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Acid Death Fantasy
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 09/17/2021 09:19:34

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This book contains 46 pages of content (6’’ by 9’’/A5), not counting editorial, ToC and front/back covers.

This review was requested to be moved up in my reviewing queue as a prioritized review by my supporters. My review is based on the print version, as I do not own the pdf.

 The interior of the front cover is a nice, full-color isometric map depicting Shurupak, the most stable city ruled by the many-crowned monarch, and from this place sprawl the Thousand Sultanates, with their ever-changing identities, rulers and customs; the spread that includes the interior of the back cover contains a generator for these transient micro-states: With two d6 rolls, you can determine the title of the ruler, and two d6 rolls let you determine competing fads; the interior of the back cover also has 6 troubles afoot and a list of stuff to do.

Beyond these sprawls lie the wastes, where the worms exist and dune-riders (as seen on cover) roam; four-armed metal-workers rise from duneholds to sell exquisite merchandise; in the North, the verdant jungles are the territory of the Azure Apes; the old steel gods that wrought the apocalypse lie to the west, and to the east, the massive plastic sea looms, where the Coated Men travel to have their skin coated in plastic…which promises power, but also an early grave.

If all of this sounds impressive, then because it damn well is just that; this introduction to a campaign setting of sorts is provided within the first two pages, and it had me STOKED.

The remainder of the book contains a total of 36 backgrounds (on reddish pages), and 36 monsters/NPCs (on greenish pages). The aesthetic, as you probably have determined right now, is one of very long after an apocalypse, with a quasi-techno-magical touch and aesthetics deeply infused in (stoner) doom aesthetics, blended with Heavy Metal F.A.K.K., minus the sex/adult angles. Add a touch of Dune, et voilà.

Now, as for the backgrounds, it is very much recommended that the GM read them, for much of the lore for this setting (?) is implied in the backgrounds. Aforementioned Coated Men, for example, are one background, and their text obviously implies that the Plastic Sea mentioned in the intro isn’t instantly fatal at least, and instead serves some weird, quasi-religious function. And WEIRD is allcaps, throughout: For example, one of the backgrounds makes you one of the last Bear Men. You see, Bear Men became somewhat anti-natalist and depressed as a culture, but the background, the Shaved Bear, rejects that, brimming with hope. Yes.

You can play a shaved bear person. The design of the backgrounds is generally pretty well-rounded, and features some interesting ideas, like e.g. a lizardfolk species’ cold blood represented by a reduced number of tokens in the stack if you’re too cold. You might be a worm-rider, a survivor of the old world, or perhaps you’re one of the agents (current or former) of the freshwater grubs. Possessions and skills generally serve alongside special abilities to render the overall power-level within the rather broad parities that Troika allows for; in contrast to many other supplements I’ve read, the backgrounds here feel pretty well-rounded and playable.

The monsters all obviously come with their stats and mien, and include murder cacti, scorpions and various lizards. Of course, the horrible mastermind freshwater grubs (think human-faced grubs in freshwater tank/thrones) are included here with a brief plot-generator, and we learn about dunesharks and beetles that carry massive ultra-hard papier-mâché tower-crèches. Several of these creatures do some neat things with Troika’s basic rules-chassis, for example when it comes to a kind of escalated damage chance. From nanosands to the last hover-tank Hyperion and ancient robots, this book manages to provide an amazing INDIRECTLY-defined backdrop.

And I wish it didn’t have that "IN"-prefix. But that belongs in the…

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good on both a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a one-column standard, with page-use different between sections: Around 1/5 of the page tends to be empty on every 3third or so page, since there (usually) is 1 background per page, sometimes 2; in the monster section, there often are 2 critters per page. The full-color artworks by David Hoskins rock and adhere to the same style you see on the cover; artworks are expensive, so I get why there aren’t more (there already are quite a bunch of them!), but for the bestiary in particular, it’d have been awesome to have an artwork per critter. The hardcover is really gorgeous, with sewn binding, color-coded pages, name of the book on the spine; all in all, high quality.

Luke Gearing does a fantastic job at indirect world-building herein, mostly via backgrounds and monsters; while that worked, kind of, to establish Troika’s aesthetic in the core book and hint at the weirdness of the humpbacked sky, this book presents a more conventional (and, to me, more accessible!) campaign setting that ticks off a TON of my “OMG, HOW COOL IS THAT?!?”-boxes.

Alas, this more grounded setting also perfectly highlights the grating effects of this indirect narrative approach; you don’t read a cohesive sourcebook; instead, you have to piece together setting-information from backgrounds and monsters; there is no place that really explains how anything really works in this world. The setting is as ephemeral and disjointed as the hallucinogen-induced visions that inspire its amazing aesthetics, providing only the barest minimum of contexts, and spreading these contexts out to boot. This would be less of an issue in a super-abstract setting, but in one that is pretty consistent in its themes, it does mean that the GM should probably take notes while reading backgrounds and monsters.

And don’t get me wrong, I am very much aware of the design-paradigm here: “Insinuate, hint, inspire the GM!” Good idea, but it works better if there is a functional skeleton to wrap those insinuations around. Acid Death Fantasy genuinely infuriated me when I realized that a paltry 1.5 pages of brilliant setting would be all I’d get, and while I appreciated and genuinely loved “discovering” more details when reading the backgrounds and monsters, I proceeded to become even more annoyed when I realized that these pieces of information were strewn about like that.

In short: As a person, I absolutely LOATHE that writing this evocative, this inspired, chooses to hamstring itself by adhering to a mode of information presentation and design focus that sells short its brilliant setting.

As an analogy: This is a bit like one of those campaigns where you get a player’s book with basics and hints, bits of lore strewn about, and a GM book that features the monsters and actually provides the information that lets you properly run an immersive game in the setting. Only in this instance, the information that lets you have an easy time running the setting has been cut, and your monsters have been grafted into the player’s guide.

I know next to nothing about Shurupak. Power and Water are leitmotifs of the setting (even set in title case + italics!), but what to do with that? No clue. The bird-like warflock and their culture, the coated men…there is so much greatness TEASED at. In a sentence or two. The barest of minimums of contexts given. Enough to make you want more.

…and enough to frustrate me to hell and back. Where’s my actual setting? Yeah, I am probably intended to improvise that and cobble it together…but I don’t want to.

As a person, this book pisses me off for what it could have been if presented as a more traditional setting, perhaps cutting a few of the less-inspired backgrounds and monsters (which, admittedly, are the exception). As a person, I probably wouldn’t get this again, as all its promise remains just a tease for me, the equivalent of creative world-building and lore blue balls. For me as a person, this is a 3-star book at best.

Then again, if you hate it when settings come with consistent lore and define/explain their concepts in more than rudimentary hints, then this might be exactly what you’re looking for; it is probably with you in mind that this was written!

However, as a reviewer, I try to rate books for what they are, and not for what I want them to be.  And frankly, if you love aforementioned indirect approach, if you want your settings to be fragmentary, full of high-concept tidbits, then this will be right up your alley. In fact, if you didn’t mind these issues in the core Troika book, and figured that the setting in “Fronds of Benevolence” was almost too well-defined, then this will be pure gold for you.

When viewed neutrally, then the whole cadre of backgrounds can be considered to be well-rounded and versatile indeed; the monsters, similarly, are often inspired and endeavor to do interesting things with Troika’s rules-lite chassis. The only neutral gripes I can field against this would be the rare less inspired background (like the hermit, who gets 4 Philosophy and three 2 random spells, no possessions. Boring.) or monster (ruin degenerate being a particularly bland one). That being said, for each such outlier, there are at least 2 great ideas that send the synapses firing.

And considering all of that, it wouldn’t be fair to rate this anything other than 4.5 stars, rounded up. This book may not be for me, but you might adore it. Oh, and if there ever is a “proper” setting book for Acid Death Fantasy, I’ll gladly back the hell out of it.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Acid Death Fantasy
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Fronds of Benevolence
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 08/27/2021 06:42:20

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module clocks in at 48 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 1 page hyperlinked ToC, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 44 pages of content, laid out in booklet size (6’’ by 9’’/A5). My review is based on both the pdf and the offset-printed hardcover-version. Let’s take a look!

This review was requested by my supporters as a prioritized review.

On the interior of the back page, we have a total of 36 common names, and 36 common occupations, which include cockfight referees, thinking engine specialists, etc.; similarly weird in a good way would be a 36-entry table of golden barge meals, and the inside of the front cover provides two d6 tables of rumors, which state that they want the GM to state whether they’re true or false; one d6-table is for the Northern part, the other for the southern part; facing this would be the point-crawl-style flowchart of encounters/regions that the party may explore. A pointcrawl is a way to depict overland adventure: Scripted encounters/locations are noted on the map, travel distances between them as well; it’s like each encounter/location is one dungeon room. Simple and elegant.

In the back of the book, we get a selection of 12 critters/NPCs and their stats, with some of them featuring Mien-sub-tables.

Regarding the theme, this book plays to Troika’s biggest strength: Full-blown strangeness in a playful manner, and the module, ultimately, is a road-trip like journey; it has a branching path of sorts, and is intended for 4 to 6 characters, but it does not focus on a riveting plot or the like. The module starts in the Duchy of Plandra, which is headed by Duke DeCorticus, a benevolent plant-overlord with a complex life-cycle that depends on rare earths; also known as star loam, this substance usually comes from “The Wall”, far to the south; now, no more shall be delivered. Is that due to the crazed pamphlets of seditionists that have been showing up in Plandra? It’s up to the party to secure the earths their patron/deity/ruler requires to survive.

Structurally, this is a broad-strokes type of module; the journey aspect caters to that aspect, and the GM is encouraged to move things along to the best of their ability; this is contrasted with something rather uncommon… …but to comment on that, I need to dive into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

… .. .

All right, only GMs around? Great! So, on page p, the timekeeping aspect comes into play: At the module’s start, you roll 4d6; this is how long the Duke’ll have to live. Each day has 4 die-signs showing 6s, and every hour, you fill in a pip. On the pointcrawl page, a specific region lists its travel time, usually in days, to pass through it or to move to a connected locale; this means that, RAW, if the initial 4d6 roll is bad, the module can actually be unwinnable. I intensely dislike this. Say, you roll 4d6 and get 1,1,2,2. Then, the party takes the faster travel option, but might have to wait 1d3 days; the party is lucky and comes up with a 1 day waiting period and rolls travel duration for it: 1d3, comes up as 3. One day left; even with ideal actions by all players, they cannot return to Plandra in time to save the Duke. As an aside: The Duke’s life is on the line—the party should have an express barge set up for them. The delay to even start the journey makes no sense to me. Granted, a pretty bad scenario for the Duke’s life is not that likely, but a minimum value (it’s 6 days, fyi) noted for the GM to save the Duke, or a suggested number for a fair, a tough, an extreme challenge? That’d have been helpful.

Anyhow, I already mentioned branching paths and travel options: The party has two general venues when it comes to traveling from Plandra, first of which would be a Golden Barge; the other being a stilt loper, essentially a massive platform on two goofy mechanical legs. The stilt loper walker can set off right away, but it requires trusting the pilot, and is slower: the very first travel to the first associated area takes 1d6 days. You see where I’m getting at. The randomized deadline doesn’t do the module any favors.

This out of the way, the first of the most likely routes is the one with a stronger intrigue-theme: taking the Golden Barge also means that the party will probably have a fight with a void beast, and there’s a chance that the auric liquidators will attempt to blow up the Barge; these liquidators are the fanatical secret police that serves Green Overseer Feng, the delightfully goofy mastermind behind the brewing sedition and pamphlets denouncing Duke DeCorticus. If the Barge does crash-land, it might end up on an asteroid, which sports the one content-level gripe I could find; the rudimentary culture on this piece of rock is governed by The Calculatronicus, a vast engine capable of firing rays, but which lacks the stats for these rays. The rainbow badlands haunted by the (white) wine-colored raiders would be the second possible location to crash.

Which brings me to a structural nitpick with this module: While there are possible connections between routes and options given for, and where the barge crash-lands is actually noted in a table, there is no real guidance provided there; one silt loper pilot wants to get to the emptied city, which can be reached from the rainbow badlands, the asteroid, and from the eye-bleed badlands, but WHY the party would get there/the connection per se, is weak. The asteroid is another example: It can lead to the rainbow badlands, or to the emptied city, but how? The GM needs to fill in those details.

Thus, as a whole, the module does feel in parts like a well-fleshed out outline, but one that does not sport a consistent connective tissue between all locales, which, admittedly, tend to be outrageous and interesting.

As mentioned before, one way to solve this would be to reach the Wall and best Overseer Feng in his cupola; I generally like this route, but the society atop the wall and the unmapped chambers of the cupola have made this section a bit more opaque than I’d have liked it to be.

The second way to save the Duke would be to find an Yggdrasil-sized tree and reach its roots, where the psychic holy tuber is guarded by 3 undead gardener-knights with unique weaponry, all in a village otherwise only inhabited by grotesque mummies, whose heads have been replaced with roses, which struck me as a truly disturbing and weird imagery.

A big plus of this module would be its significant replay-value; there are many ways to go about solving the module, and e.g. the cultural conflict between the red and white wine-colored raiders is but one of the various strange tidbits; having a species of pseudo-baba-yagas hunt silt lopers? Interesting. Terrain-features with actual impact on gameplay? Nice. I couldn’t help but feel, though, that the module would have been better-served by decreasing the number of locations, and instead providing more details for them…and being consistent in their connective tissues/transitions.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level. Layout adheres to a 1-column standard with a blending of original b/w and full-color artworks in the same style as seen on the cover. The pdf comes fully bookmarked, with the header of each page of the pdf jumping back to the pointcrawl map—nice. The pips of the die-timeline can be marked in the pdf version as well. Kudos! The print version is a solid, well-crafted hardcover.

Andrew Walter provides a nice, fast-paced journey when it works as intended; if the GM consistently pushes the party forward and hasn’t rolled too low on the days-to-live-counter, the module can feel like a truly strange and fascinating roadtrip that taps into the same kind of weirdness that the Troika! core book proposes; hitting this note is impressive. On a downside, if a party does want to think, linger, plan, act methodically, then this module might well be frustrating for the party and GM alike, as the connective tissue between locations, how to actually get from A to B, is more vague than it really needs to be. Quite a lot of pages have between ¼ and 1/2 of a page of free space, so the module certainly had plenty of space to put these final developments in.

In many ways, this module, to me, is slightly frustrating; with one final development pass and some blank spots filled out, this could have easily been a masterpiece. Having a player-friendly map of the pointcrawl, or parts of it, would also have been helpful indeed. In the end of one of the routes, some maps would have been helpful as well.

This adventure is certainly unique, brims with creativity, and has some delightfully outré ideas, but it does lack that final refinement to make everything smoothly gel together; not to the point where an experienced GM is stumped, but certainly to the point where this needs some serious planning to run smoothly. As such, my final verdict can’t exceed 4 stars.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Fronds of Benevolence
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Acid Death Fantasy
by Andrey S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/20/2021 03:37:25

A very nice supplement for Troika. Plenty of backgrounds and random tables. About the only thing it lacks is some background on the world. Even 4-5 pages would have been amazing, instead there is only a 1.5 page summary. A good supplement, but for nearly the same price as the core book, lacking.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Acid Death Fantasy
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Fronds of Benevolence
by Andrey S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/20/2021 03:36:25

A wonderful supplement to a wonderful game. The Duke thanks you profusely for your servitude!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fronds of Benevolence
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Troika! Numinous Edition
by Andrey S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/20/2021 03:35:57

One of my favorite role playing games. Full of fun, with a twist of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchet infusing the writing. Includes plenty of random tables to help in a pinch, as well as a colorful cast of adventurers and enemies to face. New players can sometimes struggle coming from systems like 5th edition DnD, but it is all quickly rectified with some good old Troika fun. All in all, an enjoyable system that breathes life in every table it graces.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Troika! Numinous Edition
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Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals: Permian Nations
by Sam C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/18/2021 08:24:43

The majority of the internal art is hard to make out and not in the same style as the cover (and kickstarter page). In the print version, it's almost impossible to decipher due to being too dark, this especially makes the maps a chore to look at and reference. If you don't care about art this book is a delight, but if you expect the internal art to be along the same lines as the cover, you might not be too happy with this one :(



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals: Permian Nations
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Troika! Numinous Edition
by James H. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 04/27/2021 18:02:12

Just abosulely bonkers. Brilliant in every way. Play this game!!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Troika! Numinous Edition
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Fever Swamp
by Sean C. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 03/18/2021 09:24:16

For a longer, more coherent version of the little review below, pls visit my review blog!

Love this creepy crawl so much that I also bought the hard-back! This thing is jam packed with swampy goodness creepy denizens, dangerous locales, and unique creatures. It's small but potent, with every bit of page space used for the quite condensed sandbox (swampbox?). Even the front and back inside cover are, respectively, a hex map with key and a quite nasty random swamp diseases table. It's ostensibly a low-level area, but low level characters will want to be very cautious and may spend a decent amount of time hiding or running away. I could see it being a quite challenging mid level adventure with only a little extra GM prep time, and the swamp itself and the many tables in it could be endlessly reused. I'm going to use this for one little excursion Lankhmar based party is going to make into the Great Salt Marsh!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fever Swamp
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Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals: Permian Nations
by PETER O. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 12/25/2020 11:26:59
THIS IS A MUST COP FOR TROIKA! FANS
  • it's a compete sphere, and a wonderful framework illustrating how one can flesh out a sphere to feel like a real, living and breathing place
  • all the illustrations are fantastic, cover to cover! Sam Mameli and Evey Lockhart have very different styles that go together like some sort of weird combination of bubblegum icecream and a mint cappucino: it's poggers and it works.
  • Melsonian Arts Council does not f^ck around when it comes to production values. The writing sings, the editing is smooth, and the layout and graphic design are top notch. Another fantastic book from Melsonia.
  • IT'S A COMPLETE TROIKA! SPHERE PEOPLE!
  • Writing by Evey Lockhart makes this an absolute no brainer purchase. If you're still reading at this point I assume it's because you don't know the wonderful force of nature that is Evey. Strap yourself in, you just found your new favourite RPG writer.
  • 1312


Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Very Pretty Paleozoic Pals: Permian Nations
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Fever Swamp
by Guy P. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 10/20/2020 04:51:27

Among my favourite setting books, I love its simplicity, usability & originality. The art and monsters are very cool



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Fever Swamp
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The Undercroft #10
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 09/14/2020 09:46:53

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The tenth installment of “The Undercroft” (and final one prior to its only recent reanimation) clocks in at 34 pages (disregarding editorial, ToC, etc.). my review is based on the print copy, which is a staple-bound classic zine (6’’ by 9’’/A5).

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request for a prioritized review via a direct donation.

So, let us start off with a winner: Sándor Gebei delivers Babel Square – a market square that would feel perfectly at home in DCC’s Punjar, Lankhmar, Shadizar or one of the weird metropoles out there, be they of a planar or more mundane variety; the veil is then, and sounds, sights and smells are noted. Various general types of activity by time of day are provided alongside 12 sample encounters, 8 rumors, 20 strange objects to be found, 6 unconventional payment methods (including temporary voice removal, memory extraction via leeches and more), and 7 interesting landmakrs and places add further to it – the only thing keeping this from being a perfect little set-piece would be the lack of a map.

The second article is one of my favorites in the entire ‘zine’s run – it’s title is an edged, wrong-looking glyph-thing, for the sake of the review’s readability called “nameless taint” from here on out. For this is about a taint that infects characters if their players are interested, it is a corruption, wherein not even the abstract glyphs remain consistent, set against the backdrop of the occulted kingdom, fallen to the nameless taint; 4 items from this tainted realm are provided, all interfacing with the crisp and concisely-presented rules, and there are three spells that cannel the power of these horrible taints; the article also presents essentially a template that allows you to make husk-monsters consumed by this nameless taint, alongside two notable husks – high-level bosses, if you will. Oh, and the corruption of the characters has 10 long steps – that do provide serious benefits, but also erode your ability to understand names and the like. You lose your identity to it, but you might well learn to conjure the flailing shards of the nameless taint… Not only is the glyph angle cool and unexpected, the article by Luke Gearing also has SERIOUS Dark/Demon Souls-vibes, and is captivating enough to warrant translation into pretty much whichever system you’re actually playing. This one warrants getting the zine on its own, at least in my book.

The shortest of the articles in this installment, Greg Gorgonmilk’s miscellany of 4 different magic items: The dead faerie in a lamp can emit light that not only reveals the invisible, it also renders stone transparent! That’s cool. Even cooler: Knocking on wood snuffs its light – but here, the item is less precise than it should be: Can others knock on wood? Or just the wielder? The item has a second little hiccup: It implies that the wielder must invest hit points in it: “The luminosity will last 1 turn for every (temporary) hit point invested by its bearer.” Okay, does this entail a process? Can the damage be healed? Is the hit point returned if the light goes out or is suppressed by knocking on wood? Not sure. This is an extremely cool item, and easy enough to salvage, but I wished the rules lived up to the cool concept. Tetrograts are miniscule, stationary golems that will decry “It is a lie” when a lie is spoken in their presence. A range for this effect would have been nice to see. The cloak of beards is made of regal…well…beards, and grants you Charisma 18, and those within 30 feet that fail to save against its enchantment are convinced that the wearer is a king of the noblest kind. Serious folklore vibes here – nice! The Quintessential is not an item, but a legend, of a despot who sought to vanquish all differences between people and turn them into a homogeneous neutral state. It’s a solid legend.

The final article herein, penned by Ezra Claverie, depicts the ruins of the elven ship- and submarine yard/officer’s clubs; the tantalizing and strange default setting assumed by the author’s articles makes me once more wish for a fully realized campaign setting, but even without context, this is interesting – for against this backdrop, two creatures are provided – one horrific and subtle, the other weird and grotesquely hilarious, and both are unique and essentially puzzle-monsters – they are complex threats that are not easy to beat, but at least one of these things will need to be bested to enter “The Officer’s Rest”, the ruins of an at-once magical officer’s club, where strange mixology, magical frescoes and more may await. This article was inspiring in the best of ways, and while I wished that the creatures had been presented in a slightly less wall-of-text-y manner to parse more easily, they are unique enough to require preparation anyway. I’d once more like to reiterate: I really hope that we get to see a fully realized campaign setting in this strange post-imperialist world, ravaged by bio-mago-technical warfare.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a formal level, good on a rules-language level. Layout adheres to a 1-column b/w-standard, and we get quite a lot of cool b/w-artworks. The stapled softcover is a neat classic ‘zine.

Whereas #9 was all quantity, this issue focuses more on quality: Sándor Gebei, Luke Gearing, greg Gorgonmilk and Ezra Claverie deliver articles that I absolutely adored; heck, I’ve actually used the majority of the content herein in my games, often with blatant disregard for the intended system and some serious conversion work – because the ‘zine is THAT GOOD! Even when I do have nitpicks and complaints regarding rules-precision, these are few and far between, and the strength of the respective concepts? That’s formidable indeed. Add to that the VERY low price-point, and we have a definite winner here. Usually, I’d probably have settled on 4.5 stars for this one, due to its minor hiccups in the rules. However, I just can’t bring myself to do that. The majority of the articles herein simple deserve being called “excellent” As such, my final verdict will be 5 stars, and this does get my seal of approval; it’s one of my favorite ‘zines in the entire Undercroft.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
The Undercroft #10
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The Undercroft #9
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 09/11/2020 05:18:07

An Endzeitgeist.com review

The ninth installment of „The Undercroft” clocks in at an impressive 64 (6’’ by 9’’/A5) pages of content, already sans cover, editorial, etc. My review is based on the perfect-bound softcover of the ‘zine, which, while meaty enough, unfortunately does not note its name on the spine.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the request for a prioritized review via a direct donation.

This zine’s content is designated as OSR in a general sense – most of the content assumes LotFP (Lamentations of the Flame Princess) as a default system, but the degree to which the material is faithful to the system varies by author. However, the thematic fealty is evident: This is a ‘zine for mature audiences, and this issue in particular tackles sometimes puerile and sometimes horrifying, really dark themes. If you’re sensitive to such themes or easily offended, you might want to skip this issue.

Okay, so first thing you need to know, is that this zine contains a surprising amount of classes, fleshed out until 10th level, with the first being Benjamin Baugh’s “Skinned Moon Daughter” – the skinned moon is a rare phenomenon in the north; daughters born under its auspice are…different. They spook animals, making for poor hunters and fishers, but they do change – born with a wolf’s stomach, they can subsist on carrion, undergoing changes as they indulge; ultimately, when maturing, they learn the song of the Skinned Moon, and can then proceed to coat themselves in blubber and fat, to eb swallowed by creatures, which they then control from inside for a month. The class gets d6 HD, has Wisdom and Charisma as prime requisites, may use one-handed and thrown weapons, and usually are clad in a beast, and thus wear nothing. The class caps at 10th level, and has a minimum Constitution of 9. I love this class for a narrative game, though it does require an experienced referee to pull off, as the beasts can potentially be vastly superior to the other characters. That being said, controlling a beast of more HD than the daughter becomes unreliable, so this needs to be considered carefully. Cool: Twins born under the Skinned moon can combine their powers, and being married to one comes with blessings…but also restrictions, making the class feel like something taken straight out of myth. As you could glean from the note on prime requisites, the class is balanced more for LL (Labyrinth Lord), OSE (B/X), etc. and does require some conversion when used in LotFP – or in Wolf Packs & Winter Snows, which seems like the perfect system for this class.

The second class presented would be the Doctor, penned by Patrick Stuart. The class is essentially an archetype for the fighter class, using the chassis for attacks, HD, saves, etc. – however, the doctor may not cause LETHAL damage and no class features work while encumbered. The doctor can heal damage caused by trauma at the rate of 1d4 per 10 minutes of work. Additionally, in combat, the doctor can prevent death of a target of -4 hit points or lower: On the doctor’s and referee’s turn, you roll off with a d10: The doctor gets their Intelligence bonus to the roll, the referee the number of HP the target is under zero – there are three stages, and a doctor’s success moves up a stage, a referee a stage down. If the doctor triumphs, the target stabilizes at 0 HP; if the referee prevails, the target dies. 1/session, the doctor can identify a process or item – personally, I prefer in-game time to designate mechanics. Doctors also get a control hold that behaves like a garotte and inflicts d6 damage, with damage pausing only at exactly 0 hp. At 2nd level and every even level thereafter, you get to roll a d6 and gain a new ability – these include e.g. getting essentially advantage on all saving throws versus magic, but at the cost of magic never working for you due to your rationalist outlook. You could be an atheist, immune to clerical magic – but also their healing, and incapable of keeping silent in the face of agents of the divine. I generally like these double-edged abilities, but couldn’t help but feel that, when used back to back to other classes in LotFP, this one feels very…special? Not in a necessarily bad way, mind you, but I couldn’t help but feel that it should have been a part of a whole array of such class tweaks. On its own, it feels oddly specific. I also am not the biggest fan of rolling for class features, as that can kinda wreck your planned character story, but that’s easy enough to rectify.

Daniel Sell is up next, with pretty much the antithesis to this approach of the singular – “Everybody is an adventurer” replaces all default classes with a general class, the adventurer. Everyone starts with 16 in all saves, and a fighter’s experience and level progression, and a +1 attack modifier. Each level, you choose fighting, learning, or cunning. Fighting nets you +1 attack modifier d8 HD, -1 on poison and breath saves, and -1 to a save of your choice (can also be poison/breath); learning nets you 2 skill points, d6 HD, and -4 to “saves of your choice” – okay, how many? Two? Three? No clue. This issue also extends to cunning, which nets you d6 HD, “2 points lost from saves of your choice” (how many??), and 3 random spells from any class or level. You cast spells as you wish, with a MP (Mana pool); you calculate this by adding your highest and lowest ability score. Casting a spell costs the spell’s level in mana, and you recover 1 MP per hour of rest; if you usually wouldn’t eb able to cast a spell due to not meeting its level requirements, you pay double MP. Still, this means that you can theoretically cast 9th level spells at 1st level. I really dislike this system. It feels rushed, its eliminating of level caps makes magic-users frickin’ OP, and the ambiguous verbiage regarding save progression isn’t impressive. Odd, usually Daniel Sell’s designs tend to be precise and well-wrought. If you want a modular class engine for LotFP; I’d consider the system presented in Undercroft #4 to be superior to this one.

The final class selection here in would be presented by Evey Lockhart – not one, but 4 new classes are provided, all with starting equipment noted, all with a theme of being broken, ostracized and volatile – if the world of her Stark Naked Neo Savages and Sanguine City States series is ever fully realized, it’ll be these classes I’ll use to play in it. The classes are intended to replace the standard LotFP classes, but imho work well enough if inserted as a single class. The detached are numb and make for excellent tanks – while sedated by alcohol etc., they take less damage, are immune to emotion effects, and always act first when not surprised. Okay…so what if two detached participate in a combat? The fallen was once something more – and still has the Preacher-esque ability to issue command a limited number of times per day…and they can cast a few spells…exactly ONCE each. Not ONCE per day, ONCE…it’s the last dying fire inside, and each new level unlocks an additional exceedingly potent such spell. Pariahs are foreign, ostracized…they are a bit like a cross between specialist and fighter, potentially able to pick up Bushcraft and Languages quickly, and might be familiar with strange weaponry. Perhaps the most interesting of these new classes, though, would be the partners in crime. Yep, you get to play two utterly co-dependent individuals. The class acts as a variant skill specialist, and is pretty powerful, balanced by the fact that you have some serious baggage from the past…and, well, the fact that this co-dependency is really nasty. Playing these should render you really paranoid of AoE damage…that being said, the partners in crime are seriously stronger than the other classes; some minor tweaks and more things to do for the pariah and detached would have been nice.

The supplement has more to offer, though – Barry Blatt, who gets the whole historic angle rather well, presents 101 uses for a hanged man, drawing deeply from medieval and early modern superstition, though the article’s title is somewhat misleading, as it instead can be likened to a brief occult research system, with the moss of dead man’s hair being of particular interest here, and modular steps provided; this may be me being a prick, but I wasn’t a fan of part of the article being outsourced to a blog, but yeah. As a whole, I enjoyed this, and I’d certainly love to see Mr. Blatt tackle an entire book of such step by step procedures for harvesting and applying strange substances.

Luke Gearing provides something rather disturbing (and appropriately-illustrated by Sean Poppe) – The Sickness. It’s essentially a magical STD that transforms you slowly into a grotesque, slimy tumor thing of orifices and secretion – statted as a monster, btw. And yes, this is scary and one of the instances that needs to be handled with care. Speaking of such stuff…

…was LotFP’s “Fuck for Satan” not enough of a screwjob (haha) regarding players? Are you fed up with your party and want to TPK them in arguably the most stupid and dumb way I’ve ever seen in a published offering? Okay. The ‘zine has something for you. Chris Lawson’s Cockdicktastrophe. It’s not a monster in the traditional sense. It’s a penis with penis hands, penis-eyes, etc., and if you are tired of warning players away from a locale, this is essentially a multi-page cut-scene without any player agency or stats. It’s just “everything becomes penis and fucks, you die.” It has an illusion of choice, but that’s it. I never thought ‘d say this…but I liked the penis-monster in FFS more. This is probably the worst article in the entire run of the Undercroft. I don’t see any serious use at a table, and even in gonzo tables, it has no agenda. Wasted page-count, imho. The comic-like artwork is kinda cute, though.

Finally, we have the largest article herein, “Nine Summits and the Matter of Birth”, penned by Ezra Claverie; like the author’s other offerings, this one has a backdrop of a strange blend of the fantastic, horrific and colonial themes, and makes me really crave a fully-realized campaign setting. But before I go further: This is not for the faint of heart – the subject matter deals with anti-natalism, stillbirths, (forced) abortion and nihilism. In case that sort of stuff bothers you, consider this to be your TRIGGER WARNING. Oh, and SPOILER WARNING as well.

… .. .

All right, only referees around? So, we have essentially a micro-setting that is roughly Polynesian as intended backdrop, though changes to other settings are very much possible; this culture has developed a strange and much-ostracized tradition, the “Circle of Unbirth” – think of these individuals as fervent anti-natalists, including their 12 sacraments and ritualistic magic, which includes causing stillbirths, quench any form of sexual appetite, etc. – and in this region, rules by the 12 clans, these beings may actually be helpful. You see, an inscrutable entity with insufficient comprehension of the mortal sphere ( somewhat akin to the one in Rafael Chandler’s “No Salvation for Witches”), the Generative Authority, has tainted the land, and the article presents the tools to make an adventure out of the horrors that happen due to its meddling – births will result in zoa, i.e. from the monstrous births will be birthed more things attached to it – think of Human Centipede, save that the new things sticking to the old ones grow ever more in mass with every birth – a table of zoön mass in kilograms, with comparisons noted, is presented, including the associated HD. There are also subtables that let you determine the type of creature the zoön’s latest part resembles, usually represented by a 12-entry table (mammal table is only 9 entries); weird: table #3 (probably amphibians) is missing from the ‘zine – you roll a d6, and table #3 is just not there.

What do you do with these monstrous births? Singular occurrence? Full-blown local or global apocalypse? All that’s up to you. Same goes for the role of the circle – are they an evil opposed to the cosmic evil? Truly DARK saviors in this time of horrors? The article provides some guidelines, but is, as a whole, about as uplifting as reading Philipp Mainländer. Unlike many comparable modules, I don’t see a way in which you can make this premise funny – it’s GRIMDARK in the most extreme form. It’s not my place as a reviewer to comment on the like, but even as an ardent fan of Ligotti and someone with pretty nihilistic convictions, I don’t see this being fun for my group. YMMV, of course. If you want to really out-edgelord someone, this toolkit will do the trick.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are good on a formal and rules-language level, but not as tight as usual for The Undercroft. Layout adheres to a one-column b/w-standard, and the original artworks by Matthew Adams, Jeremy Duncan, Sean Poppe, Anxious P. and Cedric Plante deserve special mention – I particularly loved Cedric Plante’s stylized renditions of the skinned moon daughters.

Benjamin Baugh, Barry Blatt, Patrick Stuart, Daniel Sell, Luke Gearing, Evey Lockhart, Chris Lawson, and Ezra Claverie really did deliver something here; it feels, in many ways, like a means to edgelord LotFP, and frankly, in many ways, it’s successful. This tackles seriously taboo subjects, with particularly Ezra Claverie’s adventure toolkit/mini-setting being pretty much the bleakest piece of RPG-material I’ve seen in a while. That being said, I think this may be the most uneven Undercroft I’ve read so far – the classes range in precision and power by quite a lot; then again, I’d used the moon daughters and Evey’s wicked classes in a heartbeat. Daniel Sell’s article disappointed me big time with its imprecisions. Patrick Stuart’s fighter archetype is per se cool, but uneven as well, with some abilities significantly better than others, and a sense of a global context missing; it feels like a teaser for a longer book I’d enjoy, but on its own, the doctor feels a bit forlorn. Luke Gearing delivers big time with his monster, and I’ve made clear that I really don’t enjoy the waste of a pages for a prolonged “haha, you die”-troll for players. That may be me.

More so than any Undercroft before, this issue is a matter of taste; personally, I frankly didn’t like a lot of the content, with some aspects feeling rushed, tables cut, material on an external blog, instead of where I need it when I want to use the material at table and have the booklet before me.

That being said, I can see people loving what I didn’t – I certainly know quite a few black metal fans who’d really get into the bleak adventure outline presented by Ezra Claverie; I can see people love Patrick Stuart’s doctor. And I can see an annoyed referee getting a kick out of the prolonged read-aloud “hehe, you die”-troll. I just can say that this issue…wasn’t for me.

As a reviewer, this leaves me with the mechanical glitches here and there, which contribute to the overall notion of a rushed issue in comparison to earlier offerings. Still, it is VERY hard to not get something cool out of this ‘zine. Hence, my final verdict will be 3.5 stars, rounded up due to in dubio pro reo.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
The Undercroft #9
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Troika! Numinous Edition
by Lachlan R. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 08/04/2020 09:39:32

Troika! is a delight.

I initially purchased the PDF copy here at DTRPG but realised almost immediately that I needed to own a physical copy. This book is a work of art all on its own and truly illustrates what this genre is capable of. The writing, art, and layout work to create something wholly unique and alive. The game design is bold, whimsical, and offers a new style of play to anyone looking to stride away from a certain other TTRPG. I find myself returning to Troika! simply to reread the wonderful character backgrounds and monster descriptions. It's a treat. Buy it, read it. Enjoy.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Troika! Numinous Edition
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Something Stinks in Stilton
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 05/11/2020 07:17:28

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This module clocks in at 29 pages (laid out in 6’’ by 9’’/A5), already not accounting for front cover, editorial, etc.

This review was moved up in my reviewing queue at the indirect request of my patreon supporters  - more on that below. My review is based on the softcover version, which is a saddle-stitched softcover with pretty solid and thick paper – particularly the covers are more sturdy than I expected from a ‘zine. Why call this ‘zine? Because it is the unnumbered eighth installment of the Undercroft-‘zine.

This module is intended for level 1 – 3 characters (I’d recommend 4-6 characters and a moderately well-rounded party; particularly a specialist/thief should be included), and is a surprisingly fair offering. PCs reap what they’ve sown, and while death is very much possible, it feels fair. The module has no read-aloud text, and should indeed be carefully prepared by the referee, as it’s a dense module that will most likely happen during a single evening in- and out-game. The module offers only one map, for one of the main adventuring complexes, and no unlabeled player-friendly map is provided for it. The map is b/w and is rather detailed, sports a grid, but no scale noted. If you run this, I’d suggest preparing a map for an Inn, as well as one for a shed. Considering the surprising amount of moving parts and things to interact with, I’d recommend this to the experienced referee.

The module uses bolded red text to allow for the quicker parsing of information (good); magic item formatting is different from the standard, but consistent with how The Undercroft has formatted magic items, and is pretty precise. As is the tradition with magic items in LotFP, magic items are DANGEROUS. The supplement includes a single new nasty save-or-suck spell that I’d generally recommend not fall in the PCs hands, but then again, this module was written for Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP), so very potent low-level magic-user spells are less uncommon. Plus: The referee can relatively easily eliminate this aspect.

This module is almost absurdist in its horror and has a couple of really dark themes, so if horror themes generally offend you, steer clear. This can be heart-rending and pretty brutal; it can also be characterized as absurd and funny in a really dark way, the latter aspects blending with horror into this utterly unique amalgamation.

Okay, and this is as far as I can go without diving into SPOILERS. Potential players should jump ahead to the conclusion.

..

.

Stilton is an utterly unremarkable village thorp that once was famous for its cheese. Now, 1730, it suddenly is rising to prominence once more, with everybody craving that delicious Stilton Blue, courtesy of one Cooper Thornhill. The party is hired by the man’s sister-in-law, who is played for laughs as a contact: She is an unpleasant woman, badgers her husband, and while she doesn’t want Cooper to suffer, she hires the party to find out about the cheese’s secret – after all, it’s making Cooper rich. Clever PCs will realize that they are not the first sent on this errand.

En route to Stilton, the party will be attacked by bandits, including a particularly burly one who seems off – a nice introductory battle, and one that doesn’t necessarily have to result in the party being killed: Handing over money etc. is very much possible. Also a plus: What looks like a random encounter actually has bearing on another NPC, who will arrive later than day.

Now, Stilton per se is pretty unremarkable: There’s not much going on beyond “The Bell Inn” here; a hysterical man in prison (whom the party may actually never meet) claims that his wife’s vanished, but the people at the inn seem to be friendly. Okay, cooper’s wife seems to be mentally handicapped, and so is his ox of a son, but the man behind the cheese? Nice fellow. The local food makes copious use of the blue cheese used in Stilton, and indeed, tastes phenomenally – though it does have some weird side-effects: It can make characters tough, but dumber, enhance their sexual attraction to cows, make them gain weight or the like – the cheese is definitely weird, but not that harmful…right?

Well, things turn slowly more threatening among all those nice people, as the storm rages outside and the local scallywag has words with Cooper outside. If the bandits weren’t taken care of, a robbed lady arrives and is given shelter for free in the cow-shed…Cooper seems like a nice man…but his cowbell-wearing, daft son seems to be drawing strange figures into the condensation.

All of this is very British – an almost League of Gentlemen-esque depiction of rural life, including this sense of threat and danger underlying it.

The module itself? Well, it takes place during the stormy night. The PCs are assumed to investigate, and we get a VERY detailed timetable for what happens when, and from the (possibly robbed) guest to the local guard to other NPCs, there is quite a bit of potential for introducing dynamic factors as complications or reprieves for the party. Ultimately, the party will need to secure an entrance to the cow-shed (with Cooper’s key?) and find a trapdoor here – this trapdoor leads towards the small, mapped dungeon mentioned before, and it is here that the horror underlying the pragmatism comes to the fore.

You see, Cooper had two kids: James (the now incredibly strong, but dull man upstairs), and Heather – and they found this ancient complex. Inside, heather found a stone arch and then proceeded to activate it. In a kind of somewhat halfway competent manner. Emphasis on “halfway.” You see, Heather stumbled through the arch, and turned into a grotesque cow-human hybrid thing (illustrated in a rather graphic and disturbing manner); her changed physiology leaking blue milk. When James tried the milk, her turned into an imbecile, and when Cooper’s wife turned into a problem, she also got a nice glass of milk.

The complex down here hides an impromptu shed for the man-cow things…which also get a sort of slow regeneration. The weird meat served upstairs? Guess where it comes from…And the missing travelers? Many can be found here, grotesquely-mutated and often deprived of their limbs. While Cooper cares about his girl (the only cow-thing kept in a human manner), the others? Well, not so much. This becomes particularly evident in the impromptu slaughterhouse, where a half-alive cow thing (once aforementioned missing lady) may convulse while hanging on the meat-hook, spraying blood everywhere. Worse: She was pregnant. When Cooper realizes this, he’ll have a breakdown that clever PCs can exploit…should the timeline provide the angle.

Oh, and the arch? It’s guarded by what happens when you shove a proper cow through – a ravenous and extremely dangerous cow-thing called Daisy, which is a pretty sad combatant; a frightened animal full of pain. The full horror might well become apparent if the party experiments with James’ magical cowbell (which allows for communication with the mooing cow-things), or if they stumble through the arch, for the latter will make the affected see all others as cow things…

What struck me as most effective here, though, was Cooper and his son: He is no scheming mastermind, just an incredibly pragmatic man – a man whose pragmatism has turned into truly gut-wrenching, sickening villainy…and yet, he’s no (totally) inhumane monster.

There are no easy choices here. There is no clean slate or happily ever after regarding the horrors in Stilton. The module covers some advice for PCs trying to contact authorities or the like, and the module can go in quite an array of different directions. The spell mentioned before is btw. a means to transform targets into cow-things on a failed save – permanently. The effects of the milk and cheese, as hinted before, are clearly depicted…and as a whole, well, as a whole, this situation can have vast repercussions for both the party and the world. But unlike many LotFP-publications, these consequences are always the result of the actions of the party, not of a random roll of the dice.

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are very good, I noticed no issues on a formal or rules-language level. Layout adheres to a 1-column no-frills standard with bold red highlights, and the b/w-artwork provided are effective at conveying the horror at hand. The cartography is b/w, sports a grid, and is detail-wise nice, but a VTT-version sans labels would have been nice. Similarly, getting a map for Inn and cowshed would have been awesome.

Oli Palmer’s (to my knowledge) first module is a resounding success. It is novel, featuring themes I haven’t seen executed this well before; it is very detailed, and contrasts its funny and somewhat ridiculous premise with truly gutwrenching horror. It is extremely effective, and I genuinely love the adventure.

On the downside, the cartography could be more extensive – this isn’t particularly convenient for people like yours truly, who suck at drawing maps.

Now, I mentioned an exchange with a patreon supporter before: I was asked to recommend an introductory module for a LotFP campaign that’s better than Tower of the Stargazer. Emphasis on “campaign” – i.e. on prolonged play that embraces high impact concepts, but isn’t all about randomly ending the world.

This module is just that. It perfectly hits the grotesque horror notes, but also features a humor often absent from comparable modules. I LOVE this adventure as a person.

As a reviewer, the map-situation is pretty much my only true gripe with this, which is why I’d usually round down from my final verdict of 4.5 stars. However, at least to my knowledge, this is the author’s freshman offering, and oh boy is it awesome for that! Traditionally, the freshman offering gets a bit of leeway, which is why my official final verdict will round up from 4.5 stars. This also gets my seal of approval for the execution and audacity of the concept. If you don’t mind the map-situation and like horror, consider this a must-buy recommendation right here!

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Something Stinks in Stilton
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Troika! Numinous Edition
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 02/11/2020 05:08:25

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This rules-lite RPG clocks in at 111 pages if you take away the front cover, TOC, and introduction; a simple character sheet is included in the deal. NOT included in the above page-count would be the inside of front cover and back cover two-page spreads, which contain the most referenced rules – this decision btw. makes running the game much smoother. If you include these in the content count, we’d arrive at 115 pages instead. My review of this RPG system is primarily based on the hardcover print version, which is 15.4 x 1.4 x 21.6 cm in size, but I have also consulted the pdf-version.

Now, at this point, I have to note something important – while this game indeed is an “old school renaissance-”type of game, it is NOT one based on D&D or its iterations, instead using Advanced Fighting Fantasy as its basis, a game I admittedly wasn’t familiar with until I got into Troika. Much like “Into the Odd” and similar games, we do deviate from the classic 6-attribute set-up, though Troika! Deviates imho even further from the classic set-up. While I have thus tagged this as “OSR” due to its aesthetics, it should be considered to be its own beast. If anything, Troika behaves more like a Post-OSR game than any others I’ve covered so far.

Instead of d20-based mechanics, you only use d6s. Regarding dice notation, d666, for example, would mean rolling 3 dice in sequence and then adding the results together, with each denoting e.g. the 10s, 100s, etc.: Rolling a 3 on the first d6, a 2 on the second and a 5 on the last would mean you’d consult entry 325. Most checks will be done using 2d6, which you use to try to roll under or against a target value. The latter is known as “roll vs.” in the system. A double 6 is a failure.

Character generation is a swift process: First, you roll d3 +3 to determine Skill, argueably one of the most important values in the game. Skill behaves as a kind of proficiency bonus – you add it to all skills you have, and these do include spells.

Then, you roll 2d6 +12 – this is your Stamina. Stamina is your hit points. If it’s reduced to 0 and your turn would come up or a turn ends, you die. In non-combat situations, your friends get one chance o prevent your death. Going to negative Stamina kills you instantly. Resting for 8 hours lets you regain 2d6 Stamina, and you can eat provisions to regain d6 Stamina, but only 3/day. I like this – it makes food matter, and means you are less reliant on heal-bot-y classes.

The third important value would be Luck. You roll d6 +6 to determine your Luck. When the GM calls for the “testing of luck”, you attempt to roll under the current luck score. Regardless of whether the test was successful, you reduce the current Luck score by 1. You may always choose to NOT test your luck, which is an interesting angle here. Resting for 8 hours lets you regain 2d6 Luck, to never exceed the starting maximum. Finally, if you have a tie in combat, you can test your Luck – on a success, you break the tie in your favor; you can also test your luck and, on a success, add +2 to the damage value. I strongly suggest playing with the optional rule to test your luck to avoid death – on a success, you instead are wounded, incapacitated, etc.

And that is basically already the core chassis of the engine, though combat does work in a pretty radically different and interesting way: During combat or in situations where determining sequence of action is important, you assemble a bag (the game calls this Stack): You take a container, put an assortment of differently colored dice, chits, coins or similar markers inside; all enemies share one color, and one chit or marker is included per enemy; a player is assigned a color, and there will be a final token of a distinct color that marks the end of the round. The GM will then proceed to blindly draw a chit/die/marker from the container, its color determining who gets to act. It should be noted that players get two such markers each, and that enemies with e.g. abilities like (initiative 2) get 2 markers each. Henchmen contribute 1 marker, and are played by the GM. After acting, the drawn token is removed from the stack. Once the end of the round token is drawn, all tokens are put back in the bag. Magic, poison, and similar ongoing effects are resolved at the end of the round. If enemies grossly outnumber the PCs, or are essentially mooks, you can make use of an enemy initiative limit for them; this is a neat variant rule, for it lets you maintain the danger of facing e.g. a mob, while also keeping sheer enemy numbers from necessarily overpowering the PCs. At the end of the round, once the round-end-token’s been drawn, you shuffle all drawn markers back into the stack.

As you can glean, this makes combat a pretty risky and chaotic endeavor – particularly combat against many enemies; while you only rarely will be doing nothing due to the tendency to roll versus as a response to attacks, combat as such turns out to be fast and lethal. It also manages to feel pretty different from similar rules-lite systems. The unique initiative system of Troika! does an excellent job of portraying the chaos of combat, but it also means that tightly-formulated plans and tactics will only very rarely work as intended. This is obviously a design goal of the game, but it is one to bear in mind and explicitly call out, since some groups enjoy that. The focus of the game, obviously, is more on individual contributions to combat, and improvisation in the chaotic fray, less about party-encompassing tactics and strategies.

There is a card-based initiative alternative available, but I do not own the cards, so I can’t comment on them.

Now, the pdf does codify pretty tightly how combat actions work, what’s possible, etc., and delaying has you put your chit back in the bag, so it’s much less reliable than in comparable systems. Attacking is a roll versus. Ranged attacks are opposed by shield or dodging, melee attacks by other melee attacks; ties mean that neither managed to hit the other in the case of melee attacks. Moving more than 12 feet takes up an action, and shooting into melee has all targets associate random numbers and determine who is hit; casting spells requires Stamina expenditure, and that you roll under your spell, or roll versus a target. Interesting: In order to draw an item in combat, you have to roll equal to or higher than its position in your character sheet, making item retrieval chaotic, but also allowing you to plan your inventory. It’s simple and exceedingly smart. Like it! When you win a Roll Versus an adversary in combat, you inflict damage – you roll a d6, and consult the charts inside the book’s front cover (again, smart placement!) – roll and weapon (or monster size) determine the damage caused, which is deducted from your opponent’s Stamina. If you roll a double 6 while attacking, you strike a Mighty Blow, win the exchange and inflict double damage – and yes, the engine notes what happens if both combatants do so. Double 1s mean that you fumble and lose the exchange, and the opponent increases their damage roll on the chart by 1. If both parties fumble, they deal damage to each other, with both adding 1 to the damage roll referencing the chart.

Now, to give you an idea: A few weapons ignore up to one point of armor (which btw. serves as Damage Redcution), while others require at least two hands to use. As noted, you roll a d6 and reference the damage tables.

A sword hit can deal anything from 4 to 10 damage; 4 of its 7 entries (d6, plus one entry for damage rolls with bonuses, i.e. 7+) dealing 6 damage; an axe only deals 2 damage on a 1 or 2 on the damage roll, but can deal 2 more damage on the highest 3 entries. This is more easily illustrated with hammers, which have a minimum damage value of 1, and a maximum of 12. Two-handed weapons, particularly fusils and greatswords, are obviously king when it comes to maximum damage capabilities, clocking in at mighty 18 and 24 for the 7+ entries. The two spells causing direct damage are also included here, and, for reference, the minimum damage caused by dragon fire is 6, the maximum a whopping 36 (sans bonus still 24)! And yes, all of these values do not include the potential for mighty blows. The maximum starting Stamina you have is 24. Did someone say overkill?

Cover makes it harder to hit, shields impose a penalty on damage rolls. Armor imposes a penalty on the damage incurred, but does take up item slots. Armor comes in three categories, ranging from -1 (lightly armored) to -3 (heavily armored), and armor takes up as many inventory slots as TWICE its protective value, so 6 slots for heavy armor! To give you an idea of how much armor can matter: Let’s say, someone is hit by a greatsword, and the damage roll comes up as a 6 – that’d be 14 damage! If the victim was wearing heavy armor, they only take 8 damage, as though the damage roll came up as a 3.

Now, regarding these inventory slots: You can only carry up to 12 items. Small items (or ones with a low weight) only take up one slot – e.g. arrows. Unless you go overboard – though that is left to the individual group’s discretion. Large items, like pretty much anything unwieldy or two-handed, take up 2 slots, and carrying more than that imposes massive penalties. So, if you want to play a heavily armored guy with a gretsword, you have a grand total of 4 slots left…choose wisely.

As noted, attacks are executed as rolls versus. But how do you roll that? Well, it’s 2d6 + your Skill value, + advanced skills, if any. Advanced skills are the catch-all term for pretty much anything ranging from spells, to skills, to other abilities. Stealth, Acrobatics and the like are handled the same way as e.g. mathmology (esoteric insight into math, pressure, angles, etc.). Thankfully, the game comes with a pretty well-codified list of such skills. Riding, running, making poisons – all handled as advanced skills. (And yes, being a pilot of a golden barge, for example, is very much part of the deal.)

How are advanced skills determined? Well, they are determined by the Background you choose. A d66-array of those is provided, and these basically represent both your race and class. Each background gets their own distinct page, which, while aesthetically-pleasing, also means that there is quite a lot of dead real-estate in this section. On the plus-side, each of the backgrounds comes with a genuinely novel artwork.

You could end up as a member of the society of porters and basin fillers, as a rhino man, a poorly-made dwarf (endlessly mocked by your fellow created dwarfs), a monkey monger, a parchment witch…or something more mundane.

What’s a parchment witch, you ask? Well it’s one of the things that make Troika! stand out. In many ways, this game has two draws – the uncommon engine, and the implied setting.

Littered throughout this gaming supplement, you’ll have tantalizing, deliberately obscure hints at an implicit setting that truly did capture my interest. Why? Because e.g. the world/plane-model employed, as well as the tone, reminded me less of traditional D&D-esque games, or even other science-fantasy settings, but instead made me flash back to a distinctly British artistic movement, namely the metaphysical poets. This sentence can be found in the introduction: “A science-fantasy RPG in which players travel by eldritch portal and non-euclidean labyrinth and golden-sailed barge between uncountable crystal spheres strung delicately across the hump-backed sky.” There is a very British, subtle humor underlying the setting, and indeed, quite a few of the backgrounds feature herein are, in a way, illustrations of poetic conceits. If that sounds too brainy, let me try explaining it in a different way: Know how Tolkien’s fantasy is pretty much the corner-stone of D&D-esque aesthetics? Troika is at once pre- and post-Tolkien; it is aware of the conventions and has room for them, but instead of being defining fundamental features, they are but one tiny aspect of the implied setting, which instead draws upon both ancient/well-established and contemporary aesthetics to create something radically different.

As a less theory-burdened example: Parchment witches, just fyi, would be undead that can’t give up on splendorous living, thus coating themselves in perfect paper skin. Rain and flame and not popular among them…And yes, several of these backgrounds do actually sport additional rules beyond the list of advanced skill values and possessions. The book also provides some guidance to make your own backgrounds. If you do want to play a renegade rhino man golden barge pilot, that ought to be possible, for example. Consequently, the growing 3pp-scene for Troika has a LOT of backgrounds out there.

This focus on the strange and fantastic is a huge strength of Troika – however, if you’re like me and enjoy lavishly-detailed settings, you won’t necessarily find the like here; Troika, by design, implies rather than states. It does not as much introduce a sample setting, as it introduces a sample aesthetic, which you then proceed to apply in variations to your respective spheres.

This notion of permissive creativity does also extend to the sample spells noted: the classic sentry-spell, for example, has the wizard pluck out a piece of his mind and is risky: It distracts the caster and destroying the smidgeon of the caster’s mind can cause a nasty shock. If you cast “Zed”, you disappear, never to be seen again. Magic is just as odd and weird as the plethora of backgrounds; numbers in brackets after spell names denote the Stamina cost, btw. Presence (1), for example, makes you feel as though watched by a patriarchal figure – some might take solace from that, others not so much. In case you were wondering, the book does include a bestiary, and enemy stats are actually simpler than those of the PCs. Each of the monster entries does come with a d6-based generator to determine the target creature’s mien. The sample monsters cover both the new and old, with novel twists: Goblins serve as vanguard of a labyrinth-creation civilization, lizardmen gravitate to being dull and fat. I also loved to learn that manticores are bibliophiles, and a sympathy snake crawling up your leg may make you despair at the awfulness of life. Totally okay to let go, as the predator mourns with you your demise in their jaws.

Advancement is simple, fyi: Upon using a skill successfully for the first time, you add a tick next to it; upon resting, you roll 2d6 and try to beat your current skill-level. On a success, you increase the skill by one, but you may only do so for up to 3 per rest; after a rest, you delete all ticks made. Improving past 12 requires rolling another 12 to improve by one point. This does mean that characters with lower Skill values will probably have a quicker experience of enhancing their advanced skills.

Anyhow, I was talking about aesthetics, and this is probably one of the strongest features of this RPG – beyond the artworks by Jeremy Duncan, Dirk Detweiler Leichty, Sam Mameli and Andrew Walter, the physical book also does something exceedingly smart – the matte paper of the hardcover is tinted in different shades – one shade for each chapter, making the book look a bit like a pastel rainbow on the side. Making characters? Yellow. Basic rules? Green. Advanced skills and items? Blue. You get the idea. This makes using the book easier, and speeds up the instances where you might need to look up something. The book also does a good job cross-referencing materials. I never felt left alone with a question, I always knew where to look. So yeah, the aesthetics of the implied setting and its presentation form a rather tight unity.

This edition of the game also features an introductory adventure of the most uncommon sort in many ways: The “Blancmage & Thistle” takes place in a strange hotel (with mandrill guards!) of chrome and gold, and focuses very much on jumpstarting a new game and teaching the rules. The adventure is about reaching the “Feast of the Chiliarch” on the 6th floor of the hotel, with two per se very railroad avenues available; the PCs can switch between them, if desired – one would be the stairs, and one the elevator. Both are potentially deadly in genuinely novel ways, and I have NEVER seen a module like it. I usually loathe railroads like this, but it seriously worked for me. A minor nitpick: The adventure hooks available at the feast have their cross-referencing off by 2 pages – the table is found on pg. 106, not on page 104. tumble weed rolls by Yeah, I know – I had to find something to complain about, right? The cartography by Dirk Detweiler Leichty is ART, and something I really loved seeing; that being said, I’d have very much appreciated a key-less version of it, and one could state that it is somewhat low on the utility side of things – I can’t picture dimensions of areas or the like from it, so if the like bothers you, that may be one thing to bear in mind. Now, I could comment on the individual challenges of the module, but I don’t want to spoil the details beyond components that are featured in the introductory scene. Let’s just say that the mandrill guards are the least weird thing. No, not kidding.

Conclusion: Editing and formatting are very good on a formal and rules-language level, further improved since the first iteration of the game that I covered. Layout and artwork, as noted, as important to Troika! – they underline the sheer oddity of the setting, and their conscious refusal to employ tropes associated with most fantasy artwork create a unity with the uncommon system – the totality feels different from most RPGs, and this works particularly well because of how the aesthetics underline the system. The hardcover is a beautiful book; I usually am no fan of fancy pastel-colored paper, but Troika makes it work rather well. Paper is matte and thick, and the binding of the book is sturdy. The pdf has bookmarks for the respective chapter headers and tables.

The numinous edition of Daniel Sell’s Troika! game is a very different type of game from the ones I usually enjoy; as you all know by now, I am usually rather concerned about the consistency and balancing of systems and settings, and gravitate towards long-term campaigns. Troika is a lethal system, particularly sans the optional rules that allow you to prevent death. The exceedingly flat power-curve means that the game works best for burst-like games, shorter campaigns, and the like. The PCs will never become truly robust, retaining a high degree of fragility. The advancement does allow you to quickly improve, and in many ways, Troika is perhaps best envisioned as a game that is perfect for groups that quickly are bored with a setting, with a character. The game is lethal, but not in a “screw-you” kind of way; instead, it posits all the possibilities of the crystal spheres under a hump-backed sky and asks you “Okay, what can you envision playing next?” If you’re looking for long campaign play, this is not the best system for that; if you’re looking for a huge accumulation of jamais-vus, however? Then Troika delivers in spades.

Troika is NOT, I repeat, NOT a game competing with D&D, Pathfinder, OSRIC, Labyrinth Lord, etc. – instead, it is a strange and compelling vision of a game that plays differently, that has different aesthetics. For once, I definitely did not feel like an advertisement slogan lied to me – “The other world’s favorite RPG” hits the nail on the head for me. Troika will not replace DCC or an iteration of D&D for me; it doesn’t try to. If you want your vanilla Tolkien, or the oomphteenth rehash of Planescape, Spelljammer, etc., then this is not what you’re looking for. Instead, it shows you how different old-school roleplaying can be in experience, themes, etc. – and what more can you ask for? This is the game you want to check out if you want to see gaming as a cooperative artform.

As an important aside: The Melsonian Arts Council has done several tremendously awesome things: From community copies to different wealth levels that allow poor individuals screwed by capitalism to get the book, Troika is a system that not just preaches an aesthetic of being alternative…it genuinely lives up to that. If I ever get to meet the author, he’ll get a hug, a firm handshake, or a manly nod, and a beverage, if applicable, from yours truly for that.

As a whole, I consider the numinous edition of Troika, with its streamlined and gorgeous presentation, its unconventional aesthetics and its unique system to be a resounding success. If you’re burned out on the big, common systems, give Troika a spin – I am confident that it’s nigh impossible to finish reading this book and playing the game without having at least a few inspiring Eureka effects. 5 stars + seal of approval, highly recommended for pretty much everyone, particularly if you feel that your game has gone stale; even if you’re not interested in the game, the wealth of ideas herein may well jumpstart your imagination once more.

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Troika! Numinous Edition
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