Game-related ramblings.

Scratching That Itch: Troika! Numinous Edition

This is the forty-third entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

It’s time once again for a random selection from the itch.io Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. This time, it’s Troika! Numinous Edition by Melsonian Arts Council. Its tagline in the bundle reads:

The Other world’s favourite fantasy RPG

This is not an exaggeration. The name Troika! has come up often as I’ve randomly sifted through this bundle, as it seems to be one of the more popular tabletop role-playing game inclusions, and Melsonian Arts Council are open to other creators making their own settings or adventure modules for use with Troika!, or using Troika!’s mechanics for their own games. I’ve already come across one of these with Layabouts & Degens, so I’m fortunate that Troika! proper has popped up and I can see what all the fuss is about.

As has become routine for the tabletop role-playing games in the bundle, I cannot actually play Troika! because I don’t have other people to play with. All I can do is read the book and offer my impressions. This time, the “book” really is a book, coming in at a whopping 120 pages, including wonderful illustrations by Jeremy Duncan, Dirk Detweiler Leichty, Sam Mameli, and Andrew Walter. Many of the tabletop role-playing games that have come up so far in Scratching That Itch have been small things, designed for one-off sessions, often with minimal rules and focused on acting out scenes and stories together. Troika!, however, hearkens more towards the classic role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, with one player taking the role of game master (aka GM) and setting up the world and its inhabitants while the others control a party of adventurers who will travel around following some quest or rumor and probably get into a bunch of fights along the way. But it diverges wildly from Dungeons & Dragons in its setting, and also its mechanics.

Let’s talk about the setting first. Troika! describes itself as a science-fantasy game, in which eldritch portals, non-Euclidian labyrinths, and golden-sailed barges can all be used to travel between the spheres, and nearly anything you could imagine exists in some corner of the cosmos. It’s clear that the authors have read the works of Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite authors; certain aspects of Troika! are not merely inspired by, but directly lifted from Wolfe’s novels. If you have ever wanted to role-play your way through the Autarch’s court and see the Phoenix Throne, or battle against notules or the terrifying alzabo, Troika! has you covered. If you don’t know what those are, I can only recommend that you read Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun at the earliest opportunity. It’s amazing.

The inclusion of these things in Troika! is simultaneously fitting and jarring. Troika! aspires to the same fusion of science fiction and fantasy that characterizes Wolfe’s books, where scientific concepts like relativistic physics and higher dimensional space blur with magic, and wondrous things are commonplace. But Troika! abandons the thin line that Wolfe walks, and throws a lot more stuff into the pot. Magic explicitly exists in Troika!, and while its many spells are imaginative and weird, they fail to capture the sense of mystery and wonder that the fantastical elements of Wolfe’s novels do. Many of them are just silly. The overall tone of Troika! is much lighter, and it embraces the absurd shenanigans that often ensue when playing a tabletop role-playing game with a group of good friends. A character in Troika! is just as likely to be a Fellow of the Sublime Society of Beefsteaks as they are to be an assassin in training. There are trans-dimensional goblins, necromancers, demons and demon hunters, and scholars who study the many doors between the spheres. And those spheres can be host to any type of adventure you might desire, as serious or absurd as you want to make it.

I did wonder if other aspects of Troika! are also borrowed form other sources, perhaps some other science-fantasy fiction that I haven’t read myself. Regardless of their origins, I was impressed with the imagination on display throughout the book. There’s little direct information about the setting other than a few mentions of the city of Troika, but the descriptions of characters, spells, creatures, and items do a lot of work in establishing a strange multiverse. Some take fantasy tropes and subvert them in strange ways, like goblins who busily construct a labyrinth that spans the many spheres, leading through unusual dimensions to connect distant parts of the universe. Or dwarves, who are a constructed people, dedicating themselves to fine art, including the sculpting of new dwarves. Others are more unusual, like the Befouler of Ponds who worships an ancient toad god and is dedicated to soiling bodies of water, or the members of Miss Kinsey’s Dining Club, who travel the spheres searching for new culinary delights, no matter how bizarre or amoral they may be.

The end of the book provides an example adventure to get new players started, set in a fancy hotel staffed entirely by mandrills in spiffy uniforms. There is a feast happening on the roof, and the players’ party must find their way to the sixth floor to check into their room before joining the festivities. Easier said than done, when each floor offers some new, strange encounter. A shopkeeper with a stall set into the wall of the elevator shaft may hold the party hostage until they buy something, or perhaps a tiger trainer will stuff their tigers into the tiny elevator carriage for an awkward ride. Perhaps the players will try the stairs instead, only to find them careening off into space as a sleeping wizard’s dreams warp reality nearby. If the players do manage to reach the festivities, there’s a huge random table of possible adventuring opportunities they might stumble upon to guide where the game might go next.

This adventure not only exemplifies the tone, but also emphasizes that games need not be dominated by combat. Like many tabletop role-playing games based around adventuring, the rules for combat take up a big chunk of the book, but that’s just because non-combat encounters are more free-form, letting players improvise solutions and workarounds without the restraint of a rigid set of rules. In these situations, players may apply their skills, which range from highly practical to extremely specific and mostly useless, using a simple dice roll. Troika! rejects the polyhedral dice made famous by Dungeons & Dragons, instead accomplishing everything with six-sided dice. Random tables may refer to “d66” which just means rolling a six-sided die twice and using the results in sequence (e.g. rolling a 2 and then a 4 would give you a result of 24), but the most common rolls use two six-sided dice simultaneously. Trying to climb something? Roll two dice and try to get a number lower than your Climbing skill. Whenever an action is opposed — like fighting — players instead roll versus, meaning each participant rolls two dice, adds any bonuses from weapons, items, or skills, and the higher value wins the challenge. An interesting consequence of this is that players may try to attack something and find themselves getting hit instead, if they fail the roll. Every combat action can go either way.

Troika! also has an interesting method for handling initiative. Every player character gets two tokens which they place in a bag or container. Non-player creatures or monsters have a set number of tokens they add as well, along with an “end round” token. Then the GM starts randomly drawing tokens to determine who will act next. If the “end round” token is drawn, all tokens are returned to the container and the next round begins. Some rounds may see players acting twice, while others they may not act at all, but since any combat action can go either way, players will still have a chance to impact the fight even if they are only able to react rather than act. Luck is another cool mechanic. In many role-playing games luck is a largely superfluous statistic, but in Troika! players may test their luck to avoid all manner of unsavory outcomes. Each time they successfully test luck, however, their luck is reduced by one, only to be recovered later when resting. Since harsh consequencies seem rife in Troika!, with death coming quickly and requiring players create new characters, I can see this leading to many a tense moment.

Other intriguing mechanics include wizards using their own health to power their spells, and players improving their spells and skills with use but never their health or other intrinsic attributes. It’s possible to become skilled and well equipped, but not to achieve the demi-god status of higher level characters in Dungeons & Dragons or its ilk. I’m not an expert in tabletop role-playing games, but Troika! strikes me as fairly different from the norm, making me interested to try it out. It does seem like it would be tough for first-time players, however, as there isn’t much guidance for running adventures beyond the example one provided at the end of the book. Reading through, I got the sense that the authors expected players to already be familiar with some of the more famous role-playing games, aiming Troika! at those who know they enjoy such things but are looking for something a little different.

If that’s you, then I highly recommend checking it out. If you missed it in the bundle, Troika! Numinous Edition is available digitally for a minimum price of $12, and in physical book form from the Melsonian Arts Council site. There are also some other games designed with Troika!’s ruleset or made to work directly with Troika! in the bundle, so take a look through those as well; I’ve already covered Layabouts & Degens in this series, but there are more.

That’s 43 down, and only 1698 to go!

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3 Comments

  1. kelvingreen

    For what it’s worth, Troika! is — in mechanical terms — a clone of the old Fighting Fantasy rules, specifically the Advanced version. Most of the interesting mechanics you identify come from that source.

    That said, some of the most interesting rules, like the randomised character generation or that wonderful initiative system — I’m a big fan — are unique to Troika! so it’s not a complete copy of the original game.

    The weird, feverish setting is all new.FF was very much a patchwork of classic fantasy imagery.

    • Interesting, I didn’t know that! I’ve never actually read / played any of the Fighting Fantasy books, but I do keep hearing about them. Apparently the Final Fantasy series was originally going to be called Fighting Fantasy but had to change its name to avoid a conflict with the books. I would never have suspected that the rules for the Fighting Fantasy books could work for a full-fledged tabletop role-playing game. The rules for luck as a diminishing resource do make sense for a gamebook now that I think about it, though.

      • kelvingreen

        It is, in all honesty, a bit wonky. The FF rules were never designed for lengthy campaigns, and it shows when you play for a while. That said, both the second edition of Advanced FF and Troika! put some bits in place to mitigate that issue somewhat.

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