ars ludi

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

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.

Microscope Explorer Kicks Off

Psst! Hey, kid! Want to score some cool new ways to play Microscope? I’ve got some Microscope Explorer right here…

explorer-vid-capture-578

(uh, imagine me whispering in a dark alley, possibly wearing a ratty trench coat, tempting the youths with story games and that sweet, sweet imagination…)

Echo: Take Your Time

Ever since the first playtest, Microscope Echo required the Lens to describe a faction going back and changing history. The idea was that this intervention kicks off each round and drives the action. But as I keep playing it, I’m thinking that requirement isn’t necessary. Players don’t seem at all hesitant to go back and mess with the timeline.

Requiring an intervention at the start of each round seems to push the action a little too much. The changes snowball too quickly. Instead, I’m adjusting it so players have more freedom to explore the history as it stands without forcing them to jump in and change it so soon every round. That way players can establish the problems and events that really cry out for intervention and give the situation more context, if they want.

At a gut level it feels like a more graceful fit, which is always a good sign. It’s a lot like when I was originally working on Microscope: every time I would put in something that forced players to do a particular thing instead of giving them choice, I would eventually come around to taking that requirement out and putting the decision back in the player’s hands. Constraint is good — in normal Microscope you almost always just pick whether to make a Period, Event or Scene — but you have to make sure you are still leaving the proper space for the players to use their taste and judgment, particularly around things like pacing or escalation.

Does that mean I’m getting rid of the requirement that you must follow an Intervention with an Echo? Nope, that still feels like a very useful constraint. It makes us examine the consequences of tinkering with history instead of just lobbing more bombs. Plus it ensures that every change to the history include a rebuttal from another player:

Yes, the Moralists thought pumping classical music into the AI cyber-creche would begin to awaken something akin to a soul within them, but as the Echo showed, it instead conditioned them to react to the music in a way that made them easier to lobotomize and control, Clockwork Orange-style.

Cue enslaved terminator armies rolling over South America. Whoopsie!

Summer Is Coming

The Story Games Seattle crew delivers some stunningly good Kingdom games. This time we played a Kingdom in the style of Toy Story, if Toy Story walked in on Lord of the Flies going to third base with Animal Farm.

Playtime Is Over (Kingdom)

Is there an award for darkest story featuring toys? Because if there is, I think we are a top contender.

Getting ready for Microscope Explorer

Now that all the spin-off games have gone through playtesting, I put up a proper introduction page to talk about what’s going to be in the new Microscope Explorer book.

Three Microscope spin-off games? Detailed step-by-step seeds plus randomly generated seeds? All that lovely strategic advice? Yep, we got all that.

“Fantasy worlds that break history’s back”

“But too often, fantasy worlds are created like Ikea furniture, popping up whole with minimal assembly from big pre-existing parts that creak and come apart after heavy use. That’s why so many many fictional worlds seem to produce carbon copies of real world Western gender hierarchies, even if it becomes painfully dissonant with other details of the setting.”

That’s Katherine Cross, getting to the very heart of the matter.

Her article is about Microscope specifically, but I think it highlights that role-playing games in general have vast potential to help us look at the world with fresh eyes. A long, long time ago, role-playing games were panned as escapist fantasy. I think we’re realizing now they can also be the exact opposite.

Fantastic article. Go read it.