West Marches: Layers of History

“Run the simulation in your head: who moved here, what did they build, what happened to them, and then what came next?”

Logic is the cornerstone of a sandbox. If things make sense — if there’s an internal consistency to what’s there and where things are — then players can make good decisions. Paying attention leads to good choices and good choices lead to success. Smart characters survive and flourish.

Without it, the environment is just a guessing game of what the GM decided to put around each corner. There is no way to make intelligent decisions. No fun and not fair.

So how do you make a world that makes sense? You build the history, because the past is what determines the present. Yep, this is where Microscope and West Marches intersect.

Long before I designed Microscope, when I made D&D worlds I would imagine layers of history one top of each other, jumping back and forth in my head to figure out what happened and how all of that led to what was here now. Or vice versa: something you create in the present makes you think “hmm, where did that come from”, so you dig back in history to establish its origin.

So when I sat down to make a simple little wilderness I named “West Marches” for some old school adventure, did I just draw some dungeons and pick critters from ye olde Monster Manual? No, first I figured out what was here before. Nothing super-detailed, just a starting concept for the world and a skeleton of history.

Layers of History

A skeleton of history is your friend. Even the simplest outline tells you what belongs in the world and what doesn’t, and that’s a welcome advantage when you’re trying to seed your wilderness with some danger and points of interest. That’s two benefits, if you’re keeping track: it doesn’t just make play better, it also makes it easier to populate your world.

Start with three or four independent layers of history. Just a simple concept, not too much detail. This is the local history of the region, but it might reflect larger world events. Or not. For West Marches, my layers looked like:

That’s descending chronological order, with the most recent (and therefore most visible and known) events at the top, because that makes more sense to me. Farther down the list are things buried in the past, dwindling into myth and legend. The ruins from those elder days are the most worn down and picked over, while the remnants from the top are the most recent and fresh.

Each layer is completely independent and pretty far apart. The Barrow Men kings were mouldering bones in their mounds by the time the outcast dwarves of Black River came looking for hills to hew into new homes. Most importantly (for my plans for the West Marches), each of those layers of history left its imprint, but was also largely wiped away, letting the region revert almost entirely to wilderness by the time another period started.

More stuff happens in between those layers, but these are the big bookmarks, the key phases of the past that shaped this region.

Armed with just those very simple ideas, I can draw inspiration for what to put on the map and I know why things are the way they are. Now when I’m fleshing out the Rotting Oaks and I feel like an empty area needs some kind of interesting landmark, I can say to myself: “hmm, the settlers would not have gotten this far from Minol Valley, but the dwarves would have come through here when they built their second hall in the Lonely Hills, so a Dwarven marker stone or an isolated tomb of someone who died along the way would make sense.” Boom, problem solved.

I could even have multiple layers of history built one upon the other in a single location. I know there are goblins in Cradle Wood because they are the remnants that were pushed back by the Duke’s armies decades ago. The kings of the Barrow Men were here before, so the goblin lair could be an old ruined keep they found and infested. But in the caverns beneath it are the ancient holy caves that the warrior-kings feared and held sacred, remnants of the gods whose names men have forgotten. Now I’ve got a dungeon with three distinct strata of source material to work with. Yeah, that’s a very literal “layers” example, but you get the idea.

The action in each layer of history doesn’t have to be spread evenly across the map. Some events might sweep across the whole region, but others might only affect some areas while the rest remains untouched. The dwarves colonized a few key areas and delved deep there, but most of the West Marches have no dwarven ruins, though I could still put in dwarven treasure and relics that could be found nearby (you read Treasure Tells A Story, right?)

And just like Microscope, your history is not going to emerge all at once. You may start with a mere skeleton (and like I said, you should really try to start with something simple), but as you keep playing you’ll figure out more detail and nuance, which will inform what should be in the world and why. You might even think of new layers you want to add, or maybe you just explore what you’ve established more and more.

Game Master: Keeper of Secrets

Part of my old D&D philosophy was that, by definition, the GM knows more than the players. You create a bunch of stuff, but instead of telling the players, you hide it. You don’t lecture them about the world: they explore and figure things out. Or they don’t.

In most of my campaigns, I kept major secrets for *years and years*. When the players figured it out, their minds were understandably blown.

Even if the background I made never came out, knowing it changed my attitude as a GM. Things in the “present” felt more real, less like things I had just made up, because they were outgrowths of the hidden history. That changed my mannerisms in play. I knew what the players were seeing were just pieces of a larger puzzle, so I treated the setting with gravitas and respect.

I don’t think that’s the only way to GM, but for West Marches, where you want players to think and deduce, it’s a perfect fit. If secrets are hard to uncover, then when the players figure things out it’s a victory. They can be proud of their success just like winning a fight (q.v. finally discovering the Abbot’s hidden study after a half dozen different sorties missed it).

So all these layers of history you’ve made: *don’t tell the players about them*. Don’t even want them to find out. Which is a very appropriate attitude for all West Marches GMing, where as the GM you really should not really *want* anything. Let them explore and experience and figure it out, if they’re interested. If they’re not, that’s fine too, because that’s not what they’re there for. The world will still be a better, more consistent place for them to tempt fate and dare the unknown because of the hidden history.

Ben Robbins | June 29th, 2018 | grand experiments, west marches | 6 comments

Story Games 101: Protagonist, Be Transparent

I talked about good antagonism a while back, so let’s talk about the flip side of the coin: good protagonism.

When you’re playing a protagonist in a story game, you have a very important job: want something. Have desires. Have needs.

But merely wanting something, deep down inside, isn’t enough. You have to *show us* what you want. You have to make it clear to everyone at the table what you want and what you care about. You need to be radiantly obvious and transparent.

If you conceal your characters’ desires — or worse yet simply can’t decide or refuse to care about anything — your game is dead on arrival. Dead, I say, dead! Why? Because if we don’t know what your character wants, we can’t make a story that fits you. We can’t make soil for your issues. We can’t give you hard choices that will interest you. How we even put you in a scene if we don’t understand you?

Do I mean transparent to other characters in the fiction? No, I mean transparent to the other players at the table. You can play an enigmatic avenger of the night who hides his feelings beneath an animal-themed cowl (because criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot) and who no one understands, in-character, so long as you tell the other players at the table what is going on inside that scary head. The players have to know what’s up, the characters don’t. Are you thinking “hey, but what about ‘show don’t tell’?!?” ‘Show don’t tell’ is a popular maxim of writing, but in gaming it is not your friend.

New players sometimes think that if they hide what they care about, the other players can’t mess with their precious, precious thing. Protect the precious thing! That is a total misunderstanding of what these games are all about. We’re not really adversaries and it’s not really a competition. Like I talked about in Antagonism 101, we’re working together to create a story that interests all of us by making the characters’ lives interesting and, yes, sometimes difficult. We’re collaborating, not competing, and you can’t collaborate without communication.

The benefit of being transparent doesn’t just apply to games that have distinct protagonist/antagonist roles. It’s a universal truth: to be an interesting character and an important part of the story, the other players (or GM) have to understand you.

“But what about the Maltese Falcon?!?”

Fine, throw The Maltese Falcon in my face! You’re right, Sam Spade spends the whole movie fooling the antagonists (and the audience) about what he really wants and cares about. And it’s a masterpiece for that very reason.

But there’s a huge difference between being an audience and being a player. Repeat after me: games are not movies or books. Players aren’t just audience, they’re authors and audience and actors all at once. Do you think Dashiell Hammett could have written the book if he didn’t know what Sam Spade wanted until the end? I think not.

If you catch a player hiding their character’s inner desires, pause the game and tell them. They might have a very solid desire but not realize they’re being too subtle. Or they might not realize that wanting something and then showing us what they want is their whole job.

Ben Robbins | June 23rd, 2018 | how to play

Story Games 101: Saying Terrible Things

“We expect kindness and maturity from everyone who attends and so should you.”

That’s what it’s said on the Story Games Seattle website for years. When your charter is to game with strangers every week, maturity and civility is fundamental to making that work. We did not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in any form and we expected nothing less from everyone who attended, because that’s just how civilized humans behave.

The tricky bit — yes there’s a tricky bit — is that what we do together is create fiction and portray the words and deeds of imaginary people, even terrible imaginary people. We may quite intentionally introduce serious, dark, or even horrible subject matter in our games, just like you would see in a movie or book, because fiction is a great way to explore issues we may loathe and avoid in real life.

Since we started in 2010, we used a “safe word” technique (which we originally called the Veil, later the X) so that anyone who is uncomfortable with particular material can remove it from the game. Which is crude but generally works.

But there’s another thing which can happen, which a safe word does not solve: If you play a terrible person, or introduce some dark idea or plot twist, a total stranger (like the people you’re gaming with) might think that’s the kind of person you are. They might think the words coming out of your mouth reflect the kind of person you are, which is not a surprising reaction since that’s how the world works most of the time.

It’s critical (critical!) that we can tell the difference between our real world beliefs and the stuff we’re bringing into the game. We might be okay exploring racism and sexism as issues, but who wants to sit down and play with someone who they think is actually sexist or racist, even a little bit?

I’ve seen it happen time and again, in smaller and larger degrees. And it silently kills the fun. Because in an awkward social situation like this, the easiest reaction is to disengage. The other players stop wanting to be at the table and they certainly don’t want to talk to the person they think holds repulsive beliefs. They may not storm off but the game will just limp along quietly. Which means that more often than not, you have no idea anyone is reacting this way. You think you’re bringing interesting material into the game, but you don’t realize your comrades now think you’re a monster. Good game!

Say The Terrible Thing Is Terrible

I am a prime culprit. I love bringing terrible subject matter into games. Love it. Because I want to explore the problems of society and the human condition. The last thing I want to play is a game where everyone is great and society works fine, because that teaches me nothing.

So: how do you bring in serious issues and explore the problems of society and the human condition without making everyone at the table wonder what kind of horrible person you are?

First off, assume that one-hundred percent of the time that everyone else will believe that you are what you create. Yeah you are playing a character, or describing an imaginary society, but assume that no one will see the separation between you and your fiction.

Second, embrace that as the person bringing in the tough material, it is your job to prevent a misunderstanding. If you want to go into deep water, it’s your responsibility to bring the flotation devices. And you probably should want to anyway, because who wants to be misunderstood?

Luckily the fix is incredibly easy: make the fiction (say what your character is doing or saying, etc.) and then immediately break character and tell the other players that, yeah, that’s a really terrible thing you’re bringing into the game. Then describe why it’s terrible. “Yeah, my character is being completely abusive and exploiting her husband’s feelings to guilt him into doing what she wants.” Or, “the councilor is completely confident the laws are just, but the whole system exploits the lower caste. This society is messed up.” And then I’ll go right back to adamantly defending that society in-character and argue why this oppression is good and necessary.

Say that what you said is terrible, then say why it’s terrible. Or do it the other way and preface material by saying “I’m going to add something really terrible here,” then say why it was terrible after you create it.

Is it more complicated and nuanced rather than just terrible? Then say that! “Yeah, it’s kind of horrible for him to do that, but he’s driven by some awful circumstances. Yeesh.” The whole point is to show the difference between your fiction and your real beliefs. Say what you think about it.

The hard part isn’t doing it, it’s remembering that it’s necessary. Because everyone doesn’t know you and can’t read your mind.

Even When It’s Obvious…

I use this method all the time, even when it seems completely obvious to me that what I’m describing is dark, tragic or just plain messed up. In fact the more obvious, the more I stop and say “oh yeah, that is messed up.” Because when you think something is “obvious” is usually when things go awry.

If I see someone else bringing in tough material and they aren’t communicating this way, I’ll stop and say it myself to start the dialog. It’s amazing how much you can defuse tension at the table with a quick “yeesh, this is all horrible, isn’t it?” Once we clear the air, we can enjoy exploring it as fiction rather than eyeing each other suspiciously.

And again, this is not the same as X’ing something you don’t want in the game. It’s not about the fiction, it’s about what we think about the other players at the table. If you introduce something terrible and someone bans it, the problem is not solved if they still sit there thinking you are an awful person. If anything now the issue is submerged and made worse, because we’re not talking about it.

Gaming techniques to solve social problems are a moving target. Methods that seemed state-of-the-art ten years ago feel hopelessly outdated now, and later on the same will be true of what we do now. Which is good, because that means we’re probably making progress.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid of the deep water. It’s where the big fish are.

Ben Robbins | June 13th, 2018 | how to play | 3 comments

“But we know… they’re gonna die” (Games and Education Interview)

I got to chat with Keenan Kibrick on his new podcast, talking about Microscope, games in the classroom, and (spoiler!) how Romeo and Juliet ends…

Games and Education: Interview With Ben Robbins of Microscope

Keenan’s being doing great work adapting games for education. Kids playing Lord of Flies as a Kingdom game? Yep, that was one of his. Check it out!

Ben Robbins | June 12th, 2018 | interviews, microscope

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 | 8 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