ars ludi

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

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.

Mockingbird

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.

I ♥ Unicorns

The best Microscope game ever might have happened at GeekGirlCon this weekend. I wasn’t even in the game. Didn’t even see it. But from what I’ve heard it’s now my favorite session ever. Two sessions, actually.

A very small and very brave girl came up to our table. One of our expert facilitators leaned down (way down — Xander is pretty tall and she was maybe eight or nine years old) and patiently explained how all these games helped us make stories. Fun stories. Together.

Her mind was made up. She wanted to play and make a story. A story with elves. Xander nodded sagely and told her about Microscope, then sat her down with some folks to play.

There were unicorns. There were goblins. There were crystal apples. Moths trumped fireflies. I am told there were many Princesses, along with Princesses’s sisters (who I think are also technically Princesses but let’s not spoil the moment).

Did she rock the table with tiny power? I have sworn affidavits that she did. And then she came back the next morning and did it again. Shuo and Caroline, her gaming compadres, decided that she deserved to go home with a Microscope book of her very own. I could not agree more. Of course then they had to think of the perfect inscription to capture the magical adventures they had shared with their new friend. That took awhile. Magic is hard!

Will there ever be a more awesome game of Microscope? Ever? I do not know. But what I am sure of is that somewhere a small girl has reaffirmed my faith in the future of gaming. I sleep easy.

Actual Play Roundup: Something Fractal in the State of Denmark

One of the marvelous things about the modern world is that when you publish a game electronically, people around the world can buy and download it instantly. Microscope games have popped up all over the globe, but now Denmark seems to be the latest nation to get the fractal history bug…

Definitely need more realistic alt-history. Good stuff.

Once and Future Zombie

It’s Emerald City Comic Con, late Friday night at the indie RPG tables, and I sit down with some awesome new folks (Hi, Daniel! Hi, Gabi!) to play some Microscope.

“What kind of history should we make?”
“Let’s do a zombie apocalypse!”
“Cool, zombies! Well wait, do we want to do modern times or something different..?”

The result — and stop me if this has ever been done before in the history of gaming — a zombie apocalypse in King Arthur’s Court.

We decide to start our history with the first High King drawing the sword from the stone and uniting the land (Light) and end with the last king of the royal line becoming a zombie. We’re about to call the end Dark but we reconsider. What if we make it Light? He’s a zombie but he’s going to continue to rule the kingdom and do a pretty good job. Rex Necro forever.

What the heck, you say? How does a zombie make a good king? That’s the beauty of the game: we can figure out how that makes sense as we play. It’s actually a bonus because now we’re terribly curious to dig in and see how it happens. Cue our very first scene: the last king having already been bitten by a zombie on the field of battle and now lying on his sick bed as his worried squires and retainers fearfully wait for him to turn. Knights have been fighting zombies for decades already, so they know the deal. Our Question is “do zombies live forever (unless hacked up) or do they rot and drop?” A bedraggled knight, a former champion and right-hand of the king before his exile (what now?), creeps into the tent to see his dying liege one last time, even if it means his execution. What’s that he’s brought in that bundle? Long-lost Excalibur (our Focus, by the way).

There’s some weeping, recriminations, and finally rage on the dying king’s part as he surges from his bed and bites his former friend. Ooh, that’s gonna be dark. The knight does not resist the king’s attack. If anything he’s relieved: “It is fitting, my king, that I should die by your side. It is all I have wished for.” He’s found absolution for his sins.

But Gabi, the soon to be zombie king, has not forgotten the Question (“do zombies live forever”) and she swoops. After biting his fallen knight, the king’s rage clears and he speaks to his old friend with kindness: “Oh no. For have you not seen? The walking dead are undying. I shall rule this kingdom beyond all the years of my fathers, and you shall stand beside me, my champion.”

Possibly the most bittersweet bro-tastic moment between zombie-knight and zombie-king ever.

They keep that sword locked up for a reason…

Twenty minutes in and we know how our story ends. It’s a new land speed record. But how’d this whole zombie problem get started?

We jump back to the beginning of the history to play the scene that’s supposed to be Merlin bringing Arthur to draw Excalibur from the stone, but player skullduggery immediately makes the situation more complicated than anyone planned. Arthur is clearly implied but not required and no one plays him. Instead we see his father, Uther the warlord, is there thinking Merlin has brought him to draw the sword and be the High King. Merlin gets to bust out the bad news that no, it’s his wimpy ten-year old son who’s going to be king in his place. Awk-ward! Morgan le Fay seizes the opportunity to convince Uther that Merlin has been deceiving him and goad him into trying to draw the sword himself, which (we suddenly discover) is what unleashes the zombie curse in the first place. Uther becomes zombie zero and starts eating his retainers, but we end scene before we get to see whether the boy-who-would-be-king heeds Merlin and dispatches his own undead father with Excalibur…

What, no Round Table?

A really good Microscope game leaves feeling like you want to play more and more to explore all the bits you didn’t have time for. Zombie Camelot had that in spades.

Earlier we’d introduced the Quest for the Holy Grail, the knights seeking its legendary power to purge the zombie scourge from the land. Correction: the fruitless Quest for the Holy Grail. We established that it failed as soon as we introduced the Period. For his Legacy, Daniel dictated a scene about Sir Bertran (the same fallen knight who was was re-united with the king in the beginning of our game) to answer the Question “Why was he exiled in the first place?” Ooh, good question. The answer was that Bertran knew the location of the Holy Grail before the Quest even started but wouldn’t reveal it. What?!? Why would he do that?!? I am burning with curiosity to find out.

We also never got to explore exactly how the last king managed to retain his wisdom and sanity even after turning undead, but if I had time I’d say it was the strength of his royal blood that made it possible (which in hindsight is a pretty harsh dig against poor Uther, who couldn’t hack being a zombie). Or was it something else entirely…

All in all, a fantastic game. Hats off to Daniel and Gabi for knocking it out of the park.