by Jason Cordova
As of this writing, I have run 17 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
Trophy: Notes on Ring 1
Trophy: What's the Point of All These Tables?
You can learn more about Trophy by clicking the image.
Let the survivalists show off
Because Trophy is so focused on the psychology of the treasure-hunters—and the dark, arcane forces that are trying to rip them apart—it’s easy to overlook gameplay moments revolving around the practical difficulties of navigating the forest (finding trails, making camp, managing supplies, etc.) This is compounded by the fact that we tend to hard frame each scene, with little attention given to how the characters physically got to that point. This can lead to a problem in the gameplay: your ranger-type treasure-hunters don’t get to do what they’re good at.
But look closely: Ring 2 is where we find many of the environmental challenges the incursion has to offer—navigating tricky bits of terrain, crossing yawning gaps, dealing with the fauna, and so forth. Sometimes these challenges are baked right into the text of the incursion, but more often they are simply hinted at. When I’m thinking of obstacles to put in the treasure-hunters’ path during Ring 2, I always take a quick glance at the skills of the treasure-hunters to see if I can come up with something that plays into what the characters are good at, and if there are some survivalist-types in the group, I go with something that plays to their strengths because Ring 2 might be the last chance to see them.
Going a little bit beyond the scope of this blog post, the above is a great example of a concept we frequently discuss on The Gauntlet Podcast: goal posting. When players make character creation choices, they aren’t simply filling in blanks. Rather, they are telling you, the GM, the kinds of challenges they are interested in facing during the game (and, given the collaborative nature of Trophy, they are also telling the other players the same info). A shrewd GM will pay attention to (and remember) these choices, and then find natural places in the fiction to interrogate them.
Use Ring 2 to lengthen the incursion
Trophy is a terrific one-shot. With 3 players and 4 hours, you can complete an incursion and tell a very satisfying story in which everyone gets a chance to “shine” (I use quotes here, because “shining” in Trophy usually means losing well). But what if you have more players? What if, for whatever reason, you want to increase the number of sessions it takes to finish the incursion? What if you simply want more of what the incursion has to offer?
Ring 2 represents your best opportunity to expand the length of the game. Unlike the emotional chiaroscuro of Ring 1, the internal exploration of Ring 3, and the Ari Aster-esque, beautiful insanity that is Ring 5, Ring 2 feels the most like a traditional, party-based adventure game (we’ll put a pin in Ring 4 for now; that ring also has a more traditional feel, but isn’t as suitable for expanding the length of the game as Ring 2 is). There is an expectation that you will present the treasure-hunters with challenges related to the environment or that otherwise feel a little more like an “adventure.” And, as noted in the first section of this post, a lot of these challenges are merely hinted at in the text of the incursion—it’s on you, as the GM (or, indirectly through Devil’s Bargains, as the player), to flesh this stuff out, especially if you want to expand the length of your game.
So how does this work? For a one-shot, I think you stick to 1 or 2 scenes/encounters/obstacles, and if there is something spelled out in the Terrors and Temptations text of the incursion, that’s a thing you focus on. So, for example, in The Flocculent Cathedral, you definitely do the bug swarm and the row of saints, and maaaybe throw in a terrain navigation scene if you have time.
If you want to lengthen your game, I think you do the things that are spelled out brightly in the text, and then add in 2-4 more scenes/encounters/obstacles, depending on how much you want to stretch things out (I think if you go past 6 total scenes, that’s probably overkill, and you risk muddying Trophy’s tight construction). As for what these additional scenes should be, it depends very much on the incursion you are using. In the Tomb of 10,000 Dreams, for example, you get a helpful list of Terrors and Temptations in Ring 2, but they are just short prompts—you have to put the meat on the bone yourself. In The Forest of Blades, there are only 2 ideas, but they are each filled out in more detail, and advice is given on how to present them. In this latter example, if you want to expand Ring 2, you have to think about what sorts of obstacles have been implied in the fiction so far.
AND DON’T FORGET: Devil’s Bargains! Devil’s Bargains that are negotiated in earlier scenes are often a rich resource for future scene ideas. If you want a quick, satisfying way to lengthen your game (in Ring 2 or otherwise) think about a scene you can frame around a Devil’s Bargain.