Thoughts on a Trollbabe session

Yesterday, I played a second session of Trollbabe with Erik and Michiel, even more delightful than the first. (Trollbabe. I dislike the title of the game, to be frank, but it's the only thing about it to dislike. Let me stress that the whole point of the game is that you're playing strong, independent women. With horns.) To give you an impression of the context, let me say that both Erik and Michiel are very good friends of mine, and that we've done a fair amount of roleplaying before, though mostly D&D. In fact, the two of them have played various editions of D&D almost exclusively, and neither had any previous GMing experience. That was about to change.

In the first session, I GMed their characters Rolda (Michiel) and Vekir (Erik), who were together in a single adventure -- something that is not a given in Trollbabe. This time, we were going to do the same thing, but in addition I would also get to play a character, one adventuring at a different location. Michiel and Erik would collaborate on setting up the situation and stakes for my character while I was in a different room setting up their adventure; and then, having come together again, I would GM their adventure and Michiel would be the main GM for mine. And thus it happened.

One of the things I admire about Trollbabe -- especially the reworked edition, which is not the illegally shared PDF that hangs around on some shady parts of the internet -- is that it gives a crystal clear explanation of how to prepare and run such a narrativistic roleplaying game. The session starts with all players pointing to a map to show where their characters, their trollbabes, are. This establishes beyond doubt that the GM should prepare nothing before the session starts, since she doesn't even know how many adventures to prepare, or whether they'll be set in a city or in the snowy mountains or in a swamp or wherever. Then the GM takes some time to prepare a situation with stakes. The stakes are a person or group whose fate hangs in the balance; and it becomes a dramatically charged situation because different people want different things to happen about the stakes, and all of them will perceive the trollbabe as an opportunity or a threat. That's it. Stakes and a situation; do not prepare anything about how the story will unfold!

The result of this is that Michiel en Erik, with zero GMing experience under their belts, were able to prepare a perfect situation for my character to walk into and act in. It's a small town where a 19-year old boy (Reyno) has been imprisoned because he broke into someone's house and then, when caught by the owner, changed into a fox and savagely bit him. Reyno is part of a fox-shape-shifting family, having a father, mother and sister (Silver) with the same ability. They've been living peacefully in this town for years, but now, after this incident and some related rumours that are going around, people are starting to tell each other that all foxes are thieves and that maybe the entire family should be banished. There's the stakes right there: will they be banished? The family wants to stay, of course, and none more so than Silver, who is in love with the mayor's son Storm. Storm is also in love with her. The mayor wants peace and quiet foremost, and disapproves of his son's choice, though he's not desperate about it. Meanwhile, the family's greatest enemy is the girl Esmeralda, who is the prime witness of Reyno's crimes and the prime source of all the rumours... because she is also in love with Storm, and wants the family to be banished so that she will be rid of her rival Silver. A perfect cauldron of tension, ready to boil over one way or the other.

Playing a character again was wonderful. I haven't roleplayed all that much in the past five years (ever since my first child was born); and most of what I did play was a D&D4E campaign, which was fun but scratched a very different itch (a tactical board game itch). Of the rest, a significant part involved me GMing. So, yeah, playing a character again, stepping into the skin of a different person -- I loved it. It felt liberating and empowering.

Like all player characters in Trollbabe, my character Braam was a trollbabe: a big horned woman, akin to both human and troll but clearly different from both, able to engage with everyone, but able to fit in nowhere. One of the things that you do at character creation is choose a single word that describes the predominant social impression that your character makes on people; this word is chosen from a short list that contains words such as "scary", "fierce" (chosen by Michiel) "remote", "insightful" and "fun" (chosen by Erik). I chose "sexy". That's a word that can invoke very different images, but what I was going for was not anything slutty, or anything worldly and fashionable, or anything in the direction of femme fatale -- rather, I was going for an Earth Goddess/Great Mother archetype. The kind of sexy that says: hello, I'm a force of nature, and whether I'm expressing any interest in you or not, and I'm probably not, you are nevertheless feeling all the nature you ever repressed stirring within you and destroying your safe social self-image from the inside. (And isn't that, fundamentally, what makes someone attractive to us: the idea that being in their presence will somehow renew the life that we know is dying inside us?)

Anyway, those were some thoughts I had at character creation; but what the character is really like is something we only experience in play. Otherwise, why play? At least, why play a game like Trollbabe, which is all about inhabiting a character and seeing where she takes us? As the introduction to the game so eloquently states:

To play a trollbabe, throw aside any anticipation or plans, right now. Character creation rolls straight into play, in this game, and you'll find that a trollbabe quickly has her own ideas about what to do next. She's bigger and stronger than you, so I recommend listening.

Bottom line: it was great. I swept through the adventure as the destabiliser that a trollbabe is supposed to be, as a confidante of the young, as hope and trouble to the mature. There's something deeply liberating about playing someone you're not; and of course it is liberating precisely because this person who you are not is, after all, also who you are. I can say without much fear of contradiction that I'm not much of a Mother Goddess in 'real' life... but that doesn't mean the archetype isn't there as a deep and utterly relevant part of my psyche, a part that yearns for expression and acknowledgement, yearns for existence. Or so runs my Jungian theory of the power of roleplaying.

Let's think about the relation between character and system. It is an important fact about Trollbabe that although that word "sexy" on my character sheet is no doubt important, since it influences what I will do, it has no mechanical effects at all. It does not give a bonus in 'sexy situations', or anything like that. Consider a more traditional roleplaying game. If you wanted to make a sexy character, you would probably "put a lot of points in Charisma" or "get a high Diplomacy score" or, who knows, "take two levels of the Seduction skill". All of which would turn sexiness from a way of experiencing the character you will inhabit and play from (if that phrase makes sense) into an in-game ability. And as an in-game ability, it becomes something one can use or not use in a given session; and if one uses it, that one can fail or succeed at. "I guess my character wasn't that sexy, since all my Diplomacy rolls failed tonight." What this means is that in traditional games, there is always the danger that the player's ability to play the character they have envisaged is dependent on the roll of the dice. Who does not know this sinking feeling that if the dice won't roll our way, our character will be made to look bad in ways that do not fit our conception of the character? It would be a disaster if a bad roll of the dice would result in Braam failing to make an impression on people -- that is not Braam. Of course she makes an impression. That cannot be in doubt. What is going to happen once the impression has been made, sure, that may be hard to predict; but she is who she is.

In Trollbabe, the dice are used only if either the player or the GM calls for a conflict. An important step in any conflict is that a Goal must be declared. It's always the player who does this, never the GM! This is crucial. At one point during our game, Michiel's character Rolda wanted to knock a feral troll unconscious so she could bring him to the village and prove that he, rather than the peaceful band of trolls living in the vicinity, was responsible for a murder. Michiel could have set the Goal of the conflict to "I manage to defeat the troll." Instead, he set it to "I manage to subdue the troll without killing him." At one point, it seemed that Michiel was losing the fight. (He eventually ended up winning after a final reroll.) In Trollbabe, if you lose a conflict, you are the one who is allowed to describe what happens; whereas if you win, the GM describes what happens. Suppose that you lose. Of course, you must now describe a way in which you fail to achieve your Goal. But with the right Goal, that leaves open many possibilities! So Michiel, failing his rolls, was mostly describing his character losing the fight; and I made sure to take a moment to remind him that there was another way of failing to achieve his Goal: letting Rolda fight too well; letting her kill the troll.

Of course this is totally different. If you see your character as, among other things, a ruthlessly efficient fighting machine, then it is much more in keeping with your vision to lose a conflict by letting your character fight too well, than to lose by letting your character get beaten up. Braam won all of her conflicts, so it didn't come up for me as much; but if I'd lost, say, a social conflict against some human whom I was trying to persuade of X, I would definitely not have told it as Braam failing to make much of an impression on the human. Rather, she would have made a very serious impression indeed; just one leading to a reaction she neither anticipated nor, perhaps, wanted.

Michiel and Erik both rolled abysmally during the entire evening, failing their conflicts again and again. Since they were trying to broker a peace between humans and trolls, their repeated failures led to acrimony, bloodshed, and some pretty dark consequences all around. By itself, that's not bad; the story is now all about how your trollbabe reacts to these events. But I noticed that Erik's character Vekir was in no way living up to her description "fun". She wasn't having any fun, that was for sure, and she seemed to be ending the adventure delivering a very downbeat lecture to her young human ward. So I talked to Erik out-of-character and asked him whether he thought that "fun" was, after all, the wrong word for Vekir, in which case we could of course change the character sheet to fit his new vision of the character; or whether he perhaps just had trouble inserting Vekir's personality into the story. It turned out to be the latter. Disaster! Well, Erik was still having fun; but no Trollbabe session can really be a success if one of the players feels that they couldn't express their characters because of the dice or the fictional circumstances. What I think was happening -- if one wants to analyse it -- is that Erik, coming from a D&D background, is mostly used to seeing character as colour. The mission comes first; the stuff that you do is the stuff that moves the adventure forward; while in the meantime character is expressed through 'banter' where appropriate. This is also the way many CRPGs work. (I didn't talk to Erik about it, so it's a guess on my part.) But of course in Trollbabe character is supposed to be the engine. It is what drives the action.

In the event, I asked Erik permission to play his human ward Rina for a minute. He agreed. Vekir and Rina had just been kicked out of the human village, having been caught in a bald-faced if well-intentioned lie. They knew that Rolda would probably make one more attempt at a peaceful solution, but their presence would only make success less likely. So I had Rina open her backpack, and tell Vekir that in all the commotion, at least she had managed to liberate a few bottles of rum from the village elder's house. Erik immediately saw the opportunities and took over the narration, telling us all how he and Rina decided to not be bothered by the foolishness of humans and trolls, but instead built a campfire, started singing trollish songs, even conjured some magical fireworks just for fun. After a last failed attempt at preventing further bloodshed, Michiel's character Rolda joined them, saying: "How dare you start a party like this on a night so sad and terrible... without waiting for me!" Brilliant end to what could have felt as an unsatisfactory adventure if these character had just ended up gloomily reflecting on their failure.

We then finished up Braam's adventure. She had brought the young lovers Silver and Storm to the local brook, where they were inevitably joined by the jealous Esmeralda, who of course made a scene. Braam took Esmerald apart. I started a social conflict with the goal of convincing Esmeralda that Storm was not the one for her. We decided on a "best of three" conflict, meaning that I would have to win two social rolls to win, or fail two social rolls to lose the conflict.

First round. I told Esmeralda, quite truthfully, that while Storm was sweet, he was also rather an airhead and a pushover, and therefore in a no way a match for her own not inconsiderable powers of personality. Roll: failure. Esmeralda agreed with my point, but this brought me no closer to my goal, since she countered -- also quite truthfully -- that there was nobody else more suitable in the entire town. But, Braam went on, why be limited to this town? Wasn't there a whole world out there? Roll: success. Esmeralda acknowledged her yearning to get out of here and see the world. So, at 1-1, it was time for the final roll. And Braam decided to push hard and in an unexpected direction, by telling Esmeralda that anyway it was of course never Storm she was in love with, but Silver, and that Silver was alas just not interested in girls.

At which point Michiel, the GM, said: "Uh... I'm not sure that that's true?"

"But have you established that it's false?" I asked.

And then Michiel agreed that, no, it had not been established as false, and that we could let the dice decide. Besides, it made perfect sense. Why would the smart and passionate Miranda fall in love with the vapid Storm? But the quick and funny Silver, that's a different matter. Furthermore, I was seeing Braam as precisely the kind of person who sees into the hearts of people and knows them better than they know themselves, especially when it is social conventions and learned rules that prevent their self-knowledge. Braam is the force that liberates you from those rules and conventions, whether you want that or not.

Roll: failure. Esmeralda was shocked at the suggestion that she was in love with a girl. Shocked. And I was about to lose the entire conflict. But that's when you can decide to go for a reroll. There's a price to pay, of course: losing a reroll will leave your character injured (not necessarily physically) and losing a second reroll will leave her incapacitated. The question is really whether you care enough about the conflict to take the risk entailed by a reroll. In this case, of course I cared enough.

To make a reroll, you must use, in your narration, one item from a small list: a carried object, a found item, a sudden ally, a remembered spell, a geographical feature. (Or an existing relationship, but I didn't have any.) I chose "geographical feature". Erik wondered aloud how I could possibly come up with a way that geographical features could help me here, but what Braam did was point at the brook and say: "This brook, so small compared to the great rivers of the world, passes through seventeen villages, all of which have their own customs, their own convictions, their own standards of right and wrong. You are much too big, Esmeralda, to confine your mind to a part of the world that is even smaller than what this water runs through." Roll: success.

Esmeralda was quiet for a minute, maybe brushed away some tears, then walked up to a surprised Silver to give her a hug (and no explanation), before turning back into town.

We didn't dwell -- in narrating the end -- on how she explained that Reyno wasn't all that guilty; neither did we talk much about how things played out in the town (the family could stay, that was clear, and who cared about the details?). No, we skipped forward to that final moment of the story when Braam walked away from the town, leaving its inhabitants to their limited views, and stepped into the rest of the world, a new companion at her side.

I'm excited to see where the road will take them.

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