Justice Playthrough #177: Troika! Numinous Edition

This is not what I thought it was going to be.

I’ve been stumbling over various Troika!-adjacent things throughout this trawl — a zine here, a stat block there. Together, they’ve created an image frenetic gonzo weirdness, a game where anything goes and everything is possible — the more hallucinatory the better. I assumed that the core book would have a similar sensibility, that the “rules” would be a set of dashed-off loose guidelines, tossed together to let a group of RPG buddies get together and tell a really weird story while hotboxing the game room so hard that just touching the Player’s Handbook you’d left on the table will get you a contact high for the next month.

Every one of my preconceptions was either exactly on the money or spectacularly wrong.

Page 2, Game 9: Troika! Numinous Edition by Melsonian Arts Council

Where I was right, of course, was the over-the-top weirdness, like if Hunter S. Thompson had a Tolkien phase. The game’s default setting is a kind of dimension-hopping sci-fi fantasy dreamscape, but assembling a complete vision of just what the hell it looks like is left strictly as an exercise for the players and GM. Just rolling-up a few characters at random with a die I happen to have on my desk gives me:

  • Necromancer. “The least popular of magical practitioners, necromancers are shunned by the major centres of learning, left to their own devices on the edges of society, passing on knowledge in the time honoured master–student dynamic. This loneliness encourages students to make their own friends.” Starting possessions include “Zombie Servant or Ghost with whom you have developed a codependent relationship.”
  • Derivative Dwarf. Looks just like a REAL Dwarf, but other Dwarves can tell you’re just a shitty, uninspired knock-off, and will shun you accordingly.
  • Claviger. A member of a society of Key Masters wandering the universe looking for doors to open — no matter how terrible it might be to open them. You are so festooned with keys that they collectively count as decent armor.

Monkeymonger, Parchment Witch, Fellow of the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks, whatever random-ass nutjobbery you happen to roll up has at least an even chance of putting you in the shoes of an “archetype” you have never even heard of before.

That was my first surprise: character creation involves no decision making on the part of the player. Dice rolls will tell you how skilled you are, how tough you are, how lucky you are, and what your wacked-out deal is, and away you fuckin’ go. The implicit assumption here is that there’s little chance a player would come up with a concept weird enough for the setting — and honestly, if the players are mostly basic bitches like me, that assumption is almost certainly correct.

Aside from the lack of choice, character creation was more or less the bonanza of bugfuck madness I came in expecting. But then came my second big “Wait, WTF?!” moment: The Rules.

The Rules are, in fact, a completely straight middle-weight dice-based RPG, somewhere around the Apocalypse World level of complexity. Roll 2d6, add a very specific thing. You can petition the GM in an effort to convince them that your Taxidermy skill totally applies to this fight against an angry demon-bear, I suppose, but other than that, the rules are emphatically non-wacky. In fact, they’re meant to be tense as hell. Combat initiative involves creating a deck of cards or pulling shit out of a bag or something similar, such that you know you’re going to act eventually, but you have no idea when — and in the meanwhile, is gonna try to envelop and suffocate you, hopefully it won’t kill you first.

This is why character creation is so fast: combat is lethal. You’re encouraged to come back with a new character before the party is done arguing over who gets your dead one’s stuff.

The stiff formality of the rules seems wildly out of place on first read — but I think I get it. It’s like my band instructor used to say, you can’t play loud unless you can also play quiet. (Which was a very polite way of telling the trombone section to please shut the fuck up already.) The rigid structure is there to prop-up all the insanity, to keep the whole thing from collapsing into a mushy pile of stoner ranting.

There’s a lengthy list of spells, of course, and that’s where the wackiness comes gleefully lurching back into the frame, but they’re nothing to fuck around with. Attempting to cast them at all will cost you hit points. You’ll need to make a skill roll to actually get them off, and if you botch with a roll of double-sixes, you’ll roll on the “Oops!” table.

The consequences of an “Oops!” range from mild annoyance to total disaster to whoopsie-doodle, you kinda stopped existing, time to roll up a new character.

There’s a bestiary, consisting of either familiar creatures given bizarre new twists or things that are just built from the ground up of compressed WTF. Along with the character creation options, the bestiary is doing the bulk of the legwork in establishing the game’s universe. As mentioned, coming up with the narrative infrastructure to house this lunatic menagerie is very much a “you” problem.

The sample adventure is banal to the point of gleeful self-parody. The party are checking into their hotel. Their room is on the sixth floor. The elevator is a nightmare. The stairs aren’t really any better.

This trawl has clarified a concept that already existed in the fringes of my gamer-brain but that I had never really needed to articulate: half of running a good game is matching the ruleset to the players. Not every glove fits every hand. There are games I’ve encountered that I dismissed as being Definitely Not For Me but that I could nevertheless envision as being a lot of fun if they had the right people playing them.

Get the wrong players at your table, and I would expect Troika! to be a tedious exercise in weirdness for the same of weirdness, of pitching Wacky Randomness!!! against the wall to see what slithers off and tries to start its own ska band. With the right players, this could be a truly unique and memorable experience.

I’m honestly thinking either one of my current D&D DMs would fuckin’ crush a Troika! campaign. At the very least, if they were so stoned last session they forgot what the characters were doing, it’d be very much in keeping with the spirit of the game.

Is this next game going to force me to carefully consider whether casting this spell is worth the risk of me barfing up a small horde of gremlins who will then try to bite everybody’s faces off?

Page 57, Game 11: Cassette by Shapeforms

“Play. Pause. Rewind. A library of tape sounds.”

Unless somebody had a very strange experience with the cassette era, I’m thinking not.