Microscope

Rating: ***

Type: RPG / world creation

# Players: 3-5

Recommended # Players: 4-5

Time to play: 2 hours or more

Summary: Microscope is a collaborative world-building game. More accurately, it’s a history-building game (in the sense of building a fictional history of a fictional world). Players take turns to create elements of the game history at any point in the game’s timeline, potentially changing the context and meaning of events further down the timeline. It’s badged as a GMless roleplaying game, but roleplaying makes up a relatively small proportion of the game unless you deliberately focus on it.

Gameplay: At the start of the game, players set broad parameters for the history they’re creating, deciding what the scope of the history will be (e.g. the rise of technology from fire to the singularity) and setting a short list of things that are banned from the story or definitely included in it. This is the phase in which everyone can discuss the vision for the history at a high level and make sure that everyone’s happy with it – which is important, because discussion is banned at certain points in the game.

Play proceeds round the table and on their go each player gets to create a single element of history – an era of time, an event within an existing era or a scene within an existing event.  Importantly, nobody is allowed to discuss, cajole or otherwise attempt to influence another player’s creation. In this sense, the game isn’t collaborative at all – the collaboration sort of emerges from individual isolated decisions. The selling point is that the world you create is genuinely an emergent property of all the players, never dominated by one mouthey player.

The history-elements are written on index cards and placed in a big timeline. You can create new elements anywhere on the existing timeline, which means that as you create new elements they add context and colour to the the bits of the timeline that follow them. So, for example, I could create the assassination of a major politician in one turn, only to have you create a scene preceding it which makes it clear the politician was actually an undercover agent working for another country. Again, the timeline emerges from the players as a group.

I said play proceeds round the table, but that was oversimplifying in two important ways. First, every round one of the players gets to be the lens. That means s/he decides what the focus of play will be for that turn (e.g. the invention of the wheel) and everyone else’s turns must relate to that focus. It also means s/he gets two goes, one at the beginning of the round and one at the end, and on each go s/he gets to create not just one history element but two, provided the two are nested (i.e. an era and an event inside that era, or an event and a scene inside that event). Being the lens is enormously powerful.

The second thing I omitted before was the “legacy” phase, which happens at the end of each go round the table. One player gets to create a “legacy”, a thing which will persist from round to round, and then create a history element relating to it or another legacy. In my view, this phase is a little under-used – the legacies could help to create a more cohesive history but because they can only be used once per round, they have a limited effect.

The scenes ought to be the most interesting bit of the game. In a scene, actual roleplaying happens(!) in contrast to the rest of the game. The player who creates the scene sets a question to be answered through it, a situation and some characters to be present in that situation. The players collectively answer the question by roleplaying out the scene. Maybe it was just my group, though, but the game as a whole put us in a mode where we were more interested in creating eras and events, and not so keen on relinquishing the creative control that our turn gave us to the other players. As a result, Microscope feels more like a world creation game than a roleplaying game. If you like the sound of that, I strongly recommend Microscope to you.

Components: An 81-page rulebook, with a simple cover and no internal art. You’ll also need index cards and something to write on them with, and enough space to spread yourself out a bit.

Designer Diary: Disaster Strikes! …and you’re Dead.

I’m currently working on a disaster movie game called Disaster Strikes!, aimed at simulating the feel of classic movies like The Towering Inferno, Volcano! and many others. The basic setup is, a small group of competent, brave and selfless individuals find themselves caught up in a major disaster, be it an earthquake, a virus outbreak or an alien attack. They must somehow escape or overcome the threat, while saving loved ones and bystanders from certain death. It’s a no-prep game that will give you the structure and tools to create an action-packed disaster in a few hours.

I’ve run a couple of playtests and will report on them soon. But for this article, I’d like to share with you a mechanic I created for the game which has really shown its worth.

See, the thing about a disaster movie is that it comes with a high mortality rate. Sure, the heroes don’t usually die, but they can do. And part of what has made the game exciting in playtests has been the uncertainty over whether the players will survive or not, and the tension created by putting yourself in harms way in order to save the lives of others. The trouble is, if you die mid-way through that kinda sucks. Fortunately I have a solution.

Special: Dead. You are dead. Bad luck! But on the plus side, once per game, at any time between now and the end of the game you can trigger a flashback scene. You can use this scene to shine a light on your character and their relationships. However, in addition, you can use this scene to give another character an item, advice, or some other resource, and they get that to use in the game, right now.

The Dead special went down very well in playtesting. It was used to pull surviving character’s fat out of the fire, proving crucial to the successful defeating of the threat in one session. As well as giving the dead player something to do, it gives them a reason to continue to pay attention to the game rather than, say, going off and playing computer games in the corner. I’m going to want to playtest it some more, as it’s obviously potentially very powerful (and in some circumstances you may be better off dead than alive) but I’ve been really pleased with it so far.

Racist stereotypes in roleplaying

So, I have been keeping a wary eye on the discussion of Wolsung and with a deep breath I ploughed through the RPGnet discussion of it. Now, I haven’t read Wolsung and I’m not going to get into my opinions on the game. But there were some interesting arguments thrown around on RPGnet that I’d like to talk about here.

1. It cannot be racism if the target is a fictional, nonhuman race. This seems pretty obviously false. A blatant racist stereotype against a particular real life group remains just as blatant if you shift it wholesale onto a fictional race (particularly if you make the fictional race resemble the stereotype in question in an extremely identifiable way). Whether you did it on purpose or not is beside the point, though when the resemblance is very strong, people may find it hard to credit that it was accidental.

2. It isn’t racism if it’s about national culture or if national culture is just as important in the game as race. Well, ok, the term “racism” doesn’t apply to national stereotypes. This doesn’t make it better though. Cultural (and NB also religious) stereotypes seem to have somewhere along the line become the acceptable face of bigotry. But, you know, it’s essentially the same deal – painting an entire group with one brush, and a skewed and, uh, stereotyped brush at that. Focusing on the fact that genes aren’t involved is missing the point.

3. It’s ok because it’s an accurate representation of the historical period that the game is modelling (in this case the Victorian age). Well, this is kind of true. It’s true that some people, perhaps the majority, maybe even the vast majority[*] of Westerners in Victorian age held pretty horrendous bigoted views about foreigners. Note, of course, that the game permits you to play non-Westerners, so this argument is pretty much missing the point as well – why should the game be presented exclusively from the Western viewpoint? Indeed, why not select a few admirable exceptions to the (perceived) general bigotry to act as your perspective characters while noting, perhaps in a sidebar, the general prevalence of racism. In other words, why view the entire game through the lens of racism?

4. This leads me to a more difficult question, for me at least. Point 3 about is really an allusion to the fact that many of us like our fantasy worlds to model reality quite closely, warts and all. Now, the point has been made to me that if we’re happy to fill our games with orcs and airships, why do we suddenly insist on realism when it comes to racism? Well, I just don’t think the two things are the same; orcs and airships are essentially background colour, whereas realistic social behaviour is quite fundamental. I’m in the camp that tends to not want to gloss over real-life phenomena like racism. To be clear, my games have not been known for including racist themes or tackling racism – but I’d like to think I could do so, and I’m keen on the idea of games tackling such serious subject matter.

But it’s equally clear that if you’re going to tackle such serious subject matter in a published game, you want to do so in a careful, nuanced and respectful way. You should ideally have taken some serious study on the matter before charging into such murky waters. I’d go so far as to say that you should take this approach even if you aren’t publishing – if you’re just playing in your living room. If in our enthusiasm to be realistic, or to faithfully replicate a historical period (albeit with orcs and airships and so forth) we accept any old attempt at “serious” issues, even done in a cartoonish and badly thought-through way, then we’re pretty much betraying the principle of gritty realism in so doing, and we’ve trivialised the issue in the process.

One last thing. I think part of the reason people get so defensive about this is that they think “if this game is racist and I like it, then I must be racist; I’m not racist so the game can’t be either”. Well, racism isn’t like a disease that you have or don’t. It’s a spectrum of behaviours and cultural themes which permeate the whole of Western society. You are at risk of saying or doing stuff that’s racist if you don’t examine yourself, even if you yourself are not a racist. You can enjoy a game that covers racial themes, even in a ham-fisted way, without being a racist, but you owe it to yourself to give yourself some careful scrutiny before you do so.

[*] I’m really not sufficiently a historian to argue this point, but the idea that all Victorians were raging racists strikes me as also a possible stereotype.

That guy is up to something

When you’re playing a game where there’s no GM throwing plot at you (e.g. Fiasco) or where there is, but they are leaving you, the players, to decide what to focus on (e.g. Apocalypse World) or indeed, where there is but they aren’t creating plot per se at all (any sandbox game), the role of players is different to your traditional GM-as-plot-provider game. And you have to do different things to make those games fun. Things which might even be considered antisocial in another game.

What I’m talking about is having an (in character) agenda. Your character should be up to something. They have at least one thing that they want, and not just in an abstract “fleshing out my character” way, but in a concrete “this is what I’m going to do right now to get it” way.

Fiasco is a perfect example because the entire drama comes from your stupid, short-sighted, out-of-control characters pursuing your goals. The game even forces at least one of you to have a game-generated Need! But it still needs the oomph from the players, the drive that makes the game tick. You can’t be sitting back and fading into the background in a game of Fiasco! Or rather, you can, but you (and the other players) may not have as great a game as a result.

Now I want to be clear here, I’m not saying that you should be constantly pushing your character’s agenda Out Of Character. When it feels like you can’t turn around for character X getting up in your face trying to do their thing, that isn’t fun. Your character is up to something, yes. You, on the other hand, are up to something else – trying to make sure everyone has fun, hopefully.

Fiasco and other “GMless” (or GM-light) games throw the spotlight onto the players in a way that can be a lot of fun. If you’re pushing your character into action to get what they want, while leaving space for the other players to do that for their characters, you’ll get a lot out of these games.

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

The Unspeakable Oath has an interview with Mike Mason and Paul Fricker, developers of Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, here. In sharp contrast to previous editions (at least the ones I’ve encountered), this is not just a glorified reprint. Oh no. They’re bringing the Call of Cthulhu rules up-to-date with what sound like some really sensible changes. These include simplifications like eliminating al the myriad different “hit a dude with X” type skills in favour of a single fighting skill. But also innovations like a rather evocative version of fate points where you get a reroll, but at a cost. Quite similar to some of the stuff we’ve been working on Black Armada, in fact! (Needless to say ours will be even better.) Anyway, I’m super-excited about it. Cthulhu is one of my favourite games in principle, but the system has always been a source of annoyance. I’ll look forward to even more sanity-blasting goodness from this edition.

Plot overload

During a recent playtest I encountered some serious problems with plot overload. At the start of the game I threw too many things at the player group, causing them to become confused, and sucking up far too much time dealing with the chaos. By the end I was trying desperately to draw things back and get the game back under control, but it was pretty much too late and I ran out of time to fix the problem, leading to a damp squib ending.

Point is: it’s easy to assume that the more there is going on, the more enjoyable the game is likely to be. But there’s only so much stuff a group can handle at once. As a GM whether you’re running a planned storyline or a more spontaneous, low-prep game (this was the latter) you need to think about these issues. Figure a group can maybe handle a couple of things at once, in a long-term campaign, but in a one-off or introductory session, you probably don’t even want to make things that complex. One thing at a time is probably enough!

You might be worried about the players having enough to do, and that’s a fair point. Nobody said the problem couldn’t be multi-faceted. But don’t force the players to concentrate on too many threads at once or they’ll lose the plot entirely. At best they’ll be entertained but confused; at worse, you’ll lose their interest altogether.

House of Ill Repute

I have completed work on my Fiasco playset, House of Ill Repute. Set at the heart of the UK Government in Westminster, it allows you to play politicians, bureaucrats and journalists with big ambitions and poor impulse control.

For those not familiar with Fiasco, it’s a GMless game in which the players collaborate to create a train wreck story about big plans gone disastrously wrong. The game is organised into playsets (many of which are available free at the link above) which provide random tables of story elements to get you started. You spend the first half of the game making a (usually very bad) plan and the second half smashing it to pieces. Mostly, the characters come of very badly by the end.

There’s a great video of some sample play over at TableTop.

You can download House of Ill Repute for free from our Free Games page. If you play it, let me know how you get on.

 

Designer Diary: House of Ill Repute

So, I’ve been working on a Fiasco playset called House of Ill Repute. It’s a Westminster politics-based game in the mold of “The thick of it”, “House of Cards” and (if you’re feeling a bit more gentle) “Yes, Minister”.

For me, Fiasco and politics go together like, I dunno, a mars bar and batter. Sure, it’s an unusual combination, strange even – but soooo delicious. Shows like “The thick of it” give a good idea of how out-of-control politicians can create explosive drama just as much as more traditional Fiasco settings.

If you’ve played Fiasco you’ll be aware that each game starts by generating a bunch of plot elements rolled on a random table: Relationships between pairs of player characters[*], locations, objects and needs. So naturally I spent quite a bit of time creating the tables. But quite early on I realised that the standard set just weren’t going to cut it.

Image by Elessar91

Specifically, politics is event-driven. To create a really exciting political game you need some awe-inspiring political events that will drive the characters into action. The scandals, the diplomatic disasters, international crises, and so forth. I had to have an events table right there at setup.

Fortunately for me, Westminster politics also features a fairly limited set of locations. Whitehall, Parliament, Fleet Street (no longer exists as the hub of press power, but meh – it obviously does in roleplaying games). There’s doubtless going to be meetups in London restaurants, on the river banks or whatever, but the locations just aren’t as important in this setting.

Therefore, the locations table was dumped, and replaced with the events table. Now all I had to do was come up with six sets of six interesting political events. Not a problem! If anything, the issue is to keep the numbers down, and keep them general enough that there’s still room for creativity around them.

The events table contains national celebrations like a royal wedding, international disasters like an earthquake in China, domestic headline makers like Snowmaggedon, and political bread and butter like Prime Minister’s Questions.