Troika Playtest

2019-01-07

A little over a week ago I ran a one-shot Troika! game for two of my regular Numenera group.

Recap

A Red Priest and a Vengeful Child read (and stole) a posting on the Adventurer’s Guild bulletin board.1 After winding their way through the goblin tunnels they found their would-be employer: a wealthy goblin who needed expendables adventurers to explore the other side of a mirror portal. They emerged through a mirror in a curio shop on what they would eventually discover was called Sabaziopolis. Customers in the curio shop ran screaming into the streets shouting for the “Sparthexes”. The Red Priest took the curio shop owner as a traditional hostage. A few minutes later, two Sparthexes arrived: armored and fusil2-armed guards whose full-face helms made them mute except when they played pre-recorded discs containing “the word of Sabazios”. A firefight ensued, the traditional hostage died as did one Sparthex, and our pair ran into the street.

A squad of four Sparthexes captured the Red Priest. As he was an axe-wielding maniac (thanks David), they kept him in a stone cell. Soon the “Archon” arrived, a taller, fully armored being who could and did speak. After the usual perplexing breadcrumbs, he/she/they offered the Red Priest a choice: undying fealty to Sabazios, expulsion on the next available ether-ship, or death. Choosing the middle option, guards transported him to the Alien Quarter to await a ship from outside. (The laws of Sabazios forbade non-citizens from venturing out of the Alien Quarter for fear of moral contamination, thus the extreme response.) However, a local crime boss smuggled the Red Priest back into the city and into the gloved hands of the Sebast Melanchthon. He had acquired the other end of the mirror portal and knew how to send the two “aliens” back. Unfortunately, the Vengeful Child had been hired by the Patrician Crassus to assist in a coup against God-Emperor Sabazios. Melanchthon suggested the Red Priest rescue his associate/acolyte after nightfall. The Red Priest, therefore, walked out the front door, knocked on Crassus’s front door, and offered his services. After an initial cordial relationship, the Red Priest tried to purify Crassus and a couple of his guards with cleansing flame. Crassus, realizing he was dealing with an axe-wielding maniac, put the Red Priest in a stone cell to be set loose on the day of the revolution.

Meanwhile our Vengeful Child was perfectly content to eat Crassus’s food, take his money, and rig various locations for arson during the revolution.

The big day arrived. Crassus sent Our Anti-Heroes through a “secret” tunnel to the single entry into the God Emperor’s steel tower. The doors into the tower slid open, revealing only a smallish lift that could accomodate only five people. The lift brought them face-to-face with Sabazios himself, a huge figure enclosed entirely in gleaming metallic armor, with his face only dimly visible through a crystal viewport. Twelve fusileers in the balcony above kept the five intruders covered. Sabazios ordered the three Patrician’s guards be taken away, and the two outlanders taken back to Melanchthon to send them away.

What Worked

System-wise, things worked fairly well. The “Roll Under” vs. “Roll Against” thing got a little confusing, especially with attack spells. Beyond that, however, the mechanics stayed out of our way. Our Numenera group likes “only players roll dice” mechanics, but contests where GM and player roll dice simultaneously worked just as transparently. (Nobody but Sabazios used spells, so I never made Roll Under rolls for NPCs.)

Working only with scrawled notes on three 3x5 cards, I still managed to improvise an entire scenario. The notes only contained the original advert, stats for “average” people from various castes and roles, and the awesome abilities and defenses of Sabazios himself.

Granted, I’d been thinking about how Sabaziopolis worked for a while. Sabazios – “he who knows all” as many Sabaziopolitans said – ruled from his steel tower (actually the remains of a rocket ship) through his Archons, joined into a hive mind. The Archons managed the Sparthexes, ordinary mortals forbidden to speak anything but the pre-recorded Word of Sabazios and who often had to fall back on mime. The most politically powerful Sabaziopolitans lived in the Inner Precinct, where our hapless adventurers emerged. Patricians had gathered vast wealth through generations, and jockeyed for power much like their Roman counterparts. Sebasts, usually Patricians themselves, consulted with Sabazios often and were most loyal to his regime. Hierophants, who didn’t enter into the story, interpret the Books of Sabazios3 and effectively fill the roles of legal scholars, judges, and educators. Essentially, Sabaziopolis was the city of Troika if it were ruled by a slightly less villainous Doctor Doom.

What Didn’t Work

  1. The initiative system was not a hit. Partly I had two players against two NPCs, so NPCs hogged about 50% of the Initiative Deck. Further, with so few cards in the deck, frequently NPCs got one turn each while only one PC would get one or two turns before the End of Round card came up. I’m not sure having more cards in the deck would make Initiative any more equitable, which my players thought a definite minus.

  2. The Sparthexes used ranged weapons, and somehow I’d (house?) ruled that targets can’t attack ranged weapon users except with another ranged weapon. The Vengeful Child broke out her bow only at the end of the first combat.

  3. Player characters have three basic stats: Skill, Stamina, and Luck, plus specialized skills and spells. Somehow Luck never came up. It probably should have, most notably when a Sparthex fired on the Red Priest and his Traditional Hostage.

  4. The implied setting, as indicated by six pregen characters I rolled up and a few pages of rules, was apparently too bizarre for my players. Troika! intentionally doesn’t define the setting of Troika too closely, despite dropping bizarre references. I suspect the city of Troika is itself just a placeholder for a home base with enough hints to spark a GM’s imagination. The notion of traveling among the Million Spheres essentially justifies any adventure setting one can think of, maybe with a Moorcockian flair.

  5. One of the players decided that Troika! was best for “pick-up” games. The mechanics have more potential than that, I believe.

Possible Fixes

  1. A group could pad out the Initiative Deck with hireling cards, reduce the number a/o Initiative of enemies, or remove the End of Round card so that everyone ends up with an equitable number of turns. However, in some of my own RPG projects I’ve been toying with “simultaneous initiative” mechanics. At the very least, I could try the Arion Games Advanced Fighting Fantasy mechanic of all PCs and NPCs rolling simultaneously, with the highest total hitting designated targets with lower totals.

  2. Treating ranged weapons differently might have been a bad idea. In close quarters someone with an axe could hit someone with a bow or rifle. Alternatively I could house-rule that ranged weapons work like spells: if the shooter succeeds in an uncontested roll, maybe with range modifiers, the target must make a Luck roll to avoid being hit. (That would solve the Luck problem too.) However, I could see myself ratholing into range modifiers and distances.

  3. Luck would have mattered much more if I’d set up traps and other hazards. If I run another adventure, I’ll try a wilderness or dungeon-y setting. Or maybe I’m just used to heavily skill-based mechanics where there’s always a predefined resistance skill instead of a general “saving throw”.

  4. Players running roughshod over one’s adventure plans is a GM’s main occupational hazard. Compared to the structured setting of Sabaziopolis, though, the default Backgrounds and setting hints don’t really give players a sense of belonging in a world. Granted, my RPG exemplars include RuneQuest, Call of Cthulhu, and Traveller, all of which take great pains to generate characters with a history within their setting.

  5. Is the not-quite-a-settting at fault? Do players no longer take a system seriously unless numbers cover an entire 8.5x11 / A4 sheet of paper? Should I seek out a different test group? More data is needed. Maybe an AFF / Stellar Adventures one-shot with the same group?

Aimless Tinkering

Since the Skill attribute is randomly generated and the basis for all other skill numbers, it seems a little unfair that some characters get a comparative +1 or -1 on everything they do. On G+ I proposed a Troika Skill-ectomy, which I’ll summarize here:

An even more radical modification would replace the current random Backgrounds with a two- or possibly three-stage process similar to RuneQuest, Mythras, Call of Cthulhu, Magic World (the later one, i.e. Elric! with the serial numbers filed off), and other d100 systems:

Each stage would grant certain skills. Characters from a Band or Tribe would skew toward wilderness and survival skills, while those from a City-State or Nation would skew to more specialized and “civilized” skills like Languages, abstract knowledge skills, and interpersonal skills. Devising those tables, especially to use only six-siders, is an exercise for the reader. (The aforementioned d100 games provide excellent examples.) A more complicated process would increase a player’s investment in the character, as long as characters can’t die in chargen. (I’m looking at you, Classic Traveller.)

For my RPG projects I’ve been looking at even more radical changes, like Player Rolls All Dice, 3d6 (or 1d20) instead of 2d6, replacing hit points with a saving throw (much like Savage Worlds or Open D6), etc. But that takes us well beyond the scope of Troika!.


  1. My excuse was that Troika’s autarch or members of his court set up an “Adventurer’s Guild” to track all the dangerous people in the city. ↩︎

  2. A rifle that shoots star stuff, or something. ↩︎

  3. The Books of Sabazios, allegedly written completely by him, cover all human knowledge, including science, engineering, medicine, law, art, and philosophy. Inspiration came from Ryan North’s How To Invent Everything, written as a manual for stranded time travelers to reinvent civilization and of course take credit for it. ↩︎

  4. This yields the same probability distribution as the Roll Under method assuming a fixed Skill of 5. ↩︎