Concrete Cow 18 is this coming Saturday 17th March in Wolverton, near Milton Keynes. You should go if you’re at all interested in roleplaying games. I’m offering the following game in the morning session:-
The Bees of the Invisible
“We are the bees of the invisible. We madly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Five bookhounds and a dreamhound convene for an auction of unusual items at a Welsh country house.
It’s all been a bit of whirl since you did the scenery and the costumes for Ninette and Gavin, no time for anything; this job is immense. You know His Lordship is vexed at the overrun but you have to get every bit of it just right, for Caroline.
Nothing’s been right since the shell-shock. The sleepwalking is a bit of a worry, to be honest.
The sea is churning right there on the wall but they don’t see it: a Claudean sunset with pink clouds, fluted and pointed like the prow of boats. We live our real lives in the dream light, far from men – that’s what she says. People misunderstand you and the Lady Caroline. When she’s with you there is not one fragment of your true being, of your real personality, that does not participate unreservedly in the eternal celebration of sovereign night.
Investigator Name: Rex Whistler Drive: Muse of Fire Occupation: Artist Occupational benefits: Anagnorisis – you may spend your point of Mythos to trigger the denouement of the game; you have Medium as an Investigative Ability. Pillars of Sanity: Drive fast, die young; huntin’ and shootin’. Build Points: 2
Art: Engraving 1
Art History 4
Cthulhu Mythos 1
Dream Lore 1
Credit Rating 2
First Aid 5
You’re in contact with a number of spirits – gypsy-girl Bathsheba, mad centurion Quintus Flavius and the shieldmaiden Brünhilda. They’re terrible people but great fun at parties.
They’re all just overgrown boys with mummy-issues, really. They collect and collect and fetishize what they’ve got because mummy was romancing the accountant or whatever.
You might not be so attached to Quintus Flavius if he were flesh and blood. He’s a bit of a brute.
Investigator Name: The Divine Angela Drive: To the Magic Occupation: Occultist Occupational benefits: You know every occult collector at the auction; you may purchase Magic as an Investigative Ability from tomes. Pillars of Sanity: Theosophy; the imagined life. Build Points: 2
The authenticity is in the act, not the provenance. Every time you knock someone off, it’s a courtship – a long, drawn-out process of getting to know someone better than they know themselves. Mind you, the money doesn’t hurt.
Art historians are free-loading pissants.
A little side-bet on which book fetches the most wouldn’t go amiss – all the better if it involves your own work.
Investigator Name: Rick the Red Drive: Artistic Sensitivity Occupation: Forger Occupational benefits: You are “the last word” in four types of forged document. Pillars of Sanity: Art is immortality; a little flutter never hurt anyone; other people’s money. Build Points: 2
You’re going to take it all back – mostly via translation into Arabic, Xhosa and Igbo. Nothing illegal or clandestine. Unless it’s really necessary.
Investment is transitory. Schools, universities and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina project are what will make Africa great again.
They soon back off when you show them the blade.
Investigator Name: Tuesday Naledi Adisa Drive: Thirst for Knowledge Occupation: Catalogue Agent Occupational benefits: You may interact with bibliophiles at their Credit Rating. Pillars of Sanity: Bibliotheca Alexandrina; self-sufficiency. Build Points: 2
Your elder brother is the Bishop of Bangor and you’ve heard people in the village refer to you laughingly as “The Second Cumming”.
You have a personal relationship with God; you don’t hold with all that skirt-swishing and high-and-mighty stuff.
You’ve a lot of good stock you can’t shift and all this hullabaloo about “The Lost Library of Ynys Môn” is a great opportunity to unload some of it onto another bookseller.
Investigator Name: Alun Cumming Drive: Duty Occupation: Bookseller Occupational benefits: You operate with dual Credit Ratings, one for your shop and one for you; you may discover a “squiz” at the auction. Pillars of Sanity: All of human knowledge; kindness is a cure; God moves in mysterious ways. Build Points: 2
Library Use 6
Textual Analysis 4
Credit rating 3/4
Document Analysis 2
Electrical Repair 3
First Aid 5
Mechanical Repair 3
Sense Trouble 5
Luke has been reading The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982) to daughters Delia and Willow at bedtime. Delia rolled double six for their character’s SKILL and has been merrily steamrollering her way through every encounter while keeping a detailed map of their progress through the interior of the mountain (see diagram); Willow mostly shouts and hides under the covers, insisting that Delia stab the monsters in the face.
My first single-player gamebook was Starship Traveller (1983). I’d not long since learned to read in complete sentences and short paragraphs – a fact I’d successfully hidden from various of the disinterested parties around me – and was utterly entranced by the book’s difficulty, circuitousness, and metatextual back-and-forth. I read the first dozen or so books in the Fighting Fantasy series, very often while standing surreptitiously in a bookshop. City of Thieves (1983) and Deathtrap Dungeon (1984) were my favourites.
Marvellous, then, to discover that the Melsonian Arts Council has published Troika! by Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan, a small-press RPG based in part on the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and the subsequent roleplaying game Advanced Fighting Fantasy (1989); that there are significant differences between Troika! and its source material in no way impairs its heady melange of nostalgia and snot-jokes.
I turned up at Luke’s house with the rulebook, its character sheet, a copy of the Pergamino Barocco – the spellbook was to serve as the McGuffin in our improvised storyline – a map of ruined temples from the inestimable Dyson Logos, and a copy of Chromatic Soup 01 (2017) by Evlyn Moreau and friends. This last item proved a wonderfully atmospheric resource for random encounters and I will use it again at the first opportunity.
Troika! uses d66 to choose a character’s starting background – which is to say, you roll two six-sided dice and read the results sequentially rather than adding them up; so, if you roll a 1 and a 4, your result is 14, not 5.
Given that our story concerned the theft of the region’s most powerful grimoire from a local monastery, Luke and I decided we’d keep re-rolling until we got a character that began the game with spells. Here’s what our third roll generated:
12 Befouler of Ponds
You’re a wise woman, a high priest, a pond-pisser, a typical but committed adherent of P!P!Ssshrp. The bloated toad god has no church other than the periphery of ponds, where the foulness catches in the reeds, and no congregation other than the gnats and the dragonflies. You minister to them all the same.
-Sackcloth robes, caked in stinking mud and undergrowth. +1 to Sneak rolls in marshy terrain while wearing it, -1 everywhere else ‘cos it stinks
-Large wooden ladle (Damage as mace)
You may drink stagnant water without harm.
A player can infer quite a bit from a piece of background text like this – the phrase “pond-pisser” did a great deal to inform Luke’s portrayal of ‘The Crocadillon’, a local creature lifted from the stories he shares with Delia and Willow about their neighbourhood. We had intended to play Troika! while out on a hike but the weather drew in and we were content instead to stay indoors, eat turkey sandwiches and draw inspiration for our adventure from the topography of Box Hill and the meteorological conditions.
The Crocadillon had been accused of stealing the Pergamino Barocco when an unexpected fog – the Chromatic Soup – had descended upon the local community; tracks leading into the soup and up the side of the mountain had been found close to the lakeside shack at which the Crocadillon made its home. Encounters with a Basilisk – some spawny Luck rolls and a well-timed Web spell saw the Crocadillon survive the threat of paralysis – some Swamp Hunters and a swarm of overheated Boilerfish led to final encounters with a Skeleton Priest (an adapted version of the “Living Dead” from p46 of the Troika! rulebook) and a difficult-to-see Chromatic Dragon (a somewhat diminished version of the “Dragon” from Troika!.)
The great thing was that Luke managed to use everything on his character sheet and usually in inventive and entertaining ways. We found that sudden transformational acts – sneaking, the casting of spells, a psychedelic trance involving sacred mushrooms – worked better for us than rolling dice round-by-round to determine winners and losers of fights or other adversarial face-offs.
Here are the three things we liked most about the game:
Backgrounds. These are written with the wry, childlike wonder of early Games Workshop publications, or scenarios from the halcyon days of White Dwarf magazine. I like them.
Spells. Clear, transformative, based on the STAMINA stat in such a way as to provide a player-character with meaningful choices about cost and effect.
Initiative. You draw blind from a bag of differently-coloured dice to determine who goes first when. This requires a bit of stage management.
A fairly old-school approach is required to keep the game flowing – which is to say, a Gamemaster needs to linguistically prime the dice rolls (it’s all in the timing of the dramatic beats) and provide constant threat and mise en scène in order to give a character plenty to do. I like that the Fighting Fantasy connotation provides a strong thematic impetus around which to improvise and reminisce.
The “obscure and incandescent” register of Daniel Sell’s prose, the hallucinatory Russ Nicholson aesthetic of Jeremy Duncan’s art and the snot jokes combined to echo some small-yet-significant part of the Sense of Wonder Luke and I felt when we first started gaming together in the 1980s. Fighting Fantasy has a lot to answer for and Troika! is its emissary.