Conference paper Open Access

Play to Lose: Animation, Failure, and the Milieu in Trophy Dark

Stein, Eric

In her essay "Reclaiming Animism" (2012), Isabelle Stengers writes that reclaiming "means recovering, and, in this case, recovering the capacity to honor experience, any experience we care for, as 'not ours' but rather as 'animating' us, making us witness to what is not us." It is this notion of animation that mobilizes this paper on Jesse Ross's tabletop roleplaying game Trophy Dark (2021), and which informed my own experience as simultaneous game facilitator and game design instructor for a class of fifteen undergraduate students. With a group split roughly in half between students with varying levels of experience with Dungeons & Dragons (and solely Dungeons & Dragons) and students with no tabletop roleplaying experience whatsoever, Trophy Dark, and specifically Ross's incursion "Witchwood," made for a group exercise in this animative witness to the "not ours" and "not us" of which Stengers writes. Rather than adopting a rationalist, critical separation from the play experience, or a romantic, reflective immersion in the play experience, this particular group of students discovered in Trophy Dark a vehicle for the "active," "transformative," and indeed "metamorphic" experience that Stengers describes, using the chosen incursion as an instrument for the shared dramatic failure that is "playing to lose," as advocated in Trophy Dark's player's guide. Stengers awakens her readers to a "rhizomatic" materialism, or a materialism of the "milieu," and together in the Witchwood we encountered the same. This paper charts the contours of our adventure.

Files (387.3 kB)
Name Size
387.3 kB Download
  • Alder, Avery. The Quiet Year. Buried Without Ceremony, 2013.

  • Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Wivenhoe, UK: Minor Compositions, 2013.

  • Harper, John. Blades in the Dark. Silver Spring, MD: Evil Hat Productions, 2017.

  • Hymes, Kathryn, and Hakan Seyalioglu. Dialect. Thorny Games, 2017.

  • Jayanth, Meghna. "White Protagonism and Imperial Pleasures in Game Design." Medium, November 30, 2021. and-imperial-pleasures-in-game-design-digra21-a4bdb3f5583c.

  • Macklin, Colleen, and John Sharp. Games, Design and Play: A Detailed Approach to Iterative Game Design. Boston, MA: Addison-Wesley, 2016.

  • Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor (an Inside Narrative). Edited by Michael J. Everton. Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 2016.

  • Morningstar, Jason. The Skeletons. Bully Pulpit Games, 2015.

  • California Student Occupation Movement. "Communiqué from an Absent Future." We Want Everything, September 24, 2009. https://wewanteverythi

  • Robbins, Ben. Kingdom. Second Edition. Lame Mage Productions, 2021.

  • Ross, Jesse. Trophy Dark. Hedgemaze Press; The Gauntlet Gaming Community, 2021.

  • Shaw, Kienna, and Lauren Bryant-Monk. "TTRPG Safety Toolkit V2.5," 2021. qkAZCj.

  • Stein, Eric. "Bodies in Form, 2: Tabletop Roleplaying as Cosmic Poetics," May 28, 2021.

  • Stein, Eric. "No Dice, No Masters: Procedures for Emancipation in Dream Askew / Dream Apart," August 5, 2021.

  • Stengers, Isabelle. "Reclaiming Animism." e-flux, no. 36 (July 2012): 1–10.

  • Vossen, Emma. "There and Back Again: Tolkien, Gamers, and the Remediation of Exclusion Through Fantasy Media." Feminist Media Histories 6, no. 1 (January 2020): 37–65.

  • Walmsley, Graham, Kathryn Jenkins, and Helen Gould. Cthulhu Dark. Thieves of Time, 2017.

  • White, William J. Tabletop RPG Design in Theory and Practice at the FOrge, 2001-2012: Designs and Discussions. Palgrave Games in Context. Cham, CH: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.

All versions This version
Views 6767
Downloads 3333
Data volume 12.8 MB12.8 MB
Unique views 5757
Unique downloads 2727


Cite as