Tabletop RPGs have been on my list of hobbies to try out ever since I came to understand that being the classical geek is perfectly acceptable and fine. Having grown up as a single child in a family that enjoyed board games, but generally ones that lasted less than an a few hours, it wasn't until college where I had my first shot.
My roommate and I had participated in a handful of wargaming sessions with his uncle back in high school, but that doesn't exactly prepare someone to enter the RPG dimension. On a whim, we picked up a D&D book at the flea market. I don't think it was even the Player's Handbook-- probably an unwanted DM source book from a forgotten edition. Needless to say we had no idea what we were doing or where to begin let alone not having enough friends with sufficient attention span to try it out. As it were, we were college kids and spent more time chasing women, beers, and internships than getting an established dungeon crawl together.
In the years following, I caught up on the general format of role playing games through Fallout/Skyrim and the Witcher series. In my opinion these games follow through with everything that the old Advanced Dungeons and Dragons games wanted to be some day. That being said, it'd be several years and a move across the US before I ever actually played a pen-and-paper RPG.
The first ever Dungeons & Dragons campaign I played was a one-shot DM'd by my friend Bryant. Sometimes I think Bryant only plays D&D to justify buying a shitload of dice, but I'm not hear to judge. He has some cool dice. Anyway, I'd watched a few of the sessions he had with other groups and was eager to accept when he got a dungeon crawl idea in mind. I put together my character-- Cyril Lacroix, an ice mage who looked suspiciously like Santa Claus. After my girlfriend and I struggled through a hoard of trolls, I got a hint that the part of experience I liked the most wasn't combat or loot, but the goofy interactions and decisions that players can make.
Some Druid's Dice on my ouija board. The dice are Pecan, the ouija board is reclaimed from an abandoned building trash heap.
Of course I had to buy some dice of my own after that. I think the plastic multi-colored dice look tacky so I went for a wood set. It was fairly hard to find, but Artisan Dice hooked me up (six months after my order). Just when they arrived in early 2020, the Covid 19 pandemic made in person sessions infeasible. However, lockdown did have one positive effect: everyone is bored and no one has plans!
My good pal Terin had been working on putting together an Eberron campaign for some time and he really knows how things work. So, every week for the past eight months or so, Terin has been guiding several bumbling novices and I through Roll20 + D&D Beyond virtual sessions. I've only gotten myself killed twice and by gosh did I deserve it. While I've really loved playing this campaign and grateful we've been able to keep a fairly stable party going, learning the ins-and-outs of role playing has helped me understand what I like and don't like about Dungeons & Dragons. Mainly, it's too freakin' serious! Enter Troika!
My first run-in with Troika! was essentially accidental. I, like many others, picked up the Itch.io Bundle for Social Justice which is a simply massive collection of games, demos, assets, failed school project, 30 minutes of drunken Unity tutorial attempts, and so much more. I got about 50 pages into it before giving up seeing what was all included. To be honest, the cover of Troika! is what convinced me to download the PDF and give it a look-over one listless day in late 2020. Surprisingly, the art inside the PDF was just as fantastic, the writing even more so. Simply put, Troika! is whimsical as hell.
Two character backgrounds. The left one from Daniel Sell in Troika!, the right from Troika: Icy City by Aaron King
I spent an evening reading through the Troika PDF: its character backgrounds and dungeon the Blancmange & Thistle hotel. The surreal fantasy of the world recalls (at least to me) Superjail!, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, Yume Nikki and The Midnight Gospel. The characters are not so arbitrarily designed as to be "lol xd so random", if I may, but have some level of cohesion. The rules (backup PDF) are downright simple and only a d6 is needed!
Characters have a base amount of skill, stamina, and luck that never change. They also have skills tied to their character that provide a boost when trying to achieve something in or out of combat. Troika! uses a basic d6 roll-under check similar to GURPS which means that while rolling is super simple, I don't get to use half my fancy wood dice, oh well.
- Skills + Advanced Skills determine what needs to be rolled under for non-combat tasks.
- Stamina is both health and mana. Each spell costs a certain amount of stamina to cast.
Stamina can be restored by rest or eating provisions.
- Luck can be used in moments of fortune or misfortune where a player can choose to Test Their
Luck and roll under their current luck. If successful, they avoid calamity. Afterwards, the
player reduces their luck by 1. Luck is restored back to the maximum after rest.
With Troika!, I found a game that provided enough structure to be playable, but simple enough to be able to make it my own. As many of the sourcebooks say, it's the GM's game, not the author's. By the end of reading the rulebook PDF, I was totally ready to play a game. However, I wasn't about to usurp Terin's Eberron Campaign (though we'd played a fun Halloween-themed GURPS campaign earlier). I decided that I was going to give myself a challenge and try out the game on my parents.
In a few weeks I was planning on travelling to Ohio with my wife and working from there for a month and some change. It would provide a great opportunity to be stuck in a pretty boring place with enough players to form a decent party. That being said, I knew it was going to take some work to create an experience that would be fun for everyone rather than a big fat rulebook and analysis paralysis.
When I proposed the idea to my mother, she warned me that they were not creative people and were nervous that they wouldn't know what to do. At the very least I knew I was going to have to create characters for them to use. I'd personally found being given a character as part of the Halloween GURPS game I mentioned earlier made it a lot easier to get into the role-playing aspect. So that was definitely going to have to happen.
The character sheets we put together
Secondly, I knew that a completely absurd world of Golden Barges, monkey mongers, and zoothropes was going to be hard for my parents to relate to, let alone pronounces. While I found the Blancmange & Thistle was a great introductory crawl, I wanted something they knew well. I spun the setting with a bit of the Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and called the hotel Willy Wonka's Sugar Suites. I put together character sheets of the bratty kids from the movie (Veruka Salt, Mike TV, Agustus Gloop etc) and added a few characters of my own for everyone to pick from. Of course, no table top game is complete without a map so I whipped out some graph paper and made a hotel layout based on a cool architectural diagram.
I wouldn't say that my draftsmanship would have even gotten me a passing grade in a trade school, but I got the proportions fairly accurate to the playing pieces-- in this case, little plastic Clue pawns. A vertical setting like the Blancmange & Thistle made it easy to essentially only need two layouts, one of the lobby, and one for the floors above.
The hotel diagram that was used as a basis for Willy's Sugary Suites
Ahead of time, I prepared a couple paragraphs of introduction, added some NPC characters that my wife liked and tried to give everyone some idea of what made sense in this universe. Upon having their characters presented with the main quest, reaching the penthouse, they of course completely ignored that and went to the bar. I had to pretty much invent this scene from scratch. Banking on the dream-world idea and trying to keep everyone engaged in the fun rather than concerned about lore I made the bartender a two-headed biped with one head being that of the family dog and the other being the head of my dad's friend. Unfortunately, I didn't realize my father was going to absolutely abuse the infinite-money special his character had and buy every concoction in the place. It was a lot of work to come up with bizarre effects for drinks. However, everyone was delighted that Mike TV came away with a new tiger's tail attached to his bum.
I noticed that I was having my character sort of drag everyone along which I was doing mostly for the sake of time. Part of the issue with everyone dallying was that they were enjoying themselves to the point that they were making up the outcomes of their actions themselves. This is something that I did quite a lot when I was first playing the Eberron campaign. I personally like the whole collaborative story-telling idea, but there's something to be said for having a game master that is determining the outcome of your actions and providing obstacles to overcome.
When I felt that we'd played enough, had a good fight (against beer-can tigers of course), and were ready to call it a game, I wrote in a behemoth of oompa-loompas to forcibly drag the characters to the final destination. Once there, I had to have my character set the example of politely sitting in a chair in order to get everyone to stop pulling Willy Wonka's ears off. The story received a happy conclusion and I got all the play testing out that I needed.
Prior to that campaigns, I ran a couple of oneshots with my friends, one of whom rolled horrible luck all the time and the other who made the most ridiculous character and tried to kill/fuck everyone. I'd have to say that was pretty fun too but I just had to kill the party due to their provocative actions. Point taken: the rules, though light, are useful to avoid characters pub-stomping or getting decimated by fat.
The point of this whole post is that Troika! was the gaming experience I've been looking for my whole life. Its whimsical realms created atop GURPS by numerous authors can be played out as brutally as the party feels. I definitely hope to find a group to continue playing this ruleset with and maybe I'll finally get to run a character rather than the dungeon! Once I have a proper woodshop, I'll be looking to make some neat wooden d6 dice and initiative tokens of my own. In the meantime, I'll be seeking out any and all Troika! source books.