skill attribute. If the character has an appropriate Advanced Skill, the player adds that to his character’s Skill attribute. A roll of two sixes always indicates that the action fails. In contests, such as a race or a combat, the combatants roll two six-sided dice each, and each add any appropriate bonuses or Advanced Skill. The highest roll indicates the winner. Luck is tested when a Player Character is subject to fate. It is reduced by one no matter whether the test is a success or a failure. It can be recovered after several hours of rest.

Combat uses the same mechanics except initiative. This requires a lot of different coloured tokens and a container or cloth bag. The players each then add two dice of the same colour, but different to the other players, to the bag. The Game Master also adds a number of dice equal to the total enemy initiative. One last token, of an entirely different colour, is also added to the bag. This is the ‘End of Round’ token. All together, this is the called the Initiative Stack. When a token is drawn from the container, the NPC or Player Character whose token has been drawn, gets to act. When the ‘End of Round’ token is drawn, the round ends. This has an interesting range of effects. Players no longer know when their characters are going to act and may face innumerable actions upon the part of the enemy, before they have the opportunity to act. Further, they may not even get to act before the round ends. Opponents can have multiple tokens in the stack, perhaps because they are faster, more cunning, or better prepared, or have fewer tokens in the stack, because they are slower, cowardly, uncertain, and so on. It can also mean that the same opponent acts multiple times in a round, though this really applies to bigger or more powerful monsters, for example, a dragon, who have multiple options in terms of what they can do or attack with. (As an aside, this has a side effect of TROIKA! not being easy to run online.)

Armour is classified as either light, medium, and heavy, and reduces damage suffered by either one, two, or three points respectively. If a Player Character’s Stamina is reduced to zero, he is dying and his fellow Player Characters have roughly a round or so to act before he actually dies.

Casting a spell in TROIKA! costs the caster points of Stamina and also requires a Skill roll. A rolls of two ones always succeeds and a roll of two sixes not only fails, but necessitates a roll on the ‘Oops! Table’. The spells again range from the ordinary to the outré. The ordinary includes Darkness, which creates a sphere of blackness, and Find, which enables the castor to locate a lost object. Examples of the outré include Coal Resolve, which turn the target’s heart into a burning ember of grief which captures his entire focus, rendering him immune to mind control or physical pain, and Thought Vapour, which grants the caster’s nose a multidimensional presence enabling it to smell emotions, attitudes, and thoughts, though strong smells can block this effect.

Enemies in TROIKA! are simply defined. An Enemy’s Skill covers everything it can do, including the equivalent of a Player Character’s Advanced Skills as well as covering Luck, Stamina is generally lower to encourage faster combat and play, Initiative indicates the number of tokens that the Game Master adds to the Initiative Stack, and Armour indicates how much its protection, whether thick hide, worn armour, or incorporeality, reduces damage suffered. The damage an enemy can do is random, but the range determined by its size. Every one of the enemies described in TROIKA! is given a Mien table to help indicate its behaviour. And again, just like the spells and the Backgrounds, Enemies include the ordinary and the outré. There are Boggarts, Cyclops, Dragons, Goblins, and Harpies, but also Khabits, the cloned handmaids and officers of Exultants, used to fill out the attendance at parties and often as a source of spare organs for their clone-parents, but really want to replace or inherit from them; Notules, formless and freezing star-creatures which are sometimes used as a means of murder by targeting a victim to have their warmth sucked out to leave behind an unmarked corpse; and the Sympathy Serpent, which does not aggressively constrict its prey, but takes them in a gentle embrace and soothes them reassuringly that life is indeed soul-crushingly awful whilst swallowing them whole…

Rounding out TROIKA! is the introductory adventure, ‘The Blancmange and Thistle’. It is as weird as the Backgrounds that the Player Characters are likely to have. They arrive at their hotel to discover that it is hosting the Feast of the Chiliarch on the top floor, the consequences of which are there is only one room left in the hotel and it too, is on the top floor. Getting to their hotel room is a challenge and the meat of the scenario. The primary routes are by the Mandrill-operated lift or the stairs. There are some absolutely terrific encounters here, such as a Sweet Old Lady who asks lots of questions and the process gets the players to think about and describe their characters, rewarding their characters with magical bonbons; a Gas Form alien whose presence will drown the Player Characters, essentially forcing them to deal with an environmental threat; let them go shopping and peruse the wares of a Pushy Wall merchant; and more. There is an entirely different set of encounters on the stairs. This a genuinely fun adventure, for player and Game Master alike, well designed with just about the right level of oddness without overwhelming the players.

Physically, TROIKA! is cleanly and tidily presented. The artwork is cartoonish, mixing humour and weirdness in equal measure. The book itself is very light in the hand.

TROIKA! combines very quick and easy to learn and play rules with a set of fantastically entertaining and enticing choices for both for the players and the Game Master. These choices are wonderfully weird and whimsical in a very British way, slyly humorous, and all in readiness to explore the Crystal Spheres starting with the really fun scenario in the book.

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