A Tale Of Two (and a half) Trophies

When is a game “published” anyway? Is that even the right word these days? “Released?”

I’m old-fashioned. In my dumb head, a game isn’t really out in the world until there’s a dead-tree book available for purchase. Even if 80% of my new game purchases are PDF. Like I said: dumb head.

There are two fantasy RPGs called “Trophy” by designer Jesse Ross (Girl, Underground) that have been available as PDF from The Gauntlet Gaming Community for a couple years at this point, and a beautiful slipcase of the books is allegedly en route to me in about 3 days. I had a couple Gauntlet folks get condescending about me calling the game “new” on Twitter a couple months back, when I was raving about how much fun Trophy Dark had been to run at a local convention. Guest writer Thomas Manuel followed up with his own take on Trophy Gold here in September as well. Well, whatever, it was fun and I did continue exploring it and its long-form companion, Trophy Gold. I’ve now run several sessions of both (even if I didn’t have the dead tree version in my hand at the time).

All available as PDFs from DrivethruRPG:

Additional resources via Gauntlet Publishing are available: https://www.gauntlet-rpg.com/trophy-rpg.html

The First Trophy

I only half-followed the Kickstarter campaign that I signed up for only after a number of the IGRC community members brought it to my attention. The pitch, roughly, was that Trophy was adapted from Cthulhu Dark, a minimalist design by Graham Walmsley for Lovecraftian horror play that strips out everything but the genre’s “descent into madness” bit. Cthulhu Dark‘s killer app is that it asks one thing: how much would you push your luck if, each time you lost, you slipped closer to losing your mind? That’s it. That’s the whole game.

The original Cthulhu Dark system can be described in about three sentences. The actual book is a couple hundred pages long, and it’s some of the most compelling essays about how to capture the themes and mood of Lovecraft’s best work. It’s good and you should absolutely read the game if depressing cosmic horror – not the monster-hunting romp that Call of Cthulhu frequently devolves into – is up your alley.

Since it came out, Cthulhu Dark has been hacked and reskinned several times. The first one I played was Echoes of Chaos, a lovely little time travel game (which lists itself as “Rooted in Trophy,” not Cthulhu Dark, couldn’t speculate why) where, instead of measuring a character’s personal descent into madness/death/unplayability, you risk the timeline itself: little funky ripples at first, massive timeline changes at the end. Like Cthulhu Dark, Echoes was built to be a one-shot game. The radical new future was the punchline. I ran it once, got the punchline, it was fun! But I’m not sure how many more times I might actually want to play it.

Trophy Dark, as I understand it, came first in the Trophy series. Dark features a few dead-ender fantasy adventurers way in over their heads as they head into a haunted forest (or whatever, doesn’t even need to be fantasy) that does not want them there. The game is mechanically near-identical to straight Cthulhu Dark: one light d6 if you’ve got some skill, background or equipment that makes attempting “something risky” possible, another if you accept a Devil’s Bargain (a cost or complication that will happen whether you succeed or not, straight out of Blades in the Dark), and then a dark d6 if you’re doing something physically or psychically risky…or if you’re using magic. And everyone can start with magic. The more magic you start with, the more “Ruin” you start the game with. High die says what happens: 1-3 is a miss, 4-5 is a hit with a complication, and a 6 is a straight success. If you don’t like your roll and the dark die wasn’t highest, you can add another dark die and roll again. If the dark die is highest and is higher than your current Ruin, you tick one Ruin and take an ongoing condition. In Trophy Dark, conditions are pure fictional positioning and usually pretty gross: moss starts growing in your various orifices, or blood starts oozing out from under your fingernails, whatever. It’s on the GM to take those into account going forward.

Ross added a couple other mechanical ideas to Trophy Dark around helping and PvP conflict. But the real innovation was in creating a marvelous little hate engine: Trophy Dark is designed to pit the characters against one another. They will fight, eventually, and some of them will most likely be claimed by the evil forest as their Ruin hits 6. Or just die! In the three runs through Trophy Dark I’ve facilitated, almost everyone chooses death over serving the forest.

Trophy Dark is meant to be a one-shot fantasy downer. Nobody ever wins, not really. It’s desperate and awful. But I do love a sad story! Each time we’ve played, it’s ended either violently, or creepily, or awash in melancholy. Dark delivers the dark goods. That said, nobody who’s ever played the game with me has said they would play again. Once they’ve seen what the game does, most players are ready to move on. I think I need to find more players in for a bad time, not a long time.

The book comes with several incursions, a sequence of set pieces programmed to slather on the mood, turn up the heat, get the characters into real trouble, and then turn them on each other. Trophy Dark incursions are linear, five set pieces called “rings” (like of a tree) that inevitably draw you to a horrible conclusion. Being a horror game, the linearity works out just fine, much like exploring the mansion in Bluebeard’s Bride.

I found the incursion designs to be uneven, either in terms of providing tables of actionable, ongoing conditions versus one-time jump-scares, or structurally supporting each act with the previous act’s setup. My favorite of the bunch so far is Jim Crocker’s The Flocculent Cathedral, which is where the “moss grows out of your ears and nose” thing came from: well structured, icky conditions, and each ring of the incursion builds on the last. Of the ones I ran, I had the hardest time with Leandro Pondoc’s Forest of Blades, a meditation on war: early rings didn’t do a good job of setting up for later call-backs and reincorporation, and the conditions on offer weren’t great as ongoing new challenges. But there are more than 20 incursions in Dark, more than enough for all the downer one-shotting you could ever want.

The Second Trophy

Something I didn’t understand from the Kickstarter campaign was what the point of the second Trophy game – Trophy Gold – could possibly be. This is a me-problem: I don’t really follow a campaign once I’ve committed to it. Turns out the two games are quite different!

Where Trophy Dark is a bummer one-shot horror story, Trophy Gold is a grindy OSR-ish survival story. They share a setting, should you choose to play in it. They share one mechanism, the “Risk Roll” that’s at the center of all the action in Dark. Beyond that? Real different vibes.

Trophy Gold was designed as a way to storygame-ify D&D stuff: modules, weird OSR settings, whatever. My entire experience playing Gold has been in its default setting, playing through the incursions that come in the book. The process of deconstructing “classic fantasy” content into Gold-speak is under-explained but I can’t imagine it’s that hard. I’m strongly considering doing something with The Dark of Hot Spring Island or one of the other big OSR sandboxes.

Where the Risk Roll is pretty much the entire game in Dark, the Hunt Roll and attendant Hunt Token economy is central to Gold. As you work through an incursion, you constantly make Hunt rolls. Looking around trying to solve a stage’s main question? Get answers via Hunt. Trying to figure out what a magic item does? Hunt that shit. It’s the “ask questions” move of the game, similar to Read A Charged Situation from Apocalypse World except there’s no throttling information: you always get an answer. What you’re really rolling for is to see if trouble comes your way. You might also gain, or lose, Hunt tokens. You can cash in 3x Hunt tokens and “solve” a stage of the incursion without rolling. Or you can cash them in, one for one, to receive Gold. Gold is all that matters to these characters, all of whom have a value called Burden (ie what you need to maintain equipment, pay hirelings, etc). If you don’t at least meet your Burden when it’s time to go home, you’re out. Destitute, killed by your creditors, who knows?

There are a few other neat procedural flourishes: beating monsters is a big group-roll effort, PvP contests are similar to how they work in Dark but the only thing usually driving them is the hunt for Gold, there’s a helping mechanism. It’s all good and it does the job of moving the characters into and out of challenging set pieces in their relentless search for Gold.

We found, after a bit of play in Gold, there’s nothing mechanically interesting about character advancement to dig into. The game is very straightforward, and the situations are such that being explicitly ill-suited to a situation is more the exception than the rule. You can learn more spells and skills, sure, but players never felt like they needed some other narrative angle to get what they wanted within an incursion. Early on, I found it easy to err on the side of generosity and let folks broadly interpret their backgrounds, skills, and equipment to justify their light die. I think convincing folks to spend their precious Gold on more of the same would require being much stricter earlier in play. That in turn will almost certainly lead to quicker deaths, cheaper lives, more turnover.

Trying for both “life is cheap” and “get invested” is a heck of a magic trick if you can pull it off. Trophy Gold I think gets close, at least for some players. There’s an optional “campaign system” called Hearthfire that lets you tick items off a list between sessions, and that helps sink ownership hooks into the players. Everyone has the same checklist, though, and it’s up to the players to decide they care about those things. There’s some variation in how players answer some of the questions posited by the checklist: how does your home look? Who’s the merchant you go to when you restock? Formally, however, there is no roleplaying outside the incursions. If you didn’t love the feeling of shoehorning “free play” into, say, the downtime phase of Blades in the Dark, Trophy Gold is even moreso.

In Gold, there are nine incursions and they’re all really weird and interesting (and of mixed quality, like in Dark). There’s also a “mega incursion” called Roots of Old Kalduhr which is an interconnected maze of 23 smallish incursions in a sprawling underground city. There’s no thematic connection between sets of incursions that are connected via “the streets” of any floor, but the GM can make that happen if they want there to be. There are just tons of suggestive hooks scattered throughout, and in proper indie game fashion the magic of apophenia readily creates the illusion of connectedness.

But in the end, the entire game is about going into weird dungeons and dealing with weird shit along the way. Investment in characters’ lives might happen, might not, but it’s not what the game is “about.” I think, in retrospect, as enticing as it is to try and tackle Roots as one big project, I might instead treat it like a filler location, some place you can always drop in on if the GM doesn’t have a more directed free-standing incursion already prepped.

Half a Trophy

There’s a third book in the series, Trophy Loom, that I did not know how to use alongside the rest of the Trophy series. It is a sprawling setting book, but the contents are atomized into dozens of tables organized under broad categories: species, city districts, heroes and their artifacts, borderland settlements, and so on. It’s nearly 200 pages and there’s so much in it. Easy to browse, just let your eyes land wherever and read a bit.

As a purely practical matter I used Loom’s “Sisters” section as a guide to religion in the setting whenever it came up: zealot or cultist as a character background, an undefined shrine, that sort of thing. I haven’t created my own incursions yet, but I’ll bet the various tables would be a big help. That leaves me wondering what one does with the extensive coverage of Ambaret (the “capital city” location of Trophy) and the Borderlands. Given there’s no roleplaying outside the incursions, what to do with all this wonderful city district information for a city the players will literally never visit?

Maybe the best way to think about Loom is as a third way to play Trophy, using literally any other weird-fantasy game to play in the world.It’s tempting! The setting material is quite evocative.

Last Thoughts

As the books start hitting shelves and the bigger world of gaming outside Twitter gets to know it, I think folks are going to have a lot of fun with the Trophy games. In the end, I ended up enjoying the emergent story of Dark more than the push-your-luck weird-shit sandbox of Gold. Both have their merits. Heck, as long as you’re focusing primarily on the inherent hostility of your setting (and aren’t overly concerned with mechanical character advancement), I can see Trophy Gold easily becoming your default fantasy system. Use the Hearthfire template to create your own campaign tracker, shoehorn in some not-incursion free roleplay, maybe leaving dark dice and the risk of Ruin entirely out of the game except when you’re in hostile territory, and you’ve got yourself a fast, lightweight fantasy game that’s distinctly Not D&D.

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4 thoughts on “A Tale Of Two (and a half) Trophies”

  1. The original inspiration for Trophy was the Scandi-Noir fantasy Symbaroum which has a great setting (said malevolent forest) but such a crunchy system that you spend half your time making up new characters. Trophy Gold would be a good way to run Symbaroum if you didn’t want all the crunch, but equally I think Ironsworn would also do a good job.

    1. Oh right, right! I think I remember hearing that. I’ve got a buddy who is all in on Symbaroum stem to stern, ugh! Very trad and unproductively designed. Gorgeous books.

      1. Paul, can you say more about what makes for productive vs unproductive design? Or maybe that could be an article!

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