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The Forest Hates You: A Review of Trophy Dark

Trophy Dark was created by Jesse Ross and published by The Gauntlet

With fewer than 40 pages of rules and about 2/3 of the book dedicated to “incursions” (the system’s version of adventures), Trophy Dark, a one-shot tabletop roleplaying game ideal for 2-3 players and a game master, is the collaborative horror RPG of my dreams.

It’s a game that hungers for blood and warns you of its intentions on the cover: 

“This is not a game of brave adventurers slaying dragons and dragging gold back to town. This is a horror story of treasure-hunters meeting tragic ends in a haunted forest that doesn’t want them there.”

But what does that mean?

It’s certainly an intriguing promise. But if you’re coming from a game that’s more of a dungeon crawler, you might expect the blurb to mean challenging combat or deadly (combat and trap) encounters. I think it’s the phrase “treasure-hunters” that led me to this misunderstanding. When I think of treasure-hunter RPGs, I typically think of Dungeons & Dragons and that ilk even though the quote directly objects to that. Let me be clear, that’s not what Trophy Dark is in the slightest.

It’s unlikely you’ll find anything resembling traditional treasure in Trophy Dark, and if you do, it will be in the form of a peaceful death (rare) after a trial of terrors. Further, if you do manage to pick up a chest of riches, you’ll never make it back with it as the cost for such a victory is likely more than you can afford. This isn’t a game where you level up and gain new abilities. Using magic urges you closer to your end, and there’s a high chance you’ll work against your fellow players in some capacity.

Trophy Dark interior pages

Trophy Dark Character Creation

With a few simple rolls on the evocative character generation tables (PDF warning), it’s easy to dive in as a player. The text provides several names, occupations, backgrounds, and drives to create unique characters that feel whole but leave room for player creativity and discovery through play. I’ll probably keep these tables around for other games too as they’re great for generating village folk and NPCs even in other games.

Here’s a character I just created, Neven: an herbalist who is an escaped cultist and he wants to locate the jewel that haunts Eriol’s dreams. Who is Eriol? Trophy Dark encourages the player to define that either before a session starts or as you play through a scenario. Creating this former cultist took me less than a minute, and there’s enough information for me to build my own story.

Becoming Ruined

In addition to the swift character creation, I love how the characters become ruined so to speak. Instead of tracking health and/or sanity, characters have ruin as a stat, and as they encounter the horrors put forth by the game master, they must make ruin checks, marking ruin on their character sheet if they fail the check. Characters can start with up to 4 ruin already marked. Once a character has 6 ruin, something terrible happens: your character dies, becomes a monster, or worse. If you have 5 ruin, you can try to reduce it by betraying your friends, destroying treasure, or sabotaging plans. It creates a tense in-game atmosphere. 

When making regular checks or “risk rolls,” you use 6-sided dice, but they might be different colors: light and dark. Before you ever roll, you’ll discuss with the table what you want to happen and what could go wrong. Having a skill and making a devil’s bargain with the GM gets you two light dice, but if you’re risking your mind or body, you must also roll a dark die. If the dark die is your highest roll, you have to mark 1 ruin. With a 1-3, you fail and things get worse. With a 4-5, you succeed, but there’s a complication. Finally, with a 6, you succeed. You can add dark dice to your pool to increase your odds of success at the risk roll, but you’ll also increase your chances of taking ruin.

As you can imagine, ruin comes on pretty quickly. And that’s because this is meant to be a one-shot game.

Daring to Go Deeper: Adventuring in Trophy Dark

The 22 incursions (or scenarios) included with the text are broken into 5 stages called rings–likely inspired by tree rings. They feature different terrors and temptations you can throw at your players. After your players have encountered a temptation and a terror, they move deeper into the rings–even if there are remaining encounters. Each incursion starts with warnings, and these give a glimpse of the horrors within. Some examples include body horror, classism, graphic violence, and harm to animals. It’s wise to share these with your players before starting.

The incursions are ridiculously easy to prep. Because the rules are pretty simple, you don’t have to memorize complicated traps or map layouts. The world reveals itself as you play. The scenarios are usually less than six pages, and come stuffed with horrifyingly graphic events, motifs, and encounters. Throughout the scenarios, questions aimed at players allow them to shape the horrors and add their own influence to the overarching story, calling on their drive (rolled during character creation) and background. The text warns that your incursion is likely to end entirely differently than what the text suggest because of the collaborative nature of how the rings playout, but the text also encourages this, empowering GMs to lean into the moments that go off script.

Each incursion has a one-word theme. “The Gift of the Sea” by Gabriel Robinson uses the theme of TIDE and calls upon that theme throughout. Conditions that line the bottom of the scenario might make a player “feel anxious at the thought of being out of the water” or all sounds will become mute, “as if you’re underwater.” Each ring also focuses on this theme, the changing of the tide a constant impending threat. If GMs aren’t sure how to move a session further, the text suggests falling back on the theme word and using it to guide the players forward. 

Many of the Incursions are set in the woods, but several are also set in different landscapes: an island, berry fields, and a library. So what other terrors await you in these scenarios? Here’s a few:

  • The Flocculent Cathedral features “thick, gnarled cypress trees, draped with copious moss” and “a colossal, rutting stag the color of jade, 15 feet high at the shoulder.”
  • At The Plantation you’ll endure hunger that turns to cannibalism in the dark. Don’t let the hungry pig men get you.
  • Mother explores how love corrupts and empowers when hunters meet stone figures the size and shape of children.
Twigs burst like overripe fruit beneath your feet, spilling a fine mist of blood.

I recommend reading the Incursion Overview section and the incursion you want to run all the way through ahead of time. I was very eager to run the game and not reading ahead of time led to a little confusion at the table. The fact that I was able to mostly run the game without any prep is a huge positive for me though.  

Trophy Dark Look and Feel

I love this book. I love the size of it (7″x10″). I love the black ribbon. I love that it isn’t super thick. If I had my way, this would be the gold standard for how high-quality commercial RPGs are presented. The cloth and gold foil along the spine are beautiful. I don’t struggle to hold the book open, and I can actually carry it around with me pretty easily. I love my Alien book to bits, but it’s unwieldy.

The writer, Jesse Ross, is also responsible for much of the art and the layout. I think this is one of the best books in terms of layout that I’ve ever seen. Sections are easy to skim, and the subtle graphic design choices and overall organization of the content make it easy to navigate without much friction. Pages you’ll reference often are repeated at the end and beginning of the text, so you won’t have to flip to the middle of the rules a lot.

The Full Trophy Series

Trophy Dark is part of a three-book series. If this format sounds interesting, but you’re more interested in long-form campaigns, check out Trophy Gold. If you love lore and setting details, check out Trophy Loom.

Final Thoughts

Trophy Dark is a noncombat, rules-light game and encourages players to run, hide or use magic when it comes to dealing with monstrosities and threats. It’s a game you definitely play to lose, but you will find a compelling and scary tale along the way. The way risk rolls invite player input and the fact that development questions are aimed at players within each Incursion make this a really neat collaborative game. If that’s your jam, like it is mine, please check it out.

I highly recommend Trophy Dark if you’re into horror that refuses to let you win. Reader discretion is advised.

Review at a Glance

ContentLess than 40 pages of rules, thematic art, and 22 flavorful scenarios. There’s a lot of play time packed in this small book.
Rules difficultySuper fluid. I didn’t get tripped up.
AccessibilityI don’t have access to the PDF, but I found the hard copy easy to navigate with easy to understand instructions.
Time commitmentOne-shot system with one-shot adventures.
Price$15 for a digital edition
$45 for a physical copy
Final thoughtsTrophy Dark rules if you’re ready to suffer in a fun way.

If videos are more your style, I posted a short version of this review on TikTok.


Trophy Dark is published by The Gauntlet and created by Jesse Ross. There are a couple of great APs on YouTube! #beggartok #ttrpg #dnd #tabletop #tabletoprpg

♬ Suspense, horror, piano and music box – takaya