Keeping the narrative pressure on
I played another session of Trollbabe yesterday, and I would like to take the opportunity to write a little bit about GMing this game (and similar narrativist games). This is not a worked out manifesto so much as an attempt to think through an approach that I've been taking more or less instinctively.
First, some context. This game was online, with two people I had never played with before: Judith and Katy. Actually, it's not quite true that I never played with Judith. I've known her for some 38 years, and possibly the first roleplaying I was ever engaged in was on a vacation with her family and my family. She acted as a kind of story guide, and I and her brother Adriaan played characters in an unfolding short story. I was thrilled by the possibilities inherent in such an activity, but it would take more time before I really discovered the world of tabletop RPGs.
Both Judith and Katy played a bunch of roleplaying games before, though as far as I can judge they were all fairly traditional: D&D, Pathfinder, Call of Cthulhu, even Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. (Judith also played some games I don't know, like Tales from the Loop, but a quick glance at this gave me a semi-traditional Fate-like vibe. I might be totally wrong about that.) That said, I expected both of them to be very interested in character-driven narrativist roleplaying. And they definitely took to the system immediately!
So what is the job of a Trollbabe GM? The situation you create when you prepare the adventure is full of tension, ready to boil over or explode (or whatever your favourite metaphor is) as soon as the trollbabe arrives. Now during play, you want to do two things:
- Expose the situation to your players.
- Keep the pressure on!
The first is obvious. You've got tell the players what is going on. If they don't know what's happening, they cannot act in the situation. It is important that there is no such thing as 'secret GM information' in Trollbabe. Does that mean you should just read out your prep to the players when play begins? Certainly not! That could work, in a very different game where the players engage with the narrative in a fairly abstract, high-level way. But in Trollbabe, the players are playing characters, and you want them to experience the situation from the limited perspective of a character. Now the point of this 'limitation' is not that there are secrets you can surprise your players with at some crucial moment -- the point is never ignorance. The point is that the character is inside the situation, that they immediately form relationships with the other people in the situation, and that they judge and act after already having been caught up in things.
In practice, what this means is that you want any character that the trollbabe meets to spill their narrative beans more or less immediately. They're always ready to tell the trollbabe what's on their minds! But, as the rulebook somewhere tells us, their perspective will be so coloured that what they tell you might as well be a lie.
The second task is to keep the pressure on. What does this mean? You want to 'keep the story going', sure, but that's vague, especially since you have no idea what the story is going to be. Rather, you've got to think in terms of the Situation and the Stakes. Your task as GM is to escalate some of the existing tensions of the situation, so as to put more and more pressure on the stakes. You want to push relentlessly towards a situation where something big has to happen, whatever it may turn out to be, because the status quo has become entirely untenable.
Under pressure everything becomes fluid. It may seem that if the GM keeps piling on pressure, she'll be reducing the freedom of the players, forcing them down certain lanes. But the opposite is the case. Pressure generates possibilities; it creates a situation so unstable that major changes can take place; and this is where the trollbabe's goals and actions, her failures and successes, become the determinants for the future.
Why does one of the two GM goals have an exclamation mark? Because it's the more important of the two! It doesn't matter if some of your prep never gets exposed, never gets used. But if there's no pressure, then the game doesn't work.
One more thing before I move to thinking through some examples. Keeping the pressure on doesn't mean that every scene has to be tense, or has to escalate the situation. Narratives benefit from variety; and a quiet, simple scene can work wonders, also in terms of character development. Mechanically, Trollbabe pushes towards the inclusion of such scenes because they allow the trollbabes to heal their injuries. Indeed, if there's anything I regret about yesterday's game, it is that we were under time pressure and didn't have a chance for many calm and quiet scenes. The one we did have -- Katy's character talking to troll-girl-raised-by-humans Laar -- was actually one of the high points of the evening.
Some examples! First, my prep:
There's a troll child, Laar, who has been lost in the mountains by her wandering clan. Her mother, Guna, wants her back (but doesn't know she survived). In the meantine, Laar has been adopted and raised by local witch woman Maria, who has taught her the magic needed to protect the farmers against the water spirits. And the farmers will need all the protection they can get, because the wandering clan has recently returned to the area and one of them, young, hot-blooded troll Hoergh, must prove his worth to be the next clan leader by killing the water spirits. The farmers, led by Dorotha, just want peace and quiet, but have been experiencing water-related incidents. One of them, stupid young boy Johan, wants to kill Hoergh.
Stakes: will Laar stay with the humans?
Both player characters were in the same location, so I made a situation that was slightly more complicated than what I would make for a single character. With one character, I would definitely have left out Johan, for instance.
Example 1. Judith's character Mirthe and Johan have been spying on Hoergh, who is standing in the middle of the stream, looking for some monster he can kill. What now? Mirthe has already talked to Hoergh before, not much has happened in the meantime... but I think of the situation, and I see two tensions that might definitely be ramped up. (a) Hoergh versus the water spirits, whose existence he doesn't really know about yet. (b) Johan's desire to kill Hoergh. So I describe that the calm stream suddenly rises up in a wave, knocking Hoergh on his ass; and that Johan looks at Mirthe, says "This is our chance!", and charges towards Hoergh with his pitchfork ready.
Example 2. At the end of this same scene, Mirthe has won a social conflict with the goal of "calming down Hoergh and getting him out of the water". I get to describe what happens. Now I feel that it has been made abundantly clear to everyone involved that Johan is no match for Hoergh; so that's a tension that has been resolved. That's great! You don't have to escalate all the tensions in the situation, some of them may be defused by the trollbabe (especially if she is invested in doing so, as Mirthe was). But the other tension in this scene can do with some ramping up; so the way I tell it is that, yes, Mirthe definitely succeeds at her goal by convincing Hoergh that it was the violent water spirits, not her own magic, that knocked over Hoergh... and then Hoergh turns back to look at the water, grins, and says "Now I know who I must kill to become clan leader." This is also the first time the players learn that Hoergh wants to become clan leader! It's a great technique to escalate and expose at the same time.
Example 3. Mirthe and Johan return to the village, with Judith saying that she wants to be at Johan's parents' place in order to "devise a plan for dealing with Hoegh". Fine. Could be a fun calm scene. But we're running out of (real world) time, and I want to keep the pressure up. Well, there's one tension that is crucial to the conflict but has not been put to the boiling point yet: the fact that the villagers will need the troll girl, Laar, to be their witch woman once Maria dies. How do we escalate this? Well, yes, of course: Judith and Johan arrive at a scene of consternation in the village, because the witch Maria has been found drowned in the ankle deep stream. Now they really need Laar to stay with them, and also, now they really have it in for the trolls.
Example 4. While all of this was happening, Katy's character Hetha (I fear I might be putting a Dutch spelling on this name) had talked to the wise woman (who was still alive at that point) and decided to go to the troll band to talk to them about the water spirits. "Can I take Laar along?" Katy asked me. Now that's the greatest gift she could have given me as a GM, because suddenly and inevitably, we're going to have a recognition scene with the troll mother Guna rediscovering her long-lost child! There are many way to play that out, but remember: you want to keep on the pressure. And the Stakes are about whether Laar will stay with the humans or not. So I play Guna as totally possessive. She is all "Praise the Goddess for returning my child!", smothering embraces, and "You'll never have to go back to those humans again, girl." Laar is simply shell-shocked, and Hetha finds herself in the middle of perfect conflict. (She's going to lose, and lose again, and things will not end well for Laar. Unless performing a magic ritual in which you become one with the water spirits because you feel unable to fit in with either humans or trolls is in some sense a good ending. And maybe it is.)
I should stress that none of the crucial events here were pre-planned by me. I didn't know how Guna would react to Laar; I did not know that Maria would drown; I did not know Johan would really try to attack Hoergh. All of that only became clear during play. And that's as it should be, because the whole point is Story Now.