Second Class Clones: PAX Microscope

Late Saturday night at PAX, some folks drifted into the Indie Games On Demand room and were checking out all the books on the display table. Like a good host, I pitched a couple of games but they didn’t seem terribly interested.

I asked what kind of games they were used to. Party adventure stuff? “Yeah, party adventure stuff.” I asked if they wanted to play a game like that or if they wanted to try something completely different. “Yeah, something different.”

Different, you say? Yeah, we can do that.

Gaming With Strangers

I meant to write about this game a while ago but I never got around to it. I got a kick out of it for several reasons. For one, it’s always interesting seeing how a bunch of total strangers who’ve only played fairly normal role-playing games react to Microscope. Second, it was one of those games that really highlights how Microscope works: the unforeseen creative snowball. And third, well the game was just fun.

So we sit down and I explain the basic concept of the game. We decide on a futuristic industrial revolution with an alien invasion tucked somewhere in the middle. The world is transformed by fusion power, but not without some dire consequences. As we make the bookends our history begins with a literal revolution, a worker’s revolt, and ends when a fusion explosion spells disaster for the radical new technology.

When we’re going around doing the Palette, in addition to the aforementioned alien invasion, one player adds cloning. This seemed fairly minor at the time (particularly compared to an alien invasion) but little did we know it was destined to become the central theme of the session.

My Other Daughter Is A Clone

We’re ready to start play, but it’s late and I’m a little logy. PAX has already been an energy-draining whirlwind of fun and I don’t have any stunning ideas. But because I know it’s better to make something simple and roll rather than over-think it, for the first Focus I throw out an anti-fusion activist, a radical who we decide to name Sarah.

I have no idea why Sarah’s interesting or where this is going, but that’s okay, that’s how Microscope works. And just to demonstrate that chronological order is for suckers, I jump to the very end Period of the history, the disaster that heralds the end of the fusion age. I make an Event for the eponymous disaster, a meltdown at a fusion power plant, and then make a Scene asking “does Sarah’s daughter forgive her for causing the meltdown?” Yep, no beating around the bush: the Question establishes that our radical activist was behind the crisis. Investigators are interviewing plant staff (like Sarah’s daughter) to figure out what happened. I require Sarah’s daughter and an investigator, but I ban Sarah, just to make things interesting.

Then things get strange. We’re going around picking characters and the very first player decides to be the husband of Sarah’s daughter’s clone. That’s right: there’s a clone of Sarah’s daughter (apparently) and this is her husband. Or was her husband anyway, because we rapidly find out she (Sarah’s daughter’s clone) died in the crisis. She (the clone) sabotaged the plant for Sarah. Sarah didn’t bring her daughter in on the plan, she was in cahoots with her daughter’s clone instead.

As we play the scene we get the uncomfortable impression that Mom loves (loved) the clone more than her own daughter. Or does she? After all, she sent the clone on what was basically a suicide mission. But then again it was a suicide mission that she (Sarah) apparently thought was essential to the good of humanity and she trusted the clone to carry it out rather than her daughter.

And why the heck is there a clone of her daughter anyway?

This launches a round of scenes jumping backward and forward in Sarah’s life. We see an elderly Sarah presiding over her eco-terrorist cell, deciding whether to strike again and precipitate an even more calamitous meltdown. We see a young Sarah first decide that the fusion technology (acquired from the aliens, Periods ago) is destructive and should be stopped.

Another player jumps waaay back to Sarah’s birth, only to reveal that Sarah isn’t Sarah at all: she’s a clone of the real Sarah who died as a baby, raised discretely by her bereaved parents to avoid the societal stigma that haunts clones. This little shocker suddenly casts our first scene in a whole different light: Sarah did have a reason to have a deeper bond to the clone of her daughter than her actual daughter, however strange that seems.

By now everyone has jumped on the clone bandwagon. Ostensibly the scenes are about Sarah’s attitude towards fusion tech, but really they’re about clones and their place in society. One player uses the Legacy phase to look back at an earlier Period and establish how cloning was originally popularized to provide a cheap if dubious work force of second class citizens, explaining a lot of the dehumanizing stigma.

But before that the ball’s back in my court to wrap up the Focus of Sarah. And just like everybody else, I’m all about the clone theme now. In early scenes, when Sarah was an old women, we had already heard about her estranged husband Lowell, so I jump back to the halcyon days and make an Event for their wedding. And as the happy young couple are coming together to take their vows, I make a Scene asking “is Lowell disgusted when he finds out she’s a clone?” I ban Sarah again and let the best man break the news to him. We already know the wedding happens (because the Event description was them getting married, not them failing to get married) so if he is horrified he’s probably going to be bottling it up deep inside, which is even worse.

Oh right, the alien invasion

Like a lot of Microscope games, we wound up creating something none of us foresaw. We didn’t sit down to make a history about cloning and its civic and interpersonal consequences, but that’s what most of the session was about. But the critical bit is that we did it together. Even though one player put clones on the Palette in the first place, it only became so important because each of us chose to keep exploring it. Each of us used our turn to bring it back in. Anyone who wasn’t into clones could have stuck to the Focus but explored some other facet of Sarah’s life. We built on each other’s ideas, which is exactly how Microscope is supposed to work.

If we’d played late into the night, would we have gone back and explored the dying alien race we got the magnificent fusion technology from in the first place? No doubt. But for the moment all of us were interested in the same thing, so that’s what we explored. The Focus kept our attention on Sarah, but we voluntarily Focused even more tightly on this one aspect of her life.

And the wedding scene? Despite some rough moments it turned out Light. Their marriage may wind up a shambles later on (in fact, we already know it will) but on this Spring day they get to be happy…

    Ben Robbins | December 6th, 2011 | microscope actual play | show 2 comments