[Actual Play Week] Trollbabe by Ron Edwards
When I first played Trollbabe, I had the sudden joyous experience of creating a story on the fly with my character in the spotlight. I encountered Trollbabe about 2002, before I had tried many other games designed to support this approach, so it impressed me. After six years, looking back at the rulebook and playing again, it still impresses me. Trollbabe has a solid system that generates fun play.
Trollbabe was released as a pdf in 2001 and remains available for for download at an affordable $10. The rulebook delivers an amazingly concise and complete system in a relatively short space, a trick that has only recently been eclipsed by Vincent Baker's 38-page In a Wicked Age. Like IaWA, it's formated for printing on standard paper and comes with original black and white art.
What's a Trollbabe?
The art of Trollbabe proclaims its subject: the adventures of heroines half human and half troll. These Trollbabes stand slightly apart from both human and troll culture, yet both groups tend to look to them for help, especially when they conflict. The game text presents this at several points, including the "Adventures" section advice to the GM.
While the art does a good job of demonstrating the kind of PC the players will create, it does have a slight fetishistic quality -- not the nasty kind, but the "big-woman" kink of comic strips like Cheech Wizard (which Ron identifies as a primary influence). despite the discomfort this might raise in many men and some woman, the actual play leaves this element solely at the player's discretion. The focus of play is on being a competent, empowered hero caught between two worlds.
Players create characters by selecting a "number" from 2 to 9. This number determine three die ranges for the three Action Types, Fight, Magic, and Social. The players also describe the style of their Trollbabe with a short descriptor for each Action Type. Eg, Bare hands, Tree magic, and Insightful. Two items, one human and one trollish, are also added to the character. Finally, the player describes the Trollbabe's appearance and habitual dress, and the shape and size of her trollish horns (a great opportunity to symbolize your concept for the character).
How it Plays
In my experience, Trollbabe is best played in small groups -- ideally a GM and one or two players. Three will work if everyone is on the ball. I say this because the fundamental rules encourage each Trollbabe to be the star of their own adventure -- they are often widely separated, pursuing different goals. A typical pattern of play is for each player to take a turn having a scene while others take a breather from being in the spotlight.
The game includes a couple of key rules that the players can use to keep things snapping. One is GM's power to open and close scenes -- he or she can use this to cut back and forth between players. But second and more radical is the rule that says a Trollbabe may enter any scene at any time.
Bending my mind around this rule has taken some time. I've had to unlearn the iron law of sequential logic that two decades of roleplaying have ingrained into my brain. "How did you travel a thousand miles?" "Weren't you tied up?" These sort of objections are explicitly rejected by the rule. The Trollbabe shows up if the player says she does. And once the scene is over, and that player has a new scene, she might still be tied up a thousand miles away. Come up with an explanation after the fact. Maybe the two stories are happening at different times. Like I said, mindbending -- but very in keeping with the way fiction works.
The GM doesn't have to spend a lot of time preparing -- he or she just sketches Stakes and Consequences, some NPC names, and maybe a quick map of the local area. In Trollbabe, the author uses "Stakes" to mean an overall conflict in which the NPCs are engaged. Consequence is what's in jeopardy -- a person's life, the existence of a village, the king's throne, etc. Stakes and Consequences are based on the Scale of the adventure -- another cool concept that I will leave for the reader to discover should they decide to read the game text. The GM will usually need one situation for each Trollbabe.
Scenes and Conflict
So after preparation, the game starts. A player may request a scene with some opening elements or characters, but the GM gets final say on the composition of a scene when it opens. During the scene, the player encounters whatever situation the GM has prepared and they roleplay events and interactions. In general, the GM controls NPCs and the player controls the Trollbabe. When any player (including GM and nonparticipants) sees a conflict of interest between the Trollbabe and an NPC they may call for conflict resolution.
In conflict resolution, each character states a character's desired outcome. Then the GM and player establish Action Type (Fight, Magic, Social) and Pace. Pace determines how many rolls must be one to end the conflict (1 of 1; 2 of 3; or 3 of 5). These let the GM and player negotiate how detailed the conflict will be.
When these are set, the Trollbabe rolls a d10 against the range of their Action Type. Before each roll, the player describes what the Trollbabe in follow on to the previous roll's outcome and the GM describes how NPCs are acting. If the player's die fails, they can buy a reroll either by using something from the predefined list (a found item, a sudden ally, etc.) or by involving a Relationship character.
Not only does a reroll tap the thing used to buy it, it also increases the scale of consequences. As soon as she chooses to reroll and fails, she can suffer injury (and may kill the Relationship that bought the reroll). However, if she's will to lose the conflict, she can get through with nothing more than disappointment. One major compensation is that the loser of a roll gets to describe how their character failed to achieve their intent. This means the player can embellish the scene when they lose and make sure their Trollbabe still looks cool. At the same time, when the player wins, the GM describes the outcome, giving the player their intent, but perhaps adding elements that point in new directions.
The last bit of coolness I'll talk about is Relationships. After a Trollbabe rolls a conflict, the player can add an NPC who was present in the scene as a Relationship NPC. The player then can describe what the NPC does (though the GM still decides how the NPC feels about those things). The Relationship can be an ally or an opponent (imagine what you might do with that.) And of course, the Relationship can be ticked off for are roll when narrated into a conflict.
After the Session
Between adventures, players adjust the descriptors on the Trollbabe's sheet and bump their "number" up or down one point. They also look at the world map included in the book and choose the location of their next adventure. Also the group has the option of upping the Scale of stakes in future adventures. After a couple of adventures, the world and the Trollbabe's histories get fleshed out and provide wonderful background. It's not hard to guide events through a 5 or 6 session series that ends with a sense of resolution, though this is not required.
All in all, Trollbabe is solid, with a well-defined roles for player and GM, scene framing, and conflict resolution. The text is easy to understand (though it may challenge some long-held assumptions in us old roleplayer types) and it easily and consistently generates rollicking character-driven play. Rules that were innovative six years ago still stand out as impressive today and are well worth a look and definitely worth playing!