Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Down the Rabbit Hole - Troika!

My immersion into Dungeon Crawl Classics has served as a sort of gateway to other, stranger RPGs. DCC has some weirdness, sure (and books like Black Sun Deathcrawl dive off the deep end), but there is more and stranger, stuff which feels as much like art as game. One of the first I stumbled across was Mork Borg (sorry, umlauts missing), a sort of art piece made of death metal covers and the back wall of old LP shops disguised as a sort of RPG system. I can probably play it, but I've been perusing it for weeks now and I have no idea precisely how it is all supposed to come together. 

Less confusing but much weirder is Troika! from Melsonian Arts Council (though hard to find in print in the US anywhere other than Exalted Funeral right now. I have seen Troika! mentioned as the source system for some odd sourcebooks on Drivethrurpg on occasion, which left me wondering why some publishers were providing system content for DCC as well as Troika! RPG. Book/zines like Terrors of the Stratosfiend left me wondering: is the DCC game the better system for their vision, or is Troika? After digging around and finding a copy of Troika! I found that the reality was a stranger tunnel than I had imagined.

If Mork Borg is what happens when someone channels a coke-filled death metal concert into a chapbook, then Troika! is what happens when someone Reads Lewis Carroll, watches David Lynch, and then takes too many funny mushrooms at the same time. Not to suggest that what is happening in Troika! is exclusively a weird, hallucinogenic bender-based excursion into nonsense, but rather that the game seems to exclusively revel in concepts and grounds which not only defy genre expectations (the game seems deliverately determined to avoid the tropes of the RPG and fiction genres it borrows from) but it ends up feeling like a game designed to emulate a weird dream state. It's not billed as an RPG of "weird fever dreams" but it sure feels like that's what it is.

Unlike some other fringe indies out there, Troika! doesn't even feel especially gritty or "adult" and  in fact even feels like a game you could invoke in the presence of kids. This is a welcome change from the traditional focus of a lot of the alt-OSR crowd, which seems overtly focused on recovering the narrow slice of a late teens/early twenties mindset from the 70's with all the accompanying sex, gore and debauchery they can throw in to a product. Troika! invokes the weird, but in an accessible way that is designed to spark creative expression.

Troika! also spawns from the UK OSR crowd, which is heavily influenced to lesser and greater degrees by the old solo gamebooks comprising Fighting Fantasy, which is a rough foundation for the slim mechanical rules of the system. The only part I have found suspect so far is the way initiative is handled, which is essentially what sounds to me like "take a bucket of colorful stones and pull them out one at a time until there are no more colorful stones." 

I'm intrigued enough with what Troika! is trying to do that I've picked up a couple more supplements, and will scrutinize them when they arrive. If your goal is "simple mechanics plus a setting/approach designed to maximize creative input in an environment entirely unfamiliar to the norms of the RPG landscape," it seems that Troika! does this exceedingly well. 

Thursday, March 18, 2021

The Growing Obsession with all Things DCC

 While I've been running some odd menagerie of Pathfinder 2E, an occasional Starfinder game, lots of Cypher System, and recently 3.5 D&D back in the mix....on my own time I've really, really really gotten in to collecting and reading up on Dungeon Crawl Classics and its spin-offs. Like, more than normal, or is even healthy. I've been ordering most of the stuff from Goodman Games, chiefly because they are awfully inexpensive, have free shipping after $100 and include PDFs with almost everything.

Although there is much adieu about the whole Appendix N phenomenon and how it may contribute to the focus and feel of DCC and its brethren, the truth is I'd label it something more like, a "pre mid-eighties fantasy/sci-fi/horror" vibe. I say pre-mid-eighties because I dived in to the genres wholeheartedly around 1980 and never looked back, and by 1986 or so in high school had read so much vintage and (for the time) contemporary fantastic fiction that I was noticing lots of trends, from the "every fantasy epic must be Tolkien" trend on down to the rather prodigious level of insanity that was billed as horror for the time, and somehow marketed on the shelves at grocery stores (to be read by little old ladies who thought my fantasy novels were inducing Satanism, of course, even as they read stuff that made Rosemary's Baby look fairly tame).

The point of this though is that DCC really does evoke the wild west feel of fantasy and scifi (and horror) for that period in time. The seventies in particular brought with it an explosion of new authors who had grown up on classic content and pulps as a natural course, and it was entirely possible in that era to write interesting fiction that was nonconformist yet readily picked up and marketed by major publishers. Today, you have to wade through endless self-published novels on Amazon's createspace to try and discern what is a self-absorbed vanity project and what might constitute good fiction. But back then? It was all potentially unique and fun, even when it was garbage (sometimes especially if it was garbage!) 

So Dungeon Crawl Classics really does capture this vibe, and I love it. So does Mutant Crawl Classics, and other spin offs like Star Crawl as well. Under a Broken Moon (the Umerica post-apoc DCC books) are sort of amazing, like weird works of art, managing to evoke the sort of post-apocalyptic adventure we all actually thought we were having in Gamma World back in the day, even as Mutant Crawl Classics portrays the more super-science elements of GW that the game actually formulated around.

All of this, of course, is in addition to the excellent reprint and expansion of Metamorphosis Alpha, which while retaining its original game mechanics from the first edition is still utterly playable and also a great resource for MCC if you are so inclined to use it as such. 

My obsession with this has me thinking hard about how to wrap at least one current campaign up so I can move forward....but it's a tough call. My weekly Cypher System game is suitably weird and interesting with lots of interesting plot and depth so it may wrap sooner than later if only because its so enmeshed in moving the story forward. I just migrated my Pathfinder 2E game to an adapted D&D 1st edition module which I converted over (more on that soon), and the old school retro vibe is working quite well for what I need that game to do right now. The 3.5 D&D game is proving that nostalgia only requires about 15-20 years for it to kick in, and is also scratching an particular itch. So I don't know when the DCC/MCC/CuaBM/MA itch will get scratched, but hopefully soon!

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Cypher System Influence - Cypher Logic vs. D&D Logic

 I plan to jot more down on this, but recently I've been running a Cypher System campaign using one of my "D&D" settings....specifically Realms of Chirak, but powered by Cypher (with Godforsaken as a primary resource). It has proven to be interesting.

Early on, for the first couple sessions in fact, there was a heavier than usual focus on D&Dish things with lots of combat and map exploration. This was useful in that it helped the group get acquainted (or reacquainted) with the Cypher System mechanics. However it was clear to me by session 3 that Cypher is better when you use it exactly as it is intended, and not as a substitute for straight D&D. 

For those of you unfamiliar with Cypher System, the simplest way to put it is this: combat in Cypher is not really any different, ultimately, than any other objective or goal within the game. Because Cypher operates as a system designed around a risk pool mechanic, pretty much every action a player takes will be centered around deciding whether or not the consequences of an action are worth an extra cost to reduce the chance of failure on an action. Part of Cypher's advancement includes finding ways to actually negate the cost/risk to the point where lower difficulty actions become automatic successes, for example. Meanwhile, the GM can throw any level of threat at the players, so long as it is understood that the high level threats will sometimes require resource expenditures just to survive, and low theats could be trivial or ultimately time wasters. 

The way you make threats more interesting is to treat them as encounters that are not merely fights. You need to insure that any given conflict has something more interesting going on than just "beat up the bad guy" because in Cypher beating up the bad guy can start to feel a little repetitive; the system gives you enough mechanical oomph to make fights interesting on occasion, but the game system is really not built to make fights a primary focus. As the game itself says in it's GM advice, the focus of the game is exploration, interaction and discovery; fights should be useful components of interesting obstacles or conflicts, but not a goal in themselves.

So, to put it another way: when I decided to adopt my long-running campaign (which has appeared as a setting in D&D since 2nd edition, Runequest since the Avalon Hill edition and GURPS (both 3E and 4E) I needed to shift gears on how to plot the conflicts and focus of the game. The last couple sessions have resulted in most combat-free political and social interactions, emphasis on the character arcs chosen by the players, and a metric ton of intrigue and clue finding. An occasional fight happens, but the goal of any such fight needs to be more than "this monster is in your way." So the last fight of the most recent session involved protecting a woman from the vengeful ghost of her dead sister, and establishing some mechanism by which the ghost could be persuaded to not want her death. The results were entertaining and far more significant than just re-murdering the ghost. 

I hear criticism about the risk pool mechanic and combat of Cypher System at times, and realized that with my adoption of a D&D setting (in which I initially started plotting and thinking about it as if it were going to run in D&D) was actually tripping me up, in so far as that the game itself just does not really want to be played that way. When it came to players, realizing their focus was on playing with a risk pool that they needed to evaluate and as GM realizing that combat should rarely be the point of any fight helped a great deal toward restructuring my thoughts on this. 

Ironically, this chain of thought never cropped up when I was running the original settings I devised for Cypher, so the organic process of how things worked was never an issue. It was only once I tried moving a campaign world over to Cypher which had previously operated on "D&D logic" that I noticed the contrast. 

I am now thinking of some new adventure and campaign ideas to explore in Cypher System, particularly using the Stars are Fire resource, as I think a far future high-concept exploration and discovery campaign in space might be more interesting to me than a more conventional Traveller type campaign. Armed with that thought in mind, the idea is: what can Cypher System do, if untethered from any more conventional (e.g. Traveller proceduralism) approaches to SF? I'll post more as I explore this angle.