You’re no White Knight (aka kids being awesome gamers)

We were at Emerald City Comic Con, manning the story games table, when a kid comes up with his Dad. He’s maybe 10 years old and he’s curious about these games even though he’s never played a role-playing game before. And I mean intensely curious, not just idly asking. He’s heard of Dungeons & Dragons so I idiotically try to explain the difference. He follows what I’m saying far better than I probably deserve (“so someone could say ‘I want there to be an ogre!'”) but I have to face that we should just sit down and play. Explanation is no substitute for doing.

But here’s the thing: I’m nervous. Despite having spent years as a child and even teaching myself to game while a child, I don’t spend a lot of time around children nowadays. I’m used to teaching games to adults. I don’t know how to talk to children. Not to mention the whole “oh, perhaps that subject matter is inappropriate for a minor — but hey, I told him about the Veil!”

I’m seriously wondering how badly I’m going to mess this up.

Fortunately I’m not alone. Dad says he’s just going to watch so I need one or two other people to play and I’ve got the cream of the crop standing right next to me: Caroline, ace-organizer from Story Games Seattle, and Ian who I’ve only played with this weekend but has already showed himself to be an excellent gamer and a kind human being.

I grab Microscope and we sit down to play. Microscope is my go-to game for unknown situations because a) I wrote it b) it gets creative fast and c) it lets people participate how they want to participate. Ironic, I know.

Caroline, it should be mentioned, played an inspiring game of Microscope with a little girl back at Geek Girl Con. I missed it and I’ve been jealous ever since. So this was my chance, right? So long as I didn’t completely chicken out. Or choke.

White Knight

We sit down and I ask the kid if he’s interested in superheroes (hey, we’re at Emerald City Comic Con!). He gives a reserved nod so I whip out the quickstart seeds I made and ask him which one grabs him. He picks:

“The greatest superhero on Earth is gone and lesser heroes struggle to fill the void.”

Everyone else agrees that sounds great. I read the questions to the group to customize our history. What’s the hero’s name? Everyone pauses and ponders. “He’s called the White Knight,” the kid says. Nods around the table.

What’s his superpower, I ask? His Dad chimes in and says maybe he can heal people. Dad isn’t technically playing but it sounds like an interesting idea. We’re mulling this over when his son throws out a clockwork sword so we decide, why not both? He could be a peerless inventor/scientist who makes devices far beyond anyone else’s technology and he’s also found cures to numerous diseases, etc. Can other people maintain or replicate his inventions? We decide no, it’s all too advanced. Hmm, suddenly the disappearance of the White Knight seems like serious business.

We make our bookends (“White Knight vanishes mysteriously and villains rise up” all the way to “Heroes find and free White Knight”) and do the palette. We’re doing the first pass when Dad chimes in again and suggests a period where diseases are on the rise, because hey, the super-doctor is gone. Not so fast! I point out that clearly he is playing and he should stop trying to get out of it. He can no longer deny being intrigued. So now there’s five of us and Dad’s plague period goes on the table.

Caroline introduces an event, “the Death of White Squire” and puts it in the plague period Dad made. The White Squire, she explains, is the White Knight’s side-kick who tried to fill his shoes. There’s a funeral with other heroes in attendance.

White Squire

We add a couple more things and then we’re ready to start normal play.

Who wants to make the first focus? Ian steps up and picks the White Squire, running with what Caroline just made. Excellent. He makes an event where the White Squire brings the heroes together and tries to get them to unite behind him now that the White Knight is gone but totally fails. He follows up with a scene in that event asking why the heroes rejected him.

We role-play and it does not go well for the White Squire. He gets slammed by the other heroes who tell him there’s more to being a hero than vanity. It’s his “you’re no White Knight” moment and it’s pretty harsh because it’s clear the Squire only has good intentions and doesn’t want to let his missing mentor down.

Nicely played all around. The kid is next after Ian and he decides to make a dictated scene. Keep in mind, this is right out of the gate. We’ve barely started playing. He puts the scene in Caroline’s “Death of the White Squire” event (which is itself within his Dad’s plague period) and without hesitation says the question is “how did the White Squire die?”

And then this 10 year-old kid who has never played a role-playing game before completely floors me: “The villains capture him and secretly infect him with a disease they created, then they release him and he goes around infecting people without realizing it before he dies. That’s how the plagues start.”

Holy crap.

To my chagrin I actually exclaimed “holy crap” right then and there. Right in front of his Dad. I know: language. But I was so utterly taken aback by the pathos-bomb this kid dropped. White Squire, failed protege of the great healer White Knight, goes down as an unwitting disease vector, an ironic pawn of the villains. “Holy crap” remains the only appropriate reaction. That is some nefarious villain shit right there.

And yeah, the rest of the game was basically fantastic. His Dad had to drag him away from the table to go see the rest of the con. Kids do in fact rule.

    Ben Robbins | March 18th, 2013 | , , , , | hide comments
  1. #5 ben robbins says:

    Hey, Matthew! Great to hear from you!

    Four is great. Five can work. The more players you add the less everyone gets to participate and the more random the history becomes (simply because more people are contributing different ideas). I definitely recommend breaking large groups into smaller groups if you can so everyone has a good experience.

  2. #4 Matthew Twining says:

    Greetings!

    I somehow missed Microscope when it came out, but it looks awesome. I’m planning to supervise an RPG elective at the middle school where I teach, and this looks like it might be the perfect game for it…what’s the largest group size that could play and have fun, do you think?

    (Also, how have you been? Haven’t talked to you in years!)

  3. #3 ben robbins says:

    @Ryan O’Rourke: That’s fantastic, Ryan! And honestly, I’ve met some adults who didn’t do as well as your 8 year old nephew.

    With brand new players (or very small ones) you can lower the bar by starting with a history concept that imitates something everyone recognizes: “It’s like Star Wars!” or even something as broad as “It’s superheroes!” like in our White Knight game. That makes it easy for everyone to understand what fits and what doesn’t, which let’s the players focus on making things within the shared space instead of trying to figure out the boundaries. In games that go wrong that’s a common problem: one (or more) players are trying to test the boundaries or have a totally different vision of the history that didn’t get synchronized during setup. Of course I say that as general advice but frankly it sounds like your crew rocked the table.

    Also, definitely wiser to quit early while everyone is still excited than go too long and wear people out.

    Keep us posted if you play again!

  4. #2 Ryan O'Rourke says:

    Hey Ben, I was inspired by this post to bring Microscope along on a visit to my nephews and niece. Nephews are 11 and 8, niece is 7. Along with my sister, we played a game involving evil conquering demons who danced a lot. They were opposed by talking monkeys who were originally trained to compete in the demons’ evil olympic games. (The kids are very into sports!)

    The 8 year old really wants to be the center of attention and had trouble when the spotlight was on others… he did actually contribute some cool stuff but also kept trying to inject supermodels and Darth Vader (usually together). Eventually he sort of lost interest and wandered off. But the 7 year old really got into it! She needed a lot of encouragement – she would say, “I have a question but it’s dumb…” We’d encourage her to ask the question then say, “ok, that sounds like we need a scene to answer it!” And the 11 year old is clearly hooked. My sister really got into it too, somewhat despite herself I think. :)

    Unfortunately we were up against a time limit and had to call the game after just a couple of passes – it was really getting good too! I wanted to keep playing! But I left my copy with them. I’m sure the oldest will be trying to start up some games with his buddies.

  5. #1 Guy Royse says:

    That is a fantastic and inspiring story. I’ve been entertaining the idea of “running” some Microscope at an upcoming Cub Scout event. This just tells me that this is a good idea.

    Thanks for sharing it.

    Guy

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