Monday, May 19, 2014

[Trollbabe] Why trollbabes aren't dogs

This is a post about Ron Edward's RPG Trollbabe (2002) and Vincent Baker's RPG Dogs in the Vineyard (2004). I'm not completely sure which of the two I played first, though I think it was Dogs. It has definitely been the case that I've seen and played Trollbabe in the past as if it was a somewhat simpler version of Dogs, though of course set in a rather different setting.

Why would you think the two games are closely related? Well, Trollbabe is acknowledged as an important influence in the text of Dogs. But looking at the games themselves, we can see three very important similarities:
  1. The protagonists of both games are outsiders who come to a community in trouble, will influence that community throughout what is probably a single play session, and will then leave for a new "adventure".
  2. In both games, the GM prepares by thinking up something that is at stake or going wrong in the community, and preparing a couple of characters that have views about the situation and interests in seeing certain outcomes come true. Then it's time for Story Now.
  3. In both games, the player characters are only ever at risk if the player decides they care enough about a certain issue to put themselves at risk. Death is only possible if you decide that a conflict is worth dying for.
Given these similarities, I naturally assumed that Trollbabe and Dogs in the Vineyard were very similar games overall, and the GMing one is almost identical to GMing the other. This was a mistake, and I think my earlier lack of success with Trollbabe can be attributed to it. I didn't really get the game, because I was looking at it with the wrong assumptions.

So, what's the difference? Let's start by summing up a few things:
  1. Dogs is made for party-based play. The assumption is that you and your fellow dogs move from town to town together. Trollbabe, on the other hand, does something that always made me raise my eyebrows in surprise: at the start of the game, it lets all player choose a location on the world map. They can choose the same location, but they can also all choose different ones. Even when they choose the same location, the trollbabes are not assumed to form a group (though they may do so if they choose).
  2. In Dogs, conflicts are conflicts between a number of sides (often two) that all wish for a certain outcome. All sides roll dice, and all sides decide how far they want to escalate the conflict. There is no fundamental difference in this regard between PCs and NPCs, between the player and the GM. In Trollbabe, on the other hand, every conflict is one trollbabe's attempt to make something happen. Only she sets stakes; and only she rolls. The GM never sets a goal, never rolls, and never decides whether an NPC wants to continue the conflict or not.
  3. The dogs in Dogs have a very specific role in society; they are appointed to judge people's sins and set communities aright. That doesn't mean that everybody will always listen to them, or do what they say; but it does imbue them with authority. They are also responsible for the communities they visit; walking away on whatever mess they may find is not really an option, at least not for as long as they want to be dogs. Or rather, it may be an option, but an extremely radical one that implies the extreme judgement that a particular community is literally damned. And whatever the dogs judge to be the case is supposed to be true; after all, they're the chosen servants of god. The trollbabes in Trollbabe, on the other hand, have neither authority nor responsibility. They are powerful, and people will see them as threats or opportunities, which means that they act as destabilising elements in any tense situation. But they don't have authority or responsibility; their judgements are not sanctioned from above; and in fact they are under no compulsion to judge.
Now if you expect Trollbabe to be just Dogs with simpler mechanics and more fjords, all these differences will appear to be weaknesses of the game's design. What Dogs is extraordinarily good at, indeed what it has been designed to do, is to give you complex situations in which your players must come to judgements even though fair and equitable judgement may be hard or may have harsh consequences. They enter a town. Something is amiss, and it is their job to find out what it is and to make things right again. They'll start pursuing this job. As the GM, you can have NPCs drag them into conflicts. There will generally be differences of opinion between the players, and because they're all in it together, this leads to immediate in-game tension between their characters. There's one big huge conflict situation, and the players must -- and more or less automatically will -- go to the heart of it before the session can come to an end.

But how do you make that same thing happen in Trollbabe? Players don't have the same strong motivation to enter a situation; you can't drag them into it; and their fellow players might be somewhere else entirely. It just doesn't work! Only if you are very lucky will the good Dogs in the Vineyard stuff start happening! Ron Edwards, fix your game!

Except that, of course, you shouldn't be striving to make the same thing happen at all. The new edition of Trollbabe has a passage which made me write down "Trollbabe isn't DitV!". It is on page 88:
Judge as you please. Characters in the adventure location will be constantly in her face, and she will like them or not, and interact deeply with them or not. The adventure as a whole is not your problem. Although the Stakes exist, and your trollbabe's presence influences what happens to them, it is not your job to identify them and decide upon them in any way. Focus instead on the characters she meets and what she does with, to, or about them.
A trollbabe is not a dog. She really doesn't have to judge. And a Trollbabe player is not a Dogs in the Vineyard player. She really doesn't have to go to the heart of the conflict situation; and if she does, she can deal with it any way she damn well pleases, even if that means walking away from it all in disgust, or turning it to her own -- rather than the community's -- advantage, or taking a sudden liking to one NPC and taking care of them while they let the rest of the mess take care of itself.

In Dogs in the Vineyard, the GM will build a town where if the dogs don't intervene, everything will become steadily worse. The town is on the way to Hell, quite literally. In Trollbabe, you don't have to do that as the GM. In fact, everything could end up just fine if the trollbabe doesn't come along. (And who's to say what "fine" is, anyway?) The conflict is a backdrop against which the trollbabe will come to life. Sometimes, that may mean she interacts deeply with it; sometimes, it may mean that conflict goes its own way, perhaps a completely non-climactic way, while the trollbabe pursues other interests. That would break a game of Dogs, because it would destroys the basic premise of its fiction. But Trollbabe is in a wholly different genre.

And when you stop trying to imitate Dogs and start playing Trollbabe, it actually works. In the game I recently played with Michiel and Erik, the two players chose radically different approaches. Michiel's character saw it as her mission in life to ease tensions between trolls and humans; she came to the conflict location because she had heard rumours of such tensions; and she involved herself deeply in it and tried to set things right. Erik's character, on the other hand, was an amnesiac only interested in finding out the truth about herself. She learned about the conflict situation, then killed off almost everyone involved in it because that would bring her quick personal advantage in gaining her goal. The original stakes -- whether a certain guy would be able to marry his love -- were resolved, I guess, when that guy was killed; but the killing had nothing do with his love. The conflict I had thought up was something Erik's character just didn't care about.

And it worked! Both stories were interesting, fun, and memorable. It just turned out to be the case that Erik's story was about how we and his character found out that she was ruthlessly in search of power (and in fact had recently turned herself into a trollbabe in order to achieve that end!), and not about some poor guy's attempt to marry. (Or about his relationship with his troll slave, a nice secondary tension I had set up.) It was still a good story that made all of us eager to see more.

Conclusion: it's really hard to read games without preconceptions, but those preconceptions can ruin your play. A good game text -- like the 2009 edition of Trollbabe -- can be very, very important in setting things right. A blog post like this may, perhaps, also help.

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