This past weekend, I found myself acquiring the core rulebooks for not one but two new-to-me fantasy roleplaying games.
One was Zweihänder, a game of “grim and perilous adventure” from, well, Grim & Perilous Studios. If that phrase sounds a bit familiar, it’s because the game only nominally qualifies for the “new-to-me” tag. Though the text and hype take pains to specifically state as much, Zweihänder attempts to be — in spirit and mechanics and typography — the true successor to the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay throne. So much so, in fact, that I’m a little surprised they weren’t hit with a C&D from Games Workshop over the cursory job its designers did in filing off the serial numbers.
The massive 600-page-plus tome leaves out matters of setting and canon, but both are easily discernible through all the rules and fluff talk about “the colors of magic” and “corruption” and “slayers” and “war dervishes” and the domains of unnamed yet very familiar gods. Mechanics-wise, Zweihänder attempts to split the difference between (and build upon) the first and second editions of WFRP. It mostly succeeds, and feels truer to the source material than the current official WFRP ruleset (which isn’t a bad game, but suffers from the oversimplifcation and overcomplication of mechanics which were fine as is.)
The Warhammer Fantasy license was my least favorite part of WFRP. The game’s grubby and lethal approach to heroic fantasy was the real draw, along with its flexible approach to character development. The campaign stuff was interesting fluff to be read on the shitter or mined for adventure ideas. As GW shifted its focus from selling games to selling canon, the fluff moved to the foreground and insinuated itself into the system’s mechanics. It wasn’t impossible to untangle these into something a little more ecumenical, but it did take a fair bit of work brainstorming canon-neutral replacements for the excised bits.
Zweihänder has that taken care of right out of the gate, which is something I’d been wanting since the first edition of WFRP dropped. If only it had been released back when I still had the time and players to run the damn thing. And while I appreciate the value for money the massive core rulebook presents, I’m too scared to read it while lazing on the sofa because I might collapse my ribcage.
Where Zweihänder is massive, grimdark, and detail-oriented, the Melsonian Arts Council’s Troika! is a compact, breezy, and flexible slice of RPG goodness. Its campaign setting is also implied rather than codified — but what it’s attempting to imply is left almost entirely to the reader. There are plenty of breadcrumbs in the text to extrapolate from, however — an arbitrarily consistent science-fantasy universe populated by pissed-off owls, golem-like dwarfs, and muck-encrusted clergy whose parishes are stagnant ponds.
It’s heroic fantasy in the “dreamworlds” style, the type of phantasmagorical weirdness which dominated the scene before Tolkien’s long shadow codified the genre’s conventions (by both slavish adherence or surly rejection). Everything is mythic and and odd and — because we live in a post-Pratchett, post-Adams world — dripping with a wry sense of whimsy.
Honestly, I tend to find that style to be more than a little cloying, which is why my grand plan to read through the crate of Ballantine Adult Fantasy paperbacks my grandpa left me came to naught. Too much of it reads like prose Coleridge fanfic crapped out by dilettante antiquarians with too high an opinion of their literati cred. I don’t need “Jabberwocky” extruded into a full-length novel, either with or without white-boy forays into cringe-worthy “Orientalism.”
Troika is fine, though, mainly because it knows when to ease off the throttle. The silly bits don’t overshadow the tantalizing sense of wonder the game seeks to cultivate, and nothing in the core rulebook goes on long enough to overstay its welcome. Troika takes pride in its very simple, d6-based mechanics and expresses confidence that any rule-or-lore gaps can be handled by the players.
If ever a game could be described as “adorable” or “darling” or other terms employed by great aunts, it would be Troika. I’m not sure if it’s a game I’d ever run, yet…
With Zweihander filling my head with thoughts of WFRP again, I got to thinking about that game’s apocalypticism. The end times are upon the Old World, which is being devoured from within and without by the gods of primordial chaos. Their victory is inevitable, at which point the universe will collapse into roiling formlessness.
Which is pretty boring, if you think about it. Not just for the players, but for the chaos gods themselves. Where’s the fun in manipulating a soup of etheroplasmic goo? What if, after a few millennia of being bored shitless, they decide to reform the cosmos — not in an entirely orderly fashion, but with enough structure to provide something to kick back against and keep things interesting?
In my estimation, that fractured multiverse would be the one in which Troika is set. As adolescent edgelord nihilism (hopefully) gives way to a reconciliation with a fairly absurd world, so, too, does “grim and perilous adventure” give way to “not sure I completely understand it but it seems like a hoot.”
Why else would one of Troika’s character careers be a cashieried chaos warrior given leave by their gods to try something other than global annihilation for a change?