Two systems, both alike in dignity,This review is sponsored by Dubonnet and gin. You've been warned.
In fair Discourse, where we lay our scene,
From ancient sludge break to new heresy,
Where drunken blood makes drunken hands unclean.
Because I'm fussy, peevish, and peculiar, these review also has an enormous negative bias. I usually review books by listing problems or issues and then saying "but it's still very good." This review is no different. You've been warned again.
Also, I intermittently stop by both Chris McDowall's Discord and the Melsonia Arts Council Discord. Does one need to declare these things in a review? Well it can't hurt. That's three warnings. You're out. Go, get, shoo!
Troika!Troika! is a Fighting Fantasy hack by Daniel Sell. The original version vaguely assumed you knew what Fighting Fantasy is and are possibly in the grip of The Nostalgia. If you don't and aren't, it's a choose-your-own-adventure book with a dice mechanic. The new version (Numinous Edition) doesn't assume much, which is good.
Choose-your-own-adventure books are weird from an RPG perspective. Half the fun of RPGs is not flipping to one of 3 options, but instead writing your own pages and sticking them in. Should we 1) Fight 2) Flee or 3) Bargain with the Orc guarding the pie? Neither, for you see, I've concealed a pie-summoning wand in my hat just for this occasion. Flicking it, I...
You see what I mean?
Anyway, Troika! uses the 3 core stats of FF (Skill, Stamina, and Luck).
The first two pages are convenient reference tables. Handy, but I'm leery of unexplained tables before explanations. Or even explained tables. You're basically announcing "Prepare For The Dreaded Mathematics, Ye Who Enter Here". The moment I see text like "Weapon that ignores 1 point of Armour", before anyone's told me what Armour is, the crash-zoom effect from Death Rides A Horse plays in my head. This is a personal peeve. Inside cover tables are a best practice.
The license is broad and sensible, and seems to inspire people.
There's a big backgrounds table (d66). You start with basic adventuring gear.
Side Note: Starting With Basic GearTroika! Backgrounds
Call me old fashioned, but I don't really like gear packages or adventurers kits. They're convenient as heck, and for games where inventory and resource management are less of a concern it's perfect, but for more dying-in-a-hole-for-gold game I prefer to pass around the price sheet and rely on player skill.
Because it is a skill to check if someone's remembered to buy a latern. It is a skill to make do with scavenged gear. An adventuring kit implies that there's a correct way to adventure. This is the optimal package. But it might not be.
My god, there are a lot of them. And people keep making more!
Right from page 2, the core book tells you to write your own. More importantly it tells you how. Brilliant.
In the old edition (art free? I'm not sure how I got this PDF.), the backgrounds had no art. In the Numinous Edition, they've each got a piece of art. The art is nice and tasteful, but it isn't particularly useful, in that it doesn't really add much to the text. Each background now takes up 1 page and each page will only maybe be used once at character generation. So every time I reference the rules, I've got to flap over a stack of paper.
Additionally, there's no divider page between rules and backgrounds.
Side Note: Divider PagesRules are numbered. Why? The rules insist the only type of dice is a d6, then proceed to list 15 numbered rules or section. I can't roll a d15 on d6s without doing the Dreaded Mathematics. For shame, Daniel Sell. For shame. Who the heck is going to reference Rule 8.2 instead of giving a) a page # or b) the generalized description of the rule?
Magical Industrial Revolution doesn't have many pages without table-ready text, but I insisted that each chapter have its own chapter title page. In the physical version, they're always on the right hand side of a spread, in the same format, spaced more-or-less equally through the book. They're navigational markers. Weenies.
Pages like that might seem like wasted space, but they're kind of important. They are the signposts that let a reader navigate a heterogeneous text. Images stick in the mind.
EDIT (for clarity): The rules text on pp. 40-70 also feels homogeneous . Skimming, the rules blend together. Heading after heading, page after page. A few pieces of art aid recognition, but there are relatively few text-based markers aside from the rules numbers, and numbers are poor signposts.
How do the rules work in play? You're asking the wrong blogger. I haven't tested Troika! at all. I rolled a d666 and I wasn't struck by lightning, but that's about it. I am not a systems person. I've watched a number of games and talked to people who have run it though.
Reading them, the text usually answers questions as they are presented. A dying character must be healed? Next paragraph, rules for healing.
The armour rules are slightly clunky to my eye. For anything frequently referenced with more than 2 options, either tabulate or bullet point. I doubt it's an issue once you're familiar with the system. Rules are explained (i.e. there are "Why" sections). That's cool.
Spells are listed in alphabetical order, but aren't numbered.
Why are rules numbered but not spells? Rolling for a random spells (on a scroll, a wizard, a dark brain-engine) is actually useful.
EDIT: There's a spell table on the inside cover that I didn't see. Shame on me.
It's short, but a quick table of contents with page numbers would still help. If I'm looking for a Zombie, I don't want to flip all the way to Z to find out it's not listed. I want to look at one page and see that there's no Zombie, but Living Dead is listed. The descriptions are great and the stats are elegant. There's a useful table of monster moods with each monster, but a few are bit dull; some of the entries for some monsters seem repetitive. It's hard to spread 4 decent ideas into 6 decent ideas.
Highly consistent, vibrant, and neat.
Look, last time I did a review I said the art was good and people ended with weird impressions. So yes, the art is good, but I Cannot Into Art. I was not blown away or underwhelmed. I was moderately whelmed.
It might be the Dubonnet talking, but some sections have different background colours that can't be disabled via layers, making home printing difficult. Optimize your PDFs, humans! The PDF also loads very slowly while scrolling for some reason.
Viability of Long Term Play
To repeat, I haven't run Troika! or even tested it in a one-shot. 35/133 pages (31%) are devoted purely to character backgrounds. There are lots of one-shot play reports out there. Multisession reports are sparse, but they do exist. Some math-based humans have pointed out Troika!'s core d6 system might suffer under repeated rolls. The leveling system is less about motivation and more about reinforcement. As with any system, players with strong and complex goals will help drive longer games.
Backgrounds are loaded with flavour. They immediately grab people.Their vibrant, irreverent, and intriguing nature dominates most reviews. This has its pros and cons. Flavour fades fast. Rolling up a Troika! character is like biting into a new and delicious pastry; eating that pastry week after week, month after month doesn't seem to appeal to many people. .
That's not nessesarily an issue, but it's something to be aware of when you're picking a system. Do you front-load on superb character generation and backgrounds, or spread the goodness out over a longer play period? What's right for your group and style? How often do you expect to roll to find out?
How Likely Is It That This Book Will Be Burned As A Satanic Object
Moderately likely. Intermittent dick-wizards.
Is This Book OSR?
Fucked if I know. Fighting Fantasy has pedigree. The backgrounds seem to reward item-based problem solving. Compatibility seems to vary.
$12 for a PDF of the Numinous Edition, though it's probably on sale. There's a bundle that contains... things? Not sober enough to examine. EDIT: More bundles. Physical copies here.
Troika! is a fun, hackable, fairly rules-light game. A setting is vaguely implied but never stated. The ideal use-case seems to be a one- or two-shot systemless dungeon or adventure; heavier than Kobolds Ate My Baby but lighter than B/X. People say it also pairs well with fun dungeons like The Mysterious Menagerie of Doctor Orville Boros.
Electric Bastionland is Chris McDowall's updated version of Into the Odd. Since it's currently being Kickstarted, this review is based on a mix of Into the Odd and previews. You've been warned four times. Shoo!
The original Into the Odd assumed you knew... pretty much everything about D&D-type RPGs. Maybe even a bit more. Full terms from page 1, no intro, no context, just rules and guidance.
The system uses 3 condensed stats (Strength, Dexterity and Willpower) instead of the traditional D&D 6. This makes cross-compatibility with other OSR products slightly harder, but still easier than Troika!.
Backgrounds have a gimmick. They're HP derived. High HP, worse items. Low HP, better items. It's neat and symmetrical, but it also shows where the system is focused. Electric Bastionland has 100 backgrounds. Each background is a 2-page spread. The book is ~300 pages long. You do the math.
The backgrounds are cool and evocative, and that's clearly what the Kickstarter is focusing on. All the ones I've read immediately make me want to roll up a character, which is the point... but it's also a concern. Much like Troika!, if the bulk of the book is devoted to material you'll only use once, at character generation, how suitable is the material for long-term play?
HP correlated to starting items. In most 5+ session games, how critical is the starting item to everyday play? Compare that to one-shots.
I totally get why Chris wants each background to be a 2-page spread. The art is lovely. It helps build the implied setting. It's consistent. It's natural. It's smooth. But it's still ~120 words for 2 pages. That's a huge cost. It's reflected in the book's price tag and shipping. You're paying for an awful lot of ink that's sitting dead on the page instead of springing to life.
Side Note: Page Weighting
In a novel, all pages have the same weight. In nonfiction books, footnote, endnote, map, or illustration pages might be referenced more than a text page.
But in an RPG, density is all over the place. A background gets referenced once, at character generation. The rules page might get referenced every session. Optimizing layout to avoid flipping through dead pages is critical, the ease of PDFs often makes authors forget this step.Two crucial elements might be separated by 20+ pages of bulk.
There's another level. If your system has 1 page on dungeon exploration and 1 page on goat farming, casual readers might be tempted to think your game places equal weight on both, when in reality most sessions will be spent on the minutiae of hoof-rot and wet feed, with dungeons as an intermittent distraction available to one fringe class.
It's an issue that's hard to avoid, but it's worth considering when you're laying out a book. In play, pages have different weight. On a first readthrough, they all weigh the same.
Physical weight is important too, as mentioned in the Troika! section. I believe Chris is working on a method to avoid having to flap over 200+ background pages to get between everday rules sections, so that should be fine, but it's still a concern.
Side Note: Highly Amorphous Settings
I don't like 'em.
RPGs have a shared conceit. A number of otherwise fairly sensible humans get together and pretend that a world that exists only in their heads is real, or at least sort-of real.
This is hard when the rules that govern the imaginary world are explicitly ambiguous. I don't mean rules as in game rules, like how hard it is to hit an orc. I mean rules as distance, time, space, theme, and tone.Rules
And stakes. Why is Age of Sigmar so watery compared to Warhammer Fantasy? Because the world of Age of Sigmar isn't real. It's an amorphous collection of abstracts. Floating cities and chaotic realms. Exploding continents instead of forests. Rivers of blood instead of rivers of river. For all its faults, Warhammer Fantasy was a mirror of real-world history, in all its richness and relatability.
There’s no timeline, no history, no reading comprehension exercise to undertake before you get started with play. Instead, the setting of Bastion is communicated through Spark Tables: lists of random events, characters, locations, and items all written around the central themes of the game. These Sparks keep the city in a constant state of flux, and no two excursions into the mad streets (or the treacherous underground) will be the same.Bastionland, as far as I can tell from the previews and blogposts, is a chaotic ur-city, a protoplasmic urban 'scape. Its broadness tries and, in my opinion, fails to evoke much of anything. While trying to be general, it becomes watered down; a city where the stakes don't matter because the stakes are explicitly pointed out as fatuous constructs. The book can't help but lean against the cardboard scenery. Troika! has bumble-logic; Bastionland lacks even that folk-tale stopgap.
-Electric Bastionland Kickstarter
By rights, I should like Bastionland. It compliments Magical Industrial Revolution like chocolate and orange; games run using both should be spectacular. But the implied setting just feels like a collection Capitalized Nouns instead of a real place. Not sure if this is really an issue or if it's intentional design.
All the rules fit on 2 pages. These two pages, in fact. Fitting your rules onto 2 pages is great.
Compared to traditional D&D, the rules are a little bit weird. The combined pick-the-highest-result damage and attack rolls are probably the single highest barrier to compatibly with other products.
They also feel... very gamey. Does that make sense at all? Somehow, rolling a bunch of dice and picking the highest number shown feels less diegetic than rolling once dice and relaying the result to the GM. Could be personal. Not sure.
Maze Rats is a rapidly mutating strain of Into the Odd that's mostly tables. Good tables.
Haven't been previewed yet, but are probably similar to ItO's Oddities. Item-based problem solving writ large.
ItO's bestiary fit on one page and was, in my opinion, pretty mediocre. Some new ideas, some basic ideas expanded at length, no guidance, and no indexing. Some were more like traps or environmental effects than beasts. No idea what Electric Bastionland's will look like, or even if it will have one.
Electric Bastionland seems to be wholly illustrated by one artist (Alec Sorensen). I like it. It's consistent, tidy, and well done. Heavy use of black ink to define space is not ideal for a product people might want to print at home, but so it goes.
Still in progress, I'd imagine. ItO was optimized by 2015's standards. Let's hope Electric Bastionland does better.
Viability of Long Term Play
The advancement system is based around Scars. If I'm reading the draft rules correctly (no guarantees! You should've been warned!), Scars are accumulated by dropping to exactly 0 HP. Not the most OSR advancement system. Why reward failure? Staying at comfortably high HP requires skill. ItO was even more basic; as you level up, only your reputation changes.
It seems, vaguely, like ItO and Bastionland characters start off good and slowly get whittled away. Perfect for short term play or West Marches games; less viable for long-term games.
Compared to Troika!, I've also seen fewer ItO / Bastionland hacks out there in the blogosphere. Could just be a perception issue. Could also be that the background system is slightly less modular. Who knows. I am not an expert. EDIT: turns out they're just trickier to find. Here's a link to a collection of adjacent material.
Side Note: Write More Play ReportsHow Likely Is It That This Book Will Be Burned As A Satanic Object?
A small percentage of people who run games write about them online. It's valuable data. If you've got a blog, even the most intermittent summary or play report helps.
Less likely. Probably rated PG, even.
Is Electric Bastionland OSR?
Again, fucked if I know. Probably? While I'm not sure the core gameplay loop promotes clever play, it does seem to fit the Ten Commandments.
Electric Bastionland is (going to be) a fun, focused, relatively rules-light game. An amorphous mixed-up tech-based urban setting is implied. The ideal use-case of the new book is up in the air, but I suspect shorter games or open table / West Marches games (where the adventuring company / job board exists but players drop in or out) will suit the system nicely. Shane Liebling's playtest sessions of Magical Murder Mansion were run in a playtest version of Electric Bastionland and they seemed to work pretty well.
Final Final NotesShould You Buy These Games?
For the third time, fucked if I know. If you can afford it, sure. If not, no. Both seem to be great for one shots, convention games, OSR intros, or games where rapidly generating a new and evocative character is the goal. Both books are pretty. Both are written by what seem to be fairly decent human beings. Both are well worth examining from a design standpoint, and have plenty of good tools that can be used in many games.
But for long term, month-after-month play, I'm deeply skeptical about both systems. The downside of background-loaded is that the characters can grow stale. Having tasted one delicious and perfect background, players desire another. Like soft sugary fruit candies they melt away after a few moments of exquisite flavour. Both games weight backgrounds heavily. I like foregrounds.This isn't a flaw in the systems. It's a choice.
Post complaints below. This review was mostly an excuse to write the side notes.
Also, note to self, don't write while drunk and edit while sober. It never seems to work.