Monday, September 25, 2023

Folie à Trois: Trophy Gold

Below is a shared review of Trophy Gold (2022), a fantasy adventure game designed by Jesse Ross and published by The Gauntlet. Although it is informed by old-school D&D aesthetically, being about your typical knavish grave robbers, its play style takes after story games instead. It allows players to participate in creating and narrating the game-world, not just being passive explorers of the referee’s setting.

Ramanan ran the incursion entitled “The Temple of the Peerless Star” for a group with Alex, who later ran “The Smouldering Moor” for a group with Marcia. All three offer their own perspectives on the game.

Initial & Overall Impressions

Alex: I’m smitten. I’m trophypilled now. I’m still kind of riding the high of getting trophypilled and it’s hard for me to be objective about it. I’m saying that as a disclaimer.

I want to hit on a couple high-level takes that I think get at the heart of what has me so hyped about this game: the prep and GM experience are really really liberating; the player experience retains a lot of the grot of OSR play while leaving a lot more room for free imagination; the alchemy of its different elements gives way to a kind of emergence that’s distinct from the usual OSR sort but absolutely slaps.

I also want to sort of call out that I think, prior to this past week, we all felt kind of baffled by the way Trophy explains itself and fits together. The text is decently written, and the Gauntlet has done an excellent job of putting out lots of APs people can watch for reference, but I do think it’s distinct enough from standard OSR assumptions about game structure and flow that it can be hard for those coming out of that and adjacent gaming culture to wrap their head around it without actually playing it. So if you’re reading this and you’re like “I read the rules and???”, I think that’s maybe normal? Hopefully we can help you feel out if it’s worth exploring further.

Marcia: HEHEHEHEHE oh my God, yeah, I have to reiterate Alex’s disclaimer for myself because having walked into the session basically blind (breezing through the SRD a couple hours before playing and not really ‘getting’ it at first), I’m now completely like struck by how good the game is. I’m kind of an unfussy player who mostly plays stuff to hang out with friends, so it’s not like the treasure-hunting premise has ever really appealed to me specifically. Whenever I play, it’s usually just to come along for the ride.

But Trophy Gold is absolutely fantastic. The play structure feels so freeing and creative, in ways not really explored by fantasy adventure games which have lately been preoccupied with inventing new dice formulas and character attributes. The way it empowers player agency while keeping everything simple, including on the referee’s side, should be lessons we apply to playing and running adventure games in general. This game absolves Gygax’s daughters, whom he got mad at for making up treasure they found as they played. They had it right.

Ram: When I first read Trophy Gold I found the whole ruleset very meta: it sounded like a game designed to simulate the act of playing an OSR game. Its original incarnation had instructions for deconstructing your favourite modules into higher level sets that your players could explore. What are the key beats of Deep Carbon Observatory? Let’s just go on a tour of those. As written, players generally have a lot more knowledge about what’s going on in an adventure than you would find in your typical OSR game, often being told upfront what the end goal of a particular area might be, or contributing directly to the overall narrative and fiction of the world they are exploring.

But it was also quite simple! Trophy Gold didn’t seem that far away from the sorts of games I enjoy playing. I have been looking to play the game since I first read the rules. I can say that in practice the game was in fact similar enough to the sort of games I’d run with D&D or Into the Odd or whatever else. We explored unknown spaces in search of treasure. Things developed in unexpected ways. There is risk and danger and all the good stuff. If I described the beats of the game we played to someone it would probably sound like any other game I run. But how we got those beats was sometimes quite different.

Trophy Gold is great: I enjoyed playing it very much.

What Makes It Different?

Marcia: Trophy Gold has kind of changed the way I think about the fantasy adventure game genre. I’ve already said on Twitter that we’ve already known that the player side of classic D&D is a mess and has been outdone by later rulebooks, as far as accessibility and intuitiveness goes (shout-out to Mausritter for being top-tier in this regard). Trophy Gold goes a step further and makes even the most basic play procedures of classic D&D feel obsolete. Whereas classic D&D asks the player to explore a dungeon of the referee’s imagination, Trophy Gold enables the player to participate in creating and narrating the setting collaboratively. Often the player declares that they have found treasure, or that they have solved a riddle of the locale, or some facts about the world which may come back to bite them in the future. Meanwhile, the mystery of the place remains guarded, and players still have to be smart with managing risk and resources as they delve deeper.

So now I’m also trophypilled. Every adventure game that is not Trophy Gold will have to explain to me why it is not Trophy Gold because I’ve been spoiled by the simplicity and creative freedom it offers. Like, even if I don’t play or run Trophy Gold as such in the future, it will affect how I do those things from now on. It is worth playing just to get a taste of what all is possible.

Alex: To echo Ram’s comments above, in other contexts I’ve framed my pre-play impressions of Trophy as “adventure tourism.” You can explore an OSR adventure but just get the highlights: the emergent chaos, the cool toys, the doomed characters, the weird vibes and the grind. And you get to embrace all of that, and shortcut a lot of the time spent dealing with, like, marching orders, round structure, turn by turn exploration, the minutiae of the contents and layout of the room. I can’t tell you how sick I am of trying to parcel out X amount of treasure over Y number of rooms or scale things to PC level (I know “we don’t do that” in the OSR, but also: we do). I have less time and less energy than I used to, and this game is giving me something I’ve been looking for for a while.

Ram: I’m not sure what games I’d consider similar to Trophy Gold? It feels quite unique, a real marriage of the OSR with Story Gaming. I won’t define either of those terms, so don’t ask. You can play Trophy Gold in a way that feels pretty close to how you might play a game of The Black Hack: trying to discover treasure and solve mysteries in a very diegetic way. You can also play the game leaning quite heavily into its Story Game roots, spending the games meta-currency to discover treasure or bypass a puzzle. It really did feel like the game could move between these poles of play quite comfortably. I can picture running the game in a much more writer’s room way, and I suspect if I was more comfortable with that sort of play I’d have been able to do so more effectively. But I think you can also run the game in a way that leans more traditional and it will chug along just fine. You don’t need to play the game the way Jason Cordova does in his actual plays: you are your own boss.

Preparing & Exploring Sets

Locations work differently in Trophy Gold that they do in other games. They are made up of simple, sometimes linearly connected, nodes called “sets” which contain interactive props, dangerous traps, and of course treasure to loot.

Alex: For me, this game’s most radical ideas are about prep. I could probably write a whole, very long, mostly incoherent post about it. Instead I’m going to focus on set goals, which are a deeply challenging concept that gets at the core of Trophy’s ethos. Every set has a “goal” that the GM must announce when PCs enter the set. This often creates a hard split between player and character knowledge. It’s also where the GM, as a fellow player, tells you what this chunk of prep has to offer.

Not all set goals are mandatory, and they can be approached both fictionally and through other mechanics we’ll discuss later on. A good example in our game the other night was the abandoned town set where the goal was “find out what the townsfolk were planning”. I feel like the traditional version of this would have been me trying to convey through various fictional cues that the townsfolk had been planning something, hoping you picked up on it, and/or worrying you’d miss out on something good. You could bypass the whole set and head straight to the dungeon, something else I made sure to clarify. Instead, you were like “oh that sounds neat, let’s explore the village.” Your adventures in the village ended up bringing some of their plans to light, but also through interactions of the various props and mechanics, precipitating the climax of the adventure!

Giving out meta information outright like that will feel really uncomfortable to seasoned OSR/trad GMs, but it’s worth remarking how generative it was. It allowed you to make a quick, informed decision about how to spend your time and resources, both in terms of expected returns and fictional interest, and it did not by any means “spoil” the surprises that ensued, both those embedded in the prep and the emergent ones. I think set goals are one of the most exciting and artful ideas in this game, and they are amazingly robust in the ways they can support prep and play.

Marcia: Something that blew my mind after our four-hour play session was that, all in all, we had explored only two sets in the whole incursion—which itself only had four sets in a line! If you had asked me, I would have thought we navigated through at least five or six distinct areas: we searched someone’s old house, we combed through the attic and basement of an abandoned tavern, and even checked out the altar at a temple.

What this tells me is that although we often benefit from highly detailed “jewelbox dungeons” as far as interactivity and interest goes, it is just as engaging to develop locations on a high level of abstraction where we have enough context to flesh out the place as we go (from our own experience or connecting the dots of the setting). I’m thinking about conceptual density here. Every step along the way was full of decisions made by our characters or ourselves as players, wherever we peeked or walked into or poked at. On the other hand, the things written on the page were the elements that actually mattered, things that would stick out to characters or stuff that they could miss if they didn’t look closely enough.

Maybe the overall structure of the incursion is linear in the same way that a cake is layered (though also, many incursions are simply not linear!), but both narratively and functionally it never felt like we were being pushed around on a railroad. It was more like if you had a couple different dungeon floors, each with their own theme and all being stacked on top of each other, but the contents of individual floors are abstract and flexible—emphasizing points of interest and the risk of exploring them, rather than the minutia of navigating between them. I bet you could combine these with Nick’s new version of flux space to good effect.

Ram: Alex touches on what I both enjoyed and found most challenging about running my sessions of Trophy Gold. The format for the adventures are quite loose and open ended, the expectation being the details will be filled in through play. At first blush this feels really at odds with what I expect from the games I play. Courtney has written many essays on the dangers of the Quantum Ogre, and I have taken his advice to heart. What do meaningful choices look like in a game where the treasure is in this room because you decided it was in this room? Well, for starters, players are aware of what’s smoke and what’s mirrors.

Incursions are written in a way that I have to assume is to discourage thinking of them as fixed spaces. “Temple of the Peerless Star” is described in a way that I could picture it and describe it to the players, but there are no concrete maps, and it’s purposefully fuzzy at times when it comes to how spaces might connect together. My sense is how they connect is immaterial in this game unless you and the players decide it needs to be material through the course of your play. It’s a very different mindset and one I was really struggling to get in my head while running the game. But this structure is also what let me pick this game and run it with next to no prep on my part: the dream. I read the module, read the rules for the game again, and that was that.

The game isn’t rudderless. A well written incursion has enough structure to give you and your players something to hang your ideas onto, while making space for your table to take things in unexpected directions.

On The Hunt

The basic loop of Trophy Gold is the hunt roll, where the active player rolls one or two dice (based on if they apply one of their character’s skills) as they explore or investigate an area. The outcome may be encountering something terrible, acquiring a hunt token which can be redeemed to ‘find’ treasure or ‘solve’ mysteries, or both.

Ram: Trophy’s hunt roll is interesting. When I run games I use a hazard die, as described by Brendan at Necropraxis, having people roll whenever their character performs some meaningful dungeon exploration action. Trophy’s hunt roll is the obvious analog to this procedure. It’s also a bit of an inversion of the roll. You are rolling to see how your circumstances change while exploring a space. You can gain (or if you’re unlucky lose) hunt tokens in the process. You will most likely encounter something terrible. Notably you never “fail” at exploration. The hunt roll is the engine that pushes the game forward, the most common roll in the game.

That you can choose to fast forward through an adventure using hunt tokens you collect via Hunt Rolls is going to be the thing that I suspect most OSR players will find most contentious in this game. This is what jumped out to me when I first read the rules, and was what I was most keen to excise from the game before playing. It felt like you could have a more “OSR” game by dropping this rule. After having played, my concerns seem unwarranted. Hunt tokens can be turned into gold, which your characters will need to meet their burdens and survive to play again. Sacrificing them to meet some goal is an interesting and sometimes difficult choice for the players. It’s not easy to simply zip through an adventure. You’ll likely lose if you try and speed run an incursion. With the various resources a player needs to manage, the game is really pushing you to explore spaces via hunt rolls, where they will encounter dangerous situations.

Marcia: Where to start! On a high level, I love how this procedure encourages players to put themselves out there. Usually exploration focuses on the party as a unit, sometimes going as far as to say that the party gets one action per turn, and individual characters may or may not be part of that. Trophy Gold goes the opposite direction by putting each act of exploration into the hands of a single character. Besides personalizing the action to that character, it also incentivizes players to take turns exploring because over half the time you’re going to get a token for it. I think this would work well with a sort of “always-on initiative” like we’ve just seen from Shadowdark, where everyone must act before anyone can act again.

The tokens themselves I absolutely love. Again, more likely than not, you’re going to get a token for putting your character out there (and at risk). It’s like the reward juice they give to lab monkeys! Even better is how you spend the tokens. I don’t think we ended up spending three tokens to solve a set’s goal (which can be spent collaboratively, by the way), but I did spend one of my tokens to declare that there was a fancy, aged bottle of wine left underneath the barkeep’s counter. It didn’t occur to me that converting tokens to treasure could be a way of “speed-running” the game, as much as I thought it was a nice way to consistently enable players to contribute to the setting while rewarding them for it. Keep in mind that getting the reward has two steps, basically: first put your character at risk, and then declare a treasure in the world (with any amount of time in between those steps). That is such a tight play procedure that encapsulates the risk-reward loop of the game in general, while not foreclosing the sources of risk and reward that you would usually find in the world as you explore it. It’s very much an “as above, so below” kind of thing: the game loop is a microcosm of the larger adventure you’re participating in.

Alex: Less about hunt rolls but more about procedures generally, many of them reward players with extra dice for employing relevant skills or equipment. This sounds like pretty standard OSR, but a relevant departure is that many unresolved environmental details can be suggested by players, rather than specified by the GM. This means claiming that extra die can be as much a matter of expanding the fiction and offering material for the GM and others to build upon, as of exploiting the fiction as dictated by the GM. As an example, I watched an AP where a player justified their use of a “mending” skill by describing the dilapidation of their surroundings. These may feel a bit gimmes, but the mechanics are punitive enough without the bonus dice that I suspect this is play as intended.

Stumbling Blocks

Marcia: Ram referenced the hazard die earlier, and I think it’s a good point of comparison for how it encapsulates aspects of classic D&D that have become pretty standard: wandering monsters, light sources, and party fatigue. Only the wandering monster really survives in Trophy Gold in some form, and it has been generalized into encountering “something terrible”—such as a monster, a trap, or simply something traumatic. Light sources and fatigue do not make it, but I don’t think this is really a bad thing. I’ve at least expressed my own dislike of tracking light sources (not really sure what I’m doing here in general), and even others have expressed their own dislike of forced rest turns. Trophy Gold, as it were, sticks to just managing “hit points” in the form of Ruin, which can be gained not just from combat but also from falling victim to risky behavior in general. I have really no complaints about this, especially having suggested a similar approach a few months ago; I like that it keeps it simple. I do wish there was an overarching structure surrounding character actions if only because I like characters acting concurrently and as a group—Alex handled it well, though, by treating our actions as if they were concurrent anyway.

More generally, I’ve seen concern about how Trophy Gold relies too much on game mechanics (as opposed to player intuition or fictional positioning), that it is scene-based rather than location-based, and that it generally betrays the play style of classic D&D. This was not at all my experience with the game. My group played it very diegetically, exploring the world through our characters’ senses. Although the spatial relationships between different points of interest were abstracted, they still definitely existed—we just weren’t moving our party from square to square anymore. The dice we rolled felt no more arbitrary or gamey than when we would roll encounter or hazard dice in classic games, and they feel better integrated into the game loop by being rolled when a player acts. Rather than Trophy Gold watering down of classic D&D for a story game play style, it feels like it takes seriously the idea that D&D is an exploration game rather than a skirmish war game. It even embraces taking place in the theater of the mind rather than being ported from the tabletop.

Ram: I would have loved to see more detailed advice on running Trophy Gold. The GM section in the book is quite small. There is tons of information in Podcasts and Actual Play videos, but that’s not my preferred way to learn how to play a game. I ended up asking a lot of questions in Trophy Discord, which is fantastic, to get a sense of what the game play loop should look like concretely, what the game should feel like in play, etc. (That there is so much information on Discord, and not in a more public / searchable space like a blog is a shame. If you’re going to make an OSR game, you should be required to foster the blogging culture to go with it!) How many Hunt Rolls is too many? What are some examples of fleeing from combat, or trying to avoid it in the first place? How much extra Endurance should you give a group of monsters? There are no real examples of play in the book, and though they are often quite goofy, a well written one can really clarify how the rules of the game all fit together.

Closing Remarks

Marcia: Trophy Gold is just really good. It’s maybe the most unique take on the dungeon crawl I’ve played as far as rules go, and its new ideas are just really fun. My only complaint is that the book’s "universe of discourse" is so restricted to the dungeon crawl that it feels like a closed system. However, I have no qualms about incorporating its mechanics into my mental toolbox since as such they are not as restrictive. Hunt tokens are simply fun and cool, and so are sets. Minigame gang, rise up!

Alex: I’m writing these several months after the above and while I’m no longer in the afterglow of hype I still feel very warmly about Trophy Gold. I ended up running two of my own adventures and feeling really good about them! That’s a huge deal for me, as I tend to struggle with adventure creation and fall back on modules. I maintain that the set structure is a very powerful tool. I especially recommend it to GMs who struggle with OSR prep, at least as an experiment.

Ram: As I said at the start of this post, Trophy Gold is great. The game is mechanically interesting and novel, while remaining quite simple. What I love about the game is that it’s a little bit messy when it comes to what it’s about. It’s not trying to a Story Game or an OSR game. Trophy Gold is very much its own thing, and all the better for it.

Note by Marcia: Since we started writing this review circa March 2023 (you know how it is), I had played even more Trophy with my friend Nova as the referee. I actually wrote about that experience on my blog, which might be of interest if you were wanting to modify Trophy to be more “open-world”.

Folie à Trois: Trophy Gold

Below is a shared review of Trophy Gold (2022) , a fantasy adventure game designed by Jesse Ross and published by The Gauntlet. Although it...