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

“Unpredictability is Key”

In Microscope, the sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next is provided by the simple fact that humans are unpredictable, and your fellow players are human.

Spot on.

ConTessa: Collaborative World-Building

The video from our Collaborative World-Building panel at ConTessa is up:

I think we could have talked about this for hours. And hours. And then a few more hours. Thanks to Meguey Baker, Brad Murray, Lowell Francis, and our host Sherri Stewart for a very fun and insightful discussion.

Microscope on Google+

There wasn’t a group on Google+ for Microscope, so Pete Yagmin grabbed by the bull by the epic fractal horns and set one up.

How’s that for being the change you want to see?

Beowulf, the Microscope game

I’m reading David Wright’s translation of Beowulf. I’ve read Beowulf before but one of the points Wright makes in his analysis is that it’s not just the events that happen in Beowulf but that the audience of dudes in horned helmets knew who the historical figures in the tale were and knew both their histories and what happens to them after the story of Beowulf is over.

The text is full of allusions to the future beyond the epic, things that have nothing to do with the current story. Warriors who are good friends now but who will one day murder each other. The peerless hall of Hrothgar which Beowulf saves from Grendel’s depredations but will itself be consumed in fire.

Tall and wide-gabled, the hall towered overhead; yet it was to endure terrible and leaping flames, when in the course of time a deadly feud between Hrothgar and his son-in-law should be kindled by an act of violence.

So the old skald telling the epic of Beowulf knows the audience knows all those things that are going to happen after the story. He’s counting on them knowing because that knowledge changes the entire meaning of the story.

Without that knowledge, Beowulf is a tale of heroism and monster-slaying. With it, it’s a reflection on the impermanence (and perhaps even futility) of man’s deeds and the material world.

Knowledge of the future changing your perception of the present? Yeah, it’s viking Microscope.

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.

Microscope Seeds: To the Stars…

These quickstart seeds are addictive. Time for some science fiction:

What category should I do next? Fantasy seems like the obvious choice. The Dark Lord stretching his hand across the free lands, etc.