Jul 10

Trollbabe and Endings Part 1: Pivot Points


trollbabeThis week I return to the rich well of ideas Ron Edwards expressed in his game Trollbabe. Twelve essays on one game is a lot, but we are not quite at the end of the series.




For those of you who have not read any of the multitude of 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.



Adventure Structure

Chapter 8 of Trollbabe discusses the topic of ending a story in a RPG. I shall consider the broader ideas raised in the sequel to this essay. For today, I want to focus on the suggested structure for an RPG. The satisfying ending for a story grows from the prior events, thus the GM needs an understanding of how the story develops.


Ron adopts the simple story structure of a beginning, a middle and an end. During each part, the interaction between the Players and the Stakes is different. The transition between these parts are known as Pivot Points, and the story concludes with the climax.


Story from Stakes

The driving force in this structure, and therefore in the game, are the Stakes. Trollbabe defines Stakes as follows:


The person(s), place or thing(s) that stand to be won, lost, destroyed or otherwise permanently affected during the course of an Adventure, based on the interests of the characters present.


The division of the story into a beginning, a middle and an end depend upon the Heroes’ attitudes towards these Stakes, and the nature of the threat against these Stakes. As with so much of Trollbabe, this is all about motivating the Heroes to action. The connections to these Stakes should be sufficient to energize the Players into pushing forward the story.



The first stage of the story is the beginning. The story commences with a disturbance affecting the Stakes. Essentially, the Heroes see how one, or more, of their treasured Stakes are under pressure. At this stage, nothing is about to be destroyed, but the status quo is changing.


For example:

  • Strange footprints in the forest
  • A new merchant arrives in town
  • A close friend is crying


The story is open at this stage. There remains a lot of scope for the Heroes’ response, and where the story may take them. This is the call to adventure, which the Heroes may accept or decline.


Fresh events may increase the disturbance to the Stakes, or threaten an entirely different set of Stakes. The underlying philosophy of Trollbabe, as I see it, urges the GM to issue multiple calls to adventure, but it is for the Players to decide which call to answer.


First Pivot Point

The essence of this first pivot point is the acceptance of an earlier call to adventure. At its simplest, this could be an overt action by the Heroes. Suppose, for example, the Heroes decide to follow those strange footprints. It is now clear the Heroes have accepted this call to adventure.


However, this pivot point can also be less clear cut. The Heroes may not simply pick up on an adventure hook in the traditional manner. Instead, they may take some action which references the hook, or relates to it tangentially. This is still enough to trigger an escalation of the Stakes, and thus serve as the first pivot point.


For example, the Heroes choose not to follow those footprints in the forest. Instead, they discuss them with a local druid, who fears the Heroes are onto him and steps up his plans. Or, the Heroes choose to bathe in the forest river, only to stumble across the goblin camp.


The fundamental principle of the Hero as a nexus of change was explored in my first Trollbabe essay.


This method reminds me of the use of GM Moves in Apocalypse World-style games. Namely, the Heroes take a seemingly unrelated action which allow the GM to advance one of her bigger plots.


In the later examples above, the Heroes have not directly followed up the initial hook, namely the footprints. However, by discussing these footprints with another character, or simply remaining within the forest, their actions show a continuing interest in the proposed plot. By allowing the Players to determine the sequence of events which embroiled them in a plot, the GM is effectively demonstrating the principle of Heroes as nexus of change.


Pivots in the Rear-view Mirror

It is worth noting how Ron accepts these pivot points are often clearer in hindsight. The GM needs to remain aware of the story structure, and be ready to step up the threat to the Stakes as a result of the Heroes’ actions. It may only become clear after a scene is over, that it marked a pivot point in the story.


If the outcome of a scene represents a heightened threat to the Stakes, then it served as a pivot point. The GM should then advance the plot, and increase the risk to the Stakes.



The second phase of the story structure, the middle, is the main part of the adventure. The Heroes have decided to take direct action, or had their hands forced by the consequences of a previous choice.


One element of this stage is how the amount of compromise available to the Heroes is restricted. The situation regarding the Stakes is now more intense, the level of threat has increased, limiting the chances of the Heroes simply sitting on the fence.


This is not about railroading the Heroes, or limiting their choice of solutions or actions. However, the story has begun to funnel down towards a permanent impact upon the current Stakes. Pressure is mounting on the Heroes, and direct action towards the stated goal is required.


By way of illustration, the situation in our earlier examples has intensified:

  • The goblins in the forest are now attacking communities
  • A trade war has escalated within the town
  • The close friend is now stalking her ex-boyfriend


Second Pivot Point

This second pivot point marks the transition from rising action to climax. The story is now moving into the end phase.



The threat to the Stakes has reached the point of no-return. A final confrontation is precipitated, and there is little choice remaining for the Heroes but to resolve the conflict once-and-for-all. The opposing forces are locked into a final battle, either literally or metaphorically, with the condition of the Stakes riding on the outcome.


Which does not mean this stage of the story must resolve in a single scene. An epic clash of armies, a courtroom drama or the final level of a dungeon can all represent the conclusion of the story, but play out over several scenes.


However, the emotional tenor of this phase of the story is one of desperation. The future of the Stakes is at risk, and there is no turning back. This is the point where the Heroes must prevail, or suffer the consequences of failure.


So, to complete our examples:

  • The Heroes confront the goblin shaman in a spiritual battle in the Otherlands
  • The court case for control of the local silk trade
  • The friend has taken her boyfriend hostage on a crowded commuter train



This final pivot point represents the grand finale to the story. A climactic battle against the goblin shaman, the final summary of argument before judgement or the tense confrontation with an emotionally damaged friend.


The climactic scene may be followed by a denouement, a wrapping up of loose plot threads. Otherwise, this is experience points time and waffles. The story is over, the threat to the Stakes has been resolved, and the new world order can be summarized.


For Your Game

It is always interesting to read how different designers deal with the techniques of running an RPG. As is evident by my lengthy series about Trollbabe, I believe Ron has a lot to teach us all. There are two main principles to take away from this section of Trollbabe.


Firstly, the heart of the story are the current Stakes. The choice of Stakes is determined by the Heroes’ actions, or which call to adventure they respond to. Then, when running the adventure, the GM needs to keep the pressure on these Stakes. This will motivate and engage the Players, and heighten the experience at the table as the Stakes are put under ever-increasing pressure.


Secondly, from a storytelling standpoint, the GM must be aware of the pivot points. These points in the story reflect the response of the Heroes to the pressure applied to the Stakes. Once these points are reached, often in hindsight, then the GM steps up the game to the next level. These way-markers in the story indicate shifts in how the Heroes are engaging with your plot.



This exploration of the story structure outlined in Trollbabe is also a lesson in maximising the ending of an adventure. The best emotional climax to a story will be achieved when the Players are closely engaged with the plot. This engagement is the result of motivating Heroes by threatening their Stakes, then ramping up the pressure as the Heroes take action.


How do you drive forward your plots? What Stakes could you use to motivate the Players? Share your thoughts in the comments below.



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Happy Gaming



Something for the Weekend last week: Summerland, an Overview


Something for the Weekend next week: Trollbabe and Endings, Part 2



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    • Caine on July 17, 2015 at 5:03 am
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    The plot will drive forward somewhat naturally if you challenge key player characters at key points (like a choice) in the game that match key points in the narrative. Each player will want there character to survive if not win & you can count on that. Keep the characters away from the finish line & build either cohesion or diversion (whichever is appropriate) in the narrative.

      • Phil on July 17, 2015 at 6:16 am
      • Reply

      Hi Caine,

      As you say, it is important to keep the story focused on the Heroes. Personalized challenges is a great way to keep the Players engaged.

      I am not sure what you mean by keeping the characters away from the finish line.

      Thanks for sharing

      1. I don’t often play fantasy settings but say your playing a bank robbery turned hostage situation and you’ve basically got cops and robbers as playable characters. As the GM you know that most likely the cop characters will want to free the hostages and catch the bad guys, the robber characters will want to get away with the loot. When one of the robber characters starts getting closer to their goal of escaping, that’s when you challenge the robber character to really force them to earn it. At the same time you find a way to challenge the cop characters to get them to step up their game. Keep the tension alive, with a push/pull of who will achieve their goal first.

          • Phil on July 20, 2015 at 12:59 pm
          • Reply

          Hi Caine,

          This push/pull between Players is a great way to keep upping the tension within the game.

          How would you achieve this with a unified group of Players? Where they are all working together towards the same goal.

          Thus, if all of the Players were being the police, how do you keep ramping up the tension without a rival group of Players to bounce off?

          Thanks again for sharing

          1. The “adventure pack” has two goals: the alpha goal and the beta goal. Each occupation that a character can be is naturally aligned with either the alpha or beta goals. Example: Cops are naturally aligned with the alpha, and crooks are naturally aligned to the beta. As you create your character you choose which goal your actually truly playing to achieve and you keep it a secret from the rest of the players so no one knows what you’re truly aligned with. You may actually be playing a crook who’s trying to achieve the Alpha goal. Here is a quick example that I’ve put together:


            • Phil on July 20, 2015 at 9:28 pm

            Hi Caine,

            Thanks for the link, there are some interesting techniques in the game.

            All the best

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