The Independents: Trophy

At the end of 2018, The Gauntlet released “Dark 2”, the December issue of their zine Codex. Within that volume was a game by Jesse Ross called Trophy. Trophy was based on Cthulhu Dark by Graham Walmsley, adapted with the dice mechanic from Blades in the Dark. But listing out a series of games which were hacked down the road into Trophy doesn’t give the game quite enough credit. Trophy is, like the best games coming out of the OSR, a reflection and deconstruction of the dungeoneering/ adventuring trope. In Trophy, the adventurers are treasure hunters, following in the footsteps of so many games that came before. In Trophy Dark they are doomed, and their doom comes through a sequence of narrative steps, or rings. In Trophy Gold they are bound by their own debts, and must keep going deeper until they can pay what they owe.

Trophy is quite clever, and it’s unsurprising that the template put forth in Codex is ripe for expansion. At the time of this writing there is a Kickstarter campaign for an immensely expanded version of Trophy, taking up three volumes. The original game of adventuring, hubris, and downfall has been recast as Trophy Dark. The later, less fatalistic version of the game, Trophy Gold, is the second volume. And finally, the setting material which ties together all of the narrative material in the games is a book all its own, Trophy Loom.

Trophy is a game where the more I read, the more I liked it. I’m a fan of games which place characters in desperate situations, though as my players found out with Torchbearer, it is a careful balance between making the challenges dramatic and just playing in the mud. Trophy hits dark and desperate from the narrative side, and, given the currently ongoing Kickstarter campaign, I thought it would be a great opportunity to talk about what makes the game interesting. Trophy Dark and Trophy Gold were both released in Codex, the issues Codex – Dark 2 and Codex – Gold respectively. The version being campaigned on Kickstarter is, based on callouts in the campaign alone, going to be significantly expanded.

Trophy Dark

The basic mechanic of the Trophy Dark is a ‘Risk roll’, and the structure will be familiar to players of Blades in the Dark. In short, you gather a pool of d6s and the highest face showing determines the outcome. A 6 means you succeed without mitigation, a 4 or 5 means you succeed but there is a complication or limitation, and a 1, 2, or 3 means you have not succeeded and things will get worse. There are three dice you may include in the pool. First, you get a die if the roll is something which your character is skilled at, based on how the character is described on their sheet. Second, you can get an additional die for accepting a Devil’s Bargain. From Blades, a Devil’s Bargain is a circumstance you must accept regardless of the outcome of the roll, usually something which will guarantee that things get complicated. Finally, if you are willing to risk mind or body in order to succeed at the task, you may add a third die, which should be of a different (i.e. darker) color. If this die, a Dark die, rolls highest in the pool (including ties), this roll now counts as a Ruin roll. In an interesting twist, you can add dark dice to your pool and reroll until a Dark die is the highest die…which of course makes the roll a Ruin roll.

So let’s talk about Ruin for a second. You start with a Ruin of 1. If you witness or undergo something disturbing, you may have to make a Ruin roll. In these cases it’s relatively simple; if you roll higher than your current Ruin, you gain a point of Ruin. As you may guess, this means that using the Dark dice as described above adds a fair element of risk to your rolls, as any time the Dark die is the highest of the dice in the pool, it’s a Ruin roll. That also implies that whenever a Dark die actually helps you succeed, it’s likely adding to your Ruin. So what happens when you get Ruin? Well, if you hit a Ruin of 6, your character is reclaimed by the forest. Pretty serious, as well as pretty cut and dried. One interesting thing here is that once your Ruin hits 5 (as in, right before you’re off to become a forest creature), you can roll a Reduction roll, which is to succeed at a task that’s “in the interests of the forest”. This, broadly, means betraying and sabotaging your fellow players. Succeed at the task, reduce your Ruin, don’t become a forest creature. Of course, the game suggests you don’t draw attention to yourself, and make these tasks look like accidents. Sowing the seeds of distrust is a big part of the implied downward spiral that is omnipresent in the game’s narrative.

Trophy Dark seeks to tell one basic story. This is a story of a downward spiral, of characters who, spurred on by desperation, hubris, or both, go deep into the forest in search of treasure, so deep they likely won’t make it out again. Before getting into how the game’s structure enables this, the GM’s guide starts with one crucial instruction: tell your players what’s about to happen. Like any horror game, but especially those where happy endings are not guaranteed, buy-in is required to make the experience enjoyable. And considering the experience has been tuned to sow the seeds of the characters’ destruction, it might be a good idea to clear the air on that.

How is the game so tuned? The basic narrative unit of Trophy is called an Incursion, and for Trophy Dark it’s structured into five rings. The metaphor of rings is to imply that you are going deeper, closer to the center, and indeed there is no mechanical way to get out of a ring once you’re in it…you only go deeper. Now, though Trophy Dark is built around a specific narrative, the ring structure is relatively loose. The only requirement is that there are two encounters which take place in each ring, a Terror and a Temptation. Broadly speaking, the Terrors should be encounters which drive the characters away from the forest, while the Temptations should be encounters which pull them deeper in. There is no required order, but it is implied that each ring has a Terror and then a Temptation, as the resolution of the Temptation is an obvious path to going deeper into the forest.

Beyond the Terrors and Temptations of each ring, each Incursion has Moments and Conditions. Moments are descriptive scenes, a chance to establish the character of the forest, and tie it back to an overarching theme, one word which ties together the nature of the adventure. In addition to giving the setting more character of its own, the Moments also serve to relax the pacing of Terrors and Temptations, and make things feel a little less procedural. Conditions are more mechanical. Trophy Dark has neither a combat mechanic nor a health mechanic (other than the sentence that states that if you “…try to defeat any of the forest’s monstrosities by fighting them in hand-to-hand combat, you will die”), so Conditions are elements which give grounding and weight to the one mechanic that does represent a character’s status, Ruin. Each time you gain a point of Ruin you also pick up a Condition, and while these don’t have a mechanical effect, per se, the sample ones from the included Incursion are damn unsettling (“things from your dreams manifesting around you”, “tools and weapons appear as strange objects”). This disconnection from reality is a strong mechanic for disempowerment, which tends to be a more compelling theme for horror at a gaming table than violence, jump scares, or other tactics which may work better in video games or movies.

The key for running Trophy Dark effectively is pacing the rate at which Ruin is acquired. You have five rings to work through, which each have two setpiece elements. By the time you’re in ring 5, you want at least one character to be up at 5 Ruin, so they can start making Reduction rolls and really setting the party against each other. This does require playing hardball to a degree, but when you consider that under normal circumstances you get only a single die before you start taking Devil’s Bargains or making Risk rolls, the hardball kind of plays itself. This makes me appreciate the Risk roll mechanic quite a bit…you can get fairly large dice pools but only if you literally gamble with your own humanity. Of course, this would be a bit more difficult to use in a campaign context, as Trophy Gold aims to do.

Trophy Gold

Trophy Gold takes the basic mechanics of Trophy Dark and immediately makes them more complex. First, there is now an inventory system, where each character starts with a backpack filled with gear. There are weapons and other items available, but everything you take increases your Burdens, the amount of gold you must bring home to cover your expenses, debts, and dependents. There are Rituals, which did exist in Trophy Dark but are expanded here. You can start with up to three Rituals but each one increases your Ruin (both Ruin and Rituals work the same way in Trophy Dark). You can also get a spellbook and learn more Rituals later, but those increase your Burdens.

The mechanics of Trophy Dark, which only involved the Risk roll and the Ruin roll, are expanded by the Hunt roll and the Combat roll. As implied by the Combat roll, combat is no longer instant death, though it is difficult. Combat involves two basic rolls: first, everyone participating in the combat rolls one die to find their weak point. Next, they all roll a die and add up the results. The sum of these dice must be more than the monster’s Endurance in order to kill the monster. However, if any of these dice match a weak point for one of the characters, they increase their Ruin by one.

The Hunt roll is a core pacing mechanism for Trophy Gold. As characters press towards their goal, they make Hunt rolls based on the manner and mechanism by which they’re exploring. High results mean treasure, lower results mean “something terrible happens”. A 1 means you lose all your treasure. Just like combat, even the act of treasure hunting is high risk, high reward.

One interesting thing included in the zine version of Trophy Gold (and almost certain to be included in the book) is a set of resources for converting B/X D&D modules to Trophy Gold. There is a straight-up conversion chart for turning Basic D&D spells into Rituals, and extensive guidance on how to turn old modules and dungeons into Incursions, including two worked examples. Converting old material is less interesting to me personally than writing new Incursions (which is also made easy by the relative simplicity of the system), but the ability to do this and the guidance for doing it will be a selling point for a lot of people.

Trophy provides two different interpretations of the adventuring party. In Trophy Dark, adventurers are driven deeper by their own hubris into a quest they likely won’t come back from. In Trophy Gold, the adventurers’ desperation is from simple need, where treasure hunting is one of the only avenues to security. Unsurprisingly, it’s easy to draw parallels between Trophy and other interpretations of the dungeon crawl, like Torchbearer. The dark fantasy twist on the dungeon crawl is the one most difficult to do in a satisfying way with D&D, so games like Trophy and Torchbearer fill a gap. Trophy Gold is the more substantial of the two (not to take away from Trophy Dark, but it is a one-shot game specifically), and could be interesting to players who like the ideas of the OSR or of something like Torchbearer but have no interest in the crunch of D&D or Burning Wheel. If you’re a fan of PbtA or Forged in the Dark, you’ve likely found there are few options that seek an intersection between old-school and new indie (Dungeon World, with its determined emulation of D&D, can be an acquired taste). Trophy, especially Trophy Gold, may end up being a perfect game to scratch that itch.

The Kickstarter campaign for Trophy is ongoing until February 23rd, 2020.

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