29 November 2023
TROIKA! is a well loved tabletop RPG, delving into the science fantasy of travellers exploring the multiverse. Using just D6's to play, our reviewer explored the simple gameplay and excessive whimsy of Daniel Sell's modern classic.
What is Troika?
Troika! is loved intensely by those who already know it. A science-fantasy roleplaying game that wears its weirdness on its sleeve, its whimsy-drenched setting, bizarre characters and “Is that a joke?” vibes prepare players for boundless adventures across the humpbacked sky. It has a huge community of designers making weird adventures for it, many officially published by Melsonian Arts Council.
For those unfamiliar, I like to imagine this as the best way into playing roleplaying games. It has all of the promised expansiveness of Dungeons & Dragons without the 600-page books. It prioritises you, the players, as well as your creative potential, in a world that’s been created for you to expand. It’s a world that’s funny, but not in a way that’s pastiche. It has none of the ironic detachment of something like MÖRK BORG, which uses irony as a way in for a lot of players. Instead, it’s a world that’s got the structure of a joke, but without a thigh-slapping punchline; you’re more likely to end up with a knowing smirk.
2nd Edition TROIKA!
As this is a second edition (although something like the fifth printing), let’s talk about the object itself. It’s now in a thrifty paperback with an ‘integrated’ (with a bit of mucking about) GM screen. The inside is all black and white and the only colour comes from the delicious strawberry-cream-in-a-tin-of-quality-street foil title on the cover. It’s £15, soft, and lightweight – it demands to be thrown in your backpack wherever you’re headed, because, after all, you never know when a game is going to break out. The cover – because of that integrated GM screen – isn’t attached along the spine, and only along the final edge of the book. For those who are into nice looking stitching this is great, but more excitingly this is a paperback that will properly lie flat. I feel a bit strange recommending this book for its ‘tech’ but it’s a game doing absolutely everything to ensure that you’re able to play it as smoothly as possible. On top of this, there’s a statement here – it’s got author, Daniel Sell’s name on the front, something that RPG books haven’t often done. Giving credit is a problem in the hobby and this is a minor, but important note towards fixing that.
TROIKA! Game Mechanics
Much of the world that you’re in is told through the character backgrounds – there’s 36 to be conveniently rolled on a couple of D6. These range from fresh takes on fantasy staples (Dwarves are artificial creatures literally manufactured by other dwarves) and wild imaginings (the Sceptical Lamassu is a man-bull-swan-cat chimera). There’s Questing Knights, Red Priests and Rhino-men kicking about too – each with their own specific skills and amusing backstory – to fill out the space between. Whatever you are, you’re here now, and this city – or wherever you kick off your adventures from – is even weirder than you expected.
Mechanically the game uses a roll-under system for tests (basic skill score plus relevant advanced skill for the target) and doesn’t have any ‘traditional’ stats, just this combination of core aptitude for the world and the things you’re good at. There’s luck to spend too – and is often a mechanic in adventures for triggering events (such as, the character with the lowest luck rolls for the group, a failure produces an amusingly negative occurrence).
The star of the show however, is the combat and initiative system. Each player and monster comes with an initiative number which is the number of tokens the GM adds to a bag, cup or otherwise along with a ‘end of round’ token. These are then drawn for each player or monster activation. For the monsters in the scene, these actions can be taken by any of them, in any order, making for easy narrativizing for the GM. Having one ‘tough’ attack at the front while others do something like flanking or preparation in the background means every combat can be a puzzle for players. Every attack is opposed too, meaning that there’s no “I’ll just make a cup of tea while everyone else works out their maths stacks,” but back and forths are taking place constantly. It’s the closest feeling to the word ‘swashbuckling’ that we’ve ever experienced in a roleplaying game. This system keeps everyone on their toes, engaged, and part of the conversation – allowing the GM to play up to the role of entertainer, rather than someone sticking to the running order of this combat meeting.
Damage, when you do hit someone, is dealt using a lookup table that models a variety of weapon types. This gives each weapon a kind of character: a sword might do six damage on a roll of 2-5 on the table, and therefore be quite dependable, whereas a maul has a starker curve to its output, doing either hardly any or gigantic damage. What’s great about this is it just feels right at the table. The player character swinging a giant rock on the end of a stick knows they either catch a glancing blow and an embarrassed look around the room, or they’re going to turn their target into a hastily spatchcocked whatever-they-were.
Last year I was lucky enough to interview Daniel Sell, and one of the things that stuck out is the way he attempted to express the sense of the curiously fantastic that Troika! is trying to foster in players. He spoke about old ladybird books with the wild background drawings, and the idea that the sense of wonder in Troika! is like being able to walk out into that background – and then look left and right to see what’s there.
This is particularly true of the absolutely bonkers included starter adventure, The Blancmange and Thistle. Players start at the foyer of an extravagant hotel and are told that there’s a great party on the roof – and their room is at the top too. Players can then use the lift or the stairs to try and get to the top and have to deal with kind old ladies offering them sweets, strange gaseous forms or a section titled ‘too many tigers’. None of these encounters needs to be violent, and there’s usually a way to think your way around the problem. What’s interesting though is how each section introduces a little more of the idea of roleplaying to players, the little old lady with the sweets asks too many questions, the gaseous form deals with amusing environmental hazards and the tigers, well… learning how to not startle a tiger is an important part of any roleplaying experience.
It’s ‘science-fantasy’ – an intense kind of whimsy. Everything in the endless city of Troika is strange, it – and the universe more generally – is made of ‘spheres’ pocket universes which can be about or for anything. And this is where Troika’s promise of endless worlds comes true, you can make anything of it, or pick up Fronds of Benevolence (get some rare dirt back to a kind patron), Permian Nations (kind of an anti-colonialism adventure setting where you play as dinosaurs) or our new favourite The Big Squirm (a financial whodunnit in a posh part of town).
This word is as wide and wonderful as you wish it to be – and this is the best way to make the most of it.
CHRISTPHER JOHN EGGETT
Is TROIKA! Good?
A masterpiece. The perfect place to start for anyone looking for a game of real adventure.
Designer: Daniel Sell
Publisher: Melsonian Arts Council