The Colony: Strength vs Beauty, Truckers vs Slugs (Follow at Go Play NW, part 3)

My third game of Follow at Go Play NW. The very last slot of the con. The slot that has no lunch break before it. Traditionally that means people will be a little logy, a little tired, or maybe if you’re lucky, laid back and serene.

That was our first real life “what makes your quest difficult?” hurdle. The second was that we added a last-minute player even though that put us up to six, because dammit, our motto is “no gamer left behind!” Six is a serious crowd for any game, let alone a tired, hungry, Sunday slot. It also unintentionally continued the perfect growth arc of my Follow games over the weekend: the first was four players, the second was five, and now six.

So last slot of the con, low food, big crowd: we’re doomed, right? Yep, I’m a little concerned. So as soon as sit down we talk about these very issues and agree to try to keep things tight, frame aggressively, etc.

And oh my god did we. Massively, absurdly tight. I don’t think I’ve played *any* game, ever, with such a narrow difference between what was said at the table and what would have been in the movie script. The scenes in our whole first round were maybe five minutes each. Five minutes, tops. Some even less: situation, drama, perfect lines, bam, done.

Our quest: colonize a new world. The big problem? Our thousand or so colonists were not carefully picked for the task. We were a desperate hodgepodge, thrown together by fate.

We had a Teutonic social philosopher trying to mold a new uber-utopia rooted in Strength (“haff you read my book? It iz all in my book…”). We had preservation of the arts (“what’s the *point* of having farms if we don’t have a museum?!?”). We had drug addiction. And we had tiny caustic slugs, eating everything we built.

I had a great time playing Constable Lila Madison, reluctant peace officer. My starting need had me watching Karen’s ex-con character, Esme, like a hawk, but as we played I recognized that she hadn’t just turned over a new leaf but a whole new tree. I was so impressed I dragooned her into being my deputy, as you do. That’s another example of where the need set the situation but it played quite a bit differently than I expected. As I said before, Follow is flexible. If you just follow the fiction, Follow works just fine.

In the “something I’ve never seen before in a Follow game” category: ornery trucker and unlikely hero Swain had a perfectly descending scale of unhappiness. In the first challenge he was 2 red (i.e. “to hell with this colony”), then 1 red in the second challenge, and then no unhappiness in the final challenge. Possibly the most uplifting story of an unemployed trucker on an alien world ever. He even got a rig in the end, a literal monster-truck (“uh, it looked a lot smaller in the blueprints…”) built to conquer the wilderness and bring back the ore that would save the colony.

Outcome: Victory! The colony thrives. In time, we’ve got grandchildren playing at our feet.

But not everyone’s happy. In a sweaty basement somewhere, the eclipsed Doctor von Bleben leads a secret fight club to indoctrinate the youth and prepare for the day when the colony realizes that only Strength can save it…

Those are my three fantastic Follow games, each so different, but each so great. Re the con as a whole, everyone I’ve talked to has agreed: this was a top notch Go Play. Quality gaming and great people all around. Thanks, everybody!

Ben Robbins | August 28th, 2016 | follow

The Dragon: the Sacred Flame (Follow at Go Play NW, part 2)

On Sunday a bunch of the Go Play NW staff retreated to an undisclosed location to end the con with some gaming glee. True fact: con organizers are often too exhausted making fun for others to enjoy themselves and play all the games. It’s a crime but there it is. So when Brandon suggested we save that slot for a Follow staff team-up, I was all in.

We rounded up Tony, Phil and Doug to join us. Our quest? Good old fashioned dragon-slaying.

In our dragon-torn world, priests and wizards had a complex relationship, and so did the wizard and priestess brother and sister in our fellowship. Less ordinary sibling rivalry and more “you shall burn in the eternal fire to purge the taint from my Goddess!” Family!

We also had a Chosen One, “destined” to slay the dragon, but wonderfully he was a minor character who was not even slightly ready to fulfill his destiny (“you never said it would be this big!!!”). My guilt-ridden main character died in the first scene thanks to Consequences (and the bold heroism of Sir Danor. Thanks buddy!). Which was actually pretty great, because I had a really fun time continuing as my minor character, the hulking hierodule of Phil’s priestess.

Outcome? Victory! We lost about half the party (including some, uh, internal strife. And paid assassinations) but we slew the beast and transformed the priesthood forever.

Suck it, wizards!

Ben Robbins | August 14th, 2016 | follow

Legacies are Mini-Focuses

A lot of people look at Legacies in Microscope and ask: what’s the point? What purpose do they serve? Couldn’t we just skip that step?

Here’s an excerpt from Microscope Explorer, where I talk about that very thing:

Legacies perform a vital function, but it is a fairly subtle one. At its heart, a Legacy is really just a tiny Focus, except it serves the exact opposite purpose. The Focus gets us all on the same page and keeps us making things that relate to the same facet of the history, preventing us from spinning off into totally unrelated stories. But when you pick a Focus, you commit everyone to that subject matter for a whole loop around the table. You are deciding an important chunk of the game.

Enter the Legacy. It’s a break from the constraint of a big Focus. It lets you roam farther a field and flesh something out without committing everyone to exploring it for a full rotation. It lets you build on loose ends or add interesting (and possibly unrelated) wrinkles to your history.

In a longer game, the Legacy also does exactly what you might expect it to do: it provides call-backs to early elements. In a short game, it has an added social value because it lets the person to the right of the first Lens contribute early on, which is good because they will be the last person who has a chance to make a Focus.

So don’t skip the Legacy phase. It helps round out your history and provides a valuable social function at the table.

Ben Robbins | August 13th, 2016 | microscope

Follow at Go Play NW: Rebels and Dragons and Truckers, Oh My!

Go Play oh glorious Go Play! How we miss thee! Yeah, it’s only been a few weeks, but around the country hearts are breaking because we are separated from our dear comrades in creative-arms. We weep, we sleep, and we weep again.

I got to play some lovely sessions of Follow. I scheduled one for the Friday night slot, but I wound up scheduling two more before I even got to the table. Yes, the word is out.

Each game was great but also totally different. Which is one of the things I love about Follow: you can get a range of different play experiences, from light-hearted adventure to dire tragedy. Allow me to elucidate…

Rebellion: the Hills of Ixtraban

First slot of the con, I sat down with Julie, Kate and Gavin, none of whom I’d gamed with or met more than an hour before. Exactly the kind of crowd I want to playtest with!

Our quest: Rebellion! We decided on a 1920s-esque, fictional European country, with a vague Basque or Catalan feel, the eponymous Ixtraban. And oh did we world-build! We spent more time fleshing out our setting than any other Follow game I’ve played, but we reaped the reward ten times over, because the traditions and history we established kept coming back and adding nuance as we played. Our homeland felt real and we cared about its fate.

Our characters were not hardened partisans, just ordinary people enduring an oppressive regime and clinging to the dream that their country could rise from the ashes: teachers, butchers, writers, innkeepers and accountants. This was dark, soulful drama.

So many great moments. I loved that in the final scene, the long, sad arc of Julie’s butcher/widow came home to roost in apocalyptic despair and revenge. The penny had finally dropped and she got bitter closure for her husband’s death when she tried to frickin murder half the fellowship by burning down our secret basement printing press… with us inside. And so I died, but my cherished student lived on. So great.

Interesting rules note: on paper my need was to get forgiveness from the widow for inadvertently causing her husband’s death. But it played out the other way: I was blind to the situation and she really needed vengeance against me, once she figured out I was to blame. Is that a design flaw? Not even slightly. What happened was still entirely true to the events we envisioned during setup. The starting materials literally just get you started, but where that goes in play is up to you.

And you can mark that as the second thing I love about Follow that I’m mentioning in this post: it isn’t fussy. You can (ahem) follow the fiction where you want and it won’t break the game, so long as it’s still about the quest. Characters can betray the fellowship, turn against each other, do whatever they want: the game still works.

Outcome? Yeah, we totally failed. A beautiful tragedy. Perhaps one day our beloved Ixtraban will be free again… but not today.

Next up: We take a break and slay the Dragon…

Ben Robbins | August 9th, 2016 | follow

The Blooded

Last weekend I had a chance to play Microscope for the first time with some of my gaming crew from way, way back. We’re talking veterans of Lorngard and my old AD&D campaign — that far back.

We started our history with a pretty basic fantasy premise: magic was perilous, and a eldritch war had nearly destroyed the world before we pulled back from the brink. Now magic was feared and suppressed — with good reason — but we knew that at the end of our history a great magocracy had risen, elevating the realms to new heights but probably setting them on the path to destruction once more.

In the Palette we agreed that magic potential was something you were born with. Later we decided that those with the gift were called “the Blooded”, both for the literal reason that they were sorcerous bloodlines, but also as a more bitterly ironic title, because as our history went on, we saw how they were horribly abused by the ordinary people who (rightly) feared their power. As players, it was wonderful how often we flipped from being sympathetic to the oppressed Blooded to seeing them as a terrible threat to the world. This was not a black and white history.

And speaking of atrocities…

Not That Kind of Human Sacrifice

Back in the Palette, we also established that to do magic, you paid a price. But it wasn’t until the second Focus that we really zoomed in to explore what that meant. The second Focus? The “Sacrifices”, the term for people that the magi exploit to power their sorcery.

That’s right: no one said the sorcerer was the one who paid the price, did they?

So, human sacrifices. Woo, edgy, right? Well no, it’s not that kind of human sacrifice. It doesn’t kill them, it just takes something… essential… out of them. The Sacrifice goes on living, but with some part of who they are missing, forever. Is it their capacity to feel joy, a memory of childhood, their singing voice or an appreciation of beauty? It could be any or all of the above, but they are left alive but more hollow than before. Just a little less human.

“That’s what I was going to make!!!”

So how did the old school do with the new school? They kicked ass, as I expected. We started off cautiously but by the end everyone was popping with ideas. There was a lot of “that’s what I was going to make!!!” which is always beautiful to hear, since it means we have psychically gotten onto the very same page.

We only got to play one scene, which is unfortunate because since you’re learning a whole new procedure (i.e. the scene rules) the first takes longer but the second and later scenes are the pay-off. But we were tight for time so we dictated more scenes than we might have otherwise.

And how did the Blooded do? By the end of our game it looked like it was actually some of the sorcerers who stopped the others from precipitating the apocalypse at the very start of our history. But did anyone remember or thank them? It sure didn’t look like it. When the Blooded were hunted down and persecuted, we didn’t see any exceptions for the “good ones” who saved the world…

Ben Robbins | August 7th, 2016 | microscope actual play

Boom, Stone Age

In Microscope, there’s always room in between, so long as it doesn’t contradict the history you’ve established. But how much room? Again, as much as makes sense.

There was a suggestion on twitter about marking cards to show how much time passed between each Period. The problem is, our understanding of the history improves as we play. We start with a simple understanding and then continuously learn more as we dig in. So if you set a specific time span when you created a Period, you’d actually be making a precise decision when you understood the least, particularly if it’s early in the game.

Here’s a good example from the infamous “sentient sun” game with Tony, Paul, Ping and I. This is way, way back in one of the earliest playtests — the first session was only the 8th game of Microscope ever played. We were still very much exploring what was possible and surprising ourselves at every turn.

The big picture was mankind making contact with and ultimately setting out to purge the universe of the alien races: Xeno-Extermination. We had already played three sessions and were coming up on our fourth, and we had agreed that we were going to close the book on our history that day. It seemed like a good place to stop: on the table we had whole civilizations rising and falling, the birth of new races, the works. It was a pretty complete story.

Or so we thought. Towards the end of the history, there were two Periods that *seemed* like they followed one just after the other. In the first, we had seen humanity create powerful World AIs to help manage their growing civilization. And in the next, humanity was largely dominant, controlling the stars. Right next to each other, right?

Then in just about the very last move of the game, another player took a long pause and then just pushed all the cards in those two Periods apart to make a nice gap. In the middle: boom, a new Period, thousands of years long, previously completely unforeseen. All of humanity descends into a new stone age as the World AIs protect humanity from itself. Each inhabited world is isolated and controlled by the machines, who carefully suppress access to technology and orchestrate humanity’s slow descent into peaceful barbarism. Trading in our star-drives for ploughshares.

We all sat back in awe, suddenly gripped by the mountains of possibilities in this new history. So many stories! How did humanity rise again and become the powerful space-faring civilization we knew it turned out to be? We were incredibly curious, but we would never know, because that’s where we stopped our game. On a glorious, glorious cliffhanger.

Strangely I think we finished even more satisfied than before, because instead of feeling like our history was “done” it felt like it had even more potential than we had thought. We loved our creation even more because it was incomplete. We could dream about the possibilities forever.

Ben Robbins | August 6th, 2016 | microscope actual play | 3 comments