“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

300 Games Later

You play a game, then you play another game, then you play another game, and suddenly… you’ve played a lot of games.

A few weeks ago I played my 300th game at Story Games Seattle. That’s a lot of candles on that cake. If you told me when I sat down to show people how to play Geiger Counter in March 2010 that we’d still be going seven and a half years later, I would never have believed you.

People tell me I have an above-average memory (or at least that’s what I remember them telling me), and yes even though that’s a horde of unrelated stories and made-up worlds, because they’re all one-shots, I can recall tons of what happened, in the game and at the table. So many fantastic games — and some terrible ones, because that’s how it works. Some of those early sessions are still iconic landmarks in my gaming landscape, back when Shock, Polaris and Geiger Counter were our go-to systems.

And you know how I always say we get new people all the time? Well, according to the logs, I played with 268 people I had never played with before. So not quite an average of a new person at every single game, but pretty darn close.

We’ve also been a haven of GMless games, which has caused some would-be attendees consternation, because here were all these great gamers, why can’t we play this GM’ed game I like?!? GMless games are a tiny percentage of the role-playing games played in the world at large — ultra-tiny — but I made a space for them because a) I liked them and more importantly b) I think they serve a valuable social purpose. I’ve never been very vocal about the “why” but my goal was always to get more new people to participate, particularly women, who are drastically under-represented in gaming. I’ve always believed that GMless games are more welcoming to people who otherwise might be turned off by the RPG experience. Instead of sitting down and having some stranger be the arbiter of what happens and what’s good (and even if you’re the best and most sensitive GM in the universe, that’s an inherently weird social situation) in a GMless game we’re all equals and everyone’s contribution is valuable right from the start. It’s a far more natural dynamic.

Does it work? Do we get more women at the table than the average gaming group? I don’t have numbers for gaming as a whole but anecdotally I think we do. It waxes and wanes but 30-40% women is pretty normal for us. Could it be higher? It could always be higher.

Ben Robbins | October 11th, 2017 | what we played | 2 comments

Kingdom: Return of Time Passes

I’m experimenting with a new way to do Time Passes in Kingdom. I removed it for one-shot games in the latest revision, but you can use this new rule in both one-shot and multi-session games:

TIME PASSES

When it’s your turn to make a Crossroad, you can instead say that Time Passes. Immediately play out the “Resolve Time Passes” steps, then go back to normal play, which means someone else is now introducing a Crossroad.

Picking Time Passes counts as a player’s Crossroad, so they can’t make a Crossroad until everyone else has, as normal. And you can’t pick Time Passes to replace the first Crossroad of the game. Time Passes doesn’t have a card on the table or checkboxes because it happens as soon as the player calls for it.

My first instinct was also to say that no one could make Time Pass twice in a row (without a Crossroad in-between) but on second thought that could be awesome. Want to do four Time Passes in a row and just keep launching your Kingdom into the unknown future? Knock yourself out.

Time Passes could now also make a great epilogue mechanic. If you survive a Crossroad but want to go a little further to see how things turn out, just pick Time Passes and end your game with that.

Ben Robbins | September 2nd, 2017 | kingdom | 2 comments

Indie RPG Award for Best Supplement

Microscope Explorer won the Indie RPG Award for Best Supplement, which is pretty great. And congratulations to all the other winners.

But congratulations too to everyone who put their heart and soul into making a game, whether you got an award for it or not. The award is not the important part.

Ben Robbins | August 24th, 2017 | microscope explorer

Hot Off the Presses

What am I doing this weekend? Here’s a hint:

Follow

Books are here. Shipping has begun.

There’s always something magical about holding a finished product in your hand. Magical, but not quite as magical as hearing about people having a great time playing the game. That is still the best.

Ben Robbins | August 4th, 2017 | follow | 2 comments

Diminishing Returns of Random Fiction

We sit down to play a game that’s designed to introduce random elements of fiction. A couple rolls on a table and we have a smuggling ring, ghosts of the old war, and a questionable inheritance. Great! That’s all good stuff to get our game going. We can work with it.

Now imagine we’re coming to the end of our game. We’ve been playing for hours. The battle lines are drawn, we’ve seen the desires and conflicts of our characters, and it’s all coming to a head. Then we roll again to get some more random ingredients. Suddenly there’s a forgotten treasure? And a long-lost sibling? Uh, where does that fit..?

Here’s my simple maxim:

The later in the game you are, the less useful random fictional ingredients are, until they become a distraction or impediment rather than a benefit.

If you had a game where you rolled or drew random ingredients every scene, you’d start off okay, but I predict you’d see a very clear downward curve until you were were wishing the random stuff would just stop.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise: at the start we have nothing, so when we get random ingredients we build our situation around those seeds. Almost any random ingredient works because we’ve got a blank slate. But the longer we play, the more detail and situation we’ve established. Random elements are less and less likely to fit what we already know. A random roll doesn’t know about the arc our characters have taken or the tensions between them or the nuances of the situation that have emerged.

Conversely, at the end, the people at the table have very good ideas about what fits and what would be appropriate for the story, because we’ve been playing it all this time. The random system doesn’t know what we now know.

Sure we could get lucky. A random element *could* be the perfect unexpected twist to take our story in a surprising direction. But it’s a lot less likely.

a bunch of postscripts

Another flaw of random fictional input is that often the rules aren’t designed to even know what other fictional prompts they have already introduced. The system is not building on past results, just introducing random results every time. If you got “star-crossed lovers” as an early result, and the system *knew* that was now a starting seed and built on that, you might have a better chance. But even then, a random system would not know what the players in the table had focused on and become interested in. Likewise you could narrow the divide by letting players pick from different categories of random fiction (“this romance plot is great, so I’m rolling on the romance table!”), but it’s still a shot in the dark compared to what the players know would fit the story that has emerged.

It’s also much easier to incorporate random themes (love, betrayal, duty) than it is to incorporate specific fiction (a gun, a body, a mysterious wanderer bearing a silver crown) but the same principle applies: random themes get progressively less useful as the game progresses. But it’s a softer curve. Conversely (and quite logically), while random themes are easier to incorporate later on because they are broad and malleable, they are less useful to get the game started because we still have to flesh out what they mean. The flexibility that makes them easier to incorporate at the end makes them weaker to get us going at start.

Ben Robbins | July 15th, 2017 | game design | 2 comments