Today’s article is a continuation of Ron’s discussion of goals, focusing on the interaction of goals and scale. I shall bring together topics from several previous posts. This essay is my seventh 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.
- Fifth in this series examined categories of actions in RPGs.
- Number six explored clear goals for Heroes.
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.
Goals and Scale
As discussed in the second essay in this series, scale can be used in an RPG as a tool for understanding the limits of the power of the Heroes. This serves to both manage expectations at the table, and act as a framework for the narrative.
However, the current scale may conflict with the stated goals of an action. This is not a problem when the goal is aimed at a scale lower than the current one. The problems begin when a Hero is aiming too high, and trying to overcome a scale higher than the one currently in use.
It is thus for the GM to narrate the outcome of an action in accordance to the current scale. If the valiant Heroes are facing down a barbarian army, but the game is currently at the personal scale, then the results are going to be limited. The Heroes may kill a few scouts, but they are unlikely to be able to hold off the entire army.
This is an extreme example, but the core principle holds true. The Heroes might be able to fight their way out of the path of the army, or rescue an allied courier, but cannot halt the advance. Regardless of the nature of the Heroes’ grandiose goals, the GM should keep the outcome in line with the current scale.
The dominance of scale when determining the outcome is a strong reminder of how a stated goal is not simply an outcome awaiting the right dice result. The Players are free to set whatever goals they want. The Heroes can TRY to hold off the advancing horde. This attempt is the stuff of high drama, and thus makes for an exciting conflict. However, the GM needs to keep the current scale in mind when narrating the outcome of the scene, regardless of what result comes up on the dice.
Caveat Games Master
Herein lies the risk to the GM. Keeping the narrative within the bounds of the current scale of the game does not equate to controlling the Heroes. The Players are perfectly free to try to achieve anything in the game. Yet, they should be aware of the current limitations of scale upon the Heroes. Scale needs to be clearly explained to ensure shared expectations.
Then, when a Hero has set themselves a goal beyond the current scale, this disconnect ought to be clear to everyone before the dice are rolled. It can be helpful for the GM to point out this discrepancy. Again, this is not to veto the attempt, just to make the Players aware of how they are pushing the boundaries of what the Heroes can currently achieve.
Restrictions breed Creativity
Those times when a Hero steps beyond what is expected of them are moments of great drama. These can be the pivotal moments in a story. Such actions are also the ones where the greatest creativity are required to progress the narrative and to keep within the boundaries of scale.
So how should the GM narrate such an outcome?
One option would be to use this action as a pivotal moment when the scale ticks up a level. Rather than have these scale advancements occur “off-screen”, why not advance the scale in response to a heroic action? Suddenly, the Heroes ARE capable of fighting off an entire squad of warriors. This is a good example of melding mechanics with the progress of the narrative.
However, it is more likely that the GM will not want to simply advance the scale to match the current action. To narrate these actions requires greater creativity than normal. Perhaps the barbarians send forward a lone champion to fight the Hero, thus keeping the action within the boundaries of the current scale. Alternatively, the GM may need to invoke some random chance, or an external circumstance, to change the current conflict and keep it within the required scale.
Ron discusses this point in Trollbabe, and declares that the best the Hero can achieve is to put on a “good show”. In those circumstances when the Hero’s goal is beyond their current scale, then they are clearly outmatched by the task. Yet, the Hero can still put on a “good show”, lose with grace or simply put up a worthy fight. There are still benefits to be gained from this, and the Hero can achieve the part of their goal that did match the current scale.
Broader Scales in a Session
The GM is still free to weave into the story events operating on a larger scale. Such events will proceed beyond the influence of the Heroes, as their scale is too low to affect these grand events. This creates the impression of a wider world, and can serve as a useful backdrop to the actions of the Heroes. Plus, these events may become relevant as the game progresses, and the scale of the Heroes increase.
Likewise, there is nothing to prevent Players from setting themselves goals above, or below, their current scale. So long as everyone at the table are aware of the differences, and the way the outcomes will be restricted by scale. Playing a Hero who is “too big for their boots” can be a lot of fun.
Just as clear goals are a crucial part of playing an RPG, so too do the interaction of goals and scale need to be equally clear. Players are free to attempt any action they desire, but should appreciate how the outcome of these actions will always be limited by the current scale.
How have you found the interaction of goals and scale in your game? What creative outcomes have you improvised to keep an action within the current scale? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Something for the Weekend next week: Dragonmeet 2014 Report