Friday, October 25, 2013

[Trollbabe] System analysis, Lida and the spirits AP, and questions

Remko van der Pluijm and I got back online on Google Hangouts this week. We decided to play Trollbabe, a 2002 role playing game by Ron Edwards. I played one or two sessions with Jasper Polane once, way back in 2004 or 2005. Remko had never played it before.

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.'"
Recovering a form of fantasy where sexuality is important, but not used as cheap pornography, is one of Edwards's preoccupations as a game designer. It's an interesting topic that I might want to return to; if you are interested in it, go and read his essay Naked went the gamer.

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.
Remko and I never made use of the modifiers or multiple skills, so the only real change to our game would have been the third. I must admit that I liked the fact that you were always tempted to try talking first; but I haven't got enough experience with the system to disagree or agree with Edwards's redesign choice here. We might want to try it next time.

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?


  1. 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.

    Absolutely. Yes. So often I see people come into narrative RPGs and their first instinct is to create characters who are rugged loners with no family, no friends, no emotional attachments that might cause them real pain in the course of the story - and this is guaranteed to be really boring for everyone concerned. If you want to be an unremitting hardass, you need to be playing a combat-oriented RPG.

    Speaking of games with non-pornographic sexuality, you should absolutely check out Monsterhearts, if you get the chance. Sex and sexuality are right at the core of Monsterhearts - one of the basic moves is to Turn Somebody On, and every character template has a Sex Move that activates whenever they have sex with someone, usually entailing interpersonal and emotional fallout. Plus, y'know, vampires make everything better.

    1. Orderer Monsterhearts. I tried to buy several RPG books during the past week-and-a-half, and Monsterhearts is the only one where I've gotten to the stage of actually paying for it!

      U.S. indie RPG scene + European customer = not good.

      Perhaps it helps that the publisher of Monsterhearts is Canadian?

  2. Yes -- I know I have had that instinct myself in the past. To a certain extent, this might even be Ron's conscious attempt to lure traditional gamers into narrativism by giving them a character concept they believe they're familiar with ... and then making it work in a very different way. Trollbabe is explicitly designed to be "vanilla narrativism," which I think is more or less "narrativism accessible to traditional RPG players".

    Why is the rugged loner such a popular type? Could it be because in traditional RPGs, vulnerabilities are just there to be exploited by a GM you cannot trust to protagonise your character? Playing a rugged loner who cares about nothing then is a defence mechanism against this.

    1. 'Could it be because in traditional RPGs, vulnerabilities are just there to be exploited by a GM you cannot trust to protagonise your character?'

      Not just that, I think. Emotionally invested characters may require players to expose something of themselves in the course of play. Taciturn loners may be a way for players to reduce their own vulnerability.

    2. It might partly be defensive play, or habits learned from CRPGs (where the point is often that the PC is, or becomes, the baddest dude in the universe), but I think that's putting the cart before the horse: the basic character trope was well-established and popular in genre fiction long before D&D was invented.

    3. Sure. My first thought: what proportion of genre protagonists are rugged loners, compared with the proportion of such characters created by first-time players of RPGs?

      Second, emotionally isolated loners may play two similar roles in fiction: first, protecting the author. Second, creating a safe space for the kind of reader who doesn't want to experience certain feelings, even vicariously, or wants to experience them only in certain protected ways.

    4. In what genres is this a genre trope? I'm not an avid reader of genre literature, but my guess would be: western, hard-boiled detective & crime, military, maybe superhero, some fantasy. In other words, the action-filled "male" genres where playing out power fantasies is a big part of the point, and relationships would just get in the way of that. (Note that I am not suggesting that all, or even most, works in these genres do this.) What's going on here is that such fiction is simply immature. It shies away from the complexities of life, and transposes us to a simpler world where we can feel empowered.

      This is not quite the same thing as what I meant by a defence mechanism. If you are a player in a traditional RPG, and emotional ties of your character to other characters are routinely used to make you even more powerless than you already are in the presence of the almighty GM, then playing a rugged loner is not a sign of immaturity. It is the only way to keep enjoying the game.

      The effect on the fiction is much the same, of course, and RPG sessions about rugged loners will generally have all the faults of fiction about rugged loners. But as an analysis of why RPG players choose to play loners, the two scenarios are rather different. Is it because the player doesn't want to face up to the complexities of life, and doesn't want to share his own feelings and ideas? Or is that the player doesn't realise that such facing up is possible in an RPG, and that his feeling and ideas will be respected?

      When I introduce people to narrativistic RPGs, I love to use systems that make it clear from the outset that being "competent" is not the point. My Life with Master is very, very good for this. There's just no way you can get in the taciturn action hero mindset when the first step of character creation consists of dividing three points between "weariness" and "self-loathing".

    5. My instincts are still that a lot of this is something that players bring to RPGs. I think classic RPG behaviour goes something like this: the players come in, wanting and expecting to play a game as awesome action heroes. The actual rules don't support this - in classic D&D you start out as a distinctly puny, vulnerable character. The GM is the guy enforcing the rules, so the players feel denied: they decide that the GM is the person standing between them and their awesome action-hero experience, and that the point of the game is to brutally exploit the rules in order to force everybody else to allow you to do cool stuff.

      The issue there isn't that gameplay makes players fearful of exposing vulnerability: it's that for many players, omnicompetence and emotional invulnerability is what RPGs are for in the first place.

      There are definitely RPGs that recognise this issue, and go out of their way to mechanically ensure that the players get to be stupendous badasses right from the outset, often with the explicit pitch of 'like D&D, but with simpler rules designed to enable rather than obstruct the cool moves you want to be doing.' That's not really what I'm interested in, so I'm not super-familiar with the field; but my impression is that some of them go on to try and engineer more personal-conflict-driven stories, and some don't.

    6. I guess that in this respect, I'm not as negative as you are about the RPGs of the past few decades. Many of them, including popular ones, are obviously not about being awesome action heroes. That includes D&D, which, as you point out, actually has very vulnerable characters at lower levels; and is always, at least ostensibly, about creating real challenges that the PCs might have trouble overcoming.

      But think about the popularity of Call of Cthulhu, where the characters are destined to either be killed or go insane; or all those games which delighted in the characters' limbs getting chopped off, often permanently.

      Or just think about the super-common phenomenon of people playing their characters "for laughs," often by giving them weird weaknesses and personality traits.

      Perhaps you know the classic RPG document "Real men, real roleplayers, loonies, and munchkins". It is a fascinating piece, because it shows you so much about where roleplaying games were just 20 years ago -- all the creative agenda incoherence and all the resulting frustration is just staring you in the face. Anyway, what I want to point out is that the lust for omnipotence is what differentiates the Munchkin from the Real Man; and that lust was obviously seen as the worst possible thing by the writers of this document, and I think by the role playing community in general. You are either vulnerable in combat, or vulnerable in the story, or you play the game for laughs -- but you don't get to be an invulnerable badass action hero.

      Another data point: when I introduce new people to RPGs, I've rarely seen them go for omnipotence and invulnerability. Is your experience different?

    7. I'm certainly not claiming that it's a universal pattern, just a fairly common one.

      Another data point: when I introduce new people to RPGs, I've rarely seen them go for omnipotence and invulnerability. Is your experience different?

      Hm. Good question! Most of the people who I've introduced to RPGs recently are self-selected for interest in narrative RPGs - a lot of them have backgrounds in improv drama, for instance. So relatively few of 'em are really primed for invulnerability play in the first place, and then I'm generally teaching systems where playing to be a total badass isn't even implied, so it's... a different equation. I don't really introduce people to any combat-oriented RPGs these days. So when *I* see people do it, it's probably the reverse: when people find themselves in a game where they're expected to make a lot of creative contributions and play a complex character, they sometimes go deer-in-headlights.

      But the pattern I see, as far as there is one, is about what's on the cover. If the game seems to promise badass loners, a certain proportion of people are eager to hear that promise, even if the game proper totally doesn't support it. Monsterhearts, for instance, which is meant to primarily be about being a messed-up teenager, seems to attract a small but steady contingent of players who are under the impression that it's purpose is to let them be powerful, sexy and completely emotionally inaccessible, no matter how you pitch the game - because, well, vampires. Durance has a similar issue because it's about prisons. And D&D's basic mode of presenting itself is 'here are some awesome powerful-looking characters striking action poses.'

  3. 'I suspect that the problem is that nothing much was ever at stake for Lida personally.'

    That was my first thought, too. I don't think it explains enough, though, because there are examples of more or less successful stories about wondering loners. (I can't speak for cowboys, but Seven Samurai is very good.) The best gaming example I know is Geralt in The Witcher 2. He often has little or no personal stake in the sidequests, but many of them are far more successful as stories than this session seems to have been for you.

    The lack of personal investment massively restricts the sorts of stories you can tell. Two ways which can work: moral motivations and interpersonal connections. Both of these were present in your story. Here's where I think things went wrong.

    1) Insufficient moral complexity. What Lida should be trying to achieve at a given point was always clear: at first, there was cultural imperialism and intolerance to oppose; later, troll sacrifice. Maybe you'd have had more success if the situation had invoked conflicting values.

    An example from The Witcher 2: someone has been poisoned. There is evidence that S was responsible, but no conclusive proof: do you allow a mob to lynch him, or intervene? You might be committed to the presumption of innocence, or his right to a fair trial. But S is heir to a vacant throne, and he may soon be beyond the reach of justice; perhaps flawed justice would be better than a procedurally perfect one that never comes?

    The situation is complicated by the fact that his death would have unpredictable consequences, but probably weaken local leadership in a time of encroachment by an imperial power. Also, he's an asshole.

    2) You only developed one NPC. I wasn't sure what happened with Lars; he turns up for a paragraph, then seems to drop out of the picture. In any case, his usefulness to the story was undermined when he lost his independence to that social roll.

    One NPC might work if they have a really interesting relationship with the moral problem, but I think things might have gone better if there'd been two NPCs with conflicting agendas whom Lida had been able to build connections with. This is probably a form of 'you could just point out that things will get more engaging automatically as we develop more relationships for the trollbabes', but you did solicit that, so hey. Also, I'm not sure how feasible this would have been in a single session: I've never played a non-CRPG.

    1. The Witcher is a pretty good epitome for the Lone Badass genre, insofar as a central point of the narrative is to emphasize how awesome the player is: Geralt is a badass of literally legendary proportion, he's Very Serious, he's desired by women, he is crucial to the fate of kingdoms yet untainted by political ambition, he has the experience of age but still looks good with his shirt off, and so on. A huge amount of effort, then, is spent on reassuring the player that they're the most serious/important/manly man in the world. That's... very much a single-player fantasy. If there are other people at the table, indulging that fantasy gets very boring very soon.

      (You're right that both Witcher and Witcher 2 do a good job of presenting Dogs in the Vineyard-like scenarios where The Right Thing is not totally obvious. But this is worth contrasting to how similar situations work in The Walking Dead: in that, the idea is to make the player feel as though they've made a bad decision, no matter which option they take. In the Witcher games, almost the reverse is true: the game shows Geralt as making a justified choice regardless of which option he takes.)

    2. Yeah, there's a lot of ego stroking in TW2, and I can see why that wouldn't work in a tabletop game. I'm not sure how that plays against the moral complexity suggestion, though: certainly that is one source of difficulty in The Walking Dead, which is not exactly into ego stroking. The example I used does scream You Are Important, but:

      a) it's easy to replace it with an example which lacks that element;

      b) I read a review of Trollbabe before posting. It told me that 'The trollbabe herself is considered to already be a profoundly competent person' and 'there is a focus on player empowerment, as it is the player who will make key decisions regarding how his trollbabe's story unfolds'. So the Witcher comparison seemed apt. Of course, this may not be a promising premise for tabletop play; I was trying to suggest ways of mitigating the disadvantages.

      (As I said, I've not played any of these games; if my suggestions are based on mistakes about the actual experience of play, I'd like to know.)

    3. That's a good analysis, Adam. Your two suggestions -- create an interesting moral dilemma and ensure that more than one person is connected to that dilemma, preferably to opposite sides of it -- are very solid tabletop RPG scenario preparation advice. Like Sam/maga, I too immediately thought of Dogs in the Vineyard, which make this process quite explicit in its rules for "town creation".

      So that is definitely one way to spice up the game. But I'm not so sure that Trollbabe is supposed to be, or that I want it to be, Trolls in the Vineyard. Not all narrativist games are about moral dilemma's, and moral dilemma's are not the only way to make things interesting. I'm hoping to get something else out of Trollbabe, though I don't know what it is yet.

      Take a look at the Trollbabe comics -- they don't deal in moral dilemma's.

      Your point about Lars, on the other hand, is very applicable. He didn't exactly lose his independence during that roll -- we made sure to describe the stakes carefully so as not to have that happen -- but he did mostly drop out of play. I suspect that was because all we had established about him was that he didn't like Balder, and that was equally true about Lida. We definitely should have turned him into a more interesting character, with a vision and agenda of his own; that might have spiced things up.

      More emphasis on more relations, then, next time. And let's bring in a second trollbabe and see what happens.

    4. Sam, I'm not sure that the problem with a Lone Badass in tabletop roleplaying is that it would quickly become boring for the other players. As you pointed out yourself, it would become "really boring for everyone concerned". That includes the person who plays the Lone Badass. And that includes, I would say, a single player game.

      One of the reasons The Witcher, and other computer games, get away with this more easily, is that they have a real source of challenge that the player must overcome. If you win a fight in The Witcher, it's because you yourself have mastered the combat system. (And the game can be brutally hard at times.) So you really are a bit of a badass, in a way that you wouldn't be if you were just rolling a die with a +10 badass modifier against an NPC with a -3 weaksauce modifier.

      Also, I'm not so sure that The Witcher goes out of its way to tell you that you've made the right decision. My feeling is that it is generally quite neutral about this, in which case it is behaving like a good GM should under most circumstances.

      That said, I don't really agree with the two of you that The Witcher 2 is such a clear example of the genre we're talking about. Right at the beginning of the game, you're in prison because everyone thinks you've killed the king; and then you need to clear your name, ally with people in order to survive, and so on. The option to just ride away into the sunset is never there. You're very much caught up in the situation.

    5. The Lone Badass is often entangled in things, but his instinct is always to get out of those entanglements. Throughout The Witcher 2, Geralt reminds us that what he really wants to do is head back to the wilderness and the simple life of killing big monsters for money. Maybe Triss can tag along.

      (Similarly, Ogami Itto (Lone Wolf and Cub) technically has a long-term plan to get revenge, and technically has a small child who he cares about: but both of these are, practically speaking, totally subsumed in the cause of Lone Badassery. James Bond is totally a Lone Badass, even though he's supported by the intelligence services of a major government, because the primary narrative function of those services is to enable his badassery.)

      Hm. Yeah, that's kind of why I said 'almost': the Witcher doesn't go out of its way to tell you that you've made a good decision, at least by the usual standards of CRPGs (where everybody normally gushes all over you for saving them from the dragon on nine separate occasions). But part of that is that Geralt occupies a world where everybody with power abuses it (except perhaps Saskia, who is a naive puppet). This means that Geralt still looks like the Noble Hero most of the time, by merit of standing next to a series of people who have far deeper character stains.

    6. I obviously don't remember The Witcher 2 well enough to make authoritative statements about it. I can't even remember who Saskia was.

      I do agree that Geralt's actions aren't exactly problematised by the game, partly through the mechanism (everyone else is worse) that you describe.

  4. 'Your two suggestions... are very solid tabletop RPG scenario preparation advice... I'm hoping to get something else out of Trollbabe, though I don't know what it is yet.'

    I apologise for my obviousness. I'll be interested to see if you find something.

    A lot of discussion about games and IF seems to conflate meaningful choices with moral dilemmas, and I can certainly understand why you'd want to get away from that. The problem, though, is that most of the other kinds of reason which generate interesting conflicts do require a character who has some investment in the situation, and that's just what you don't have in Trollbabe. (This is because moral reasons have a universalised aspect in our culture; a heroic code/ethics of antiquity would have less traction here.)

    I tried to think of an existing story which fits your requirements, and the only one I came up with was Mushishi. The protagonist is a wanderer who isn't invested in most of the situations he comes across, and they're not morally ambiguous. His interventions are motivated by benevolence, professional curiosity and the need to avoid depression; he's not travelling out of choice, and has a special sort of expertise. It works as TV, but I can't imagine it succeeding as collaborative story. (I'll try to figure out why that is if you want me to, but otherwise I'll just leave it be, as a marker of how little space I can see for stories without moral complexity or personal investment.)

    On TW2: Once he's out of prison, Geralt could just wander off. I think I remember Triss suggesting they do so at least once. I was thinking particularly of the subquests, though, where Geralt's motive is often as impersonal as a sum of coins.

    'There's just no way you can get in the taciturn action hero mindset when the first step of character creation consists of dividing three points between "weariness" and "self-loathing".'

    I applaud your optimism. Actually, world-weariness and self-loathing are common traits in loner protagonists, if not the Schwarzenegger figure you seem to have in mind. Affected weariness is very popular with teenagers, after all, and anti-heroes went mainstream some time ago.

    1. Don't apologise! It has taken the RPG community a long time to understand that obviousness; I think Sorcerer might be one of the first games to make it even somewhat explicit, and Sorcerer was published in 2001.

      Everything you say makes sense, and that's why I think the solution has to be found in some kind of investment in the situation. I'm not sure that Trollbabe doesn't support it; in fact, I think it does; and I want to find out how. A substantial part of that will be me thinking about ways to play this game and trying it out, while engaging with the fiction.

      As to My Life with Master: you're right, I should have said a little more. I should at least have added that in this game, both these traits are evidently bad, and that there's a big box on your character sheet with a "0" in it that is labelled: "Love."

  5. I think the advice about setting up NPCs with built-in antagonism is a good idea, but I think there was something else which contributed to it not gripping you as well as it might have.

    But first a minor point about the stakes. I wonder if the situation's stakes were handled correctly. They were " whether or not the young priest Balder had any success with his attempt to introduce a monotheistic religion in the region."
    For starting trollbabe play, stakes have to be focussed on a single person. That's not, whether a single person makes a great change across a large region (which is what happened here), but whether that single person's life is improved or changed in some way. So Baldur was the stakes somehow, not whether the religion spread. I cant tell from your write up if that was played correctly, but mastering settings and the scale of stakes right in play it was the hardest part for me to get to grips with in trollbabe so it's something I wonder about.

    Back to the main thing I wanted to post about.

    When you both realised there was something lacking, and decided to add a twist - that was the point at which that adventure could have ended. In fact it could probably have ended earlier, after Lida's first defeat at the village. At that point, the stakes as I understand them have been satisfied (Baldur has indeed proven his religion can be respected). If the situation doesn't grip you, It's perfectly fine to move on, and the GM will present a new one. Players in traditional games are used to staying there until they solve the situation totally, and that can be problematic for trollbabe.

    Most stakes in trollbabe should be resolved in a single session, and if some situation doesn't grab you, you make your mark or get trounced and move on and may go from one situation to another a couple of times in the same session.
    All the time, you are building a richer picture of the world, and the GM starts to find what things you get engaged by and what you get bored by, and within a few sessions, everything you do is hitting your engagement buttons.

    The process of encountering new situations with higher frequency than you might be used to with traditional play is a major driver of trollbabe play. It's how the GM and players learn what each others like or are in the mood for, and after a few sessions, play can get really, really intense as you now have a richly detailed world, and a GM you have trained to throw things at you that you really engage with!