A third look at the ideas of Ron Edwards expressed in his game Trollbabe.
The article for today was written in response to an email from Johnn Four who asked for some more examples of the ten scales. We are all using scale in our games, although perhaps without being aware of the concept. A half-familiar concept can be a little tricky to understand, so hopefully some examples will help.
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.
Scale and Numbers
In working through these example, it is clear that the scale of a group of Heroes may not be the same as for that Hero alone. The presence of several Heroes in one place acts much like a force multiplier, and allows the group of Heroes to face greater threats than they could deal with individually.
Thus, for the typical game featuring a heroband or adventuring party, it may be necessary for the GM to track two sets of scales. On the one hand there is the Individual Scale, that assess what a lone Hero could achieve. Individual Scale can be useful to apply to the side-quests that an individual Hero may choose to pursue as part of the overall plot.
Secondly, there is the Campaign Scale, which reflects what the group can achieve, and determines the overall level of challenges faced by the Heroes. Campaign Scale is likely to be about two steps higher than the Individual Scale, for the typical game. However, it is for each GM to decide upon the exact numbers. These examples are just to give you a flavour of the scales, and the way they may impact on the game. As always, Your Game May Vary.
To illustrate the principles of scale, here are four examples of each scale in action. To put these examples into the context of the game, I shall use three archetypal characters: a rogue, a mage and a warrior.
For the social- and skill-based examples we shall be following the career of Anlaf, a young rogue. The combat examples will show Theano as she increases in power. Finally, the magic examples will be taken from the career of Ragnarr the Storm Mage.
My final example will be aimed at the GM, and consider the types of plots that each scale suggest. These plot examples consider what may be at stake in the story, and what types of opposition the Heroes may face.
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.
For this article, I am only looking at the first five of these scales.
1 An Individual
One person, or at most a few people.
At the first scale, the Heroes will only have a very limited impact on the setting. Anlaf can sweet talk a free loaf of bread from the baker, or pick the pockets of an individual in the street.
Meanwhile, Theano can fight a single soldier at a time. This would equate to handling two goblins, or perhaps a pair of dogs. Even a band of thugs would be too much for her at this scale, as she would be overwhelmed by their numbers.
Ragnarr at the first scale is only capable of spells affecting one person, most likely himself. Cantrips and low-damage shocks of lightning would be his limit. Defensive spells would be common, or ones with no duration against a single target.
For the GM, this first scale represents the most personal of plots. A child lost in the woods, or a chapel haunted by a lone ghost would be good examples. The Heroes can only affect one or two people in the setting, so focus in on one person’s problem. There can be great personal drama at this scale, so there are opportunities for the Heroes to shine even when their powers may be limited.
2 A Family
A small group of linked people, such as a small heroband or adventuring party.
Now his power and influence is starting to grow. Anlaf has progressed to burglary, where he can steal an entire family’s property. Indeed, he could be the leader of a small gang of thieves, or perhaps a band of street urchins. His powers of persuasion have scaled up too, so he could cheat a table of card players.
Theano is now so proficient with her spear that she can easily take on a trio of city watch, or a handful of goblin raiders. She could be the leader of an adventuring party, or a pair of loyal clan warriors. Perhaps she is an outlaw, hiding in the forest raiding a cruel overlord’s lands.
Meanwhile, Ragnarr the Storm Mage has progressed to small area-effect spells. His lightning bolts can hit a handful of opponents, although perhaps only at close range. He will have at least one apprentice at this scale, and possibly a small base of operations.
The plots at this scale now have a wider scope. Instead of the lone child, the GM can pitch a story affecting a whole family. Interpersonal drama between linked individuals offers lots of potential for personal conflict, and thus roleplaying. For a more combat-focused game, then small groups can be used to challenge the Heroes, which opens up lots of tactical possibilities.
3 An Extended Family
A larger group of linked people, such as the crew of a ship, a company of soldiers or a street gang.
At this scale, Anlaf could now lead a full street gang with a dozen or more members. He could be an entertainer, capable of enthralling a tavern-full of patrons with tales of daring. Or he may be raiding merchant caravans.
Theano has risen to the level of leading a company of soldiers, or her village’s warband. She might be a pirate raider, with a crew of fierce warriors. Or she may simply be a proficient warrior, capable of cutting down a whole barbarian raiding party.
Ragnarr will see the power of his magic slowly grow. His chain lightning could strike down multiple opponents. His reputation will grow, and he may now have a small tower and staff to guard him as he researches his spells.
For the GM, the number of opponents in the plots is steadily increasing. Lesser foes may take on the status of minions, as the warriors are capable of dealing with larger numbers. Instead of a single, numerous opponent, you could challenge the Heroes with two smaller groups, and the Heroes caught in the middle. As scale increases, so does the complexity of any social conflict that the Heroes have to resolve. Roleplaying opportunities multiply as the number of people in the network increases.
4 A Village
Or a group such as a regiment of soldiers, or a Guild.
The career of Anlaf the rogue could now take him into Thieves Guild politics, or the workings of the local Trickster Cult. Alternatively, he is now raiding the Merchant Guild headquarters, or perhaps the manors of nobility. Likewise, his powers of persuasion have taken him to the point where he can befuddle an entire village with his nefarious schemes.
Theano the warrior is now commanding ever larger groups of soldiers, or burning whole goblin settlements. As a sea borne raider, she is now commanding a large ship, or perhaps a small flotilla of longboats. In combat she is a powerful force on the battlefield, certainly the champion of a regiment.
At this scale, Ragnarr is also a powerful force in combat. He is now capable of dealing with many opponents as the area effect of his spells increases. Ragnarr may be the leader of a Guild of Mages, or running a school of Magic. If he is operating from a base, then he will have a larger staff, more apprentices and a sizeable guard retinue.
Once more, the scope of plots for the GM has expanded again at this scale. The actions of the Heroes can now affect an entire village. Films like Seven Samurai and 13th Warrior all revolve around a village. Or, the Heroes maybe involved with running a village or small tribe, making the choices that affect how the village will survive through a harsh winter, or resolving the feud with the neighbouring tribe.
5 A Town
Or a small army.
Anlaf could now be a corrupt mayor running an entire town for his benefit, or the head of a mobster family running a district within a larger city. He would be capable of a massive heist to bankrupt an entire town. Perhaps he is a mesmerizing speaker, leading a small army of followers through the countryside, like a wandering Dionysian cult of personality.
At this scale Theano could be a clan chief, leading a small army of barbarian warriors. Or she may be the commander of a city watch, or simply the general of a small army. Theano will be a force in national politics and a frightening presence on the battlefield.
Ragnarr the Storm Mage can now unleash spells powerful enough to defeat a small army. He may be the Governor of a Town, or perhaps the commander of a unit of Battle Mages capable of defeating many times their number in combat.
For the GM, this scale allows plots that threaten more people. A Chaos Cult seeking to corrupt an entire town, or an invading army of barbarians would be suitable plots now. Politically, the stage is now an entire town, and the outlying villages, or perhaps one district of a city.
Due to the length of this article, I have split it into two parts. Yes, this is the SHORT version. Return next weekend for the second instalment, where the scale goes from six up to ten. These scales are the stuff of epic tales.
What examples of scale have you found in your game? Share your experiences in the comments below.