Tabletop role-playing’s most interesting developments of the past couple decades have been taking place in the indie games scene. Trophy Dark is emblematic of this movement, perfectly capturing a horrific fantasy tragedy through collaborative storytelling techniques. Players will come together for a singular game, exploring a world filled with psychological terrors, environmental adversity, and supernatural creatures that cannot be killed. Encountering these horrors will ultimately lead to destruction. Trophy Dark impeccably spins tales that structurally and tonally align with films like Annihilation, Apocalypse Now, and A Field in England.
Trophy first appeared in Codex magazine in 2018, an RPG publication put out by an entity known as The Gauntlet. Designer Jesse Ross sought to capture setting elements from Free League Publishing’s Symbaroum, with mechanical inspiration from titles such as Cthulhu Dark and Blades in the Dark. After community refinement, the cultivated design found massive success on Kickstarter with the intent to produce a stand-alone product titled Trophy Dark.
Trophy Dark has arrived, and it’s as wondrous as it is poetic.
Outwardly stalwart, Wilhelm took the lead and pushed forward into the frightening wood. He did not look back to see if Lady Pela or Yacomb followed. Neither the unhinged widow nor the grisly smuggler held the forester’s trust, but his attention was entirely focused on the mangrove-dense fen that had swallowed them.
They were each searching for something different, something their own. One sought a whisper of the Swirling Court, another the eternal reverie of the Festival of Shiba, and the last desired restoration of the Temple of Tanahlot. All intertwined at the mythic Flocculent Cathedral, for their devotions were intrinsically wed to this bewitched holy site. They sought what could not be found.
Despite the brevity of its ruleset, Trophy Dark is an inspiring system. Players take on the role of treasure hunters that are explicitly doomed. Each character will meet their demise through mental or physical degradation, and each is given a guiding principle of embracing their tragedy. This isn’t D&D and no one is getting out with the treasure. With a little effort, a group will walk away from the session with an absolutely magnificent story marked with their indelible fingerprints.
Characters are randomly generated from a series of tables in short order. You’re given a background and an occupation that offer some skills, a central drive to guide you, and a small group of black-and-white six-sided dice to impress your agency.
During play, the GM only calls for rolls when the stakes are significant. The simple dice pool mechanism consists of a single white die if you’re skilled in the task and a black die if it’s perilous. Ideally your highest roll is a six and you succeed; however, you achieve partial success with a four or five.
The act of rolling is less the focus than the collaboration bookending the activity. Players and GM alike toss out suggestions for a contest’s stakes, and may even offer the active participant a devil’s bargain. This comes straight from Blades in the Dark, as the protagonist may agree to pay a price and gain a bonus white die.
It gets better. The primary source of pressure is Ruin. This is a track measuring the character’s well-being and their descent into madness or death. If Ruin hits six, a character perishes and is reclaimed by the forest. This happens to nearly everyone by the session’s climax.
Ruin increases when the highest roll in a pool is one of those dark dice and it happens to be higher than the character’s current Ruin stat. This provides a natural escalation to play as it pushes characters into anguish quickly, leveling off as disaster looms. As Ruin increases, conditions are acquired as an outward manifestation of the fraying soul.
After fighting through swarm after swarm of ferocious insects, the group had finally found respite. They had broken camp near the effigy of one of the sisters of the Cathedral. The figure was made of wood, thin branches shaped in the essence of the woman. Her hair was straw, curling off the head and into an open mouth. While Yacomb found this dedication calming, Wilhem found no such peace.
He was clawing at his ear, claiming one of the insects had burrowed into his skull.
Yacomb was appalled. Later, while in the torment of a fever dream, Wilhelm had scratched and torn at his ear so fervently, that much of the outer cusp had been torn off.
The bloody flap of tissue swayed with motion, framing what appeared to be a macabre fungal growth. It was sickening.
Trophy Dark is very progressive. In addition to constantly calling for player input and beckoning them to flesh out their characters and the haunted world, the rules text also addresses issues of consent and troubling content. An entire section of the book brings thoughtful guidance on the necessary discussion and caution surrounding the dark places the narrative may go. It’s refreshing how forthright the author is with a sensitive topic.
The vast majority of the book is dedicated to Incursions. These are rough skeletal frameworks for the tragic adventure. The equivalent of a bare-bones module with content centered on probing the participants with specific questions and framing specific scenes to tease out the Incursion’s central theme. The adventure is segmented into five rings, with the fifth being the central destination of the Incursion and the focus of the character’s goals.
This structure is incredibly comfortable. It’s malleable enough to tweak and adjust on the fly, encouraging the GM to work in new scenes and moments tied into what’s occurred thus far. But it provides a great source of inspiration, and can almost be run straight from the text if needed. This, combined with the high degree of player authorship, means Trophy Dark can be run with little to no preparation. And it hums along, like a well-tuned instrument intent on playing its own entrancing ballad.
They had made it. Through a band of brigands and swarms of biting insects, beyond the razor-sharp antlers of the Jade Stag, and over the ashes of their own swollen doppelgangers. This was the end of their journey and the air was vibrating.
The Cathedral itself was a massive growth of tightly woven trees, moss covering the gaps between the boughs and shielding the insides from light. What happened next was frenzied debauchery living between the space of hallucinogen and near-death.
In the beat of a heart Wilhelm was dead. His body broken over the altar and life slipping from his eyes as his lips muttered prayers to the sisters holding court in the living dreams. Yacomb was stumbling through the dark in the tunnels below the Cathedral, looking for the lost temple of Tanahlot. Lady Pela was injured, nearly drowning in the washed away crypts, now seeking aid from her fellow hunter.
Yacomb feigned aid, leading her into the temple and to the welcoming altar. It sought blood and he was intent to satiate its thirst. Lady Pela was no fool. Motes of dust and embers from Yacomb’s torch froze in the stillness of the air. The widow had stopped time. When Yacomb regained body autonomy, a four inch blade had worked its way into the small of his back.
If Wilhem was still alive, he would have heard the rhythmic thud of the corpse being dragged up into the Cathedral proper. The widow had won. Stuffing the ashes of her dead husband into Yacomb’s bloody mouth, she closed her eyes and raised her voice, for the Festival of Shiba had begun.
Trophy Dark drives toward a striking and sinister conclusion. Since the format of play is a one-shot, players are able to cross narrative boundaries into high-stakes conflict. When the curtains have closed and the protagonists are left ruined and sullied, the participants will be standing up at the table and caught in the throes of delirium.
This experience was special. As soon as the epilogue concluded, we began discussing returning to Trophy Dark, perhaps with some time for the traumatic narrative to sit and find closure. For those wanting a more traditional commitment, the sister product Trophy Gold does allow for similarly diabolic stories to be played out through an ongoing campaign, although the tone is just as dark and the challenges only slightly less deadly. However, there is a certain allure to simply returning for new singular Incursions, weaving bits of previous backstory into a grander tapestry and building our own collection of short stories to serve as an eternal nightmare of time well spent.