- My first article considered the concept of Hero as a nexus of change.
- The second in this mini-series discussed the use of scale inTrollbabe.
- 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.
- Seventh in the series combined the concepts of scale and goals
- Part eight discussed the narrative list aspect of optional Player re-rolls
- The ninth in the series explored the in-game risks of Player re-rolls
- Number ten outlined how relationships are formed within the game
- Part eleven explored the impact of relationships within the game.
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.
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.
- 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.
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.