Hot Off the Presses

What am I doing this weekend? Here’s a hint:


Books are here. Shipping has begun.

There’s always something magical about holding a finished product in your hand. Magical, but not quite as magical as hearing about people having a great time playing the game. That is still the best.

Ben Robbins | August 4th, 2017 | follow | 2 comments

Diminishing Returns of Random Fiction

We sit down to play a game that’s designed to introduce random elements of fiction. A couple rolls on a table and we have a smuggling ring, ghosts of the old war, and a questionable inheritance. Great! That’s all good stuff to get our game going. We can work with it.

Now imagine we’re coming to the end of our game. We’ve been playing for hours. The battle lines are drawn, we’ve seen the desires and conflicts of our characters, and it’s all coming to a head. Then we roll again to get some more random ingredients. Suddenly there’s a forgotten treasure? And a long-lost sibling? Uh, where does that fit..?

Here’s my simple maxim:

The later in the game you are, the less useful random fictional ingredients are, until they become a distraction or impediment rather than a benefit.

If you had a game where you rolled or drew random ingredients every scene, you’d start off okay, but I predict you’d see a very clear downward curve until you were were wishing the random stuff would just stop.

It shouldn’t be a big surprise: at the start we have nothing, so when we get random ingredients we build our situation around those seeds. Almost any random ingredient works because we’ve got a blank slate. But the longer we play, the more detail and situation we’ve established. Random elements are less and less likely to fit what we already know. A random roll doesn’t know about the arc our characters have taken or the tensions between them or the nuances of the situation that have emerged.

Conversely, at the end, the people at the table have very good ideas about what fits and what would be appropriate for the story, because we’ve been playing it all this time. The random system doesn’t know what we now know.

Sure we could get lucky. A random element *could* be the perfect unexpected twist to take our story in a surprising direction. But it’s a lot less likely.

a bunch of postscripts

Another flaw of random fictional input is that often the rules aren’t designed to even know what other fictional prompts they have already introduced. The system is not building on past results, just introducing random results every time. If you got “star-crossed lovers” as an early result, and the system *knew* that was now a starting seed and built on that, you might have a better chance. But even then, a random system would not know what the players in the table had focused on and become interested in. Likewise you could narrow the divide by letting players pick from different categories of random fiction (“this romance plot is great, so I’m rolling on the romance table!”), but it’s still a shot in the dark compared to what the players know would fit the story that has emerged.

It’s also much easier to incorporate random themes (love, betrayal, duty) than it is to incorporate specific fiction (a gun, a body, a mysterious wanderer bearing a silver crown) but the same principle applies: random themes get progressively less useful as the game progresses. But it’s a softer curve. Conversely (and quite logically), while random themes are easier to incorporate later on because they are broad and malleable, they are less useful to get the game started because we still have to flesh out what they mean. The flexibility that makes them easier to incorporate at the end makes them weaker to get us going at start.

Ben Robbins | July 15th, 2017 | game design | 2 comments

Lawyers Never Die

Kingdom at Story Games Seattle.

When the new Archbishop of the Church of England forbids contracts binding demons to work on Sundays, the senior partner of our firm has an inspirational meeting with one of the founding partners (whose ghost haunts our office). He gets in touch with his inner lawyer, remembers why he started practicing demonic contract law in the first place, then goes all Phoenix Wright “OBJECTION!” and sues the Church in court.

Which is a beautiful moment of character growth. And then the mob comes for us.

Ben Robbins | July 7th, 2017 | kingdom actual play

Follow Is Ready for You

I am happy to report that Follow is done and released into the wild. If you’re a backer or pre-ordererer you should have already received your new download link. Everyone else: you can buy the PDF right now.

Do you love that cover? I love that cover. It’s the gorgeous work of Al Lukehart. She captured the spirit of the game perfectly.

Next I’ll be doing print tests to prepare for printing the books. If everything goes well they should be in the mail late July / early August. In the meantime, quest away!

Ben Robbins | July 2nd, 2017 | follow

Do You Think You’re Beautiful?

We’re on the verge of a breakthrough that will change society. We’ve deciphered the genetic code and can bend it to our will.

But… the only genetic trait we’ve mastered is beauty. Physical beauty. We can’t make you smarter or healthier, just more attractive. We’ve isolated beauty to a mathematical equation and can engineer facial symmetry, eye size and spacing — the works — to guarantee generations of children with equally ideal features.

That was the premise of our Follow game at Story Games Seattle last week. The quest we picked was, of course, the Breakthrough, where the goal is to change the world with our invention. Our characters were part of a medical-tech startup company, Blossom, that was gearing up to roll out this procedure to the world, and if you’re thinking “oh my god the horror, what a giant bucket of ethical worms!” then you are on exactly the same page as us. That’s what we were going for.

The challenge in a game like this, where our agenda is sooooo questionable, is to make characters who support it for reasons that feel believable and even relatable, and that’s where everyone at the table rocked it. Some were personal — like the wealthy investor who wanted his kids to have advantages he never had — and others were broadly idealistic: it wasn’t that beauty was better, it was that if everyone was equally beautiful, discrimination based on looks would be eradicated. Right? Right?!?!

As we played and really dug into our characters, the central question that kept coming up was whether each of them actually saw themselves as beautiful. For a variety of reasons, the answer was universally no. Even the extremely vain, self-centered womanizer turned out to doubt his own appearance.

Were we kidding ourselves about our real motives? Claiming to want to bring happiness and equality to an unfair world, but really just trying to tackle our own insecurities? But as we’d known from the start — known consciously, but maybe not really viscerally come to terms with — our procedure worked by engineering a fertilized egg that would, years later, grow into a beautiful person. We couldn’t alter the DNA of someone already born. It wouldn’t change the lives of all the people around us now, the very people we were trying to sell on the idea. It wouldn’t change OUR lives.

Quite fittingly, our final challenge was to convince the public our breakthrough was needed. After wrestling with terrible side-effects and then a surprise competitor in our first two challenges (and resorting to legal skullduggery and flat-out corporate espionage), we had the technology down, but without public acceptance none of that would matter.

Did we win? Did we change the world in a morally dubious way that everyone in the fellowship was now secretly questioning? Of course we did. Our work changed the world, and everyone at the table groaned. Never has a victory been so unappreciated.

Our epilogues spanned the decades that followed as the process became widespread. On the surface we smiled at these beautiful children of ours (some literally our own children) and accepted the accolades of a thankful world, but in our hearts we wondered what we had done.

Serious and thoughtful stuff. Well done, team.

Ben Robbins | May 31st, 2017 | follow | 2 comments

Teaching Teachers How to Teach


Keenan Kibrick continues to kill it in the classroom, teaching teachers how to teach Microscope (say that ten times fast).

Yes, that event says “mobile gas chamber”. History can be scary.

And if you’re an educator, definitely check out the Immersive Imaginative Education discussion group. It’s a place to share ideas about how role-playing can be used in the classroom.

Ben Robbins | May 28th, 2017 | microscope kids