16 May 2023
Troika! Is six years old this year, an auspicious age for a game revolving around rolling six-sided dice. We pop over to the game’s creator’s sphere with a party hat and D6 slices of cake
Words by Christopher John Eggett
“There’s no jokes in Troika!, if people find it funny, that’s on them.”
– Daniel Sell
This year is Troika!’s sixth birthday, and in lieu of singing a roleplaying game ‘Happy Birthday’ in an out of tune way, we decided to talk its creator. Head over here to see all currently available Troika! books.
2023 looks to be a big year for the game, with five new books coming for this indie roleplaying game of weirdos, occultism and sci-fi. We sat down with Daniel Sell, the game’s designer and founder of Melsonian Arts Council, for what felt like a long-overdue chat about the game.
It was a long and winding conversation that saw me try and pick at what makes the game so special, and particularly lauded in the world of indie roleplaying game design. While I couldn’t attend Dragonmeet this year, it would have been unlikely to find someone who wouldn’t react with a smile when Troika! was mentioned to them – and that’s partly because it’s a game that’s so finely attuned to a certain vibe. That vibe is one of a knowing writer confidently presenting you exactly what you need to have a weird time roleplaying with your friends.
In fact there is part of this interview where I had to stop Daniel to ask if he’s just pulling my leg. Troika!, a game I’ve played a fair bit now and love for its wackiness, feels a little bit like a joke in itself. That’s not to say it has that slightly distanced feeling of something like MÖRK BORG (which can be summarised as ‘join with irony, stay for a good time’) but rather that it’s a well-crafted fantasy. Troika! is constructed and purposeful. The game is intentional. It is weird and sincere – but not serious.
“There’s no jokes in Troika!,” says Sell, “if people find it funny, that’s on them.”
This obviously elicits a laugh from me.
“A joke is just a little surprise, you know?” he continues, “and Troika! is full of little surprises. Some people find them funny, and some people find them infuriating.”
Sell has arranged his work life to be less about the publishing books through Melsonian Arts Council (which includes books titled things like Fungi of the Far Realms and Wet Grampa), and more about writing. All the books we’ll discuss today have been talked about since the first Kickstarter for the game. Sell has finally been able to dedicate time to finishing these books. He also reveals that a “thrifty” softback version of Troika! will be hitting Kickstarter, which has sadly passed since the publishing date of this magazine, but this means there’s never been a better time to get into the weird world of the spheres.
INTO THE SPHERES
Troika! itself offers up a science fantasy universe where travel is conducted on archaic golden barges between worlds of magnificent wonder. We know everywhere in that universe is pretty magnificently weird because of the backgrounds we use to create our characters. Simply put, where you’re from is much of who you are in Troika!. Weirder backgrounds include the Cacogen (a mutli-faced somewhat multi-dimensional being), the Chaos Champion (semi-retired), and the Ardent Giant of Corda (a lost people looking for their home, and giants obviously).
Twists on fantasy tropes are interesting too, Dwarves are fabricated, being created by other Dwarves for example. The Lonesome Monarch offers players a chance to play a lost prince of a kingdom no one has heard of and no one cares about hearing of either. All of these backgrounds are tightly written to be evocative without shutting you down. There’s none of the ‘can I…?’ about Troika!. The answer is yes, why are you asking? character creation as we sometimes see elsewhere, because the lore is there to be made.
Gameplay uses a very elegant skills system where your base skill is added to any advance skill that’s relevant (or spell, which is expressed the same way) and players simply have to roll under that number. But combat is often the most loved part of Troika!’s system by designers. It’s always an opposed roll, and which means there’s always a chance to respond for players. Equally, the initiative system – which involves putting tokens in a bag, some for players, some for enemies, means the order of actions is random. This is further improved when the GM can apportion those actions from a group of enemies however they choose – the fact it’s not a literal one-to-one for each token means dramatic scenes can unfold with a couple of enemy characters doing a succession of creative things while the others hang about.
The goal of this system is to keep combat exciting, “if I know my turn isn’t coming for three people, I’m just going to phase out,” he says “but if I don’t know, I’ll maintain a certain amount of engagement.”
He comments the roll vs another player makes it more exciting, as does the fact that you don’t have huge amount of health (“if I’ve got 50 hit points I know I’m not going to die. If my character gets stabbed, well, do it another 20 times and we’ll talk”) to deal with. As a GM, Troika! is wonderfully flexible to run.
The tightness of the game comes down to Sell and his disciplined revisioning of the game. Editing is a big part of Troika! for the designer, and that comes through in the writing for the book.
“It is written, and then aggressively attacked until it’s good,” says Sell, “I can still read Troika! and enjoy it still. This means it was revised tightly I guess.”
I ask whether Troika! is ‘literary’ in a conscious way. “It’s just what we do,” says Sell, “I guess it’s sincere, it’s not a ‘cosplay’. When I was on social media the most controversial thing I would post would be that people should read less roleplaying games.”
“It’s my background, I’m a massive snob for books. It’s just always what I’ve been into – and I’m glad people react to it. The starting point of Troika! was to create a sense of the sense of wonder you get when you don't understand what you're looking at.”
“That’s what we wanted. And I think that’s mostly been a success. It’s like the feeling of reading a ‘grown up’ book when you’re 10. You read something like Dying Earth [a fantasy novel series by Jack Vance noted for its strangeness] and you don’t have a clue what’s going on – it’s just nonsense, and that’s fun.”
“A lot of people in general don’t like not knowing, and that’s fine. But I love it.”
“It's also very important as well, that you need to have the feeling of being able to look like to look left and look right. And there's stuff there.”
Sell mentions old Ladybird books with intensely weird illustrations which felt like they went “all the way to the horizon.”
“And if you could get in there, there’d be weird stuff to the left and right of you. You want the feeling that you’re not getting the whole story, but that the whole story exists.”
“The most fun thing about dungeons sometimes is like thinking ‘who's lighting all the torches? Who is filling all these sconces’. And it’s not such a big thing in America, but in the UK with Fighting Fantasy and so on – dungeon merchants,” says Sell with a relish, “you’re wandering through the basement of an ancient evil and there’s just a guy with a shop. And the inclusion creates so many questions, and I love it.”
“Things aren’t picked at random in Troika! – there’s nothing random about it, there’s a process.”
The roots of Troika! come from a familiar place. Being a bit annoyed at a Dungeons & Dragons setting. This time, it’s Planescape – a setting that introduces Sigil, The City of Doors, each offering a portal to a different plane.
“It promised a lot,” says Sell, “and then insisted on delivering on everything relentlessly. If you imagine an old computer game – like an old JRPG or something – there would be a massive city in the background and then when you get there it’s three NPCs on one screen. That’s Planescape.”
“All the books I’m releasing are all in the City of Troika. I don’t want to leave,” says Sell, “other people can deal with that.”
I ask the designer to define Troika a little bit. But much like the feeling he evokes in the book, there’s something elusive about defining it.
“Troika is a sphere of its own, just a possibly infinite city. It’s governed by the Universal Congress — no one actually knows who is a member of the Congress — they just tell the local councils what’s up. And it’s just a city that has it all. It has things I like from seventies and eighties British fiction – these chaotic places with an underlying law to them. We know they have an owl problem, they’re pests. Pigs are very bad omens.”
“There’s all sorts of things that are true about Troika,” says Sell, “but I’ve never wanted to make a list of things. It’s more fun if through the process of using the book you get the sense that pigs are sinister – then that will work its way into your game.”
“No one person can make a culture. You need to create things that are near each other that create a kind of friction or electricity, and then people fill the gaps.”
HOT TROIKA! SUMMER
And yet, despite one person not being able to create a culture, the upcoming Troika! books this year look to try and fill in certain gaps.
“The books we’re about to release is just going to be adding obscene amounts of side stuff,” says Sell, telling us that one book – Get It At Sutlers – is bigger than Troika!. For those of us who love this system, 2023 looks to be a big year for new adventures for the city.
The first, already funded and off to the printer is Luke Gearing’s The Big Squirm.
“Everyone’s got a Luke Gearing book,” begins Sell, “and he wrote us a hard boiled investigation book for Troika!. The player are investigating a situation that has occurred in Downgate Arches, which is apparently a neighbourhood in Troika. And the wealthy factions of this place invested in Scarf Worm futures – Scarf Worms being a worm that people wear decoratively. The futures are unborn Scarf Worms which they speculated on – like you would with Tulips. And unfortunately, when the clutch were born they were all false. Imposters. A dangerous alternative. And they went on a rampage and killed a bunch of people – and now all these very rich people are all out of pocket and are searching for someone to blame. So, we’re squirming the big squirm. You adventure around, you meet different people and everyone wants something, everyone’s slimy and there are other investigators with their own objectives.”
We ask if there is someone to blame in the end, which we are informed yes, there probably is.
Get It At Sutlers is a weird book, designed to be played straight after the excellent starter adventure in Troika!. This adventure – The Blancmange & Thistle – which is an attempt to get into a cool party on the roof of a hotel without getting too distracted by everything that happens on your way up.
“It is a downtime activity where the players can get a job. You’ve got yourself a room, but you don’t have a source of income to pay for the room,” says Sell. And the natural response to this situation is that the player needs to go work a shift at Sutlers. The first section of the book is an interview to get the job, which is pretty easy, and then players can work a shift at the fish counter whenever they want.
“And then there’s a whole thing about, depending on what day of the week you go it’ll be busy or not. Importantly it’s not you putting things together, it’s concrete vignettes that are self-contained,” explains Sell. The designer goes on give us some examples of these small interactions with the city and the department store itself.
“There’s one where you come in one morning and find the haberdashery department have played a prank by replacing some of the fish with very convincing replicas. And that’s that, that’s your day. And then other days you might get attacked by a youth gang.”
“It’s like you’re sitting on a bench in Troika essentially, watching the city go by.”
Slate and Chalcedony, the next title, is a “horrible body horror dungeon,” says Sell, “I thought I’d go back to my roots. It’s a location that can be put anywhere. It’s these wizards who can move their towers to different places – and these towers will eventually drain the entire sphere dry.”
The designer describes this one as a “funhouse of unpleasant things,” but rather than being a heavy procedural dungeon delve where you’re expected to go in and out, stocking up between, Sell suggests it’s more like the 80s-90s children’s TV show Nightmare. Expect then the usual controlled camp of Troika!.
Gnosis (a working title) is “a single background where you are a god. Not like an all powerful god, more like a ‘Zeus descending from the mountain’ kind of God,” explains Sell, “so you’re super powerful, but you could get killed. You probably wouldn’t stay dead.”
This is the point where I had to ask if I’m having an elaborate prank played on me. I’m reassured that I’m not.
“It’s fun to push things to a super depth, rather than a super breadth,” says Sell. The background is presented normally, with the skills made up of a D666 table of aspects to roll from. Roll three six-sided dice in order to produce a three digit number and what you’re the god of, and what spells you can cast, becomes clear. We discuss the ways that players could bring this into their games. A party of gods is fun, but it’s more fun to have one god in the party that everyone else can ‘bully’ suggests Sell. He’s probably right.
“It’s just a fun thing to throw into a game. People will love being a god, I think, in general, and people will love being mean to a god,” he says.
Another working title is Bits of Troika. This is based on a map that Sell created and published on his blog some years ago, of the city of Troika.
“I love those fantasy maps you could buy, of Ankh Morpork [of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld fame] say, and you can see the little buildings and ask yourself ‘what’s in that one?’” says Sell, “so that’s what I’m doing. Every house is going to have its own thing so you can knock on the door and the GM will be able to tell you what’s in there.”
Orphan Source is another adventure being written by Sell for the system. While this one is only at the planning stages, it’s an investigative adventure set around a mysterious thing killing people. Players are tasked with working out exactly what it is that’s doing all the grizzly murders.
And of course, there will be another book set in Sutler’s department store. Because there wasn’t already enough of that. This one is going to be set in the imports area apparently.
Sell admits that these might not all land in 2023, with the last two likely to nudge into the early part of the following year.
But it’s a lot. Troika! is about to expand beyond those classic adventures you can see in the sidebar of this article, and into a huge new world that is very much alive.
BEYOND THE SPHERES
I joke with Sell that there will eventually be an April Fool’s Kickstarter for Troika! miniatures. Naturally there’s something similar being discussed at Troika HQ.
“You joke about that,” says Sell, “but me and our in-house artists are always talking about a hex and counter Troika! wargame. That’s one of the reasons we had counters in the Big Squirm Kickstarter – we wanted to see how complicated it was to get the factory to make them. And it turns out it’s very easy.”
Aside from this impending entry into the wargames scene (as soon as it stops being a joke), Troika is set for a good year ahead. Now’s the best time to dive into this weird world and take some time to travel to the horizon to look left and right.