by Jason Cordova
When Trophy Gold came out, a lot of folks were puzzled by it. It’s an OSR game that, unlike most others, doesn’t use Dungeons and Dragons as its foundation. It’s a game that discards the room-by-room exploration of dungeons in favor of zooming-in on the best parts and summarizing the rest. It’s a game in love with theme. In Trophy Gold, all the characters can use magic, the combat is lethal as fuck, and the players have just as much input in creating the story as the GM. It’s a game with recognizably OSR trappings but with a strong story gamer sensibility underpinning it, and I think while a lot of folks were excited by the possibilities, they were somewhat confounded by how the game is actually played.
Character creation is fast and fun
As in core Trophy, character creation in Trophy Gold is really quick. Basically, you choose some elements from a set of tables—Name, Drive, Occupation, Background, Backpack Equipment, and Rituals—write them down, and you’re done. You don’t roll any dice or assign ability scores, but you still have a lot of interesting choices to make. What’s particularly cool about Trophy is the wide variety of character configurations you can end up with. You can have a Bankrupted Merchant who is now an Historian trying to raise money in order to arm the resistance against Lord Haffir’s tyranny, or a Grief-Stricken Poet who is now a Sorcerer trying to buy the orphanage where they were mistreated. There are so many interesting combinations, and each is rich with storytelling opportunities.
We actually used the Trophy Gold character generator by Ramanan S, which made the process even quicker. You can find that right here. We also used the character keeper by Evan Bucholz for online play (note: set the zoom to 75% for a better experience). You can find that here.
Character elements have a huge impact on both story and gameplay
The characters may not have any numbers associated with them—and they might be seemingly-shallow compared to other fantasy game characters—but the various elements that make up each character have a HUGE impact on both story and gameplay.
I think an example is best here:
In our game, Fraser was playing an Oracle called Kel. Kel’s Oracle occupation gave him the skill Trances. When Fraser was deciding what to narrate in order to trigger a Hunt Roll, he decided Kel might be using his Trances skill to actually expand his consciousness and examine the wider terrain around him. I thought that was a great idea, so I gave him a Hunt Roll to search the area, with a light die coming from the Trances skill. He described how Kel was burning incense, meditating, and so forth, in order to go into his trance state. He got a 5 on the Hunt Roll, meaning he was successful (+1 token), but he’d also have to face a danger of some sort. I described how tapping into this divine consciousness attracted a large, arachnid-like creature with the model of a tiny city on its back. Fraser responded to this danger by invoking another skill he got from Oracle, Gods. He described how the Gods skill would allow him to actually commune with the spider creature, who he deemed to be a minor deity. We did a Risk Roll and Kel successfully avoided the danger, but as the result of a Devil’s Bargain, he had to take a child of the spider deity into his body.
As you can see from the example, the mere presence of a few words on Fraser’s character sheet lead to very cool story outcomes, all of which were the basis for die rolls. If you’d like to see how this all played out, check out the embedded video at 01:05:00.
Equipment and creative problem-solving
Related to the above point, the characters’ equipment lead to a lot of very interesting and creative problem-solving by the players. Unlike in a PbtA game, where simply getting a 7+ on a die roll leads to your character overcoming a diffculty, you have to use your smarts as a player to solve problems in Trophy Gold (this is true of most OSR games). As the GM, it was very enjoyable watching the players puzzle over how their pot of grease or 300’ of twine could be used in a situation (and so they could get an all-important light die in a Hunt Roll or Risk Roll). I’ll also add here that the Dungeon World-like equipment slots are another fun avenue for creativity, though, unlike DW’s Adventuring Gear, Trophy Gold equipment has a bit more of a creative constraint in that you can only choose from a list of approved items. In play, though, it felt really similar to Adventuring Gear, which is one of my favorite rules from DW.
The “push your luck” aspect of the game is ever-present
When I interviewed Jesse Ross, the author of the game, for Fear of a Black Dragon, something he emphasized in the conversation is the “push your luck” aspect of Trophy Gold’s gameplay. On paper, I understood what he was talking about, but it wasn’t until I saw the game in action that I truly appreciated this aspect of it. Hanging over everything are the characters’ Burdens—essentially, the price of coming back to town in order to rest up—and these Burdens inform so much of the players’ decision-making. Importantly, as the players are collecting tokens from Hunt Rolls, they are tempted to use some of them in order to collect treasures, which will help them meet their Burdens and, ultimately, allow them to save up to satisfy their Drive. On the other hand, they need save enough tokens to actually complete the goals of the dungeon, and the longer they spend doing Hunt Rolls in order to collect tokens, the greater chance they have of running into some sort of danger that will kill them. And this tension is SO palpable at the table.
The “push your luck” aspect also comes out in combat, but we haven’t quite yet seen that in our game. However, I can say that…
Combat is INTENSE
Holy shit. It has been a long time since I’ve played a game where combat felt truly lethal and where the stakes of each die roll were extremely high. We only had one combat in our session (prior to that, the players were using Risk Rolls to avoid it) but the players immediately understood what was at stake. They could probably survive one or two bad die rolls, but a third bad die roll would almost certainly have killed one of them, or, at the very least, it would have made going back to town a much more expensive proposition (since they’d have to spend their hard-earned Gold on healing). Fortunately for them, they defeated the creature in one roll (they rolled a 9 on two black dice when they needed an 8 or higher). But right up until the dice results were revealed, the tension was thick.
The presentation of sets is a key GM skill in this game
This may not necessarily be how Jesse intends for the game to go, but I think the presentation of sets is really, really important when running Trophy Gold. The thing about sets is they represent discrete areas of the adventure, and they don’t necessarily equal each other in terms of geographical area covered or length. So, for example, in our session we managed to get through 2 sets: the first was a miles-long journey to the dungeon and the second was just 2 areas in that dungeon. No matter the size of the set, it’s completed whenever the players spend 3 Hunt Roll tokens to do so. I think in order for players to properly judge when to go ahead and pull the trigger on completing the set, they need to understand the goal of the set, whether that be in-character or out-of-character knowledge.
Here’s what I did: much like moving from Ring to Ring in core Trophy, I actually announced to the players “You are now moving into the next set.” I even went so far as to give the players a lot of explicit, out-of-character knowledge about the set. So, in the first set I said “This set is about the journey to the ancient tomb. The goal of the set is the find the entrance to the ancient tomb.” In the second set I said “This set is the False Tomb. Your characters believe it is the real tomb, but as players, you know your goal is to locate the entrance to the True Tomb.” Since the spending of Hunt Roll tokens is a strictly out-of-character thing (your characters have no sense or notion of this), it made sense to me that the presentation of goals should also exist on the same, meta plane. And I’m here to tell you: it worked beautifully. The characters get to have their dangerous, thrilling, hopefully-lucrative adventure, while players and GM work together to advance the story in a way that makes sense.
The Hunt Roll scales beautifully
The Hunt Rolls were very effective. In fact, I think everyone at the table was pretty shocked by how great this particular mechanic is. My comment on The Gauntlet Forums about only using the Hunt Roll for large areas should be disregarded. In fact, it scales beautifully to both large areas and small areas.
Once you get the hang of it, the Hunt Roll is a very intuitive rule. Basically, as the GM, you describe a thing in the environment. If a character goes to investigate, you have them do a Hunt Roll. This leads to the core gameplay loop of Trophy Gold: Hunt Roll leads to danger presented leads to Risk/Combat roll. Spend your tokens and move on to the next set or engage the gameplay loop again by doing another Hunt Roll. It worked great and the players loved it once they understood how it worked.
The main thing I think you need to consider when it comes to the Hunt Roll is how flexible you are able to be in the moment as a GM. In the sets I was using, the dangers and treasures presented were enough to satisfy most Hunt Rolls and token spends, but there were a couple of occasions where I had to make up a treasure on the fly, and if that’s not something you are comfortable doing, you may want to have a treasure table handy (the one in the Trophy expansion found in Codex - Emerald works great). I didn’t need any on-the-fly dangers, but I could see a situation where it might be handy to have something like that in your back pocket, too.
I strongly recommend watching the video embedded below (gameplay starts at 39:46) to see how to effectively use Hunt Rolls.
The Risk Roll from Trophy is very sturdy in this context
In core Trophy, the Risk Roll is paramount; it governs every conflict in the game. Trophy Gold has a couple of new rolls to help it better tell a classic fantasy adventure story, but the Risk Roll is still quite prominent and is highly-functional in this new context. The changes to the text of the roll, particularly the addition of allowing equipment to give you a light die, helps make it fit into this OSR-ish frame. And, as ever, the Devil’s Bargain remains a terrific engine for collaborative story telling.
Questions I had
I did have a few questions about the game as I was running it. I’ll address those here.
Do you pool hunt roll tokens? The text of Trophy Gold isn’t clear about whether you can pool your Hunt Roll tokens in order to achieve the set goal. I conferred with Jesse and he said that you can, in fact, pool them, which is the call I made during the game.
How do Rituals work in combat? We had a moment where we weren’t quite sure how Rituals were handled in combat. I made the call that they were simply fictional positioning—that you still made the Combat Roll as normal, but that you could use your Ritual to narrate what your character was doing in the scene. Jesse told me this was the right way to handle it.
What will going back to town be like? We haven’t yet returned to town and engaged the various procedures there, and I’m curious how this is going to go from a storytelling standpoint. As written, it’s a very mechanical process (spend Gold to satisfy Burdens, spend Gold to lower your Ruin, spend Gold to get new equipment slots, store Gold away, etc.). I’m curious whether and how we will get some story there, since there isn’t a lot of textual support for building narrative into these procedures.
The bestiary is intriguing, but I wonder how it feels long-term. I really liked the bestiary as a sort of high-level form of character advancement; it was really fun to name the encountered monsters and to know that that knowledge outlives the characters. But we haven’t yet played long enough to experience the mechanical advantages you get from the bestiary, nor to just generally understand how it affects the long term gameplay and story. I’m intrigued, but need more data.
I loved Trophy Gold. It is exactly how I want to do OSR-style fantasy adventure from now on. I thought I’d never find a game to wean myself off World of Dungeons with, but this is definitely it. It has the feeling of an OSR game—of rich, deadly dungeon exploration—but with a flexible, narrative system that appeals to me.
You can check out the session we played in the video embedded below. To jump straight to the gameplay, go to 39:46.
Trophy Gold can be found in Codex - Gold, which will be available on DriveThru in November.