[Trollbabe] Keep on Rockin' in the Troll World

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Ron Edwards:
Hi Paul,

Clearly something was not fun for you. You've danced around it in every post so far and I'm getting a little tired of trying to read between the "We really had fun but" parts.

What was it? Spit it out, please. Remember, this isn't like any other site. The content supercedes the conversation. I really want you to say what you mean; there are no social consequences or points to be scored or lost.

Best, Ron

Paul T:

I wanted to make sure I didn't come across as being too negative (this being the Internet), so I tried to mention now and then that the game was fun. It seems I overdid it--now you seem to be saying "the lady doth protest too much". :)

However, I meant exactly what I said. I had a great time, really enjoyed the game.

What I didn't like is exactly what is being discussed, here and in Judd's Dogs thread: there was a point where it seemed like success was so difficult that we all ended up softballing a little. James felt he had to pull his punches, and Dave and I (or maybe just me--I shouldn't put words in his mouth) weren't sure how to push our characters' agendas. It wasn't disastrous or unpleasant, but it felt a little like walking on thin ice. Like we were tiptoeing a bit in order to avoid a potentially seriously unfun situation.

Hmm.  I'm worried this conversation is heading backwards.  Paul's issues don't make sense without understanding the context (both fictional and mechanical) in which they arose.  Explaining the fictional context requires me to explain my scenario & GM'ing, which first requires some explanation about my prep, which gets me back into "big picture" observations about one of Trollbabe's unstated design priorities. 

Sigh.  That's going to take time.  Let me start on the design issue.

An All-Too-Common Trollbabe Conversation

A lot of conversations about Trollbabe begin with the phrase, "It's actually a really good game!"  By which I mean: gamers love to roll their eyes at the title and, to some extent, the premise.  I've seen a lot of conversations on the Adept Press Forum that go sort of like this:

Dude - "Hey, I like the rules of Trollbabe, but not the, y'know... Trollbaby part of it. So I'm thinking, like, half-vampires!  Or Hellboy!  Or... like, yeah totally Half-Micronaut/Half-ROM Spaceknight!"

Ron - "(nearly chokes on his own bile) What are you doing?!  Trollbabes are part of Trollbabe.  That's why I call it 'Trollbabe.'  That choice of color is totally non-incidental.  I can't stop you from doing whatever you're going to do, but I want to.  It's a key design element."

Dude - "But... but... I mean... Trollbabes, Ron?  Seriously?"

Ron - "Yeah seriously!  People see a title like Trollbabe, they can't stay away!  It's like they have to play it.  I sense great insecurity in you.  Stop fretting over what some hypothetical person might think."

Dude - "Ain't nothing hypothetical: I left it lying around one time, and my girlfriend gave me a sarcastic look.  And I'm like, 'No, actually, it's a great game...'"

(This conversation obviously only exists in my mind as a distillation of many internet threads about Trollbabe.)

The Death of Daydreamer Fantasy
What's really going on here is a disconnect among fans of fantasy fiction who remember 1970's pop culture and those who do not.  "Fantasy," as it existed in the early 1970's, bears almost no relation to the label as it's used today.  We have, as a culture, lost something--and lost it so thoroughly that anyone who came of age in the early 1980's or afterward probably has no clue it ever existed. 

Bear with me for a second as I invent some distinctions within fantasy fiction.  Perhaps most familiar to readers today is High Fantasy--epic quests and myth cycles in the style of Tolkien or Dunsany.  Far less well represented on modern bookshelves, Sword & Sorcery fantasy: Conan, Fafhrd, those guys.  You've also got Weird Fantasy, now largely forgotten: A. Merrit & William Hodgson, for example; this shades a little bit into Lovecraft territory too. 

But, for a brief time from the mid-1960's to the mid-1970's, there was also the sub-niche of Daydreamer Fantasy.  By the late 60's, college kids had gotten tangled up with Tolkien and fairy tales, and tied this stuff into their revolt against notions of Progress and Industry.  Major works of Daydreamer Fantasy include the works of Vaughn Bode, Richard & Wendy Pini's Elfquest stuff, Ralph Bakshi's Wizards, a smidgen of R. Crumb's work, the art of Jim Holloway, some of the art of Erol Otus (though it's more properly part of the Weird Fantasy tradition).  Musically, maybe some of the "fantasy songs" by Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.

It was underground fantasy, largely uncommercialized: 'zine stuff at best, enjoyed by dweeby comics geeks, wifty stoner chicks, and heavy metal motorheads.  It was, for a while, a distinct strand of early 70's youth culture.

And then it pretty much got lost completely.  You can still see strands of it: The Muppet Show; some of the character designs in the Star Wars films (the Jabba Palace stuff, Dagobah, and the Ewoks especially).  James West, of course, rocks this stuff so hard.  But by and large, Daydreamer Fantasy got eaten alive by the twin forces of commercialization and the fanboys' desire to concrete-ize everything. 

Trollbabe is proudly and unapologetically carrying on the tradition of Daydreamer Fantasy, almost single-handedly.  We joke about these "hippie RPG's" of ours, but in an important way Trollbabe really is a Hippie RPG. 

It is difficult to explain how completely this sub-genre has been scrubbed from our cultural memory.  So you've got . . . gamers of a certain vintage, like Ron, saying, "See?  'Trollbabe,' get it? (gestures at something which no longer exists)"  And anyone born after, say, 1974 saying, "What are you talking about?"  The bitching about the name is a symptom of this cultural impoverishment, because "Trollbabe" is an absolutely pitch-perfect name for a work in this tradition.

I want to connect this broad sociological comment to the specifics of our play, but I need to get some sleep.

David Berg:
Re: "softballing":

The characters' situation was such that losing conflicts generally meant being sidetracked off the quest, which was to get to the big number one issue in the game and address it.  If Paul's character Thora gets captured by humans, now we have to play some more scenes before we can get to the confrontation in the dell with Virashprocket to resolve the game's main issue, the fate of Gentwood.  In our goal of addressing the main issue in limited time, we really didn't want Thora to be captured.  As such, James and Paul totally forgot that Thora was at Incapacitated (or maybe just Injured?) going into the conflict with the humans.  I remembered, but didn't point it out.  Afterward, I think there was some vague, "Oh, wait, wasn't Thora all messed up?" talk, but no one wanted to revise what had already been introduced into the SIS.  Other similar instances of willful ignorance + fudging followed. 

This "uh, whatever, let's start from this box on the flow chart, that's friendlier" attitude was enabled by some minor confusion over injury levels (which aren't recorded on character sheets), starting position on the conflict flow chart (w.r.t. injury), and movement along the flow chart in multi-attribute conflicts (i.e. using multiple dice per roll).  We spent a few minutes trying to figure these things out, but when that wasn't sufficient for us to grasp everything, we weren't inclined to keep at it due to our ticking clock.

Hopefully that helps clear up some facts. 

As for overall takeaways from the experience:
- These glitches didn't bother me much; I felt like if it had been important for us to solve them, we would have.
- I really enjoyed the way we all felt prompted to fill in a lot of thematic and aesthetic prompts/blanks with our own spins on game color.  Trolls as Midsummer Night's Dream fairies and troll magic vs human magic as animal-communing vs. clockwork... making that stuff up rocked.  I'll happily elaborate if this thread goes in that direction.

-Dave (/David/whatever)

My recollection of rules-fudging is that it only happened once, when we were mid-way through a Conflict and I realized I'd goofed up the injuries, and decided, "Ah screw that, we'll remember it next time."

Deep Prep
As Paul, Dave, and almost everyone who's played Trollbabe attests, one of the most pleasing aspects of play comes from all the incidental color that gets thrown into the game.  This isn't accidental: Trollbabe exists as kind of an empty space for painting all kinds of trippy groovy fantasy colors, as befits a Daydreamer Fantasy style of play. 

So, as a general principle, I wanted to do something interesting and fun with the trolls.  The art and text of Trollbabe give the impression that trolls are basically these hairy, horned dudes who are into shamanism and who occasionally eat things they shouldn't eat.  Frankly, this does little for me, imaginatively.  So I hit up Wikipedia's Scandinavian Folklore page, including the nifty links at the bottom of the page, and browsed around until I got inspired.  Scandinavian / Teutonic myth is a deep part of the cultural heritage of the English-speaking world, but one that seldom gets a lot of attention. 

Contrary to the Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual, in actual folklore there's little distinction between trolls, fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, sylphs, ogres, etc - so I decided that the word "troll" in Trollbabe encompassed all of these things, a catch-all for the charming-and-monstrous critters of Fairy-Land.  And this is cool, because in folk-tales Fairy-Land only exists as a counter-part or foil to human communities, a sort of critique or antithesis of whatever human value is under discussion.  So functionally it's no different than the way trolls work in Trollbabe's implied setting, but it's a little more fun for me personally.

I should stress that none of this prep was intended to function as a bestiary, sociology, world-history of Fairy-Land, or any of that shit.  Instead: this is the stuff that the Daydreamer Fantasy guys were turning on to.  It's more of a feeling or a state of mind.


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