Today’s article is the first of a two-part exploration of the re-roll mechanic in Trollbabe. My focus today is on the way Ron requires the Player to narrate how they are making their re-roll. This essay is my eighth 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 some conditions tied to this re-roll, which I shall consider in a moment.
Firstly, it is worth looking at the basic principle. Primarily, this appears to prevent a Hero from ever failing, except the rules limit the number of times this can be invoked by each Player. This limitation also prevents the game from dragging to a halt as every failure is re-rolled. There can be some interesting story developments arising from failure, so it is important not to remove this option entirely from the game.
What I really like in this system is the amount of control it gives to the Players. Using dice in RPGs is a great way to add a random element to the game. Yet, freak outcomes can have an undesirable impact on the Heroes. This re-roll mechanic gives Players additional options and can minimize the way a fumble makes an otherwise proficient Hero look a total idiot.
The first limitation placed on the use of re-rolls in Trollbabe is how the consequences of a failed re-roll are more severe. This is a story-focused restriction, and combines with each Player’s appreciation of risk. There is a lot to explore in this aspect of the use of re-rolls, so I shall save the topic for the second part of this article.
The other limitation on re-rolls, and the focus for this article, is the use of a narrative checklist. Trollbabe lists five reasons why the Hero can make a re-roll. Each reason can be used only once per adventure, and is ticked off when invoked. This is a clever way to limit the number of re-rolls available to each Hero.
Entries on the list include objects, an ally, terrain and magic. To enable a re-roll, the Player must describe how the selected entry helps their Hero in the current situation. That entry is then crossed out, and the Player makes their new roll in the more favourable situation they just described.
Link Mechanics to Narrative
This is such an elegant idea, and achieves so much at the table. The system cleverly links mechanics to the narrative. Here the Player gains a mechanical benefit, the re-roll, but only after improvising a short explanation. This simple mechanic encourages Player input into the narrative of the game.
For the GM, even small snippets of Player improvisation are a great source of ideas. Not only does this empower the Players to add to the story, it gives you additional narrative options. If Players repeatedly reference a particular ally or item, then this tells you how much the Player values these things. You can then take the story forward by weaving this back into the plot, knowing how much the Player cares. Essentially, the Player is telling you which buttons you can press to motivate their Hero.
Beyond this elegant link of narrative and mechanics, this system gives Players another tool to guide the story. There are only a limited number of times a re-roll can be selected. So when a Player chooses to invoke this option, you know how much they care about the outcome. As with any limited resource, you can learn a lot from when a Player chooses to use it. The game is better when the Players care about the game, and this mechanic tells you exactly when the Players are engaged with your story.
Checklist in HeroQuest
This re-roll mechanic will make a great rules widget for my HeroQuest 2 campaign.
In HeroQuest, Players have a limited number of points to spend “bumping” up a roll. This is not quite the same as a proper re-roll, but it does improve the outcome of a contest without the need to actually roll the dice again. I love the way I can now tie this improved result to a short piece of narrative from the Players.
To expand the story potential for this system, I shall provide the Players with a longer list of options than the five presented in Trollbabe. However, each option will only be available once per session, thereby ensuring a variety of narratives. I shall keep the “bumps” tied to my flexible Wyrd Card house rules, so the list need not act as the limiting resource.
A Custom Checklist
My HeroQuest list will include the following narrative prompts:
- Actions of another Hero
- A piece of your equipment
- An object in the location
- An aspect of the location
- An expression of your beliefs
- A manifestation of a your runes
- Actions of an ally
My favourite parts of the game are when the Players add to the narrative, and take the story somewhere new. Adding this little complication to the contest “bumps” should enhance this feature.
Checklists in other Games
This narrative list can also apply to a lot of RPGs. There are many games with Bennies, or similar resources, available to the Players. To adopt this method, tie the use of a Bennie to an event from the narrative list. You can write your own list to reflect the setting and style of your game.
The list method is also an excellent way to introduce your Players to improvising within the game. The parameters here are very small, which should help those new to improvising content at the table. All a Player needs to do is explain how the chosen item from the list gives them a benefit. Once your Players are comfortable with this level of improvisation, then you can diversify the improvisation within your game.
However, I would urge you to restrain from introducing the complete re-roll option until you have read the next article in the series. Ron introduces some fascinating conditions to choosing the re-roll option, which you may also want to consider.
The narrative checklist is a great way to tie the mechanics of Bennies into the narrative. Come back next week for the second part in the series, exploring the heightened consequences of choosing to re-roll.
How can you use the narrative list in your game? What other entries would you add to the list? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Something for the Weekend next week: Trollbabe and Re-rolls Part 2