This is the seventieth 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.
Duke DeCorticus is dying!
It would seem that this is shocking news to Melsonian Arts Council, but I must admit that I don’t actually know who Duke DeCorticus is.
Fronds of Benevolence is an adventure module for the tabletop role-playing game Troika!. Fortunately for us, not only is Troika! included in the bundle, it has already appeared in Scratching That Itch. In fact, it was even one of the highlights from year one, honored for the best Gene Wolfe reference. That means you can go read all about the base game before continuing, if you so desire. Melsonian Arts Council are the developers of Troika!, so Fronds of Benevolence can be considered an official adventure, but it gives specific writing and illustration credit to Andrew Walter. The production values in this 48-page chapbook are just as high as the book for the base game, and indeed it is available in physical printed form from the Melsonian Arts Council site, but the version in the bundle is, like the base game, digital only.
The adventure is designed for 4-6 players, so — as usual — I can’t actually play it. I can, however, read through it and offer my impressions. I actually found Fronds of Benevolence very helpful in understanding how Troika! itself works in practice. The book for the base game lays out its bizarre setting, full of magic and technology, intersecting dimensional planes and strange creatures, with so many things included that it’s hard to tell what a campaign would be like to play. This adventure offers an excellent example. It begins in Plandra, a small duchy ruled since time immemorial by the noble plant creature Duke DeCorticus. But all is not well in Plandra, with sedition taking hold, possibly sowed by agents from the south. You see, that’s where Duke DeCorticus usually gets the “rare earths” that he requires to live. In the book, rare earths are mysterious and possibly extradimensional substances that can only be found in small quantities in very specific places, but the term is a real one: “rare earth elements” is another term for the lanthanides (plus yttrium and scandium), elements that do indeed occur only rarely on Earth and which are used in electronics and metallurgy (especially dysprosium and neodymium). Regardless, shipments of rare earths from The Wall far to the south have ceased, with only a brusque notice that offers no explanation. Players must race against the clock as they travel south to try to find some rare earths and save the Duke’s life.
Regarding the journey at the center of this adventure, the book makes a big point about it being a “pointcrawl” instead of a “hexcrawl”. Rather than explaining these terms, it links to a blog (not affiliated with Melsonian Arts Council) that offers what I can only describe as far too much information. I eventually realized that the two concepts are actually very simple. A hexcrawl is a design in which the explorable area of the world is translated into a hex-based map, with players free to travel wherever they wish, even if that is hex after hex of empty wilderness. To take an example from Scratching That Itch, the mini-adventure 1-6 Oozes in the Dark uses such a map system. A pointcrawl is instead designed around specific points of interest, connected to each other via travel paths (literal paths, vehicle routes, etc.) and leaves out a detailed map of the wilderness. That wilderness is still there, of course, and players are still free to wander wherever they wish, but travel between the main points can be somewhat abstracted and players can focus on locales important to the story. These two designs seem straightforward and obvious to me, but I got the impression that among veteran players of tabletop role-playing games the hexcrawl concept is so deeply ingrained that they must spend a lot of time and effort convincing themselves that a pointcrawl system might actually be more fun. For what it’s worth, the one and only group that I’ve ever played a tabletop role-playing game with (Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition) opted for a pointcrawl approach and it worked just fine.
Anyway, Fronds of Benevolence features a beautifully illustrated node-based map to facilitate its pointcrawl-ness, and I admired the structure. With a clear goal in mind, the players initially have two choices for travel: an expensive and fancy golden barge, which will sail through the hump-backed sky (AKA outer space) before arriving at Launch & Landing Station Indomitable, or a stiltloper, a huge bipedal machine that will stride across the Collapsing Mires for a significantly smaller fee. Either way, there are myriad ways in which the journey can go wrong, and new destinations branch out like a tree, eventually intersecting each other. These feature a lot of climbing. Unfortunate players may find themselves scaling the Eyebleed and Vomiting Precipes, curious explorers may descend the thousand branches of the Great Blue Oak, and most will encounter The Wall, a massive vertical structure stretching up into the clouds with settlements and farms jutting from it at dizzying heights. These locales are home to creatures equally strange, from psychic centipede-moths to wine-coloured raiders (who come in red and white varieties). Whatever planet this is, it makes for a journey without any dull moments, and plenty of different leads players can follow in their quest.
Every location has a list of some notable NPCs (that’s non-player characters, meaning personas temporarily adopted by the GM for storytelling purposes) as well as occurrences, situations and hazards that may befall players while there. Descriptions are also peppered with advice for the GM on how to handle certain aspects of the adventure, but inexperienced GMs will not find detailed guidance here. For that matter, the base book for Troika! doesn’t provide too much of this either, so Fronds of Benevolence fits with my impression that Troika! is aimed at experienced roleplayers looking for something new and different to play (the extended pointcrawl discussion is another hint that the target audience is veteran players). Even without discussion of the basics, however, I could picture how the adventure might run, and I had the impression that the design will easily lead players into interesting situations, even if they’re not the ones players were looking for.
The adventure is designed to be played over one or two sessions, so it’s not an epic quest, but I could easily imagine it taking longer. The time pressure is a nice driving force, but I wonder if it might backfire too. Having to hurry will keep players focused on the goal rather than partaking in unrelated shenanigans, but there’s also a very real risk that the players will completely fail their quest and Duke DeCorticus will perish. I suppose that could make for an interesting story itself, but it’s certainly different from the one tabletop role-playing adventure I’ve played to completion, in which time pressures weren’t real and climactic events conveniently occurred right when our party arrived. Of course, we spent a lot of time messing around in that adventure, dragging out the playtime over many sessions, so maybe Fronds of Benevolence is onto something.
If you’re interested in trying Troika! but aren’t sure how to design an adventure in its crazy universe, Fronds of Benevolence is a good option and should get the creative juices flowing for future stories. It’s not the best place to start for those completely new to tabletop role-playing, unless you’ve got an experienced GM to help out, but for those who have some experience it sounds like a fun time. If you own the bundle, you’ve got both Troika! and Fronds of Benevolence, so why not give them a try? If you missed the bundle, Troika! is sold in digital form for a minimum price of $12, while Fronds of Benevolence is available for a minimum price of $10. Both are also sold in physical form from the Melsonian Arts Council site.
That’s 70 down, and only 1671 to go, which means we’ve officially covered 4% of the bundle!