Sunday, October 25, 2020

Troika! RPG Review


Way back in the stone age days of G+, there was this weird game that fermented and grew in my peripheral view called Troika!. I ignored it. Not because it didn't look cool or whatever, it's just that it wasn't D&D and wasn't interesting to me at that time. The guy who made it, Daniel Sell, was also a peripheral figure in my view. I had read and been greatly inspired by Daniel's blog post "How to be an adventurer" on his blog What Would Conan Do. But my brain didn't connect those dots at the time.

The game was also associated with Jeremy Duncan, another figure looming in the periphery of my brain but who I just didn't know much about. Turns out he drew most of the original weird art for it.

Soon Troika! seemed to be the talk of the town. There was a Kickstarter. There was something about a "Numinous" edition. G+ died somewhere in that time zone and I'm honestly not sure which event came first. At some point I finally got a copy of the game and read it and was quite inspired. It's a damn fine game, and I'm going to talk a little bit about it here.


Troika! is a hack of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, a popular British RPG that originated as a choose-your-own kind of adventure book series. I'm not sure the author likes referring to it that way or not as I'm not terribly involved (like... not at all) in Troika! comings-and-goings. In a guest post at the blog Thoul's Paradise, Daniel said this:

"Troika is the inevitable hospice of a tired mind."

And this:

"It was built as a strongly worded objection to the vogue of transparency and usefulness. It still holds immediacy, since anyone can play the game in a matter of hours if they want. They just need to go limp and enjoy a state of comfortable confusion. The book doesn’t need to tell people that it expects them to decide what is happening for themselves since it offers few answers and the answers present are contradictory."

So it seems the author is not a fan of clarifying the intent of his game. Not only do I respect this, I admire it.

The game is a bit like this:

You have a Skill score and some Advanced Skills that represent what you are good at or about.

There are two types of rolls.

Roll Under means roll 2d6, trying to get under your Skill + Advanced Skill.

Roll Vs. means rolling 2d6 + Skill + Advanced Skill vs. an opposing similar roll, probably made by the GM.

For combat, you have Stamina. This functions like hit points. When it runs out you are dead.

Initiative in combat is determined by pulling stones from a sack or cards from a deck or something similar. I used the Troika! initiative cards, which I highly recommend. You put x number of cards in the stack for enemies and each PC gets 2 cards. You draw out a card and that person goes next. There is an end of round card that is mixed in as well.

There is a Luck score. You can spend Luck only for a couple of benefits, including extra damage on a hit. You can also make Roll Under Luck rolls, which are kind of like D&D's saving throws. So, as in DCC RPG, when you spend Luck you run the risk of being out of Luck when you have to make that fateful Roll Under Luck test.

Over time, you get to roll 2d6 vs. your various Advanced Skills, trying to roll OVER them. If you do, you get to improve them by 1. This is how you advance and learn new skills. But advancement isn't a big concern with this game. I don't think the game is meant to play in "campaign mode".

Casting spells costs Stamina points. Your wizard will become quite weak and fatigued if you try to blast everything around you all the time like Tim the Enchanter.

For character creation, you roll on a d66 table (36 results) to see which background you get. Each background is like a little evocative description of a character at one place in time. You get a little flavor text, some skills, and some items. From there you can mold the character in any way you wish. The backgrounds ARE the setting for Troika!.

Ok, that's pretty much it.


d66 tables: Love 'em. I've adopted their use in other projects I've been working on. While Troika! is not the first time I saw a d66 table, it is definitely the game that made them loom large in my mind. I also started using d44 and d88 tables as well.

Backgrounds: Love 'em. So much flavor and world-building can be stuffed into these simple little portraits. You can, and should, write d66 background tables AS SETTINGS. I've written two of them myself. It's god damn fun.

Damage tables: Love 'em. They allow you to have a pretty wide variety of weapon damage only using 1d6 per damage roll. It's a nice visual artifact too. You could add a secondary 1d6 table to your weapon for weird FX. Like if it's a strange esoteric device maybe it sometimes zaps, sometimes burns, sometimes freezes. Interesting idea. See how this game inspires?

Inventory system: Love it. I am absolutely stealing it for my own games from now on. If you want that hand grenade handy, put it at the top of your list.

Spells: Love 'em. Very simple and direct. We don't need to know about how many cubic meters a wizard can burn. We just need the broad strokes.

Monsters' miens: Love it. Like a mini reaction roll table tailored to each critter.

Initiative stack: Love it. Quick and dirty and doesn't get in the way. Initiative systems always irritate me because they slow things down. This one does not slow things down. But see below.

The actual physical book: AWESOME. If you don't have a copy of the hardback Numinous Edition, GET IT. Lovely little tome that feels good in your hands and has delicious art by Jeremy Duncan, Dirk Detweiler Leichty, Sam Mameli, and Andrew Walter.


Initiative stack: I LOVE the concept and it plays fast. But it has mixed results. It can lead to long stretches where one player is unable to act at all. Which leads to kind of ridiculous results... Mid-combat, you are literally in the face of the enemy but somehow 4 other PCs and 6 other enemies take actions before you. I know this is a GM fiat thing. In that situation, the GM should just let the player go next. But that means ignoring the initiative rules, which invites the question "is this a good system or does it need work?". Players in my Troika! adventures seemed to be on the fence about it.

Skill and Advanced Skill: The language is clumsy. It's straight from Fighting Fantasy, I believe, so this is carried over. But it would be easier in play if it was something like Level and Skills or Power and Skills. Skill and Skills = a bit of confusion.

Roll Under/Over: Similar to Skill/Advanced Skill, the fact that your core mechanics require you to roll under for some things and over for others is confusing at the table. It is very simple and easy to grok, I know. And it damn sure works. But over the years I've been running games this problem has always reared its head whether it's old school D&D or Troika!. Players who aren't familiar with the game and who probably won't school themselves on it will ALWAYS ask "Do I roll high or roll low on this one?". And it is annoying to have to answer it over and over. So I prefer game designs that don't mix and match these mechanics.


I love the shit out of Troika!. It's a solid, fun game that plays fast and loose. It is endlessly hackable and inspiring. I'm all about inspiration, so I tend to gush about this game. It captured my imagination in a way that very few games ever could. So far I have published two books based on the game and plan to do more.

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