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Thoughts on a Trollbabe session

I mailed Ron about an AP post I made on my blog, about a great Trollbabe session I played, and he suggested linking to it here. So, in case you are interested, here's the link. I describe some pivotal moments in the game, but I especially try to analyse what makes Trollbabe work as a character-driven roleplaying game. And I talk about some way to make sure it works when you're playing. Enjoy! (If you want to react, you can definitely do that here, I'll be checking in.)

Department: 
Actual Play
Games: 
Trollbabe

Comments

Ron Edwards's picture

I guess I'm the last person who should be commenting, as I'd really like to see how others respond to this account, especially others who aren't familiar with the game.

I particularly appreciate your incorporation, directly from the spirit of the game, of female power in all its forms, and especially of intuiting the descriptor you chose appropriately. I wrote the game in celebration of these things.

Ron, I wonder if you have ever noticed or heard about different experiences of male and female players with this game? I'm curious about that, because I can imagine that "playing female power" might feel different depending on your gender. (For me, at least, the cross-gendered aspect felt particularly empowering.)

Ron Edwards's picture

It's no surprise to me as the game was anticipated and intended toward these ends. For anyone who engages with the content at this level, the effect is dramatically present. I stress that in all cases we are talking about engagement without vocal processing, and specifically without prompting or explaining on my part.

By "anyone who engages" I'm acknowledging that not evey single player whom I've observed goes into full-bore intensity mode. Precede each of the two following paragraphs with "most" or "many."

Men are often energized in a fashion they do not expect and in many cases have never felt before. I have always been struck by the instant assertiveness, presence, and given even the tiniest situation, moving right into what they want to do. They feel "able to speak" and often say things they would not have anticipated saying, or had in the past outright spoken against.

Women step into the "state of trollbabe" as well, and I won't generalize about it for obvious reasons. The game works toward whatever end you care to name in these terms.

What's really important is what I don't see, and unlike the last point, this is absolute. No one plays a Barbie trollbabe, i.e., a woman in plastic-molded shape only, bereft of gender and sexuality. Nor have I ever seen anyone play an objectified pin-up for ogling and the object of jokes.

Here's one more significant detail: since the category for a new Relationship is stated by the player, those few which become romantic matter greatly as such. Trollbabes don't hook up with just anyone, and players seem to get that and to enjoy its meaning, whatever that may be in each case. Perhaps less obviously, since any Relationship may end between sessions, usually without much fanfare or description, players sometimes choose to end a romance that way and to recall it fondly, "that ended well," and not incidentally, they are literally saving that NPC's life in doing so, considering the risks of later events

That's a great point you make about relationships. I haven't gone far enough into a Trollbabe 'campaign' to really see it in action: I've played a bunch of 1-shots and 2-shots, but never more extended, though that will probably change soon. I'm looking forward to exploring it further.

I think of the four people (two times two) I'm currently playing the game with, so far I'm the only one who really jumped into the Trollbabe part with *full* intensity. But I think at least part of that is that all four other players are pretty new to narrativist roleplaying and very much still exploring and getting used to the possibilities on offer; whereas I'm here very specifically for the *Trollbabe* part of things. We'll see how it goes!

Sean_RDP's picture

Playing a character again was wonderful

I understand the feeling. If I am not designing I am writing modules, facilitating games, and/or GMing them. To just play is a nice reprieve. 

With so much experience coming from the D&D menagerie, did you or the other participants run into social or experience based hiccups playing Trollbabe?  Cognative dissonance at all? It does not sound like you did, I was just curious. And if you did, could you talk about how you worked around that? 

I am curious as to why you hate the name of the game? I have some impressions, but I don't want to just roll them out without knowing your reservations. Thanks!

I don't think there were any serious hiccups, no. There were a couple of moment were I intervened to point out something that might not have been obvious to players coming from D&D -- for instance, that failing to achieve your goal in a conflict does not have to come about through character incompetence -- but that was fine.

Perhaps I should add that although both my players had perhaps 95% of their experience with D&D, they had seen narrativistic roleplaying before. I did a Trollbabe session with them a long time ago; I think Erik once played Fiasco; and with Michiel I've played Shooting the Moon, and perhaps also a session of Monsterhearts once? Or maybe My Life with Master? Either way, it wasn't all totally surprising to them.

As far as the title of the game goes... well, whenever I see the word 'babe', it is in a context like 'booth babes' or 'hot babes'. Always about objectifying women. This could be because of my own specific cultural context! (Perhaps crucially, I don't live in the US and am not a native speaker of English.) But whenever I talk about Trollbabe with anyone, the first thing I have to do is that their first instinctual reaction to the title is misguided. :D An overcomable hurdle, to be sure.

Sean_RDP's picture

I suspect our reactions are similar in that regard. And maybe that is the point? I do not think I have ever seen Ron speak about why he chose the name, but I am sure it was not by accident. Nor just to get a rise out of people. Appreciate your POV. 

LorenzoC's picture

As I mentioned on Discord, I didn't play Trollbabe much, and I never run it for others, so I'm no expert. The first time someone told me about it I said "This has to be a joke". Silly me. I do know I struggled to get my regular people because of the name, or general subject. I did manage to get a couple of them to read the rules, but there was still this huge wall between "This sounds incredibly interesting and revolutionary" and "We want to play this". They asked me to use the ruleset to run "something else", but I refused back then because I felt the trollbabes had to be important. I don't know if I was just being too stuck up or if the peculiar subject matter was essential to the experience.

The few sessions I played with another group and another GM made it very clear that what we had to imagine was Xena. They referred to it obsessively, and as a result (to me) the experience was partially soured because it was very clear the people at the table took the word "babe" extremely seriously in the acception of "bombshell with horns". It was a fundamental betrayal of the text in my opinion and as such the experience didn't work for me; I felt uneasy playing a female character.

This has been a very frustrating thing, for me; because the moment you step into discussing Trollbabe, everyone is gushing about it, at any level. Whether they are Forge enthusiasts or fierce conservative keepers of the "old ways", people generally agree it's one of the best written rulesets in the history of RPGs, and quite likely the most useful analysis of the trappings of the hobby you can find printed on paper. And I enthusiastically agree on both things, but when you actually bring up playing it, there's always some new hotness around that takes precedence. 

This didn't stop Trollbabe from being the biggest influence in our shift in how to approach games (and how to run them), and in my case probably the biggest push to write them). For example, the notion that players would narrate their failures and the GM would narrate their successes led us to discuss and analize the reasons for such an apparently contradictory choice and it's ultimately an incredibly convincing argument for explaining the difference between outcome and narration authority that leaves no ambiguity between the two and fully evidences the significance of the latter. 

I don't know if I was just being too stuck up or if the peculiar subject matter was essential to the experience.

Here's the way I think about that; perhaps Ron can chime in if he thinks I'm wrong. Are the Trollbabe system and its fictional content separable? Yes and no. Yes... but you'd have to think about it very very carefully.

The one thing I always take care to emphasise to any new player when I explain the setting is that a trollbabe is human enough to be taken seriously as a member of human society, but trollish enough to never fit into human society. And mutatis mutandis with trolls. The trollbabe always gets caught up in what is happening, but then always moves on.

What this also means is that the trollbabe is an archetypal male role: the lonesome cowboy who rides off into the sunset at the end of every adventure. But... she is female! And there is one very important way in which the rules chime with the archetypal femine role (which is supposed to be about care and bonding), namely, through the great emphasis they put on relationships. Consider: relationships are the only way in which a trollbabe can get stronger. And so we have a woman put in an archetypal male role that is then twisted towards the feminine.

(On a side note, I also like to remind myself that there is no indication at all in the rulebook that the trollbabe's society is patriarchal. The trollbabe may of course encounter sexist communities once in a while, but the point of the game is not exploration of sexism.)

I'm sure you can take the Trollbabe system and use it to play something else. But you would have to put some thought in it, because you either need to recreate the gender dynamics of Trollbabe, or put something in its place that is equally interesting and powerful.

LorenzoC's picture

My reasoning at the time (and I'm sure I was overthinking it, but I was so sure back then that it had to be something like this!) was that one of the reasons for having Trollbabes and not lone gunmen or silent wandering swordmen on a revenge quest was precisely forcing people out of their comfort zones so that they had to actually think about what they were doing and how and why instead of just engaging autopilot and reverting to old tropes.

I always felt this transpired from the art more than the text (again, this is probably mostly my mental construct) - the most recurring theme seemed to be people helping each other (I think there's like three or four pieces of trollbabes saving/healing someone or being healed by someone) plus a whole lot of goat saving/rescuing. There's a scene with a trollbabe apparently bargaining with a troll about a small goat while the scared/curious villagers watch that always made me want to play the game. I can't precisely explain why.

Different group of players, but I did some more Trollbabe yesterday. This time over Zoom -- it's a perfect game for remote play, with its simple dice mechanics. I wrote another blog post. This time I'm reflecting on how I, as a GameMaster, try to keep up the narrative pressure. I'd be interested in whether you agree with the way I'm doing this, or have different/additional techniques to use.

http://gamingphilosopher.blogspot.com/2020/09/keeping-narrative-pressure-on.html

Ron Edwards's picture

I've come to the decision over the past year or two, that certain familiar terms from Forge-ish or designated indie circles should be abandoned. One of them is Manu's favorite, "interesting," as in, "make conflicts interesting," or "frame interesting scenes." Your "pressure" seems like another one for the tumbrels.

The technique you're referring to is a good one, or is based on a solid principle: that fictional situations include content that's relevant to the human experience. That's as distinct from wholly fanciful problems like "oh no if we do that it will initiate a time-loop," or "but purple magic requires the mushrooms from the spooky swamp, so we must go there," or "if the two immortals fall in love and stay together too long, one must lose their powers and die." Those suffer from tautology; they exist only in loops of their own, that you must solve it because it's a problem and it's only a problem because you must solve it.

A related technique, also good and based on solid principles, is the role of coincidence - if person A is strolling down the lane seeking some solitude, why, person B who fancies themselves wronged by person A may well have elected to stroll down that very lane for the same reason.

The problem, and why I'm squinting evilly at the tumbrels, is that thinking "now I must apply pressure" is all too easily turned into highly customized escalation which defies the logic of all that has gone before, and which in plain fictional terms is bad contrivance. I've written before about the unfortunate truism that all fiction is contrivance, but there is such a thing as bad contrivance, and although I'm content to let every person draw his or her line for that, I insist that they better find that line toot sweet. So the problem is to cross one's own line with the mistaken justification that one is "just applying pressure."

I am used to talking about this regarding Sorcerer and Humanity, which is extremely well-suited to the topic, but let's stick with Trollbabe; I'll pick on one particular rules term/concept for focus.

As mentioned in some recent discussion of Trollbabe, the player-characters are under no obligation to "solve" the Stakes or even to care about them in any way, or if events turn out to warrant missing them entirely, to have the Stakes suddenly shoved at them as if directly confronting the Stakes were the point of play. Given your emphasis on "pressure," can you see the potential to try to keep roping the trollbabe into such a confrontation, to work from some need to "get" her there, instead of treating each and every new scene as a "new now" and simply playing one's NPCs accordingly?

The point here is that the NPCs are already in high dudgeon about the Stakes; they don't need you as the GM to come in and shift locations about and fiddle with the backstory to make the trollbabe care or to get her directly involved with the Stakes. They only need you to play them, as characters, and whatever happens to the Stakes based on events - which may include the trollbabe missing or ignoring the Stakes - is whatever happens.

So if by "pressure" you mean merely to play such character in that fashion, then that's fine. But if you mean ramping up coincidences, changing prepared material, suddenly revising NPC attitudes or goals in order to create pressure, then I think we're talking about something not so great at all.

Thanks for that, Ron. I was definitely thinking of pressure as something to along the lines of logical development of the situation. Here's maybe the point I was trying to make: given the prep, given the characters, given what the trollbabe just did, there are often still many developments that make sense. And then it makes sense to consider the tensions inherent in the situation and choose a development that puts pressure on one of them. I take it that an example of this is the kind of good coincidence that you describe.

If you start ramping up the tension in ways that destroy the integrity of the fiction, yeah, I can see how that could quickly lead to disaster.

(Also, if I understand the game correctly then one of the crucial features of Trollbabe -- something that sets it apart from, say Dogs in the Vineyard -- is precisely that the trollbabe is under no obligation to engage with the stakes. This is why I'm being careful in stating that I'm applying pressure on the situation, not on the trollbabes or the players. I'm not here as GM to contrive moral dilemmas for the players to struggle with!)

Here's maybe a more practical question along these lines. In my scenario, I had a troll child who had been lost by her tribe and raised by humans; and a troll mother, who would want her child back if she found out that the still lived. But during prep, I had not thought through the question of whether the mother already knew that her child was still alive and living with the humans.

In play, one of the players took the child to the trolls un an unrelated mission... and I decided that, okay, the mother didn't know about the child, so I could have a cene of discovery. But if the player had gone to the trolls without the child, perhaps I would have made a different in-the-moment decision, having the mother ask the player for help to get her child. Does this sound okay to you? Or is this a problem with my prep?

Ron Edwards's picture

Excellent question. I'll try to be specific: what I'm advising people to avoid, in GMing Trollbabe, is this notion: "if they go to the temple tonight, then the sacrifice is being held tonight, but if they go to the temple tomorrow night, then it will be held then instead."

There's a danger in the possible solutions, however. Expecting oneself to be such an amazing master of the entire fictional situation, as prepped and as may develop in any way during play, is another form of pressure which steers people too far into performance anxiety and into "GM as nanny of the experience" thinking.

Therefore, I think it's useful to be a little gentle with ourselves and recognize that play, as an experience, will include plenty of "oh wait, I should know that already," or "I should have prepped that" moments.

Given that gentleness, my personal take - so this is not Writ or even advice - is to pose myself an internal aesthetic task. When I realize that X should have been a known thing ("known" meaning to whomever is supposed to know such things, whether one person or everyone or anything in between), then I mentally perform time-travel and say, "Well, if I had done this like I 'obviously' should have, then what would I have prepared or known?"

One cannot say, obviously, whether this mental gymnastic is epistemologically sound, but I don't care; for me, it's a good way to pick up a piece that one should be holding and to move on with play. The idea is for me not to get trapped in the morass of "what would be good for the story," or "what will make the players care most," or "must! invent! interesting conflict!"

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