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!

Warlock1

 

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Pandæmonium

 

Bastion Ein Sof Front Cover


Certain games from the Old School Renaissance connote a class sensibility by moving beyond the sometimes-cosy constraints of modern fantasy and into what critic John Clute calls the “armamentarium” of fantastika – an imaginative space that interrogates the impact of human-occupied processes such as ruins, industrialisation and imperialism.

This sort of roleplaying game very often puts its players in the position of being the looters of treasures, the bearers of new technologies or the foot-soldiers of a colonial power. Fond as I am of those “story games” that seek to correct the European attitudes that have played such a large part in devastating the planet – often by taking the part of protagonists who have been brutalised, or by playing people of different ethnicities or genders, or by de-centralising the authority in the game – I think it is sometimes instructive, as well as fun, to play as one of the aggressors. It is easy to forget that they are as poor and desperate as the rest of us.

Portal Rats (2017) by Tore Nielsen and Neal Stidham – “rats are riff-raff… hardscrabble ne’er-do-well[s] from a tough background found anywhere there is a portal that allows escape from hardship, oppression, a dead-end life…” – is based on The Black Hack by David Black and describes via random tables comprised of pithy and easy-to-combine prompts the kind of high-octane space fantasy found in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) or the Planescape campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977; rev 1989).

Into the Odd (2015) by Chris McDowall rewrites the industrial hubris of the Western world as a game of survival horror: the precision and brevity of the writing makes it all the more suggestive of a fallen world hollowed-out by human appetites. Bastion Ein Sof (2017) by Joe Banner – “you are a hunter, deemed fit (or expendable) enough to serve the greater cause” – functions as a kind of operating system for Into the Odd by extending the implication of the game’s demiurgical theme into a literal evocation of the terrestrial desolation described in the Book of Enoch, a form of mythology utilised in works of fantastika by authors such as John Milton (1608-1674) and Doris Lessing (1919-2013). Giants and Angels rule a post-apocalyptic earth in which humans must do the bidding of global developments they barely understand.

The aesthetic of Into the Odd brings to mind Pandæmonium (1985; rev 2012), a compendium of first-hand accounts of the machine age between the years 1660 and 1886 that conveys both the heroic promise and the dehumanizing waste of industrialisation. Games like this describe the world we live in rather than the world we want and are all the more effective for using the codes of escapism to do so.

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Into the Odd double spread

It’s easy to criticise the war-party style of play for its simulated violence: I’ve done this myself on a few occasions. I don’t think the behaviour this style of game describes is a lie, however; rather, a difficult truth that we must face in order to overcome. These are the people too poor to hide away at home while someone less fortunate does the fighting for them.

And… what would you do in their shoes? I speak as a wannabe pacifist who has punched Nazis and committed acts of violence to protect those he loves. “When is it necessary to kill?” asks a victim-aggressor in José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness (1995; trans Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, 1997), before answering her own question: “When what is alive is already dead.” “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity,” wrote Herman Melville (1819-1891), “nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”

Pergamino Barocco


 

The Pergamino Barocco of Roger S G Sorolla (a hastily-stapled edizione economiche of the grimoire’s ornate text was distributed by Lost Pages at Dragonmeet) communicates the defining motif of the Baroque: the Fold, on and on, unfolding & refolding, each Orientalist swirl or explosion of meteorological Physick a selection and accretion, an Old-school preference for the eddy of potential over the possibility of white space; open-ended, Generick, inexhaustive, a Fold repeating by meaning and design, a bird into whose plumage is tucked the Grimorio Minuscolo of Paolo Greco:-

 

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“I deliberately forgot to mention the sinister book’s existence, instead treating the Pergamino as a vehicle to ship the nefarious spellbook as contraband.”

 

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Sorolla’s spell “Cheirosciamancy” (pp2-3) is something of a masterpiece.
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The spell’s design bears some resemblance to that of  the “Inquirer” card from the tarot deck of Austin Osman Spare.

 

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