Forget It’s a Playtest

The worst thing that can happen during a playtest is that you play it like a playtest.

Weird, right? The text below is the exact advice I give my playtesters. It was in the Chronicle playtest, the Echo playtest and it will no doubt be right there in the Follow playtest when it goes out.


Yes, this is a playtest, but the best advice I can give is: don’t treat it like a playtest. Play it like you would any other game.

This game — like a lot of story games — hinges on player participation and contribution. Your creativity makes the wheels turn. But when you playtest, there’s a natural tendency to sit back and analyze the experience and look for flaws. That detachment and scrutiny prevents you from diving in and playing, which means you effectively sabotage your own game because you’re too busy analyzing instead of playing. I do it myself.

So forget it’s a playtest and just play. Then look back afterwards and think about how the rules influenced what happened.

If you’re a designer, I highly recommend telling your players exactly this. If you’re a player, do the designer a favor and just play.

Ben Robbins | May 2nd, 2016 | game design | 2 comments

Follow the plan, or follow your heart…

Now that Microscope Explorer is out, the Oracles are free online, and all but a few of the advanced backer rewards are done, should I take a vacation? Should I put my feet up, sip some coffee and rest on my laurels?

Well yes to the coffee, but no to all the rest.

I’ve been hard at work on the next game. Several games, actually, but after jumping back and forth between them (so difficult to choose!) I’ve decided that right now I want to go forward with Follow.

Follow is a game about working together to achieve a common goal. Slay the dragon. Cure a disease. Get your candidate elected. Can we stay united and succeed or do our differences tear us apart?

Follow is designed to be a very simple game. A ready-to-go-at-the-drop-of-a-hat game. A game that’s easy to pick up and play, even if someone handed you the book cold. But I also wanted it to have *a lot* of replay value. Those were my two goals: a game that is easy to learn, but which is also a dependable tool in your arsenal that you are happy to whip out and take for a spin over and over again.

I’ve been working on Follow since before I finished Kingdom. Some Kingdom backers got a sneak preview in early 2014. After many, many unplayed drafts, I finally hit a formula that did what I wanted. The name has changed and a lot of the approach has evolved, but the core concept is the same.

“God favors the Bones”

How far along is it? Well we’ve played Follow a few times, and while there are still tweaks and adjustments that I think are critical, the spine totally works. We’ve been pirates, gangster-era train robbers, and teen rocker-girls trying to make it to the top of the charts (Lazer Kittiez 4ever!).

For now I’m going to play it more (a lot more), but I’m looking towards a draft that would be ready for playtesters. More details later.

Ben Robbins | April 14th, 2016 | follow | 2 comments

Oracles for Everyone

Don’t you hate it when you sit down to play Microscope and then fumble about trying to pick a topic for your history? So many possibilities. Not quite infinite but really really big. And each minute of brainstorming and discussion is one less minute of play. As I’ve said many times, you don’t need need an amazing idea to start a Microscope game, you just need something simple that everyone agrees on. Play is what makes your history interesting.

In Microscope Explorer, I introduced Oracles so you could quickly generate ideas for your history. Just throw some dice and boom, you’re ready to play. One of the stretch goals of the kickstarter was to not just put them in the book, but to put the Oracles online so everyone could use them. Even if you have the book in front of you, it can save you a little time rolling dice and looking up results and what-see time = precious gaming treasure.

So guess what? A present for you: the Oracles are online, right now.




There are five Oracles to chose from: Swords & Sorcery, To the Stars, Cradle of Civilization, Apocalypse and Lurking Darkness. Each has about forty-six thousand possible results, so that’s about 250,000 possible histories. No joke. Some will be great, some might seem weird, but if you don’t like what you get just hit “I will roll again” and give it another shot.

Each result can be interpreted in two different ways. The online Oracle shows you both options and lets you choose. As I say in the book, you might not even use what you roll but it might inspire your group to an even better idea. That’s a-okay.

Next time you sit down to play, whip out your phone and see what you get…

Ben Robbins | April 6th, 2016 | microscope explorer

A Kingdom Without Issues

Time is precious gaming treasure. To streamline Kingdom character creation, I’ve been experimenting with removing Issues and using Bonds to take over that duty. I’ve found it to be faster and actually make better characters, for reasons I’ll go into below.

To use this change, simply remove the Issues step entirely. When you are creating Bonds, also ask:

“What’s the downside of this relationship? What makes it difficult?”

The Bond doesn’t have to be entirely bad, but it should involve some trouble or tension for one or both of you.

Here’s a new character sheet with the Issue removed. You can use the old character sheet and just cross the Issue section off, but if you’re teaching the game, players might be distracted wondering why you’re removing bits, and distraction is no good.


Removing Issues is a small change but I find it cuts off a nice chunk of time since you only have to think of one thing instead of two. As I mentioned above, it’s also an improvement because it connects your troubles to the other characters (“he doesn’t trust me because I have a drinking problem”) instead of just being an island-problem that doesn’t involve anyone else (“I have a drinking problem”). Attentive viewers will note that some of the best Issues already turned out that way: the player thought up the Issue and then reintroduced that same problem as part of the Bond (like Doc Wallace in the Cactus Flats example in the book). This just codifies that good strategy and does it all at once, for a tighter, meaner, Kingdom.

I recommend this change for all Kingdom sessions. Go take it for a spin.

Ben Robbins | April 4th, 2016 | kingdom

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