A second look at the ideas of Ron Edwards expressed in his game Trollbabe.
My first article considered the concept of Hero as a nexus of change.
The next idea that I want to discuss is the use of scale in Trollbabe. This concept was touched upon in D&D Fourth Edition, but Ron provides a more detailed look at the idea. The Trollbabe version of scale can be applied to a wide range of games.
For those of you who have not read the first article in this mini-series, here is a quick overview of Trollbabe.
My 110 page pdf is the second edition of Trollbabe, released in 2009. Ron Edwards is perhaps best known for his game theory writings at The Forge, but he also designs RPGs.
Trollbabe focuses upon the actions of female half-troll warriors. The setting is a hybrid of pop culture and the Norse sagas. The mechanics are very simple, but Ron devotes a lot of time explaining the theory behind his narrative-driven mechanics. There are also plenty of examples of how to play the game, which help to explain the concepts.
Scale in Trollbabe
Ron summarizes scale in Trollbabe as follows:
“The extent of actions and effects in the fiction”
In other words, scale represents what the Hero can affect, and the impact of the changes that the Hero can inflict on the setting. The higher the scale, the greater the impact of the Hero’s actions.
If the Hero attacks an army, what impact can she have?
Slay a few individual soldiers? Rout a company? Shatter a regiment?
Or could she take control of the entire army?
The outcome is determined by the scale of the Hero. If everyone understands the current scale of the game, then shared expectations can be met and the GM has an easier time pitching plots to the Players.
So what are these scales? Trollbabe only has seven scales, but I have extrapolated upwards to expand the scope to fill all the likely options for a game. The examples are given for a fantasy game, but the principle also remains true for modern and SF games.
- An Individual
One person, or at most a few people.
- A Family
A small group of linked people, such as a small heroband or adventuring party.
- An Extended Family
A larger group of linked people, such as the crew of a ship, a company of soldiers or a street gang.
- A Village
Or a group such as a regiment of soldiers, or a Guild.
- A Town
Or a small army.
- A City
Or a large army.
- A Country
This scale represents a large geographical area, perhaps a few cites and associated towns and villages.
- A Continent
This scale indicates a collection of countries, more than a geographical area. It could also equate to an empire.
- A Plane
For most fantasy settings, this scale represents the entire world. For a SF game, then it could be a planet and its satellites.
- The Cosmos
This marks the largest scale for a story, this is where the gods walk.
Scale your Heroes
Using scale in your game has several benefits. This framework can help the Players understand their role in the game. Managing these expectations is an important step to keeping everyone on the same page. It allows the Players to have some idea about what they can achieve, and the likely strength of any opposition that they may face.
With this knowledge in mind, it becomes easier for everyone to frame their intentions and describe the outcomes of the Heroes’ actions. The current scale serves as a benchmark for the possibilities within the story.
As an example, let us suppose that the Heroes are in a fight with some soldiers. If the game is at the first scale, then the Players know they are facing a tough fight against individual soldiers. At the third scale, then the Heroes can cut down an entire patrol, and the individual soldiers are little more than speed bumps as the Heroes slice their way through the patrol.
Finally, for this example, if the game was at scale six, then the Heroes can take on the entire army. Doubtless at this scale, they would have troops of their own. Or one Hero could call out the opposing champion or general for single combat, and thereby defeat an entire army single-handedly. Alternatively, the Heroes could be mighty warriors who hold off vast numbers of troops by defending a single location. This would be in the style of 300 or Horatius at the Bridge.
Scale your Plots
As a GM, applying scale to your game is a great way to speed up your game prep. Scale automatically tells you the type of foes, and level of effect, to use with the Heroes. They also remind you to expand the scale of your game to reflect the growing power and influence of the Heroes.
Of course, not every threat needs to exactly match these scales. At each and every level, there is still the option to introduce individuals, or groups, who are at the same scale as the Heroes. Lone warriors or scheming mages can always appear to challenge the Heroes. Likewise a cartel of merchants or a Chaos Cult could hold a greater scale than their numbers suggest.
There is no set speed for a game to progress through these scales. Nor does every campaign need to chart the progress of the Heroes through each and every scale. Rather, the scales are a framework for you to build your story around. Players will feel the increase in the power of their characters when you move the game up a scale. Conversely, keeping the scale low in the face of a Hero’s increased abilities should help the Player understand how the setting is a grim and gritty one.
Up and Down the Scales
Scale serves very much as a power indicator, for both the Heroes and their opposition. Keep these scales balanced, and the Heroes face a challenge equal to their powers. Yet, there is nothing to limit you to only telling stories focused upon the Heroes’ current scale. Playing with scale gives the GM plenty of story options, while also helping the Players understand the relative power level of their Heroes.
Setting the Heroes in opposition to a force at a higher scale shows the Players how much of a struggle they face. This could be the overarching story for a lengthy campaign, as the Players struggle to survive and rise up to a scale high enough to have an impact on the big villain. For a grim setting, then the Heroes may never reach such a scale, and thus be confined to evading the villain, rather than outright confrontation.
Alternatively, a story pitched at a lower scale can challenge the creativity of the Players. It is all very well being the greatest mage in the kingdom, but how do you stop your husband being bullied by the King’s Steward?
Using scale in your game helps the Players understand their relative power in the game, and provides a useful framework for the GM. Scale eases the story creation process by tracking the current power level of the Heroes, helping you to match the size and power of the opposition accordingly.
What scale is your game? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Something for the Weekend next week: Ebb and Flow