by Jason Cordova
I have run 9 games of Trophy, the game of dark fantasy and psychological horror by Jesse Ross which is found every month in our magazine, Codex. Jesse and I are putting together a standalone book of Trophy and its expansions, and one of the things we’re going to include is an expanded ruleset that reflects the experiences we’ve had with the game since it originally came out in Codex - Dark 2. In that spirit, I have put together a list of 9 tips for running Trophy, based on my experience with the game.
Note: I originally discussed these on The Gauntlet Podcast in a segment called “9 lessons from 9 games of Trophy.” This blog post is an expansion of those ideas. If you want to listen to the podcast version, it can be found here at 00:32:32.
The game assumes 1 GM and 3 players, and it works really well in that configuration, but I believe 1 GM and 2 players is even better. With 2 players, the story is more intimate and more intense, because the players only have a couple of places they can turn when things are starting to spiral: to the other player character, who is also dealing with a lot of shit (and very likely betraying them), or the forest that wants to break them.
Don’t get me wrong: 3 players is still really terrific. The difference is that there’s a bit more breathing room, and the story is a bit more melodramatic.
A sub-tip here is to be mindful of your play time. With 3 players you will need 4 hours to complete a full Incursion. With 2 players, you can get it done in 3-3.5 hours.
It’s an open question whether the game would work with 4 players. I suspect it would, but I think you’d have to stretch it out to 2 sessions. You really want each Ring of the Incursion to have time to breathe, for players to have enough time to wallow in it, and if you were trying to complete a 4-player game in one sitting, you’d have to rush through things.
2. When presenting the game to new players, emphasize certain key features.
In my experience, you really need to emphasize 2 key points to the players when presenting the game: 1) The characters are likely doomed and 2) the game is fundamentally collaborative. When you fail to emphasize these things, the gameplay ends up kind of funny, because players will want to play Trophy like DnD, when it is definitely not DnD.
When explaining that characters are likely doomed, mention that it’s not guaranteed, that they can survive, but that even if they do survive, they will be broken people. And here’s the real tip: you want to make sure players know that the fun of Trophy is exploring their character’s descent. Since we know the characters are fucked one way or another, the real pleasure of the game is playing out the horror, the insanity, the betrayal.
You also need to emphasize in the beginning that the game is fundamentally collaborative. The GM only has a skeleton of an Incursion to work with. The real story happens during the negotiation of stakes that occurs before a die roll. When players suggest how things could go wrong, or when they offer Devil’s Bargains, they are saying a lot about how the rest of the story is going to go. When you don’t emphasize the collaborative nature of the game up front, the experience tends to be one where the players simply sit back and wait for you, the GM, to deliver story to them.
3. Use gameplay to reveal backstory and character relationships.
Dive right into the incursion without dwelling on backstory, drives, or even how the characters know one another. In the beginning, it’s not important. You’re going to reveal all that stuff in the middle of play, through flashbacks and questions you pose to the players. The reason Trophy works so well as a one-shot is because we are essentially picking up the characters during the last leg of their journey. And yet we still have an opportunity to see where they came from via flashbacks, the answering of questions, and even the epilogue, and so the game feels like a complete story.
4. Paint the Scene in the beginning.
Paint the Scene is my famous GM technique by which you pose questions to the players in order to explore a theme or motif. I wrote about it in a widely-read blog post you can find right here.
Trophy doesn’t have Paint the Scene explicitly built into it, though it is certainly there in spirit. I think the best time to use Paint the Scene is in the very beginning, as the characters start Ring 1, as it helps anchor them in the setting. You can even use the theme of the Incursion to inspire your Paint the Scene question. So, for example, when I ran the Shifting Sands Incursion, which has a theme of Time, I posed the following question at the beginning: “As you begin your journey in the desert, what do you see that is a reminder that a vibrant civilization used to occupy these lands?”
5. Hard frame like a motherfucker.
I can’t emphasize this point enough. Always frame up to the next Ring of the Incursion. You don’t need to ask the players “What do you next?” We know what they’re going to do next, they’re going to press deeper into the forest. If the next Ring is a camping scene, you don’t need to say “Hmm, you’re probably getting pretty tired; do you want to make camp?” Just frame things up so they are at camp. You can and should talk about those interstitial moments between Rings (see the tip below), but you don’t need to dwell on them and you definitely don’t need to present the players with any options other than “move deeper into the forest (or desert or palace or whatever the Incursion is).” At most, you might do a single wilderness-type encounter between Rings to give survivalist characters a chance to show off, but again, just frame right up to that.
6. Use Moments just before each Ring of the Incursion.
Each Incursion has a list of Moments, which are descriptive bits you can use to pepper into the scenes. In my experience, the best time to use them is when moving between Rings. Just pick a couple and use them to add some color to those transitional moments. It works like a charm.
7. Conditions are roleplaying prompts; don’t get cute about it.
When player characters’ Ruin score goes up, you’re supposed to give them a Condition or heighten an existing condition (the latter may not be in the rules, but that’s how I’ve been doing it). What I was doing in the first few games I ran was not telling the players what condition they had but rather suggesting it through descriptions of their person and the environment. That was certainly enjoyable for me, and likely enjoyable for the players since I’m pretty good at that kind of thing, but it didn’t necessarily give the players much to work with in terms of their roleplay. Much better, I discovered, was simply telling the player, for example: “You now have a Condition where you think your non-existent dog has gone missing” or “You now have a condition where your skin is slowly turning to burlap.” Doing it that way—telling the players what is happening to their character—helps them get into roleplaying their descent, as mentioned in Tip 2, above. The games have been uniformly more satisfying doing it this way.
One slight caveat: once the Condition is on the table, I think it’s ok for you, as the GM, to use Ruin score increases or die roll results to deepen and intensify the Conditions through your descriptions. That’s very fun, and in keeping with the collaborative nature of the game.
8. Rituals are important; savor them.
Rituals don’t happen too frequently. Players tend to use them during big moments, when the stakes are high, and will rarely use a particular Ritual more than once in a game. You should take some time to savor them. Don’t let the moment pass as if the player was casting Magic Missile in DnD. Make the Ritual moment a big fucking deal. Ask the players to describe what it looks like; ask them what they have to sacrifice to perform the ritual; ask them how the environment changes because of the presence of the ritual; and so forth. Really linger on the details—it’s worth it!
9. Epilogue, epilogue, epilogue.
Epilogues are an opportunity to make the story feel complete, and to give the players a sense of satisfaction at the end. Let players take a minute at the end to narrate a short scene (a minute or 2 at most) showing the aftermath for their character. Even if a character didn’t survive the Incursion, the player can narrate a scene showing how the character’s absence is felt back home, or similar.