ECCC: A fireside chat about GM-less games

If you’re going to Emerald City Comic Con this weekend, swing by Friday night and I’ll talk your ear off about the glories (and pitfalls) of that most magical and mythical of beasts, the role-playing game that has no GM!

GM-less Role-Playing Games

GMs have been an integral part of role-playing games since the beginning, but now there’s a whole wave of games that put the creative power in the hands of everyone at the table. No GM necessary! Join game designer Ben Robbins and explore the world of GM-less RPGs like Fiasco and Microscope. Whether you’ve never played a GM-less game before or you’re already an expert, come learn what makes them tick and expand your gaming horizons.

Friday April 08, 6:15-7:15 PM
Sheraton Metropolitan Ballroom A, Level 3

After that you can follow your feet down to the Indie RPG games on demand area and play all the awesome games we’ll talk about. Just like this talk, the gaming area will be in the Sheraton not the convention center. The site doesn’t list the specific location yet but it should be somewhere on the second floor.

Can you believe this will be the fifth year of indie RPGs at ECCC? Amazing but not surprising given the awesome start we got off to back in 2012.

I’m also looking forward to checking out the Embracing Non-Violence in Role-playing panel on Sunday, featuring several smart people from the local scene.

Ben Robbins | April 3rd, 2016 | events

Your Kingdom Goes On Without You

If you’re playing a multi-session Kingdom campaign, what do you do if someone can’t make it? How do you play without them?

When someone asked this, my first instinct was: never play without the whole crew. Just play another one-shot if someone can’t make it.

But then I thought about it a bit… and started to imagine the possibilities. You can turn that problem into a dramatic springboard.

First off, no matter what, if the player is not there, their character has zero authority and no role. If you were Perspective, any predictions you made are moot, and so on. If there’s a vacuum, there’s a vacuum: so be it!

Better still, I think the character should absolutely be absent from the kingdom during the session they’re missing. The professor is on sabbatical, the knight is off at war, whatever. Just get them physically out of the kingdom. That way when they return they can have strong reactions to what happened when they were away (“you guys did what!?!?”). It keeps their agency intact much better than saying they were there but didn’t do anything. It also works best if you end each session with a finished Crossroad instead of having them span sessions (and having a character play part of a Crossroad but miss the beginning or end).

The more I think about it, missing a session and then coming back all fired up about what the other characters did to the kingdom sounds kind of awesome. You could even create that situation artificially by temporarily switching to a different character: you were playing the loyal knight, but after resolving the Crossroad you say she rides off to war and switch to playing a scheming merchant for the next Crossroad, mess everything up, and then get to come back as the outraged knight in the Crossroad after that. That is some advanced Kingdom trouble-making.

Ben Robbins | March 20th, 2016 | kingdom

Happy Birthday, Microscope!

It’s hard to believe Microscope is five years old today (almost seven if you count from the first game we played).

And what better birthday present than brand new Microscope Explorer books, hot off the presses?


Let the shipping commence..!

Ben Robbins | February 23rd, 2016 | microscope explorer | 1 comment

History Is a Lie

I finish Microscope Explorer and I immediately start coming up with even more ways to play. Doh!

Jonathan Walton asked:

Thinking about using Microscope for a grad class on Friday. Anyone run it (or Echo) as attempt to uncover/obscure “true” history? I’m hoping it might be useful for exploring multiple competing narratives about the same historical event. Maybe?

Uncovering the truth is a perfect fit for Microscope. The entire game is a process of revealing more and more than we initially knew. But competing narratives where we’re not sure what’s true and what’s fiction? Not so much. It’s very much baked into the design of Microscope that what players establish about the history is fact, not merely an opinion. Characters in the history may lie, disagree or be deluded, but the players are always correct.

Why? Because doubt is the enemy of creativity. Certainty lets players build with confidence. They know that what has been established is dependable fact. Without that firm foundation, it’s very hard to know what you can make. It becomes a morass.

So given all that, it sure sounds like Microscope would not work.

Surprisingly, I think there’s a way to do it.

Setup: One truth and two lies. Maybe.

Start off with a normal big picture of a history. This is the “accepted” version of the past that most people believe is true. It might even actually be the truth. We don’t know yet.

Then come up with two alternate versions that are close to the original big picture but deviate in a critical way. That gives you three big pictures total (you could do more but I think even three might be pushing it).

Each version should be similar enough that any of them could be possible — no blowing up the moon in one history but not the others. Two people within the history should be able to believe different versions of the past without someone being demonstrably wrong. To take the old “humanity expands to the stars” concept, your accepted big picture might be that humanity went to the stars with the spirit of adventure and exploration. One alternate might be that Earth was used up and the exodus was driven by desperation. The third might be that the people who left were fleeing oppression: they wanted to escape the old society. Each tells the same basic story — humanity settled the stars — but the why and how of the past might be quite different than what they teach in the holo-books.

You’ll branch your history (just like the Parallel history example from the Microscope Explorer), except instead of branching the end, you’ll branch the beginning. So the second half of your history is one unified story — the undisputed present — but the first half is actually three different “contested” timelines. To tell them apart, write the big pictures on cards and put them to the left of each timeline. Clearly mark which one is the “accepted” history.

(pictures, they tell me, are worth a lot of words)


The critical bit is that each timeline is internally consistent and uncontradictable, just like normal Microscope, even if we aren’t sure it’s what really happened. If you’re adding an Event to the version of history where the financial collapse was secretly engineered by foreign powers, you cannot contradict anything that has been established in that *version* of the history (including facts in the latter half, which is shared by all the versions).

You should also define what the dividing line is between the “contested” and “undisputed” history — make a Period that’s near enough to the “present” that there isn’t any doubt about what happened. Why have a unified section of the history at all? You could play without it and just have three parallel histories, but I think having a unified section lets you see the common fallout of the what was done in the past. Seeing a singular present can help players think about what they think would have caused such an outcome.

Play: How it really happened…

Play is almost entirely like normal. On your turn you’ll make Periods, Events or Scenes in one section of the history (either the undisputed latter half or one of the earlier contested versions).

Two exceptions:

First, all three contested timelines share the same Periods. So if you make a Period in the contested section of the history, describe it in a way that works for all three big pictures (or fits the “accepted” history but is not quite what it seems once you dig down and make Events). For example, we know there was a war, we’re just learning the truth about really happened during that war.

Second, if you make an Event in contested history, you also get to immediately create a matching Event that shows how a slightly different version of that same thing happened in one of the other versions of history. So you might make an Event describing the riot of ’88 in the accepted history, but then make another version of that Event in one of the disputed histories describing how the “so-called riot of ’88” was really a peaceful protest that the military cracked down on. Highlight the critical difference.

Same with Scenes. If you dictate a Scene in contested history, you can dictate the alternate version in another timeline. If you play a Scene, when you’re done the current player gets to dictate a Scene just like the one you just played, but with a key difference, if they want.

You can also just say the Event and Scene is the same in both. That’s fine too.

Would it work?

As I said, the key is that even though there are conflicting versions of history, each version is solid and internally consistent, which means players can build with total confidence. It’s almost like you’re playing multiple games of Microscope in parallel. After all, every game of Microscope is fiction, and here you’re just creating three different related fictions.

How do you decide which one is right, in the end? I’d steal the Judgment system from Echo and vote. You could even vote every round, just like Echo, to see how the table was changing its mind about what *really* happened.

Ben Robbins | February 18th, 2016 | microscope | 1 comment

Story Games 101: Shifting to Third Person

You’re sitting at a table, playing a game, and someone across from you says:

“I grab your neck and put a knife up to your face and say “Tell me what I want to know, or else!’”

Story games can be intense. Sometimes too intense. If you need to cool it down and avoid scaring the crap out of the people you’re playing with, try shifting into third person narrative:

“Jacob grabs the manager’s neck and puts a knife up to his face and says “Tell me what I want to know, or else!”

See? Much less threatening to the humans at the table.

In the heat of the moment there’s the danger that fictional tension becomes real tension at the table, between the players. You start to feel that what is happening to your character is happening to you, that you are being threatened. Not only is that just plain uncomfortable, but it potentially destroys the creative fun of the game, because you feel the urge to defend yourself and protect your character, rather than seek outcomes that interest you even if they are awful for your character.

When you shift to the third person, it opens the safety valve and reinforces the idea that this is not me doing something to you, this is me describing a fictional character doing something to another fictional character. It adds a comfortable distance.

You can also invoke third person defensively: if you feel things are getting too hot and it’s killing your fun, switch to third person. Other players will often match you and reply with the same phrasing without even thinking about it. If they don’t, just ask them to switch. Notice that in both cases, dialog is still in the first and second person because it’s, well, dialog. That’s still a danger zone, but because it’s juxtaposed with third person narration it breaks some of the tension, just like you paused between dialog, broke character, and said “whew, this is dramatic!”

Should you use third person all the time? Not necessarily: first & second person can make your play much more engaging. What I’m describing is a way to shift gears, a tool you should have in your arsenal to change the mood at the table when you need to. Be aware and try it out.

Ben Robbins | January 31st, 2016 | how to play | 2 comments

Breaking the Oracles

The first print test of Microscope Explorer just came back. Yep, it looks great. But before I press the big red button that starts the actual print run, I’m double-checking (and triple-checking) everything, then doing a second print test with those final corrections.

One of main things I’ve been doing is stress-testing the Oracles to make sure they generate good stuff. “Hey,” you ask, “what are Oracles?” They’re the new tool in Microscope Explorer that lets you roll for a random idea to get your history started. The cool part is that you get completely unexpected combinations and therefore completely unexpected history ideas. Each Oracle has over forty *thousand* possible results. But the bad part is that with so many combinations, some of them might be utter nonsense. Utter, pointless, gibberish.

The key is the percentage of good results versus nonsense results. Instead of just eye-balling it, I wanted a more quantitative measure, so I built a spreadsheet to randomly roll on each Oracle fifty times, then I rated each result and crunched the numbers to score them. Voila.

Oracle Test Chart

That’s the success rate for each of the five Oracles i.e. the odds that you’ll get something good when you roll on the table.

The first three? Looking pretty good at around 90%. Lurking Darkness dips a little lower to 79%. Not great, but not terrible.

Then the Apocalypse hits and the score plummets to 58%.

Why does the Apocalypse crater so hard? Part of the difficulty is that the Oracles are designed to surprise you with interesting interactions and outcomes. But an apocalypse, by its very nature, is a more predictable pattern: things are supposed to go wrong. That’s the whole idea.

So before the next print test I’m fine-tuning all the Oracles, because better is always better, but the Apocalypse is getting an overhaul. It may never be quite as magical as the other Oracles, but I think I can move it up a few levels.

Ben Robbins | January 24th, 2016 | microscope explorer