Nov 21

Trollbabe and Actions: Setting the Parameters of Contests


A fifth 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 second in this mini-series discussed the use of scale in Trollbabe.


Third in the series gave examples for the first five scales.


The fourth in the series completed the examples of scale with the last five scales.


Today I shall continue the series with a look at Ron’s discussion of actions in RPGs.



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.


Action Types

In Trollbabe Ron outlines three types of possible Action:


The person who initiated the conflict also states its Action Type. Doing so feels obvious in play, but it can be quite subtle in its way. There are three to choose from: Fighting, Magic and Social. They differ drastically in what sort of stuff goes in them.


To make these categories clearer, I think it helps to rename them.


Killing Action

This is another name for Ron’s Fighting Action, where the intention is to inflict harm on an individual. This Action is intended to kill, or at least violently subdue the opponent. Killing Actions exclude dialogue, or any form of subtlety: it is all about the killing.


Ron notes how every action including fisticuffs or swordplay does not automatically fall within this category. I believe that by altering the name for this action, this distinction is made clearer. A bar brawl would be a good example of a combat which is not about killing. Likewise, a gladiatorial duel is more about performance and entertaining the audience, not outright murder of the opponent. Both of these examples are better categorised as Persuasion Actions.


Killing Actions may feel like the default for many games. I am looking at you, f20. Yet, this category is far narrower than it first appears.


In terms of modern film, a lot of Killing Action takes place in slow motion at a higher frame rate, giving it the feeling of hyper-reality. Good examples include The Matrix or 300. Likewise, the f20 games tend to have a special time frame for resolving combats.


Ritual Action

This is my alternate name for Ron’s Magic Action. The category encompasses all forms of ritual, both arcane and divine. The effects of the ritual are only limited by the type of magic an individual knows, and the time frame for a Ritual Action is very long. A Ritual Action is rarely an “action scene”.


As with the narrow definition of a Killing Action, any action involving spellcasting is not automatically a Ritual Action. The classic Lightning Bolt is clearly a Killing Action as it is intended to slay its target. The use of most spells are better classified as a Persuasion Action.


Actions in this category are the long, quiet rituals where the opposition is more likely to be the natural forces of the setting. In other words, the inherent resistance of the world to magical alteration, not an active antagonist. Lengthy summoning spells, rituals to create enchantments and divine acts of worship are good examples of Ritual Actions.


The category can also apply to more than just magic. Broader instances of Ritual Actions include lengthy academic research, artistic creation and the product of most crafts. This wider classification further justifies the alteration of the name of the category, to move the emphasis away from purely magical pursuits.


Looking at film again, the Ritual Action is often conveyed in terms of montage sequences. In RPGs the time taken is often hand-waved, and resolved in a single roll. The latest f20 games may use the Skill Challenge mechanism for these actions.


See my earlier article for a discussion of montages in RPGs.


Persuasion Action

This is the type of action Ron calls Social Action. As the new name suggests, this category of action is focused around changing the mind of the opposition in some way. This can be used to inspire, convince, lie, persuade, intimidate, frighten, bargain, seduce, solicit information or impress another person. This is not to restrict the tactics to achieve this change in behaviour, but to establish the purpose of the action.


Persuasion Actions will be the most common type of action in most games. The resulting action may be short, such as telling a lie to the doorman to gain access to the club, or long, such as an extended courtship. The common theme is the way these actions focus on persuading another person to see things your way, even if for only a short time.


Keeping with the film analogies, the Persuasion Actions play out as the bulk of events presented. If a scene involves dialogue, then it is probably a Persuasion action. These are the default scenes in many films, just as this category is the default format for action within most games.


Structuring Goals

The importance of these categories of Actions is how they then determine the parameters for tactics and goals during play. So often Players take actions within an RPG without first establishing a clear goal. Goals will form the subject of next week’s long article, where the value in these distinctions should become clear.


Narrative Actions

In many ways, the distinctions outlined here are more for the GM to keep in mind, not the Player. The type of action frames the narrative, and sets the tone for the outcome. It would probably be a bit too meta to require the Players to categorize each of their actions before, or even after, they announce their goals.


However, as the GM is using the categories to guide the Players when they set their goals, then it makes sense for the Players to understand these three types of action. These actions set the parameters for HOW a Hero will achieve their goal. This is especially true in narrative games, but these distinctions can have an impact on f20 games too.


As part of the process of establishing the Heroes’ goals, the GM must ensure the intended outcome matches the method being used. Should the two elements conflict, then the GM needs to identify this conflict and ask the Players how to make action and goal agree. Either the goal needs to change, or the action. This is intended to ensure common expectations during play.



This breakdown of action types in RPGs is very much a prelude to the all-important discussion on goals next week. Yet, it is still valuable to appreciate the different types of action the Heroes may take.


How do these categories of action apply to your game? Share your experiences in the comments below.


Happy Gaming


Something for the Weekend next week: Trollbabe and Goals

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