ars ludi

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

“I asked the other 13 yr old what he liked best? Freedom.”

If you guessed that I simply could not get enough tales of kids playing Microscope, you would be right. Here are Ryan and his friend Duncan rocking the Anipocalypse while Ryan’s sister schemes and watches…


Having trouble visualizing Aquacology, the underwater city-state that the dolphins ultimately wipe out? No problem. Ryan has you covered:


And yes, those kids played three sessions of Microscope and then capped it with a Kingdom game to explore part of that same world. All you one-session Microscopers, hang your head in shame…

Kudos to Black Moon Games in Lebanon, NH for giving kids a place to be awesome. And of course a huge thanks to Justin Berman for bringing a new generation of gamers into the world.

Actual Play Roundup: The 53rd Focus

Tons of great Microscope game reports recently. I can’t even keep up. Here’s just a handful:

You can also get your fix in the game reports section of the Microscope RPG G+ group, or the session reports forum of RPG Geek. Are there other secret stashes of Microscope game reports that I know nothing about? Hook me up! And if you’ve got a post I missed, the comment box awaits you!

Actual Play Roundup: Unicorn vs Death (GPNW 2014)

Got to play two great games of Microscope Union at Go Play NW:

  • Revolutionary Zero — Bringing down society as we know it. Let she who is without sin throw the first plague.
  • Oathbreaker — Magi, faerie courts and unicorns (well, one unicorn) fighting Death for the soul of a mortal.

Pat, Feiya and Tim also played Union on Sunday, but they made a family tree (ahem) of squirrels. Yes, squirrels. Watership Down-style, but with squirrels. I seethe in jealousy. If I had played I would have made a bad-boy squirrel named Chestnut, because he’s tough on the outside but has a heart of gold…

I was so busy playing Microscope Union that I didn’t play any Kingdom (weep) but Orion and company carried the torch. Their Kingdom was a space station high school, complete with alien students like a hedonistic slime mold who was a bad influence on the other kids. Probably smoking in the bathroom, stuff like that, as hedonistic slime molds do.

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.

Actual Play Roundup: Is anything more epic than a psionic scream heard across the stars?

There are more great Microscope game write-ups out there than I can keep up with, but these are a few of my recent favorites:

  • Psionic scream heard across the stars — Easily the most epic Microscope play report I’ve seen in quite a while. After the first session the story continues with the Retreat, the Amoth Conspiracy, and the Nakamura Legacy. See what I mean? Epic. And then to wrap the whole thing up they convert the entire Microscope history to a campaign setting. “Interestingly, LL and I were loathe to speculate much about things we hadn’t specifically covered either in the history itself or the Palette. We could certainly just make stuff up…but it seems somehow more fun to discover it with Microscope.”
  • “This is such a cool world.” — Great report of a group building a campaign world with Microscope, followed by some other people chiming and sharing their own world-building experiences.
  • The Sordid History of Sweet Hollow — Just in time for Halloween, some small town American gothic horror. We’ve had a running discussion about whether Microscope would work to do the history of something like a haunted house, jumping back and forth from the distant past when the terrible deeds were originally perpetrated to the present where the descendants and/or supernatural investigators were learning the unspeakable truth. If your answer is “oh my god yes I want to play that game” then we are in agreement.
  • The Gardeners — Great game I got to play during the Lottery session at Go Play NW. I won’t spoil the ending except to say we really surprised ourselves. No one saw the twist coming (in fact we had a few moments of thinking we’d painted ourselves into a high corner) but when it came out it was such a perfect fit you would have think we planned it from the start.

I haven’t done an actual play roundup in a while so I’m sure I’ve left out some good ones. If you’re looking for more Microscope goodness RPGGeek and Story Games Seattle are definite hot spots. There are also a bunch of play-by-forum Microscope games on RPGGeek including one they’ve been playing for the last nine months.

Moments in the Cold War

Microscope. A Cold War history. Lots of serious drama that left us craving even more Cold War Microscope.


The British agents on operation “Mockingbird” are set up in a flat in a ghetto of emigrants who got out of the Eastern bloc and came to the West. The agents have been hunkered there for weeks, listening to and recording the bugs they have planted in the embassy down the street. The operatives would stick out like sore thumbs in this neighborhood but the immigrant landlord is working with them.

“How can you trust him?”

“Don’t be daft. He got out from behind the Curtain. He knows why we’re doing this better than any of you lot.”

Remember Amsterdam

Dewer has been nabbed off the street. He’s in the kind of back room no one wants to find themselves in. They want to know the plans for the ambassador’s visit and Dewer is in charge of security. Or was until he got sacked for complaining too vocally to his superiors.

The Question of the scene is whether Dewer tells them what they want to know. The irony is that we already know that they know: it takes place during a period when the East cracked Western encryption and have been glibly picking off their spy networks one by one. They know the plans, but they don’t want the West to know they’ve cracked the codes so they have to go through the motions of finding out the old-fashioned way. Old-fashioned in a way that is likely to be very unpleasant for Dewer.

Dewer is trying to act glib but he’s not fooling anyone. He’s sweating. He knows what he’s in for but he’s a handler, not a field agent. But it’s worse than that: the interrogator is his old partner George, a traitor who went over to the other side.

George *is* enjoying this. He leans in close, tapping Dewer hard on the thigh to make his point. George’s young new partner, William, isn’t comfortable with George’s sadistic relish and watches the whole thing with distaste. Dewer tries to play on that wedge. “I never should have hauled you out of that canal in Amsterdam when you took that bullet in the leg, George. At least your new partner gets to see what he has to look forward to.” It’s a feeble attempt, but he hopes it will buy him a little more time.

George makes more threats, but he’s lost some of the fun. His old partner isn’t squirming enough for him. He makes more threats and taps him in the thigh again to emphasize his point, but then there’s a hollow -poot- as George shoots him through the thigh with the silenced gun he’s been holding unseen.

Pat’s playing George and this catches us all by surprise. We take a moment to admire the grim before resuming.

Dewer is rolling on the ground, bleeding, gasping, and clutching his ruined leg. George is trying to look smug but it’s not as pleasurable as he hoped. Dewer’s moans slowly turn to sobbing laughs.

“That’s just like you to think that’s how you pay back a debt…”

A House in Argentina

We close the game with some closure. And cold-blooded vengeance. After exploring the start of the Cold War, we jump forward again to see a grey-haired, limping Dewer track George down to where he’s been put out to pasture after losing favor.

An equally older and more disillusioned William is still haunted by what he’s let happen in the service. He has been putting the pieces of Dewer’s movements together and drives up just in time to see Dewer let himself out of George’s bungalow.

He doesn’t even get out of the car. He already knows what he’d find inside.