This is ostensibly a review of Trophy Gold from Jesse Ross (Hedgemaze Press) and Gauntlet Publishing. But it’s not a very good review. It will not rate the cover art (okay) or the quality of the rules (great, actually) but instead, it will say some slightly pretentious things and then end abruptly. I didn’t get a free copy or anything and this review is free so no one is allowed to be disappointed.
As long as we’re clear about that.
Trophy Gold is a game designed so that you can play old school (or new school) adventures in a storygame style. But what does that really mean?
The way I see it: OSR and storygames are not types of games. They’re styles or cultures of play. Some games are built for those styles of play, sure, but you don’t have to use things for what they’re built. Ask anyone who’s used a box as a table or a cat-entertainment-device. OSR and storygames, as games and styles of play, were a reaction to the trad style of play that dominated the 90s and still dominates today with D&D 5e. In the trad style, the GM is often tempted to prepare a plot before a session – usually not with the intention of limiting player agency but rather with the intention of providing the most cinematic and satisfying session. OSR and storygames didn’t like that (and other things). Both said “stop prepping plots,” or to put it another way, “play to find out”. The OSR went down one path – branded itself as a revival of how B/X D&D was played. Storygames went down another.
That’s how we get Trophy Gold.
But First, Some History
Okay, I may have skipped a part. Let’s talk about Fear of a Black Dragon.
Fear of a Black Dragon is a podcast by Jason Cordova and Tom McGrenery. I’m not sure why it’s called that. Is there something about black dragons in B/X D&D and their fear effect? Anyway, they review adventure modules. They usually try to play the adventure before reviewing it. McGrenery tends to play them with OSR systems. And Cordova plays them with storygames. Originally, Cordova’s system of choice was mostly World of Dungeons, a very minimal one-move PbtA game. World of Dungeons was definitely not the system that those adventure writers imagined their work being used. But like I said, life finds a way. Right now, as I write this, Cordova exclusively runs adventures using Trophy Gold.
Okay, we’ve skipped a step again.
Cordova runs Gauntlet Publishing which is the publisher of Trophy Gold, as well as an earlier game called Trophy Dark. Trophy Dark is a game by Jesse Ross that is inspired by, among other things, Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley. Trophy Dark is definitely a storygame. You play doomed treasure hunters with an emphasis on “doomed”. You go into a place that doesn’t want you there and, by the end of it, you die. It’s good, wholesome, family fun. (I wrote about Trophy Dark last week — ed.) Then, Ross took Trophy Dark and rebuilt it into a game that didn’t necessarily end in death and that could be used to play old school adventures. That game was Trophy Gold.
How It Works
Reframing old-school dungeons as new-school storygame scenarios is a neat trick, involving changing both the game and its adventures. You take any existing adventure. You chop it up into “sets”. Within those sets, you focus on key features (called props), dangers (called traps) and treasures (called treasures). Then, you give characters a key motivation to go on these adventures – find treasure or you’ll literally die – and let them loose.
So far, it seems like an overhaul of presentation more than anything else, right? Which brings us back to our original question: what does playing an OSR adventure in a storygame style really mean?
That’s a big question with many answers. Trophy Gold is one specific answer. One key part is that it basically eschews a lot of the concrete, grounded logic of OSR games and replaces them with quantum, exists-if-the-story-needs-it logic. For example, the GM can conjure up treasure anywhere it needs to be.
But that’s the small stuff. The big picture is that it takes a “writer’s room” approach to the world. I know that’s a vague phrase, I apologize. In Trophy Gold’s context, it means the world isn’t what is written in the adventure or decided by the GM. Players add in details about the world as they play. When they make Risk Rolls using their pool of d6s, they get an opportunity to sow some ideas into the game. Player A could, for example, propose a ritual spell would, inadvertently, create a clone of Player B as they cast it. Player C could propose that the guild of assassins chasing Player D are waiting for them at the entrance to the dungeon. Trophy Gold’s design skillfully ensures that the player’s opportunity to add to the world is tightly structured while still keeping the possibilities open-ended. You don’t get to just willy-nilly invent things but when things are risky and fraught with possibility, a small window emerges for the table to negotiate with reality and nudge it towards the version they deem the most interesting.
How does this not derail every pre-written adventure immediately? Well, checks and balances. When you convert adventures to Trophy Gold or write original ones, you’re constructing pretty linear paths. The “sets” of Trophy Gold are usually organized sequentially with clear narrative goals that lead into each other. The first set might be finding the entrance to the dungeon. The second set might be traversing the deadly path of mirrors. The third is the fake treasure room. The fourth is the real treasure room. And so on. It’s a railroad but it’s a railroad of locations where the logic of why they’re here and where they’re going next is always clear to the players. Because the game is about characters who literally die if they don’t accumulate enough gold, the players buy into the premise very strongly. And the difference between a railroad and a rollercoaster has always been buy-in.
This might sound like an uneasy compromise and sure, it may be. But as a GM, I found it makes Trophy Gold a dream to run. You get to say yes to the cool ideas that the adventure you picked gives you, and you get to say yes to the cool ideas that the players are giving you. In the end, you have more good ideas than you could hope for and you can focus on facilitation in a way that few games allow.
It is – and I cannot overstate this enough – the rare example of a GM’s game. If you’re a GM, you should probably give it a try. With a fun adventure, it’s like a sea breeze after a long day indoors.
This breeziness also carries over into combat which combines blazing speed and surprising (albeit rare) deadliness. Some monsters don’t invoke the combat mechanic at all because they simply cannot be fought until these pesky treasure hunters discover some secret weakness. But any monster that can be conceivably defeated will go down in about 1-3 rolls and most players will emerge from the fight hurt but not dead. It can be dramatic but is definitely not the climactic combat that other games might have. Combat in Trophy Gold isn’t the thing you build up to for a whole session. It’s more like a jump scare – a quick tension release valve. It goes as quickly as it comes. If players want to linger in that state, this game might not really work for them.
Should You Play It?
Like I said, Trophy Gold is a GM’s game and if you’re someone comfortable with PbtA or storygames but have been eyeing those lush, weird adventure modules coming out of the OSR, this was made for you. But that said, there’s many people for whom this game won’t work. If you like the concrete world of OSR play, you might not like the wishy-washiness of the world in this one. If you like other storygames, you might be surprised to find that this one doesn’t really support character-focused narratives. As a game, its focus is on the gameplay loop of delving for treasure. Immersion isn’t one of its priorities. And, pardon my language, you’re not going to get that main character feeling. As a player, you could try and spool out an epic backstory over the course of a dozen sessions but you’ll be fighting against the current. Trophy Gold is about the people who were main characters once but now they’re broke. They know that if they can just earn enough gold, they could become main characters again. But theoretically, if they do scrape together the gold to claim their life back, Trophy Gold has nothing more for them. As far as the game is concerned, they’re retired now.
There’s a lot to quibble with Trophy Gold over. And with the core rules being licensed as Creative Commons, you get to quibble in one of the more interesting ways open to us, RPG nerds. Personally, I’m going to take the Risk Roll and maybe the Combat Roll and combine it with the mystery system from Brindlewood Bay and maybe it’s a game about journalists. Yes, yes, yes, I can see it now… It’s all coming together…