Thursday, 16 August 2018

Review: Troika

I received a PDF of the "Troika! RPG" in one of the charity bundles I supported. Sadly, I don't even know which one. I didn't pay much attention to it at the time but the kickstarter has a bunch of people talking about the game in glowing terms again so I decided to see what the fuss was all about. Overall I was impressed and wished I'd looked at it sooner!

Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan created Troika and publish it under the Melsonian Arts Council.

It gives you a lot to work with in only 50 pages, but feels incomplete. It may not be an issue going forward because the new edition is projected to be nearly twice the page count and will come with a series of supporting chapbooks. Still, it's worth mentioning because I'm not sure if the brevity is a feature or a bug.

I like that the setting is baked into the rules. All of the character classes, called backgrounds here, are full of implicit setting information. The skills, the spells, and the handful of monsters, give you a strong sense of the setting. The way this is executed is great! These brief references to the world(s?) of Troika are an evocative way to root the different game elements to the setting without clogging up the game with pages of text. The problem is there is no other reference to the setting in the book. It's only implied, never described. For veteran gamers this setup is not a problem. The game master will simply run the version of the setting that blew up in their mind as they read the rules. Every group would be playing in their own unique version of Troika. I like this idea, but the game is billed as a good beginner role playing game. While the rules are easy, I think people new to RPGs would be a bit confused about what they should be doing and what is supposed to be going on in Troika.

The setting, as far as I can tell, is amazing and full of wonder. It takes place in a series crystalline spheres that hang in a "humpbacked sky" and serve as the stars for each other. It's possible to move between them on golden barges powered by mirrored sails. It also appears to be possible to fall out of one and land in another. Goblins seem to be able to connect underground labyrinths from one sphere to another. In these ways people and cultures from the different spheres mix with each other and adventurers have the option to get into all kinds of new brands of trouble. If things get stale in a long campaign the party need only move to another sphere to get a fresh start or new experience!

Troika is science fantasy, with a mix of swords, energy weapons, and magic. Personally I love the science fantasy, sword and planetesque style RPG setting. If you want a more pure fantasy game, the science fiction elements of Troika could be scrubbed out without much trouble. Certainly a lot easier than the old Star Wars RPG.

The rules are based on an RPG that grew out of series of solo adventure books. Both were called "Fighting Fantasy" and were apparently quite popular in the UK in the 1980s. Living in Canada, I never saw either and I don't remember any ads for them.

The system uses regular six-sided dice for everything but manages them to get a wide variety of results. The core of the system is 2d6 + base skill + advanced skill vs opponent or 2d6 to roll target number or under of the total skill (base skill + advanced skill). So if your character is using a hammer to fight an enemy you roll 2d6 add your skill and any skill you have in hammers and hope you get more than the GM does with 2d6 plus the enemy's skill. If your character is climbing a cliff, you need to roll 2d6 and get the total of your base skill and climb skill or less to succeed. Advanced skills are attached to specific things like climbing, etiquette, specific spells, and swords. I found it easy to grasp and good for all kinds of situations. The roll high sometimes, roll low others I find a bit irritating but it's hardly the first game I've played that switches back and forth.

A sample page from the character generation section with two backgrounds.

The book opens on character generation which is fast, random, and wild. I like character generation at the front of an RPG rule book, since it is the portion used the most. The system allows you to produce a character in a few minutes. There are no classes, but there are 36 backgrounds rolled for using d66 (11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 21, 22, ... 65, 66). Because there is no class and level advancement these backgrounds are starting places for each player's character. The character improves the skills they use and learn new ones they spend time and effort on. With so many different starting places and no clear path forward, playing each character should be a unique experience.

The game only has three stats: skill, stamina and luck. Usually a game with so few stats ends up with little to differentiate the different characters from each other. In this case, Troika avoids that fate by having a long list of specific "advanced skills" that create the detail and flavour of each player character. It might be more accurate to say this game has one stat and two resources. The base skill is the raw talent the character can apply to any action and augment with a relevant skill if they have it. The stamina is the character's total effort that they use to take lumps and keep going or fuel their spells. It's recovered pretty quickly for an old school game. It is fairly close to 5e D&D's hit points in that respect. The character's luck is another resource they can spend to tip the balance in certain situations or as a saving throw. It's by no means certain, it is luck after all, but it can run out.

One thing I noticed with the advanced skills is there are none for social situations outside of etiquette. I'm guessing this comes from the creators relying on player skill and roleplay for situations that would call for a deception or insight roll in another system. Although the rules specifically invite the invention of more advanced skills, so it;s easy to adjust it to your play style.

The cover image from the game's first print run.

The backgrounds are summed up in a few paragraphs including starting equipment, skills, any special rules that apply and a brief description. The variety of backgrounds include some of the usual suspects with a handful of warriors, priests, and wizards each with a flavourful spin of its own. They also have odd things like a lost king from another sphere who no one has heard of. It turns our a king without a kingdom is just a random person in a crown with a high etiquette skill. The dwarves in Troika are not born, they are made by other dwarves. Each dwarf is an artistic achievement, except the poorly made dwarf character. To other creatures they look like an ordinary dwarf, but other dwarves either ignore them or have a discussion about their flaws and draw on them to emphasize the points made. There is definitely something for everyone in the list. A party randomly rolled of such options would be a motley crew and makes me think of the groups of characters found in Terry Prachett's Discworld.

The encumbrance system is streamlined and easy to use, but has a clever innovation for finding equipment in a hurry. Your character has 12 slots of carrying capacity before they become encumbered. Some items take multiple slots and others, like arrows, can be packed into one. Any time your character tries to grab an item you have stowed like a potion, or a crossbow bolt, you need to roll its position or higher on the list with 2d6. Otherwise they must stop and rummage through their belongings to find it. This set up means players need to "pack carefully" to keep the important stuff, like weapons and ammunition, within easy reach. It's a fun quirk and adds a sense of urgency and suspense to changing weapons or getting a rarely needed item.

The other big innovation is the initiative system. Players each put two tokens in a bag for their character while the game master puts in the appropriate number for the enemies' initiative and the end of round token. Tokens are pulled one at a time to determine the order in which each character or creature in the conflict acts. The bag is refilled and a new round starts when the end of round token is pulled, so it is possible some wont act in a given round while others act multiple times. This makes combat a completely chaotic mess where opportunities are taken as they come and sometimes you get caught flat footed! I love the idea of this system even though I'd need to dig out my poker chips or find something else to make it work.

For me, the section that could use the most expanding is the enemies section. The monsters are fantastic! The dragons are wonderful beings of light and thought, the manticores are brilliant bookworms living in splendor. Each monster entry only takes a few paragraphs and includes a d6 table of creature moods when they are met to keep the encounters unpredictable.

My favourite monster is the parchment witch. This is a long dead sorcerer that covers their bones and rotting sinew with leather, parchment, paper or vellum to hide their true nature. Their thin disguises are vulnerable to water and fire which can make things awkward. They can also wear someone's skin for about a week before it starts to rot and becomes useless. This one is so messed up and it doubles as one of the background options! The parchment witch is only part of the picture though. Some of the monsters are rooted in comedy, like the road knight that appears to be a reference to the black knight of Monty Python's Quest for the Holy Grail.

The magic system has a simple skill roll and stamina cost to keep spell casters in check. It also has an "Oops!" table for when the player rolls box cars. This system means magic is a bit unpredictable and dangerous without making the casters a constant danger to themselves and everyone around them. The spells themselves have enough variety and are flexible enough to be used in a wide variety of circumstances. This section is probably the most complete in the book.

The equipment section is brief, but doesn't appear to need anything more than it has. One thing I like is how the damage for different weapons is on a d6 table. Rolling a 1 on the d6 does dramatically different damage when the character is using a polearm than it does when they are using a knife. The weapons are defined by their damage spread and how they punch through armour. The armour is a simple damage reduction.

The art is consistent and good. It fits the contradictory elements of comedy, grittiness, and the strange captured by the text.

From a GM's point of view, this game is easy to run on the fly with heavy improv but doesn't need to be run that way for it to work. The stat blocks for monsters are skill/stamina/initiative so everything is there at a glance. The damage tables are in the back of the book so they are easily referenced. I will definitely run this game the first chance I get!

I like that it's not another in a long line of similar games with a twist. Like the d20 retro clones, the Fate games and the powered by the apocalypse games that are becoming legion. By using lesser known system as a jumping off point their game is all twist! Troika is different in a way I respond to. It reaches for the wonder found in the best science fantasy art and I think it's a good tool for a group to get there.

Like my review of The Black Hack, this one is a bit late. I think the reason is the same though. Both games have terrible names that don't inspire me. I thought Troika had something to do with eastern European legends, which I'm not overly interested in. The fact that it hits my sweet spot for crazy science fantasy with a magnificent mixture of awe, darkness and silly, is not referenced in the name. I asked Daniel Sell about the name and he said it was combination of it being the name of the tri-city that was the main population centre of the setting (something not in the book), a reference to the three stats, and something that sounded funny. I can't argue with that logic.

If you are looking for a tight, rules-light science fantasy game with a wide open setting, check out the kickstarter for the Numinous edition of Troika they are running now. It's already funded and the stretch goals will add to the supplementary setting and adventure material that this new version will have to expand what is at its core a solid game. So solid that I think we may see some Troika clones next year.

Have a crazy character sheet I found online.