Trollbabe is an obscure little game that has languished in undeserved obscurity. It has some very interesting elements, even unique ones, and it’s a crime no-one else has picked them up (unless you count simplified elements of its dice roll system in Lasers & Feelings).
This isn’t really a review. It’s more of an analysis.
The Controversial Bit
You are a trollbabe. Not exactly a troll, but very much a babe. You aren’t human, you are a powerful monster babe who everyone has to accept is a figure of power.
Some people have said this is sexist (especially considering the art being drawn from) and they won’t play the game because of this fact, but in some ways it’s an inspired choice.
Your character is intended to solve problems, attract trouble, and be clearly identified by everyone as a figure of power. In one of my games, Legends Never Die!, I have tried to set up the individual adventurers as much-sought after troubleshooters, as people who people immediately recognise as special, and making them trollbabes would immediately establish that fact. There’s something to consider there for any game where you want to avoid the “mysterious patron hires me for something anyone adventurous could do, and that’s how adventures always start”.
There’s a lot I could talk about that, and maybe I will one day. That’s for another article.
Getting To Know Your Players
The game has a traditional “GM creates the world and players experience the world” model similar to many games. The GM creates adventures, and the players play through them.
But the rules are explicit about one thing: if the players want to move on from the adventure, let them.
So, let’s say a player’s trollbabe discovers a powerful troll is threatening a kingdom and wants to sacrifice the countess to its dark god. Now let’s say the player shrugs, “Okay,” and describes how she moves on to the next kingdom.
In some games, the GM might stumble, and say, “I’ve spent all week preparing this adventure, you can’t just walk off to the next one!” But Trollbabe (the game) doesn’t care about that. You are expected now to give the player a new and different adventure.
The rules are pretty simple – it’s easy to handle NPCs, threats, and create entire adventures. The GM is encouraged to keep a list of adventure seeds handy, so they can be ready to run a new situation as needed. So, it’s not hard to create new adventures as needed.
A Method To The Madness
There’s a reason the rules encourage playing in this way. As you play through multiple adventures (and skip some), you will get to know your player better. You will learn what makes them tick – what adventures they like, what situations draw them in.
The roleplaying sessions then gain a kind of intimacy. You really get to know each other.
That’s the theory anyway. Whether or not that works, the idea of creating adventures that are designed specifically for a particular person and resonate because of that – tell me that’s not appealing!
The Dice Mechanic
There’s a lot going on here, but there’s one thing I want to focus on. The roll for success is a simple d10:
- If you succeed, the GM narrates what happens.
- If you fail, you narrate what happens.
This is incredible. Sit with it, and think about it for a moment.
There’s a lot of interesting stuff in this game, but I think this is the single, cleverest part. And it has several ramifications to discuss.
What Is At Stake?
Conflicts can be broad (does this town get overrun by the pirates?) or narrow (do I disarm this soldier?), but you never get into a conflict you don’t want to. There’s an opportunity to define exactly what is at stake in the conflict (“do I rescue the countess, do I kill the troll?”). You have to be specific: the troll has captured the countess and is about to sacrifice her to his dark god. Is the conflict about rescuing the princess or killing the troll?
Whatever you don’t choose is entirely up for narration. Whatever you do choose is decided entirely by the roll.
On success, you get what you want, but the GM narrates how it happens.
The GM is told to respect you wishes and your trollbabe’s defined abilities, so if you are defined as a slinky, graceful creature of the night, you should not be narrated as a clumsy buffoon.
But what happens? You want to kill the troll. The troll dies as part of the narration, but the GM may narrating him killing the countess first, or maybe she had developed feelings for the troll and throws herself into your path and you kill her (albeit accidentally).
The conflict was about whether you killed the troll, and not whether the countess survived.
Okay, so you say your goal is to stop her being sacrificed. She might still be killed! The troll just didn’t sacrifice her. Maybe you freed her but she was killed trying to escape! Then the troll escaped.
But you are intent on saving the countess, so your goal is now to rescue the countess. You do rescue her, and she is safe, but maybe the troll escapes to be a menace another day – or if he is no longer interesting, maybe you kill him too.
It’s all up to the GM’s narration, taking into account the situation and your stated action. No one can predict exactly what will happen.
This is where things get really interesting, and this is what really elevates the game in my opinion. On a failure, the player narrates – within the constraints of the conflict – and must not achieve whatever was at stake.
This has three significant effects.
Fumble: You’re Humiliated
First, since the player narrates, failure cannot be used to make the character look foolish unless that’s what the player wants.
How many times have you played in a game where you’ve failed or fumbled, and the GM gleefully says you did something stupid or something you would never do? That simply cannot happen here.
Player Choice on Outcomes
You absolutely cannot achieve what was at stake in the cnflict. That is declared at the start of each conflict. But you can achieve literally anything else as long as it fits the conflict.
Lets say your goal is to rescue the countess from being sacrificed by the troll. You fail, so we know she absolutely must get sacrificed. But the stakes said nothing about the troll, so you can narrate a conlusion in which the countess is sacrificed, but you also kill the troll.
You attempt to sneak into the palace and fail. So you are discovered, and fight your way into the palace, leaving a trail of dead bodies behind you. You’re still in the palace because the contest wasn’t about whether you get in – but whether you get in secretly
The key here is to pay close attention to the goal of the conflict. You always get to narrate your failures in a way that makes your character fit the vision you have for them.
You Choose The Consequences
You can always accept a conflict failure with no consequences. You have a number of rerolls you can use when you really want to win a conflict, but they come with a chance of increasing injury, up to and including death.
This means that if you find yourself in a conflict you don’t care about, you can accept your first failure, narrate your exit from the conflict and move on.
But if you are in a conflict which you care about, you can keep rerolling (maximum 3 times), deciding just how much you are willing to risk to get that win.
The idea here is genius. GMs can’t force players into conflicts they don’t care about, and need to craft situations that gets the player’s interest, that they are willing to risk injury and even death to get it.
There’s a lot to love here. If you want to train your players to realise their actions really matter, or if you want players to realise that you aren’t secretly railroading them behind the scenes, this is a great system.
But it’s also just great in its own right. I can’t sing its praises highly enough.
You set your action number to any single number from 2 to 9. Then conflicts are either Fighting (really, physical), Magical (and a variety of mental), or Social. When entering a conflict, it’s always one of these three. Either roll under your action number for Fighting, or over it for Magical, and a variable range for Social.
Readers familiar with Lasers & Feelings will see a similarity here – L&F’s mechanic was inspired by Trollbabe.
The interesting bit: your action number doesn’t say what you are good at, just what kind of conflicts tend to go in your favour. You might set your number very high (tend to win at fighting), and narrate your character as an incompetent warrior, constantly outmatched by your opponents, but events keep conspiring to give you victory.
In practice, most players won’t do this, but an important lesson to learn: when narrating the outcome of a conflict you aren’t limited to narrating your own actions. You can narrate events outside your character, just as the GM routinely does. This gives players a lot of interesting power.
You really need to see this in action with a player who understands what it means (or play with people new to roleplaying). It’s a fascinating twist on the way things normally work, and very important for the kind of game this is.
Rerolls and Healing
The one area of the system that I think is a bit flawed is the way healing works (and the way it’s glossed over). It’s a strange oversight in this system, having this kind of handwaviness when it’s really important.
In brief: your character has a number of rerolls you can spend to increase your chance of success, but each failure leads to increasing injury. This means you can only keep going so much in one conflict before you die.
That’s all fine. Where it breaks down is the effect over multiple conflicts. The system is kind of vague on how you recover rerolls, and the system is extremely harsh on injury: when you start taking multiple injuries you really don’t have much room for failure.
I think the intention is that players get healed pretty often, and it is kind of handwaved away. But the text is very unclear how this works, so games run by different GMs with different sensibilities will have a very different feel. I don’t think that’s in-keeping with the game’s intention.
The Last Word
There’s more to talk about, like the role of relationships, the way difficulty levels are a negotiation between players and GM, the way teams don’t really work in trollbabe and all characters are individuals, the championing of the concept of Story Now, and more. Trollbabe is little gem of a game, and its a shame it isn’t better known. Check it out at The Adept Unstore.