Thursday, 27 May 2021

[Review] Troika!

Most RPG settings, adventures, modules and indeed systems are destined to go unplayed. This, we all of us accept. But despite the unrealised ambition of these forlorn also-rans, they can nonetheless entertain and inspire enough to make them worth the purchase. Troika! sits firmly within this camp.

I have my misgivings. Is Troika! beautifully written? Yes. Does it exude creative brilliance from every pore? Certainly. Is it the work of an auteur of considerable imaginative power? Without question. Does it stand out as utterly singular in a landscape of bland and samey grimdark S&S OSR bleakness? Undoubtedly. 

But can I see myself playing it? I cannot - except perhaps as a palate-cleansing one-shot. Its strangeness and weird beauty is admirable. But I do not find it really lovable. It strays too far into the realm of whimsy, fancy, eccentricity - the point at which imaginative endeavours become untethered from consequence and begin to feel as though they are just diverting amusements. The concept of playing as an Ardent Giant of Corda, a Befouler of Ponds, a Gremlin Catcher or a Member of Miss Kinsey's Dining Club makes me smile, and the marriage of art and text in all cases is sublime. But can I envisage playing a long-running, open-ended campaign as one of these characters? Would getting your hands on a 'pocket barometer' or 'tea set' feel as good as plundering thousands of gold coins from a dungeon after many tough fights and dangerous endeavours? The idea of a hotel called The Blancmange & Thistle, with a silent mandrill concierge and an old lady who feeds it red bonbons, is a beautiful vignette. But would events taking place within that environment feel as though they really mattered - rather than simply being riffs on a charming idea? 

Troika! bills itself as providing a science fantasy universe in the spirit of The Dying Earth, Viriconium and The Book of the New Sun. But I wonder if that may be the source of my problem with it. I love all of those books - but I do not think that any of them is in particular a good inspiration for an RPG campaign. They are too distinctive, too dense with allegory and metaphor, too much tied to the creative intelligence of their authors. Let loose at a gaming table with a group of five nerds, some beer and pretzels, and the intensity, beauty and intrigue of such a setting would quickly evaporate. There needs to be something more solid, prosaic and quotidian to hang regular play on - something with a feeling of familiarity in which the fantasy can be rooted. What reading Troika! in fact reminds me most of is the experience of reading the Jerry Cornelius series as a twentysomething and thinking: yes, this is all very well, but do I feel the viscerality that I feel when reading Tolkien, Gemmell, Goodkind, Martin? Does this seem like it is a book about real people, or just fancy concepts?

And yet there is a lot about Troika! to love. The system - a well thought-through advancement of the Advanced Fighting Fantasy rules - is just the right amount of lite. The art is perfectly judged: eerie, discomforting, surreal. There is more substance to it than what I would think of as its closest competitor and also closest cousin, Into the Odd (another work which I appreciate without really wanting to ever run); at times it almost hints at achieving that union of dream and reality at which surreal art is always aimed. The implied setting is compelling. And the writing - so preciously rare a quality - is, heavens, actually good

I will never play Troika! But I am glad that it exists. 

4 out of 5 becs des corbins

[Troika!, published by Melsonian Arts Council and written by Daniel Sell, cost me US$18 in PDF - about £12.50 in real money - and has 116 pages.]

8 comments:

  1. "They are too distinctive, too dense with allegory and metaphor, too much tied to the creative intelligence of their authors. Let loose at a gaming table with a group of five nerds, some beer and pretzels, and the intensity, beauty and intrigue of such a setting would quickly evaporate. There needs to be something more solid, prosaic and quotidian to hang regular play on - something with a feeling of familiarity in which the fantasy can be rooted."

    This is as true as it is depressing. My kingdom for a better quality of nerd.

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    1. I'm not sure I agree, in the end. What works well in a novel does not necessarily result in fun at the table.

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  2. I don't really see why Viriconium or the Book of the New Sun couldn't provide templates for a campaign setting. It's only the laziness of people falling back on readily available lowest common denominator D&D fantasy (which indeed has other sources of inspiration) that prevents this from happening on any scale.

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    1. Well, I'll explain why in a blog post shortly...

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    2. I spoke to Mike Harrison about this many years ago - he was bemused by the idea that anyone would ever want to run Viriconium as a game, and thought it ran counter to the whole point of the novels. I'm not so sure though - I think it could work in small doses.

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  3. The Troika supplement Acid Death Fantasy looks a bit more rigid for campaign play over one shot. Less "arch" more "minimalist" splat, for a gonzo Mad-Max/Barsoom/Dark Sun mashup

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    1. The art looks great but I have to say $14 is a lot for a 45 page PDF. I mean, Gardens of Ynn is $5.

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  4. June 6th (6/6) is Troika day! You can get 50% off Troika with code ONEWAYTICKET, through June 5th at www.malsonia.com

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