[Trollbabe] Dungeonbabe & Dragons (Actual Play)

Started by John S, December 07, 2009, 02:10:43 AM

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John S

Tonight's session was just one scene, and it ended badly.

We sat down after dinner and everyone seemed excited to come back to Silwen & Skah's story. To get started, I quickly summarized the ideas from pages 58 and 59 about relationship characters, and I asked my wife and daughter which characters would arrive in Trowehaven with them. I wanted to make it clear that this was their choice; although they had previously left their Fallcrest relationships behind, they could narrate the arrival of those characters now if they wanted. They did. We improvised the reasoning for Bela and Demitri's arrival was that they started looking for Silwen & Skah the morning after they disappeared from Fallcrest, and arrived together, Demitri with a crutch.

I also told them some information they would have gleaned from their traveling companions by now: Vaadish told Skah that he was patrolling the border of Trowe lands watching out for any machinations of the Night Elves, whom he blamed for the big spider. Mooram-Ah told Silwen that  she was being sent as an envoy of the Night Elf council to check up on their Trowe neighbors, whom she suspects are planning war. The irony of them meeting such an adversarial pair wasn't lost on my daughter, but I reminded her that the players will narrate the behavior for these characters, not me.

Then I framed a scene on the boggy moors where the pasture-land slopes down into a sunken graveyard near the entrance to Trowehaven, which was just a twisted tree swarming with blackbirds (no smoking chasms this time). I told them they could bring their characters into the scene when they wanted, and they immediately joined the scene with their entire retinues. The tension between Vaadish and Mooram-Ah was obvious, but civil. Their dialogue cued Silwen and Skah to introduce everybody, and this led to a lot of informal table-talk reminiscing about the past events and everything. My wife couldn't remember the characters and events as vividly as my daughter did, and my daughter enjoyed recounting their adventures.

Suddenly, someone spotted movement on the horizon: two lumbering shapes were coming out of the pastures and beginning to cross the fen. Just then, Skah felt something wriggle in her guts and begin chewing. "I yell for Silwen to help me with her magic," my wife said. When Skah yells, the two giants look up, and Vaadish recognizes them as northern Grave Trolls, "but what are *they* doing here?" And they're holding something under each arm.

Silwen comes over to help Skah, and my wife narrates that Vaadish goes over to challenge the trolls. I say some of what he shouts at the trolls, the giants drop their bundles, bodies, to the ground, and I call a Fighting conflict; they draw their weapons. Skah's goal is to subdue (one of)* the trolls, and Silwen's goal is to make sure (one of)* the bodies is alive (which changes her goal to Social, rather than Fighting). My daughter asks for Action-by-Action Pace, and I agree. (I know it's my purview to set the Pace of a conflict I call, subject to a player's adjustment, but I appreciated her initiative in applying the rules, and in choosing a Pace that allows for more interesting stuff to happen.)

* one of: This was a point where we talked about the Scale rule, that only the goal could only determine the fate of a single individual at this Scale.

They both roll simultaneously, and Skah has rolled lowest, so we resolve her actions first. Skah's roll is a success, and I narrate how she charges the troll, knocking it down into the mud, hitting its head on one of the gravestones. For the second series, Skah and Vaadish jump on the troll's chest and team up to get her grappling hook around it's neck-- this is successful too, but the troll starts thrashing and he bats Vaadish off him, hurling him about fifty yards. My wife says he turns into a raven in mid-air and lands gracefully. Cool! For the final series, she tightens the noose she has created until the troll stops thrashing. Her third roll is successful, and she makes sure it's not dead before I cut back to Silwen.

Silwen isn't so lucky; her first roll failed, and my daughter narrates that she trips over a tree-root and falls in the mud, face first. I mention she has four more series to get three successes, and I ask if she'd prefer to reroll, or to move on to the next series. She calls for a reroll with geographic feature. She grabs a low-hanging branch while falling to stop herself, but she fails the reroll too, and I ask her to narrate her injury.

At this point, my daughter is visibly very frustrated. She holds it in a little by griping about the game, but she's getting so red that I can tell she's about to cry. I stop the game to talk about it. My daughter normally seems very secure and mature for her age, but at this point she gives her character sheet to my wife and says "you can play Silwen, I don't want to play her anymore." Then she does begin crying a little, while trying not to. At this point I went into full-papa mode, without any concern for the fiction.

We love storytelling a lot and the game is so vivid to her, especially the failures, which she gets to narrate. Based on what she said, she remembers the failures so vividly that they seem to have eclipsed her sense of success in the game. I reminded her of all the successful conflicts she's been in, which I remember pretty vividly since I've been journaling the game here. But bringing that up didn't give her any emotional support.

She spoke up though. I can see three things she is frustrated with:

* We've talked several times about using "failure" to be the author, but she doesn't have the habit of making her failures heroic-- her imagination immediately jumps to the most embarrassing thing that could possibly happen; in earlier scenes, she used failures to hose her character with good humor, but at this point it seems clear that she also takes it seriously, maybe personally. We could talk about this and work on brainstorming more satisfying options in future conflicts, but that could be tough. We're both so inclined to go with the first thing that comes to mind, as an actual piece of the fiction. Maybe it's impulsive.

* She's frustrated with the way magic works in the game. She made Silwen so strong in Magic that her chances at action-scene conflicts are pretty poor (she needs to roll 1-2 for Fighting, or 1-3 for Social). I told her she is free to adjust Silwen's number, but she sees little assurance in that. (Any odds carry the risk of failure.) My wife said that a character so good at magic should have spells ready for action scenes like this, and should be able to roll Magic instead; I reminded her it's possible to bring magic into action scenes using reroll items, and we read the section on Magic from pages 34-35: "This Type takes time; it's not an 'action scene' type of thing."

* Maybe this is a proactivity thing, or maybe it's a failure on my part to demonstrate how conflict works in the game. Talking about Magic as a leisurely-paced action-type, she expressed reluctance to initiate Magical conflicts in the game. She doesn't want to "start" a conflict, or bring one into being entirely-- she'd rather see what's going on in a scene and help out with her magic when she can. I'm not sure if this reluctance is consistent with her actual play-- a couple times she initiated magic without any external pressure, but other times it was somewhat reactive.

Anyway, we decided not to press on with the story, or even continue rolling on the conflict at hand. I was happy and I'm still happy with the way we eased into the scene, and the story that happened-- but the unfavorable mood got everyone out of having fun. Needless to say, the GM side of me is a bit disappointed that we didn't get to see what happened.

This shifted into a conversation about what other story-rich roleplaying games we might explore, but I don't want to delve into that right now. We had fun brainstorming some character and magic item ideas for recasting Skah and Silwen in another game.

After bed-time, my wife said that I should go easy on them as new players, and maybe stick with something "easy" like D&D, which gives them clear goals and a chance to practice rudimentary math almost constantly; Trollbabe was harder, she said, because it demands getting more into the role and motivations of characters, whereas the D&D character sheets were premade, and their roles were clear. Storytelling games seem more intuitive and satisfying for my daughter, but my wife is more comfortable with the board-game feel of playing D&D with miniatures. I guess this may shed some light on Nick's questions about how those relationships impact the social aspect of the game.

I don't see these as rules issues as much as expectation issues. At the time of this writing, I'm not sure what to think, or how to further process all the foregoing.

John S

Last night I was so taken by surprise that I didn't fathom the reasons my daughter may be stressed out right now: Yesterday was her first day back at school after two weeks off. She also has a bunch of other activities that include violin lessons and girl scouts picking up again this week, and she's especially anxious about her violin practice. I didn't think about it yesterday, but she actually mentioned her frustration with violin after we quit playing.

This morning I offered to let her redo Silwen's part of the scene if we play again, remembering that achieving Silwen's goal isn't as important as having fun, and she doesn't have to escalate the conflict to injury and beyond if she doesn't want to. For my part, I should remember not to prematurely commit myself to options that come up in the table-talk while she's narrating, giving her a little more time to safely form her ideas.

Ron Edwards

Hi John,

First, that's a bummer, and I sympathize.

Second, I need to disclose some views which ordinarily, I bite my tongue and stay silent about. I am not keen on the common perception that Trollbabe is a distinctly romance-friendly, family-friendly, and parenting-friendly game. My viewpoint is that it's actually distinctly risky, thrown into heightened chances of stress, when played in these contexts. You'll note that I never recommend such play anywhere in the text or on the cover.

Narration of one's own failed rolls is arguably the most challenging feature of the design, in terms of experiencing play and having one with it. In part, I wrote it as a solution to the very common problem of GMs narrating players' failed rolls in the most undignified and embarassing ways possible for the characters. Also in part, I wrote it as a way to get adversity into play which one feels is the right kind of adversity for that character.

I often muse about a little-discussed event in The Two Towers, when Aragorn has stayed behind too long during the fallback into Helm's Deep, and is sprinting toward the gates, pursued by maddened orcs. As his friends watch helplessly from the ramparts, he runs up the steps – and trips, falling on his face, very painfully, in full armor. And this, for the character whose nickname is Strider! He recovers, even though the orcs gain on him, and makes it to the gates even more barely in the nick of time. In addition to his pissed-off complaint at the end of the first book, "Everything I do goes amiss today," I think this bit of action which only takes a few sentences endears Aragorn to me more than anything else he does.

The word "failure" requires a close look. I think it is often constructed entirely in regard to the actual person. We might talk until we're blue in the face to explain that it applies to the character's goal at the moment and nothing else, but because this is a game, anything you do is either successful or unsuccessful, and the latter means you lost points. It is, quite likely, an intrinsic tendency toward Step On Up, and is probably why that particular Creative Agenda is so immediately accessible given a minor opportunity.

I suggest that is why your wife is gravitating toward D&D4, which is a dedicated Gamist engine written by a participant in and follower of GNS discussions since 1999. It's not a matter of the degree or detail of rules. I think your distinction between "storytelling" and "board game style" is false.

Instead, I suggest that it's a matter of why we play. If one combines (i) the authorship responsibility, audience enjoyment, and thematic risks of Story Now with (ii) the absolutely necessary personal nature of loss/failure in Step On Up ... then the potential for hurt feelings is very high. The loss/failure in untrammeled Gamist play is personal, but it is not dishonorable; whereas in untrammeled Narrativist play, a character's failure is at the least like Aragorn's undignified fall and grades up from there to actual tragedy, all of which is successful play in Narrativist terms. But the combination of the two is disastrous. (This is arguably one of the reasons why Gamist play has unfairly received so much resentful trash-talk and vilification from some sectors of role-players over the years, particularly among players of earlier forms of D&D.)

You point out quite clearly that not only does failure mean "Silwen doesn't get what she happens to be shooting for," but also "Silwen looks stupid and incompetent," "Silwen is a screw-up and no fun," "I am messing up and failing," "I am embarassed." I am not surprised that a younger person feels this way, and I'm generally uncertain about children playing any of my games, because they are all rife with higher chances of failure than most modern role-playing designs. I don't mean this as a criticism of your judgment in choosing Trollbabe, but I can't say I'm terribly surprised.

Making failures heroic – and thereby enhancing and deepening heroism – is a developed skill in authorship, and I can understand that any number of people have no intention of doing so, and that a child in particular simply didn't come to any game-situation with that in mind. With older people, I get annoyed with players who try to make their characters into Wolverine or Batman in the most adolescent sense possible, i.e. ultra-cool because he never loses, never gets surprised, never fails, and is never scared or unprepared or taken down a peg. But a kid isn't yet at the point where he or she should be getting out of this kind of gratification-only experience. Role-playing design for kids in particular is terra incognita, and I have never ventured there.

Best, Ron

John S

Ron, I'm sorry for not writing back earlier. Your message was about the most helpful thing possible-- I shared it with my wife and we talked about it extensively.

When I saw their combined interest in D&D as an opportunity to introduce Trollbabe, it didn't occur to me that they wouldn't enjoy the Creative Agenda of Story Now over Step On Up, since we all enjoy elements of both play styles. I admit it was a foolish oversight.

Another thing that I think plays into this is that my daughter is an advanced reader and together we enjoy delving into fantasy/adventure literature written for older young readers and adults-- we're almost finished with Watership Down now, and over the past few years she has devoured Peter Pan, Tuck Everlasting (Babbitt), His Dark Materials (Pullman), Lord of the Rings, the Inkheart series (Funke), and dozens of others books that address relevant moral themes, and in which the protagonists suffer or face ; the name "Silwen" comes from her independent reading of the Silmarillion.

As parents, it's hard to know how to appropriately nourish and challenge her imagination without placing unrealistic demands on her maturity. (It's like you're rules for Boost in Sorcerer: you don't know the limit of your comfort until it hurts a little.) If you have kids, you might experience this too-- it's easy to honestly and innocently overestimate your kids' social/emotional maturity when you know they are smart.

For the moment, it's clear that my daughter wants more gamism than narrativism from roleplaying, and I'm cool with that. Gamism can be fun too. Given her interests, though, I expect that she may become more interested in Story Now over time.

Earlier, you wrote that there's "a whole ton of possible discussions to come out of playing Trollbabe in this fashion", and I'm interested in what you had in mind. Was Creative Agenda trouble one of the first things that jumped out at you? I guess it depends on what you meant by "playing Trollbabe in this fashion", since I deviated from standard Trollbabe in several ways, starting with Setting and Color.

Thank you again for your welcome, guidance, and support! Someone got me a copy of Sorcerer as a belated Christmas present, and I'm thinking about organizing demos of Trollbabe and Sorcerer at my local game shop. This is to say that I'll be sticking around.

Warmest regards.

John S

Oops. I left an unfinished clause dangling in there:
Quotebooks in which protagonists suffer or face challenging thematic dilemmas;

Ron Edwards

Kind of a relief to read that post. I was concerned I'd stepped too far over the line even for the tequila forum.

I'm a fairly new father - twins (boy and girl) at two years four months, another boy at ten months. They're already scary-smart, and I want to introduce them to literature and myth much the way you're doing with your daughter. I was lucky as a kid: deprived of most TV, little if any contact with traditional kid-movies, and generally not close to consumer culture. Plus there were lots less intrusive elements, no constant-cable, no home movie viewing. I say lucky because I encountered Pooh, fairy tales, Norse and Greek mythology, and more through the written word, and knew "the movie" was always an adaptation, often fun or excellent but a given person's take on the actual thing. Plus it was a really long time ago - no Star Wars yet, no Alien, no Bladerunner, et cetera. I was reading Harlan Ellison's The Glass Teat and John Gardner's Grendel in the sixth grade, to give you an idea of where my head was.

Anyway, my kids aren't in the same zone; I don't see how they can be unless I somehow manage to live in a way in which they chop wood to burn it to heat the house, or can go to the corner stables instead of the corner Starbucks, or if I successfully pretend that cell phones and the internet don't exist. That doesn't appear to be an option. All of this is a very long and stupid way to say that your example comes to me at a very opportune time.

It seems the task is to find a solid-Gamist RPG which is not based on killing and piling up the corpses. Tunnels & Trolls might do it if you focus on problem-solving, funky/thought-puzzle traps, and interactions with really solid NPCs.

You wrote,

QuoteEarlier, you wrote that there's "a whole ton of possible discussions to come out of playing Trollbabe in this fashion", and I'm interested in what you had in mind. Was Creative Agenda trouble one of the first things that jumped out at you? I guess it depends on what you meant by "playing Trollbabe in this fashion", since I deviated from standard Trollbabe in several ways, starting with Setting and Color.

Creative Agenda trouble is always a consideration when separating Trollbabe's fictional content from its system. However, my thinking in writing that post was a bit more general. The idea is that 'fantasy' is a troubled term these days, and Trollbabe is written to invoke or perhaps to resurrect a certain beefy, sex-positive, female-and-fun underground comix kind of fantasy - which in my opinion has more in common with both knightly legend/literature and ancient myth than "fantasy as a market demographic" does today. So my main concern is bumping the system to a more familiar and (in my view) debased fictional content. Hell, early D&D would be fine - it's full of that hallucinatory multiple-reading-source vibe. It's post-1980 I'm forced to say, judgmentally, "ain't rock and roll," especially after being rolled in anime and baked in Hollywood's blockbuster oven.

But that doesn't seem to be where you and your family are at, at all. The Creative Agenda thing is actually much more easy to deal with and to arrive at solutions for, so I see that as good news.

Best, Ron



I have been following this thread rather closely with interest.  With the current turn of the conversation I feel I have some personal experience that may be relevant.

When I was 8 years old (aprox. 1984) my mother bought Red Box D&D at a Toys 'R' Us.  She had been hearing about the game from sources I'm not completely sure of to this day.  My mother has this phrase she always says, "the way you keep a young boy happy is you give him monsters."  This is why Ron's "Naked Went The Gamer" article made me smile.  A lot of what he said in there about monsters, my mother said to me when I was a kid.  Although, *boy* was always explicit in her ideas so I don't know how much she would have applied this to a young girl.

Anyway, I'm a very unique case among gamer culture because (a) D&D was a *family* game and (b) it wasn't taught to us by anyone already entrenched in the hobby.  We had to puzzle the whole thing out ourselves from the books.  My mother greatly enjoyed drawing maps and was very good at crafting encounters.  That's what our games were like.  We very rarely went into huge sprawling dungeons.  We usually went to much smaller areas peppered with about six or seven very interesting encounters.

In particular these encounters were often very evocative and full of "Ooooooooooooooooooooooo...." factor.  I remember many of them to this day.  I remember walking in some hills and coming across an Ogre.  I think this was the first time we had encountered an Ogre in the game.  He was swinging his club at nothing.  Then all of a sudden he reached up to his shoulder and it started to bleed as if stabbed from nothing.  It was only when we got closer that we saw he was under attack by a swarm of Pixies.  The image of an Ogre being swarmed by Pixies like mosquitoes was really, really neat at the time.

Also we often had ethical decisions to make but they were usually at a very high level campaign branching level rather than the scene-to-scene character-to-character interaction level.  The main villain of our campaign was a Magic-User (!) named "The Cobra Woman" (again !!!) and there was a point where we found out she was actually a cursed Silver Dragon.  We found this out right as we had a chance to strike against her.  We had the choice of attacking her now or trying to break the curse which involved several steps and likely further adventures.  The choice was real.  Had we attacked we would have gone into a set piece battle.  If not then we would have ended up in an adventure trying to find the item we needed to break the curse.

It wasn't until around High School that the purely imaginative qualities of these "encounters" began to wear off.  I started craving something more unified.  Something more intimate.  And I think something more self-reflective or introspective.  I won't go into the details but the transition from "reveling in pure wonder" to "craving *story*" happened rather naturally and without need to cultivate it.  Once that transition happened is when things became rather arduous, complicated and painful because of the complete and utter lack of tools suited to the job.

That struggle is well documented in all my posts on The Forge since I first came here.

I don't know if that was helpful or enlightening but I felt it was relevant and worth sharing.


John S

@Ron: Tunnels & Trolls was a great recommendation-- thanks! It seems to be an awesome fit for the kind of Gamist-positive, Narrative-lite game everyone can dig right now.

Not knowing about your actual play threads, I read up on T&T here, creating a character using the Abridged rules, and taking it through a few solo adventures. Even though I didn't get the power of Saving Rolls at first, I could tell the girls would appreciate this game. I ordered a Mythical 6th Edition rule book, but we got started playing a few days ago using the abridged rules, and we've had a lot of fun. [6e was the only one available from B&N, for which I had a gift card. I didn't know until after I placed the order about the Outlaw Press IP issue. It's no wonder that the book arrived without any cover art!]

Reading your actual play posts was pretty inspiring. It's been so long since I planned a dungeon delve, so we got started using an adventure outline I found online: The Lair of the Wyrm (pdf). Taking a cue from your play reports, I suggested that the girls each roll up two characters, and warned them that it was likely that a character would die. My daughter enthusiastically played a solo adventure with each of her characters first to accumulate treasure and adventure points. When her Elven Wizard was fatally stung by a scorpion at the Wyrm's Lair, she was actually excited to return to town and roll up a new character. She enjoys the aspect of figuring out the game dynamics and putting together an effective character/party-- identifying her desire for a Gamist CA was a good call.

The book arrived last night, and my daughter wanted to run her new character through the solo adventure it contained, with me as a referee. I observed something interesting that I wanted to post about: When posing her level 1 Human Warrior against an MR 30 monster in the adventure, it was pretty much an impasse. The monster consistently got the upper hand in combat points, but never did enough damage to penetrate the fighter's 13 Armor-- only by creatively applying (unbidden) Saving Rolls could she get a purchase, and defeat the monster. Had she played the adventure as written, the battle could have gone on perpetually without anyone giving or taking damage.

Anyway, your post about "the most open-ended, mind-bogglingly flexible task resolution system ever" saved the day. She came up with various feats of Strength and Dexterity, and used her Saving Roll margins of victory as bonuses to her Combat Point Total.

Playing this way seemed to beg for Sorcerer's Currency mechanic, which we adapted to great effect! Here's how we did it:

Once per combat turn she could attempt a feat to gain some kind of combat advantage, giving a creative description and an attribute. If she passed a Level 1 Saving Roll, she would have a certain margin of victory which she could bank as a bonus to her Combat Point Total. But, if she could come up with an even riskier feat that built on the previous feat, she could attempt a Level 2 Saving Roll, and get double the margin of victory as a bonus. In this way, it's possible to continue escalating to higher level, riskier feats to gain greater multiples of effectiveness. Obviously, this is limited by two factors:

1. A combat turn is 2 minutes. You probably can't get to a level 10 IQ check to construct elaborate tripwires all over the place in the middle of combat.
2. Higher level saving rolls must build on the preceding saving rolls, and would be narratively constrained to what could reasonable follow (if anything).

Maybe another limit could be that you could only use each attribute for one SR in the sequence.

She had a lot of fun playing this way. Using sequences of SRs like this with rollover victories giving a geometric bonuses may seem way too formal for the T&T rules, and for most situations it may make more sense to negotiate Saving Rolls ad hoc. But reading Jesse's Sorcerer Unbound essays about Currency bent my mind in a certain direction that led us to this result.

I know this isn't the right forum to post about T&T actual play, but I wanted to update this thread with a word of thanks.

@Jesse: I appreciate your comments a lot! That's so cool that your mom was your first GM-- and the rich encounters you describe remind me about my first experiences with roleplaying and what I enjoyed most then. Thank you for sharing these touching memories! You've inspired me to dust off a few of the quirky NPCs that populated the worlds that my brother and I created in our middle-school era roleplaying games.

Ron Edwards


I'd be generous about the two-minute limit for a given tactical notion. Gromit built those train-tracks pretty damned fast relative to each of the penguin's chicken's pistol shots.

Don't forget all of the EPs for each of those Saving Rolls!

Best, Ron

John S

Quote from: Ron Edwards on February 10, 2010, 10:01:18 AMI'd be generous about the two-minute limit for a given tactical notion. Gromit built those train-tracks pretty damned fast relative to each of the penguin's chicken's pistol shots.

Good point! That would be the verisimilitude you mentioned in your AP post.

Quote from: Ron Edwards on February 10, 2010, 10:01:18 AMDon't forget all of the EPs for each of those Saving Rolls!

Oh, I haven't forgotten. We've played two sessions, and the characters surviving from the first run are almost at level 2 already reached level two in the third session tonight, with only one combat! They haven't even faced the Wyrm yet. I started a new T&T thread in the AP forum.