I love Dying Earth-styled science fantasy, but this time I’ll use the Acid Death Fantasy (ADF) sourcebook for Troika! as a starting point. Together with Vaults of Vaarn and Ultraviolet Grasslands (UVG), they form a sort of psychedelic science fantasy trilogy. All of them take inspiration from Gene Wolfe’s New Sun series, Frank Herbert’s Dune series, and the art of Moebius.
Photo by Ganapathy Kumar on Unsplash
These are the resources I brought into play during the course of this game.
A Hyenaman Scavenger named “Snagglebone” and a Life Rider named “Jalist”, bound to a Glass Lizard named “Rilril”. Snagglebone has a Chameleon Cloak that perfectly matches the color of its surroundings. Jalist has Flesh of the Honeyed Lamb, meat imbued with a powerful medicinal psychedelic that was stolen from the Cult of the Honeyed Lamb. (Both of these artifacts come from Vaarn Issue 1.)
The group starts off in the sultanate of the Emir of Supreme Wisdom, where the competitive fad of the moment is who has the hardest drugs. Besides that, the local sultanate is struggling with disturbed ruins causing havoc.
To set the scene, first I reference Lexicon Urthus (LU) p. 159, chosen at random: Gurgustii, “a village located on Fluminis between Vici and Os.” The word is also the plural of “gurgustium”, Latin for hut or hovel. I interpret this as a small village composed of squalid dwellings, perhaps with a kiln in one of them.
The idea that “disturbed ruins” are causing havoc gives me a good hook for a plot: investigate some ruins, possibly those that are sources of “havoc”. I’m going to start from the idea that the group are just exploring an area trying to find something valuable using the OPSE “Hex Crawler” generator. If they find a dungeon, I’ll use the “Dungeon Crawler” generator.
Use this to generate maps of larger areas. Whenever the characters enter a hex, generate the TERRAIN and CONTENTS of all surrounding hexes, then roll an EVENT for the current hex.
I’ll call this region the “Western Sultanates”, just on the edge of Shurupak.
The starting hex will be grassland and the location of our initial settlement (Gurgustii). Then I populate the hexes around it and get a collection of desert and grassland hexes. The only features are a Notable Structure to the northwest and a new region to the southeast. The expedition is not headed southeast just yet, however.
The current hex does in fact get a Random Event:
The Emir has commanded his subjects to deal with the havoc-causing ruins; there’s a mystical component to this, so perhaps the ruins are somehow connected to the local cult of the Honeyed Lamb.
So the two explorers will head to some notable structure to the northwest and investigate if it’s a ruin or at least a place where Snagglebone can scavenge and find treasure.
Jastil and Snagglebone rise early, preparing for their little expedition to the northwest. It’s early in the year, and as such the weather is typically a bit cooler. Today, however, it’s extra crisp, which hopefully bodes well for later.
Scene Complication: Wouldn’t it suck if… asking myself “what now?”, I roll a Pacing Move: Foreshadow Trouble. What’s this about? “A Faction / Mystical”. So far, I’ve only identified two local factions: the Emir and the Cult of the Honeyed Lamb. Since the oracle indicated a mystical component, I’m going to say that the Cult of the Honeyed Lamb is the problem. What are they doing? Command / Technical (mental, operation).
Map prepared with Hex Kit using tiles from Highland Paranormal Society
But I’m only foreshadowing the trouble. So when the pair start leaving the village, they can see some sort of activity in the distance. The cult is setting something up around the structure, but it’s too far out to see what it is. Time to head out.
First I generate the surrounding hexes. There’s a Dangerous Hazard, again to the northwest. No event occurs in this hex, so the focus turns to the Notable Structure and whatever the Cult is doing.
The oracle says the following about the structure:
It’s a temple or shrine of some sort and not particularly large. How many of the Cult are here? About average. I don’t take “cultist” to mean “humans we can murder without thought”, but rather believers in a small religious sect of some sort. In this case, they like to eat meat laced with psychedelics. Are these effectively goblins (likely)? No, but… they’re gremlins instead!
Per Troika!, “no proven link between the gremlins’ habit of appearing seemingly everywhere and the goblins’ interdimensional labyrinth have been made but fingers are firmly pointed.” Their current mien is “fearful”.
As Rilril approaches with a Life Rider and Hyenaman on its back, the gremlins cower in fear. These much larger creatures, do they mean harm? (Not really, no.) But then they sniff something: one of them is carrying their sacred meat! Jalist looks unconcerned. If they think they can get it from him, they’re welcome to try. They seem too afraid to do so.
The structure is not large despite being notable. Is it a ruin from an earlier age (likely)? No, and… it has been recently constructed. Are there others here (even)? No, but… I decide to roll a Pacing Move again, “Reveal a New Detail”. The detail is Unique / Social. There’s some important NPC here: the cult leader.
With that in mind, the Scene Complication is “An obstacle blocks your way”. But it’s also an Altered Scene: the environment is different. Since the group is still in the desert, perhaps there’s an anomaly (likely)? Yes. From Vaarn Issue 3, p. 41, the anomaly is a Nauseating Pyramid that Inverts Local Gravity and also Rusts All Metal. (Spoiler: I forget about the “nauseating” and “rusts metal” parts.)
That seems intensely useful. Snagglebone tries to push past the gremlins to enter the pyramid; in order to do so, he’ll see if he has Just The Right Item (a special ability from his background as a Hyenaman Scavenger). If he fails, perhaps they’ll accost him in some way, but he succeeds and pulls out a Unique / Mystical item, a small magnetic pyramid that they immediately associate with this shrine.
The pyramid is not very large, and as he enters, he finds himself in a utility area. Is this some kind of control for the inverted gravity (likely)? Yes. But he doesn’t necessarily know how to control it, and he looks “down” to the apex of the pyramid. Space is altered here somewhat, but no one else is inside. There’s a “rare or special item”, so I’ll roll on an Exotica table from Vaarn Issue 1, p. 28: a Philosopher’s Dirk. This is a dagger that “damages enemy INT rather than HP; at 0 INT they adopt your point of view” (mechanical references are to Knave). I’ll treat INT as Skill for this purpose, making it quite powerful. I think I’ll scale down the damage to d3, however, since INT in Knave is generally on a scale of 11-16.
He’ll continue into a new area further down/up, some sort of meeting place (likely used for worship). This time he encounters hostile enemies! Are these more of the Cult (likely)? Yes. I decide there are d3 = 2 of them. They’re hostile, so I will try out combat in this system.
Skill 3 / Stamina 4 / Initiative 3 / Armor 0 / Damage as Small Beast. So I’ll throw 6 Enemy tokens into the Turn Tracker and get started.
An enemy goes first, and they’ll try to scratch him, rolling +3 versus his +5: a success for the defender, and he kills one of them with his spear. The other gremlin claws past Snagglebone’s shield for 4 damage, reducing his Stamina to 18.
The combat enters a new round, and they both look at each other uncertainly a few times. Finally, the gremlin launches itself at Snagglebone, but his counterattack lands and does 2 damage to the gremlin. This second gremlin will test its skill to see if it’s smart enough to run away: it is not, so it continues to scratch and claw at the hyenaman. However, Snagglebone strikes a Mighty Blow and fully impales the little creature, killing it instantly.
There’s another rare or special item in this room, so I’ll roll on the Exotica table again: a Craven Mycomorph. “Tiny dried fungus man. Coward. Rehydrate him and he will always be able to plan a quick escape.” That could turn into a henchman later, but for now Snagglebone will back out of the dead end and head back to the entrance.
This is a “typical area”, and although I don’t quite know what “typical” is when you’re inside a pyramidal shrine to psychedelic meat with inverted gravity, I can imagine it as having softly glowing metallic walls with shifting patterns on them. There’s no encounter here, nor any other objects, but there is an exit.
Another working or utility area with no one in it. It has “something valuable” and another exit. Is the valuable item money (likely)? Yes. How much is it? Troika! isn’t really about getting stacks of coin, but they need some amount to continue their adventures.
So I’ll reference the treasure table in WWN p. 256 and go with “Successful bandit chief’s loot”, yielding 2d6 = 7 x 20 = 140 silver pieces. For somebody who entered the pyramid with 10 silver pieces, that feels about right.
I’ll turn my attention back to Jalist for a moment, who is standing watch for Snagglebone. He’ll try to make nice with them and perhaps try to share in a communing ritual with them. I have him Test Luck first just to see if they’re amenable to this: yes, they are. So he sits with his stolen meat laced with a powerful psychedelic and they all trip out for a while. Crazy, man.
Another utility area with hostile enemies. What does this area do? Communicate / Physical, a meeting room of some sort. How many enemies are here? More than expected. Earlier he fought two of them and won handily, but he’s here to scavenge, not fight. I’ll have him Roll Versus the gremlins using his Run skill (+8) to see if he can flee before they mob him: he does, and he escapes back to the entrance.
Snagglebone comes running out with a bag of silver and a couple of new items in his pack. Do the gremlins chase him out here (unlikely)? No. In any case, he’s ready to get out of here in case they change their mind. Unfortunately, Jalist is extremely high and he’s the one with the life bond to the mount, so Snagglebone will need to Test Luck to determine whether he still has a problem with these gremlins here: his Luck holds for now. Instead, he’ll eat a Provision to regain 1d6 = 2 Stamina.
Eventually, Jalist comes back to reality and they can head back northwest.
(This is exactly when I realized I didn’t deal with the Nauseating or Rusts All Metal features, but I can only keep so much in my head at once, and I’m still learning this system.)
From this new hex, the expedition can see desert filled with stone and boulders to the west, but to the northwest and northeast there are some Strange Natural Features.
Random Event: Create / Physical involving Recent Events / Physical: another gravity anomaly, which explains the dangerous hazard. What kind of thing is at the center of this anomaly? An Unexpected / Social: the cult carried out a ritual here.
To avoid the hazard, Jalist will test his Riding skill: he succeeds handily. They’ll skirt around it and go northeast to one of the Strange Natural Features. (I could have spent more time on this, but decided not to give it too much narrative focus.)
It’s getting late in the day when they arrive in this hex. I’ll just generate the contents and see if there’s an event before they have to rest.
Nothing exceptional in the surrounding hexes they can see, except a new region to the east. That’s not an area of interest right now, so they’ll rest for the night and explore this hex’s feature tomorrow. As they rest, they regain their Luck and Stamina.
There’s an event during the night, though: Command / Physical involving The PCs / Mystical. They have a dream in which the gremlin leader of the Cult of the Honeyed Lamb appears to them, telling them to join the cult.
To get some more details on the Cult of the Honeyed Lamb, I’ll refer to the D30 Sandbox Companion p. 21, “Cult Generator”. I don’t need the name of it, but I’ll roll on the other tables:
Connecting this to what I’ve already established about them, I’ll say that the Cult of the Honeyed Lamb worships some great undead wizard they call “The Honeyed Lamb”. The existence of said lich is not certain, as they tend to hallucinate from eating meat laced with medicinal psychedelics in their rituals. They isolate themselves from the outside world, and they keep the corpses (possibly preserved in some way) of their dead members in their temple. They also have some amount of control over gravity, potentially granted to them by their patron.
Jalist blames the dream on the drugs he consumed the day before, at least until Snagglebone tells him that he had the same dream. Snagglebone is not interested in joining them, and in fact he’d like to avoid them completely. But Jalist is intrigued. Since he left his Life Rider caravan, he’s been looking for a new “tribe” of sorts.
The two agree to finish this expedition first, however, before he carries through on that.
What’s this feature? I’ll roll on the Landmark table in VoV Issue 3, p. 28: “plain of uncountable bleached skeletons”. That seems like something they should have noticed the night before, so perhaps the skeletons sometimes blend in with the sand and dirt.
No other event occurs here in the morning. Snagglebone will test his Scavenge skill to see if he can find anything: he does, but only mundane objects. Jalist is about to console him when he realizes that’s precisely what the Hyenaman Scavenger wants for his collection. One Life Rider’s trash is a Hyenaman’s treasure.
Just for fun, I roll a Pacing Move here: An NPC Takes Action. What NPCs have we identified up to now?
Is this a new NPC (likely)? Yes. Is this an enemy (likely)? Yes, and…
I’ll hold onto the “and” for a moment, rolling in ADF for the enemy: Burrowing Tomb Spiders!
Hives of burrowing spiders lurk beneath the rare patches of solid ground in the Wastes, digging hollow spaces supported by a few key pillars. When they sense prey above they collapse the structure, opening a yawning pit. The flood then spills in from the side tunnels, tearing them apart.
I decide that the “and” means that they have sensed the PCs and are collapsing the structure.A huge pit opens up beneath them, skeletons falling into the abyss below. Both must Test Luck: Snagglebone succeeds, but Jalist is falling. The hyenaman checks his gear to see if he has Just the Right Item: he does not, which is a bad sign.
But Rilril might be able to scramble them up before they fall! The glass lizard succeeds on its skill roll, and it is able to find some kind of traction to keep them from falling in.
They flee quickly back to the west, where they have another feature to investigate.
They can see another strange natural feature to their west, even from here. No event happens in the hex, so I’ll just roll again on that Landmark table: “Huge Empty Snail Shell”. They know that Faa Nomads sometimes ride giant snails or use them as livestock, so this indicates that one of their caravans must have come through here.
I’m curious whether the nomads passed through recently so I’ll ask the oracle: about average, so it’s been a while and they’re not around at the moment. The group keeps pushing on west.
As they move into this hex, an event happens: Reveal / Mystical involving A Plot Arc / Social. We have one major plot arc (the Cult), plus a background arc regarding havoc from the ruins. Is this about the Cult (likely)? Yes, which explains the Social bit. I’m going to check the Landmark to see if that helps: “Looming Extinct Volcano”.
I don’t think that explains the event, so I decide that the cult leader reaches out to Jalist again through their connection, established while tripping together the day before. But all is not as it seems! In fact, the patron is reaching out directly using the channel from the leader of her cult.
Jalist promises to come join; does that satisfy her? He Tests Luck: yes, although perhaps her patience may wane if he dallies too much longer.
Snagglebone agrees to head back to the pyramid, although they’ll take a slight detour just to see if they can find anything else interesting.
They move into stony badlands to the southeast of the volcano. While they don’t see any interesting features from here, they do run into some event: Deceive / Mystical involving Future Plans / Physical. They find some phantom terrain, though they don’t realize it at first, from an enemy of the Honeyed Lamb. And wouldn’t it suck if some other threat advanced?
This must relate to the havoc from the ruins in the area. While they haven’t found any ruins, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist! This time, their enemy is the Nanite-Sands: “immense pools of failing nanites, unable to form more of themselves” who “pounce on the unsuspecting, transforming them into Nanite-Sand agents, replacing their will with their own”. At the moment, this one is “shifting on the wind” rather than attacking.
The swarm looks like a swirling mass approaching the group, and Jalist tries to turn Rilril away. Testing his Riding skill is a success, but they’re approaching a chasm that has been mystically hidden with some sort of holographic effect. He’ll need to Test Luck to see if he realizes it: he doesn’t. Can Rilril pull back before they fall? No, and they fall into the chasm, denying the Honeyed Lamb her new recruit.
I’m happy to end this experiment here. The Troika! ruleset lends itself to lots of shenanigans because it’s easy to try most anything. Had they succeeded in making it back, Jalist would have left the expedition and Snagglebone would have had a chance to advance (Get Better), then perhaps hire some henchmen to help him on his next adventure.
For me, this would have worked better with a tiny bit more world-building in advance: maybe building up a regional map (likely a point-crawl instead of hexes) and preparing some encounter tables.
Vaults of Vaarn and Acid Death Fantasy go together like peanut butter and jelly, I’d say. UVG and Trilemma could also flesh things out in terms of locations and creatures. In fact, depending on location, you could use the misfortunes and discoveries from UVG as Dangers and Discoveries for Perilous Wilds-style travel and exploration.
That would also work well for a group game, where you design a point-crawl map using ADF, VoV, UVG, and Trilemma, then seed a starting base with rumors and let the group loose.