by Jason Cordova
As of this writing, I have run 15 games of Trophy, Jesse Ross’s game of dark fantasy and psychological horror. The purpose of these blog posts is to share the lessons I have learned so you can improve your own experience with the game (and possibly your experience with roleplaying games in general).
Links to the other entries in this series:
9 Tips for Running Trophy
You can learn more about Trophy by clicking the image to the right.
A staged encounter
The first thing that jumps out at you about Ring 1 is that its Terrors and Temptations are highly staged. Unlike later rings, Ring 1 is practically scripted. In Witchwood, for example, you’re always going to encounter the dying soldier first, and then you’ll find his companion crushed under the boulder, and then you’ll find the witch pinned to a tree. In The Throne of the Forest Queen, you’re always going to encounter the shepherd, who will always ask you to help him find his 3 lost sheep.
There are, of course, practical reasons for this staging. Unlike in later rings, there haven’t yet been any Devil’s Bargains or failed rolls to help shape the story, and so this staging helps avoid the “getting started” problem many rules-light story games (most famously, Fiasco) have. But in my experience, there’s more to it than that...
Don’t mess with Ring 1
In later rings, particularly Ring 2 and Ring 3, you have a lot of room to expand the number and type of encounters the treasure-hunters have—you can scale things as needed, and you can adjust the Rings to account for failed rolls and Devil’s Bargains (and I’ll be talking about those things in future posts). But Ring 1, I find, is almost sacrosanct. You just don’t want to fuck with it.
In the core rules text, we’re told the point of Ring 1 is to present easy challenges and easy rewards, the idea being we are giving a fictional justification for why the treasure-hunters keep going. Straight away, you can see that trying to “expand” Ring 1 is kind of pointless. If the challenges are meant to be easy to overcome, adding more of them will simply be boring or redundant.
More interesting, I think, is that Ring 1 presents the players’ first opportunity to interact with the theme and aesthetic of the incursion. It’s essentially setting the table for what’s to come, and if you try to get cute with it—changing things up or adding new challenges—you run the risk of missing this point entirely. In The Flocculent Cathedral, for example, the bandit encounter shows us a lot about the forest to come: they are filthy, but well-fed; degenerate, but enjoying each other’s company. The bandits have learned to live in the Fen, but that life has come at a price. And the way the player characters interact with the bandits mostly tells us something about the player characters: do they mistrust these filthy brigands, despite the fact they pose no real harm? Do they join their celebration, despite the fact they are utterly destitute?
And this, I think, leads to the critical thing to understand about Ring 1: the point is to see how the characters react. In several runs of Witchwood, I have seen characters 1) try to save the man from death, 2) try to ease the pain of his death, 3) try to convince the man to whisper the secrets of the forest to them, and 4) walk up and slit his throat to end his suffering. In each case, the moment was highly dramatic, told me something about those characters, and flavored the remainder of the incursion.
Ask questions to develop character backstory
As the GM, you should always be asking questions in Trophy. Ring 1 presents an opportunity ask some preliminary questions about the characters, to learn a little bit more about their backstory. In some of the incursions, this function is explicit. In The Throne of the Forest Queen, for example, we are to ask a character how the people they are helping reminds them of someone from home. In The Flocculent Cathedral, the characters will hear the bandits’ shanty and be asked to explain how one of the verses is connected to their background. But even where questions are not explicitly pointed out (or heavily implied) you can take the opportunity to ask your own. In Shifting Sands, Ring 1 doesn’t present, on its face, any opportunities to query the players about their character, but you could easily ask something like “How does this faded, frail warrior remind you of something you have hopelessly pursued for most of your life” or, more simply, “What about this warrior reminds you of yourself?” The point, after all, is just to get the players talking. A good GM knows even a simple, straightforward encounter is a springboard for asking probative questions.
Be mindful of whether rolls are needed
The encounters in Ring 1 are supposed to be easy. This means they may not even require a roll from the players. I try to be mindful of the stakes involved. In Witchwood, for example, if they try to ease the dying man’s pain, I usually make them roll for that, because the failure (and particularly the Devil’s Bargains) could be interesting. But when it comes to destroying the witch, I’m not as inclined to make them roll, because you can’t have the witch spring up and attack them in Ring 1—her purpose is to die—and the real dramatic crux of the scene is answering (and enacting) the question “How do you kill a witch?”, not whether they are actually able to. The only time I definitely make them roll in Ring 1 is if they intend to use a Ritual, which feels inherently problematic, and therefore pregnant with stakes.
An easy challenge doesn’t necessarily mean there is no danger
And that danger comes in the form of Ruin rolls. There is nothing difficult about the trio of encounters in Ring 1 of Witchwood, for example, but all 3 of them should provoke Ruin rolls. And here you can also rely on what the players give you. In The Tomb of 10,000 Dreams, if a player tells you something about the doppelgänger treasure-hunter that is downright eery or unsettling, make them do a Ruin roll!