4 Troll Society Norms that aren't "IM UGLY AND STUPID"

Hi all, I don’t have a blog, so I am just going to post some ideas I’ve had here. Let me know if anything isn’t forum-rule-friendly, and I’ll adjust.

I’ve recently been reading a book (The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson) that features a war between the Elves and Trolls – both races which i) are immortal, ii) have large kingdoms, and iii) are the among the smartest races in the world.

If you’re anything like me, this last point should surprise you; having grown up on literature that depicts Trolls as stupid, evil, and monstrous, it was refreshing to experience a story where Trolls are a worthy foe to the Elves. In fact, in the aforementioned story, the Troll-King actually out-politics the Elf-King, leading to the latter’s downfall.

This got me thinking: if Trolls are immortal, then they should have lots of time on their hands right? And, in the same way that Elves are often depicted as enjoying word-play and conversation as a way to pass the time, so too should Trolls have a favourite cultural pastime.

So here are four cultural norms I think Trolls could partake in, and which you can use to flesh out your troll culture:

  • Wrestling (with Strict Regulation): Just because Trolls aren’t stupid doesn’t mean they can’t flex their inhuman strength to solve disputes! But, the key word here is --strict regulation–; if your PCs find themselves in a dispute with a troll, consider spicing up the inevitable wrestling match with some different mechanics, taking inspiration from the likes of Shuai jiao, Greco-Roman, Sumo, or Lucha Libre wrestling.
  • Pranks: A good Trollish prank should test the courage of the prankster, not be too obvious, and cause embarrasment to the pranked party, at best (and death at worst, if the prankee is particularly gullible). This pastime suits a Troll much better than wordplay because you can pull a prank with a hunk of meat in your mouth, but you can’t hold a conversation! Pranks are often depicted as being in the realm of small and nimble creatures, but there is no reason why a Troll can’t take part either.
  • Drum Battles: Drum Battle (and not your usual Air-Drums kind)! In this Troll-pastime, two or more Trolls attempt to out-drum each other by creating beats that throw their opponent off their rhythm; this is a particularly interesting contest because it relies on both endurance AND rhythmic skill (Troll drum battles are known to go 6+ hours). This is also fun for the listeners, who get to dance, drink, fight, (or wrestle!) to the music.
  • Rap Battles: No, this one is not a joke. In the same way that real-life rap battles focus on highlighting how great one is and how bad one’s opponent is, so too should a Troll rap-battle focus on the same ideas. I envision this pastime/conflict-resolution as being more heavy-handed than one involving Slim Shady, but a competition that requires skill all the same. Mechanics wise, if the DM and player are comfortable with it, it may be fun to actually partake in a light hearted, real-life insult battle, and have the uninvolved players judge. Dice can resolve any ties.

What do you guys think? Any preferred ways of displaying Troll culture in your own games?

6 Likes

I really like these! I’m always interested in ways of examining fantasy without resorting to the old tropes of big troll dumb angry aaaaa. I hadn’t really given thought to troll culture in my own world, but reading your points made me think…

I wonder if trolls are immortal. I mean they can regenerate insanely fast, so does that mean that they don’t age because they’re so good at replacing their cells. If they are immortal, I wonder what keeps them from taking over the world: maybe predators, adventurers hired to cull troll populations, or maybe they can’t reproduce easily.

1 Like

I really love this post, but at the Drum Battles you had me sold. That’s it, I’m going to steal them in my games from now on. They also seem to work wonderfully in combination with the other traits (I especially like the idea of a drum battle being used as a beat by two other trolls having a rap battle).

As for the rap battles, my Ancient History is a bit rusty, but I seem to recall similar challenges being reported in a bunch of other civilizations (I’m pretty sure about Vikings and Saxons, but I think I also read of similar traditions in the Celtic tribes and even in Iliad-time Greece - and the latter would also involve music!). Since you also mentioned different wrestling style, I suppose one could be able to style different tribes and cultures by changing the real-world inspiration source for their norms.

I don’t know about @Kingroy23 (who seems pretty happy with this thread anyway) but this is the kind of content I hope to find when I open this forum in my browser, so carry on!

3 Likes

This is really cool, haven’t really thought of many customs like this for my games (even though this kind of worldbuilding would be right up my alley). I’ll have to do this for each monster type in my campaigns in the future.

2 Likes

Thanks all! I’m glad this post has sparked a bit of interest.

@Kingroy23 interestingly, in the book I was reading (The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson), Trolls are immortal simply by virtue of being a magical race but otherwise die just as other things do; Trolls only aversion is to iron and they don’t regen. I think the only reason they don’t take over the world in that setting is because the other magical races oppose them, especially elves. That being said, in another of Anderson’s books I’ve read recently (Three Hearts and Three Lions), Trolls are monstrous creatures that regenerate, hate fire, and can control their body parts after they are cut from it’s body. And of course, both of these depictions are different from in Tolkiens work.

I think it’s interesting that Trolls are depicted in literature differently. I’ve played in a bunch of games that had Trolls just as ugly and stupid, and that’s fun too!

3 Likes

I read that book a couple years ago and it was the biggest inspiration for my games, even more than Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories or Michael Moorcock’s Elric. I adopted the pagan/Christian imagery for my LotFP game, which was set in Sweden.

But I can’t see trolls having these competitions, at least Anderson’s trolls.

2 Likes

Yes, I agree with you. From what I’ve read of Anderson, these aren’t his kinds of Trolls. But, his Trolls and the relationships they have with other creatures I think will be a direct influence on the kinda of games I run.

And I agree with you, Anderson in general is awesome inspiration.

Your memory is correct, at least for the Vikings and ancient Greeks, and I would suspect some form to have persisted in other Indo-European warrior cultures. In the Iliad especially, you see the typical ritualized battle between heroic individuals from each side over and over, but the climactic one is Achilles vs Hector. Each side would throw taunts and boasts, then throw spears, then engage in hand-to-hand. I don’t know if the taunts were in verse or not (since the Iliad is itself in verse, it’s hard to know whether the warriors “really” spoke in verse, or if that’s just the convention of the medium, like Bas Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet).

For the Vikings, on the other hand, we do know that a) boasting about your own deeds and/or talking smack to others at feasts was an important part of building your reputation, b) being able to compose verse on the fly was considered a manly skill appropriate to high-class warriors, and c) combining both of those was even better. I believe Egill’s Saga includes examples of the titular figure doing so (and to go with our OP’s Poul Anderson recommendations, you can read a historical novel that includes some of the events from Egil’s and other sagas by Anderson called Mother of Kings - Hrolf Kraki’s Saga is also good for some fantasy Norse flavor, but I can’t remember if it has any “rap battles”). Probably the most famous example of Viking smack-talking set to verse is “The Flyting of Loki”, which appears in the Poetic Edda, and features Loki calling all of the other gods adulterous, cowardly, drunken jerks.

3 Likes

These are really great!
Someone here has already suggested combining elements (‘you bang drum while I rap!’) and this strikes me as a great way to weave in organized ritual conflict among trollish tribes/clans/bands what-have-you. Half a dozen trolls per side all banging rough-hewn drums while the ‘most eloquent’ troll per band whips out some frenzied insult-verses, all to get the blood of the Chosen Champions riled up before the ritual wrestling match. Thus, trolls are able to solve pesky disputes about turf etc. without actually culling their numbers too much.

Of course, woe betide the foolish adventuring party that stumbles onto the scene described above, and doesn’t immediately turn tail and flee…

3 Likes