Today’s article is the second part of my exploration of the re-roll mechanic in Trollbabe. My focus in part two is on the way Ron requires the Player to risk greater consequences for their Hero when making their re-roll. This essay is my ninth look at the ideas of Ron Edwards expressed in his game Trollbabe.
For those of you who have not read the earlier articles 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.
Re-rolls in Trollbabe
As part of the contest resolution mechanics in Trollbabe, there is the option for the Player to invoke a re-roll. This option is available when a Hero fails at a task. There are two conditions tied to this re-roll. The first is the requirement is for the Player to choose from a diminishing number of narrative options and improvise how the selection from the list helps their Hero.
This aspect was discussed at length in the previous article.
The second condition on the re-roll is the escalating consequences of a failure.
Alongside the requirement to add narrative to the story, there are more serious consequences arising from choosing a re-roll in Trollbabe. The basic presumption within the game is that the Hero is inconvenienced by a failed roll. The exact nature of this inconvenience is open to GM interpretation, a topic beyond the scope of the present article.
However, should the Hero fail the re-roll, then the condition of the Hero advances to injured. As the term suggests, this is a more serious condition. I would interpret this to mean a wound of some description, something which negatively impacts on the Hero’s capabilities within the game, and would require time or magic to heal.
Regardless of the exact interpretation, the situation has clearly worsened for the Hero. The narrative moving forward would reflect this injury.
A series of Re-rolls
Ron further ups the ante, by giving Players the maximum of three re-rolls. Each re-roll requires a separate item from the narrative list discussed last week. Thus, the occurrence of multiple re-rolls is very limited.
Every time a re-roll is invoked by a Player, the potential consequences on a failure are increased. If the second re-roll is failed, then the Hero is incapacitated. This is not the same as dying, but now the Hero is totally at the mercy of their opponent.
The parameters for the third re-roll are slightly different. At this stage, the Hero has already failed to achieve their goal three times. Thus, this third re-roll will not affect the outcome of the initial goal as that contest is clearly beyond the capabilities of the Hero.
Instead, this third re-roll is about who narrates the dire outcome for the Hero. If the Player can win this contest, then they retain some influence over the fate of their Hero. This roll cannot alter the fact that the Hero is incapacitated. Rather, this roll is about describing the exact fate of the fallen Hero. Consider this the difference between the enemy capturing the defeated Hero, and a band of allies surging onto the battlefield to drag away the bleeding body.
The Final Sanction
If the Hero fails the third re-roll, then the GM’s description of their fate stands. This is likely to involve capture, or some other humiliation at the hands of the victorious foe. As the Player escalated the situation by invoking multiple re-rolls, then this is going to be a serious twist to the narrative.
However, Ron does offer up one last, fateful option for the Player. After failing a third re-roll, the Player has the choice to simply declare their Hero dead. Give the reputation of some GMs, there often can be a fate worse than death.
John Wick, I am looking at you!
Choosing the Ultimate Sacrifice
My experience of narrative games suggests character death is infrequent. Even the worst outcomes from contests tend to leave the Heroes on death’s door. This always leaves room for a high-stakes race against time to save the mortally wounded Hero.
Yet, at certain times in a narrative, there can be an opportunity for a dramatic death. A heroic last stand, where the veteran warrior holds off the rampaging hordes long enough for her allies to escape. The option in Trollbabe to allow a Player to choose the death of their Hero enables these sacrifices to occur. These are the stories which will be shared by gamers for years to come.
On a lighter note, after three failed re-rolls, this may be time to punish some dice.
Risky Re-rolls in Your Game
This mechanism can be introduced into any game. You will need to make it clear to the Players how the consequences of failure increase on subsequent failed rolls. This is likely to involve increased damage of some form, so tailor this according to your chosen rules.
Likewise, you will need to impose a limitation on how often the re-roll can be invoked. If you do not, then the Players are likely to demand every failed contest be re-rolled. The narration list method from Trollbabe adds to the narrative, but it does not have to be the only method. Bennies, tokens or a flat number per session could all be used.
Narrating the Re-roll
The final point to raise on this issue is how to narrate the re-roll situation. Essentially, the Hero is facing a temporary setback: the failed roll. I would narrate this setback, but avoid making it resolve. The troll has raised it’s club and is standing over the prone Hero. The starship is diving towards the surface of the planet.
Think of the narrative in terms of a film. Events have taken a turn for the worse, but there is still time for the Hero to save the day. This is the key, make it clear how the current situation threatens the Hero, but do not move the narrative so far along that serious harm has actually befallen the Hero.
So, the re-roll mechanic from Trollbabe balances the risk of greater consequences with the chance for the Player to roll better and win a seemingly lost contest. The narrative list method from Part 1 is used by Ron to limit the frequency of these re-rolls.
How could re-rolls have changed your game? Would you want this mechanic for your campaign? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Something for the Weekend next week: Variant HeroQuest 2 Character Generation