Failure in Trollbabe

Ron Edwards is working on a final, hard-copy version of Trollbabe, trying to get it done in time for GenCon. In a Forge Thread, he talks about the fact that he’s changing the range for Social tests (making them one-better than the lower, rather than higher range, thus making them the ‘middle’ number of the three tests). (He also mentions a change to the way Magic is going to work as a ‘conflict starter’, which I haven’t had a chance to really look at.)
Anyway, that’s not the point. The point is, the thread became a discussion of dealing with failure in Trollbabe and the fact that what failure looks like for a Trollbabe depends entirely on the player’s narration and how they interpret a low chance of success in a particular task. (Or, balancing a low chance of success with the world-view that a Trollbabe is a bad-ass at everything… even something they technically have a lower chance of success at.)
There’s a great example from Bob McNamee, which I have to share here:

Logarina, number 3, a wolf-oriented mystic-type with silver hair and short blue spike horns
Fighting 1-2 handheld
Social 1-3 scary
Magic 4-10 trollish
She confronts Baron Woltmir and a bodyguard in the stableyard of an Inn. He is responsible for enslaving villagers in his mines. The bodyguard draws a sword immediately… the GM declares a Fighting Conflict
Not her best area for sure…
OK… her Goal for the Conflict is Capture the Baron. GM explains (during free and clear) that the Baron is mounting his horse to escape and is known as a keen swordsman… also, the sounds of carrousing (sic) soldiers can be heard from within the Inn.
GM declares Exchange by Exchange (best 2-of-3) conflict… the player can and does alter this to Entire Conflict, not wanting a long fight — it’s all riding on one roll.
She needs a 1-2 to win…
She rolls and Fails.
Ok… lets say she accepts a Discommode and Fails at the Goal (which is not “win the fight”; it’s CAPTURE THE BARON) and narrates.
This gives a huge opportunity to influence play from this position. Really huge.
Nar possiblity #1 — she’s approaching narration with a “task resolution” mentality relating to her skill at Fighting, which means that the interpretation is “my chance of success is low, therefore I’m not a good fighter”.

She draws her long knife and tries to fight past the bodyguard to get to the Baron.
She takes a shallow slice across the ribs as she is driven back out of the yard. The Baron and bodyguard ride off laughing.

Nar possibility #2 — in which she interprets her fighting skill as being fully competant… but more of a scene resolution mentality.

She draws her long knife and tries to fight past the bodyguard to get to the Baron.
She deftly steps inside the bodyguards thrust redirecting his weapon with her hand as she buries her weapon in his heart. She only notices the slice in her palm after he crumples in a heap at her feet. Dealing with the guard has cost precious time, for the Baron’s laughter echoes in her ears as he rides away in the darkness.

Nar possiblity #3 — the idea that her Fighting skill is competant but an unreliable way of acheiving her Goals.

She draws her long knife and tries to fight past the bodyguard to get to the Baron.
With a terrifying wolf howl she deflects the bodyguard’s blow and hammers him in the head with the hilt of her knife, dropping him. She quickly crosses to the Baron before he can mount. She holds her knife to his throat and orders him to surrender. A bare second after… the Bodyguard’s sword point is at her back.
Instinctively she spins with her amazing reflexes and counters his threat, with just a shallow slice to her back.
The Baron’s body falls back in a shower of blood as his head is mostly severed by her spinning action… oops.

Nar possiblity #4 — the “Succeed, but..” school of narration.

She draws her long knife and tries to fight past the bodyguard to get to the Baron.
She steps inside the thrust of the bodyguard…hammering him in the temple… dropping him unconscious.
The Baron aborts mounting, and draws his sword, with a cruel sneer. His weaves a cunning set of cuts with his weapon. She manages to step inside his guard disarming him, and sweeping his legs out from under him.
“Surrender or die”-she says
“I would surrender,” says the Baron as he spits in her eyes, burning them with tobacco juice, “But it would look bad to my men.”
When she wipes her eyes, she can she that the fight has attracted the attention of many of the Baron’s drunken soldiers from inside the Inn. She holds the Baron between her and most of the drawn bows.
“I suggest you let me go … I’ll even give you a moment’s head start running ….”, he gloats.

Really really great stuff, and merely one of a dozen different ways to narrate the failure of the Goal without making your character a failure.


  1. That an interesting exercise. Part of it requires the GM to give up their adversarial position viz the direction he wants the story to go. I can see, in this sort of situation, a continual one-upsmanship that could be amusing, or could be really offputting.
    Also not a bad lesson in writing in general. Even if you intend for a character to fail, how failure is defined is pretty fluid.

  2. There’s two different lines of thought on the failure/success thing — the adversarial isn’t really part of the Trollbabe set up — none of the examples shown are wrong, in fact they’re very much encouraged by the rules themselves. The player defines failures and, unlike Donjon, the GM’s not really set up to veto a bunch of stuff — provided that (A) the stated goal fails and (B) the player suffers the proper effects of whatever level of failure they decide to stop at, the rest is up to the player.
    To state that clearly, none of that is cheating if you know that the game is built for it and expects it — the player is not obliged to play someone incompetent when the very definition of the characters say ‘badass at everything’. You can choose to represent them that way, but you don’t have to 🙂
    Granted, I’d raise my eyebrow a bit at the person who constantly declared they wanted a goal of “Capture” and used failure to kill the target accidentally, especially if it seemed like the player was simply taking advantage of a ‘loophole’ and ignoring the spirit of the game, but the fact is, they are failing, and the resulting story will be strongly weighted as a result. (From a simple game-balance thing, all the GM has to do is set the exchanges as ‘best 3 of 5’ for awhile to keep the fights from hinging on one die roll and one description.)
    Now, vanilla Donjon is something else entirely; the Players are assumed to be taking charge of specific Facts about any given situation, but these facts are like wishes made of a malicious Genie — in a tip of the nostalgic hat to the bad ol’ days of DnD, the GM must use them, but can choose to twist them around in a very adversarial manner, likewise, so can the players — knowing that this can happen is (in theory) part of the fun.
    (That said, my favorite Donjon example of play is the Thieve’s World-like campaign where everyon essentially agreed on the kind of story that they wanted to tell, the feel and the theme and went for it — fun, but not the slapstick donjon crawl the game can be. (Let’s say ‘defaults to’.)

  3. Regarding result #3:
    It is technically within bounds to interpret an intent of “take the Baron alive” to produce a failure where the Baron winds up dead — I can think of any number of scenarios in which the Baron dying, while vicerally satisfying, would hose the hero’s goals.
    Again, though, it’s possible for the GM to curb this — simply establish “Baron gets away” as the outcome of a failure in the “free in clear” stage if thats what you wants to have happen as a result of failure.

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