[Trollbabe] I GMed Trollbabe a couple of dozens times... and I really liked it.

Started by Markus, November 27, 2008, 06:42:20 PM

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At long last I found the time to write this AP report! I drafted it several times in my head before actually sitting down to write it, and this helped me to understand a simple fact: if I were to write everything I'd like to say in detail, it would take me forever to write it. So I decided to limit myself to summarize my main points, and leaving the details to further discussions on the points that people here will find interesting. In particular, I skipped on the details of specific sessions, trying to give a sort of summary of what I experienced during play. If you're interested in things like which adventure stakes I used, the plots that emerged during play, and so on just ask me and I'll implement this report with further stuff along these lines.

My goal for this thread is to share my experiences of playing Trollbabe, which are on average extremely positive. I want to bring up three main points: (1) The specific reasons why I like this game a lot, (2) Some thoughts on drift, which (I think) occurred in *some* minor form even in my Trollbabe games, even though I consider it my favorite game, (3) a list of which elements of the system I found most helpful during actual play.

(1) Why I like this game

- Trollbabe is written in an exceptionally concise and clear way, leaving very few (if any) doubts on exactly how to use the system during play. Big plus for me.

- Trollbabe is extremely well-suited to first time players. I'm unsure, however, if this includes the GM. So, let me rephrase it slightly: in my hands as a GM, Trollbabe lead to the most successful sessions I had with first-time players ever. Chargen is extremely simple but leads to characters you can sympathize with immediately, and the system can be explained in a very short time to anybody. Most importantly, the system does not need any prior experience to work properly, nor any active 'story-strategizing' or 'story-planning' (for lack of a better term) on the players' part.

- Linked to the point above: the setting of Trollbabe (which also smartly includes most of character positioning as a fixed datum) can be viewed as the quintessence of a conflict-generating milieu. I mean, apparently it's the same old "us VS them" situation, but here the essential caveat is that the characters are neither, *per se* (I mean, prior to *voluntary action*). As such, Trollbabes literally *embody* conflict. (As a side but important point: I refuse the notion that "simple = boring" and more specifically that "simple premise at the onset  = simple 'theme' at the conclusion").

- The two preceding points, taken together, means that this game is the best way I know to explain narrativism to someone, that is, just showing them what it is *in practice*. To put it bluntly, if you're playing Trollbabe, you're playing Nar. I really cannot even imagine any way of actually playing this game that could even vaguely support any other CA. (Of course, I'm not saying that this system will override other elements of the big model).

- The system is extremely simple and has one of the lowest search & handling time ever, but nonetheless, during play it promotes the emergence of specific patterns which are extremely functional to nar play. It's almost like the system itself was continuously asking players questions like "Are you going to sacrifice X to obtain this?", where X could be your character's well-being, her ability to self-determinate specific immediate circumstances, and (crucially) even the lives of people around her. Also, the system promotes player-input, but also gives them strict boundaries to conform to during narration, which I observed being actually an incentive rather than a limit (again, especially for first-time players).

- Finally, all of the above is achieved with a system which never leaves you in the dark regarding what to do, or how, during play. In Ron's own words: "In Trollbabe, no need should ever arise to negotiate who says what, or who has the last word. All the rules are laid out in full." Now, why this isn't the norm for all RPGs puzzles me to no end.

(2) But... did I drift it? So it seems.

Even though I praised the text of this game a lot, on retrospect it appears like I drifted it during actual play in a lot of small ways. I wrote that "I" drifted it, not "we" as a group, because as you'll see below I'm referring to small changes to the system obtained by avoiding or misinterpreting some parts of it. Since I was always (as the GM) the person presenting and explaining the game to other players, the consequence is that I presented them 'my' version of Trollbabe, and they adhered to it fully. Is 'drift' the correct word for what I'm referring to? I don't know, but it surely has nothing to do with shifting agenda or other radical stuff. It's just changing some of the system's subtle aspects and/or how it's presented to players. Anyway, these are the changes I'm referring to, in 'chronological order' in the sense of when they come up during play.

- Specialties: the first time I GMed Trollbabe, I found it difficult to come up with satisfying translations in my language of the descriptors right there on the spot. So, I basically allowed an 'anything goes' approach to specialties, and continued to use this in successive sessions. Now, I know this is not how it's supposed to work, but I must say that I'm really satisfied of how things went with non-structured specialties. I can give you specific examples of nice specialties that came out if you're interested.

- Maps: When I have enough time to do it, I always draw new maps for the game. In particular, since 90% of my games were 'first sessions', with personal or small group level stakes, I felt that a very 'zoomed-in' map showing 1-2 villages (hamlets, caves, lairs, whatever) and 2-3 other features (woods, ruins, crossroads, stone circles, etc) helped to let stories emerge in which I could use more credible weaves and crossings (Ron's definition found in... can't remember really... is it Sex & Sorcery?), which are without doubt my favorite GM tricks for Trollbabe. If someone is interested I still have a couple of the maps I used.

- Modifiers: I never used any kind of modifier, period. I don't know exactly why, but they always felt like somewhat extraneous to the system, like they were an after-thought addition to something that already worked marvelously without them. Perhaps I'm horribly wrong, I don't know. I used two different tools to cover their function (btw, tools that are already present in the system). To 'preserve the antagonism', as someone described it here recently, or better 'to preserve the antagonists', I simply used the pacing rules. Well, in all truth the pacing rules do not provide 'antagonist preservation' proper, but 'antagonist highlighting', if you want to call it that way. But I never felt the necessity for the former in play. The second function of modifiers (providing different difficulties for magic actions) was instead replaced with the simple assumption that you can affect things at the scale of your stakes, or lower, when using magic.

- Using two or three scores in one roll: I just keep forgetting about explaining this rule to players. I admit that in the last 2-3 sessions, I did remember about it but *decided* to skip them. From a strictly mechanical point of view, this rule simply seems to imply that you can put more weight (and risk) in a single roll of the series, rather than accepting the default. My point is that if you do this, you can partially subvert the already decided pace of the conflict, which is not IMHO a desirable option to have. Also, the net result at the end of the series is that on average, if the player chooses to go with 2- or 3-dice rolls, you'll have less back-and-forth interaction with the GM and/or less rerolls, since the series will be shorter. Could you help me understanding this rule better?

(3) Actually Playing Trollbabe

- First of all, as I explained above everything I say here has a strong bias: I always played Trollbabe as GM, not as a PC.

- Playing as a GM, I don't find that Trollbabe can be called a 'prep-heavy' or 'prep-light' game per se. Sure, you can go with a very light prep compared to lots of other games (but you need to know exactly *what and how* to prep). But in my experience, a lot of prep is also good. Side note: Trollbabe prep is fun. Again, the trick is knowing what to prep, and the rules say this explicitly: you'll need maps and adventure stakes. I also generally outline important (i.e. named) NPCs and try to be as visual as possible during prep, either actually drawing stuff as I think or just imagining things as colorfully as possible.

- I'm basically a happy guy when I GM Trollbabe. My only job is to keep things going: deciding when and how to frame scenes and to cut away from them, deciding whether to introduce new stuff to players or try to get further mileage from what was already established during play, and generally playing my NPCs as intensely as possible (and the fact that a high proportion of NPCs are simple, in-your-face characters helps a lot here). The above is still *difficult* stuff for me to do, requiring a large part of my creativity and attention during play. Since the system does not demand absolutely anything from me in terms of continuative attention, remembering mechanical stuff or making impromptu mechanical decisions, I find that I'm better at GMing Trollbabe than most other systems. All my limited mental energy is concentrated on bass playing exclusively (Ron's definition from Sorcerer & Sword). I like that. Also, in Trollbabe I never, ever have to resort to fiat for anything. I hate using fiat as a GM, even though I cannot point my finger exactly at the core reason for that yet. Anyway, in Trollbabe, I never have to hose PCs in any way. The *system* does that for me, and when it does, well, it was a *voluntary decision* made by the player that made that risk available! (And it's the player's job to provide further details on how things went awry). As a GM, I merely try to put as many interesting things in motion as possible, and then I enjoy watching the results.

- I'm fully convinced that a grabby, conflict-heavy situation for the characters isn't guaranteed to be as grabby or interesting to players. This issue surely did come up in many games I GMed. Strangely enough however, in Trollbabe, this never came up as an issue. Perhaps that's due to the fact that  the setting taps on raw, powerful imagery. I don't know. But it seems like no player can fail to connect to, or ignore, stuff like "Look, trolls are burning our homes! WHICH side are you with? What do you DO? Who ARE you?".

- And now, last but not least, the most important thing. When I play the game, I never put much emphasis on the fact that Trollbabes are females. I assume it as self-evident and not even requiring much attention or debate. I surely don't pitch this game going "hey, you'll be a woman!" all over the place or over-emphasizing the gender theme *before play*. I did this deliberately, after much pondering, about the 3rd time I GMed it, and I still do it. Believe it or not, but I find that this helps players immensely in giving a more credible, less stereotyped and I daresay more emotionally sincere characterization of trollbabes, and it helps male players *especially*. I want to share one funny thing about this. Until a few months ago, my girlfriend only ever played male characters in all RPGs. We even kind-of-quarreled about this back in my 'high-sim' years, when I insisted that she couldn't provide her male characters a credible 'male mentality', and I asked her to play female characters (which she refused constantly). You don't have to explain to me how much of an asshole I was, I know already. But that's not the point. The point is that when she played Trollbabe for the first time, male characters weren't an option *for anybody*. So she played a female character after all, and for the first time ever! Well the funny thing is that after that session, she began playing female characters in other games, too. When I asked her about this, we talked a bit but we couldn't find a completely *rational* reason for this. But somehow, Trollbabes made female characters *emotionally* viable for her as an option. I strongly suspect that the childish/adolescent representation of female characters she got exposed to during these years in (adolescent-male-dominated world of) RPGs somehow became 'the norm you must conform to' when roleplaying, and she rightly refused to do such a thing.

- Very last remark. Consider this mechanical element of Trollbabe: "deciding that you'll use a relationship as the second reroll in a series". Does not sound that spectacular per se, isn't it? Then try playing this game, and see what happens if that very thing comes up in play. Full disclosure: when it happened to me, I understood more things about RPGing than I had learned in the previous 10+ years.

So basically yes, as you've seen above I really like this game. That's pretty much all for now!



Ron Edwards

Hi Markus!

Guess what features are changed in the new version of the rules?

1. No Modifiers at all.

2. Specialties are now called Impressions and they specifically refer to what kind of perceptions the trollbabe evokes at first meeting.

3. "Zoomed-in" mapping is now an official part of prep.

4. The rules about combining Types are completely removed. One Type for conflicts, ever.

So it looks as if your rules-Drift was actually simply ... game design! ... and we were inadvertently working together.

Best, Ron


Nice one. Markus has articulated a lot of things I've felt intuitively about TB, and Ron's changes look good (seems to me they're minor tweaks around the core).

Just had to say that, because I, too, really like this game.
AKA Jeff Zahari

Callan S.

I'm pretty skeptical about this being 'games design'. What isn't games design, in that case? I'm asking so to cover confirmation bias - we have a hypothesis that fits the situation. What can we do to challenge or attempt to falsify the hypothesis?

Ron Edwards

For Christ's sake, Callan. I was kidding.

Best, Ron

Editing this in a couple minutes later: Some folks do, in fact, consider such things to be game design, and yes, if that's so, then game design is extremely common and habitual among gamers. I tend not to take quite such a broad view, but I do think that design is a common thing, and often not recognized as such by the people who do it.

Callan S.

I'm pretty skeptical about Christ's sake...

I was going to ask if you were joking, but I'm too used to such things being said earnestly.

Hi Markus,

Thanks for posting an actual play account! I keep thinking that the very name presented at the start (Trollbabe) helps illuminate the way all following mechanics should be/could be seen. It'd be interesting to run a control game (like running a scientific experiment), so to speak, where the title is changed to something...I dunno, more empty of contrast? And the protagonists less divided between two sides? What would be seen in the exact same mechanics then?


Hi guys,
in chronological order:

Quote from: Ron Edwards on November 28, 2008, 02:30:26 AM
Guess what features are changed in the new version of the rules?

I'm very happy about this - for two reasons. The first reason is, well, that I won't be changing my style of playing when the new book comes out, and that's good since it's working really well for me. And the second is that this means that in some mysterious way, I really understood what you meant when you were writing the game's text, even if some parts of the same text felt extraneous to the message! That's causing some serious head-scratching to me. I wonder whether I can isolate the specific parts of the book that brought the message home in my case, or it's just an ensemble of factors, including the inevitable 'contextual messages' I got from sources that are external to this text.

Quote from: Callan S. on November 30, 2008, 07:52:08 AM
I keep thinking that the very name presented at the start (Trollbabe) helps illuminate the way all following mechanics should be/could be seen. It'd be interesting to run a control game (like running a scientific experiment), so to speak, where the title is changed to something...I dunno, more empty of contrast? And the protagonists less divided between two sides? What would be seen in the exact same mechanics then?

I'm not sure I understand what the point of this experiment would be. Sure, if you take an elegantly minimalist design of any kind, and then remove one or more of its parts, you'll probably get a fatally flawed result. Trollbabe is perhaps the most minimalist 'narrativist toolbox' I know, not in the sense that it has the fewer tools, but in the sense that each and every tool is there for an essential purpose (especially after the upcoming revision, it seems - hooray!), and you get the smallest possible number of different tools that still allow you to "assemble a working nar engine". Setting, character positioning, etc (yes - possibly even the game's name) are all tools in the toolbox.

For example, Trollbabe works *also because* all characters are the literal embodiment of a worldwide conflict. If you remove this, well, I can foresee that the toolbox will be a lot less effective. When I GMed the 'Boba Fett' Pool session (see here: http://www.indie-rpgs.com/forum/index.php?topic=26752.15), I was asked, basically, to 'play Trollbabe in another setting', which I refused, for the very reason I detailed here.

P.S. - about the "drift/design/non-design" issue: I really don't know how to contribute to this, since I'm not sure I understaind exactly the point of contention. I mentioned 'drift' in my original post to provide an example of drastic system changes, which in my opinion (now confirmed by Ron) were absolutely not related to CA shift.



Callan S.

Well the experiment would be to test a hypothesis on why the pool functioned as it did in your account. In stripping out the title and setting, I'm trying to 'pool-ify' Trollbabe. I wonder if run that way, whether the sessions mechanics use would be rather like your pool account?

I think what I'm trying to get at is that the title doesn't matter as a mechanical part. What mechanically matters is having a title that has a question embedded in it at all. (Just focusing on the title right now rather than the whole thing, as Ron usually does, because I prefer to keep it simple where I can).

Also that it's very easy to invent a question to think about when using mechanics, where no such question actually exists in the text. That's something I tried to get at in the pool thread you linked. In that thread I think you were being advised to basically invent a primary question, while in trollbabe it already has one (for anyone else reading, yes, in Trollbabe play you will almost certainly invent sub questions which aren't in the text, but they all branch off the main one, which is in the text).

It's a theory I'm leaning toward, anyway.


Quote from: Markus on December 01, 2008, 04:41:41 PM

P.S. - about the "drift/design/non-design" issue: I really don't know how to contribute to this, since I'm not sure I understaind exactly the point of contention. I mentioned 'drift' in my original post to provide an example of drastic system changes, which in my opinion (now confirmed by Ron) were absolutely not related to CA shift.

as i understand CA, this is still a drift: you are not changing the game to switch the CA category, but still to better support your own narrativist CA