The latest title I finished was Trollbabe by Ron Edwards. As to be expected from a game designed by Ron Edwards, this is packed with interesting ideas. Several of these ideas are worth exploring in detail, but today I want to discuss the concept of the Hero that Trollbabe advocates.
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.
While the mechanics of Trollbabe look fun, it is these underlying concepts that I want to explore further. Today I will focus on the concept of the Hero that Ron advocates.
Trollbabe embodies a idea that is shared among all RPGs, but is so rarely stated. Namely, that the Hero of the game is a nexus of change. In the Play chapter, Ron explains the idea to GMs:
Think of the Trollbabe as a walking opportunity or threat in the eyes of your characters [NPCs], and have each one of them bloody well do something about that. Without thinking about “better have a conflict in this Scene,” discover conflicts by playing your characters truly toward their perceived interests. They see the trollbabe as absolutely, unquestionably bound up in these interests, one way or another.
So what does this mean for RPGs in general?
The crucial phrase in Ron’s explanation is “nexus of change”. This is a point that is rarely made clear in RPGs, but ought to be at the heart of every game. The Heroes are the nexus of change for every story.
The result of this principle is to keep the Heroes in the centre of the action. Wherever they go, the story kicks into action. Or rather, a story, as it does not have to mean the GM’s underlying story for the campaign. All your supporting characters have motivations and desires, right? So there are plenty of stories for the Heroes to find.
“I need a Hero”
Just as importantly, these stories will be ones that the Heroes can help with, stories they can resolve. This ties into the second element of Heroes as “nexus of change”, that the individuals will see the Heroes as tied to their problems.
It is not enough to have a rich background, full of private characters with complex secret motivations. These stories need to be presented to the Heroes so that they, and the Players, can interact with all these stories.
Nor should the Heroes need to ask exactly the right question to tease out a secret and unearth the story. This is a game about Heroes, not archaeologists. Okay, so Indiana Jones was both, but you know what I mean.
What Ron is urging is that the stories come bursting out at the Heroes. Everybody should see them as the answer to their personal problems. They are Heroes, so they must be able to solve everything.
Questing for Quests
Do not make the Heroes scratch around for a quest. Nor should you simply offer them up one at a time, for there is no genuine Player agency there. Instead, have the Heroes almost swamped by potential stories to resolve. Then the Heroes have to decide what to deal with, and live with the consequences of ignoring the other plots.
Should the Heroes quest into the mountains for lost gold, clear ghouls out of the sewers, find the barkeep’s missing son or carry the message for the High Priest? These plots may all be linked, or possibly not. The point is that the Heroes have choices, and their actions will impact the setting. The Heroes are nexus of change.
A Call to Action
Of course, there are more ways to exploit this idea than just have every GMC serve as a potential Patron to the Heroes. The arrival of the Heroes may serve as a trigger to launch a GMC into action in pursuit of their goal.
Thus, the Thieves Guild may decide that they have to murder the Magistrate now, otherwise the Magistrate will order the Heroes to shut down the Guild. Or, the only way the High Priest can keep her affair hidden is to burn down the Temple and fake her own death, otherwise the Heroes will surely discover her secret. Or, the only way the Baron can keep his embezzlement secret from the King is to frame his Steward, otherwise the Heroes will surely unearth the truth.
Without the Heroes, the town would carry on as normal. However, now that the Heroes have arrived, everything kicks off as everyone assumes the Heroes are there to investigate their secrets. The Heroes are the nexus of change for the campaign.
Prep Lite Plot
The concept of Heroes as nexus of change is ideal for prep lite gaming. Essentially, wherever the Heroes go, story will find them. GMCs will see them as the answer to their personal problems, and expect the Heroes to solve them. Or, react to the arrival of the Heroes and seek to resolve their problems themselves.
Either way, the Heroes are closely bound to everyone’s problems, even if this link is only in the mind of GMCs. This means that I do not need to plan a plot, just react to where the Players want to go, knowing that this is certain to lead to a story. Heroes as nexus of change gives the GM faster prep and more story.
Having the Heroes be the nexus of change for the setting results in a storm of action surrounding the Heroes. There are plenty of options available, which means the Players are making meaningful choices. This concept is perfect for improvisational gaming, as it ensures that wherever the Heroes go, they will find themselves in the middle of a story. However, the concept also has a role to play in framing the action for less freeform games.
Are the Heroes in your game the nexus of change? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Something for the Weekend next week Layers of GMCs