Thursday, May 23, 2019

With a Little Bit of SKILL/STAMINA/LUCK, We Can Make It Through the Night

This is a review of the new edition of Melsonian Arts Council's Troika! but first, a bit of a digression. It will be relevant, I promise.

Fighting Fantasy is one of my favourite role-playing games, but it is not without its problems. It was designed to run the Fighting Fantasy solo gamebooks and while it's just about fit for purpose for those, the ruleset struggles when taken out of that context.

In the gamebooks there is some freedom of choice -- which is what makes them fun after all -- but it's not like a tabletop rpg, where you -- or YOU -- can take a beating, return to town for a rest, then return to the dungeon for more donnybrooking. Fighting Fantasy gamebooks are almost always about forward movement, with branching paths that nonetheless carry you forward.

It's also rare to have allies, and when someone else does turn up to help, they either hang around for a couple of fights then run off, or they get eaten by a GIANT CRAB (SKILL 10 STAMINA 11) after two paragraphs. I was surprised to discover that the recent Port of Peril features a non-player companion who not only hangs around for a fair chunk of the book, but is also somewhat competent.

All of this means that gamebook characters verge on the superheroic; they have to be to have a fair chance against the individual book's many challenges.

You can perhaps see where this is going. Translate that to a multiplayer rpg and you have problems. Now there's a group of four or five titans -- ho ho! -- wandering about, cutting through monsters and shrugging off traps; there's fun in that -- I ran a short and self-explosive campaign along those lines and it was brilliant -- but it's not sustainable for extended play.

The other issue is -- and I'm aware of the irony here -- that the randomness and simplicity of character generation means that some characters are much better than others. When you have only three player-character statistics and those are generated by dice rolls, you can end up with characters with wild differences in competence and survival prospects. Again, this isn't a problem with a one-off adventure but it can cause problems for a campaign. Advanced Fighting Fantasy makes the issue worse with its advanced skill system; your SKILL score also determines the points you add to your SKILL to determine the value of your special skills, so if you roll well, you get even better, and if you don't roll well, you never catch up.

Fighting Fantasy is a great little game and I love it, but these are major issues that can make it unviable for a long-term campaign, or at least a sensible long-term campaign.

I mention all this because Troika! is more or less an alternate Advanced Fighting Fantasy -- see, I told you it would be relevant -- and is going to be vulnerable to the same issues, unless author Daniel Sell has found solutions.

He has. Sort of. I think.

The SKILL problem is solved by acknowledging the inherent imbalance and randomness in the system and embracing it as a feature; maybe your rolls are crappy but look, you're a space giant with a magic map! It's a gutsy approach; adding even more randomness with the Backgrounds system and sort of trusting that things will balance out, or at least will be more interesting.

If we're thinking in terms of pure numbers then I don't think the problem is fixed -- it may even be worse -- but the strength of the addition of Backgrounds is that they give players interesting things with which to play that are not just numbers to plug into the combat or skill checks or whatever. The other advantage of this approach is that it adds no mechanical complexity, so the game remains simple. I approve.

(A quick aside: I'm playing in a D&D5 game at the moment using the revised ranger class and it comes with a bunch of special abilities that aren't mechanical as such -- they don't interact with target numbers, dice rolls, character statistics, or anything like that -- but still have a significant impact on the game world. It almost feels like cheating and I'm loving it.)

The STAMINA problem is tackled by inflating damage output. In Fighting Fantasy a GOBLIN (SKILL 5 STAMINA 5) with a sword can hit you for two points of STAMINA damage. In Advanced Fighting Fantasy the same GOBLIN can do between one and three points. The Troika! GOBLIN can ruin your day with up to ten points per kidney-poke! It's swingy and brutal and it's not the approach I would have taken but it looks like it should work, and will make for fast and exciting combat.

The other big change to the original Fighting Fantasy is a new initiative system. You add tokens, such as dice, to a bag -- player-characters get two each, henchmen get one, opponents get a varied amount -- and then characters act as their token is drawn from the bag, until the "End of Round" token is drawn and everything resets. This mechanic is tactile and unpredictable and I adore it, but I can imagine that the unpredictability of it could prove too much for some.

Elsewhere the game is much the same as Fighting Fantasy. It's simple, quick, and with the major issues of the original resolved, it seems quite robust. That said, Troika! isn't just a new edition of a venerable classic, as it abandons the generic fantasy of Jackson and Livingstone's Titan for something somewhat more exotic.

The setting is implied through the Backgrounds and the monster list, just enough to give a feel of the world without pages of maps and historical data. It's a strange world, a little bit Planescape, a little bit Book of the New Sun, a little bit Spirited Away. It feels decadent and almost febrile, the same way David Lynch's underrated adaptation of Dune does; I imagine the world of Troika! is hot and sweaty and everyone is struggling under some sort of summer cold.

The light touch to setting elements means that it should be easy enough to switch them for those with a closer match to your own campaign backdrop. I suspect it would be a significant amount of work to come up with d66 new Backgrounds, but I doubt it would be arduous.

Sells' writing style is infectious, arch and playful, without coming across as pretentious: "Notice that [starting Backgrounds] only touch the very edge of specificity." At times, when explaining rules, this dancing, slippery tone can border on obfuscation but for the most part it's entertaining and fun to read.

There is less art than I expected from this deluxe release of the game; there was a fanzine-style edition a few years ago. I would have thought the upgrade to a fancy hardback would have meant the book would be drenched in pictures but aside from the Backgrounds section art is scarce. It's all good stuff though; I'm quite fond of the aforementioned Background images by, I think, Dirk Detweiler Leichty. They have this mad, angular, almost abstract look, sort of like the face cards in a standard fifty-two card deck; the style probably has a name but I'm too much of a barbarian to know it. Now that I think of it, a deck of character generation cards would be a lovely little gimmick.

The book's design and layout are neat and functional and it's quite easy to read and navigate; the use of old-school rules organisation -- "6. Actions... 6.1 Hit Someone... 6.2 Shoot Someone", and so on -- is a bit excessive in a game of this complexity but is a cute stylistic flourish. The book is a sturdy hardback and is presented in A5, the One True Format, so extra points there. I will dock a significant number of points because the character sheet doesn't have "Adventure Sheet" across the top but you can't have everything, I suppose.

While I have some quibbles with Troika! they are minor, and on the whole it's a solid and entertaining update and enhancement of one of my favourite role-playing games; should I be lucky enough to once again run a Fighting Fantasy game in the future, I will probably use Troika! because Troika! is ace.

Arbitrary numeric score: 87

Troika can be purchased in digital and physical forms.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

It's Been Ages

Stuart asked me a question about the 13th Age Rogue class yesterday and to answer I dug out my copy of the rulebook; I also found my GM notes for the campaign I ran back in 2014. The campaign went on hiatus as my group moved on to other things but it did not finish; what surprised me most as I looked over my notes again was how much was going on!

Characters in 13th Age each have One Unique Thing, some aspect of themselves that no other character in the setting shares. Stuart's character Sartheen was the only red dragonspawn. Manoj played Amras, an elf wizard who was in fact not an elf at all, but a sort of flesh prison for the soul of the Devil, imprisoned in an earlier Age. Ben played Ne-0n, a robot monk -- well, he was a monk-flavoured sorcerer as the monk rules weren't out at that point, despite there being a monk on the cover of the rulebook! -- with a sort of cosmic awareness that allowed him to see the underlying structure of reality; I imagine this was probably represented in binary code.

13th Age characters also have relationships with the Icons of the setting; these are the sort of powerful NPCs that every fantasy setting has, like the Archmage, the Orc Lord, and so on. Player-characters can have positive, ambiguous, or negative relationships with certain Icons, and there are various ways the relationship can play out in terms of mechanics; there's more detail on Icon relationships here.

I tended to use the relationships as background plot devices. The Three, a trio of powerful dragons, were interested in and a little scared of Sartheen, because there weren't supposed to be red dragonspawn. The Diabolist was watching and sort of protecting Amras, in case something happened and the Devil got out. Ne-0n was a servant of the Great Gold Wyrm, except the robot had suspicions it was being manipulated and, for the greater good or not, this clashed with the mechanoid's desire for self-determination.

(This led to a wonderful statement of intent for the second half of the campaign, as Ne-0n emerged from a period of meditation with an intention to free the player-characters -- and perhaps the world as a whole -- from the influence of the Icons. This kicked things into a higher gear and I was excited by the prospect of the players seizing control of the campaign narrative, but then we stopped playing.)

There's no alignment in 13th Age; rather the Icons have relationships with each other, and the player-characters' relationships with the Icons in turn suggest where they stand in terms of the larger philosophical and physical conflicts in the world. The Three and the Elf Queen were engaged in a cold war of sorts, so the elves were interested in the fact that the dragons were interested in Sartheen; as such they asked Amras to spy on his ally. The Great Gold Wyrm and his servants -- even disgruntled servants like Ne-0n -- stand against demonic incursions, but the robot was unaware of what was inside Amras. The players were under no obligation to go along with their Icons' plans, but all this going on in the background made for interesting dynamics.

That's just a brief summary. There were a couple of other characters, each with their own Unique Things and Icon relationships, and Sartheen, Amras, and Ne-0n had other relationships I haven't discussed. Even so, you can see how a tiny handful of numbers and words on a character sheet generated a complex web of histories and politics, none of which was planned when I started running the game. It's very old-school in a way.

Even if I never play 13th Age again -- and I do hope that is not the case -- I will have a serious think about pinching the One Unique Thing and Icon mechanics for the next game I run, because they generate so much potential fun.