Review: Initial Thoughts on Trophy Gold
by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 14, 2023
I ran Temple of the Peerless Star1 using Trophy Gold for some of the TorontOSR posse. We split our game over two weeks. We normally play for about 2.5 hours nowadays, and that felt a bit too tight to get through the adventure. Our first evening began with two players, Alex and Brendan, and ended the night with three, as Paul managed to pop by. Our second game was back to just Alex and Brendan.
I’ve wanted to play Trophy Gold for an age now, since it was first released within one of the Gauntlet Codex zines. The rules are interesting and unusual, and I have been curious about how it would feel to play. Trophy Gold is a game that takes the one-shot story game Trophy Dark and tweaks it to support ongoing play with some OSR sensibilities2. Both games are written by the talented Jesse Ross, who also did the art and layout for the games. What! A third book, Trophy Loom, is a sort of anti-canon setting book you could use to flesh out games of Trophy Gold or Dark, or use in any other RPG you are playing. The writing, art, and graphic design of these books is top notch. The actual physical book for Trophy Gold is quite lovely. These things also contributed to my desire to get it to the table.
Creating characters for Trophy Gold is quite simple. The introductory section of the book walks you through the process, and the layout and design here is fantastic. Trophy Gold characters are quite minimal: a name, occupation, background, and 3 pieces of equipment will define them. Some characters may begin with the ability to cast ritual magic. There are random tables for all of these things, and they are very flavourful. Your character has two numeric stats you will track. Burden is the amount of gold you need to recover to support your lifestyle. If you don’t meet your burdens you “lose” the game, your character must retire. Ruin tracks your character’s journey towards darkness and destruction. When your ruin hits 6 you are lost to the wilds of Kalduhr: your character dies, becomes a monster, an evil NPC, whatever. The (weirdly amazing) Trophy Gold character keeper on Google Sheets walks you through the whole process of making a character. You can also use my random character generator, like god intended.
The mechanics of the game are simple, and create a satisfying game play loop. To explore the world you describe what you want to do and make a Hunt Roll. In some ways this lines up with a Random Encounter Rolls in D&D, or more closely with how Brendan outlines running the game using a Hazard Die. That was how it felt in play: perform some exploratory action and see if any danger finds you. You collect a meta-game currency, called Hunt Tokens, via your Hunt Roll. You can trade these tokens in for gold or to accomplish a goal. Exploration will likely lead to risky activities, mediated with a Risk Roll, or Combat, which has its own mechanics.
At first blush, how Hunt Tokens are used in this game feels 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.
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 out there in the form of podcasts and actual play videos, it’s quite well supported in that regard, 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 game play should look like, 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!) I had lots on my mind prior to and during play. 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? They are often quite goofy, a well written example of play can really clarify how the rules of a game all fit together.
Adventures in Trophy are called Incursions. An adventure is described loosely, as the expectation seems to be that the details will arise through play. Trophy assumes a high level of collaboration between the GM and players. When players make Risk Rolls you’re expected to solicit ideas of what might go wrong from everyone at the table. All players can also offer up Devil’s Bargains: something bad that will happen regardless of how the roll goes in exchange for an extra dice to improve your odds of success. The GM could (and should!) turn describing spaces, rooms, NPCs, etc, over to the players. These are habits I normally don’t have when running, and something I forgot to do throughout both games I ran. If anything, this was my biggest stumbling block with the game: trying to break my own habits and approach the game on its own terms.
An incursion is broken up into a series of sets, with each set having a goal for the players to achieve. Our game began with the players making their way into the Temple of the Peerless Star via the Sept. Their goal was to gain entry to the basement. Players are aware of the goal of the set. In some ways someone could argue Trophy is all meta-gaming: 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. Alex and Brendan knew what they needed to do, and in the initial set up for the scenario, so did the characters themselves. This alignment may not always exist.
I can say that in practice, the game I ran didn’t feel far away from the sorts of games I’d run with D&D or Into the Odd or whatever else. It didn’t feel high level, or that the players were divorced from the actions of their characters. 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.
The player’s accomplished their first goal diegetically, exploring the Sept, finding the trapdoor to the basement, and picking the lock to open it. The rolls to make all of this happen resulted in them being pickpocketed by another adventurer, who they ended up confronting and recruiting. She helped camouflage Alex’s character with a ritual (Blur) so that he would draw less attention to himself when trying to pick the lock to the Basement. (The pickpockets character was picked up by Paul when he joined the game late.) The second set, exploring the basement, they accomplished by trading in Hunt tokens to accomplish a goal. They didn’t finish the 3rd set, the Catacombs, though exploring it was the bulk of our second session together. By the end of the night they had managed to secure enough treasure to flee back to town, and flee they did!
While discussing the game, Brendan reminded me of two posts that he felt would help one understand where this game fits in the broader landscape of RPGs: Grognardia’s The Oracular Power of Dice and his own Reflection and Formation. Trophy Gold has the Hunt Role as a formative rules that produce play at the table, its Risk Roll sitting somewhere in the middle, and the Combat Roll more traditional and reflective. To quote James, “In old school games, the ‘story’ arises from the synthesis of design, randomness, and reaction; it isn’t something you can set out to create.” Trophy Gold would seem to fit the bill.
We had a fun time gaming with Trophy Gold. The game is this weird mix of story gaming and OSR nonsense. I think it manages to make this marriage work. The game feels unique in this regard. I am still thinking aobut this game now, and will likely have more to say about it. I’m not done with Trophy.
This adventure was originally written for Dungeon World, turned into an actual play for their podcast, and finally turned into an incursion for Trophy Gold. ↩
Paul Beakley has a deeper dive into Trophy Dark, Gold and Loom for those of you who want to know more about the game, from someone with more experience playing these sorts of games and reviewing them. ↩