Mini-Review: The Other Old School

Daniel Sell’s Troika! is billed in some quarters as being based on “the Other world’s favourite role-playing game”, and for a generation of British gamers that statement’s entirely true – in the core principles of its system, it’s very much a product of the Fighting Fantasy lineage, and given how widely-played those gamebooks were in the 1980s and 1990s I think it’s entirely likely that more British kids of that generation had direct exposure to Fighting Fantasy than Dungeons & Dragons itself.

More specifically, in system terms Troika! is a refinement of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, with some tweaks made to deal with such things as monsters lacking Advanced Skills, an interesting initiative system based on drawing tokens which means that not every character will necessarily act on every combat round if they’re unlucky and keeps things unpredictable, and other tweaks. Between that and Emmy recommending it in our discussion of Esoteric Enterprises, I thought I’d give it a look.

In setting terms, the game is a hyper-weird science fantasy thing which cites material like Viriconium or The Book of the New Sun – we’re talking somewhere between Everway, Planescape, and Mahna Mahna in terms of concept, with an aesthetic that can take on anything the more artsy side of the “weird fantasy” school of the D&D-based section of the OSR has produced.

That said, I find the presentation of Troika! far more interesting than that Monte Cook used in Mahna Mahna, beyond the fact that the art style is simply more interesting. Whereas Mahna Mahna presented its setting much in the same style as typical RPG setting presentations of years past, Troika! communicates most of its setting through the randomly-assigned backgrounds characters get and the monster and item descriptions. This allows Sell to set tone and establish some baseline facts but leave a lot open to the individual creativity of your specific gaming group, and it’s more or less explicit that the game is not an exercise in producing a set canon for a single version of the setting so much as it’s a toolkit to allow you to arrive at your own version of the setting.

This is inevitable based on the way the information comes out in the process of play: having a different set of backgrounds in play will put different facts about the setting at the forefront of the group’s mind whilst leaving other facts by the wayside, for instance. This sort of “implied setting” approach has been tried by other games before, especially in the OSR (where people have developed a keen appreciation for how OD&D or Classic Traveller delivered their implied settings), but Sell is especially good at setting it up. In particular, he seems to have a really nice knack for giving you enough material to give you a general idea of appropriate tone and style and enough facts that you feel like you aren’t just making shit up in a vacuum, but at the same time keeping things terse enough that it doesn’t feel like a burden to incorporate all of these ideas into your game.

As such, it’s a nice example of a game which, despite being a bit high-concept, could viably be run on a pick-up basis – there’s even a nice sample location at the end which can nicely act as a jumping-off point for bizarre improvised adventures in the bizarre multiverse of the game – because it avoids the pitfall of games like The Whispering Vault, which was intended as a pick-up game but in practice is based on a concept and setting that’s sufficiently fiddly and involved that you have to do a bunch of reading before you can actually start playing. Equally, precisely because the setting is as thinly-drawn as it is, you can mash this up with any other “weird science fantasy” RPG product (which the OSR and wider indie scene produces in reasonable numbers) and it works like a dream. (I’m extremely tempted to match this up with the bizarre Ultraviolet Grasslands wilderness crawl, for instance.)