ars ludi

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

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!

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.

Microscope Echo Needs Playtesters

Four years ago today, Microscope is released:

would-be players: “Oh cool! A game about time travel!”

me: “Actually no. Players pick where in time they want to explore but the characters in the game can’t move through time. Except, uh, forwards. At the normal speed.”

would-be players: “But… I can haz time travel?”

Fast forward to now. Microscope Echo is ready for playtesting. Yep, you can haz time travel.

As previously described, the game uses time travel, but play is really about exploring alternate histories. Seeing how the world would turn out differently if you went back and changed something. And now it’s time for playtesting!

Same drill as before: because Echo is a Microscope spin-off, you have to already know how to play Microscope to participate. I’m looking for people who will actually play the game and give feedback, not just read it. If you’re interested, email echo-playtest + lamemage.com or leave a comment here with your address in the email field. Make sure to include the last few role-playing games you’ve played (other than Microscope) so I know what kind of spread of players we’ve got.

Change the past to change the future.

Dark Side of the Moon

The Earth was lost. The tide of Communism had spread to every corner of the globe.

But on the Moon the last patriots remained steadfast, raining down showers of city-crushing debris from their lunar bunkers. Vengeful, destructive, but ultimately futile. It was a last hurrah for the West, but too late to turn the tide.

On the moon the star-spangled banner still waved, but where the fifty stars once shined there was now only a single white disk…

Echo is the last of the Microscope spin-offs that’s going to appear in the Microscope Explorer book. I’ve been calling it a game of time travel but it’s really more accurate to say it’s a game of alternative history. The fun is changing key moments in your history and seeing how the repercussions — the echoes — make it turn out differently.

It’s a tricky business. It took a while to get the rules for Echo to a point where I was willing to playtest them, so I am happy to report that it is not only playable, it is fun. I had serious doubts. The whole process of taking a Microscope history and then continuously revising it was starting to look like it was an interesting idea but just too hard to manage as a game. But the current version seems to actually tackle it. Whew.

It was particularly interesting to see the same Periods morph back and forth. The Cold War space race became a military conflict — astronaut versus cosmonaut — then a great victory for the West, but then flipped and became a bitter defeat, leaving that last holdout of Americans on the Moon. Which also changed things so the alien relics buried beneath the lunar soil weren’t discovered until much, much later…

Playtesting? Yep, very soon. Stay tuned.

By This Ring I Swear

Great game of Microscope Chronicle at Story Games Seattle.

Rulers swore oaths on it (and broke them). Friends spirited it away and swore more oaths on it (and broke them). Later it was the wedding ring binding two houses in marriage (guess how that turned out?).

By This Ring I Swear

Doomed bromances and loveless marriages for everyone!