A review of the Troika rpg

TLDR: A brief fanzine-style rpg with a minimalist but neatly elegant 2d6 system in a hinted at Terry Gilliam-esque fantasy world.

I love this book. It has restored my interest in table-top roleplaying games after being away for decades. If you get hold of a copy and see it’s a flimsy little pamphlet, understandably you might think I’m overselling it. So I’ll give you a bit of a flavour of the thing…

Being a flimsy little pamphlet, we get implied world building – that is hints and glimpses of the Troika! universe through brief descriptions in the Bestiary and the Character Backgrounds. This is strangely great, because instead of someone handing you a 600 page gazetteer, you’re just given a bit of a taste and your imagination spirals out on its own. Imagine you’re a player and roll up one of these as your character:

Monkeymonger
Life on The Wall is hard. One is never more than a few yards from an endless fall, but those precarious villages still need to eat. This is where you come in with your edible monkeys (the distinction is purely for appeal, since all monkeys are of course edible). You used to spend days on end dangling your feet off the edge of the world watching over your chittering livestock while they scampered hither and thither, but there was no future in monkey meat or on The Wall. You wanted much more and so stepped off. Or you fell. Either way you and some unlucky monkeys are here now and that’s all that matters.

Possessions: Monkey club, butcher knife, d6 small monkeys that do not listen to you but are too scared and hungry to travel far from you, a pocket full of monkey treats.

Thinking Engine
Your eyes are dull ruby spheres, your skin is hard and smooth like ivory but brown and whorled like wood. You are clearly damaged, you have no memory of your creation or purpose, and some days your white internal juices ooze thickly from cracks in your skin.

Possessions: Soldering iron, detachable autonomous hands OR centaur body (+4 Run)

Special: You don’t recover Stamina by resting in the usual manner — instead you have to spend an evening with a hot iron melting your skin back together like putty… You may recharge plasmic machines by hooking your fluids to them and spending Stamina.

Life Line (a spell)
Created by the Horizon Knights to enable them to take the fight to the Nothing. They would cast this on their squires and dive off the edge of creation. While this Spell lasts the caster’s essential bodily functions are linked to another, enabling them to breath or eat for them. They will need to breath and eat for two, making it hard to do anything useful while linked. The Spell lasts for a day, until cancelled, or on the death of the linked person. Note, if the linked person dies, starves or is choked you will suffer.

There’s also the Exotic Warrior, whose possessions include and ‘exciting accent’ and ‘a tea set or three pocket gods,’ the lost and Lonely King without a kingdom, the members of Miss Kinsey’s Diner’s Club who carry an embroidered napkin and metal dentures that can strip all the flesh from one small appendage, and the Befouler of Ponds. It’s just begging to be played.

Even if you just got your players to roll up characters and got them to just talk to each other the stories would just make themselves.

Troika! lurches enjoyably from weirdness, to humour to the horrific. Here are some of the spells, many taken directly from the old Fighting Fantasy rpg which Troika! is built on, but given a far more entertaining write up:

Darksee
The wizard reaches into his sockets and extricates his eyes. Thus freed, the dark void behind them can see perfectly well in pitch blackness and suffer excruciating pain in light… Be careful not to lose those eyeballs though, they are the only way to end the spell.

Drown
Cause the targets lungs to fill with water… They start to drown and are incapacitated with water pouring out of their mouth.

Leech
The necromancer must place his hands on a living subject, allowing his fingertips to transform into sucking apertures, draining them of blood.

Presence
Creates the sense of being watched by a patriarchal figure. Some find it comforting, others not so much. (I love this one because it is purely a story telling spell, not something you could use to give yourself superpowers or in combat as a spare weapon).

Sometimes the flavour text just adds a little something, even to boring spells like Levitate (‘Elevates the wizard on the backs of tiny invisible sprites who answer only to their summoner.’) or Open (‘The wizard chooses a reality in which the locked door was open all along.’). Or just:

Amity is a spell that causes the target to become friendly, but ‘if they were already a bit of an arsehole, this might not change much.’

Whereas D&D, even fifth edition which looks closest to what I’d be interested in, never piqued my interest, but this is really a breath of fresh air.

Implied world building

The impression I get of the Troika! world is a kind of mishmash of eighties fantasy and horror films, mostly Terry Gilliam, a bit of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth and Story Teller, the Gremlins movies, that kind of thing. Sell himself says he aimed at a mix of Gene Wolfe and Viriconium, inspired by the feel of Planescape, and the humour of 2000AD/1980s Games Workshop. Although we only get hints and glimpses, that’s the atmosphere, and the writing style reinforces the idea of the sarky, off-key, gonzo, feel. The character types mentioned above are a good example, but also what comes through is that in Troika! the universe is made up of the ‘million spheres’, which seem to be weird little pockets or reality, like different planes. Beings move between he spheres on golden barges, and sometimes there are other interactions between the spheres: Troika goblins, for example, seem to be a pesky sphere infestation:

The moment a sphere bobs to the surface, the goblins will creep out of the nooks and crannies to start expanding their labyrinth. Left to their own devices, they will eventually tame and cover every surface in walls and hedges and tunnels and steel and whatever else is in goblin-vogue.

Like the system, which is so simple and easy to run, the idea of the spheres is a great rationale for anything goes. This means in practical terms I can use all kinds of disparate adventures and drop them in, and also lets players have a lot of freedom – they can create their own world’s as part of their background. But as for the actual game itself, it keeps things fresh. I can go from an old school orcs and dungeons adventure, then immediately drop the players into a Spelljammer fight with neogi deathspider spaceship, then on to Talislanta and the panic demons illuminated by the sparks of the clanging metal forest of Temesia. Or whatever.

The Rules

Troika! rules are based off three 1990s books by Marc Gascoigne, which took the basic rules from the Fighting Fantasy choose your own adventure books and turned them into ‘Advanced Fighting Fantasy’ by adding specialised skills, magic and an experience point system. Troika! tweaks all of these into something better.

Remember these?

Your character has just three statistics, Skill, Stamina, and Luck.

To complete any task, roll two six sided dice (2d6) under your Skill to succeed. And that means any task – physical, mental, social, whatever.

If it is a contested task, where you’re up against someone else (like combat) it’s an opposed roll, you both roll 2d6 and add your Skill. Highest wins.

If you’re interested, here are the probabilities:

In combat you lose Stamina points, 0 and you’re dead.

And Luck is like a Skill roll, test if fortune favours you with 2d6 under luck, the difference being that you lose a point of Luck each time you test it, so as the game goes on your Luck runs out.

And that’s it, that’s the basis of the whole game. There are then add-ons, for example Special Skills (like Trap Knowledge, City Lore, Crossbow etc) which add a bonus of 1 – 3 to your Skill role.

Improved skill rule

The thing about the original Fighting Fantasy though, if you play it as a role playing game rather than just for the choose your own adventure books, is that characters are just too good too soon. Special Skills make characters pretty invincible in a few areas, and after a couple of adventures gaining Experience Points and yet more Special Skills, combined with a few magic items, they get ridiculously high powered so that as a Games Master you have to throw in endless penalties (‘-5 to climb because the wall is also on fire’) just to keep it vaguely challenging.

Troika! solves this by dropping Base Skill to d3+3, rather than d6+6. This sounds like a good idea, but we still had problems with it (see below).

In Advanced Fighting Fantasy there were all these additional rules for every skill. So for example, for Bribery you need to determine the category of the request, from Reasonable to Impossible, and then there’s a table with sixteen different modifiers listed. It was all ridiculously involved for such a dead simple game, and very sensibly Troika! avoids all this nonsense. All you need to know in game is that any Skill roll can take a modifier depending on the situation, and you can kind of guess the scale (from impossible -6 to ridiculously easy +4). That’s it. Though I also adjust it depending on the skill level of the character, it’s no fun if they win at everything. 

Also, just as an aside, it was nice to see opposed rolls not just being used in combat. So for example to successfully carry off a disguise, you would roll and add your Disguise skill versus the observer’s roll plus Awareness. I should have figured that out for the old Fighting Fantasy rules (we used to just roll under Disguise uncontested). Now all kinds of things are contested, a chase is an opposed Run roll, pick a lock or disarm a trap by rolling against the maker’s skill, Sneak versus someone’s Awareness, and so on. This works really well.

Improved Damage rules

The other problem Fighting Fantasy had is that all weapons to a flat 2 points of Stamina damage. The Advanced Fighting Fantasy changed this up a bit with damage tables, but they were very underwhelming.

Troika! ups weapon damage making it very ‘swingy’, so where a Fighting Fantasy sword did 1 – 3 damage, a Troika! sword does 4 – 10. Even a little spell like Jolt will zap you for 2 damage unless you roll a six then it’s a painful 7 damage, so combat goes from Fighting Fantasy’s plodding back and forth to a much more deadly experience. Combined with the Initiative rules (see below) this completely changes combat into something exciting and fun.

Also, interestingly, bonuses from weapons and items add a number to the damage roll, not the damage itself – that’s why the damage tables go up to 7+. So say you rolled a 5 for knife damage, that would inflict 4 stamina points of damage on your opponent. But you have a magic +1 knife, boosting the die roll to 6, which looking at the damage table is actually a whopping 8 points of damage. Armour and shields likewise reduce the die roll total, not points of damage done.

At the same time, monsters now all come with Armour ratings (not just for armour, but also represents speed, incorporeality etc, like Armour Class), ranging from Goblin’s Armour of 1 through Dragon’s Armour of 4.

A Troika! dragon :)

New Initiative rules!

But the biggest rules change (or addition rather) that Troika! makes is Initiative. This is a bag of tokens pulled out at random to see the order in which characters can act, and includes an ‘end of round’ token. So players each get two tokens, monsters get different numbers of tokens depending, interestingly, not on their speed but on their personalities, so goblins get only one token each because their cowardly, dragons get eight because they are super intelligent multi-dimensional beings. Once the ‘end of round’ token is drawn, all the tokens are put back in the bag and you start all over again.

This is great because it adds a tense, exciting, random element to combat, and (surprisingly) clarity. In Fighting Fantasy combat can be plodding – you and the monster just keep rolling your Attack Score (2d6 + Base Skill + Weapon Skill), see who gets the highest then calculate damage. But what if the monster wants to run away and the wizard wants to cast a spell, which happens first? There was no clear way of working it out before. Now if the wizard’s initiative token comes up first they can zap the goblin before it has a chance to go anywhere.  

Spells as skills

Another great improvement. The old Fighting Fantasy rules were horrible: There was just one Special Skill called ‘Magic,’ and if you took points in this your Base Skill would drop by an equivalent number. This is supposed to make wizards be the physically ineffectual types dedicated only to the study of arcane lore, but this was a painful sacrifice to make as a player. Also, as a magic user having just one number to mark all your magical powers was boring.

So Troika! solves this very simply by treating Spells exactly the same as Special Skills, they go on the same list on the character sheet, and advance in the same way (put a tick by it if you use them successfully). There is no penalty to Base Skill. This feels so much better in game – it was odd before to have varying aptitudes in Acrobatics, Crossbow and Sea Lore, but somehow just one blanket number for every spell. Now you can be outstanding at Illusions but a bit cack-handed at casting Fire Bolts. And there’s something nice about having these alongside regular skills like Cooking and Tracking, makes the character seem inherently magical.  

The other thing is that although Advanced Fighting Fantasy magic users had a low Skill, in the published adventures they often have a massively high Stamina as a power reserve so they can cast a lot of spells. This is a little odd, as it’s the same attribute that would give a giant or dragon a massive amount of hit points, so I always have this odd image in my head of really buff wizards. In the Troika! world, everyone seems a bit magical, and the spell energy costs are often a point or two lower, so there are less of these statistical oddities wandering about.

New monster rules!

So apart from enemies now getting armour and initiative, there is also a d6 table for each one called ‘Mien’. This is the creature’s attitude when encountered, and is another way Troika! tries to shake things up and make life interesting, rather than another paint-by-numbers encounter. No need for a mindless zombie attack, your living dead could be pondering or distressed – there’s stories right there. I don’t think I’d even roll these, unless it was an unexpected ‘wandering monster’ type encounter, the list is already inspiring.

Okay, that’s it. I think the best way to sum things up is to give you an overview of the pros and cons we found when actually playing through the game. Note this was for an audience of fifth grader (11 year old) players:

TROIKA! PROS

Fast and simple. You can explain the rules, roll up a character and start playing in a couple minutes.

Transparent. Skill ranks of just one to three is simple enough you can both make up non-player characters instantly and see at a glance all of someone’s abilities (one is basic knowledge, three is master of the craft).

Mechanically colourful. Make up any skill you want to add flavour. In Troika! that would be setting skills like Golden Barge Pilot, and Sell says ‘Anything can be a Skill, from jousting to gambling, and are primarily used as flavour and the occasional fun instance where your incredibly specific and heretofore useless ability helps you and your friends out.’ And as games master this also means an entire character could be conjured up by skills alone.

Great combat. We used to play using the Fighting Fantasy system, so if you come from that background the new initiative and damage rules turn the old plodding combat into something dangerous and thrilling. Just a massive improvement.

TROIKA! CONS

So, we played through Slumbering Ursine Dunes (as recommended by Daniel Sell, being a weird and wonderful enough adventure that it fits in with the Troika! feel), and unfortunately came across a couple problems that took the shine off a little.

Incompetent characters. The biggest problem we had was with base Skill. Skill is the universal statistic to do anything – fast-talk a city guard, jump a snake pit, read an ancient magical tome, it’s all the same number. In Fighting Fantasy this was 1d6 + 6 in character creation, giving you a minimum of 7: In other words in the 2d6 roll under system you have a minimum 60% chance at succeeding at anything. In Troika!, the emphasis is shifted to skills, so a character is created with 1d3 + 3 base Skill. One of our players was unlucky enough to get a 4 base Skill, which means nearly everything he tried to do he was at just 17% chance of success, failing nearly everything. It was very frustrating in play.

And most Troika! character templates only have half a dozen of fun though very impractical Special Skills, which turned out to be not so much fun in game. I think older players who enjoy a certain kind of story-telling play would have gotten a lot more out of it.

2d6 is just too broad. In combat, someone who has a weapon skill 4 points better than you will win 84% of the time, 6 points better 95% of the time. As a GM, the only way to keep things interesting is to have opponents with skills always hovering within a few points of the players weapon skill. Which is doable up to a point, but it’s the same old problem despite the low Base Skill – very soon the characters will be walking over most opponents. And it’s similar for non-combat skills, though they’ll advance slower players will notice if you make the challenge artificially high.

One-trick ponies. For skill advancement in Troika, as in Runequest and other systems I assume, you put a tick next to the skills you use and then at the end of the adventure you can advance them (roll over the skill on 2d6 to add 1 point). In Runequest where you have a vast number of skills and its all incremental percentage stuff this works great, but in Troika! you tend to favour your best skills, as the numbers veer toward near certain success or failure. This means your best skills keep going up, everything else gets neglected, and as much as we tried to avoid it characters started turning one dimensional. There were the two or three things they would always do.

No fun dice, just d6. Not much to do about that, but it does keep the game accessible I guess.

Our house rules

If you are playing Troika! (or Fighting Fantasy), the following may be useful.

Boost to Base Skill. In character creation we moved from 1d3 + 3 to 1d3 + 4, plus the 8 points worth of skills in any of the following (max 2 in one skill): Awareness, Stealth (=Sneak), Dodge, Climb, Ride, Run, Swim, Tracking, Sleight of Hand, Healing. That might not sound like a huge change, but because of the 2d6 bell curve, the difference between 4 skill and 5 skill is a jump from 17% to 28% chance of success. Then say you put just 1 point into Awareness – that boosts the number to 6 (base Skill 5 plus Special Skill 1) or 42% chance for all Awareness checks, which includes spotting an ambush and searching a room for hidden doors. And this is in addition to whatever skills your character template gives you.

Criticals. In combat a critical success is rolling double 6, critical fail double 1, and means you get to do extra damage or you drop your weapon. In my youth I played Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and the memory of the bloody, gory violence of the critical tables is a joy that lives on still. So using our own critical hit tables was a must (I ended up googling it and just pulling up some D&D 5e homebrew ones, but they work great). 

Skill advancement. We went back to the old Fighting Fantasy rpg rules, that is xp/point buy: You get 1-3 experience points at the end of an adventure to spend how you like. 1 xp to increase Special Skills by 1 point, 10 xp to increase base Skill by 1 point, or 2 xp and 250 gp to a trainer to learn 1 point in a new Special Skill. Although the Troika! way sounds more elegant, it just didn’t work for us – it wasn’t as fun as point buy, and led to less rounded characters.

Death. I know it’s an OSR thing to have high character mortality, but it’s no fun for fifth graders. So our house rule is you are unconscious and mortally wounded up to negative half your Stamina. So say your Stamina is 20, when it reaches 0 you fall unconscious, and will regain consciousness again when it’s back to 1. You really are dead if it reaches -11. Considering many weapons and creatures can do 10+ points of damage without any special bonuses, this is not as big of a safety net as it sounds.

These might be useful:

EDIT: The new Numinous edition is out (PDF and Hardback). More gorgeous art (by Jeremy Duncan, Sam Mameli, and Andrew Walter). Character backgrounds, spells, skills, rules remain unchanged, but we do get….More monsters! These include the alzabo (a red-furred ghoul bear that can replicate exactly the sound of any creature it has eaten, “typically mimicking a recently eaten family member” to lure its prey), the dolm (saggy skinned grey humanoids that grow to enormous size, yet are able to squeeze like putty through tiny cracks).

And we are given an introductory adventure, set in The Blancmange and Thistle, a hotel of gold and chrome. I think at some point I was happy that Troika! was an implied setting, but after reading this I would happily devour a 600 page tome about the place. Here is the adventure map, which explains exactly what it would be like to play, but without the spoilers:

My only hesitation is that this adventure may be just too weird for kids, but it is perfect for jaded adults.

And my only other reservation about the book is that the Numinous character sheet is much uglier than the original (PDF linked to above).

Finally, the new introduction sums up everything I love about Troika!, which in short is that it’s weird and wonderful, but most importantly it’s yours:

Troika!: a science-fantasy RPG in which players travel by eldritch portal and non-euclidean labyrinth and golden-sailed barge between the uncountable crystal spheres strung delicately across the hump-backed sky.

What you encounter on those spheres and in those liminal places is anybody’s guess — I wouldn’t presume to tell you, though inside this book you will find people and artefacts from these worlds which will suggest the shape of things. The adventure and wonder is in the gaps; your game will be defined by the ways in which you fill them.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *