Posts Tagged ‘Trollbabe’

Love will have its sacrifices. Also, its dice pools.

Carmilla and Laura

Carmilla and Laura

I got recommended Carmilla earlier this week, and since then I’m seeing it everywhere. A loose riff on my favorite gothic novella, it casts Laura and Carmilla as college roommates at a… quirky… university. It starts out funny and charming, then becomes hilarious and a bit tearjerking. It’s all kinds of good.

It got me thinking about how much I enjoy dysfunctional monster stories. And that’s good, because I’ve been getting paid to write them for eight years. Carmilla is less dark and bloody than my work, but it’s still full of awkward moments and dreadful misunderstandings and crushes on the wrong people. I love that stuff.

And like all things I love, I’ve decided it needs a roleplaying game.

Allow me to introduce Die For You1, a simple roleplaying game about love and monsters. You play someone in one of those tough spots being young puts you in: high school, college, or first job… with the added trouble of supernatural mystery and maybe werewolf sororities.

Get the first draft here.

As usual when I design something and put it up here, I want to talk a little bit about the design decisions.

The first games that came to mind when I thought about interpersonal drama were Smallville and Primetime Adventures. I decided I wanted something with less narrative jockeying than PtA, and less rules and prep than Smallville.2 My first thought was to build it on cards with different suits for different types of problems, but that didn’t quite come together. After that, I thought about literally doing a simplified Smallville, but I decided I’d rather stick to d6s because they’re easier to scrounge up.

The next game I thought of was Trollbabe, with its single numbered trait and three types of rolls (fighting, magic, and social). And that led me to consider the core mechanic from Lasers and Feelings, wherein you roll a few d6s based on skill and circumstance, and try to get over or under a trait number, counting successes.

For traits, I looked at the kind of uncertainty we see in Carmilla, and broke it down into three categories: Feels, Weird, and Real Life. These depend on each other: you split six points between Feels and Weird, then set Real Life to the lower of the two.

Back to the Smallville influence3, I wanted characters to be able to use relationships as leverage. We see that a couple of times in the series. I won’t say exactly where because of spoilers, but each of those cases comes down to one of the characters trying to accomplish something and pushing or taking advantage of the trust of another character to get it. So each character either Trusts or doesn’t Trust each other character. If someone Trusts your character, you can use that trust to roll an extra die.

That’s the most exploitative mechanic in the game, but there are some positive ones, too. When your character risks permanent harm for another character, you roll two extra dice; if they’re risking death, you get three. But you’re exposing your character. On any 6s, they suffer the harm they were risking. (Okay, sorta positive.)

The wrinkle I like the best, though, is a simple rule in player vs. player conflicts: when you succeed at cost against another player, that player names the cost.

There’s a little more to it, but those mechanics are the core of the design.

Looking forward, I’d like to revise and test a little bit, and work out a few more mechanics for consequences and recovery, maybe a bit like Mouse Guard‘s condition system. And I’d like to get the thing laid out all pretty.

So there you go. My newest (and hardly last) game about heartbreak and vampires.

  1. Because even my “lighter” game has death in the title. But mostly because Garbage.
  2. Also, I was designing this in the doctor’s office, so I really didn’t have time to recreate Cortex Plus Drama.
  3. With a touch of Cold City.

Not as I do: Organizing an RPG

“What’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”
– The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

I’m looking at the structure of game books right now, and I really think (especially as someone who’s been doing it a while myself), that there’s room for improvement.

The default model seems to be:

  1. Some kind of introduction. Maybe fiction, maybe bragging, maybe both.
  2. Maybe something about how special our unique branded setting is.
  3. Character types and creation.
  4. Combat rules (sometimes “conflict,” if you’re really abstract)
  5. Magic powers (possibly swapped with the previous).
  6. A whole bunch of not-entirely-combat rules almost everyone ignores. And which mostly consist of modifiers to combat.
  7. Some GM advice that’s probably terrible.
  8. Some monsters.
  9. Sometimes a sample setting providing most of the useful things that the setting information at the front completely failed to.

Dungeons & Dragons conforms to this model through most of its books, though it often leaves the terrible advice and monsters to subsequent volumes. The White Wolf games pretty much all work this way, though the nWoD shunts questions of combat back to the core.

Other models have been tried. For example, Tunnels & Trolls 5.5 uses an interesting “expanding” structure:

  1. Introduction
    • Creating a character (a simple fighter)
    • Equipment, how it works and is bought
    • Creating monsters
    • Getting XP
  2. “The Game as it is Played”
    • All the damn character types and variations
    • Leveling up
    • Magic
    • Detailed combat rules
    • More monster rules
    • GM advice
    • Sample dungeon
  3. “Elaborations” — a bunch of miscellaneous rules, and descriptions of weapons
So what you basically have is a simple example going through the first chapter, which nonetheless describes a complete model of the game. Then you get all the variations and exceptions. And then appendices of random additions you might or might not use.


Speaking of trolls, Ron Edwards’ brilliant Trollbabe mainly describes the components of a game session in order. Loosely:

  1. Introduction
  2. Characters
  3. Scenes
  4. Conflicts in scenes
  5. Relationships (which come from conflicts)
  6. Endings
  7. Multiple characters
  8. GM advice and a sprinkling of player advice (actually pretty good)
  9. Designer notes and other appendices

It’s remarkably clear, benefiting from three things:

  1. A game that produces a story can be explained in the order of a story.
  2. There was a previous edition with years of playtesting.
  3. It was designed as a teaching text.1

As a gamer, I prefer the latter two models, personally. While the “top down” manual style is a great way to do a design document, I’m not sure it’s much good for teaching a game.

As a designer, it’s unlikely that my game is going to be the one that teaches anybody how to game (if they learn on my game, it’ll probably be from an experienced player). But I am teaching the game to existing roleplayers.

The first structure is pretty good for existing gamers, because they’re usually looking for content and twists they can introduce into an existing gaming style. They already know if they’re going to do a dungeon crawl,2 a railroad,3 or an investigation game.4 Because that’s how they roll. They just need to know whether they’re calling the magic user a Tremere.

Okay, that sounds a little harsh, but I think it’s true. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing. A lot of gamers pick up new roleplaying games to provide content for playing in a structure they’re already set on.

That’s why a game like Trollbabe, whose major innovations relate to structure5 almost need to be structured as tutorials.

That said, as an existing gamer, I find it a lot easier to get through Tunnels & Trolls on a read than the Rules Cyclopedia.6 On the other hand, it’s rather a pain to go back through the “expanding” structure looking for particular references.

I’d like to see the rules treated multiple ways within a single book: the rules explained in expanding fashion, with explanations, examples, and designer notes, plus a quick reference in the back, covering the basic gameplay structure and procedures.

This is, in fact, sometimes how I run Trollbabe: with a “teaching copy” of the current edition and a “reference copy” of the original.

How do you like your gaming books organized?


  1. I have this confirmed by Ron.
  2. A game in which an imaginary space filled with deathtraps is explored.
  3. A game in which the sequence of events is predetermined and players must find their way between them.
  4. Like a railroad, except the player characters go insane at the end.
  5. …and trollbabes.
  6. And the regard in which I hold that latter book is well-established.

A Relationship Map

Spotted this over at Skadi:

Skadi Relationship Map

Skadi Relationship Map

I’m a fan of Skadi, her sort of being a Red Sonja to Groo’s Conan. The illustrated relationship map was very cool, though, and struck me as something out of a very slapstick game of Trollbabe.

Solo Roleplaying Games

Justin’s been blogging about his solo 4e campaign, something I find fascinating. I’ve used the technique of adversarial narration in my conventional writing. (Hero does this, world does that.)

I’m thinking of running a similar game of my own, but I’ll have to distill the wealth of ideas and tools I have down to just a few. Here are some:

  • The Judges’ Guild Wilderlands products, as updated by Necromancer Games, provide a rich world with hex-by-hex coolness.
  • Trollbabe boils Conanesque adventure to a beautiful, simple art. Its mechanics could, in some ways, run themselves… though that idea might somewhat horrify Ron.
  • Elegia synthesizes some of the experiences of single player console RPGs into a simple set of mechanics that could potentially be light enough to use in single player sandbox.
  • How to Host a Dungeon provides an interactive process for creating the geographical environments of dungeons.
  • And then, of course, there’s the Sekrit Old Middle School Gaming Project, which could provide a core system.
  • I have some ideas about Vampire and Damnation City, but those are for another time.

Justin went directly for playing both sides of 4e encounters as his core mechanism, which I really like. I’m thinking something slightly different, perhaps along the lines of say yes or face the dungeon.