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”.

Wednesday, August 9, 2023

Grave Trespass - Jim Henson's Labyrinth: The Adventure Game

 A Scathingly Positive Review

Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game is a self-contained system and adventure adapted from the 1986 film Labyrinth, published in 2019 by River Horse Games. The main creators behind it are the brothers Jack and Chris Caesar, but the adventure is mostly written by Ben Milton (AKA Questing Beast). The book is 294 pages and uses the original concept artwork for the movie by Brian Froud, with additional artwork by Ralph Horsley and Johnny Fraser-Allen.

I own the PDF of the game and am currently running it for the second time, both campaigns using Discord voice+text and Roll20 as a VTT. As probably indicated by the fact that I'm running it again, I am a big fan. Short review: 10/10, quite likely the finest experience I've ever had using published RPG material at my table. But this book already has a lot of positive reviews, and I felt like it might be worth it to spotlight some of the qualities that I haven't seen discussed in those. The things which I didn't really discover until I played it myself.

[By the way, the artwork in this post was done by my friend Norn, a groovy firey whose face was stolen by the Goblin King. You can find their stuff and contact them about commissions at]

My critical lens

I'm not super into RPG reviews. I don't read or watch them very often, and I've never set out to write one myself. Mostly I just don't think there's anything uniquely valuable about my perspective for your purchasing decisions (as a potential consumer) or design decisions (as a designer). But Labyrinth helped me recognize at least one thing that's a bit special about my perspective: I play games.

An uncomfortable truth that is rarely acknowledged in RPG discourse is that there are a lot more people who want to play D&D than there are people who actually play D&D. It's really hard! Most adults can't form a successful RPG group. They either don't know enough interested people, or the people they know can't commit to it. Or they, themselves, can't fit it into their life. And even if it does work out for a while, it rarely lasts more than a few months or maybe years. It's extremely difficult to maintain an active participation in this hobby. Some of your favorite game designers, bloggers, and YouTubers secretly haven't played an RPGs in literally years. It's true. Meanwhile, I have a group of 8 that meets every single week to play, for just over six years now. On top of that, I have at least three other groups of people in my life who I can reliably summon for a one-shot or even mini-campaign on an ad-hoc basis.

I am extraordinarily lucky, and I try never to take this for granted.

But the more time I've spent playing games, the more it sticks out to me when I'm reading RPG discussions, reviews, and other discourse that this division is present. That the strongly opinionated and verbose RPG connoisseur who's making all these assertions about how this-or-that should have been done or what sorts of things should be prioritized or what's deserving of an award... clearly does not actually play games very often, if at all. 

Don't get me wrong. Some of those folks often still have a lot of extremely valuable insights. They are your favorite designers, bloggers, and YouTubers, after all. In many ways, they are the ones who drive the medium forward. But it can be easy to become overly concerned with some made up ethos of design purity and a cohesive fidelity to high-minded ideals when you spend more time thinking about games than playing them. 

I say all this as somebody who is extremely prone to making judgments about RPG products based on an ethos like that one. Labyrinth is a perfect example of the kind of game that I needed to actually play in order to make a fair assessment. So in a greater sense, think of this review as really being about "games made for game design nerds vs games made for people playing a game together."

Labyrinth's appeal is obvious

This book is basically engineered to make you say, "oh that's cute" every 5 minutes. Visually, it's made to look just like Sarah's book in the movie, almost as though it's an in-universe artifact. It's got the famous gimmick of the inserted dice that come with the game. The GM is called "the Goblin King" and is encouraged to come up with their own Goblin King character. The end of the adventure has a "Guest Book" page that the players are invited to sign their names on once they've beaten it. And of course, the adventure itself is full of playful, Muppet-y whimsy.

It's also just plainly luxurious. The book quality, I'm told, is very impressive. Plus it's got a ribbon bookmark. Everyone knows all the best RPG books have those. And the Brian Froud artwork is truly sublime. But you likely knew all of this already. What's not to love?

But if Labyrinth didn't have those surface-level charms, I feel like it might be subject to a lot more criticism!

1. The players have no agency.

You are told what your goal is: get to the center of the Labyrinth. You are free to come up with a reason why, but that's largely insubstantial. You can't really adapt the adventure for a different goal, either. Every single aspect of it is constructed around that goal and wouldn't make sense or work otherwise.

The players don't have any input on their path to victory, either. Navigation of the maze has been abstracted away into a mechanic that is GM-facing and involves no choices. There's no way to tackle the goal strategically. The Goblin King marks the party's progress and then rolls a die to determine the next scene, throwing it at the players and saying "here, play with this." And even though there's a neat depthcrawl-like procedure going on behind the scenes to simulate maze exploration... from the players' perspective, this is functionally indistinguishable from if the GM just made one sequence of encounters and railroaded the players through them.

2. The encounters are extremely contrived.

There's a lot of advice out there on "how to make a good encounter." Let's take a look at Prismatic Wasteland's checklist. With few exceptions, the scenes in Labyrinth fail on several or all of these points. They often have nothing to do with the player characters, and are instead just some situation that an NPC is currently going through. They are occasionally toyetic, but are just as often pretty one-dimensional. They are usually open-ended in the strategies you can employ, but many of them have a specific, singular listed solution. The players often have nothing to gain from them, except sometimes the arbitrary "doing this thing will somehow update your progress marker in the depthcrawl." Many of the encounters have no motive at all, occasionally even just being passive bystanders or objects. And there's frequently no consequence to ignoring an encounter, except maybe that the Goblin King will have to roll for a different one that the players find more interesting.

The most justifiable ones boil down to, "you are traveling down a linear hallway, but there's this big thing in the way. You must get passed it to keep going down this hallway." But also, like, that's most people's mental idea of a classic railroad-y feeling encounter. A literal choke point in the adventure. More commonly, the encounters will be something like, "you're meandering through all sorts of crisscrossing paths aimlessly, and you see a guy minding his own business staring down at a chess board." And like, why wouldn't the players just ignore that, right? I mean come on, how is that even an "encounter" in any real sense?

3. There's basically no stakes.

Because it's a Muppet-y sort of thing, the nastiest content you'll see is cartoon violence. Meaning that death is pretty firmly off the table! In place of that, there's a really clever alternative consequence for failure: losing time. Time passes at the speed of failure. The players have 13 hours to complete the adventure, and will lose 1 hour every time they muck up a scene or waste time. In theory, this is an amazing idea. It's such a perfect, clear and usable consequence to inflict so that challenges carry meaningful weight in the overall adventure.

In reality, this just isn't actually going to be used. The first Labyrinth campaign I ran, the players literally did not lose a single hour. Not one. At least, not fair and square. There was one moment where I pulled the bullshit move from the movie where Jareth decided to just steal a few hours to be a dick. I felt comfortable doing such an unfair thing because I knew that even stealing 6 hours from the players would be negligible. Same thing with my second campaign: the players got about 4/5 of the way through and had only lost 1 hour by that point. They just aren't actually going to fail at the challenges, y'know? It's not like I'm pulling my punches. The instructions and the scene descriptions are quite explicit in what triggers the passage of time. And my only explanation is that it just comes down to how easy the challenges are!

Even if the party were to fail somehow, the book isn't really prepared for that possibility. The only thing the text says about losing is this: "If the group loses all 13 hours, they run out of the time and become lost, forgetting why they ever entered." Personally, I wouldn't feel super comfortable with just that alone to handle the party failing at their quest. The players are only ever told "you have 13 hours to do this." If they had any idea what happens if they fail, I think they'd immediately combat it as rather flimsy.

…But none of that matters

Because it's fun. Like, it's really fun.

Labyrinth is the most instant fun right-out-of-the-box game I've ever seen. It's like hitting a button that generates a good time and an evening well spent.

Every scene is contained within a two-page spread. They have very succinct descriptions, always at least one table to randomize some elements, and always an image of the general area in which the scene takes place (if you need a reference for making a battle map). It is incredibly easy to parse. I will confess: during my first campaign, there were two sessions where I didn't read ahead and preview all the scenes in the next layer of the Labyrinth. So I was flying by the seat of my pants trying to read these encounters for the first time as I was running them. And... it still worked. I needed to ask the players to pause for about 20 seconds once or twice, but that's literally all it took to absorb the whole thing and say, "Cool. Got it. Let's jump in." One of my players told me that she had no idea I wasn't prepared.

I'm not recommending you do that... but you could get away with it more easily in this adventure than in basically any other. Every scene is a scenario that you can just quickly set up and then watch the players go. They always take 20-40 minutes, very consistently.

But what about all that lack of player agency? The railroading? Ehhh. Doesn't matter. Nobody's complaining. Nobody's disappointed. The scenes are enough! Sure, we can imagine a hypothetical version of this game where the Labyrinth is like a sandbox and the players get to pick and choose where they want to go and what their ultimate aim is. And that could be cool. But it's not really necessary for having a good time. The scenes are already fun enough that every player is super eager for the next session. Eager for the next time the adventure tells them what they're going to be doing.

But didn't I say the encounters are all contrived? That they don't conform to commonly agreed upon standards of good encounter design? Ehhh. Doesn't matter. They work anyway. The players want to engage. They want to say yes to whatever you offer them. Partly I think it comes down to the material and its tone. Everything is silly and charming and fun. Players like goblins. Players like worms. They like puzzles and games. And it doesn't matter how contrived things are. Without fail, somebody will say, "eh... I'll bite." And they give it a shot and then you've just bought the easiest 20-40 minutes of laughter of your life.

I can understand why, if you just read the book, you'd think, "why the hell would my players interact with this guy playing chess by himself?" It sounds like a bad encounter. But somebody is going to be interested anyway, and they'll interact with the guy and then they solve a chess puzzle and they feel great. There are so many scenes that show no outward indication that they'd help the players progress (and, occasionally, they might really not!), but which they'll want to do anyway. "This cricket is challenging you to a race. Want in?" "These goblins are all playing a game of Lunchball. Want in?" "These dwarves are landscaping. Want in?"

Even a scene like “get from one end of the room to the other” has all the right ingredients to generate fun, from the adventure’s side to the GM’s side to the players’ side. Is it silly and game-y for there to be literal cube-shaped obstacles to climb which correspond with d6s? Yes. Is it fun for players to strategically rotate them to the best sides possible for them to traverse, as each one has an equally-gamey obstacle on it? Also yes. Will the players ever get tired of using their weird tricks and equipment and talents to solve obstacles? Of course not. Singing and dancing your way past goblins or tossing magic fruit at objects and adversaries to shrink them never gets old.

Of course, it's not like they're all amazing. In my first campaign, there were 3 or 4 scenes that my players decided to ignore. I had to roll for a new one instead. And... what's wrong with that? It's not exactly a meaningful expression of agency in-game. But having the real-world agency to choose how you spend your evening together, and agreeing to do what everyone will have the most fun doing, is the single most important part of playing games with your friends. Why don't we acknowledge that more when discussing game theory? We're so keen to discuss the abstract, nebulous, theoretical game space that we construct and how to perfect it, but we forget that games are an activity conducted by humans.

Yeah, it's true. If you don't like the scene in front of you in Labyrinth, you can just reject it and ask for a different one. But who cares how that "weakens" the imagined scenario? I don't really mind if that undermines the challenge, because we're not just seeking a challenge. We're seeking stimulation and creativity and laughter. You can claim that consequences are the root of true challenge, that a task cannot be meaningfully difficult to achieve in a game of make-believe without stakes to contextualize it. But the truth is that players set their own challenge merely by the very act of choosing to try things. The text's offer of the 13-hour time limit as stakes is nice as a backup, but it never ended up being necessary. Because the players are already motivated to tackle each scene by their own desire to have a good time and do cool shit they can tell stories about later.

Moreover, the priorities of the game clearly show an intention that it be played. As soon as possible, as much as possible. The prose is not terribly evocative or engrossing. That's a priority for writers who intend their RPGs to be read. The rules and character creation are not very deep or interesting. That's a priority for designers who intend their RPG to be dissected. The world it shares is neither coherent nor consistent, a flimsy setting that often sits atop the fourth wall and doesn't have answers to your questions about it. But that's a priority for worldbuilders who intend their RPG to be dreamt about. But Labyrinth knows exactly what it's here for.

Everything about the product is beginner friendly. Most RPGs open with a tiresome description of "what exactly is an RPG?" and this one sincerely is among the best I've ever come across. It actually seems as though the author understood what needed to be explained for the layman. Because the single biggest barrier to games being played is accessibility, this product makes it extremely easy to jump right in.

The details necessary to grasp the setting, how things behave in this world, and how to populate it are all established quickly, cleanly, and exactly when you need them. There is no setting gazetteer to guide you. No write-ups on goblin culture and society. If you're expecting to go into the campaign prepared with answers, this book might disappoint you at first. Instead, the book is a toolkit. It teaches you how to key into the setting's tone, and then offers tables and details as necessary to aid in improvisation which consistently aligns with that tone. Because another major barrier to games being played is fact-checking, detail-memorization, lore-researching, and scavenging for answers in an adventure module, this product makes it extremely easy to spontaneously worldbuild without ever contradicting established truths.

And of course, there's endless variety and potential. As mentioned, every single scene has at least one element that can be randomized. Not just some cosmetic detail, either. Sometimes, the entire point of the whole scene is selected from a random table. Moreover, the selection of scenes themselves is randomized by the maze-navigation procedure. There are exactly 100 scenes in the book, but the players won't experience all 100. As they make progress, the GM is always rolling dice to determine the next scene, so the players will probably only experience 20-30 in total. And of course, the Goblin King themself is a villain that you have to design yourself, which you could potentially use to drastically change the adventure. Because finding or creating high-quality, usable content is a very taxing part of GMing and adventures can be rather expensive, this product emphasized replayability as a core selling point. Replayability is a value nearly ubiquitous in the world of video games but is almost never even considered in RPGs, even though it rules.

A few genuine quibbles

Some of this is a warning to anyone out there who's thinking of running the adventure, but some of it might end up being read by the creators and could be addressed (if not in this product, then at least future ones).

  1. Many of the hyperlinks in the PDF are broken. For example, the link to the Toolkit chapter in the Table of Contents instead takes you to a scene in the Land of Yore chapter, a full 100 pages off.

  2. The website has some downloadables! This is very nice, but form-fillable versions of the character sheets would be appreciated. I made my own and the result is clumsy and sloppy but functional.

  3. Another offering found in the downloads seemed to be a VTT asset pack of a sort. I was super stoked for this because I was running the game online. But I was let down. It's a PDF containing an image of every single "battle map" including in every scene of the adventure, with all the numbers and annotations removed. Seems perfect for using on a VTT, right? Just take each one and upload it as the background layer. Except... the resolution is absolutely terribly. Like, unusably bad. They're also all recolored yellow and are shrunk down to the center of a page with a huge margin of dead space, for some reason.

  4. The first page of the Castle chapter shows a map of the castle's layout with all the rooms numbered and keyed appropriately, but the castle is oriented the wrong way. In all the subsequent pages showing maps and room layouts, everything is 90 degrees counterclockwise. This confused me for an embarrassingly long time.

Some bonus advice

I am a big believer in one-shots and mini-campaigns. As somebody who frequently actually plays RPGs, it is my belief that one of the other biggest barriers to play is the insistent norm of only ever attempting long-running campaigns. Don't get me wrong, I've played quite a few of them myself. They can be immensely satisfying. But the expectation of them, at the exclusion of nearly all other forms of play, is detrimental to the hobby as a whole. It is a completely unreasonable expectation for the vast majority of people who are just getting into the hobby and it creates problems that shouldn't exist. The world of RPGs would be a lot healthier if long-term campaigns were treated as the exception rather than the rule, because then more people would get to play more often.

Labyrinth works remarkably well as a mid-length campaign, good for about 7-10 sessions. But if you can't manage that kind of commitment, I don't think it's the worst idea to run it as a one-shot. A lot of the book's potential and brilliance would be sacrificed, but you'll still have fun. In order to complete the adventure in a single evening, my advice would be to take 1 juicy scene from each layer of the Labyrinth and just run those. Forget the depthcrawl procedure and forget the 13 hours thing. Just pick out 5 or 6 awesome scenes and you've bought yourself 2.5 hours of fun. My recommendations would be:

  1. Stone Walls 5: Brick Keepers

  2. Hedge Maze 11: Orchard or 19: The Hunt

  3. Land of Yore 2: The Land of Stench or 4: Quicksand

  4. Goblin City 12: The Checkpoint

  5. The Castle is tricky because it's a dungeoncrawl. If you need to reduce it to 1 room of substance or maybe a sequence of 2-3 rooms, then I recommend 7: The Stairway as most important, and optionally 6: The Throne Room, and if you're playing in person, 8: The Simulacroom.

Give yourself at least 30-40 minutes of buffer space. The adventure's opening, wrap-up, and scene transitions will eat up that time. I have not attempted this myself, but I'd love to hear if anyone does.


Like many GMs, I almost exclusively ran my own content when I was new to the job. I love designing adventures. But something I love a lot more than designing adventures is playing adventures. And I have discovered that these two loves, which seem like they should complement one another, are instead in fierce and unforgiving competition.

Finally giving in and running published adventures was the best decision I've ever made. There are so many amazing offerings out there which people have poured passion and creativity into. I cannot recommend it enough. I still write adventures now and then, but I have to credit games like this one for allowing me to play as much as I do and as richly as I do.

I have a blog. I write about game design and theory. I write about adventure design. I write about homebrewing. I write about themes and narrative. I write about politics and discourse. And I write a lot about semantic bullshit. But trust me, I get tired of it all. That stuff is not why I'm into RPGs. It stimulates my brain and gives me a side hobby. But I wouldn't be interested in any of that if I didn't also get to play. And through play, I discover far more than I do just from reading and writing and discussing and thinking.

Really, the worst thing I have to say about Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game is that it has an unwieldy title.


Monday, May 1, 2023

Pedantic Wasteland - Vampire Cruise

Come Sail Away

Vampire Cruise by Amanda lee Franck is a 40-page zine containing a site-based location (the Sea Star cruise ship) for a horror-comedy adventure that unfolds over the course of two days at sea. It acts as a referee’s creative partner in bringing to life an adventure with a unique premise that is simply summed up by the title. It is system-neutral but contains roughly B/X stats for its monsters, which makes it relatively easy to adapt to any vaguely “old-school” system. 

This review is based on two sessions I ran online in February, which is described in more detail in a play report by one of the players on his blog, Benign Brown Beast. I ran the adventure using Into the Odd, which system I recommend pairing with this adventure for two reasons. First, the more modern equipment packages fit better in an adventure set on a vaguely modern cruise than the more medieval European fare you tend to find in other “OSR” rulesets. Second, Vampire Cruise is open to the players being passengers, crew members, or vampires, and Into the Odd provides a neat way to determine who is a vampire if you want a mixed party. In Into the Odd, some starting backgrounds come with an Arcanum, which is a magic item with a random power. Vampire Cruise states that “Vampire PCs have one extra ability (choose from the skills other vampires have or make up your own)”. I had the idea to reskin Arcanum as a vampiric ability. In my playtest, only one character was a vampire (a fact he kept hidden from the other players until he felt appropriate), and when he used his power, it was a nice, dramatic reveal. 

Some Assembly Required

Vampire Cruise has everything to drive a couple fun sessions but leaves the work of putting those pieces together to you. If you, like me, thrive on improv when you are referee-ing, the adventure is more than enough to prompt seaboard shenanigans. If, however, you need everything to be more clearly and fulsomely laid out before you begin your session, this won’t be a pick-up-and-play adventure for you. Instead, you’ll need to do some level of prep to put the pieces together enough for your comfort level. 

The map and itinerary are the two pillars of the adventure. As I said in a post on my own blog, an itinerary or other guidance for what happens over time during the course of an adventure is just as helpful as a map, although it is more often overlooked. There is some helpful scaffolding in the itinerary (which lists 11 things that likely happen over the course of the two day cruise) and the familiar keyed map, but the referee is mostly responsible for choosing when and where the 12 pages of NPCs fit in with respect to time and place. Some NPCs are tied to the lightly keyed locations on the ship (for instance, the 15-year-old unpublished diarist, Kate Kosciusko, is usually found in a far corner of the library or in the banquet hall, while the serial-romantic vampire, Svetlana, resides in a recreation of her ancestral tower. Most NPCs, however, are sort of floating ideas, for the referee to insert as they see fit. And this is, in fact, the best way to use them. It’s even the best way to use the NPCs who presumably have a place they frequently haunt. I had a heavily sunscreened Svetlana beneath a heavy parasol hit on one of the PCs who sat by the pool by themselves, which turned into an ongoing thread in our game, while Kate was seated with a couple of PCs during the talent show at the concert hall as a way to give the PCs the info that passengers (in this case, Kate’s aunt) were starting to go missing.

The map is an engaging and, more importantly, gameable piece of art. There is so much detail in the cutaway map that you get a good idea what the adventure entails just by looking at it. The additional top-down maps of the major decks are just an added bonus, helping you conceptualize exactly where everything is. If you are familiar with Amanda lee Franck’s previous adventure, You Got a Job on the Garbage Barge, then you have a good idea of what this map looks like. Vampire Cruise’s map key is terse and funny, perhaps a bit more terse than the map key descriptions in Garbage Barge. However, the descriptions are typically enough to give the referee a springboard to describe what the PCs encounter. Exceptions are things like the balloon launch, cannon, pools, and engine deck, while are labeled on the map but don’t have any accompanying key. Some stand-outs in the map keys are the The Broadway Experience Concert Hall, which comes with a d6 table of what stage show is happening, the rock-climbing wall that is a to-scale duplicate of the vampire’s castle elsewhere on deck, and the underwater viewing window: “Crew members lower a bag of entrails into the water every few hours to attract a dazzling shark show. More sharks every time! There are getting to be a worrying number of sharks.” Franck strikes a similarly comedic tone throughout, which makes Vampire Cruise a pleasant read (and occasionally tempts the referee to read a choice line or two aloud at the table). However, to earn the “pedantic” moniker in the title of my review series, I will note the slight nitpick that The Ruined Tower and The Box House appear to be switched in the map versus the map key. (These are the types of nits that are probably present in most, if not all, published adventures, and it is probably my anxiety about these type of errors appearing in own adventure, which as I write this post is out of my hands and into my printer’s, that make me more sensitive to it. This small error isn’t actually something that would slow or disorient any reader or referee.)

Because the itinerary and the map are the engines driving the adventure forward, I advise giving players a redacted itinerary and an unredacted map at the start of the cruise. The map encourages the players choose what to do next based on what parts of the map look most interesting, while the itinerary tends to anchor them. My players kept saying things like “okay, what should we do for the next couple of hours before the dinner at the banquet hall begins?” As an example of ways an enterprising referee can assemble the pieces in Vampire Cruise to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, I would recommend expanding the itinerary to three days and inserting the 20 “cruise activities” included as a random table toward the back of the book as new events on board the Sea Star. This would all be much more than the PCs would reasonably be able to do during the cruise, but making some events take place at the same time forces the players to make more decisions about the type of cruise they are on.

But of course, the Sea Star is no ordinary cruise. How does the central conceit of the adventure, that it is a cruise, but with vampires, manifest? Mostly on Deck 13, which houses luxurious cabins for vampiric passengers and fancy recreations of some of the most powerful vampires’ on-shore abodes. The list of vampires on the cruise are an engaging bunch–the aforementioned Svetlana, who I ran like Jennifer Coolidge’s character in The White Lotus, is my favorite, but there is also a pair of rich hipsters and a Dracula-esque count with his spouses (like Dracula, this Count Ratherius is a bisexual icon. Count Strahd, take notes). The best vampire, however, never appeared in my game. It is the vampire shark that can turn into a mist to get onboard ships. 

The vampires are a bit of a red herring. Players who presume an adventure entitled “Vampire Cruise” would feature vampires as its primary antagonist are in for a shock. The real villains of the module turn out to be a cult run by sleazy motivational speakers and dedicated to a horrifying, twenty-foot-tall, 3000-year-old Egyptian deity. This cult will attempt to hypnotize the PCs, unleash multiple monsters on the cruise, and are responsible for the climactic presumed-ending of the cruise, where the deity breaks into the vampire ball and begins killing vampires first, then everything else on board. The vampires tend to be a bit comedic, even campy, so this bait-and-switch injects more horror into the adventure than had the cruise been populated entirely by vampires. 

Some Notes on Genre

“I want them to feel the same marrow-level dread of the oceanic I’ve always felt, the intuition of the sea as primordial nada, bottomless depths inhabited by cackling tooth-studded things rising toward you at the rate of a feather falls.”

- Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise [1]

Vampire Cruise is neither fully comedy nor much of a horror. It may lean towards the comedic by subverting typical horror tropes associated with vampires, gothic and brooding monsters, on board a tropical cruise ship, it also heightens the real horrors present on even mundane cruises. The crew are an ever-present underclass on board cruise ships, and Vampire Cruise doesn’t elide this fact. For instance, when the PCs are passengers, they have the ability to call on crew members for “absolutely anything the players ask for.” There is a little sub-mechanic for these requests, which may result in crewmates “tearfully beg[ging] you not to complain” or “painstaking[ly] recounting” the efforts the crew has taken to satisfy the request, along with “details on how Room Service plans to move forward from the present impasse.” Class is built into the map too: there are 3rd, 2nd and First Class Cabins for the 3rd, 2nd and First Class Passengers. Vampires have luxury suites, if they don’t have their own castles on board. But the cultists sleep in a long hallway filled with bunk beds. Vampires have always been used as class commentary, and the choice to pair them with a location so suffused with class was an inspired one. The Sea Star is a tinderbox and it eventually explodes as the cult unleashes a monster that rises up through the floor to devour the upper class, literal aristocrats during their black-tie party. This was the moment for my group where the adventure finally morphed from slapstick comedy to horror as the PCs fled for their lives, sacrificed one of their own, and rescued the young Kate Kosciusko from meeting the same violent end that befell all the lost souls aboard the Sea Star.

Where to Find Vampire Cruise

Vampire Cruise was written and illustrated by Amanda lee Franck. You can purchase a PDF of the adventure on for $10.00 and in print and PDF at Exalted Funeral for $15.00. 

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...