Piercing the Veil of Whimsy, or How Monstrum Prodigium Helped Me Run Troika!

Troika! had been glaring at me from the shelf for a good long while.  I love the system's take on Fighting Fantasy mechanics.  I love the ideas and the art and the community that churns out zines and content with frantic aplomb.  But I get to the end of the book and read the introductory adventure and my enthusiasm comes to a screeching halt.  An adventure... in a hotel? Daniel Sell, Troika!'s author, is showing us that the book's whimsy isn't a joke. This weird is real and you just have to deal with it.  I'm sure some folks can take this adventure and roll with its vibe, but the thing just stopped me cold.  So the book stayed on the shelf.

Naturally, I continued to collect every Troika! zine I could find because the art is exquisite and the ideas are infectious and I am a collector/hoarder.  I even stacked up a pile of adventures I thought I could run.  I imagined I could concoct some kind of Planescape/Spelljammer flavored Troika! adventure I could roll with.  The book still sat on the shelf.  

As I've mentioned before, Troika!'s setting is implied, laid out implicitly through the backgrounds, monsters, and spells it presents.  Each and every zine for the game follows suit, frequently compounding the confounding problem.  These tracts describe "spheres" of every shape and size, with backgrounds that allow players to embody shaved bears, eunuchs, toad scholars, cuddly synthetic metalagomorphs, once-trusted butchers, lizards, apes, cicadas... Maybe I don't understand whimsy?  Maybe I'm too grim for this shit?  But then I found the answer.

I picked up a pair of Philip Reed's Troika! books, printed on demand. The first, Monstrum Prodigium, describes a sphere/city called Parabola, "the city of a thousand-thousand rusted veins."  The requisite implied setting format is followed, naturally, but there's no attempt to detail character backgrounds.  The players aren't from this place.  This place doesn't like the players.  That was a good start.  We get a few paragraphs describing the city, an extensive bestiary, and a giant table of rumours.

What sets Monstrum Prodigium apart? The art for one.  The inhabitants of parabola are horrific, desiccated beings, and the illustrations are astounding (by Skirill aka kirian).  But some of the bestiary entries are NPCs.  They are individuals, outsiders who reside in this terrifying city for reasons only they can explain.  That's not something I'd seen frequently in Troika! zines.  The city's natives are inscrutable and terrifying.  So yes, there's a fucking grim vibe going on here, and that called to my crisped psyche.    

Between the bestiary entries and the rumor table I could envision a thousand stories in Parabola.  I mean, the best setting books are idea machines rather than history tomes.  Philip Reed teed up a tasty feast of story seeds and I couldn't get enough.  My path was set.  I cobbled together some maps (Dyson's map of Nadsokor was a rad stand-in for Parabola) and a pile of scribbled notes.  I convinced enough friends to give Troika! a chance and let them discover their story "in rust-colored waters that flow through the city’s veins".

It was a blast and I broke the ice and I pierced the veil of whimsy with a bleak blade of cosmic scrap.  Since then I've been able to lean into Troika!'s outlandish and fanciful vibes, and have run successful games in other spheres.  But I needed a nudge.  Thanks Philip Reed.  

Oh, and that other book he wrote?  It's called Superfluous Spells.  The art is once again amazing and the ideas are stone cold bizarre.  Give the spells "gerrymander civilization" or "rent is due" a try in a game.  See what happens when the spell "snatches an elderly woman from another sphere of existence and drops here within a few meters of any Enemy chosen by the wizard. The woman is immune to harm and is there for only one reason: she expects the targeted Enemy to pay the rent right now." Party.

You can pick up this fine pair of publications here.