Introduction to Trollbabe
Trollbabe is set in a fantasy version of medieval Scandinavia. There are islands, wooden ships, forests, mountains, villages that raise sheep, men bearing axes, women bearing children, ghosts, magicians and, of course, trolls. Trolls sometimes eat humans, and humans sometimes hunt trolls, but they mostly live together in uneasy peace.
It is a setting full of conflicts. Humans versus trolls, humans versus humans, trolls versus trolls, humans versus humans with trolls caught in the middle -- you name it, and it's there.
That's where trollbabes come in. They are big women with horns, not quite humans and not quite trolls, but half-feared and half-trusted by both species. As a player, you play a trollbabe. Wherever you go, you will get caught up in conflicts, and will help determine their outcome.
So, why trollbabes? There are at least two reasons:
- Their special place between the races make them eternal outsiders. A game of Trollbabe is very much about getting caught up in troubles that aren't yours, making them yours, and then leaving behind whatever it is that you accomplished -- whether it be happiness or ruin. Note that there are no male trollbabes; the prospects of your character ever settling down to form a family are slim. (Perhaps trollbabes can bear human or troll children, but would they themselves fit into either community?) Also note that the rules encourage players to not be in the same location for an adventure. (They can be, and that's fine, but it is clear that trollbabes do not usually form adventuring parties.)
- You get to play hot warrior women who are not objectified sex fantasies. Read this topic if you want to know more. I'll quote: "Trollbabe is much like the work of many sex positive feminists, who try to create pornography free of sexist assumptions. It's also a challenge to those in the gaming community that find [hot warrior women in chain mail bikinis] offensive on their face. It's like Ron is saying: 'This game is clearly not sexist. But it's chock full of hot warrior women. So, either your opposition to hot warrior women in gaming is satisfied or you must admit that it is not fear of sexism, but pure prudery, that drives your opposition.'"
The Trollbabe system is very simple, which is one of the reasons Remko and I chose it for no-preparation internet play. Your trollbabe has one number, the Number, which lies between 2 and 9. In conflicts, you choose a skill to use, and roll a d10. To succeed at fighting, you need to roll below the Number. To succeed at magic, you need to roll above it. To succeed at social: if the Number is 5 or less, you need to roll at or above it; if the Number is 6 or more, you need to roll at or below it. (So social is always your best skill. This has been changed in the new rules, see below.)
Conflicts can be declared by either the GM or the player. They consist of rounds in which you can succeed or fail, and are defined to be best-of-1, best-of-3 or best-of-5, depending on how interesting and important you think the conflict is. Each round involves the trollbabe rolling a die for the appropriate skill.
If you fail a roll, you can reroll, using one of a predefined set of once-per-session backup options ("a sudden ally", "a found item", and so on) or one of your relationships. Rerolls give you the opportunity to succeed where you would otherwise fail, but they also make it possible to become injured or even incapacitated. As in Vincent Baker's 2004 game Dogs in the Vineyard, the only way to get hurt in Trollbabe is by deciding that a conflict is important enough to risk being injured for.
Relationships are gained by role playing them (i.e., non-mechanically), and may be with allies or with enemies. Gaining relationships is the only way to make your character more powerful. They allow you to make more rerolls, though they do not decrease the risk of those rerolls.
Old versus new rules
Remko and I used the 2002 PDF version of the game. When writing this post, I found out that a new and much longer version of the game was published in 2009. I haven't seen it, so I can't say much about it with authority, but from what I read on the internet I gather that the following rules changes have been made:
- There are no modifiers on rolls.
- You cannot use multiple skills at the same time.
- To succeed at social, you now need to roll at or above your number if it is 6 or more; and at or below it if it is 5 or less. So instead of always being your best skill, social is now always your average (or joint-best) skill.
Actual play: Lida and the spirits
I wrote down Lida, with a Number of 7 (fighting 1-6, social 1-7, magic 8-10). She prefers hand-held weapons and troll magic, and is fun-loving. I chose to start in Utgarth, a place randomly picked on the game map, which offers almost no details.
Remko thought up some stakes for the scenario. They turned out to be -- as I got to understand them as events unfolded -- whether or not the young priest Balder had any success with his attempt to introduce a monotheistic religion in the region.
The scenario starts when Lida walks into a small troll village, where a human on a cart (Balder) is preaching about "the One" and about how everyone should stop worshipping spirits. He is especially adamant about the need to destroy the village's totem pole.
Lida dislikes these attempts by humans to convert trolls to their beliefs; but she's also worried about things turning ugly. So in order to stop the priest without harming more than his dignity, she starts making fun of him. This has mixed success, and goes all awry when she tries to bring the totem pole to life. The priest's magic turns out to be more powerful than hers, and she is forced to leave the village as the trolls become hostile to her. Only one, unconvinced by Balder, follows her, while the rest smashes the totem pole.
Near a mountain stream, Lida and the troll Lars talk about their plans. Lida makes sure Lars will do as she says (1-roll social conflict), and they set out to the nearby human village. She expects it to share Balder's beliefs and be monotheistic, but no, there's a totem pole prominently in the middle. Just when she has arrived, the priest arrives as well with a small group of trolls. "Look at the power of the One!", he tells his fellow villagers. "Even these trolls follow me. Do you finally see that we must abandon our worship of the spirits?" Once again Lida starts a social conflict, with more success this time: she makes Balder look ridiculous to his fellow villagers. Some of the trolls try to silence her, but she beats them off, and Balder and his followers are forced to depart.
At this point, Remko and I realised that we needed a twist to make things interesting. "Let's make it so that the spirits of this village are actually evil," I said, "so that Balder turns out to be the good guy, even if his methods and his worship of this newfangled deity are not to Lida's tastes." So that's what we did, and Remko described how, during the big party that followed Balder's temporary defeat, a chained troll was suddenly brought forward. "What are you going to do with him?" asked Lida. "Sacrifice him to the spirits!" said the villager next to her. "What do you mean, sacrifice?" "Well, we'll burn him at the stake."
Of course, Lida isn't going to let that happen. She proceeds to cause a big row, during which the chained troll escapes. Then the oldest woman in the village starts channelling the village's ancestor spirits, who soundly defeat Lida in magical combat. As her last chance of success, Lida calls on a relationship -- I asked Remko whether I could have Balder as a relationship, and he agreed -- and Balder shows up. He tries to defeat the spirits with his own magic, but alas: failure results, and Lida, Balder and the trolls are all blown from the village by a magical whirlwind.
When Lida wakes up, she has been tied up by Balder and his friends. Not a big problem: he wants her as an ally, and they soon reach an accord. It doesn't hurt that the young, inexperienced Balder finds Lida attractive. As the nights falls, they spend some time kissing. But while he's a nice boy, he is not really Lida's type, and things don't proceed beyond this stage.
The next day, Lida leads her troops to the village for a final confrontation with the spirits. The village seems to be deserted, except that the old woman is in her hut, next to a magical cauldron, invoking the spirits. When Lida enters, these take the form of a big red manlike creature that jumps from the cauldron. Combat ensues, in which everything goes wrong for our trollbabe. Defeated and incapacited, I used a final reroll ("a found item") to get to describe my own defeat: there's a bottle with an invisibility spell lying on the floor in the old woman's hut, which Lida uses at the last moment to escape from the spirits. As she crawls away, she sees and hears how Balder is killed and devoured by the spirits of his ancestors. (These were the stakes of the conflict: the spirits are defeated, or Balder is sacrificed to them.) Half-dead and utterly alone, Lida falls asleep in a nearby forest.
Lonesome trollbabes riding off into the sunset
The sessions went smoothly, and the mechanics are certainly easy to use. Still, Remko and I both felt that a certain "oomph" was lacking. It was a fine story; but at no point were we particularly engaged.
What went wrong?
I suspect that the problem is that nothing much was ever at stake for Lida personally. Sure, she had some ideas about how the situation needed to be resolved, but she wasn't truly part of that situation. In a game like Breaking the Ice, your character is deeply involved in the dates you're playing out. In My Life with Master, the need to find love and get rid of the awful master is the essence of your character. In 3:16, you are part of a group of people that you cannot escape from. But in Trollbabe, you are the outsider, and your personal stakes in the conflict aren't obvious.
Let's think about that for a moment. Perhaps the stakes of our scenario should have been different? The original idea wasn't too engaging for Lida, but then we made the wise decision of giving Balder a good motive for his crusade against the spirits. The resulting stakes were pretty good, I'd say, especially since they required Lida to either overcome her earlier prejudices and apologise to Balder, or end up defending the sacrifice of trolls. The resulting relationship to Balder was quite nuanced.
Perhaps there is no real problem, and we just need to play the game more often, so that Lida can grow a network of relationships? That would make her get more caught up in the situations around her. Though if that is what is needed for memorable play, why wouldn't the creation of relationships be part of character creation?
Perhaps Lida should have a need, something that she wants for herself and which gives her some drives of her own. But, again, if that is what a successful Trollbabe character needs, why wouldn't it be on the character sheet?
Perhaps it is just that the kind of story Trollbabe is designed to tell doesn't appeal much to Remko and me. I prefer stories where the characters are completely caught up in whatever is happening, to stories about outsiders who, in the end, always go their lone way. The cowboy riding off into the sunset (what I think of as "Clint Eastwood style," though I've seen almost no Clint Eastwood films) doesn't strike me as an especially interesting character. Those who have no attachments are condemned to be shallow. If a trollbabe is supposed to be such a character, it's not a character I'll have much fun with.
But, looking at the game rules, a trollbabe is not supposed to be such a character. The formation of relationships is one of the central elements of the game. If anything, Trollbabe seems to be designed to explore the tension between being different and an outsider on the one hand, and being part of the world and having relationships with people on the other hand. Trollbabes are not just in between trolls and humans, they are also in between prototypical male and female roles; the prototypical male role being that of the loner who survives through his own skills, and the prototypical female role being that of the social person who survives through her bonds with others.
I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on our session, and on how we could make things more engaging in the future. Or you could just point out that things will get more engaging automatically as we develop more relationships for the trollbabes.
One thing I certainly want to do next time is to drop the 1 GM and 1 player set-up, and GM it for each other. Having two trollbabes whose adventures are different, but somehow linked, sounds like a good way to go about it. Maybe the adventures are set in the same place, but thirty years apart. Maybe one trollbabe is the mother of the other. There are interesting possibilities there.
And perhaps I should get the new book?