ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

“If you like role-playing games, you have to like people” (GMless RPGs, PAX 2015)

PAX GMless RPGs Talk

When I saw the slot for my talk about GMless RPGs at PAX, I was pretty skeptical whether anyone would be there. Friday morning, an hour after the doors opened? Would the crickets even show up?

I think the first few seconds of the audio should answer that question…

(or download the MP3 if you’d rather)

It’s hard to hear some of the questions from the audience, but you can usually get the gist from my answers. I also cut out a minute or two where I drew a diagram of a Shock conflict, because it totally does not translate to radio.

Given the mob of people from the talk who showed up at the indie RPG area demanding to play all the games — and all the great Microscope games I got to play as a result — I declare the talk a success!

related links:

PAX: Talking ’bout GM-less Games

There is life after kickstarter! I’m chugging away getting the sneak previews of Microscope Explorer material ready for backers. I’ll be at PAX next week playing games at the indie RPG games-on-demand area and I may have some cool new Microscope tools in-hand.

I’ll also be giving a talk about the secrets of GM-less games, so if you want in, show up Friday morning and you can listen to me rant, rave and probably sip coffee:

GM-less Role-Playing Games

Good GMs are awesome, but you don’t need a Game Master to play an awesome game. Join game designer Ben Robbins and explore the world of GM-less RPGs like Fiasco and Microscope. Whether you’ve never played a GM-less game before or you’re already an expert, come learn what makes them tick and expand your gaming horizons.

Friday, 11 am
PAX Chicken Theatre (Convention Center, Level 6)

Check your local listings to confirm the time and place when the PAX schedule is released (update: it just went live).

“That dot is intrepid. Doesn’t even have hands, still slays dragons.”

With the frenzy of crowdfunding I’m not sure I ever linked to it, but I did an interview with Jade Gaming News a little while back.

The Spot Check: Ben Robbins and Microscope

We talk about Microscope, game design, and the best video game character *evar*.

“Arrr why won’t my kids grow up faster?!?”

It’s always fantastic to chat with RpgGamerDad. After he invited me to talk about Microscope back in January I promised I’d come back when the Microscope Explorer was underway. So I did!

RpgGamerDad Podcast: Ep 43 – Sunny Seattle Special

RpgGamerDad also talked a bit about Microscope Explorer and his plans to run Microscope with his kids over at the Mad Adventurers Society. The whole RpgGamerFamily is also working on “RpgGamerKids”, a game for adults to game with kids. Seriously, if anyone is going to know how to do that right, it’s RpgGamerDad and family.

(Yes, there is only one day left on the Microscope Explorer kickstarter! The end is nigh!)

Flight of the Madamas

“We created the Citizen Kane of spaceship stories…”
–Timothy Young

Sometimes the excellent games sneak up on you. They disguise themselves with trenchcoats and fake moustaches and then, when you least expect it, they pounce!

I played two games of Microscope Chronicle at PAX last year. The first was the story of a mechwarrior-style mercenary company, the Teeth of Cerberus. It was a tale of comraderie, betrayal, revenge and pyrrhic victory. Actually a double-helping of revenge.

My second game was one of those sneaky, ‘surprise, I’m epic!’ sessions I was talking about. We decided to chronicle a spaceship. She starts off as one of the fresh new “Model M” line of long-range explorers / light freighters, and at the end of the history she sits in a scrapyard, rusting and obsolete.

The ship, we decide, is named the Madamas. Just a normal ship. There is nothing special about her. Nothing at all.

A Fork in the Road

As we make our Palette, we come to a fork in the road. One player wants alternate universes. It’s kind of out-of-the-blue, but that’s exactly what the Palette is for: to get these ideas out on the table so we aren’t surprised later on.

Multiple universes feels like a lot of ground for a one-shot game. We could all just say no, but instead we negotiate and agree to scale it down: instead of whole universes, we’ll just see alternate versions of people from those parallel dimensions or whatever. Why? Who knows. That’s for later.

Sometimes when you’re making the Palette, strange things get thrown in but then no one actually uses them during play. Someone thought it would be a good addition, but then they change their mind once the history starts to take form. As I look around the table at how everyone is reacting, that’s what I’m thinking: I don’t expect to actually see any alternate universe doppelgangers in play. I’m guessing the idea will just be left by the wayside as we get on with telling the tale of this ship.

I could not be more wrong in the best possible way.

Chapter 1: Percy Damon, Smuggler

One of the things I really like about the Chronicle version of Microscope is that it brings characters to the forefront. Every period has one person who is the anchor for that chapter of the story. We create the chronicle by exploring the lives of the people that were part of it.

Percy Damon is a smuggler. He’s the pilot hired to fly the Madamas on the long and lonely Rendo Run, a remote route few other ships use but which Damon flies over and over and over again.

It’s not a good life. And while Percy Damon stares into his monitors, pilotting the Madamas along this remote smuggling route all by his lonesome, another much happier Percy Damon returns to his home planet and marries his childhood sweetheart…

Without missing a beat, we’ve got alternate selves. How? Why? Later on we see that this smuggling route had taken the Madamas near the mysterious “Mor Anomaly” over and over again. Is the Anomaly some kind of uncharted space-time rift that made it possible for a second, alternate Percy Damon to exist in our universe? It sure looks that way. And yes, in play it unfolds exactly backwards: we see the weird outcome and then go back and invent the cause, because you can do that in Microscope.

Chapter 2: Stewart Roberts, Racer

Stewart Roberts is an ambitious young racer, desperate to win the big circuits, but he’s got a problem: he’s got no ship. His old ship, the Juniper, has given up the ghost. Fortunately his wealthy patron Pavel just happens to have a ship he is suspiciously happy to let Roberts race, gratis.

Over the years, the Madamas has changed hands many times. We know she was a blockade runner but we don’t know exactly how Pavel got her. And what we really don’t know is why the Madamas is now so fast that the rookie racer clocks a record win at her helm. So of course we play a scene with the relatively innocuous question, “what makes the Madamas so fast now?”

Spoiler: the engines were souped up by previous owners in ways that were almost certainly illegal, which is why Pavel is so eager to get rid of her. He’s acting like he’s doing Roberts a favor, but he’s really dumping a hot potato on him. That’s what we find out from playing the scene, but we also find out a whole lot more.

The scene is a confrontation between the victorious racer and his patron right after Roberts’ big win. We go around the table and pick characters. Someone picks Roberts. Someone else takes Pavel. Then *another* player also picks Roberts.

Oh dear. It’s pretty clear it’s doppel-o’clock. We don’t discuss but I have no idea how this is going to play out.

“You don’t understand. I lost that race!”

We start role-playing and Pavel is toasting the young racer’s victory while the news-screen in the background plays loops of the race. The net can’t get enough of the hot new pilot who came out of nowhere to win the championship. But Roberts is strangely sullen and reserved. He’s badgering Pavel to find out more about the Madamas, where the wealthy backer got her, etc. — all good stuff to get at the answer.

In the middle of the conversation, the second Roberts storms in. He’s mad as hell. He’s shouting at Pavel that he should have won that race, that he was robbed.

Role-playing freezes for a beat. No one at the table says anything, because no one is quite sure how to react now that there are two Roberts in the room. Should everyone go “whaaaaaa! I’m seeing double!?!?” cartoon-style and let hijinks ensue?

I’m playing Pavel. The angry new Roberts is yelling at me, waiting for my reply. I’m honestly not sure what to do. Then it hits me that the new Roberts is _not_ reacting like he’s got a twin standing two feet away. I run with that and take it farther: the new Roberts clearly doesn’t see the old Roberts (or vice versa), so I decide Pavel can’t see this new Roberts either even though the new Roberts is talking right at him. As I talk to the original Roberts and ignore the new one I carefully phrase things in a way that the new Roberts could misinterpret as though I answering him, if the player wants, just to keep things interesting.

It’s a weird scene. A little awkward even, since one person is role-playing but being ignored/unseen in the fiction. We see the two alternate paths of Roberts’ life, side-by-side, the unexpectedly reluctant winner and the bitter loser. The old Roberts sulks and questions, the new Roberts rants and accuses, and Pavel coyly avoids his protege’s questions (while thinking outloud to the table about the ship’s questionable engines, which moves us closer to the answer).

Finally the new Roberts, the loser, throws up his hands in exasperation and storms out. And in a ‘life imitates art’ moment, the player that was playing him had to get up and run too. We had known from the start that he had another panel to get to and he had stayed as long as possible to play the scene. Now time was up and he had to dash, exiting his character at the same time. Which is a crime because he missed how it all came together.

The scene sits silent for a moment. Then, as the monitors in the background still show his ship crossing the finish line again and again, the winning Roberts looks desperately at his patron and drops the bomb:

“You don’t understand. I lost that race!”

It’s impossible. Everyone saw him win. But the Madamas showed him something else, his life taking a different path.

Chapter 3: Tariq Massi, Junker

We’re still sitting at a table in a loud and crowded room in PAX, but our game has slipped into a contemplative, poetic zone. We’re haunted by the idea of Roberts, living in a world that sees him as the victor when he has somehow seen what he could have been — who in fact feels that his “real” life is the lie. And we’re haunted by Damon the smuggler, whose better self left him behind, went home, and made a happy life without him. All because they were sitting at the helm of the Madamas, which is maybe not just a simple ship anymore.

Now we come to the very end of our chronicle. We knew from the start that our story was going to end with the Madamas on the scrap heap, but now we go ahead and explore it — hey, even in Microscope sometimes the end comes at the end!

Tariq Massi is not a fortunate man. He’s missing an arm. Yes, he wears a bionic prosthetic, but even among the stars there is poverty, and Tariq’s arm is crap, junk, not much better than most of the refuse in the scrapyard where he works. He is still a relatively young man, but opportunity has already passed him by. This is all life has in store for him.

The Madamas is just another obsolete Model M, her past forgotten, ready to be taken out to pasture. But her engines still work well enough for her to cruise to the junkyard under her own power. Tariq has the job to go out and bring her in on what should be the last flight of the Madamas.

It’s a short flight, a simple hop, but at the helm of the Madamas, Tariq sees what could have been. Not just what could be, but what actually *is* for a different Tariq, somehow, somewhere. He’s a whole man, a respected man, surrounded by friends and family. His life is worthwhile.

Then he arrives at the junkyard and it’s gone.

Is it hallucinations? Is his mind going? He doesn’t understand but he doesn’t care. Time and again he sneaks the Madamas out of the scrap yard, taking flights around the system just to bask in visions of the life he could have had. He’s addicted to seeing this other life, the Tariq he isn’t and will never be…

And with that, our game is over. We take a deep breath and go our separate ways.

West Marches: Secrets & Answers (part 1)

Writing about world-building in the expansion to Microscope got me thinking about West Marches again (more on that in part 2), so I’m taking a break from my kickstarter to answer some questions that have piled up.

Some of these ideas I’ve mentioned before but never elaborated on. Other bits are things I’ve never talked about at all. Because I know lots of people have played or wanted to run West Marches games of their own, I’ve tried to clarify which choices were critical to making the concept work and which were just personal preference. Because there is more than one way to march west…

The Player’s Handbook

Even though I wrote the blog posts in 2007, the actual campaign was years earlier. We started West Marches at the very beginning of 2001 and ended in 2003. 3rd Edition D&D had just come out and we used it for the entire campaign (3.5 wasn’t released until after the game ended).

West Marches character creation followed one very simple rule: you could only build characters using the original Players Handbook. No classes, races, feats, nothing from any other source. And because everything in the Players Handbook was allowed, I could just say, “If it’s in the Player’s Handbook, it’s good” without having to look over anyone’s shoulder or screen characters.

Even religion worked that way. Need a god? Just pick one of the friendly faces in the book, read the tiny paragraph and you’re ready to go. Want to buy something? Check the price on the equipment list and spend away. The only caveat was that no one sold alchemical crap like tanglefoot bags and sunrods for the simple reason that I hated faux-technology stuff. Get a torch or get a wizard!

Using just the Player’s Handbook made life simpler because there were no debates about whether to allow X, Y or Z in the game. It wasn’t even an issue. But even more importantly it started players on the right foot by putting them in the driver’s seat. They didn’t need to ask me to approve anything. If they had the Player’s Handbook, they could make their own decisions. It put them in a West Marches mindset before they even started playing.

Every Square is 5 Feet

The idea that the Player’s Handbook was inviolate, that it was a bedrock you could trust and swear upon, started with character creation but it ran right into game play. Specifically, combat.

Unlike every previous version of D&D (and I mean every single previous version), 3rd Edition did not require judgment calls just to run a simple melee. You didn’t have to ask the GM whether you could get past the lizard man to attack the chief this round or who your fireball would hit. You could just look at the battle map, count the squares and make your move. You could open your PHB, read a page from the combat chapter, and know exactly what you could do and what to expect.

If you started with 3rd Edition or later, this may not seem like a big deal. Trust me, it was. Huge. It fundamentally transformed how D&D was played. As a GM, it meant I could set up the situation and then kick back and let the players decide how to tackle it. They didn’t have to ask me what they were allowed to do each round or hope I ruled in their favor.

Without this fundamental shift, West Marches would not have been possible. Or it would have been a much weaker shadow of itself. Players could never have felt that they were really in control of their own destiny if they had to play “mother may I” in every battle.

Rooting for the Players

Because the rules were well-documented and clear, there were lots of times when West Marches combats would become fascinating (albeit life-threatening) tactical puzzles for everyone at the table. We would all gaze down at the battle map (me included!) and ponder possible moves. Was there a way the barbarian could zig-zag through the kobold hordes and pounce on the shaman lurking in the back? (answer: yes, with clever manuevering he could avoid all but one attack-of-opportunity) Could a totally underpowered rogue anchor the line and prevent the bugbears from wrapping around and flanking the heavy fighters by just dodging like crazy instead of attacking? (answer: yes. By holding her ground in a fight that was out of her league she averted a total party kill at Zirak-zil) Could a staggered retreat get everyone out of the Hydra Cave in one piece? (answer: no. Really, really no)

I’m not talking about telling other players what to do (coaching sucks), I’m talking about analyzing the rules and the options after a player has declared a plan they want to try, but aren’t sure how it will play out mechanically. Someone would say “hmm, could I get to the shaman without getting clobbered by attacks-of-opportunity?” and invite the tactical huddle. These discussions levelled the playing field as far as rules knowledge went. Someone could be totally new to D&D but make reasonable decisions because if there were rules consequences they did not foresee everyone else could (politely) help them understand the odds. Again: informing, not coaching. Characters getting wiped out from making poor decisions was completely legit, but getting wiped out because you misunderstood the rules was not the danger I was trying to promote.

And when I say I would be chatting and trying to figure it out just like everyone else, I mean I really was. Once the combat was under way and the situation was pretty well understood, I often didn’t have any secrets. When a creature attacked, I would happily tell players exactly what its attack bonus was and roll the dice in the open. When a PC attacked, I told them the armor class they were trying to hit. I didn’t tell them actual hit points but I was pretty clear about how wounded something was. Most creatures in West Marches didn’t have weird or surprising abilities. You could generally look at the battle map and see what was up, so I could chat and analyze possible moves just like the other players did.

Being open about basic stats reinforced the idea that the dangers came from the monsters on the table, not from me. Player decisions and the forces in the world mattered, not my whims. When attacks were made, the players looked at the dice, not me. I could root for the players and even help them understand how the rules worked in their favor and it didn’t hurt the tension of the game even slightly. The combat rules of 3rd Edition D&D made that possible.

To be continued. Part 2, West Marches Gods & History…

Dear West Marches

I came to Wizard’s Creek, but there was no wizard
I went to Pike Hollow, but I didn’t see any pikes
I looked in the Golden Hills, but I didn’t find any gold
So why the hell did you expect me to know there was a centaur in Centaur Grove?

–pre-emptive euology of Revor, barbarian and impromptu beat poet, moments before the first PC death in the West Marches

It’s been years and years since my blog posts about West Marches but I still get questions about it.

Hmm, maybe I’ll take a break from my kickstarter this weekend and catch up on answering some of them…