Nov 29

Trollbabe and Goals: The Importance of Intent


trollbabeA sixth look at the ideas of Ron Edwards expressed in his game Trollbabe.



Today I shall continue the series with a look at Ron’s discussion of Goals. This topic builds heavily upon the previous post about categories of action.



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.




The importance of the categories of Action outlined last week is how they then determine the parameters for tactics and goals during play. Ron describes a goal as follows:


The Goal is not the same as the stated action that initiates the conflict, or indeed not the same as any single action. It’s not the punch or the sentence that the trollbabe is just about to launch into. It’s an outcome, stated very generally, as the trollbabe desires it at that moment.



Goals and the Hero

A clear definition of a Hero’s goal is often missing in RPGs, yet it is such a crucial part of the dialogue between Players and GMs. Any activity in an RPG can be split into two parts: Action and Goal. The actions categories were discussed last week. The resolution of an action is often handled by the rules.


In terms of narrative, it is probably more important to understand the motivation behind the action. What is the Hero trying to achieve? What is the Goal?



Only for the Heroes

Ron notes that Goals are only for the Heroes.


GMCs do not have clearly stated goals.


The central reason for this is to keep the game focused on the Heroes. The action is all about whether the Heroes achieve their goals. By implication, if the Heroes fail, then the antagonist succeeds. Yet this success is a direct result of the failure of the Heroes. The game is all about the Heroes, so outcomes revolve around the Heroes.


Games such a Trollbabe, Apocalypse World and Numenera achieve this by only requiring the Players to role dice. This ensures the mechanics match the narrative principle of keeping the Heroes as the focus of the story. Ron highlighted this concept by treating the Heroes as the nexus of change for the game.


This formed the topic for the first article in this series.


Naturally, GMCs still have aims and plans. These plans will be apparent should the Heroes fail in their goals. This lack of GMC goals is quite a subtle distinction, but empahsizes the central principle of keeping the Heroes at the centre of the game.


Goals and Outcome

The rules will tell us if you hit the troll, and probably how hard you hit, in terms of damage inflicted. The story, however, really needs to know a little bit more. The story needs to know your goal. Was the Hero trying to enrage the troll? Subdue it? Intimidate it? Impress the audience or simply kill the troll? The narrative changes every time, and the outcome clearly depends upon the intent behind the action.


For the GM to properly narrate an outcome for a Player, then the GM needs to know the intention behind the action. This is all about communication between Player and GM. A stated goal is a clear way for the Player to transmit this intention.


Furthermore, by stating the goal the Player has influenced the nature of the outcome, even if not the exact events. In the troll example above, the Player who was merely trying to impress the troll is unlikely to end up in a lethal combat, regardless of the success, or failure, of the strike. Conversely, an attempt to subdue the troll that goes awry is probably going to result in further bloodshed.


However, do not treat the stated goal as merely an outcome awaiting a success. The degree of success rolled, along with other circumstances, can all have an impact. The Hero may achieve some of the stated goal, but not quite in the way intended. This is easier to manage in those rules sets with graded outcomes, such as HeroQuest.


So, to return to our troll. Suppose the goal was to impress the audience by hitting the troll. Assuming the Hero strikes the troll hard, then the audience may well be impressed. However, the troll could be furious and resort to further violence. Alternatively, most of the audience could be impressed, but the watching brothers of the troll are incensed. Or maybe the audience are impressed, and decide the brave Hero would make a worthy sacrifice to a warlike troll god.


The application of goals in RPGs ably illustrate the old adage:


Be careful what you wish for, lest they come true.



Using Actions and Goals

Thus, it is very important for the Players to state clear goals for their actions. The GM should then ensure the declared goal is in line with the category of action being undertaken. Any discrepancy needs to be identified and resolved by the Player, either through choosing a new action category, declaring a revised goal or simply changing their intentions entirely.


Clear goals allows the game to progress smoothly as both sides of the screen will understand both what is being attempted in the game, and why. The resulting narration can then take into account the stated intentions.



Next week I shall complete my discussion of goals in RPGs by exploring the interaction of goals and scale.


How have the use of clear goals affected your game? Or have muddy goals brought a game to a screeching halt? Share your experiences in the comments below.


Happy Gaming


Something for the Weekend next week: Goals and Scale in Trollbabe


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