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Trophy Dark

by on January 22, 2020
 

You must go to the forest, though it doesn’t want you there.

You must go to the forest, though it means your death… or worse.

Trophy Dark is a game where you play out a tragedy. We know this before we even begin. You are adventurers who are going to take what isn’t theirs from a place that doesn’t want them there. If you somehow leave, you will be forever changed. No matter what, the forest will make you its trophy.

The Book

The Gauntlet started out as a group of roleplayers in Houston, originally set up to run and play indie RPGs but later talking about them on their podcast. I found them through Google Plus (RIP) and the more they grew, the more I realised I was viewing them as THE roleplaying games community. Socially aware, advocating for making positive play spaces and even starting their own with things like GauntletCon, an annual online RPG convention. After the fall of Google Plus and the Story Games forums, their own forum is one of the better places to talk about games. They also expanded into the production of a high quality monthly magazine called Codex, which publishes content for existing games, but also brand new ones. They’re released through The Gauntlet’s Patreon, which is how I get them, but also on DriveThruRPG a few months later.

This is a long preamble to say, this is how Trophy found its way to me. It appeared in Codex: Dark 2, the twenty-eighth issue of the magazine. Every month since, there has been a little new content for Trophy. Tendrils of the forest seeping into the magazine, infecting it.

So onto Trophy Dark by Jesse Ross.

Trophy is a mere handful of pages, I was even able to print them out in booklet format to have to hand when I ran the game. It’s beautifully designed with this logo:

Nice, isn’t it? I want this logo on a t-shirt one day. The rest of the layout is simple and presented clearly. It uses two of my favourite games as part of its skeleton and their presence is felt, even if the game is still very different. I’ll get onto them in time, though.

First of all, you make a character. The character sheet is pretty small, with a checklist of options. You pick an occupation like, “leech” or “ranger” and this tells you the kinds of things you’re skilled at. You also get a background like “defrocked priest” or “reformed thug” which again, gives you a collection of things you’re likely to be skilled in. You pick your motivation for going into the forest and if you want, some rituals you know to help you along the way. Each of these have been expanded in each of the issues of Codex, or you can make your own.

You mark your character’s Ruin at one. This is how much the forest has already claimed you, plus one per ritual you have chosen. The game recommends not going too much into your background and your relationship. Just a little flavour, just enough for the GM to start taking notes, to start working out weak spots to hit.

Trophy Dark calls its scenarios Incursions. They are each based around a single theme and drill down into it through a series of five rings, each one a step closer to the goal of the character, but to their doom. The Incursions provide several ‘moments’ which can be used to flavour the journey, some ‘conditions’ which will be inflicted on the characters as their Ruin increases, and descriptions of encounters which can be had in each Ring. Trophy Dark provides examples of how to use each of these steps to build your own Incursions before providing The Tomb of 1,000 Dreams, an Incursion built around the theme of ‘Sleep’. I’ll get onto the details of that Incursion in my example of play.

The play of Trophy is simple, but in the same style as Cthulhu Dark, so it’s more to strip away the protection of things like Armour Class or Hit Points. When you do something risky, you roll dark and light dice, picking the highest result. A six gets you what you want, a four or five gets you what you want but also makes things worse, then a one to three is an outright failure. This is a departure from Cthulhu Dark where even one to three results built on the investigation, because you’re not here to reach the end of a mystery, you’re here to see how far you can go before the forest claims you.

The dice pool is easy, with skills providing one light die, but you can get another one if you take a Devil’s Bargain, a mechanic taken from Blades in the Dark. This is great for your dice pool, but you’re accepting that something bad will definitely happen whether you succeed or fail. The GM can make suggestions, or other players can. You then add dark dice if you are risking your mind or body. If your roll isn’t what you want then you can roll again adding another dark die, and another. You might want to be careful though, as if your highest die is a dark die, your Ruin is probably going to increase.

The Ruin going up is fascinating. It’s a little more abstract and surreal than Stability in Cthulhu Dark or Sanity in older horror games. The forest plays tricks, after all. Your character’s Ruin going up might be something real, might be something imagined. It might be something you desperately want to hide from the others as the forest is beginning to claim you for its own.

One other thing to note with this game is that this is a horror game, but it’s incredibly collaborative. The game mentions this early on and as a GM, it was good to open with this. The group knew their characters would die, or that worse fates would happen. They knew that in providing Devil’s Bargains for each other they were taking an active role in this drive towards tragedy. I’ve read some older horror RPGs this year and the combative tone they take towards players is jarring in this day and age. They act like the GM and the players work against each other, when this should only ever be an act at most. This kind of collaborative horror role-playing made for some intensely sinister moments while keeping the table a safe place. We were able to encourage the darkness of the game and work together to make one amazing story, the kind that sticks. The kind that hopefully, I will be able to return to, as future adventurers may find echoes and remnants of their doomed predecessors.

If you want to hear a game of Trophy Dark, there’s an actual play podcast by Jason Cordova of The Gauntlet, one of the games’ producers and most vocal advocates. They used The Flocculent Cathedral incursion for their first arc.

Trophy has its own site and mailing list, which gives another Incursion in return for signing up. This is all in preparation for the launch of the Trophy RPG Kickstarter, which has just launched. Trophy Dark is Trophy as explained above, with doomed adventurers going through Incursions based around a single theme. Trophy Gold I’ve barely touched on as I’ve yet to play it, but it takes the Trophy concepts and applies them to old school style RPG adventures. Then there’s Trophy Loom, which builds on the implied setting found in each Trophy Incursion and the crowdsourced resources they have gathered. It sounds like it’s going to be amazing.

You can find Trophy Dark itself in Codex: Dark 2, and if you like horror RPGs, then this will make a perfect, haunting experience for you and everyone at your table.

The other Trophy Incursions have the following names and themes, each found in the respective links: Witchwood (Oz), To Make My Bread (Bone), Mother (Labor) , Shifting Sands (Time), The Flocculent Cathedral (Moss), The Decadent Ascent (Opulence), The Forest of Blades (War), and there are more released each month. Trophy Gold is found here

I want the playthrough to be the end of this review, so I’ll say up front that in case you couldn’t tell, this game is a hard recommend for me. I’d been billing it as a dark fantasy version of Annihilation, Blair Witch and The Ritual. It’s all of that, but it’s also a lot more, too. It’s beautiful and horrible, and I can’t wait to go back there.

 

The Game

I ran The Tomb of 1,000 Dreams for four players, including a friend of mine from work who had never roleplayed before and also science fiction author Jeff Noon. So it was going to be weird to start with.

Jeff played Kazian, an expelled apprentice. He was a leech who befriended the governor’s son, Theon. Unfortunately when Theon fell ill, Kazian used medicine from the forest to cure him and it made him worse, creating a broken, gibberish wreck. He wanted to find a cure in the forest.

Bridget played Orlen, an escaped cultist and ranger. He and his brother fell in with a cult and while Orlen escaped, his brother was captured and put in prison. Orlen wanted to steal treasure to buy his brother’s freedom.

Adam played Baso, a reformed thug who realised the horrors he’d perpetrated and swore to protect people. He was seeking redemption in the forest by keeping the group safe.

Saffy played Vero, a defrocked priestess who had turned first to religion, then to sorcery, to find her lost mother. She knew now that her mother had gone to the forest, willingly or not. Vero was going to follow in her tracks and rescue her.

Ring One

The first ring is a lure, a false sense of security. The forest went all the way to the walls at the edge of the governor’s estate. None had travelled far into the forest before, although Kazian recounted how as a child he and his friends would dare each other to take six steps into the woods. A seventh would be too late and the forest would claim them, something none of the village children ever dared do. Kazian took a breath and made the seventh step, followed by the others.

Early into their journey, the group realised that they were being watched. There was a scout from another group, shimmying up a tree. Orlen used his ability to project his mind through the woods, seeing a camp set up with a large bodyguard, two scholars and the man hiding up the tree. A stand-off took place when Baso and the bodyguard recognised each other. The guard, Quil, hadn’t given up his life of crime and was helping these scholars rob the tomb. The initial confrontation escalated until a sleeping bear woke, startling both groups. Kazian used herbs from the forest to disguise his scent, causing a horrendous allergic reaction. The fight scattered everyone for a time, although our group mostly hid. When they were done and able to rob a map from one of the fleeing scholars, they realised the group’s scout was still up a tree. The scout described how far he was willing to travel in the forest; specifically a lake where they might find a cure for Kazian’s allergic reaction. He mentioned that the lake was the halfway point to the Tomb of 1,000 Dreams. Before the lake they would find a ravine and after the lake should be a series of watchtowers where an army once stood.

 

Ring Two

The group made their way through the forest and trees covered in gigantic, sleeping dragonflies which they refused to disturb. The woodland split open and a ravine revealed a river lazily drifting past. The group would have to find their way across, but it was getting dark already and they should rest.

They set up camp, having brought tents which Baso had on one giant backpack. Vero dreamed of her mother, pressing hands against the side of the tent, whispering about how Orlen was a cultist and not to be trusted. Kazian dreamt he was Theon, bones warped and snapped, unable to talk until a cure could be found. The group woke and used a stolen crossbow along with Baso’s might to launch a rope across the ravine. Baso was the first to clamber across, proving the rope’s safety to the others. As he went across, he was gripped with a waking dream. The straps of his backpack were the legs of a dragonfly reaching around him, the wings just visible and shimmering in his peripheral vision. He cut the straps loose and the group’s supplies fell into the river, far below.

Their load unintentionally lightened, they made their way across the ravine and towards the lake. The scout’s camp was here, musty and rotten. There were a couple of tents and strange flowers blooming by the side of the water. Kazian started scouting for plants to stop the irritation from his allergic reaction. He found a garden with small statues, all looking out to the lake. Orlen entered one of the tents and found the remnants of a scholar, similarly dressed to the ones from before. There were rotten journals in a pile which nearly disintegrated. I didn’t realise that Orlen’s player, Bridget, was a book-dealer at the time as I explained the torment these books had faced. They provided some information about the tomb up ahead. There were also mentions of Vero’s mother and her journey out here, although only Vero noticed these. Baso went out to the water and was nearly pulled deeper by visions, until he was dragged back without his shoes. Reeds were gathered to make temporary shoes for him and the group tried to rest amongst the rotten tents, as night was already falling again, only hours after the last night.

Ring Three

The group set out, following the map they recovered from the brigands to roughly navigate towards a graveyard. Kazian led them past the small lakeside garden, noticing that the small statues were all facing the group now, even though they remained just as still as before. Their hands grasped weapons which had long since been removed, their mouths were open and their eyes closed.

There was something different in the air this morning. It was like the forest was anticipating a storm, like it was beginning to wake. The group found fragments of stone slabs, the edge of a graveyard. This was a massive place, with mausoleums crumbling, among rows and rows of mismatched gravestones. Tall statues stood atop ornate graves; long-limbed forms with gold-painted stone crowns, closed eyes and tridents still in their hands.

The statues moved. Each turned to look at the group. Vero stumbled back in horror, falling into an open grave where several hands which looked like her mother’s threatened to pull her into the earth. Orlen’s shock meant he felt the ground pulsing, breathing under his feet. He’d begun to feel that there was some kind of slow pulse, but now it was getting faster. Kazian was holding himself together, having made some miraculous Ruin rolls throughout the game so far.

Baso was here to protect the group. His player, Adam, knew two things. One, that if anyone fought a monster, they would die. It’s in the rules, it’s that easy. Fighting a monster means death. Two, his lift had arrived outside the Dice Saloon and he needed to go. With these facts in mind, he charged one of the statues and attacked it to give the others time to run. They fled, each hearing the wet thud of flesh against stone again and again. They each went their separate ways into the far side of the woods, past the graves and desperately back together as night was already beginning to fall.

Ring Four

These woods had more fragments of old buildings. They would provide cover for the group, if they were lucky. None of them were willing to travel to the tomb in the middle of the night, as a storm broke and made the forest even more inhospitable. The largest structure looked like it was the main watchtower. There were sections of fallen tower, reclaimed by the forest. A tiled ballroom sat at an angle against the ground, the most prominent of the structures. One section of tower had a scholar and a bodyguard dead around a table, looking like they’d fallen asleep during a game of cards. Outside, when lightning struck, small statues were visible.

The group found a small prison which was hidden away enough to act as camp. In the jail, Kazian dreamt of Theon’s broken body and Vero spoke with her mother. She looked beautiful, in a dress made to look like a shimmering butterfly’s wings. Vero asked where she was. Mother pointed into the distance, beyond the forest. She said that there was a hill filled with many holes. They are the tombs, and if Vero spilled blood to guide her to the right one, they would be reunited.

A statue wearing Baso’s armour and wielding his sword walked past the prison. When it had passed, they were safe to go. All resolute in their mission.

Ring Five

The statues easily found the group and gave chase. Vero and Kazian managed to get away, but Orlen was separated and isolated by small statues.

The hill was as Vero’s mother had described, barren and filled with large holes. Vero and Kazian made their way to the entrance of one and looked in. The walls were all covered in intricately-carved panels. Vero took Kazian’s moment of curiosity to shoot him in the back with Baso’s crossbow. The blood spiralled and moved when it hit the floor. Kazian crawled further into the tomb to escape Vero, who was divining where to go in the small dragonfly patterns which spread deeper inside.

Kazian had brought his leech’s gear with him and little was of use as he was bleeding out. He rummaged through his pack, found a rusty old scalpel and sliced at Vero’s hamstring as she went past. Vero crumpled and uttered a ritual to summon her mother into her. The Devil’s Bargain I offered was that this ritual would hollow Vero out. Her player took the bargain and succeeded. Mother burst forth from Vero’s body, ripping flesh and reforming it into a massive dragonfly-looking creature, wings unfurling as she grasped Kazian’s head, taking the last of his consciousness away. As he drifted off to an eternal sleep, he heard the popping of the walls as the panels broke off, revealing the bodies inside. They weren’t corpses, but sleepers, all malformed the way Theon had been, bones cracking in and out of their intended shapes. And then Kazian was gone.

Orlen fled out of the forest and reached the hill, closely chased by the statues. Up ahead, he saw the horrors of Mother and the rising bodies of her sleepers. He knew there was no way out, so he cast one last ritual. His mind left his body, going past the statues as they closed in on his body, past the graveyard with the patrolling statues, the lake, the ravine, the forest where the scout was lost and unable to ever leave the woods. Finally Orlen’s mind left the forest and went into the governor’s estate, through the halls and down into the dungeon where his brother was. Orlen had one last glimpse of his brother, who slept in his cell. His brother woke, and Orlen was gone.

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