The future remains Grim
Al takes the bloody baton in Sins of Sinister, and continues to beat all and sundry with it. After my picaresque journey through the hell dimension, Al and Alessandro Vitti go into the siege of the Storm System, which is proper epic.
As a bit of colour, this is one which had me thinking of the weird magic of this sort of collaborative venture. Al gets to pull the trigger on one of those big images I had right at the start of this thing. Clearly I’d wanted to have written it, but the story demanded it happen in this issue, so Emma Frost’s apex +1000 form happens here… however, then Vitti takes his own direction on the visual, requiring to be worked into the story in a different way with some elegant writing from Al. What ended on the page emerged from choices which weren’t quite any one person’s decision, but happening somewhere between us all. It’s fascinating stuff, and I think where it ended up is pretty neat.
Next week, it’s Nightcrawlers’ #3, where Si takes this, followed by me with Dominion, rounding everything off and cascading back into the present day.
I got a kickstarter rewards package this week. Namely, DIE RPG, which RRD got to me and Stephanie in the very first copies. Look at that lot.
That’s the hardcover, the deluxe hardcover, the GM’s screen, the Grandmaster pledge fancy dice, the standard resin dice, the boxes for both, the art cards, the Fair coins and their cute bag. Coo.
This is a real double achievement. My first RPG manual AND my first book with a lovely ribbon in. I’m not even joking about the lovely ribbon. A book with a ribbon is a win-state as far as I’m concerned.
In my full instagram post, I did a couple of videos to show the dice’s flicker and generally talk about it, which you can look at here but I realised if I just upload to youtube you’ll be dealing with that pillarbox ratio. So I’ve just recordered a new little walk through for you lot. Here you go.
It’s like an unboxing video, but without unboxing. It’s a video. Let’s just call it a video.
That it exists will likely make a bunch of you say “Hey – where’s mine?” In terms of when things will be reaching backers, RRD will be doing a full kickstarter update (likely) tomorrow giving an update for each territory.
If you haven’t backed, you can still get your own copies. It’s available from game and comic shops (Diamond will ship it to the shop) and also directly from RRD.
I’ve almost stopped linking to solicits here, unless it’s for a new book. It’s mainly as I’m doing less newsletters, so it’s something that feels that it lengthens the newsletter in a way which feels unwieldy. However, as this one has less comics in than usual, a walk through of Mark’s covers for the next few Immortal X-men issues seems fun.
I’m not going to give the solicits, but here’s the Marvel article about the last one, which is where we go into Fall of X.
I can’t wait to see 15, as the high concept mad me smile a lot. I think folks will like that one too. Mark is just doing amazing work with this series.
I’ve been searching for treasure for a long time. I have my freeform player-narrative games. I have my doomed horror games. I have my classical adventure games, in various traditions. I have a whole bunch of games that do great things which are entirely separate from all the things that D&D did and does. But I didn’t have a game which found a precise spot I craved satisfied two core things at once.
In short, I had an itch. Trophy Gold scratches the itch. It scratches the itch firing a crossbow bolt through it. It is intensely co-operative. It is intensely merciless. It was exactly what I needed.
As such, I wanted to write about Trophy Gold, and I’m aware that doing so carries significant risks.
It was my one semi-regular social thing this year was the three months at the back end of last year, when I ran a mostly-weekly Trophy Gold game for some friends. As we’re all primarily Forever GMs (and they’re mostly full-time professional designers) we spend a lot time talking around the games, the rules’ implications and so on. So if I download half the thoughts we had about Trophy Gold, we’re going to end up with a ludicrously long piece of writing.
That has two problems.
Firstly, it would give completely the wrong impression of the game. Trophy’s Gold’s core rules are a handful of pages. We were aware that a transcript of our chat absolutely dwarfed Trophy Gold’s rules in size.
Secondly, any time I write about RPGs at length, I shed readers.
(The single biggest drop in the mailing list numbers was when I did my Top 10 RPGs a few years ago – over 50 people left the list. Though I also figure that once I’ve lost folks who are turned off that hard, perhaps things are fine. If not, probably best delete the mail.)
I’m going to try and write about Trophy Gold in a way that Trophy Gold would respect – with as much elegance and minimalism as I can. Which, being me, is not much. I won’t write about everything, but I’m going to try and cover the key bits which makes this machine purr.
Heh. Now looking at what I wrote, I realise I failed utterly. Come with me. I’ll include a bunch of art as interstitials. Look, here’s one now.
Conceptually, Trophy Gold is as classical an RPG as you could wish. You are low-fantasy adventurers. You go on incursions into the unknown to get gold, in desperate pursuit of a near impossible goal. You’re born with a few dice rolls or choices. Quickly, you discover you’re Inda, Ex-opportunistic graveyard robber before turning to the life of a snake, and you wish only to destroy the work of Ajino the Debauched Painter. Note how that starts asking open questions. Why do you hate this painter so much? What graves did you rob? Is “snake” a literal or metaphorical thing? Don’t answer yet. All will be defined in play. You start with a pencil sketch, then shade and detail.
Depending on how much stuff you start with, you set your Burden. Burden is the first of Trophy Gold’s brutal, beautiful teeth. Burden is the amount of treasure you need to get on every adventure. If you don’t, you starve to death in an alleyway. If you only just manage to get it, you’re still falling towards unlife in an alleyway. To heal? You need gold. To improve your character? You need gold. To achieve your character’s goal? You need to collect a whole lot of gold.
The clue’s in the name. Trophy Gold is about gold, and the sheer desperation of the players speaks to how well that works. This isn’t the camp Adventuring Is Fun mode of RPGs. These are people who are risking their lives because they have no other options, and would rather die that not achieve the one thing which gives their life meaning. They will likely die, but they’ll go down fighting. It’s that sort of game. It’s the hope that gets you. Well, it’s not the hope that gets you. It’s usually a monster with huge teeth.
The actual game is are powered by a handful of systems. There’s three main ones.
First, and most magical, is the Hunt Roll. If you’re asking a question about the world, you’re likely making a hunt roll. You get a dice – always a six-sider inTrophy - just for asking the question. You get another if you have any relevant skills or equipment. You roll ‘em and pick the best. Less than 4, something bad is in your face. 4 or a 5, something bad is imminent. 6, all is cool. However, no matter what you roll, you discover what’s there to be discovered. It’s not a investigate roll. It’s a “Any trouble?” roll, and what you discover is based upon what you’re actually asking and where you are. You also get a Hunt Token if you roll 4+ - but I’ll get back to that.
What the Hunt roll tends to do is cascade into the Risk Roll. If you have discovered the aforementioned bad in your face, it’s likely a Risk Roll to get it out of your face. This plays in a similar set up to Blades in the Dark, but with sharper edges. You say what you want to happen. The whole table then discusses what could go wrong, establishing the stakes. Jumping across a chasm? Maybe you fall in. Maybe you drop something. Maybe you get trapped half way up the wall. Maybe as you make the jump, your Ex-partner who has sworn to kill you arrives on the other side, dagger in hand, while you’re separated from the rest of the group.
You then gather dice – but unlike the Hunt roll, you start with zero dice. You get one if you have a relevant skill or equipment – never, ever more than one, no matter from how many sourcs. If you need another dice you can accept a Devil’s Bargain – something suggested by the group which will definitely happen, no matter what. Finally, if it’s a task which is risking your life (or you want to risk your life) you can add a dark dice. Roll. Highest dice a 6? Works as you hoped. 4-5. It works, but something goes amiss. 3 or less? Uh-oh.
Don’t like the result? If the Dark Dice isn’t highest, you can always add another Dark Dice and re-roll the whole pool. Problem: if your Dark Dice is higher than your current Ruin – your health, essentially – your Ruin increases by 1. Ruin hits six, and you’re dead. Is a re-roll really worth it?
Finally, likely ricochetting from a Risk Roll going bad, is the Combat Roll, when the group goes up against the aforementioned Uh-oh with all its aforementioned teeth. You roll a dice for every tooled-up member of the party in the fight. If the highest two dice are equal to the (secret) endurance score of the monster, you win. You don’t get that? Go to another round of combat, adding another dice and try again. Easy.
Of course, Not Easy. Because before you started the combat, you all rolled a dice to determined your weak spot. For each roll that matches your weak spot, you increase your Ruin by 1. I repeat: every dice. So if the group were were rolling four dice, and they all turned up on your weak spot, that’s increasing your ruin by 4. To remind you, the max ruin is 6. Your starting ruin is unlikely to be less than 2. Once more, it’s a system with sharp edges and a lot of subtleties. You can mitigate any one hit if you have armour – but armour increases your burden, so increasing the amount of gold you need for each adventure and…
Combat is quick, narrative focused, and always high tension. And something to be avoided, unless you can really help it. And if you can’t help it, you want to skew the odds as hard in your favour as you can, with all the resources and ingenuity you can bring to the task.
There’s a few other systems – helping people, magical rituals, contest rolls when you lock horns and so on – but the game dances between the three main ones. You go on incursions to get gold. When looking for gold, you’ll have to hunt for it. If you hunt for it, you may find something nasty. You find something nasty, and you may have to avoid it – and if not, you’ll have to fight it.
I’ll stress: I’m using the basic “monster” example as it’s easiest. The surprise is how flexible all of the above is. Hunt roll turning up something bad isn’t just a monster turning up. It can be anything. For example, the game works really well for social scenes – a meaningful glance from the bartender can be as ominous as the growl of a monster from around the corner. The rules are cut to the bone, but meaningful and flexible.
The other side of the equation is the Incursions themselves. They are best thought of as deconstructed traditional adventures. Each breaks down the scenario into areas (“Sets”) which highlight what are the key things inside (“Props”) with associated hazards that may turn up on a Hunt or Risk Roll (“Traps”) and what you’ll find if you nose around correctly (“Treasure”). Plus the monsters in the area, including their weaknesses and all their assorted special sauce. In fact, more special sauces generally – special case rules, the moments to scatter into the narrative, questions to ask the player to customise the area and so on.
As the GM here, you’re given these rock solid set of ingredients, the principles of how to serve them up and are empowered to do exactly that, in that way that is working for your table. It’s exactly what I needed this year – it’s what you need need to run a game, and nothing you read is wasted. I knew that I’d be in good hands if I just cooked with what’s in the recipe, and allowed me freedom to add spices or other replacement ingredients if I wanted.
But there’s something specific about Sets which shapes the other key part of Trophy Gold. Each has a Set Goal – a specific thing that you’re meant to achieve there. Find an entrance to Wellslode’s underground city spaces. Learn the Secret History of Hester’s Mill. Plunder the Pseudovault.
The players are told the goal as they enter the set. This is player knowledge, but not character knowledge. While often the Set Goals align to a characters’ knowledge, this isn’t always true, and they’re active encouragement to guide the players towards the meat of what the incursion actually is. Trophy Gold engages the players as complete co-collaborators of the story being told. The Props are the game expressly saying what is important here, as surely as a highlighting halo in an old point and click adventure. The Set Goals are even more so – a commission for the group to write a story together. This is what we’re doing here. How do we do that?
Finally we can link back to the other part of the Hunt roll mentioned way back – the Hunt Tokens, acquired from rolling well in a Hunt roll. These are the currency the players can spend to influence the narrative and shape its pacing. They can be spent at any time to uncover a treasure worth 1 Gold – so any Hunt Roll can find treasure if the player chooses to spend a resource. But the group can also choose, at any time, to spend 3 hunt tokens to complete a Set goal. Just can’t find the entrance to Wellslode’s underground city spaces? Spend 3 hunt tokens, and you’re down in the depths of Wellslode.
(Why not do that for every goal? Because you’re giving up three gold, and – as the opening said – gold is everything. You can complete the Set Goals by yourself, and go home to spend it on things you need, like not having a sucking chest wound anymore.)
Best of all, this big move is also a prompt for narrative – how did the group manage to do it so quickly? The table can decide. Perhaps they just spot an entrance underground from smoke emerging from the ground. Perhaps they were given a map by the ex-partner who wants to murder them. It’s a powerful device for a group to pace their experience – for many reasons, either narrative (we have to get to the castle before the rivals do), tactical (we need to complete this incursion, or I’m going to die) or just plain preference (I’m bored of this bit.) That speaks to the multiple threads of how Trophy sings. The players are aggressive Co-writers of the story, simultaneously inhabiting their own character’s story and active player in a demanding game whose sharpness is clearly influenced by (and as brutal as) Soulsbourne games.
While I’ve skipped a lot of fine detail and some of the sizzle (you get to name any monster you meet!) that I’ve basically described the whole game says a lot about Trophy as a design. The cover is a cog. That’s Trophy Gold – a whole bunch of cogs, merged into a machine, and to describe how the machine does what it does, you have to describe the whole fucking machine.
I like how intensely it rewards player skill on two separate and normally entirely unconnected axis. Firstly, it player skill in terms of it rewarding play to maximise your adventurer’s chance of success – ask good questions, think through situations, try stuff: pay attention to the game. Secondly, player skill in terms of allowing them to skilfully shape of the narrative, with the players adding huge, meaningful chunks to the incursion and the world building: paying attention to the story
How creative can you be, on both axis? The more you give, the better Trophy gets.
That’s the itch I wanted to scratch, and why it was so hard to satisfy – I didn’t want to always abandon one part of what I dig in a certain type of RPGs to get the other part. The resistance of difficulty is a power, and one narrative games often give up on. Equally, the emergent poetry of narrative is a power, and one which more ludic games abandon. Trophy Gold finds a way to do both, and do both well.
There’s two key player principles in Trophy Gold. One states “Play to Win” and the other is “Play to Lose.” That Trophy Gold is doing both simultaneously is the source of its weird majesty, and why it’s absolutely, exactly what I was looking . It understands the irony of life, and mechanises it. We’re playing to win, but – in the long run – we’re doomed.
Also, so many bees, oh so many bees.
Okay, editing up the Trophy Gold piece has meant that this has taken much longer than I planned. I can see why I put it off as long as I did. I actually wrote it originally for Newslettter 243, at the start of the year.
Still: done now. You can tell I’m rusty at games crit stuff, but it as fun to just hammer out.
How was the week? Short version: I’ve had the last week off. I’ve been in Northern Italy, visiting C’s family. I ate a lot of cheese and saw a whole bunch of mountain goats. So, yes, I had a lovely time. Hope you did too.