Microscope Seed: Brave New World

“Colonists set foot on a new planet and strive to make it home. Can it grow into a flourishing, civilized world or will the colony fail and be forgotten?”

Brave New World is one of the new, improved seeds in Microscope Explorer, but I wanted to make it available for all those Microscope players who haven’t picked up the new book yet but need to get a game going quickly. Colonizing a new world is a solid premise for a history that you can use over and over again. If only I had a nickel for every Microscope world we civilized and/or ruined over the years…

Ben Robbins | May 29th, 2016 | microscope explorer, microscope tools

Eye of the Kraken

One of the nice things about the quest templates in Follow is that they get everyone on the same page about the kind of task we’re performing, but they’re flexible enough that you can easily change the flavor or setting. Want to steal the plans to the Death Star? Whip out the Heist quest. By default it’s a standard robbery caper, but with a flick of the wrist it could just as easily be Rebel spies lifting Imperial secrets.

So when we sat down to play the dragon-slaying quest the other day, we decided to reskin it as fierce Viking warriors hunting the Kraken that plagued the seas with storms and brought ruin upon the clans. Easy-peasy. The reskinning part, I mean.

Slaying the Kraken? Not so easy-peasy. It turns out when the runes say you need the Spear of the Gods to slay the beast, and you spend months sailing all the way to the frozen north to find it, you really shouldn’t let it fall into the icy depths, forever lost to mortal hand. Empty-handed, we return to face the Kraken anyway. We fight and fail. Some die, others wander in exile, fighting countless battles in the vain attempt to erase the stain of dishonor.

Which brings up another thing I’m really enjoying about Follow, but which may shock those who have followed (ahem) my other games: there are mechanical randomizers. Not dice, but still: randomizers. There is always a chance of success or failure, but the odds are very heavily weighted by what we think makes sense. If we look at what we did and we all think we should succeed, it’s very likely we will. On the other hand if we look back and we all think we puttered around and didn’t do a good job confronting the challenges in our way, we’re very likely to fail. Everyone’s opinion has equal weight, and if we disagree, the odds start to split and the results become much more unpredictable, which is as it should be because we don’t agree what should happen.

In our final battle against the Kraken, some of us were really rooting for our heroes to succeed, but given everything that happened in the fiction, it was a hard sell. The odds were not great, and fortune handed us a failure. Winning would have been easy to narrate (“yay, we conquer, woo hoo!”) but this result made us think about what failure would really do to these characters — the survivors anyway. Our epilogue was far more interesting because we had to think about how these would-be heroes would handle the consequences of utter defeat. How they would carry on having lost so much and gained nothing in return?

Did I mention that bad draws also kill characters? Oh yes they do.

Ben Robbins | May 25th, 2016 | follow | 2 comments

Coffee & Kickstarters

Yesterday we brewed the strong coffee (and tea) and sat down and talked about the wonders and woes of Kickstarters.


(depicted: me doing some kind of magic trick, apparently)

There’s an audio malfunction for about a minute towards the end that gives my voice a robotic, destroy-all-humans quality. You can’t make it out, but I was just noting that the bell curve of Kickstarters is actually encouraged by the “remind me at the end” button — even if people come to your Kickstarter in the middle, they may click that and only back at the end. In other words, you may be picking up more backers in the middle than you realize.

Now I just need to find a new headset that includes ‘killer robot voice’ as a feature, not a bug.

Ben Robbins | May 17th, 2016 | interviews

The owl knows better

Playing a lovely game of Eden at Story Games Seattle.

Narwhals and bunnies try to explain reproduction to the innocent humans. Narwhals are convinced it is essential to sing together and have a magnificent horn, or else it won’t work. Poor humans have no magnificent horn or lovely songs, so they are doomed to failure.

Bunnies are convinced that sex always makes more bunnies, regardless of the species involved. Carpets of agitated rabbits give eager advice. “I mean sure, you could do it too, but you’ll just get more bunnies!!!!!!”

The owl knows better.

Ben Robbins | May 13th, 2016 | what we played

Forget It’s a Playtest

The worst thing that can happen during a playtest is that you play it like a playtest.

Weird, right? The text below is the exact advice I give my playtesters. It was in the Chronicle playtest, the Echo playtest and it will no doubt be right there in the Follow playtest when it goes out.


Yes, this is a playtest, but the best advice I can give is: don’t treat it like a playtest. Play it like you would any other game.

This game — like a lot of story games — hinges on player participation and contribution. Your creativity makes the wheels turn. But when you playtest, there’s a natural tendency to sit back and analyze the experience and look for flaws. That detachment and scrutiny prevents you from diving in and playing, which means you effectively sabotage your own game because you’re too busy analyzing instead of playing. I do it myself.

So forget it’s a playtest and just play. Then look back afterwards and think about how the rules influenced what happened.

If you’re a designer, I highly recommend telling your players exactly this. If you’re a player, do the designer a favor and just play.

Ben Robbins | May 2nd, 2016 | game design | 1 comment

Follow the plan, or follow your heart…

Now that Microscope Explorer is out, the Oracles are free online, and all but a few of the advanced backer rewards are done, should I take a vacation? Should I put my feet up, sip some coffee and rest on my laurels?

Well yes to the coffee, but no to all the rest.

I’ve been hard at work on the next game. Several games, actually, but after jumping back and forth between them (so difficult to choose!) I’ve decided that right now I want to go forward with Follow.

Follow is a game about working together to achieve a common goal. Slay the dragon. Cure a disease. Get your candidate elected. Can we stay united and succeed or do our differences tear us apart?

Follow is designed to be a very simple game. A ready-to-go-at-the-drop-of-a-hat game. A game that’s easy to pick up and play, even if someone handed you the book cold. But I also wanted it to have *a lot* of replay value. Those were my two goals: a game that is easy to learn, but which is also a dependable tool in your arsenal that you are happy to whip out and take for a spin over and over again.

I’ve been working on Follow since before I finished Kingdom. Some Kingdom backers got a sneak preview in early 2014. After many, many unplayed drafts, I finally hit a formula that did what I wanted. The name has changed and a lot of the approach has evolved, but the core concept is the same.

“God favors the Bones”

How far along is it? Well we’ve played Follow a few times, and while there are still tweaks and adjustments that I think are critical, the spine totally works. We’ve been pirates, gangster-era train robbers, and teen rocker-girls trying to make it to the top of the charts (Lazer Kittiez 4ever!).

For now I’m going to play it more (a lot more), but I’m looking towards a draft that would be ready for playtesters. More details later.

Ben Robbins | April 14th, 2016 | follow