Building Better Gods

“I’m the god of fire. I have fire powers”
“Fire powers? What are you, a superhero?”

We’re in the middle of a game and you need to make up a god. Because you know, we’re gamers, we have to create whole worlds, gods, civilizations on the fly. What do you do? The number one approach I see is to say “ah yes, they are the god of X”. Fire, medicine, poetry, death, rainbows, whatever. They are the god of That, capital T. Which is… fine? I guess? But boring. Literally one-dimensional.

Gods deserve to be more than just superheroes. Heck, superheroes deserve more than just being defined by a single power.

But there’s an easy fix. Because have I ever brought a problem to you without including a solution? That’s not how I roll.

Instead of saying they’re god of one thing, list at least three different things. And don’t just pick three related concepts. Spread out and pick things that seem like an odd mix: Fire, Swords, and Matrimony. The Sea, Cities, and Dreams. Theft, Pottery, and Roads.

Sure three things is three times as many as one thing. But it’s not just triple the concept. With three things the imagination starts to fill in the blanks and draw unspoken connections between seemingly unrelated ideas. Death, Wind, and Poetry? Why those three? What does it mean? What does that say about poetry? Or death? Or wind? What’s the philosophy or origin myth there?!?!

Students of the classics will notice this is a lot like mythological gods of our world. Just ask Apollo, god of the sun, music, and medicine (and about seven other things). Because a real religion is complex with lots of nooks and crannies, even contradictions. Only a made-up religion is clean and simple.

Ben Robbins | November 17th, 2021 | , , | 2 comments

Quest: Escape the Haunted House!

They said this old house was haunted, but we didn’t listen. Now we have to escape. Our flashlights are flickering, there’s no coverage, the floorboards are creaking, and the wind is howling through the trees…

The Haunting is a spooky Halloween quest for Follow, ready for you to download and play right now:

We took it for a test run the other night and gave ourselves nightmares, but it should work for a whole range of spooky styles, from lighthearted Scooby Doo hijinks all the way to serious and scary ghost stories. You have been warned!!!

Ben Robbins | October 26th, 2021 | | 1 comment

“If it weren’t for those darn kids..!”

It’s the spooky season, so I’ve been taking a break from other projects to put together a fittingly Halloween quest for Follow: Escape the Haunted House!

They told us the old Harker Manor was haunted, but we didn’t listen. Now our flashlights are flickering, the floorboards are creaking and… what was that noise?!?? Probably just the wind. We’ll probably find a way out faster if we split up…

If I do it right the quest should work for actual scary ghost stories as well as Scooby Doo hijinks (“it was Old Man Withers in a rubber mask all along!”). Will you lose characters along the way? You will almost definitely lose characters along the way.

One of the interesting angles of a story like this is a fellowship that isn’t actually together. Maybe a bunch of the characters are teenagers who’ve snuck into the house on a dare, but elsewhere you could have paranormal investigators asking for directions to the estate while the sheriff warns them not to trespass. As the story unfolds all these characters are part of the fellowship and have a united goal of getting everyone out of the house… at least everyone who survives!

I hope to have it ready soon, so you can take it for a spin while the October chill is still in the air…

UPDATE: It’s ready

Ben Robbins | October 19th, 2021 | | 2 comments

Aushi Finds Their Magic

If you play story games, you probably already know: story games will break your heart.

Aushi was a witch born without magic. It was all they ever wanted. And then they got some. But you know what they say, be careful what you wish for…

Aushi Finds Magic

Art by Ace, who is also playing poor tragic Aushi. This is in our witches Kingdom Legacy campaign, and we’re just about to play our 30th session and find out exactly how things turn out for Aushi and the whole tribe.

Will story games break our heart again, or will things suddenly turn around? Place your bets.

Ben Robbins | October 12th, 2021 | , , | 1 comment

Mercenaries vs Terraformers

On a lark we sat down (virtually) to play some Microscope, and wound up making a “Day of the Triffids meets the Black Company meets Starship Troopers (the movie)” kind of history.

It was less about the aliens and more about the humans banding together to fight back… or not! Specifically the poor soldiers fighting a whole new kind of enemy… and sometimes getting thrown under the bus by their commanders.

The invasion starts quietly. No one notices when the bugs arrive and start terraforming remote patches of the Amazon and Romania into strange alien biomes. But as they slowly multiply and spread, the crazy rumors of “strange goings on in the wilderness” become undeniable fact, and more and more nations are drawn into a war for survival.

And we’re losing. Humanity is evicted from half of a transformed world before we finally start to turn the tide.

But even in the face of extinction, humans never change. In a huge victory, we liberate South America from the bugs… and then promptly squabble over what nation gets to take it over. Of course.

And yeah, we had planned to do a one-shot but now we are eager to go back and play some more. We used the Utgar’s Chronicles website, which was specifically built to play Microscope online, and I have to say it is a damn fine tool for the job. Easy and straightforward. I recommend it.

Ben Robbins | September 23rd, 2021 | ,

Which Kid Touches the Giant Robot?

Three kids are playing in the woods when they stumble upon a towering metal figure, sprawled in a crater. Who will touch it first?

There are dares and double-dares, scuffles, poking sticks, and finally double-dog dares, until one kid reaches out a trembling hand to touch the shining metal figure… and disappears.

Long before I played indie games, some of the experimental things I did as a GM were direct precursors to the games I would go on to make, such as Microscope. Which is itself a very Microscope’y thought: our past is how we got where we are now.

Take the example above. That was 2003, 11 games into our New Century City superhero campaign (which, unbeknownst to us, was going to run for another hundred games). It was a traditional GMed game, so all the players had their own hero characters, but to get that comic book feel I sometimes included short scenes where they would play other minor characters. Just ordinary people, living their lives, but who were caught up in the kind of dramatic plot moments that the heroes would hear about but normally never see.

They’d play the cops driving the transport van — one only two weeks from retirement! — when someone attacks to bust out a mysterious prisoner. Or the teenagers at the beach having a lover’s quarrel, right before some lamp-eyed monstrosity shambles up out of the surf and nabs them… cue scream and fade to black!

A jailbreak! People disappearing near Sunset Point! That was something for the heroes to go investigate. But instead of giving the players a boring summary, they already knew what happened, because they’d played it… though usually with the aforementioned fade to black right at the moment that would give too much away, like exactly *which* supervillain was behind the jailbreak or before we got too good a look at the sea monsters (spoiler: they were really just henchmen in exotic scuba gear, protecting Professor Hydra’s submerged lair).

We called it NormalVision, riffing on the term “normals” from the old superhero game Champions, which meant ordinary people rather than superheroes.

So NormalVision = seeing things from the point of view of normal people. But of course it was really about seeing things from the point of view of the audience. Which is exactly how things work in comic books or movies: we see the doomed ship attacked by the giant monster, all hands lost, long before the main characters have any idea that some terror is marching towards the city. Can you imagine if a movie didn’t show us that, just had someone tell the main characters instead? It would be boring as hell. And yet that’s how GMs usually run games, because traditionally we’re locked into the main characters’ point of view.

The players were kind of shocked at first, but soon they were looking forward to every NormalVision scene I introduced. They enjoyed getting to play some random character and then happily get wiped out, or just moving on and never playing that character again. It was a wonderful low pressure change of pace. Liberating fun.

It seemed pretty radical at the time, but now — countless GMless games later — it just feels like ordinary play. On the other hand, go the other way along the timeline and I feel like back in 1980 it would have felt like heresy.

Then Add Questions

In most NormalVision scenes, the characters were our windows into the action, but they weren’t making big decisions or changing the course events. They were witnesses and bystanders, not true protagonists.

But then for some scenes I added a question. Some decision or revelation that playing the scene was going to answer. And I’d tell the players what the question was at the start… though not necessarily *why* the question mattered.

When the kids found the giant robot, all the daring and scuffling was so drawn out (and hilarious) precisely because I told the players that the point of the scene was to see which kid touched the robot first. They knew that was the big moment, so they danced around it and built it up dramatically, exactly the way it would feel if you were watching the movie or reading the comic book.

Other times the players did know exactly what the question meant. When we played a NormalVision scene where the Mayor and his aides were deciding which hero should be named the official defender of New Century City, all the players knew exactly what was at stake, and relished throwing each other’s characters (and sometimes their own heroes) under the bus. “Moon Man?!? He’s still got connections to the military from his astronaut days! We can’t have a Fed representing local government!”

Hmm… playing a scene to find out the answer to a pre-determined question… everyone picks short term characters they may never play again or who might not even survive the scene..?

Yep, that’s starting to sound a lot like a Microscope scene, isn’t it?

Then Kill Chronological Order

And if you want even more foreshadowing, there’s that one idea I describe in the fourth NormalVision post:

Imagine roleplaying a saga spanning decades or centuries, like the Old Testament or the Silmarillion. Each scene could be hundreds of years apart, with players assuming new characters constantly since their previous ones would be long dead.

And that was two years before I even started working on Microscope proper.

The key ingredient separating that idea from Microscope would be not only spanning decades or centuries in a game, but absolutely removing any idea that you would play the game in chronological order. But I’d already been experimenting with that 15 years earlier… (cliffhanger!)

Luckily, It Was A Good Kid

“Wait, one cliffhanger at a time”, you scream. “Tell us which kid touched the giant robot?? And uh, why did it matter?”

The players didn’t know it, but the previous pilot had died two games ago. The kid that touched it first would become the new operator… for life.

When the players made their kids I asked them to focus on their personalities. One kid was shy, one was outgoing, and one was an outright bully. So the scene was really deciding what kind of person was now going to control this powerful alien artifact. The robot couldn’t talk, and no one could tell who was controlling it. So was the city going to have a bully stomping around in an unstoppable juggernaut? Or a scared but basically good kid, trying to help but unsure how to control these powers?

This was the opening scene of the session, and the outcome cast a long shadow over everything that happened for many many games to come. That’s playing to find out.

Ben Robbins | September 13th, 2021 | , , , | 1 comment