The Fall and Rise (and Fall) of Antal

Intense game of Follow at Story Games Seattle. We played the Rebellion question, but our fellowship was nowhere near equipped to overthrow the new nobles, House Jakab, that had ousted our traditional rulers, the beloved House of Antal.

Character creation led to a wonderfully complex interpersonal web: “My mother was a nanny for the nobles, so you would have known her when you were a teenager at the castle, which means you knew me as a child.” “Awesome, so that means your son [someone’s else minor character] would be someone I would have known since birth and I feel I can totally trust.” Almost every character, main and minor, were connected back and forth like that. Sometimes the connections weren’t immediately obvious, but were “A-B and B-C therefore A-C” relationships. I think this is one of those places where having both main and minor characters really shined: that deep bench helped us establish more detailed interconnections.

Even with five players (and ten characters), I was the only one playing a noble of the old house. All the other characters were looking to my grey-bearded patriarch, Ambrus Antal, to step up and be the leader, but just to throw a wrench in that, I decided he had seen how fruitless wars had been and was weary of the suffering of the people. He was quietly brooding, reluctant to take action. Deep down he felt the common folk would be better with their fate in their own hands, instead of being pawns and fodder for lords and priests (the Church was up to all sorts of shenanigans). And yep, I told all the other players that was my deal from the start, because if I kept it a secret they wouldn’t know how much trouble we were in and to pile it on.

Lots of great stuff in play, as all these relationships came into play. We lost the first two challenges, hard. Red-red, red-red. Not really a surprise, because in our scenes all our plans were unfolding like disasters on stilts.

The second betrayal was particularly beautiful, as one of our main protagonists, Miklos, looked around the dungeon cell where she had been locked up (again!) and very reasonably decided she had had enough and ratted out both our plan to tunnel into the castle *and* the fact that the foreign-born wife of Lord Jakab was secretly sympathetic to our cause (and in fact a character in our fellowship). Which of course begged the question, would she also tell them that the other end of the tunnel was being dug from the basement of the inn of her childhood friend, Katalin (another main character), and throw her under the bus too? The inn where our would-be rebels secretly meet all the time, but which her so-called friend wouldn’t give her shelter because it was too big a risk, so go sleep in the woods? That childhood friend?!?!

Katalin had good reasons, but Miklos would have been incredibly justified in going for the trifecta and betraying Katalin (and our secret HQ) too. But she didn’t. She held revenge in her hand and then… just let it go. A great last moment of character development before riding off into the sunset.

Our final challenge? Rise up and fight. Despite the fact that we’d established from the very beginning that “the people” just wanted to stay out of trouble regardless of who ruled. And despite the fact that the current rulers had troops, strongholds, and far more military might than we could muster. These two points were literally our “what makes our quest difficult” points from the beginning of the game, and in the fiction nothing had changed them.

So yeah, a bold but probably doomed choice. Heck, if we’re going to lose, why not go big? This was looking like a swan song, a proper annihilation to end our rebellion. By the end of our round of scenes, we’ve got the remaining handful of Antal old guard taking the field for one last battle, leading a rabble of peasants and bandits against the massed ranks of Jakab knights and men-at-arms. We have no doubt it’s going to be a slaughter.

And we draw stones… and win! Red-white. Do we win the battle by some miracle? Of course not, we decide. Old Ambrus Antal is cut down on the field, surrounded and alone, and our meager army is scattered.

But our bold act of defiance–and our crushing defeat–stirs up the people. And then they *do* rise up. Final score: half the fellowship dead or gone, but our rebellion succeeds.

Ben Robbins | February 19th, 2018 | follow

Real Dinosaurs Are Bitey

A Jurassic Park-style Kingdom, spawning dinosaurs and showing them off to tourists: what could go wrong?!? We had a petting zoo, dammit. A petting zoo.

We were so close to saving the park. So close. But even though we turned a moral corner and decided to start fresh with *natural* dinosaurs instead of the genetically altered monstrosities we’d created (behaviorally programmed to never harm humans), we could not change gears fast enough to save the park. Because natural dinosaurs are bitey. Very bitey. Cue Crisis.

We had a great cast of characters:

Dr. Whitney Metzger (Marc), who loved genetic manipulation more than dinosaurs, but had forgotten how much she had simply loved science as a young girl.

Bethany McCully (Al), awkward intern and spunky fan-girl with hidden potential. The meek shall inherit the earth, or at least all the dinosaurs!

Chaz Winderbilt (Caroline), spoiler rich kid and lackadaisical lech, who might come out of the jungle a whole new man… or jet back to New York and abandon us.

True confessions: I broke one of my cardinal rules of role-playing and spent the whole game doing an accent. I know I should feel shame, but there was no other way to honestly portray Jack Lachland, legendary adventurer, celebrity naturalist, and Aussie.




This was also a first playtest of some new prediction rules, which I think are going in the right direction.

Thanks to Marc, Caroline and Al for an amazing day in Cretaceous Kingdom!

Ben Robbins | February 12th, 2018 | kingdom actual play

We See Dead People

Shock at Story Games Seattle. Our issues (picked independently and secretly, as we do) were Loneliness, Inheritance, and Over-Medication.

What kind of sci-fi Shock could we brainstorm that addresses all three of these issues? How about a drug that lets you go into a trance and talk to your ancestors? We have a whole society of people who’ve turned away from each other and instead spend more and more of their days drugged up, walking in dreams, hanging out with the dead.

Did one of our protagonists become estranged from his wife because he was having an emotional affair with his own great-grandmother (who is young and charming in his ancestral-memory)? Yep. And when the husband finally came around and tried to save his marriage, we found out that his wife had been having an affair of her own, taking long walks on the dream-beach with one of her ancestors…

And yes, we did joke that we’d have to play Union to make the family histories of each of the protagonists so we would know who their ancestors were.

Ben Robbins | February 2nd, 2018 | what we played

Union Stands Alone

The unicorn befriends the young mother, but penniless she is driven to betray it, leading a wealthy noble to trap the beast for a pouch of gold, a sin that grieves her until she is old and grey. But the unicorn is not so easily caught…

Her son goes forth and leads a hard life in a world that has no need of him. But is he really so alone? We see that no, despite the betrayal of the mother, the unicorn has watched over her child from hiding, protecting him in this dangerous world. But she dies never knowing…

I love Union. Every time I play we get fantastic and really heartfelt stories. There’s something about a family history, where all the characters are connected to each other, that naturally strikes a chord. Because, love them or hate them, we all relate to family–even if we don’t have one.

But because it’s buried in Microscope Explorer, and you have to reference the Microscope rules, Union is harder to get your hands on and play. To fix that I’ve decided to revise Union to be a standalone game. It was always the variant that was the most different from Microscope. It shares some conceptual DNA with Microscope, but really Union always deserved to be its own game.

I’ve already been picking apart the text and revising every bit to be super-easy to teach and play. I really like how it’s turning out. My plan right now is to just release it as a PDF. It could be a book, but it’s short enough that you can easily print it out.

And yes, in that game the unicorn was the other “parent” to the boy, not biologically but as the figure that shaped him by the Union with his mother before their dark, dark Fate…

Ben Robbins | December 12th, 2017 | microscope explorer, union | 4 comments

“Is it… sentient?”

Saturday at Story Games Seattle, we were doing the meditative “hmm, what kind of history do we want to make…” when Connor threw out one word that made everyone at the table go “a ha!!!”:


It got us thinking about symbiosis and spawned a setting where two independent sentient species, one human and one very alien in body and mind, slowly become dependent upon each other and change until neither is quite what they were before. And the kicker? We decided at the start that at the very end of our history — a thousand years later, as it turns out — unchanged human star-farers rediscover this isolated world and are deeply disturbed by what they see…

Art by Naomi B

Tell me that oceanid does not look adorable!

Heavy duty cultural and societal stuff! Our history waded into deep water (ahem) of culture, communication and what it means to be human. Or what it means to be alien, depending on your point of view.

Go read Naomi’s game summary for more detail. Thanks to Jeff and Connor for great gaming, and Naomi for amazing facilitating (and awesome art)!

Ben Robbins | November 14th, 2017 | microscope actual play

300 Games Later

You play a game, then you play another game, then you play another game, and suddenly… you’ve played a lot of games.

A few weeks ago I played my 300th game at Story Games Seattle. That’s a lot of candles on that cake. If you told me when I sat down to show people how to play Geiger Counter in March 2010 that we’d still be going seven and a half years later, I would never have believed you.

People tell me I have an above-average memory (or at least that’s what I remember them telling me), and yes even though that’s a horde of unrelated stories and made-up worlds (because they’re all one-shots), I can recall tons of what happened, in the game and at the table. So many fantastic games — and some terrible ones, because that’s how it works. Some of those early sessions are still iconic landmarks in my gaming landscape, back when Shock, Polaris and Geiger Counter were our go-to systems.

And you know how I always say we get new people all the time? Well, according to the logs, I played with 268 people I had never played with before. So not quite an average of a new person at every single game, but pretty darn close.

We’ve also been a haven of GMless games, which has caused some would-be attendees consternation, because here were all these great gamers, why can’t we play this GM’ed game I like?!? GMless games are a tiny percentage of the role-playing games played in the world at large — ultra-tiny — but I made a space for them because a) I liked them and more importantly b) I think they serve a valuable social purpose. I’ve never been very vocal about the “why” but my goal was always to get more new people to participate, particularly women, who are drastically under-represented in gaming. I’ve always believed that GMless games are more welcoming to people who otherwise might be turned off by the RPG experience. Instead of sitting down and having some stranger be the arbiter of what happens and what’s good (and even if you’re the best and most sensitive GM in the universe, that’s an inherently weird social situation) in a GMless game we’re all equals and everyone’s contribution is valuable right from the start. It’s a far more natural dynamic.

Does it work? Do we get more women at the table than the average gaming group? I don’t have numbers for gaming as a whole but anecdotally I think we do. It waxes and wanes but 30-40% women is pretty normal for us. Could it be higher? It could always be higher.

Ben Robbins | October 11th, 2017 | organizing | 2 comments