[Trollbabe] (I did it...) My Way

edited July 2017 in Story Games
So, textual criticism aside, I do really like Trollbabe. Here's how I wish it was, which is to say, this is how I run it. It's not quite a one-to-one rendering of the rule-book, but it's pretty close. In addition, since I've played Trollbabe without trollbabes more than I have with trollbabes, I include some material about retooling the game for other things. Trollbabe is so easy to re-skin that people tend to be lazy about it.

GM and World

I'm the GM. The world belongs to me. I describe what everything looks like, sounds like, smells and tastes and feels like. NPCs also belong to me, and any other "NPC-like" thing. (Animals, ghosts, demons, gods, whatever.) I describe them and supply their dialogue. I invent the Stakes and Consequences and an R-map (if I need to) and I don't tell anyone else what they are. I do the scene framing and the scene cutting. Everyone else in the game is an advisor, but in the end it's up to me to decide what's what and what happens.

Player and Character

I'm the player. The character belongs to me. I decide how she looks, moves, what she thinks, how she feels, what she says, and what she does. If I say she has red hair, she has red hair. If I say she feels sad, she feels sad. If I say she climbs a tower, she climbs the tower. That doesn't mean no one else gets to say anything to me - everyone else in the game is an advisor for how I play her. But I get the last word.

Protagonism and Overlap

As above, in general the character "just works." If I say "she skulks in the shadows," then she skulks in the shadows.

This is a reactionary design in two ways:

One, it's pushback against good ol' "zero to hero" in D&D. In Trollbabe you will not be an amazing skilled character "someday," you are oneright now, from the word go.

Two, it takes annoyingly excessive task resolution out of the picture. The character doesn't roll to tie her shoes.

Sometimes, though, the spheres of authority overlap. To steal an example from Sorcerer:

Player: "I jump over that elephant."
GM: "That elephant is very tall."

Now, either one of two things happens.

Player: "Oh, OK, I guess I walk around then."

OR

Player: "I jump over it anyway."
GM: "You jump, and your face hits the elephant mid-flank. You bounce off and fall down in the muck. All the baboons laugh and point and jump up and down slapping the ground with their hands."

In other words, when it really comes down to it, the GM has the last word about how the character interacts with the environment. Trollbabe has a safety built in: If your character can't do it, no one else can even come close. If your character can't jump that chasm, then there is no possible annoying NPC who can show up and do it after all to make you look bad.

If I say I climb the tower, then I do, or if I can't climb it then I can rest assured in the safe knowledge that no one can climb that tower and climbing that tower is not a part of what this story is about.

The Procedural Interface

So far so good. The above arrangement is one that we can use to good effect in lots of games. It's cool, but not unique or special to this game. It's a baseline game-loop for free play. Vincent might call it a set of principles for decision-making.

Here's a principle of game design: our procedural mechanics need to give us things that we can't get some other way. A procedure is a door in the wall of constraints. I don't need a procedure to climb the tower; I already have a method for that: I say "I climb the tower." Climbing the tower is inside the wall with me. I do need a procedure to kill Rothgar the NPC. Rothgar belongs to the GM. He's on the GM's side of the wall.

In that spirit, defining a procedure means stipulating the things that we can't get without using that procedure. In Trollbabe there are three arenas: Fighting, Magic, and Social. Over the years they have been somewhat vaguely and confusingly applied, but by default, Fighting is for direct violence (hurting or restraining people), Magic is for time-consuming ritualized sorcery, and Social is for controlling the behavior (not thoughts or feelings) of another character. If you want to do one of those things, you must use the mechanics. In particular, this is defined in terms of what characters want and what they are willing to do on account of it. (So it's not just "roll for effect." With Magic, if I want to put a spell on my carpet and fly to another town, I just do that. I only roll to use magic on or against some other character.)

This is the first stop on the "re-skinning" trail. We can rename the arenas, make their application broader or more specific, or more or less abstract. Two of them are in balance (by default, increasing Fighting decreases Magic). The most common re-skin of Trollbabe is to just change "Magic" into something genre or setting appropriate and leave the rest of the game as is. Netrunning, chi powers, vampire abilities, etc. I did this myself, many years ago!

Here's one I'd really like to try playing: a Sorcerer skin for Trollbabe! Fight becomes Stamina, Social becomes Will, and Magic becomes Lore. Sorcerer Descriptors slot in perfectly as is to become Trollbabe Impressions. (How would Demons work? A Demon in Sorcerer is an abusive relationship. Trollbabe is about how much you will hurt your relationships to get what you want. In Sorcerer terms, trollbabes are Demons!)

Comments

  • Re-rolls

    Re-rolls are the only currency for character effectiveness in Trollbabe. Here are the critical features of a re-roll item:

    1 - in order to activate it you must include it in your narration
    2 - you can only use a particular re-roll when it makes sense in the immediate context

    An interesting thing about re-rolls that is maybe not immediately obvious: re-rolls are traits! They occupy the same space in the system that Traits do in the Pool. They are Spiritual Attributes in TROS, they are Keys in TSOY. Specifically, they are "things the players care about that make the characters more effective."

    Here is a lengthy set of old Forge threads that everyone should read: Can someone explain the true reason behind "traits" (PtA style) to me? It spawned many sub-threads, but it's worth it if you have the time.

    Trollbabe is a game about risk to the people around you. Except for the default 5 re-roll sources (see below), every re-roll in Trollbabe comes from a relationship, and you put that relationship character at risk every time you call on the relationship to get a re-roll.

    Every Trollbabe character has 5 default re-roll items: a carried object, a found object, a geographic feature, a remembered spell, and a sudden ally. These are mechanically identical to relationships, except that the rules for how often you can use them are slightly different.

    The character's relationships and the 5 default re-roll items will be present in narrations whenever a character fails a die-roll in conflict and re-rolls it, which means re-roll items will be present more often in conflicts that hit a character's weak number. That means that, when creating your character, setting the Number is really answering this question: which conflict arena do I want to see associated with narrations that include my re-roll items and relationships?

    To make this concrete: If you make Fighting your priority, then you will tend to just get what you want in violent conflicts, whereas your Social and Magic narrations will tend to feature re-roll items and risk to your relationships. The reverse is true if you make Magic your priority.

    Here's the second stop on the re-skinning trail: customizing the default re-roll list. In a hacking game, "a remembered spell" becomes "a handy script," and so on.

    Re-skinning relationships is where we have an opportunity for more radical adjustment. If we want to change what the game is about instead of just making it look different, this is where we do it. Relationships are risked when used. Replace them with the objects of whatever the game is about risking. (That is an awkward sentence, but I think it makes sense.)

    This is one of the reasons Trollbabe is so versatile as it stands: relationships work well as the focus of risk in many different kinds of stories. A long time ago when I was running a lot of The Pool and The Questing Beast one of the things I did that finally got my games humming was to require that every character have at least one relationship trait.

    So what's left?

    Not much. If you're re-skinning the game you have a few visual and color adjustments to make. (You probably don't need to describe what your vampire's horns look like.) The rest of the game works pretty much "out of the box." (Pace, Injury, Scale, etc.)

    I do have a couple of comments about an age-old debate though.

    Mechanically, Trollbabe is a fine-tuned Story Now sports car. The rules that make this happen are the procedural ones (the Number, Action Types, Conflict, Re-rolls, Pace, Injury, Recovery / Refreshing, Scale), the story structure ones (Stakes, Consequences, R-Map, Scene framing, Scene cutting), and the "lumpley principle" ones (how we negotiate, and who gets the last word about what). These are all simple to re-skin. This is why, in spite of Ron's protests, people have been using this game for years to successfully tell all kinds of "non-Trollbabe" stories.

    Thematically, Trollbabe is similar to every other Story Now game: the characters are entangled in an R-map by a bunch of grabby squabbling NPCs. In Sorcerer, this is the Kicker: the thing that suddenly and immediately upsets the status quo and links the character to the R-map and backstory. In Trollbabe every trollbabe has the same kicker: "You look enough like a troll that humans think of you as a troll, and you look enough like a human that trolls think of you as human. You just got to town." Every NPC the trollbabe encounters already has a place in his worldview for the her to occupy. He has a judgement about the trollbabe, thoughts and feelings about the trollbabe, and an opinion about how the trollbabe relates to his own agenda that, right or wrong, he will act upon.

    So why has Ron always been so adamant that you can't play Trollbabe without the trollbabes? Because of these two rules:

    1. Your character must be female
    2. Your character is a badass

    Trollbabe, as written, is about whether or not you can be woman and a badass without destroying the people around you. If you keep those two rules, even if you file off the horns, you're still playing Trollbabe.

    - N
  • This is a nice breakdown, logical and thorough.

    How does it (if it does!) address your qualms from the other thread? Or is this a separate topic entirely?
  • Hi Paul,

    My qualms in the other thread are primarily concerned with the rules as applied by Ron in examples and on the forms over the years, and collected in the new(ish) edition. In other words, they're mostly about "how to talk about things." Ron talks about his game in a way that contains many contradictions and leads to much confusion, even in the game text itself! That really bugs me.

    I think this thread does address those qualms in a sort of positivist way, in that it mostly ignores them and says "here's what I think you should do." I see this topic as the opposite side of the same coin as the first one. This one is my best practices topic: "here's what I love about this game, and here's how to make it zoom!"

    So Ron thinks it's "clever" and "strong design" to make the player's precise phrasing of the conflict declaration critical for setting up the conflict such that "Conflict! Fighting! To see if anyone's there!" means we roll the dice to decide whether or not anyone is there. I think that is nonsense. My solution is: "Don't do that. Use the mechanics for what they were designed for, and as initially described: conflicts between characters."

    My group was one of the first groups to play Trollbabe "in the wild," meaning we weren't one of Ron's playtest groups, or in any of his con games. We bought the PDFs and played via IRC in the spring of 2003. Those logs still exist, and earlier this week I thought it might be fun to read over my first ever Trollbabe game from 14 years ago. So I printed them out. I was amused to discover that in one of our earliest sessions we had some of the exact problems I'd just outlined in the other thread. There's a discussion of how the Action Types aren't well named. There was also an extended discussion about my own trollbabe, Arica, where we are all stumped about what to roll in order to handle a "lead the zombies off into the woods so the other guy can escape" type situation.

    The solution is, "make sure you know what kinds of conflicts you're game is going to be about. Make sure you have Action Types that cover those kinds of conflicts."

    - N
  • As a followup, I find this to be a particularly strong statement of what's good about the game:

    "When the dice hit the table, something is going to be done soon: a foe will be defeated, an argument will go one way or another, or the magical storm will destroy a town. "

    It's practically a capsule manifesto for story-driving mechanics. The examples I was complaining about make the above to be not true. I roll to "make sure no one is there," and if I win... no one is there. No one was there before, no one is there now. Woo.

    To balance this out with a little more "best practice," I used to have trouble with adventure prep for Trollbabe because I would get stuck coming up with good Stakes. The instructions were like "it's super easy, just pick any person, place, or thing, it doesn't even matter what! Now all you need to do is make at least two NPCs to fight over it. That's it! You're good to go!"

    So I'd be like... "uh, OK, there's a clearing in the forest with... a birdbath. And they're fighting over it it because... uh..." It took me a long time to figure out that the right way to do this is to start with the fight, not the thing. You have to pick from the kinds of fights that real people actually have, and then plug in the birdbath, or the magic sword, or the temple of the forgotten god, or whatever.

    - N
  • Good answers.

    How would you handle the "lead the zombies into the woods" situation now, if you were playing that session again?
  • There are a few possibilities, depending on who calls the conflict, and how the zombies have been described.

    Part of the reason this issue arises is because the rules say that the character's goal must be stated transitively - the character does something to someone - but also say that any action type can be used either offensively or defensively (which I take to mean "reactively," i.e., in response to some NPC action). So there are some old Forge posts where Ron says that things like "I escape" and "I survive" are not good conflict goals, because they're too passive.

    So...

    Option 1: If the zombies have been described as totally mindless instinct machines I'd just skip the mechanics. These zombies are not really "characters," they're mostly furniture. They're basically an environmental hazard, and we know how to handle those (i.e., they belong to the GM). It's like jumping over the elephant. You can't bamboozle these zombies, and neither can anyone else. That's the nature of these particular zombies. Your only option for conflict with them is to destroy them with Fighting (or Magic, if you have time). Otherwise, the GM will just narrate what they do, whether or not and how many of them follow you. I actually really like this one, because it makes the zombies scary. They're like the Cauldron Born from Prydain; single-minded and inexorable.

    Option 2: If the zombies have been described as having at least a modicum of agency or personal motive then Social works. Social is exactly the right thing here, because it is what you roll to change someone else's behavior. If they can be bamboozled, Social is what you roll to do it. But you have to actually do something to make this work. It's not just a "zombie behavior" roll for effect. You have to lay a false trail, or coat yourself in Haledower's blood, or wear his boots, or something, depending on how the "zombie methodology" has been described.

    Note that there's a point of contradiction within the rules about this: the text suggests that there are constraints on action type application - not every action type works in every situation - but they also say that the person who calls for the conflict sets the type, and no one can veto that call. I'm coming down here on the side of constraint. If the player says "Conflict! Social! I get the zombies to follow me instead of Haledower," the GM can say "you can't use Social on these zombies."

    If you read Ron's answers to our questions in the original AP thread that Bob posted way back when, you can see they're consistent with strict constraint and GM veto. If it's a Fight, then you have to actually fight the zombies; you can't just roll Fight to avoid them. If it's Social, you have to interact with the zombies in some way to fool them, and they have to have enough brains to be fooled. If it's Magic, you can do whatever you want, pretty much, as long as you have time to prepare a ritual.

    I think this is an interesting little hole. In a game that is about explicit rules for the power distribution among the participants, here's this tiny little trad assumption slipped in that the GM is the behavior police. The GM can say "no, that action type is not available" to the player after the player declares a conflict, but the player can't say "no, I'm using Social not Fighting in this conflict" to the GM after the GM declares a conflict.

    Option 3: Just for the sake of completeness, this is Eero's "spooky conflict at a distance" method, which I avoid like the plague. This is where you look at the zombies as tools of the mage who raised them. You don't have a conflict with the zombies any more than you have a conflict with the arrows that that archer over there is shooting at you. This makes sense, abstractly. The problem is that the mage is not actually in the scene, which is a rule (conflicts are between characters present in the scene, even though that rule is subverted multiple times in examples). It's unclear how the trollbabe's goal could be stated in terms of doing something to the mage. This is just like the local ruler in the tower climbing example.

    - N
  • For what it's worth, I stand by the concept of indirect conflict. If one were to decide that it's not conflict unless it's immediate and present, then one would have to conclude that Magic cannot, in fact, be used in conflict - after all, how often are you in a situation that is all of the following:
    * Immediate
    * Has enough time, space and materials for ritual magic
    * Actually intense enough to feature a conflict that does not turn into Fighting
    I suggest that such situations are so rare that if legit Magic conflicts required all of those, then they might as well not exist. The only way that Magic works as a major venue of conflict is if you allow the notion of dueling-at-a-distance.

    (I am genuinely curious - what Magic conflicts have you had that fulfilled those conditions? Have you had those that didn't? I haven't really played the game enough to have much to say in this regard, except that all the Magic conflicts I've seen have spanned more time and space than a simple theatrical "scene" would encompass.)

    Once you accept the above, it's largely a semantic detail as to whether one should revoke the rule about conflicts being with characters who are "present in the scene", or if one should simply have more expansive definition of "scene". For example, who's to say that you couldn't have a cutscene in the middle of the zombie scene to depict what the zombie-raising mage was and is doing to make the dead walk? Maybe they can even suffer blowback when their magic goes awry? If Magic is the chosen venue of conflict (makes a lot of sense to me when it comes to controlling and confounding a bunch of zombies), then putting down what somebody else has called up seems like just about as direct as (ritual) Magic comes. If it were any more direct, it would be Fighting!

    Another example from a game long ago: your trollbabe crafts a magic invisibility potion to slip past guards and encounter a prince alone in his private chambers. I find this an unproblematic Magic conflict despite the fact that the prince is not immediately present while the potion is being brewed, nor when the guards are being avoided. It's an indirect conflict of magic vs. political might (control of guards, to be specific). If one were to completely deny indirect conflicts, I do not see any way to use Magic to meet the prince. Do you? Should it even be possible? Should that sort of thing just be an automatic success, no magic needed?

    Also, out of academic interest: what if it was the trollbabe who had the guards, and the prince was trying to sneak in to see her? Still a Magic conflict? I personally would say so, but then I would not find it problematic to call it "Magic" when a trollbabe is giving orders to soldiers and generally planning security arrangements. Given the exotic principles the game espouses, though, I could also see "GM decides" or "automatic success" here. Depends on what you take away from the game text.
  • My take has always been that "spooky conflict at a distance" will work sometimes and not work at other times... the difference is essentially that all the players involved buy into the legitimacy of the conflict and find it interesting to dice out.

    For me, solving this issue has been as simple as that: when all the players are enthusiastic to play it out, we do so. If not, we skip over it, resolve it by fiat, or otherwise move ahead and then find the next conflict which *is* interesting to us.
  • Hey Eero,

    Great examples. I'm really enjoying this discussion. :)

    I think Magic is one of the most interesting parts of the game to think about because it's left almost completely open. Nearly all the play examples in the rules are of fighting. "Here's how this works; look, Fighting conflict example! OBTW, Magic and Social work the same way."

    All the book really tells us about magic is:

    1. Troll magic is shamanistic nature magic
    2. Human magic is scholarly books and potions
    3. It's slow (except for the "remembered spell" re-roll that lets you shoot lightning bolts from your eyes in a fight)

    I think you're right when you say we have to disqualify a lot of situations as potentially being Magic conflicts. But I think those are the very situations that tend to make magic boring and lame in other games. Rather than obviating Magic as a useful Action Type, I think this is the very feature that makes Magic in Trollbabe magical and cool!

    Here's why:

    The point of Magic being slow is that you have to plan before using it. You either have a "ritual" scene where you prepare what you're about to do and then cast it in the next scene, or you use it during low pressure scenes where you have some time on your hands.

    Some troll has been eating some farmer's dairy sheep. Arica tracks him down and calls for a Social conflict to convince him to stop. I fail the first roll and am "inconvenienced," so I say that the troll stubbornly refuses to listen and starts ignoring me. Then I check off "remembered spell," and say "Oh yeah? Well let's see how *you* like being a sheep!" I re-roll and >pow< I transmogrify the troll into a sheep.

    That's the snap-shot magic rules, as written.

    Now let's say that, instead of coming up with the idea on the spur of the moment, I decide ahead of time that Arica wants to teach the overly carnivorous troll a lesson. So I have a scene where I go out in the woods and dig up a strange root that I carve into the shape of a sheep while chanting BAA RAM EWE BAA RAM EWE. Then I grind the root up into a powder. Next scene I go find the troll and call for a magic conflict. If I make the roll, >poof< I hit him with a cloud of polyroot powder and >pop< he's a sheep!

    I think this is a crucial part of the design. All the window dressing in traditional fantasy games that we typically ignore is central to depicting magic in Trollbabe - and in a way that is not tedious or boring! I'm talking about things like writing scrolls, collecting ingredients and charms and other spell components, chanting, mixing potions, drawing symbols and wards, etc. All the stuff that you are assumed to have done when you cast "transmute rock to mud" or "invisible stalker" you have to actually play out in Trollbabe. Plus you have to more or less make it up on the spot. You improvise the nature of magic in your setting and your game bit by bit every time you use it.

    I should clarify, I don't mean to say that a strict interpretation of the conflict rules demands that we only have short-range magic. If I want to call down fire and brimstone on the Temple of the Forgotten God over there, or summon up an assassin made out of shadow to go murder the king, then I can do that. The important question is whether or not I'm trying to change something on the GM's side of the "wall of constraint."

    In the case of your first "sneak past the guards" example, it seems weird to think of that as a conflict between the prince and the trollbabe rather than between the guards and the trollbabe. The guards are on watch. They have a sort of ongoing intent of "spot trouble." So we have a scene where the trollbabe makes her potion, then we cut to wherever she drinks the potion, and then we roll.

    In a big-picture sense, though, I'd probably just skip the scene unless the guards themselves are important in some way. Like, if they're named characters and being snuck past will affect their part of the story, or if the trollbabe wants a conflict with them so she can take them as relationships, or some such thing. If she just wants to be in the prince's chambers, then she can do that without a conflict. Trollbabe magic can do basically anything that's scale appropriate. She could open a gateway to the prince's chambers, or turn herself into a breath of wind and gust to the prince's chambers, or relocate the prince's chambers to the room at the inn that's next to hers and just walk through the door, or whatever. Unless someone is actively trying to stop her from getting to the prince then there's no reason to roll.

    In the reverse scenario you describe, it's important whether or not the trollbabe's guards are relationships. If they're not relationships, then you're describing action between NPCs, and the GM just narrates. The prince has no mechanical agency. He can't "try" to do stuff. He just does it or doesn't. It's also important whether or not the guards are just some random flunkies of the trollbabe, or if she specifically has them on watch to "keep the prince out."

    If the trollbabe has sent two of her relationships to stand guard with the specific instructions "hey, the prince is trying to come see me, keep him out!" then we have a big honking conflict. Probably Social, but possibly Fighting. Note that it's not necessarily a Magic conflict just because the Prince happens to have an invisibility potion. It's only a Magic conflict if the trollbabe uses magic.

    Paul, the praxis of your suggestion is appealing, but its wishy-washy-ness bothers me from a design perspective. What I mean is, it boils down to "system doesn't matter." The point of playing a particular game is that we always feel like using its procedures when we encounter the situations designed to trigger them. If we only follow the procedures sometimes then those procedures are dispensable - we could conceivably never use them. It makes the wall of constraint into a little short fence of constraint. We can go through the gates or we can just ignore the gates and step over the fence depending on our feelings. When you see groups doing this it's a symptom indicating that the game they're using is not totally supporting their play priorities. (Or, alternately, that they don't completely understand the game they're using and haven't adjusted their approach to align with it.)

    Here's an anyway. post about that: Periodic Refresher

    - N
  • Good points, N.

    My take on the "system doesn't matter" angle, though, isn't quite what you're describing (although I can see how a group could drift in that direction!).

    It's not that you're "free to ignore the rules when you want"; rather, the point is to recognize that willingly engaging in the conflict resolution mechanics in a game like Trollbabe is a question of social consensus (or at least understanding). We create fiction together, and, at some point, the imaginary events we are describing fit our criteria for a "conflict" of this sort. Sometimes we can see a potential conflict as unimportant, and skip over it (this might often take the form of the GM simply saying, "OK, that happens/you do it/they give in/let's move on to the next scene"). At other times, it's instantly clear that this is an interesting conflict, and we'd all like to engage with it (which includes calling up the mechanics used to resolve such a situation).

    My experience has been that being aware of that dynamic and not trying to fight it (by shoehorning mechanics in where the group doesn't feel the focus would be necessary) solves perhaps 95% of the sort of problem you're describing.

    I hope that helps!

  • Hey Paul,

    We're starting from the same place, I think, but ending up with different perspectives. For some reason I'm having some trouble putting my thoughts into words about this. So I'll just try to describe what I want.

    I want the game design expressed in the rules text to lay out clearly what triggers the transition from free-play to procedure. During play there should never be ambiguity about what is or is not (in the case of Trollbabe) a conflict. The activity of play as related to conflicts consists of noticing when the conditions for a conflict have arrived and then applying the mechanics to them. There's no element of decision-making or reference to the feelings of any particular player (GM or otherwise). We're never confused about "is this a conflict or not?" We're never confused about "should we use the procedure or not?" If it's a conflict, we always know, and when it is, we always use the procedure. If the criteria and procedure are well-designed then we will never not use them; it will be literally unthinkable - the "skip this conflict" heuristic just isn't present in the mental landscape of our during-play thinking. It's a kind of thought-habit. We could skip it, we just never do.

    That's a lot of "nevers" and "alwayses." Could be a big dose of naive idealism. But it's my philosophy that the closer we can get to this the better our games are.

    Trollbabe is a pretty good but not 100% successful try at this kind of design. It doesn't say "use these mechanics to resolve interesting conflicts." It doesn't offer you choices. It says "use these mechanics every damn time." Unfortunately it seems to me that Trollbabe has a small identity crisis when it comes to criteria - it's not always as clear as I want it to be whether or not this time is one of the times. On one hand it says "X is a conflict if someone calls for a conflict, otherwise not." On the other hand, it says in various places "if X happens, you must call for a conflict."

    So my preferred fix is design-oriented: tighten up the rules. It seems like your preferred fix is social contract oriented: go with what feels right in the moment.
    Sometimes we can see a potential conflict as unimportant, and skip over it (this might often take the form of the GM simply saying, "OK, that happens/you do it/they give in/let's move on to the next scene").
    I pretty much want to avoid that. To me, when that happens it means the design of the game has let us down. It blew us into the doldrums of boredom and we had to break out the social contract oars to get out.

    Maybe another way to say it is, if I have some conflicts that are cool and some conflicts that aren't and then decide to use mechanics on that basis (cool/not cool), then the coolness isn't coming from the mechanics. I need to figure out where the coolness is really coming from and write mechanics that generate that coolness all the time.

    - N
  • I feel some doubt about what I just wrote. It's not made of lies, but it reminds me of something Jesse Burneko said once about how he used to want a game that if played by a computer would produce great stories 100% of the time.

    It's not that I want some kind of magic procedural story recipe. Creativity is cool, improvisation is cool, riffing off of each other is cool. What I don't want is confusion or ambiguity. Confusion and ambiguity really bother me, and badly-written game texts can really contribute to both of them. "What do we do now? Well on page 9 it says X, but on page 32 it says not(X). Uh... well screw it. Let's just make something up."

    - N
  • edited July 2017
    I imagine that by putting your best interpretation of each rule in your own words, and with lots of practice playing this game over and over, you can eventually get to the point where it doesn't feel ambiguous anymore.

    And then I bet you'll be skipping conflict resolution some times when it would have been fun, and doing it some times when it's not fun.

    Doesn't sound worth it to me.

    I think there's murk and thus judgment involved in all acts of reading fiction and assessing whether it invokes rules-use, and every rule has different risks. A task-resolution roll to climb a wall is quick and simple and clear in its outcome... but what if a failure ends a fun quest, and it's not clear that it was difficult enough to have warranted a roll in the first place?

    In Trollbabe, I think the risks are that we interrupt the flow of talking fiction and waste time on something that isn't super compelling.

    I would rather embrace the murk and skip that waste of time than perceive a clear mandate transcending all particulars of my group.

    Sometimes I think the biggest downside of murk is the time spent deliberating whether to use a roll. Just being decisive may be more important than being correct.

    Do we agree on any of this? I can't tell if your last two posts are more critique or more lament over the unavoidable. :)
  • I'm a big believer in firm rules and clear procedures.

    However, I don't think a general "conflict resolution procedure" like what Trollbabe uses can be seen as an unambiguous, consistent rule. One *has* to recognize the role of the players involved in a) creating a conflict in the fiction in the first, b) identifying the confict, and c) deciding to use the game's resolution procedures when that happens.

    Ultimately, there's going to be a lot of creative judgement involved in that. (And, as Dave points out above, that's likely a feature and not a bug, if you're on the same page creatively.)

    I think there are ways to design which avoid this kind of creative ambiguity... but Trollbabe doesn't work this way, as far as I can see.

    Consider: how would you teach a computer to apply its conflict rules?
  • Hey Paul,

    Thinking about it some more, I wonder if what you just said isn't the exact reason that there's ambiguity in the text in the first place. On the one hand we find a kind of rigorous literary definition of what conflict is: what its fictional parts are, what its procedural parts are, and also what it isn't: simulation of difficulty, task resolution, roll-for-effect, etc. On the other hand we have the straight up recognition that, role-playing being a conversation between actual people, the procedures only get activated when someone calls for them.


    Hi David,
    I think there's murk and thus judgment involved in all acts of reading fiction and assessing whether it invokes rules-use, and every rule has different risks. A task-resolution roll to climb a wall is quick and simple and clear in its outcome... but what if a failure ends a fun quest, and it's not clear that it was difficult enough to have warranted a roll in the first place?
    You kind of lost me with this paragraph. I don't usually think of role-playing as a media-consumption activity. Are you talking about reading fiction and imagining it as the product of RPG play (this is something I do sometimes do), or do you mean trying to reverse engineer the author's writing process to see whether some particular fictional feature is the result of a technical choice vs. inspiration?
    Sometimes I think the biggest downside of murk is the time spent deliberating whether to use a roll.
    I agree with this! In Trollbabe the murk can be multifaceted. I want to have a roll about this, but I can't figure out what Action Type to use. The GM has called for a roll, but I don't know how to frame a Goal for my trollbabe in this situation. Etc.
    Just being decisive may be more important than being correct.
    But I want to "clear up the murk!" :) This is what I was trying to articulate earlier with the "system doesn't matter" comment. If the impact of misapplying the procedures is that small it seems like they must not be contributing very much to play.

    The whole philosophy of games like Sorcerer and Trollbabe and their similar successors (e.g., Dogs) is that the procedures are what we use to play. They're what give us what we want and if we skip them we get something less good.

    To put it another way, if we just freeform we're going to get something good. If we're going to have procedures, they need to give us something even better, something that we can't get otherwise.

    Anticipating a little, maybe you guys are saying that these kinds of mechanics are necessarily and always accompanied by the possibility of contradiction and ambiguity. Being ready to roll with it when you find it is part of playing one of these games.

    - N
  • edited July 2017
    I think there's murk and thus judgment involved in all acts of reading fiction and assessing whether it invokes rules-use, and every rule has different risks.
    You kind of lost me with this paragraph. I don't usually think of role-playing as a media-consumption activity.

    I'm fairly certain that David meant "reading fiction" as a shorthand for "interpreting the fiction that's developing". Not reading literally (like reading a book), but interpreting what you're 'reading' (like 'reading' a person). The players have to look at the fiction as it develops and come to a consensus or a decision. "Is this a conflict?" "What about now?"

    I agree with this! In Trollbabe the murk can be multifaceted. I want to have a roll about this, but I can't figure out what Action Type to use. The GM has called for a roll, but I don't know how to frame a Goal for my trollbabe in this situation. Etc.
    Yeah, this is the challenge in Trollbabe (and, indeed, many RPGs).

    I actually like games which don't require this, for the flexibility they give. (e.g. The Pool)

    There's a freedom to just allowing a roll (or whatever procedure) to be about *anything*, period.

    But we lose the tangibility of knowing exactly what procedures we use, why, and when.

    The opposite approach is what happens in, e.g., many flavours of D&D, games like GURPS, or, to a large extent, Apocalypse World.

    They try to define exactly what you "roll for" in terms of fictional events. That has upsides to it, but also downsides. (A loss of flexibility; the potential for, on one hand, rolling unnecessarily - which is annoying, and, on the other hand, not knowing what to roll when you'd really like to do so.)

    I'm not sure there's a clear solution here; perhaps just preferred points along a continuum.

    (Unless the act of making a roll - or whatever procedure - becomes linked to something else, instead. A simple one is, "Player X has the authority to invoke Procedure Y whenever it's their turn and there are two tokens left in the Red box.")

    The whole philosophy of games like Sorcerer and Trollbabe and their similar successors (e.g., Dogs) is that the procedures are what we use to play. They're what give us what we want and if we skip them we get something less good.
    [...]
    Anticipating a little, maybe you guys are saying that these kinds of mechanics are necessarily and always accompanied by the possibility of contradiction and ambiguity. Being ready to roll with it when you find it is part of playing one of these games.
    I'd look at it a little bit differently:

    Judging the "fiction" (the imagined events of play) and recognizing which moments we'd like to handle with conflict mechanics IS a fundamental procedure "that we use to play".

    I don't think you can really take that out.

    Ron's "rules" for what constitutes a conflict are guidelines which help us do that. (I'm 99% sure, mind you... I haven't actually read them.)

    It's much like how "hand out Fan Mail to a fellow player when you like something they did" is a complete rule, but it still requires human judgement to apply - a robot can't do it for you, and you might not do so exactly the same way every time. Your criteria might even vary from moment to moment - at the beginning of our session, as we get to know the characters, the trollbabe arguing with the innkeeper feels like a conflict. However, later on, when the survival of the kingdom is at stake, it might be more appropriate to just treat an argument between her and the innkeeper as background colour, because we're concerned with weightier matters now.
  • (By the way, I share your desire for an "ultimate" game which makes such matters 100% clear! I don't know if such a thing is possible, however. It's worth exploring, however, pushing the boundaries, and discovering new ways to play.)

    (As an example, a clearly-delineated board game can come very close... but even then, there will be aspects of play which require judgement and subjectivity. When you're playing Chess, when do you allow a player to take back a move they made? Only if they haven't let go of the piece? Oh, yeah? Even if a wasp landed on the player's nose, and they had to swat it away? Etc.)
  • This has turned int a much more interesting discussion of general theory than I had anticipated! :)

    I agree with this! In Trollbabe the murk can be multifaceted. I want to have a roll about this, but I can't figure out what Action Type to use. The GM has called for a roll, but I don't know how to frame a Goal for my trollbabe in this situation. Etc.
    Yeah, this is the challenge in Trollbabe (and, indeed, many RPGs).

    I actually like games which don't require this, for the flexibility they give. (e.g. The Pool)

    There's a freedom to just allowing a roll (or whatever procedure) to be about *anything*, period.

    But we lose the tangibility of knowing exactly what procedures we use, why, and when.
    I love the Pool; I used to play it a lot. Pretty much every discussion of the Pool starts with acknowledging that it's not really a complete game, as written. The very issues we've just been discussing are left unstated and must be addressed by the group in order to get anything done. You can proceed as you just described - leaving it vague and emergent. But I've had the most success with the Pool using a sort of "let's finish the game before we play" approach, where we plan ahead of time what sort of things the rolls are for (like, is it just a conch game, or do rolls decide outcomes?), narration rights (do you have full GM power when making a MoV, including backstory and setting, or do you just get to use "local Director Stance" to narrate the current resolution?), and trait use. When looked at under a certain light, Trollbabe is very much a try at a particular "finished version" of the Pool. You can almost use "finishing the Pool" as a synonym for "designing a Story Now game."

    Judging the "fiction" (the imagined events of play) and recognizing which moments we'd like to handle with conflict mechanics IS a fundamental procedure "that we use to play".

    I don't think you can really take that out.

    Ron's "rules" for what constitutes a conflict are guidelines which help us do that. (I'm 99% sure, mind you... I haven't actually read them.)
    Hey, you should get the game! It's like $15 for the PDF and it's a piece of our history! :)

    But yeah, for sure. I see that fundamental procedure as a mechanical rules-based one. Or rather, we have a default version of this procedure that is the same as the default version of every other procedure: plain negotiation. Game design means replacing negotiation with algorithms. That means answering questions like: "what outcomes do we want that we can't get through plain negotiation?" and "when (or, to what situations) do we apply this algorithm?" Answering those questions is the practical expression of "deciding what this game is about."

    E.g., I could run a Pool game and say "we will only make Pool rolls in situations where two women are fighting." Now we might play, and there could be all kinds of situations where you might feel the urge to make rolls in situations other than those involving two women. And I'd say: "Well, this game isn't about those situations. You're bringing your expectations from other games into this one where they don't apply."

    I may have already linked this, but it seems relevant: anyway: Rules vs Vigorous Creative Agreement
    (By the way, I share your desire for an "ultimate" game which makes such matters 100% clear! I don't know if such a thing is possible, however. It's worth exploring, however, pushing the boundaries, and discovering new ways to play.)
    Getting back to Trollbabe, it seems to me like it wants to be this kind of game: "Trollbabe is a game about hurting people, manipulating people, and doing magic to people. If you feel like using the mechanics for any other kind of situation, that's you bringing in your preconceptions." (As Eero said earlier, just disqualifying anything else as a candidate for being a conflict.)

    - N
  • Those are totally valid ways of playing the Pool and Trollbabe, I agree.

    (The feature of the Pool which I found nice, btw, is just the way the mechanic can be repurposed for different things which are separate from the fiction. Like you said, it can be used as a "pass the conch shell" kind of game, which gives it a very different focus than something like Trollbabe - whether for good or ill. It's the polar opposite of [certain types of] D&D play, where rolls are only for specific things your *character* can do.)

    I like your interpretation of Trollbabe as being about three distinct 'actions', with fiat/negotiation/GM calls for all other outcomes. I don't think it's the only way to play the game, but I like that approach - it's kind of AW-like.

    At some point it becomes a semantics game, of course. "Social" doesn't really apply to leading a bunch of zombies away from a zone you don't want them to be in; on the other hand, "manipulating people" arguably fits that situation pretty well.

    And that's where we're back to negotiation and consensus.

    I'd like to continue to explore ways to make Trollbabe more "concrete" in its procedures. You've done a great job of it so far, and we may learn a lot in the process.
  • Hey Paul,

    We seem to have reached one of those rare and dreaded moments of total agreement! So all I have to say about that is (thumbsup) :wink:

    I did just start another pass through the Trollbabe rulebook yesterday, so we'll see what pops out. One thing I am interested in is the degree to which "manipulate the world" type mechanics can be interesting in a story game. I mean, let's play Trollbabe, but let's have some mechanical way for the trollbabe to climb that tower after all. The rules leave open the notion of having the environment stand in for an opposing character, with some vague indicators (it should affect the Stakes, etc.), but shoe-horns them into the existing mechanics in an inelegant (at least, I think so) way.

    So, a big question is, how interesting is it to have "agenda-less opposition?" I.e., our protagonists are stopped or hindered by things that don't particularly want anything, but that will require effort on their part to get past. This is part of what I was getting at here.

    - N
  • I'd say it can definitely be interesting! (And I found that little discussion quite inspiring; had I had more free time on my hands, a game would have come out of it for sure.)

    There are many reasons to be interested in that kind of thing. The typical (and effective) "story game" approaches I've seen have been "what is it worth to you?" (what will you sacrifice or risk to do this?) and "whose help do you need?" in order to do it.

    I'm sure there are others, too.

    In the Trollbabe context, though, I can see the desire to frame that as a conflict against a non-present NPC. After all, in such a tightly relationship-based game, it makes sense to think of such conflicts as only being interesting when they would do something an NPC doesn't like. (Otherwise, it's safe to skip it, or to pronounce it either impossible or automatically done.)

    I think that's where the subjective judgement angle comes in, again. Does this action affect our relationship map, and touch on the interests of the actors therein? If so, let's roll for it.
  • I'm fairly certain that David meant "reading fiction" as a shorthand for "interpreting the fiction that's developing". Not reading literally (like reading a book), but interpreting what you're 'reading' (like 'reading' a person). The players have to look at the fiction as it develops and come to a consensus or a decision. "Is this a conflict?" "What about now?"
    Indeed! Thanks for clarifying for me while I was away.
  • edited July 2017
    The whole philosophy of games like Sorcerer and Trollbabe and their similar successors (e.g., Dogs) is that the procedures are what we use to play. They're what give us what we want and if we skip them we get something less good.
    Indeed. But the primary procedures we use to play are not the conflict rules, they're the rules you outlined in your opening post: player does X with their character, GM does Y with the world.

    I'd say that the most important rule in Dogs is "GM, say Yes or roll the dice." (Or, well, the most important Dogs-specific rule; the rule that there is one GM and everyone else plays a character is even more important!)
    if we just freeform we're going to get something good. If we're going to have procedures, they need to give us something even better, something that we can't get otherwise.
    And you can in fact get that from some of the procedures in Trollbabe, right? So, mission accomplished! The fact that you don't get it from all the procedures, all the time, doesn't strike me as a problem.

    If you misapply some conflict mechanism and that doesn't ruin anything, then okay, you've revealed that the thing you use to interject interesting new developments into the fiction isn't vital to just moving things along. I'm okay with that as long as I can use it to interject interesting new developments into the fiction. On the other hand, if you misapply the rule that the GM controls Y and the player controls X, I bet play will get ruined.

    I'm not sure if my examples here are any good, so in case it helps, I'll say that I think an RPG in which we only ever roll for conflicts of interest is a very, very different game than an RPG in which we roll for efforts with uncertain outcomes. Like, I had trouble believing it when Ron told me that if my Sorcerer jumps off a building, the GM just decides if I land smoothly or sprain my ankle or break my leg or die or what. There are entire traditions of RPG design predicated on not letting the GM decide that! Once I realized that he meant it, I wished that some short, catchy version of that had highlighted the book's rules section.
  • Hey David,

    I'm on board with everything you said!

    On an almost, but not totally, unrelated note, I'd really like to get ahold of a print copy of Dogs, but Night Sky Games doesn't seem to have that as an option. :( Is there anywhere it's still available, or is it an exclusively PDF product nowadays?

    - N
  • Oh, an absolutely excellent conversation. I went away for the weekend and here you all are, laying down the analysis like that. I thought mid-way through that I might say a thing or two about how rules are negotiated by humans,but then bam Paul's in there, and then N. brings it home. Nothing to add on my part.

    Except - how about we play some Trollbabe over the Internets? I'd be up for it. Haven't played it in over a decade, I think. I'm fine with any interpretation of the conflict typing rules, too. Maybe we could try out something and see if it works - that's my personal ultimate testbed for any theorycrafted rules, I play it and see if it rings with the Truth in actual play.
  • Night Sky doesn't offer a link for the Apocalypse World book either. I assume this is either unintentional or temporary. I'd either wait and check back or email Meg/Vincent to ask.
  • I like Eero's suggestion. I'm down for online TB if we can align schedules.
  • Eero, let's do it! The indie-netgaming IRC channel is still alive: #indierpgs on irc.magicstar.net so that's a possibility

    There's been some talk of switching to a more modern platform like Discord but nothing has come of it so far.

    - N
  • Sure, count me in, too.

    Dogs in the Vineyard is, hands down, one of the best GMed roleplaying games of all time, and the book is very clearly written (except for a few mechanical quibbles, anyway).

  • Option 3: Just for the sake of completeness, this is Eero's "spooky conflict at a distance" method, which I avoid like the plague. This is where you look at the zombies as tools of the mage who raised them. You don't have a conflict with the zombies any more than you have a conflict with the arrows that that archer over there is shooting at you. This makes sense, abstractly. The problem is that the mage is not actually in the scene, which is a rule (conflicts are between characters present in the scene, even though that rule is subverted multiple times in examples). It's unclear how the trollbabe's goal could be stated in terms of doing something to the mage. This is just like the local ruler in the tower climbing example.
    The idea of a somewhat indirect and remote conflict with the source or controller of an immediate problem is valid in general and merely unlikely to be a good fit for the fiction In the specific case of leading zombies into the woods:
    - A pack of zombies is a major threat, capable of complex action, in itself. Compare with an archer's arrows, which are simple and just a small subset of what the archer can do.
    - Anything (e.g. Magic in the Trollbabe sense) slower than a physical confrontation, possibly with a social side, is not relevant or useful when you are chased by zombies and in need to lead them into the woods. Then, if you succeed, more clever possibilities open up.
    - Indirect approaches (e.g. disabling the necromancer) don't necessarily have an adequate impact on the zombies (e.g. without the necromancer no new zombies are activated but old ones remain active)
    - Characters don't necessarily know or care about a necromancer, but they are definitely confronting the zombies.
  • lorenzogatti, I'm going to have another try at nailing down the specific problem. Because you're right "long range" conflicts are not inherently nonsensical. I think I've been muddling things up some. Let's see if I can be more precise.

    The problem with the class of examples I've been talking about (leading the zombies into the woods, climbing the local ruler's tower) is that the trollbabe's goal is local, but she is conceived of as being in conflict with a remote opposition. So in the tower climbing example, the GM says she's in conflict with the local ruler because it's bad for him if she climbs the tower, even though he is far away and doesn't know about the trollbabe. But the trollbabe's goal is stated as "I want to climb the tower." So we have these possibilities:

    You're in a Fighting Conflict with the local ruler and your Goal is to climb the tower.
    You're in a Magic Conflict with the local ruler and your Goal is to climb the tower.
    You're in a Social Conflict with the local ruler and your Goal is to climb the tower.

    None of these make sense to me because (A) the trollbabe can't do anything to the local ruler and (B) the local ruler can't have any intent in the conflict because he doesn't know about it. I can't see any way to frame the local ruler as a participant in this conflict.

    - N
  • (For what it's worth, I think "long range conflicts" are entirely fine, but I agree that the three action types do not really "work" for the situations been described.)

    (That's why I brought up the Pool earlier; in that game, rolling the dice is never associated with a particular action type on the part of the character, so it's very easy to use the mechanics flexibly, interpreting them in whatever way we like, case by case.)
  • edited July 2017
    It seems to me that if you and your opponent can respond to each other, then you can have a Trollbabe conflict, and if you can't, then you can't.

    If an evil sorcerer controls the zombies' every move, I can fight him by fighting zombies. Conflict!

    If an evil sorcerer animated the zombies and then let them go in my path and is sitting back and watching, unable to do anything, then we can't have a Conflict.

    Right?

    I guess there might be an edge case where the evil sorcerer is, like, gritting his teeth and concentrating real hard to keep the zombies animated, but not specifically responding to anything you do. So it's sort of a one-sided conflict of your actions vs the brick wall of his will. I'm kinda guessing Trollbabe conflicts aren't built for that, but I don't actually know.

    (I also don't know the practical limits on scale, like whether it'd work to have "I destroy his zombie army" be one discreet part of a larger Conflict between you and the sorcerer, where his counter-move is to raze your village etc. with the Conflict stakes being whose tribe prevails or some such. Apologies if that's way off the mark, I haven't played in nearly a decade.)
  • It seems to me that if you and your opponent can respond to each other, then you can have a Trollbabe conflict, and if you can't, then you can't.

    If an evil sorcerer controls the zombies' every move, I can fight him by fighting zombies. Conflict!

    If an evil sorcerer animated the zombies and then let them go in my path and is sitting back and watching, unable to do anything, then we can't have a Conflict.

    Right?
    That sounds good to me!

    (I also don't know the practical limits on scale, like whether it'd work to have "I destroy his zombie army" be one discreet part of a larger Conflict between you and the sorcerer, where his counter-move is to raze your village etc. with the Conflict stakes being whose tribe prevails or some such. Apologies if that's way off the mark, I haven't played in nearly a decade.)
    The Scale is set for the whole adventure, and is fairly specifically defined in terms of the number of people you can affect. So at larger scales you can settle "destroy the zombie army" with one roll. But at the personal scale the most the trollbabe can do as the result of one Conflict is kill (or whatever) a few zombies.

    - N

  • Others and @paganini: many thanks for this thread. I recently got interested in Trollbabe. Your analysis in this thread (and the other one) was very helpful in understanding the game.
  • (That's very true. These threads are incredibly useful to readers! A worthwhile exercise.)

    I don't know about "can the opponent respond?". It's a tremendously logical way to do it - probably the way most people would envision conflict.

    But if people want to do the Literary Conflict kind of stuff, does it still hold up? Will there be places where a Conflict might be great to have but don't fit that box?

    I'm not sure.

    (Honestly not sure; just asking a question here.)
  • Others and @paganini: many thanks for this thread. I recently got interested in Trollbabe. Your analysis in this thread (and the other one) was very helpful in understanding the game.
    Thanks! I'v been enjoying them a lot!

    - N
  • @Paul_T, what's your availability like for some actual play? Eero has stopped by the #indierpgs room a couple of times the last few days; we were thinking maybe we can make characters and play a session or so next week.

    - N
  • I might be able to swing that! What days/times work for you two? Feel free to PM me.
Sign In or Register to comment.