A More Perfect Union

It’s been a busy year, but the new, improved, revised, and rewritten Union is in final editing right now. It’s very close to be ready for your game table. Very close.

I’m stupidly excited to have a stand-alone version of Union that people can just sit down and play. I’ve always thought Union was a very special game, but I never felt I really gave it the spotlight it deserved because it was hidden inside of Microscope Explorer.

And because I never did give it much spotlight, some of you might be thinking, “uh, Union? What’s that?” So here’s the recap:

Union is a game of family and ancestry. You build a family tree and explore the lives of the people who came together to make each new generation. And yeah, if that family tree looks upside down, that’s because in classic Microscope-style we start by knowing the end, a descendent of all these ancestors, then jump back and forth to explore all the lives and loves that got us to this point.

It’s really all about seeing how each of these people is the main character of their own story, even while they are part of the bigger story. Because without every single one of those past unions, that descendent could not exist.


Union was originally a variant of Microscope, included in Microscope Explorer, as I said, but it was always really different enough from Microscope that it deserved to be its own game. If I hadn’t been doing Explorer, I probably would have just written it as a separate game from the start, since it has a very different feel and style from Microscope.

I’m releasing it as a PDF only, which removes a lot of the overhead of doing print runs, maintaining inventory, shipping all over the world, etc. I’ve worked hard to make the rules as concise as possible so that printing it should be painless. The original version will still be in Microscope Explorer, of course, but if you want to play Union, this will be the one to use.

Ben Robbins | October 10th, 2018 | ,

Microscope meets 9th Grade English Class

“As the week continued, I could see the students becoming more comfortable not just with the game but with themselves and their interactions in groups. It was transformational for some: I saw students who started the class as awkward, self-doubting students and who were able to take some notable steps in developing their sense of ownership and their voice as the gameplay developed.”

Using Microscope in my 9th grade English class

This is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be a game designer. If you’re interested in Microscope in the classroom (or gaming as an educational tool in general), check out Robbie Boerth’s report. Great stuff.

Ben Robbins | August 26th, 2018 | , , | 1 comment

West Marches: Layers of History

“Run the simulation in your head: who moved here, what did they build, what happened to them, and then what came next?”

Logic is the cornerstone of a sandbox. If things make sense — if there’s an internal consistency to what’s there and where things are — then players can make good decisions. Paying attention leads to good choices and good choices lead to success. Smart characters survive and flourish.

Without it, the environment is just a guessing game of what the GM decided to put around each corner. There is no way to make intelligent decisions. No fun and not fair.

So how do you make a world that makes sense? You build the history, because the past is what determines the present. Yep, this is where Microscope and West Marches intersect.

Long before I designed Microscope, when I made D&D worlds I would imagine layers of history one top of each other, jumping back and forth in my head to figure out what happened and how all of that led to what was here now. Or vice versa: something you create in the present makes you think “hmm, where did that come from”, so you dig back in history to establish its origin.

So when I sat down to make a simple little wilderness I named “West Marches” for some old school adventure, did I just draw some dungeons and pick critters from ye olde Monster Manual? No, first I figured out what was here before. Nothing super-detailed, just a starting concept for the world and a skeleton of history.

Layers of History

A skeleton of history is your friend. Even the simplest outline tells you what belongs in the world and what doesn’t, and that’s a welcome advantage when you’re trying to seed your wilderness with some danger and points of interest. That’s two benefits, if you’re keeping track: it doesn’t just make play better, it also makes it easier to populate your world.

Start with three or four independent layers of history. Just a simple concept, not too much detail. This is the local history of the region, but it might reflect larger world events. Or not. For West Marches, my layers looked like:

That’s descending chronological order, with the most recent (and therefore most visible and known) events at the top, because that makes more sense to me. Farther down the list are things buried in the past, dwindling into myth and legend. The ruins from those elder days are the most worn down and picked over, while the remnants from the top are the most recent and fresh.

Each layer is completely independent and pretty far apart. The Barrow Men kings were mouldering bones in their mounds by the time the outcast dwarves of Black River came looking for hills to hew into new homes. Most importantly (for my plans for the West Marches), each of those layers of history left its imprint, but was also largely wiped away, letting the region revert almost entirely to wilderness by the time another period started.

More stuff happens in between those layers, but these are the big bookmarks, the key phases of the past that shaped this region.

Armed with just those very simple ideas, I can draw inspiration for what to put on the map and I know why things are the way they are. Now when I’m fleshing out the Rotting Oaks and I feel like an empty area needs some kind of interesting landmark, I can say to myself: “hmm, the settlers would not have gotten this far from Minol Valley, but the dwarves would have come through here when they built their second hall in the Lonely Hills, so a Dwarven marker stone or an isolated tomb of someone who died along the way would make sense.” Boom, problem solved.

I could even have multiple layers of history built one upon the other in a single location. I know there are goblins in Cradle Wood because they are the remnants that were pushed back by the Duke’s armies decades ago. The kings of the Barrow Men were here before, so the goblin lair could be an old ruined keep they found and infested. But in the caverns beneath it are the ancient holy caves that the warrior-kings feared and held sacred, remnants of the gods whose names men have forgotten. Now I’ve got a dungeon with three distinct strata of source material to work with. Yeah, that’s a very literal “layers” example, but you get the idea.

The action in each layer of history doesn’t have to be spread evenly across the map. Some events might sweep across the whole region, but others might only affect some areas while the rest remains untouched. The dwarves colonized a few key areas and delved deep there, but most of the West Marches have no dwarven ruins, though I could still put in dwarven treasure and relics that could be found nearby (you read Treasure Tells A Story, right?)

And just like Microscope, your history is not going to emerge all at once. You may start with a mere skeleton (and like I said, you should really try to start with something simple), but as you keep playing you’ll figure out more detail and nuance, which will inform what should be in the world and why. You might even think of new layers you want to add, or maybe you just explore what you’ve established more and more.

Game Master: Keeper of Secrets

Part of my old D&D philosophy was that, by definition, the GM knows more than the players. You create a bunch of stuff, but instead of telling the players, you hide it. You don’t lecture them about the world: they explore and figure things out. Or they don’t.

In most of my campaigns, I kept major secrets for *years and years*. When the players figured it out, their minds were understandably blown.

Even if the background I made never came out, knowing it changed my attitude as a GM. Things in the “present” felt more real, less like things I had just made up, because they were outgrowths of the hidden history. That changed my mannerisms in play. I knew what the players were seeing were just pieces of a larger puzzle, so I treated the setting with gravitas and respect.

I don’t think that’s the only way to GM, but for West Marches, where you want players to think and deduce, it’s a perfect fit. If secrets are hard to uncover, then when the players figure things out it’s a victory. They can be proud of their success just like winning a fight (q.v. finally discovering the Abbot’s hidden study after a half dozen different sorties missed it).

So all these layers of history you’ve made: *don’t tell the players about them*. Don’t even want them to find out. Which is a very appropriate attitude for all West Marches GMing, where as the GM you really should not really *want* anything. Let them explore and experience and figure it out, if they’re interested. If they’re not, that’s fine too, because that’s not what they’re there for. The world will still be a better, more consistent place for them to tempt fate and dare the unknown because of the hidden history.

Ben Robbins | June 29th, 2018 | | 7 comments

Story Games 101: Protagonist, Be Transparent

I talked about good antagonism a while back, so let’s talk about the flip side of the coin: good protagonism.

When you’re playing a protagonist in a story game, you have a very important job: want something. Have desires. Have needs.

But merely wanting something, deep down inside, isn’t enough. You have to *show us* what you want. You have to make it clear to everyone at the table what you want and what you care about. You need to be radiantly obvious and transparent.

If you conceal your characters’ desires — or worse yet simply can’t decide or refuse to care about anything — your game is dead on arrival. Dead, I say, dead! Why? Because if we don’t know what your character wants, we can’t make a story that fits you. We can’t make soil for your issues. We can’t give you hard choices that will interest you. How we even put you in a scene if we don’t understand you?

Do I mean transparent to other characters in the fiction? No, I mean transparent to the other players at the table. You can play an enigmatic avenger of the night who hides his feelings beneath an animal-themed cowl (because criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot) and who no one understands, in-character, so long as you tell the other players at the table what is going on inside that scary head. The players have to know what’s up, the characters don’t. Are you thinking “hey, but what about ‘show don’t tell’?!?” ‘Show don’t tell’ is a popular maxim of writing, but in gaming it is not your friend.

New players sometimes think that if they hide what they care about, the other players can’t mess with their precious, precious thing. Protect the precious thing! That is a total misunderstanding of what these games are all about. We’re not really adversaries and it’s not really a competition. Like I talked about in Antagonism 101, we’re working together to create a story that interests all of us by making the characters’ lives interesting and, yes, sometimes difficult. We’re collaborating, not competing, and you can’t collaborate without communication.

The benefit of being transparent doesn’t just apply to games that have distinct protagonist/antagonist roles. It’s a universal truth: to be an interesting character and an important part of the story, the other players (or GM) have to understand you.

“But what about the Maltese Falcon?!?”

Fine, throw The Maltese Falcon in my face! You’re right, Sam Spade spends the whole movie fooling the antagonists (and the audience) about what he really wants and cares about. And it’s a masterpiece for that very reason.

But there’s a huge difference between being an audience and being a player. Repeat after me: games are not movies or books. Players aren’t just audience, they’re authors and audience and actors all at once. Do you think Dashiell Hammett could have written the book if he didn’t know what Sam Spade wanted until the end? I think not.

If you catch a player hiding their character’s inner desires, pause the game and tell them. They might have a very solid desire but not realize they’re being too subtle. Or they might not realize that wanting something and then showing us what they want is their whole job.

Ben Robbins | June 23rd, 2018 | ,

Story Games 101: Saying Terrible Things

“We expect kindness and maturity from everyone who attends and so should you.”

That’s what it’s said on the Story Games Seattle website for years. When your charter is to game with strangers every week, maturity and civility is fundamental to making that work. We did not tolerate bigotry or discrimination in any form and we expected nothing less from everyone who attended, because that’s just how civilized humans behave.

The tricky bit — yes there’s a tricky bit — is that what we do together is create fiction and portray the words and deeds of imaginary people, even terrible imaginary people. We may quite intentionally introduce serious, dark, or even horrible subject matter in our games, just like you would see in a movie or book, because fiction is a great way to explore issues we may loathe and avoid in real life.

Since we started in 2010, we used a “safe word” technique (which we originally called the Veil, later the X) so that anyone who is uncomfortable with particular material can remove it from the game. Which is crude but generally works.

But there’s another thing which can happen, which a safe word does not solve: If you play a terrible person, or introduce some dark idea or plot twist, a total stranger (like the people you’re gaming with) might think that’s the kind of person you are. They might think the words coming out of your mouth reflect the kind of person you are, which is not a surprising reaction since that’s how the world works most of the time.

It’s critical (critical!) that we can tell the difference between our real world beliefs and the stuff we’re bringing into the game. We might be okay exploring racism and sexism as issues, but who wants to sit down and play with someone who they think is actually sexist or racist, even a little bit?

I’ve seen it happen time and again, in smaller and larger degrees. And it silently kills the fun. Because in an awkward social situation like this, the easiest reaction is to disengage. The other players stop wanting to be at the table and they certainly don’t want to talk to the person they think holds repulsive beliefs. They may not storm off but the game will just limp along quietly. Which means that more often than not, you have no idea anyone is reacting this way. You think you’re bringing interesting material into the game, but you don’t realize your comrades now think you’re a monster. Good game!

Say The Terrible Thing Is Terrible

I am a prime culprit. I love bringing terrible subject matter into games. Love it. Because I want to explore the problems of society and the human condition. The last thing I want to play is a game where everyone is great and society works fine, because that teaches me nothing.

So: how do you bring in serious issues and explore the problems of society and the human condition without making everyone at the table wonder what kind of horrible person you are?

First off, assume that one-hundred percent of the time that everyone else will believe that you are what you create. Yeah you are playing a character, or describing an imaginary society, but assume that no one will see the separation between you and your fiction.

Second, embrace that as the person bringing in the tough material, it is your job to prevent a misunderstanding. If you want to go into deep water, it’s your responsibility to bring the flotation devices. And you probably should want to anyway, because who wants to be misunderstood?

Luckily the fix is incredibly easy: make the fiction (say what your character is doing or saying, etc.) and then immediately break character and tell the other players that, yeah, that’s a really terrible thing you’re bringing into the game. Then describe why it’s terrible. “Yeah, my character is being completely abusive and exploiting her husband’s feelings to guilt him into doing what she wants.” Or, “the councilor is completely confident the laws are just, but the whole system exploits the lower caste. This society is messed up.” And then I’ll go right back to adamantly defending that society in-character and argue why this oppression is good and necessary.

Say that what you said is terrible, then say why it’s terrible. Or do it the other way and preface material by saying “I’m going to add something really terrible here,” then say why it was terrible after you create it.

Is it more complicated and nuanced rather than just terrible? Then say that! “Yeah, it’s kind of horrible for him to do that, but he’s driven by some awful circumstances. Yeesh.” The whole point is to show the difference between your fiction and your real beliefs. Say what you think about it.

The hard part isn’t doing it, it’s remembering that it’s necessary. Because everyone doesn’t know you and can’t read your mind.

Even When It’s Obvious…

I use this method all the time, even when it seems completely obvious to me that what I’m describing is dark, tragic or just plain messed up. In fact the more obvious, the more I stop and say “oh yeah, that is messed up.” Because when you think something is “obvious” is usually when things go awry.

If I see someone else bringing in tough material and they aren’t communicating this way, I’ll stop and say it myself to start the dialog. It’s amazing how much you can defuse tension at the table with a quick “yeesh, this is all horrible, isn’t it?” Once we clear the air, we can enjoy exploring it as fiction rather than eyeing each other suspiciously.

And again, this is not the same as X’ing something you don’t want in the game. It’s not about the fiction, it’s about what we think about the other players at the table. If you introduce something terrible and someone bans it, the problem is not solved if they still sit there thinking you are an awful person. If anything now the issue is submerged and made worse, because we’re not talking about it.

Gaming techniques to solve social problems are a moving target. Methods that seemed state-of-the-art ten years ago feel hopelessly outdated now, and later on the same will be true of what we do now. Which is good, because that means we’re probably making progress.

In the meantime, don’t be afraid of the deep water. It’s where the big fish are.

Ben Robbins | June 13th, 2018 | , | 3 comments

“But we know… they’re gonna die” (Games and Education Interview)

I got to chat with Keenan Kibrick on his new podcast, talking about Microscope, games in the classroom, and (spoiler!) how Romeo and Juliet ends…

Games and Education: Interview With Ben Robbins of Microscope

Keenan’s being doing great work adapting games for education. Kids playing Lord of Flies as a Kingdom game? Yep, that was one of his. Check it out!

Ben Robbins | June 12th, 2018 | , , ,