Farewell, Story Games Seattle!

After 8 years and over 600 meetups, I’m shutting down Story Games Seattle.

Lots and lots of people have been a part of Story Games Seattle over the years. So many people and so many great games… and some terrible ones too, because that’s the risk you take when you sit down with strangers and try to build something wonderful together, on the fly. But more on that later.

I’ve done event organizing all these years (whether that’s running Story Games Seattle, or at cons like ECCC or Go Play NW) because, of course, I want to play, but also largely out of a sense of community service. I wanted to give people a chance to try story games and play with people they might not have otherwise met, because I genuinely think sitting down and seeing that you are more creative than you thought, and likewise that total strangers are more interesting than you would have guessed, is a fundamentally good thing. It’s good for humans. It makes us better people.

But organizing is work. People want different things, whether for selfish reasons or because they naturally have their own idea of what would make the perfect event. As the organizer, you get to deal with all those conflicting desires. And even when you are sitting down and playing a game, you are on duty. One eye is watching the room, one ear is listening to make sure everyone is having a good time and that nothing is going off the rails.

A huge part of the job, I’ve always thought, is to protect the fun from the trouble. To deal with problems that arise in ways that let everyone else stay focused on the joy of gaming. That means that part of being an organizer is, ironically, hiding the difficulty of being an organizer and making the whole thing look easy.

“What are you buyin’? What are ya sellin’?”

Somebody commended me once on being so clever to host events that would promote my own games. I think I recoiled with something like horror and blurted out “oh if this ever became just about my games I would quit in a heartbeat.”

When you’re a designer who makes games and you’re running events that are about playing those exact kind of games, there’s always a potential conflict of interest. I’ve never wanted any of the events I’ve organized to be about promoting my own games, though of course the two are inextricably linked. I love it when people play Microscope, etc., of course. And the games I make are good fits for Story Games Seattle, because not only are those the kind of game I like to play, they are direct reactions to what I’ve learned at Story Games Seattle. They are built to address the problems we see at the table all the time, whether that’s creative participation or clear and easy instructions. So it’s very natural that they get played a lot, even if I don’t pitch them.

Is it for me to tell people *not* to play too many of my games just because I’m running the event? No, that’s not in my authority either. But I think about it. It’s a fine balancing act, and one that probably no one is worried about except me.

Gaming With Strangers & Expecting the Unexpected

For all the years I ran Story Games Seattle, I would show up at the specified time and place. Whoever else showed up, I would game with them, and we’d see what happens.

Which is a pretty weird arrangement if you think about it, particularly when the games are ones with high creativity, high investment and involvement, and potentially very serious subject matter: examining the human condition, tragedy, and societal issues.

Every week was a surprise waiting to happen. I never knew who I’d be gaming with or what we’d be playing. Before the event someone could ask me “What are you doing tonight?” and I’d say “story games!” But the honest answer would really have been “I DON’T KNOW!” I’ve been doing this for 8 years and I don’t know what’s going to happen, because it is, by definition, unknowable. We’re going to make something together none of us can predict or control. In Microscope Explorer I talked about the “leap of faith” players make when they play these kind of games where the creative content is generated by the people at the table, in the moment, because you never know what you’re getting into when you sit down to play. Story Games Seattle was that in spades.

Attendance was always unpredictable. Even when the average headcount was consistent week-to-week, *who* would show up was completely random. I would joke that we never had the exact same crew two weeks in a row: not actually a joke. I don’t think it happened once in eight years.

And if even I don’t know what’s going to happen, how brave then are the people who show up, the people with so much less experience than me who have truly no idea what they’re getting into?

That’s one of the two words that I keep coming back to when I describe the people I’ve encountered at Story Games Seattle. The other is kind. Brave and kind. Brave to show up to leap into the complete unknown, whether it’s their first time or they’re coming back to game with total strangers again and again (which might be even braver, because now they know they don’t know what’s going to happen and they know they can’t control it). And kind because that’s the secret sauce of story games: being interested in other people at the table and being curious about what they are thinking and have to say.

That’s right, the secret ingredient to being a good player is not creativity, it’s empathy.

If I have one regret (and I probably have several, naturally) it’s that there’s a lot we’ve learned from playing week after week that I haven’t shared. I would tell the people who were regulars that they were some of the most experienced story gamers in the country, genuine pros, but modestly they wouldn’t believe me. We’ve been on the cutting edge of gaming science and exploration, but I haven’t reported enough of our findings back to the homeworld. Over the years I’ve started writing a ton of posts that I never finished. Instead I focused on baking what I’ve learned into games I’ve designed, to demonstrate by example instead of just talking theory. That seemed like a better way to pass on what I’ve learned, but in a perfect world with unlimited time and energy I would have done both.

Ben Robbins | March 29th, 2018 | organizing | 4 comments

The Fall and Rise (and Fall) of Antal

Intense game of Follow at Story Games Seattle. We played the Rebellion question, but our fellowship was nowhere near equipped to overthrow the new nobles, House Jakab, that had ousted our traditional rulers, the beloved House of Antal.

Character creation led to a wonderfully complex interpersonal web: “My mother was a nanny for the nobles, so you would have known her when you were a teenager at the castle, which means you knew me as a child.” “Awesome, so that means your son [someone’s else minor character] would be someone I would have known since birth and I feel I can totally trust.” Almost every character, main and minor, were connected back and forth like that. Sometimes the connections weren’t immediately obvious, but were “A-B and B-C therefore A-C” relationships. I think this is one of those places where having both main and minor characters really shined: that deep bench helped us establish more detailed interconnections.

Even with five players (and ten characters), I was the only one playing a noble of the old house. All the other characters were looking to my grey-bearded patriarch, Ambrus Antal, to step up and be the leader, but just to throw a wrench in that, I decided he had seen how fruitless wars had been and was weary of the suffering of the people. He was quietly brooding, reluctant to take action. Deep down he felt the common folk would be better with their fate in their own hands, instead of being pawns and fodder for lords and priests (the Church was up to all sorts of shenanigans). And yep, I told all the other players that was my deal from the start, because if I kept it a secret they wouldn’t know how much trouble we were in and to pile it on.

Lots of great stuff in play, as all these relationships came into play. We lost the first two challenges, hard. Red-red, red-red. Not really a surprise, because in our scenes all our plans were unfolding like disasters on stilts.

The second betrayal was particularly beautiful, as one of our main protagonists, Miklos, looked around the dungeon cell where she had been locked up (again!) and very reasonably decided she had had enough and ratted out both our plan to tunnel into the castle *and* the fact that the foreign-born wife of Lord Jakab was secretly sympathetic to our cause (and in fact a character in our fellowship). Which of course begged the question, would she also tell them that the other end of the tunnel was being dug from the basement of the inn of her childhood friend, Katalin (another main character), and throw her under the bus too? The inn where our would-be rebels secretly meet all the time, but which her so-called friend wouldn’t give her shelter because it was too big a risk, so go sleep in the woods? That childhood friend?!?!

Katalin had good reasons, but Miklos would have been incredibly justified in going for the trifecta and betraying Katalin (and our secret HQ) too. But she didn’t. She held revenge in her hand and then… just let it go. A great last moment of character development before riding off into the sunset.

Our final challenge? Rise up and fight. Despite the fact that we’d established from the very beginning that “the people” just wanted to stay out of trouble regardless of who ruled. And despite the fact that the current rulers had troops, strongholds, and far more military might than we could muster. These two points were literally our “what makes our quest difficult” points from the beginning of the game, and in the fiction nothing had changed them.

So yeah, a bold but probably doomed choice. Heck, if we’re going to lose, why not go big? This was looking like a swan song, a proper annihilation to end our rebellion. By the end of our round of scenes, we’ve got the remaining handful of Antal old guard taking the field for one last battle, leading a rabble of peasants and bandits against the massed ranks of Jakab knights and men-at-arms. We have no doubt it’s going to be a slaughter.

And we draw stones… and win! Red-white. Do we win the battle by some miracle? Of course not, we decide. Old Ambrus Antal is cut down on the field, surrounded and alone, and our meager army is scattered.

But our bold act of defiance–and our crushing defeat–stirs up the people. And then they *do* rise up. Final score: half the fellowship dead or gone, but our rebellion succeeds.

Ben Robbins | February 19th, 2018 | follow

Real Dinosaurs Are Bitey

A Jurassic Park-style Kingdom, spawning dinosaurs and showing them off to tourists: what could go wrong?!? We had a petting zoo, dammit. A petting zoo.

We were so close to saving the park. So close. But even though we turned a moral corner and decided to start fresh with *natural* dinosaurs instead of the genetically altered monstrosities we’d created (behaviorally programmed to never harm humans), we could not change gears fast enough to save the park. Because natural dinosaurs are bitey. Very bitey. Cue Crisis.

We had a great cast of characters:

Dr. Whitney Metzger (Marc), who loved genetic manipulation more than dinosaurs, but had forgotten how much she had simply loved science as a young girl.

Bethany McCully (Al), awkward intern and spunky fan-girl with hidden potential. The meek shall inherit the earth, or at least all the dinosaurs!

Chaz Winderbilt (Caroline), spoiler rich kid and lackadaisical lech, who might come out of the jungle a whole new man… or jet back to New York and abandon us.

True confessions: I broke one of my cardinal rules of role-playing and spent the whole game doing an accent. I know I should feel shame, but there was no other way to honestly portray Jack Lachland, legendary adventurer, celebrity naturalist, and Aussie.

dinosaur1

dinosaur2

dinosaur3

This was also a first playtest of some new prediction rules, which I think are going in the right direction.

Thanks to Marc, Caroline and Al for an amazing day in Cretaceous Kingdom!

Ben Robbins | February 12th, 2018 | kingdom actual play

We See Dead People

Shock at Story Games Seattle. Our issues (picked independently and secretly, as we do) were Loneliness, Inheritance, and Over-Medication.

What kind of sci-fi Shock could we brainstorm that addresses all three of these issues? How about a drug that lets you go into a trance and talk to your ancestors? We have a whole society of people who’ve turned away from each other and instead spend more and more of their days drugged up, walking in dreams, hanging out with the dead.

Did one of our protagonists become estranged from his wife because he was having an emotional affair with his own great-grandmother (who is young and charming in his ancestral-memory)? Yep. And when the husband finally came around and tried to save his marriage, we found out that his wife had been having an affair of her own, taking long walks on the dream-beach with one of her ancestors…

And yes, we did joke that we’d have to play Union to make the family histories of each of the protagonists so we would know who their ancestors were.

Ben Robbins | February 2nd, 2018 | what we played

Union Stands Alone

The unicorn befriends the young mother, but penniless she is driven to betray it, leading a wealthy noble to trap the beast for a pouch of gold, a sin that grieves her until she is old and grey. But the unicorn is not so easily caught…

Her son goes forth and leads a hard life in a world that has no need of him. But is he really so alone? We see that no, despite the betrayal of the mother, the unicorn has watched over her child from hiding, protecting him in this dangerous world. But she dies never knowing…

I love Union. Every time I play we get fantastic and really heartfelt stories. There’s something about a family history, where all the characters are connected to each other, that naturally strikes a chord. Because, love them or hate them, we all relate to family–even if we don’t have one.

But because it’s buried in Microscope Explorer, and you have to reference the Microscope rules, Union is harder to get your hands on and play. To fix that I’ve decided to revise Union to be a standalone game. It was always the variant that was the most different from Microscope. It shares some conceptual DNA with Microscope, but really Union always deserved to be its own game.

I’ve already been picking apart the text and revising every bit to be super-easy to teach and play. I really like how it’s turning out. My plan right now is to just release it as a PDF. It could be a book, but it’s short enough that you can easily print it out.

And yes, in that game the unicorn was the other “parent” to the boy, not biologically but as the figure that shaped him by the Union with his mother before their dark, dark Fate…

Ben Robbins | December 12th, 2017 | microscope explorer, union | 4 comments

“Is it… sentient?”

Saturday at Story Games Seattle, we were doing the meditative “hmm, what kind of history do we want to make…” when Connor threw out one word that made everyone at the table go “a ha!!!”:

Domestication

It got us thinking about symbiosis and spawned a setting where two independent sentient species, one human and one very alien in body and mind, slowly become dependent upon each other and change until neither is quite what they were before. And the kicker? We decided at the start that at the very end of our history — a thousand years later, as it turns out — unchanged human star-farers rediscover this isolated world and are deeply disturbed by what they see…

Art by Naomi B

Tell me that oceanid does not look adorable!

Heavy duty cultural and societal stuff! Our history waded into deep water (ahem) of culture, communication and what it means to be human. Or what it means to be alien, depending on your point of view.

Go read Naomi’s game summary for more detail. Thanks to Jeff and Connor for great gaming, and Naomi for amazing facilitating (and awesome art)!

Ben Robbins | November 14th, 2017 | microscope actual play