OSR: Review: Acid Death Fantasy

I bought Acid Death Fantasy to patch a gap in in Ultraviolet Grasslands game. The d40 "Who Is This Hero" table (UVG pg. 7) is great, but in a high-lethality game it can lead to duplicated concepts or lack of impact. More backgrounds are always handy, and, like most Troika! supplements, ADF promised to have at least 36. Other material would be a nice bonus.

Full Disclosure
The usual disclaimer. Because I'm fussy, peevish, and peculiar, and stuck in an endless miserable global pandemic, this 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.

I also haven't playtested the book, but considering the content, I'm not sure playtesting would provide too many new insights.

I try to review books I a) like, b) intend to use, and c) have more interesting things to discuss than points a) and b). Anything not specifically listed as a concern can be read as "good". Not much point in saying it over and over.


It's lovely. Colourful, elegant, evocative. David Hoskin knocks it out of the park.

The PDF is not layer-enabled. You cannot turn off art or gradient backgrounds, making home printing very costly.


The book contains 36 backgrounds, 36 monsters, and around 3 pages of setting notes and concepts. The table of contents is hyperlinked. More details on the contents here.

The backgrounds are just a cleaned up version of this post. I say "just"; obviously it takes a ton time and effort to format, revise, and fix a blogpost for publication, and it looks like most backgrounds were revised or improved, but that post is more-or-less half the book.

I think it's fair to say that the book is carried by the art. The text and concepts are good on their own, but they might not "pay real-world $$$" good. Elevated and supported by the art, the book crosses into the hallowed territory of "a real proper book."
Is this style over substance? Flash and colour over utility? A triumph of art-driven social media hype over detached analysis?

Conceptual Density

After spending some time fiddling with Troika! backgrounds for a cancelled Space: 1977 PDF, I'm starting to think that tying Advanced Skills to Backgrounds is superfluous.

Consider this example from ADF:
41 Sha’ir
You weave words into poetry and spells alike. You are greatly respected by
the Thousand Sultans, who often pay heavily to be your patron. 
• Unfinished Epic Poem.


What advanced skills would you assign to this background? In Troika!, Advanced Skills are rated from 1 (can do it a bit) to 4 (very, very good). Spells work the same way. Typically, 6-10 skill points are assigned.

Highlight the text below for the canonical answer.

Advanced Skills
4 Poetry
2 Spell—Random
2 Spell—Random
Were you close?

That's an issue. The conceptual density of Troika! Advanced Skills lists is often low. "You are a Goat-Jouster. Skills: 2 Goat-Riding, 2 Jousting". "You are a Spy Skills: 2 Disguise, 2 Sneak, 1 Dodge." There are some surprises, but not many.

The space is wasted. You could ask players to assign a fixed number of points to a skill list, in the style of Fate Core. Results would be very similar, if not identical, and you'd save a ton of space in your book and a lot of tedious skill point assignment during writing. A lot of backgrounds in ADF call for an Advanced Skill "of your choice" or a random spell anyway. It might lead to optimization problems (e.g. players always putting a few points into a fight-based skill), but there are a few ways around that.

Compare this to Electric Bastionland's backgrounds, which (despite being entirely item-based) have 2 d6 tables per background. More variants, more evocative details, more cool concepts and hints, and very little a GM could guess or condense. The density of ideas per page in EB is low due to the table and art format chosen... but I liked the backgrounds enough to make a personal-use artless 3-backgrounds-per-page reference document.

If you take the Advanced Skills out of a Troika! background and move to an all-in-one select/roll-your-own system, you can go from 2-3 backgrounds per page to 4-5, or add a d6 table to each background. You're saving several short lines on a one-column page. That adds up quickly.
Edit 2020/12/07: Some of these concerns are less related to ADF and more about Troika! in general, but core Troika! has fewer skill lists that feel like a bullet point summary of the background's text. A function of revisions and tests? The limitations of the genre?
Advanced Skill lists are a tradeoff. They can be boring and waste space, but alternative methods require other trades. Part of the joy of Troika! is rolling a character with 2 in Squid Farming and figuring out how to make it work. If you switch to an "assign # points to a skill list" system, your skill list needs to be enormous, or you need to allow freeform skills and trust that your players will use them. Will they voluntarily put 4 points into Philosophy? I suppose you could stipulate that at least 1 point must be assigned to an Advanced Skill that's not on the skill list.

Then again, the ADF Desert Mutant background which has 5x "2 Skill of your choice" entries as its only Advanced Skills, is already a point-assignment system, so the concept clearly works.
Back to ADF. The Miens (i.e. "What is this creature doing?") table for enemies is good idea taken too far. Because it's Troika!, every enemy needs a d6 table of Miens. How many possible moods can a lizard have? "Basking" for 2/6 entries and "Stalking" for 2/6 entries feels like more wasted space. Why not make it a d3 table? Why not have one general Reaction Roll table, or one split by beast size? Break the template when it would add utility.

Edit 2020/12/07: A d6 table with repeated results (e.g. 5 "stationary" 1 "migrating") does provide extra info, but I'm a big fan of non-repeated, non-null results. How many times will you roll on this table? Will weighting results become relevant? If you roll on a table 20 times a session, you'll get a distribution of results. If you roll once per campaign, any clever weight tricks are hidden. Mien tables fall somewhere in between; you might roll on them once, at the start of an encounter, or you might roll on them repeatedly as players monitor a creature, or you might use them as a schedule.

Even if you're using repeated results, you can add extra details (table size permitting). "Basking belly-up", etc.

On the other hand, some Mien tables are full of evocative detail. It's clear that in most Troika! products there are fun Mien tables and Mien tables included from commitment to the format. Vestigial tables. Junk RPG DNA.

How much time was wasted churning out slightly pointless tables or skill assignments? Forget space on the page; could this effort have been spent making better, more useful content? It's odd that people focused on the weird deep thought evocative side of RPGs want to spend time on boring repeated lizard moods and telling me a Dirt Farmer has 2 points in Farm Dirt.

The setting content at the end of the book also feels conceptually light. Have adventures! How? Figure it out yourself. What is this, an RPG book?

It also suggests you "cut up and mix the pages with another chapbook—the planes are colliding", which, considering the physical book is an expensive hardcover and the PDF is difficult to print, seems impractical.

Final Notes

The print book is £20.
The PDF is $14.

If you like collecting pretty RPG books, ADF fits the bill.

For what you get, the price feels high. The PDF of Ultraviolet Grasslands is $25 and you get a hell of a lot more fantasy acid death for your buck, but they work together fairly well so why not get both. If ADF had been available when UVG was released there's a decent chance I would have run UVG using it, instead of writing a GLOG hack.

Art is expensive, writing is hard, and I don't see Luke Gearing or Daniel Sell rolling around in a pit of money like some silicon valley tycoon, so clearly it's not extortionate. Nobody's getting rich off indie RPGs. Things cost what they cost.

Maybe buying ADF is closer to supporting the Idea of the Work or supporting People Who Do Good Things than purchasing something of unsurpassed utility. I don't know.

Anyway, I got what I wanted out of it, so I'm happy.


  1. Great thoughts on Troika! They address some of the concerns I've had too. My remaining question - aside from does the math of the system simply break after several advancements - is "Is the problem that the advanced skills and miens wasted space or wasted opportunity." I guess the skills sort of have to take on that predictable mode. If you used more creative advanced skills to flesh out more of the character it would beg the question of whether they are good at the things you expected them to be, and it would also make you want to write those skills back into the description. So they are going to be slaved together. In a similar way, miens could really be rewritten as a few sentences after creatures talking about general behavior (when you have something to say, and left off when you don't). Since they monster entries seem to "require" a miens table, authors have to supply them and sometimes they half-ass it. So I wonder, what if they didn't half-ass it? But then would it look like creativity for creativity's sake? I think I am just thinking out loud and answering my own question here. Miens are not needed. Advanced skills are probably wasted space but they do quantify the description. You could probably write them like this: 41 Sha’ir - You weave words into poetry (4) and spells (2 x 2, random) alike. You are greatly respected by the Thousand Sultans, who often pay heavily to be your patron. No need for a separate list then.

    1. "If you used more creative advanced skills to flesh out more of the character it would beg the question of whether they are good at the things you expected them to be".
      It's a fair concern. Creativity and purple prose for its own sake, just to make sure the skill list doesn't feel like a repetition of the background text, would also be bad.

      Miens (or similar tables) are really hard to make evocative for some creatures, given the size limitations (around 2 words). There's only so much you can do with a lizard.

      Integrating skill values into the text is an interesting idea. Might break the flow of ideas, might not. It's definitely worth exploring.