Thursday, August 23, 2018


Erik creates a character

Troika is an unpredictable, fast paced, rules-light, multiplanar RPG inspired by old-school British fantasy. Think Warhammer (FRP and 40K), Fighting Fantasy, and Dragon Warriors. Think Moorcock, not Tolkien. New Crobuzon, not King's Landing. It's the brainchild of Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan.

I just finished running a two session game of Troika. It was a lot of fun, especially the second session, when I got a better sense of how to handle NPCs. Small differences in Skill level can be quite significant in combat.

Character generation is quick. There are three stats: (general) Skill, Stamina (which functions as hit points), and Luck (which decrements). There are also Advanced (i.e., specific) Skills and Spells, which function similarly to Skills in terms of  dice rolls.

The game uses a 2D6 die roll mechanic. You try to roll equal to or under the sum of your Skill + Advanced Skill (or Spell) when you are not in combat or direct competition with someone else. During combat and competition, Skills (and targeted Spells) are successful when you roll higher than your opponent.  Casting reduces Stamina, as does damage from weapons, which can also be quite variable.

The system has two killer apps. One is character generation. After generating your three core stats, you roll a D66 (i.e., two D6's, with the first die representing the 10-60, and the second die representing 1-6). The number you roll specifies your character Background, which can be anything from Cacogen (a "hideous" alien, a la Gene Wolfe's Shadow of the Torturer series), to a Chaos Champion, to a Gremlin Catcher, to a Golden Barge Pilot (think baroque 40K starships, or the starships with solar sails in Wolfe's Urth of the New Sun) - and many other Backgrounds.

The Backgrounds are evocative, and help define and give directionality to the setting and the activities of the player characters. As well as the evocative descriptions, Backgrounds also provide Advanced Skills and possessions/equipment. For instance, the Gremlin Catcher gets a "small but vicious dog".

Here's a sample character:

Jay's Cacogen

The other killer app is the game's unique approach to initiative. Each PC puts two dice of the same color in the GM's dice bag. (You need a pair of D6's of a unique color for each PC at the table.) Each NPC has an Initiative score, and the GM puts that many dice in the bag to represent each NPC. Initiative is determined by pulling dice from the bag. One additional die of a unique color is also placed in the bag as a turn-end counter. If your die is pulled, you have initiative. Most rolls are contested, and if the defender has the higher roll, then the "defender" can deal damage, even when they don't have initiative. A round ends as soon as the turn-end counter is pulled, which can happen at any time. The initiative system is therefore quite unpredictable, since adversaries (or PCs) may keep initiative for a few successive die pulls , and a round may end at any time with a pull of the turn-end die.

In tonight's two-hour session, players encountered and healed a fungal space-narwhal that had been wounded by an adamantine space-harpoon; the Chaos Champion faced off against a Mind Sloth inside a secret Chaos shrine hidden within a golden barge - shown here using a paper miniature created by Evlyn Moreau:

Paper miniature by Evlyn Moreau

 And, the Golden Barge Pilot faced off against a fearsome Mumbling Bird who was trying to steal the dead-captain's portolan; the creature is shown below:

This was a really fun, trippy game!  I look forward to running Troika again at a convention or at our game table in the near future. Be sure to check out the Troika Kickstarter if this kind of old-new weird sounds like your cuppa java!

Monday, May 7, 2018

It's Official!

It's Official! I'll be running Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea for Free RPG Day, on Saturday, June 16, 10 AM-2 PM, at Source Comics and Games in Roseville, Minnesota. One of the Source's staff had a great time playing the game at GaryCon, and was very receptive to me running the game as part of their massive Free RPG Day event! So I hope to see some ASSH fans there!

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Game of Cat and Mouse - and More

Cold Light demon illustration by Les Edwards

This weekend, I completed two more of Karl Edward Wagner's Kane stories, as collected in Death Angel's Shadow.  In the novella "Cold Light", Kane plays a deadly game of cat and mouse in a mostly-abandoned city long ago devastated by plague. It felt like a desert ghost town from a Western. The crusaders who hunt Kane soon become the hunted, and their pretensions of killing Kane in the cold light of "good" only serve to expose their dark deeds. Watch out for paladins... and for their retainers, especially the ones who summon demons. But really all of them. This novella was about 108 pages long, but well-paced for its length.

I'm not sure how you'd make "Cold Light" gameable. To do so, you'd have to structure the adventure so that the PCs gradually reveal themselves to be murderhobos. Some of that could be accomplished using storygame mechanics such as flashbacks, or by PbtA style mechanics in which things go wrong more often than they go right.

The second story was "Mirage". There is an essay called "The Once and Future Kane" in the back of the Centipede Press edition of Death Angel's Shadow, in which Wagner describes his other Kane anthology, Night Winds approvingly as "pure acid gothic". This short story is entirely in that vein. It's a worthy Weird Tale, indeed. I won't spoil it, other than to say that Kane grows from the experience, and learns that undeath is even more boring that immortality.

This story is no more gameable than most of C.L. Moore's Weird Tales. But very enjoyable nevertheless.

Since I am reading the Kane stories in the order of Kane's life, it is time to close Death Angel's Shadow for the moment, and begin reading the third and final Kane novel, Darkness Weaves.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Reflections on the Winter of My Soul

Cover art by Frank Frazetta

Wolves, werewolves, madness. A bard, a visitor, deep snow, and a baron's family. On New Year's Day, I finished the Kane novella, "Reflections on the Winter of My Soul" by Karl Edward Wagner. The story evokes Beowulf, with its great hall under siege by a great beast. But unlike Beowulf, the siege also contains a mystery or two: the household slaughter may be an inside job.

As with my previous Kane readings, I am using the recent five volume collection of Kane novels and short stories published by Centipede Press. This novella is in Death Angel's Shadow, which in its Centipede edition collects both early and late Kane stories. Since I am reading the Kane stories in the approximate order of Kane's life, I will be reading two more stories in this collection, and then switching to the third and final Kane novel, Darkness Weaves.

But back to the story. "Reflections" builds a bit slowly, although perhaps I am just distracted by other things I'm reading, and having a bit of reader's fatigue from having already read around 1,000 pages of Kane content (two novels, numerous short stories) over the last month. But that being said, around page 80, the novella really takes off, and maintains that pace for the last 30+ pages.

The story involves both investigation and combat, and could easily be adopted as a scenario for an RPG set in a far northern lands with isolated manors. I can already think of a way to use it with Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea.

Monday, December 25, 2017

Dark Crusade

Dark Crusade cover art by Frank Frazetta

On Christmas Eve, I finished Karl Edward Wagner's second Kane novel, Dark Crusade - as one does. It was about a 100 pages shorter than the first Kane novel, Bloodstone, and a bit less satisfying. Part of what made the novel less satisfying was that the science fictional aspects of the setting were less evident in the novel. It has more of the feel of classic swords & sorcery, and it's entirely possible that there were no long-lost alien artifacts anywhere in the novel.

But I could be wrong.

Another thing that made the narrative a bit less satisfying than Bloodstone, was that the story is a bit more disjointed, depicting the ebb and flow of a bloody religious crusade from several distinct viewpoints. Kane comes across as a (mostly) unsympathetic character, an opportunist, who betrays both sides in the conflict for his personal gain. It's not until nearly the end of the novel that we discover there is more to Kane's agenda than empire-building.

When we do see his real interests, which revolve around an ancient fortress called the Ceddi ("altar" in an ancient tongue) things get very interesting indeed, in a very multiplanar, Everwayan sort of way. Developments late in the novel push in directions that will be very welcome to fans C.L. Moore and Michael Moorcock.

After finishing Dark Crusade last night, I started in on "Reflections for the Winter of My Soul" the first of a few short stories collected in Death Angel's Shadow that set the stage for the third and final Kane novel, Darkness Weaves. "Reflections" starts in the immediate aftermath of Dark Crusade, and the tone is wonderfully atmospheric. Wagner is a good novel writer, and a great short story writer.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Reading Kane

Over the last three weeks, I've read about 800 pages, including both a number of  short stories and a novel, featuring Karl Edward Wagner's swords & sorcery hero, Kane. I'm reading the stories in more-or-less the inferred chronological order in which the stories occurred in the life of Kane. I started with the first Kane novel, the Bloodstone, and then progressed to the short story collection, Night Winds. Sunday night, I began the second Kane novel, Dark Crusade. I think it's entirely possible that I may read all three novels and the two short story collections of the recent Centipede Press edition by the middle of January. Maybe even by year's end.

Last summer (2016) I re-read the original Elric saga, and Kane is in the spirit of Elric in the sense that he is a not entirely sympathetic protagonist. He's violent and selfish. Pragmatic in the extreme. There is a psychological depth to his character and to the Kane stories that you don't frequently see in swords and sorcery.

Like Elric, Kane is both a puissant fighter and a skilled sorcerer. There's a legend about him, and many intelligent people try to stay out of his path. Others are attracted to his intellect, or to his potential for wreaking destruction on others. I'll be posting more about these stories in the near future as I continue to progress with the reading.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Moorcock Mondays: The Stealer of Souls

Stormbringer RPG supplement
We just finished The Stealer of Souls this past weekend. The title was the first Elric "novel" that Michael Moorcock published. It's a fix-up of the first several Elric stories he wrote. The book begins with Elric mobilizing the fleets of his allies, the merchant princes of the Isle of the Purple Towns, to sack the home of his forefathers: the Melnibonean city of Imrryr. The first story ends with Imrryr's destruction in flames. And the destruction of the raiders' fleet, thanks to Melnibonean dragons.

I read the first Jerry Cornelius novel earlier this year, so I understand exactly what Alan Moore meant in his essay, "The Return of the White Duke", when he points out that both sequences begin with the hero (Elric or Jerry) setting out to burn his father's home to the ground, AND rescue an imprisoned female kinswoman. In both cases also, it is a servant who opens a back door to allow the hero ingress to carry out his plan.

For Alan Moore, this is one sign that Elric has a presence, even within many of Moorcock's more literary and experimental traces. There's lipstick traces of Elric everywhere.