Real-life trollbabes adventure on their own terms!

So, last time I played Trollbabe was almost exactly three years ago, and as documented by this post on La Locanda, it didn’t go too well.

Some years of talking on Adept Play and constantly playing The Pool later, and re-analyzing Trollbabe through that experience, and I felt very confident to pick up the game again at FroggyCon in Milan — a play-only convention that I help organize. I was right — after going through Situation & Story, Trollbabe GMing was effortless fun. I played for a 3h session with three other trollbabe-players, two of which female, one of which I can only describe as a real-life trollbabe in demeanor and look — she was a delightfully inspired player and might be posting her side of this session sometime soon.

Being familiar with players choosing the same adventure location as a crutch, so they can default to team-play and everyone being in the same scene, I suggested they all select different locations, so we can experience that you can indeed play together without your characters being in the same scene all the time. It was awesome to see that I didn’t need to prod — everyone was commenting on everything that was happening, at all times. One player even triggered a conflict, in a scene her trollbabe wasn’t in, when me and the other player were getting caught up in dialogue and taking too long to take up dice. Great players make great games.

Then, something occurred that I think is very legitimate Trollbabe play — all three trollbabes (initially) wanted little to do with the problems in each settlement and actively fought with NPCs to be able to go their own way and get back to their travels. This was as good of a commentary on the stakes in each adventure as willing involvement would have been. And through conflict with NPCs, some of them got enough perspective to start taking a side — one didn’t, and that’s fine. Her ending was to finally leave this place and leave these people to their own devices. This type of fruitful play out of rejecting adventures is very much in contrast with common RPG non-play where player-characters must go along with NPC-given quests, lest the adventure not even start.

An unfortunate reality of convention play is that 3h weren’t enough to complete three ventures for three trollbabes. But we didn’t force a conclusion — wherever we got, we got, and I think it’s something important to commit to when playing in these limited time-slots. I’d rather have 3h of real play than starting to railroad in the third hour to get to a “satisfying conclusion” — not that Trollbabe as a system would react well to this kind of manipulation.

But finally — most of all this post is an excuse to share the stupenduous character sheet artwork drawn by our real-life trollbabe, who’s an amazingly talented artist as well — because of course she is.

This is a repost of some actual play reflections that I already posted on Adept Play and La Locanda dei GDR in April 2023. I hope it can act as an example of what an actual play post looks like. Feel free to comment and ask questions.

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This is a really nice writeup, Claudio. (Also a great drawing!)

I do think it’s often a really good direction to go in to say that “we’ll play for a while, and stop”, as a taste of the game and the activity (rather than trying to pull a full “experience”, with start, middle, and end into the specific time frame). (I don’t know if I have any insight as to when one would be better than the other in this sense… that’s a trickier question.)

I have to ask about two aspects/decisions:

  • First, the choice to have the Trollbabes all in different locations. Was it like three unrelated storylines/character stories? Or did they overlap, resonate, affect each other in any way?

  • Second, the possibility for the Trollbabes to just wander away, ignore the prepped adventure.

These can both be challenging for some people. I think I often like the former, but I struggle with the latter. How does it work to have some GM-prepped content and then a PC who chooses to ignore it, and yet the game still feels successful or satisfying? Can you describe what made it work, what made it interesting or made it work well? What do you think are good things to look out for and emphasize or lean into in those moments? How does one recreate this kind of “refusal of the call” as a positive and fun game that feels like it was worthwhile?

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Ah, yes, our real-life Trollbabe also did the Wynwerod logo. I’m not calling her by name in the post above, but you can probably see the style similarities if you squint. She really does have the character of a Trollbabe, doesn’t take shit from anyone myself included, and that’s probably one of the biggest compliments I can give to a person.

They definitely resonated. First, I all built them—on the fly in 10 minutes, I’m quite proud of this—on essentially similar themes of industry vs. nature, but in very different social contexts. Also, the players out of scene were actively commenting and contributing to the active trollbabe’s adventure. No-one was not playing or distracted at any single point. A player out of scene even called for a roll. Thirdly, we were actively reincorporating things from one adventure into the next one, as we were weaving the scenes together, similar to how TV shows sometimes have an A plot with a B plot that are built on similar themes and comment on each other, even if the characters never meet.

In Trollbabe, it’s easy as pie. All named NPCs by default want the Trollbabe to do something for them. There is no static situation waiting to be disturbed. As soon as the trollbabe walks into town, it’s already been disturbed. If she tries to leave, the NPCs most often take active steps to want to make her stay and take their side, through words or violence. If she really doesn’t care about it, she’ll have to really take a stance on that one—there’s no leaving the situation without having done so. Shove the crying kid that lost his mother in her face, I say! Shove it!

A lot of stories that come out of Trollbabe remind me of the early Witcher short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski. In the first few stories, the witcher Geralt really just wants nothing to do with human issues. He’s supposed to stay neutral and kill monsters for money—he’s a witcher. And yet they keep forcing him to take sides. Because as soon as a Witcher walks into town, people want things from him. At a certain point, he’s just forced to take a stance on something.

Other touchstone material that reminds me of Trollbabe are the anime series Kino no Tabi and Majo no Tabitabi. They’re both about wandering characters that have a special capacity to disrupt the status quo everywhere they go, and they tell episodic stories of how they interact with different people’s issues and take sides.

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Nice! I can see all of this, very easily.

I only got into the Witcher recently, because of the TV show, and one of the first things that occurred to me was: “hey, he’s a Trollbabe.”

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Nice to hear that the approach where the game ends when it does, is well received. How explicitly do you communicate this to the players, Claudio, and at which stages of the process of signing up and playing?

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Hey Tommi, I’m the organizer for the convention where this happened, and it’s a convention-wide rule. I don’t enforce it that strictly, but every table facilitator got the suggestion to handle the table like that in the pamphlet that I sent them beforehand, and I also mentioned it when doing announcements on the PA system. I expected more resistance to it, but it didn’t happen, which I’m really happy about—although I don’t know if everyone respected it.

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How did the player trigger a conflict in a scene her trollbabe wasn’t in?

Were these players used to trollbabe or other modern games? It seems like such a big shift to suddenly start playing a game where your character is only in 1/3 of the scenes! I’ve tried to run a Monsterhearts game like that. And while I think I’m a good enough GM to keep the pace snappy and give everybody time to play, none of the players contributed much outside of their own scenes. (Not that I encouraged them to! The thought hadn’t occurred to me.) How did you introduce this concept to the players, if they were unfamiliar with it?

This makes me want to play Trollbabe.

Hey Canyon!

Triggering conflicts in a scene you’re not in looks as easy as “hey, that looks like a conflict to me!”, “conflict!”, or “shouldn’t we be rolling for that?”.

Two of the players (the women) were what I’d consider relatively new to roleplaying. The other was a bit of a veteran but he had recently gone through a bit of an awakening in playing a lot of different games. I don’t know what “modern game” means, but I think for all of them but me it was the first time playing Trollbabe.

I don’t think there’s any property of Trollbabe that encourages participation when your Trollbabe isn’t in the scene. I also don’t think it has anything to do with being a good GM, pacing, or moderating people’s time to speak.

Simply, there are two realities of roleplaying that I’ve come to understand during my growth in the past few years.

  1. Even when we’re playing different scenes, we’re all together playing the same situation—i.e. the fictional context in which scenes occur. Even in the case of different Trollbabes in different adventures, the scenes have a way of commenting on one another. If we attentively listen and reintegrate what we’ve heard, then our Trollbabe’s actions can be a response to what we’ve heard in the other Trollbabe’s adventure as well, in a way not dissimilar to a TV show with multiple intertwining plots.

  2. If you understand the authorities (or responsibilities) at the table—i.e. what each person is responsible to contributing to the shared content, for the others to use—then there is no need for anyone to regulate the right to speak. Everyone can speak at any time, and you’ll instinctively know if that was a comment, suggestion, or actual actionable content provided by that person. So, the game proceeds like quite a normal conversation and people just speak up and participate. When some information is needed, everyone turns to the responsible person.

In a recent game of The Pool with @Paul_T, another player contributed a detail surrounding a scene that I was describing as a GM, which included the funeral of a choir member. It’s not like she over-rid my authority over those NPCs—she provided a suggestion as to how the funeral for a choirmember would sound like. After she said it, it felt so right that of course I had to integrate that. That’s an example of how you can participate even if you don’t have a character in a scene.

I’ve noticed this habit of staying silent when your character is not in the scene or when you’re not “called upon” by the GM is one I often need to break with veteran players to be able to play effectively.

So, to conclude—Trollbabe doesn’t particularly help you do this, but since the procedure where you select adventure locations often ends up yielding different trollbabes in different locations, it tends in my experience to put you in the condition where you have to learn this if you are not yet able to do it.

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Over the latest summer I’ve played a season of Monsterhearts 2 and it occurred many times that we non-MC players interacted with scenes where our characters were not involved. I can broadly categorize our statements as such:

  1. suggesting what moves may apply given what was occurring on scene (hence, mutatis mutandis, interactions similar to what @Froggy experienced with Trollbabe)
  2. commentary and banter about the events (such as joking about one character who died almost every single session)
  3. questions about the on-screen characters’ feelings, both leading questions and simple questions out of curiosity

All these interactions were spontaneous and unsolicited. Actually, most of the times I personally asked “type 3” questions I ended up suspending temporarily a scene and drawing attention to details that might otherwise have been glossed over, so it was me pushing the magnifying glass over the scene and exploring a particular perspective of my own accord.

I must say that all these kinds of interactions are not specific to Monsterhearts per se, even if probably “type 3” is something I added to my repertoire specifically because the game is focused on feelings and the advice in the manual about asking questions like these stuck with me.

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Very nice, Eugenio!

I like this kind of discussion. The way players participate - or do not participate - in various elements of play, system interactions, or scenes is a really fascinating aspect of play technique, I think. It’s great to think about and to experiment with. Great answers here from you and @Froggy. These little moments can really add a lot to a game and help us feel like we’re all engaged in the activity together. Help apply rules, follow your curiosity, prod at the game in various ways.

I recently started a thread about this from an “experiment” perspective:

It reminds me that perhaps I should post some great older answers to that topic. It’s really a fruitful area of play, I think!

(One thing I’ve experimented with a little but haven’t touched in a long time is outward-facing Keys, a la The Shadow of Yesterday - they have XP triggers but they’re all about things other players or characters might do that’s related to yours. I think I originally got the idea from @Judd, in his game First Quest.)

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A convention-wide norm should be enough for most people to not be surprised about how the games end or do not end, for sure. Just getting rid of all the pacing pressures sounds like it would make the play a lot more relaxed and free. This is worth trying, for sure.

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