Wednesday 22 November 2023

Troika: Some Thoughts

I hadn't read Troika when it first came out, and made a splash. I saw on sale as a PDF, and acquired it. Now, some thoughts.


Troika: you may know - but I'm going to restate it anyway - who this is by. 'Written by Daniel Sell. Illustrated by Jeremy Duncan, Dirk Detweiler Leichty, Sam Mameli, and Andrew Walter.' These chaps are attached to the Melsonian Arts Council. 

What's it attempting to do? Time for a quote.

Here is Troika!: a science-fantasy RPG in which players travel by eldritch portal and non-euclidean labyrinth and golden-sailed barge between the uncountable crystal Spheres strung delicately across the hump-backed sky. 

What you encounter on those Spheres and in those liminal places is anybody’s guess — I wouldn’t presume to tell you, though inside this book you will find people and artefacts from these worlds which will suggest the shape of things. The adventure and wonder are in the gaps; your game is defined by the ways in which you fill them.


Does it achieve this? Hmm. Apologies, this is going to get into the sub-genre weeds. Now, to my mind Science Fantasy is something like CL Moore's Northwest Smith or Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark. A twinning of Science Fiction and the Fantastical, something a touch more out there than the use of Barsoom for two-fisted adventures. 

I might suggest tentatively that Sword-and-Planet involves (whatever the mysteries required by the plot) a grasp of essential skills and understanding of the world: John Carter is of the profession of arms, and may apply himself to his chosen trade on Earth or Mars. Science Fantasy involves moving from the familiar to the strange by the characters: from the world of space flight and blasters to psychic aliens and time shifts. Cf. Star Wars: the mechanically-skilled farm boy enters not merely into a galactic war, but a journey with a spiritual dimension. Feudal Futures (or a category including Feudal Future) involve starting and staying in an unfamiliar place. 

But, of course, the most obvious influence on Troika! is Gene Wolfe's The Book of the New Sun. If you've read both, this isn't news. Reference to Cacogens, Clavigers, Alzabo, the Phoenix Throne, a familiarly phrased 'Journeyman of the Guild of Sharp Corners', Notules, golden-sailed space-faring ships....all due respect to the author, but this path of influence is fairly clear. Besides, the blatant isn't always bad: here are some tools for the Wolfe-like, use them as you will. 

Anyway, in some ways all I've written there is merely surface. The underlying meat is the mixture of science and magic, in less than clear-cut ways. In some media, the mixture or confusion is benign, and comprehensible: see the invocation of Clarke's Third Law in Marvel films, for instance, or the various magi-tech urban settings of some RPGs. In others, it is horrifying - whether one of Lovecraft's Great Old Ones is merely a incomprehensibly vast working-out of natural laws or a staggering violation of those laws, it barely matters, given the results. 

In The Book of the New Sun, it is dismaying to see such ruin as has resulted in a great confusion of science and magic, but not as such baleful. In Vance's Dying Earth, it is awe-inspiring (if still ruinous). If the melding or conflusion is thorough enough, we speak of the Weird, the uncanny. If I say New Weird, some minds will instantly move to MiƩville's Bas-Lag. To my mind this is a less pure example than (say) Steph Swainson's The Year of Our War.

All this is to indicate, if I may, that Troika! reads as sufficiently immersed in its world to be more like New Weird and Feudal Future than Science Fantasy as I read it. It lacks a foot in the familiar. This probably suits its purposes, and is bolstered by the presentation. 

An example, if you will pardon me.

Troika, P.7, Character Creation

This is one of the pre-generated characters you can roll into. Now, what does this suggest to you? A retired reaver? Dad-bod Elric? Frank Frazetta's King of the Hill?

Well, here is how Dirk Detweiler Leichty chose to illustrate that entry:

There is a hammer, but not a Warhammer.

Now, Detweiler Leichty will be quite tightly linked in my mind to the grand decay and meshing of mechanical and biological and otherworldly shown in Silent Titans. Is this true for the bulk of Troika's intended audience? Perhaps. Either way, the restricted but vivid colour, the geometric slashes, the dense lines, the hints of a roiling interior, 'the interlacing of the imagined organic/personal with the imagined space', indicate a distinction from the familiar lines of fantasy art - the thousand variations on Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn on paperback covers, or the older technicolour depictions of the 'cod-archaism of a Renaissance faire'. Either way, this is a deliberate indication of something distinct: a suggestion of several moods rather than one set icon. 

So, Troika steps out boldly in a new direction. And doesn't trip over its shoelaces. 

Would I use it? You're talking to the wrong fellow, but I'll take a stab. Troika's a chunkier beast than the W-B&W-G-backed 52 Pages, but then it is seeking to indicate a mood and world definitely not D&D. Call it a hundred pages, minus the included adventure. 

The d66 system - simple enough once your head's in the right place. Luck as a stat always rings a little off to me - pace Fallout - but when other stats have been pared down so far or amalgamated into Skill and Stamina, I can see why you would want a nebulous 'significance' stat to move around a focus as desired. Thinking on it, a (relative) resignation to (or acknowledgement of) the whims of fortune or the workings of fate does seem fitting for the intended genre.

A few more words on how Advanced Skills are meant to be distributed in one's own Backgrounds would be preferable. There's some obvious models, but a step-by-step somewhere would be good.

The notion of a stack of items to indicate turns is all very well, but could be troublesome on the table -where does the stack live, who can see it, &c.

Pinch of salt to the above: this is all speculative. 

Gleanings: Things to pull out and use.

  • Witch-hair ropes 'immune to manipulation via magical means.'
  • 'Salt is the poor man's silver'.
  • Brittle Twigs is an impressively folk-lorish spell.
  • This description, from the spell Iron Hand - 'The common man does not appreciate exactly how close flesh and iron are when considered relative to, say, flesh and the smell of hot tea.'
  • The Donestre: strange deadly melancholy many-headed lions.
  • I think more settings can find room for Lamassu and Rhino-men.
  • Beef and Liberty is apparently one of those perennial human obsessions.
  • Pocket Gods seem an interesting extension on Lord Dunsany's various small deities

Conclusions: Well, I'm not certain that Troika hits a level of Conceptual Density for me. But then, I've read a bunch of Wolfe already, and even written something inspired in good part by him. So it might do something for you, and I cannot really regret flipping through Troika all that much. Modified rapture.

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