Angels & Offspring

Me: Welcome to Microscope! What kind of history should we make?

“Emergence of magic!” “Angels!” “The extinction of mankind!”

Me: Cool. What if we combine all three?

Birthrates in our modern world dwindle, which (we discover in play) is because angels have walked unseen among us and judged that humanity’s time should come to an end.

As our science and technology fail to save us, there is a desperate turn towards the supernatural. Sorcery (we find out) isn’t like wizards shooting fireballs. It’s about bending the fabric of reality to your will. Masses of disciples work together, organized and controlled by the powers-that-be, integrated into the hierarchy of government and society. It’s a little like being a nuclear power — it’s there behind the scenes and you know it, but it’s not something you see as you walk down the street.

But it’s the same old story: the elite keep tight control and use sorcery to maintain their own status, while the masses have little say. There’s a popular uprising that fails. The powerful pull the strings and maintain their own selfish power, all while humanity dwindles. Eventually the elite discover the existence of angels and use sorcery to try to wrest dominion from them — and fail — but that’s later on. In the meantime we’re focused on the plight of ordinary people as fewer and fewer children are born.

Which brings us to a very dark chapter of our history.

What better way for the elite to secure their position as the world’s saviors and placate the masses than to cure the barrenness afflicting humanity? They undertake a great sorcerous endeavor, bending the fabric of reality to save mankind.

And it works. People around the world start having children again. Millions of new parents are overcome with joy. The relief is incalculable, as humanity steps back from extinction.

But… this Period is Dark. Because these children are not real. They are creations of magic: dreams, imitations, fictions of children. They are not people. They laugh and cry and play but really only imitate laughing and crying and playing. They grow and act like children, but something is missing, and as years go by and they should become more and more their own people, that lack is harder and harder to ignore.

And when the parents begin to doubt, when the parents stop believing, the children begin to fade, until they are mere ghosts haunting their parents’ house… and then gone forever.

A whole generation of children, given and then taken away.

And of course we learn that the elite had an inkling that the children wouldn’t be “real”, but went forward with the project anyway. They thought people wouldn’t know the difference.

We have a particularly brutal scene with the question “is it worse to lose a real child or a false child?” A lawyer is helping a family settle the estate of a false child who faded, but at the same time he’s ignoring his own real son who is terminally ill, playing in the next room. When a faint noise interrupts the meeting, the lawyer storms into the other room and berates his child. It’s terrible. And we think “okay, no, parents are not cherishing their (rare) real kids”.

But nope, it’s the other way around. The lawyer is so torn up about his kid dying he can’t even deal with it. It’s making him a monster, lashing out at his son in misplaced grief. He’d rather his son was a fiction, a phantom, so he didn’t have to care about him.

Happy story games, everybody!

Ben Robbins | January 22nd, 2020 | ,

Last Stand of the Murderfists

In the atomic wastelands of the future, the Murderfists are the undisputed champions of the brutal sport, Killball. But now they stand before the mutant overlord, awaiting judgment. Their crime? Stopping the execution of their comrade, condemned to slow-death in the sands for daring to love a houri of the tyrant’s harem.

From his gilded viewing box high above the arena, the bloated tyrant passes judgement on the heroes that would defy him:

Their sentence: Death… BY KILLBALL!

*cue heavy metal music, action montage*

(props to Haskell and Gavin for this flashback to the ancient playtest days of Microscope)

Ben Robbins | January 14th, 2020 | ,

Rewrite the Ending Together

I see a lot of anguish on the internet. Sadness that the latest epic franchise didn’t stick the landing, or didn’t turn out quite the way you hoped, or maybe threw characters under the bus and utterly betrayed what you thought the whole concept was.

Other people’s fiction will always disappoint you. Because those creators are only human. Their feet are made of clay and they don’t know what’s in your heart or brain. And maybe the ending was perfect for them, exactly what they wanted. Cool, but that doesn’t mean it works for you.

Yes, you could sit down and hammer out fan fiction with alternative endings in your lonely writing cave, but I have a much better idea:

Replay the ending together with story games

Get some friend together, and instead of all grousing about everything wrong with the books/movies/comics/series you love/hate, play a do-over and make it what you want!

Give that movie an ending you like. Make it yours.

Ben Robbins | January 8th, 2020 | | 2 comments

A Kingdom In Letters

A clever player asked me an interesting question: could you play Kingdom with characters writing letters on their turn instead of playing scenes? Very unexpected and very intriguing. The more I think about it, the more I think that not only could it work, it could be fantastic.

The one-sided monologue of a letter opens up a very different flavor of narrative. A character can dive deeply into their thoughts or concerns, without any immediate dramatic response. Sure, maybe your letter recounts a daring raid you executed on the castle and all the lives lost, or maybe you just ponder where your Kingdom is headed, wallowing in doubt and regret.

To start off with, create your Kingdom as usual. This player specifically asked how it would work with only two people, and in that case I’d would recommend each player make two characters instead of one to give you a little more material to work with. For three or more players, stick with one character each.

On your turn, instead of playing a scene, your character writes a letter. It could be to another main character, a secondary character, or even just a journal entry talking to yourself. All players get to see the letters no matter who they’re written too and can decide for themselves how much their characters know about what happened. Include a postscript noting mechanical effects, like predictions, highlighting popular attitudes revealed by Touchstones or what boxes get checked.

Does the next letter have to be a reply to the last sender? Not at all. We may never see that actual reply, even if that recipient is the very next player. Each letter could jump much farther forward, showing us the struggle over the Crossroad unfolding over time. Focus on the stuff that interests you rather than just covering the obvious. Seven pages of personal reflection and then one postscript that the barbarians are at the gates.

Want to get even more radical? Get rid of character ownership. On your turn you can pick up the quill as any of the main characters. You may even be describing them seeing characters other than the one you’re writing doing things and using their Roles to shape the Kingdom. Effectively on your turn you could be controlling the actions of all the characters except the one you’re writing the letter to.

And the wonderful bonus of a letter-writing game is that you are creating an actual chronicle of your story as you go. But the same events might be viewed very differently by various letter writers. To avoid a Rashomon-like spiral of confusion, make sure it’s clear what actually happened versus what is just opinion. Did the Baron save us from the mob or conduct a coup? That depends on who you ask, but we definitely know he lead a cavalry charge straight through the crowded marketplace. Was it justified or cruel? Was he a savior or a monster? Only history will decide.

Ben Robbins | November 22nd, 2019 |

Goody Patience of Salem

Ahhh, Salem! Good old terrible Salem!

I’m no stranger to the Salem Fiasco playset, but this time around we had sexism, racism, and assorted acts of bad parenting… honestly witchcraft was the least of our problems. The witches might have been the most level-headed folks in town. They certainly caused the least damage.

I love story games that dig into all the wrinkles of bad humanity, like how people can do terrible things and think what they’re doing is okay and makes perfect sense, because there are real people like that and damn if I don’t wish I understood it, so I explore it in the “safety” of role-playing games. The trick, when you’re dancing with the darkness, is making sure everyone at the table is on the same page and we can distinguish the players from the characters. If you can’t… kablooey and misery.

Ben Robbins | November 7th, 2019 |

It Was A Monster Mash

You know how some ideas sound terrible on paper, but in the moment they work perfectly? Amazingly, even? That was this game.

Our original game plan fell through, so Andy, Marc, Caroline and I switched to an off-the-cuff game of Follow. Marc had been wanting to play ghosts driving people out of their haunted house. Reverse Scooby Doo and very pre-Halloween! And the Turf quest would be a good fit. But Caroline thought ghosts would be a bummer. What about monsters instead?

Hmm, monsters. What kind of monsters? Demons? Naw. What about classic movie monsters, the Wolf-man and Frankenstein and all that?

But wait: what if the monsters in those movies had secretly been *real monsters* all along. No makeup! But only a few sympathetic studio moguls knew the secret and when those movies declined the monsters had taken up residence in a castle built by a sympathetic celebrity in the Hollywood hills. Where they lived in hiding for decades… until some instagramming influencers and tech bro developers wanted to turn the old castle into a hip bed & breakfast.

It’s Monsters versus Millennials! And yeah, one selfie-stick later we were busting out the “who are the real monsters???” jokes.

So many great characters. The Bride of Frankenstein! (“Uh, weren’t you married to Frankenstein’s *Monster*?”) The newly pacificist and probably vegan Wolf-man! A totally fake Invisible Man, just pretending to be invisible and hiding under his wraps because he feels more at home around monsters than humans!

And yes, our second challenge was an actual Monster Mash, as the monsters threw a party to try and raise morale after a crushing first challenge defeat that saw them abandoning the hapless and in hindsight kind of beloved “Gill”, the cowardly Creature from the Black Lagoon, to the county Sheriff. No one said to bring disguises!!!

Andy, Caroline and Marc all brought a beautiful blend of the funny and the pathos. A pile of great moments.

And if you told me that you played a game where Oliver Hardy (yes of Laurel and Hardy) revealed himself to be a Highlander-like immortal (and also an advisor to the Mummy when he was still a Pharaoh in ancient Egypt) and used what I’m guessing was ancient Atlantean technology to escape this mortal coil, I’d probably say “uh wut?”, just like you’re doing now. But trust me: it was perfect.

Ben Robbins | October 20th, 2019 | ,