Let's Discuss: Troika!

Troika! (www/srd) is a gonzo sci-fi/fantasy pulp RPG from the Melsonia Arts Council built on top of the classic Fighting Fantasy system.

It’s definitely my most played game of 2020 - 2021, and I like it a lot because of how quick it is to make characters and to learn the rules and start playing, and because of the flavor and because of the community.

Pros:

  • Fast character creation: Roll 3 stats, choose/roll a background, and start playing. What’s not to like!

  • Simple rules: roll 2d6. If it’s opposed, add your skill and high role wins. If not opposed, try to roll under your skill. (Simple Rules + Fast Character Creation has allowed me to successfully run games for players new to the hobby, with only D&D experience, and a reluctance to spend the time to learn a new system.)

  • Flavor: there is no default setting, lore, or history to the world of Troika. But the backgrounds and spells are dripping with flavor and manage to create a feeling of loose cohesion in this world.

  • Community content: There is an impossible number of homebrew backgrounds and spheres (settings) on itch.io and on discord and elsewhere in the blogorhombus. Creating your own content like this is super easy, and is encouraged by the text. Technical Grimorie has compiled a ton of 3rd party backgrounds, and also created a turn tracker.

  • Bestiary: Every creature has an accompanying mien, a d6 table of dispositions that removes the possibility of every encounter leading directly to combat. Sometimes the bogart is just sullen.

Cons:

  • The initiative stack. Love it or hate it, it’s a weird way to handle initiative. Read more about it on the SRD if you want to. I usually run initiative with the stack for a new group at least once so they can experience Troika “as it is written”. But then I usually toss it out in favor of “Players act, then NPCs/monsters act”. The reason I don’t use the initiative stack that often is that I don’t trust it. One time I had a combat that improbably went three rounds and then ended without one of my players getting to go even once. Which was interesting, but not fun.

  • Rules: Although the rules are relatively simple, there is still some complexity there. Remembering to roll under (unopposed checks) or whether to roll and add your skills (opposed checks) is often simple enough after you’ve played for a while. But then spells work totally differently (Always roll under, take a penalty to stamina). There’s an alternative, minimal ruleset called Pulka! that offers a unified mechanic for all roles by turning your Advanced Skills into a dice pool. Keep all the flavor, simplify the rolling!

One final thing I’d like to discuss outside the confines of a pros vs. cons list is the perceived inherent wackiness of Troika. This is definitely a pro for some. And I’ve also seen some people be turned off by it, and dismiss the game as inappropriate for their use. I concede there is some wackiness/absurdity in the official content. But to a much, much larger extent, the tone of your game is up to you. I have a long running dystopian biker gang Troika game that is dark and moody, because that’s the kind of game we all agreed to play, and Troika does a fine job supporting it. We brought some custom backgrounds to it, as well as our own setting, and it has worked great so far.

That’s Troika. I’ve played a ton of it over the last year both as a player and a GM. It’s quick, easy, and fun. There is a plethora of free community made content out there, in addition to very high quality official published material. The SRD is freely available. I think it’s great and I love it. It continues to be my go to game for quick pickup games and for newer players.

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One thing I’ll say in defense of the “wackiness” of Troika! is that it’s clearly telegraphed by the text and art of the core book. Compare that to a game like Dungeon World, where the book’s examples are patterned after mostly straight-faced D&D-style high fantasy, but the game’s procedures make it easy for things to tilt wacky without a table consciously deciding to do so. It takes a certain amount of consensus and effort to stick to a theme when everyone’s collaboratively improvising the setting.

That said, “wackiness” isn’t the word I’d choose. I think of it more as gonzo.

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I was very close to running Troika instead of Mork Borg. It came down to book availability – more people already owned the Mork Borg book, and I’ve seen it carried in more game stores. This is a good reminder to keep talking up Troika, however, because it could be such a fresh experience for some players I know.

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When people ask me what Troika is like, I’ve pointed them to the “Goodbye Moonmen” music video a few times.

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One useful thing to add: This little hack offers the option to make everything roll over. It helps making things a bit more straightforward.

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I’ll also pitch in with Kriegsmesser Zine by gregor-vuga as another alternative route of sorts. It started out as a set of 36 Backgrounds for Troika! aimed at playing Warhammer adventures, then they just decided that they wanted an alternate (and in my mind easier to grok) system for using those backgrounds, so wrote one. (The author is the same person who wrote the game Sagas of the Icelanders.)

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What a good way to introduce the Weird Wackiness of Troika!

And what a good song. Those were the days.

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The implied setting of ‘vanilla’ Troika! is a real fictional sweet spot for me. It is as much an inter-genre collage as other things often called gonzo - but with a flavor very much its own - a bit Lewis Carroll, a bit Spelljammer, a bit Ghibli, and a healthy dose of 21st century weird fiction. It certainly has a wackiness to it - but there are enough genuinely cool and surprising ideas to make it substantial and wacky :stuck_out_tongue_closed_eyes:

But I also agree with @dozens about the game’s openness - and love the way the community has really embraced the idea that Troika! can be almost anything - and taken the game’s freewheeling attitude as an invitation to be ridiculously, creatively playful.

I’m currently running through a heavily modded version of Blancmange & Thistle in a playtest for my own ultralight/FKR science-fantasy game/toy box - I love how it unrepentantly indulges in the fun of throwing many absurd, but highly interactive situations at players, while letting whatever unifying logic or lore there may be come out in play.

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I’ve had some good experiences with Troika!, but I’ve completely turned around on the idea of the initiative system they use. At first it felt fresh and cool, but now it feels like a “system for system’s sake” and not really much more than a novel turn order device. I’ve started playing with concepts that amount to “simultaneous” initiative and to me that makes much more sense than the concept of everyone standing in line to slap their opponent.

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I like the system and the implied setting and I think the initiative system is a refreshing novelty.
Alas, I’ve never had the chance to run or play it.
Nonetheless, I wrote a little sphere for the TroikaFest! this year which I am very fond of, but I had not any significant feedback.
In any case, here is my The Black Pit

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I can appreciate the widespread fondness for Troika! but I wonder why there is such a gap between Troika! fans and interest in Advanced Fighting Fantasy, based on the old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks from 1982 onward.

Daniel Sell obliquely acknowledged the debt in his intro to Troika!:

The world is drowning in nostalgic dross. Everyone with a set of thumbs has glued together a dungeon and a dragon, slapped on a name that tickled our childhood memories and called it good to print.

I’ve got thumbs but I prefer fantasy fighting.

For all the hacking of Troika! that we find, why is there next to no looking back at Fighting Fantasy and the (utterly awesome) Sorcery! gamebooks? There’s a lot of material back there immediately useful to people who like Troika! but aren’t interested in the Terry Gilliam- or Douglas Adams-style (or maybe just “psychedelic”) weirdness.

The Advanced Fighting Fantasy 2nd edition by Graham Bottley is a typesetting disaster, overpriced, and very poorly organized, but those books offer a lot of material for traditional fantasy adventure with the rules that Troika! lifts almost exactly. More power to those who lift rules (my own house rules, for more than a year, were a hack of AFF), but why not at least include them in Troika! discussions?

The main contribution of Troika! is the character templates, with their hints at a strange setting emergent in play. I very much appreciate the use of templates. Looking for roots, they work basically the same way as the templates from the original Talislanta game of 1987, with all kinds of weird fantasy nations and creatures (“character types”) each with its own template. (You just don’t roll d66 for them, but have to choose one.)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for re-using old stuff in new combinations! But the disconnect between discussions of Troika! and Advanced Fighting Fantasy is so conspicuous. Imagine somebody made a D&D clone and most of its players never looked at any D&D modules. That’s like the situation here.

Given that Troika! is commonly classified as part of “Old-School” in some degree, the gap between the old books and the new material is even more glaring.

This is not a complaint, but an invitation to get into the roots of Troika!

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I haven’t had a chance to run either yet, but my current favorite initiative system (at least on paper) is from ARC — turns grouped and ordered by intended action. I wrote a bit about how momatoes uses that arrangement to make magical combat more tense, and it has similar impacts on other aspects of combat.

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First of all – AMAZING summary. Perfectly accurate.

Second – Initiative. It makes me sad that it ultimately becomes a burden because it sounds like it should be cool and it offers a lot of opportunities for things like environmental moves (e.g. throw extra tokens in and whenever you get one the ground shakes). But yeah, I’ve played it a few times as written and it can be odd or feel unfair.

Third - Fighting Fantasy debt. I think there’s a beef that DS didn’t more openly acknowledge the source in his text. Especially if he straight up lifted some text (I believe the Oops table is verbatim to FF?). On the other side of it, he was afraid to name it since it doesn’t have an OGL or anything. Where he just copied system he’s safe, but fans of FF might not like the uncredited hacking. And I think 98% of the remaining fans of FF are fans of the solo-play books as much as anything.

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I figured the lack of an OGL would make one anxious. That said, for the fans of Troika! there is a ton of extremely close genetic material out there in the family tree. My discussion was not about any beef but about resources for Troika! players. :slight_smile: Especially if they are attracted to the idea that it is “old-school.”

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I think the main disconnect is that people generally like Troika! for the “setting” and vibe and less so for the system itself.

Interesting note about the “setting” - on some podcast I heard way back the author said that it is an homage of sorts to his memories of Planescape. He had the first boxed set and remembers it fondly because nothing was really set in stone. He dropped out of gaming for a while then got nostalgiac and bought all the Planescape stuff and read through it and was sad that all the further supplements crystalized and calcified everything…

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I am more attracted to the system than the setting, but I like both.

Cool. Yeah I didn’t take it that way but thanks for clarifying.

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It sounds like you have mostly run one-offs or short campaigns. Do you have any concerns about the system for longer form play? Do you think the math will work out with skills or do they get “too good” around rank 5 or even 6? I suspect it’s an arms race kind of thing, where characters auto-defeat all “normals” but can be challenged by any monster with an equally high skill of some sort.

You’re right that small gradient increases can create auto-defeat situations!

For those listening in: Fighting Fantasy systems feature combat as a contest rather than alternating strikes-and-whiffs (as in D&D and most other games). 2D6+Skill+Trait from both sides / higher total hits the foe. Personally, I favor the contest method for any game, so that skill and ability (not armor) help people avoid damage (whereas armor lowers damage, but doesn’t make defenders more “slippery” with blows from massive foes just sliding off with zero effect).

There is the added complication of how to handle combat between multiple combatants, and here the FF system shows a weakness: it was designed originally for solo gamebooks. But it can be made to work, as I have done, with decent results, though it’s not ideal.

This method (combat as contest) is owed ultimately to Tunnels & Trolls, the main antecedent of FF with respect to mechanics. Another avenue for investigation for tinkering with Troika DNA…

The FF system definitely grants clear superiority to the one with the higher Skill + Trait total. Anybody with a base 3 points higher or more than that of his foe is overwhelmingly likely to win, with the possible exception of mitigating factors such as armor or much higher or lower Stamina on one side. Auto-defeat is possible (for PCs or NPCs).

Check out these odds for opposed rolls with 2D6+Base (where Base = [Skill + Trait]). This method also strongly encourages PCs to use the weapon with which they specialize, and it means that they are vulnerable if they lose that specialty weapon (note to referees!).

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Strategically, this means that you should never pick straight-up fights against significantly more skillful opponents (as in life, I suppose). Or bring friends with you! The critical hit on double-six rule means, however, that a superior combatant cannot ignore the risks of melee, because there’s a 1/36 chance of getting hit very grievously regardless of one’s dice total.

One feature of my house rules to soften the superiority issue is that one can voluntarily Test Luck to gain advantage in combat (roll 3d, take the best 2d) instead of the default FF/Troika rule that a voluntary Test of Luck will add 2 damage if one actually wins. That system means that Luck doesn’t actually help anybody to land a lucky blow, but only helps the one who is already superior in Skill–which is, to me, not so much a matter of Luck. Hence the voluntary Luck Test > Advantage rule. (Plus, Luck is a rapidly diminishing resource, so this won’t be abused.)

For long-term campaigns in which Skill rises by even three points from the original number, combat threats have to be scaled up appropriately, but that’s not so different from D&D-based systems with hit dice and levels. Alternatively, pose non-combat challenges galore and minimize the use of dice in lieu of plans and described attempts!

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I think it was Chris McDowall who called mien the worst-named mechanic ever, haha. I agree.

2d6 roll-under if wildly weird. It’s like DCC that way in making people do odd things with their dice.

It’s a great setting for “this could fit ANYTHING in here” because of the multiverse-vibe but Electric Bastionland is still better for that. :stuck_out_tongue:

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