Troika!

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.

Possessions
-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)

Skills
3 Spell – Drown
3 Swim
2 Spell – Tongue Twister
2 Spell – Undo
1 Spell – Web
1 Sneak
1 Second Sight

Special
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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

 

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Players draw differently-coloured dice from a bag unseen to decide order of initiative. I caught Luke ruminatively rubbing the edges of the dice inside in order to locate his own. Bounder.

 

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Roll off!

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Invisible City

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David M Wright

Vagrant Workshop has released Itras By: The Menagerie, a compendium of supplementary materials for the Itras By roleplaying game organised like Dadaesque pamphlets or avant-garde magazines of the 1920s. I’m very happy.

“Between 1900 and 1937 Europe experienced an extraordinary cultural rebirth and interchange of ideas, comparable to the Renaissance and Enlightenment,” says Stephen Bury in his introduction to Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 (2007). The term avant-garde (“vanguard”) had become associated with utopian politics over the course of the nineteenth century.

“We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious,” said Henri de Saint-Simon in Literary, Philosophical and Industrial Opinions (1825), a treatise on how artists, scientists and manufacturers might combine to lead humankind out of the alienation caused by industrial society. “When we wish to spread new ideas among people, we use in turn the lyre, ode or song, story or novel… we aim for the heart and imagination, and hence our effect is the most vivid and the most decisive.”

I’d long-hoped for a roleplaying game to address this shared imaginative space: my own efforts to introduce surrealist ideas into games of Vampire: The Masquerade – I was always enamoured of Clan Toreador – or Mage: The Ascension were for the most part paltry and ill-conceived; I wanted the thing without knowing how it should be done. The decision of editor Ole Peder Giæver and publisher Carsten Damm to open the Menagerie up to all-comers was inspired. The book (at almost three hundred pages) was made by Aleksandra Sontowska, Anders Nygaard, Banana Chan, Becky Annison, Caitlynn Belle, Carsten Damm, Cecilie Bannow, Clarissa Baut Stetson, David Cochard, David M Wright, Edward “Sabe” Jones, Emily Care Boss, Evan Torner, February Keeney, Gino Moretto, Henrik Maegaard, Jackson Tegu, Jason Morningstar, Jeremy Duncan, Joshua Fox, Josh Jordan, Judith Clute, Kamil Wegrzynowicz, Karina Graj, Kat Jones, Kathy Schad, Keith Stetson, Li Xin, Lizzie Stark, Magnus Jakobsson, Martin Bull Gudmundsen, Mathew Downward, Matthijs Holter, Mo Holkar, Niels Ladefoged, Ole Peder Giæver, Olivier Vuillamy, Philipp Neitzel, Sanne Stijve, Steve Hickey, Terje Nordin, Thomas Novosel, Tobie Abad, Tor Gustad, Trond Ivar Hansen and Willow Palecek.

There are lots of wonderful things about the Menagerie but it’s the insanity and the sex I like most – that and the way they’re combined with a creative generosity about every conceivable view of the world. Thought and expression are a deadly-serious game that should be treated with the utmost frivolity, and conducted in an atmosphere of outright honesty. People who tell you that life is work want you to work for them: they might ask you to die for them too. This is instead an invitation to express yourself.

A century has passed since Guillaume Apollinaire named surrealism:

This new alliance—I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds—has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress. (Apollinaire, 1917)

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Little has changed since Apollinaire died; the world’s war machine rumbles on and public discourse seems to ebb further away from scientific data. The surrealists understood that it is by playfulness that we can achieve the arraignment of violent human impulse to spontaneous truth.

“The Moon grew bigger and bigger until it was the only thing in the sky (and presumably, growing ever still, until it is the only thing in the universe) and with each passing night drilled holes of light into the eyes of the people of city until all they knew was the Moon, all they thought of was the Moon, and all they wanted to do was make the Moon happy,” says Caitlynn Belle in Lunacy (pp69-74, with jagged, evocative illustrations by Thomas Novosel: “And the Moon wanted flesh. And the Moon wanted blood.” My kind of game. In The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy (pp25- 44) by Jackson Tegu, Matthijs Holter and Jeremy Duncan, everybody and everything is having sex: it’s great. (Jone Aareskjold has written a critique of The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy’s treatment of the sex trade here.) “No such thing as love, only passion!” cries Evan Torner in The Shadow Carnival (pp216-238), a freeform scenario in which the principles of German Expressionism guide the action: “No luck, only the will to gain power! Don’t be afraid of me!” I am afraid. I like that. Henrik Maegaard’s illustrations for Evan’s scenario are luminous. Becky Annison and Josh Fox have (correctly in my view) discerned the suitability of Itras By for GMful play in Sharing Room and Giving Space (pp145-154), an approach which calls upon every player to frame scenes, play supporting characters and drive external events.

These are just a few excerpts from the five parts of the MenagerieDiorama, Laboratory, Dream Resume, Hall of Mirrors and Post Scriptum. Martin Bull Gudmundsen’s essay When Life Does Not Make Sense (pp256-263) was, for me, a masterclass in making sense. It may be that you prefer to purchase games or books in digital format to lessen your impact on the environment or save shelf-space but I must say I didn’t fully appreciate the wonder of Kathy Schad’s visual design until I held the physical artefact in my hands. You can buy it here.

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Kat Jones & Cecilie Bannow
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Terje Nordin & Ole Peder Giæver
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Banana Chan
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Tobie Abad, Aleksandra Sontowska, Ole Peder Giæver, Trond Ivar Hansen & George Barbier
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Clarissa Baut Stetson

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The second issue of RPG fanzine Machineries of Joy is dedicated to games from the Nørwegian Surreal.

Snake Eyes

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I’m not saying an impromptu summoning at a nearby stone circle is a bad idea but… one dead witch, a player-character shot in the head and anathema pronounced upon the party by the surviving witches.

I’m generally disposed toward a Purist style of play but the group ain’t having it: it’s Pulp all the way.

We’ve a few other things prepped and ready-to-play but the group wants to continue with Fearful Symmetries. We’ll spend a bit more time working up spells and styles of Magic, as these turn out to be integral to the flavour and progress of the game.

The themes of the campaign run pretty deep – this was a playtest, so we tried to go into it without too many preconceptions – and we felt a little under-researched in one or two respects. I’ll take some time to hang out with the “folklore engine” from the draft of the book:

Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends…



 

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James William Barnes casts “Crooked Bob’s Eternal Vigilance” in order to contact Robert Nottingham for advice about a certain magickal tome: “I call forth the straight path to the crooked man.”
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Snake Eyes have appeared at the heart-centre of the Prophet of Albion: “The beginning of the world is nigh.” Can’t be good, can it? 
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Oops. Hello Quachil, my old friend…

 

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End Game

Zoas

We finally – ugh, the slings and arrows of everyday life – managed to kick off our mini-campaign of Fearful Symmetries last night. I’d better not say too much for fear of spoilers.

The heavens shall quake, the earth shall move & shudder & the mountains
With all their woods, the streams & valleys: wail in dismal fear
In the second “night”, the theme of women ruling is discussed but there is an emphasis on how the ability to create constricts them. Humanity is imprisoned by creation, and experience causes great pain…

Vala, or The Four Zoas
William Blake (1797-1807)

Alienist Hauke Greiner (57) and parapsychologist Emily Cheek (34) met Prophet of Albion James William Barnes (?-?) during last night’s session; a survivor, or one might say casualty, of our Bookhounds of London mini-campaign: they were moderately discommoded by finding him addressing the heavens from a box on Speaker’s Corner.

The PCs witnessed the maw of the sky run red, cozened a book scout and dowsed north-north-west from Oxford; Emily found herself upon a throne not of her choosing. Our ignorance of the work of William Blake runs fairly deep but it’s a chance to extemporize, and Innocence brings its own rewards.

Next week: witches. Yes, witches. Loves me some witches.

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Here Hauke Greiner – a devoted student of Richard von Krafft-Ebing – practices his skills of Hynopsis. Our group seems disposed to the Pulp flavour of play in Trail of Cthulhu.
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The players work out their True Names for the initiation into the Order of the Radcliffe Camera – a scene which turned out to harbour a major surprise.
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Hauke and Emily meet the “Prophet of Albion”: they were in some doubt about his holiness and whether or not Crispina had divined the right person at all.

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Trinary

Tore Nielsen, Neal Stidham and Brian Wille did me the great honour of playing Black Dog Dérive over Hangouts last night. Tremendous fun.

Ville Vuorela’s game STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game is available here.

 

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Ἀλβιών


The set-up for the Fearful Symmetries playtest went well. It’s a beast of a document but it turns out to be fairly easy to use: the improvisational approach with plenty of background material suits the way I tend to facilitate games anyway and the guys enjoyed creating their characters.

We’re using the Radcliffe Camera campaign frame from the book; I’ll have to avoid freewheeling with the rules-as-written and I haven’t delved too deeply into the folklore engine as yet, but I find myself easily persuaded by the marriage between William Blake and the Cthulhu Mythos. It helps that Blake’s poetry and Crowley’s system of Magick have so insinuated themselves into the popular imagination: there’s little or no need to get bogged down in prep.

One of us was away this week and another of us is travelling for work the next – but that doesn’t turn out to be too much of a problem either. There’s a touch of Ars Magica to the way Fearful Symmetries suits troupe-style play, magickal rivalries and sudden affiliations. The self-proclaimed “Prophet of Albion” arrives in our game next week… but some of the players don’t know that yet.

Information on the playtest is available here:

Fearful Symmetries

Seven Go Wild in Voivodja

Funny how these things work: you think things are falling a bit flat, particularly after a six-week layoff, and then there are two good ideas in a row and woof! the set-up catches alight.

Seven Dwarves will enter the Place of Unreason in a bid to rescue the sleeping Empress Maudlyn from the Red King:

  • Margäz Princess of the Second Empire; aunt to the torpid Maudlyn.
  • Grimbald Grimson Quartermaster of the expedition to the Dying City.
  • Bûrin Ironhand 325-year-old diplomat of one of the largest Dwarven clans.
  • Anselmo Sheild-bearer to Bûrin Ironhand; good Strength rating.
  • Hildebrand Hasselbeard Slayer Dwarf feared for the impact of her two axes.
  • Morag Blackhand Gunpowder specialist; brace of pistols.
  • Freya Fargazer Astrologer to the Court of the Exiled Dwarves.

Osprey of the Iron Cliffs, an Elf, and Ralmir Herakson, a Cleric and follower of nature god Argan Argar will accompany the Dwarves on account of their expertise in magic. They are doomed. It’s all so delightfully old school.

Issue 2

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“Imagine the perplexity of a man outside time and space, who has lost his watch, his measuring rod and his tuning fork.”

Alfred Jarry
Exploits and Opinions of Doctor Faustrall Pataphysician



Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy is dedicated to the Nørwegian Surreal and includes contributions from:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

Here is the PDF:

Nørwegian Surreal

Creative Agenda

Social media has turned into a game of dodge the 200 Word RPG Challenge entry, so I haven’t been online quite as much. Judging begins on April 26th (Wednesday), so I’ll probably release Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy on Monday or Tuesday. It’s on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal and includes work from the following array of wonderful people:

Colin Beaver
Elizabeth Lovegrove
Jeanette McCulloch
John Rose
Matthijs Holter
Ole Peder Giæver
Ralph Lovegrove
Steve Dempsey
Tore Nielsen

City of Eyes
“City of Eyes” by John Rose

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