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

West Marches: A Survivor’s Story

Lo and behold, after twenty years one of the original West Marches players popped back up and shared some memories in the comments, and frankly they are too good not to give a post of their own.

Tommy, aka Lucky, aka Briarweed, sez:

I stumbled onto some discussions of “West Marches” DM style, and followed the rabbit hole down to these blog posts. Now I know why it sounded so familiar: I played in some of those early games! I only made it to like 4 sessions before moving back to the east coast in April of ’02, but I still have many vivid memories of those games.

A handful of those memories:

– The cool concept of that big wooden table where other adventurers had begun carving out the map. A few big Xs where previous heroes had fallen (and maybe left some of their treasure and items behind to collect.)

– A legitimately terrifying encounter with shadows, and a big black door that we couldn’t get past no matter what we tried.

– First character, a rogue who (unsuccessfully) tried to convince the L2 party that he was a bard, mostly pulling his weight through a dungeon, and then dying to a random crit from a wolf on the way back to town. RIP Lucky before he could even level up once.

– Reading the email tributes to Lucky after his failed attempt to make his mark on the Marches. Don’t worry about the broken lute, warrior bro; he had a spare “travel lute.”

– My next character, a druid named Briarweed: harrowing explorations through an undead-infested temple, turning the tide of a perilous battle with a timely cast of shillelagh.

– A near-TPK water trap. The rogue kept failing checks, and several players drowning before we barely managed to escape. I still recall our desperate attempts to make it through a rest in the forest while soaking wet in sub-zero temperatures, nursing the drowned warrior back to health, rationing goodberries, fighting off random encounters, and using every skill, ability, or spell I could find on my sheet to help keep the party alive in those cold wastes so we could make it back to town.

Good times. Despite my short time in the West Marches, and the dozens of campaigns I’ve played or DM’ed in before or since, I remember those sessions as some of my favorite gaming experiences.

“We buried the finest Bard in all the land and took his rations for ourselves, trudging back to keep town, weary, worn and poorer then when we left.” -from the email chat

Yes, Lucky unluckily joined the game right around the time the players concluded that just sitting around the Axe & Thistle for the winter would drain their savings, and decided to do a little “light exploring” in the snow, facing off wolf packs and making an already dangerous water trap infinitely more hazardous. On the bright side, Briarweed made it to level 2! Good times indeed.

Ben Robbins | September 1st, 2021 | | 3 comments

Only Say Yes to a Yes

“Say yes” is a fundamental principle of just about every shared creative process. “Yes and”, “yes but” — either way, say yes. And it is absolutely good advice for role-playing games. Accept what other people contribute. Embrace what’s been said as established truth and build on it. Don’t contradict it.

But there’s a big caveat that doesn’t get mentioned: You should only say yes to another yes. Don’t say yes to something that contradicts what we’ve already agreed to. Don’t say yes to someone else’s no.

People are not always good at saying no, but it is vital to the health of your game and everyone’s fun.

The Interlocking Chain of Yes

Every single role-playing game is an interlocking chain of yes’s, all the way back to the very start.

Yes we agree we are going to play Traveller. Yes these are our characters. Yes we’re on a spaceship. Yes the ship is dubbed the Clever Goose. Yes we’re low on fuel. Yes we just went into orbit around a strange planet. Yes a missile is flying towards us, etc.

If we don’t agree about something or don’t know what’s true — does our spaceship have a shuttle, did my lightning bolt kill the orc — we stop and figure it out until we do agree. Maybe we just discuss, maybe we roll dice, or maybe the rules say a particular player decides. The methods vary in different games, but either way, we establish what is true or we agree that we don’t know the answer yet.

That agreement is the bedrock that makes our shared imaginary enterprise function. A long time ago, Vincent Baker said that the very nature of role-playing games is that we all have to agree about the truth of the fictional world or we can’t play. That’s exactly right. If I think you’re inside the house and you think you’re outside the house, nothing we say to each other is going to make sense.

Every additional thing that happens in the game, whether it’s saying your character draws their sword, declaring someone’s hair color, or scanning for a cloaked ship, is another yes in the chain. We have agreed that all that previous stuff was true, and we just keep adding more. Each agreement builds on all the previous agreements.

Along Comes a No

And then someone comes along and breaks the chain. They say something that contradicts what we’ve already agreed to or established. We agreed early on that there wasn’t going to be any AI in our game, but then a player starts describing talking to the Clever Goose’s onboard computer…

It’s an easy mistake to make — we’re creating whole worlds on the fly, so there’s a lot to keep track of. Someone gets so excited about an idea they come up with that they don’t stop and think about how it conflicts with something we already established. They’ve introduced a contradiction to our fiction.

What do you do? Politely say no. Stop and say “hey, we already said that X was true, so doesn’t what you just said go against that?” Reminding everyone what we had all previously agreed to shows that you aren’t arbitrarily saying no because you don’t like the idea, you’re helping us stick to what we built together. They said no, whether they realized it or not. You’re just pointing it out.

You may feel like you’re being the bad guy, but you’re doing everyone a favor by identifying a contradiction before it sows confusion.

Saying no to a no is really just the start of that conversation. It declares that we have something we need to untangle. Maybe we talk about it and decide it’s something we want to change. That’s fine, but any revision has to be a conscious decision we all agree to. Revisions and changes must walk in, announce themselves loudly, and be welcomed by the table. They cannot sneak in under the cloak of night.

Why Not Just Say Yes?

But if someone is excited about an idea shouldn’t you just let it slide and embrace it, no matter what we said before? Isn’t it more fun to just say yes?

First of all, you should always call out contradictions to keep your fiction working. If you don’t identify and resolve contradictions, things will stop making sense and the game will grind to a confusing halt.

And second, when you’re tempted to embrace every new idea that comes along, remember that everything already in the fiction came from another player. By introducing a contradiction, this player is stepping on someone else’s previous contribution. We should all try to respect the original contribution we agreed to.

And everyone else is effected too, because we have all been building on that idea we agreed to, no matter who introduced it. Even if the same player created the very thing they are now contradicting, they can’t just change it without everyone’s consent. Once an idea is committed to the shared fiction, we all have a stake in it.

Don’t Break the Chain

It’s worth mentioning that safety vetoes (X-card, etc) are an entirely differently beast. If someone wants to remove something because it makes them uncomfortable, we absolutely should, no debate. Which is precisely why we have a distinct “safeword”, so we know it’s a special case.

Are creative contradictions something to watch out for more in GMless games, because there isn’t a singular authority figure who declares what is true and what isn’t? Yes, I think so. Instead it’s all of our jobs to keep the game working. You may recall that in Microscope, “don’t contradict what’s already been said” is an overt rule, but it’s really an underlying principle that makes all role-playing games work.

So don’t break the chain of yes’s. And if someone else does, be brave and say no. Everyone’s game will be better for it.

Ben Robbins | August 19th, 2021 | , , | 1 comment

Blood of the Star-Dragon

Twenty three sessions into our “Department of Witches” Kingdom Legacy game, we discover that the bloodline of witches first began in prehistoric times, when five hunters came across the shattered body of the dragon that had fallen from the stars.

Every witch in our game is descended from the blood of these five. From the primitive tribes to medieval kings, all the way to thousands of years later in our hackerpunk future.

So it’s probably reeeeeeal important we don’t check a bunch of Crisis and wipe out this tribe we’re about to play, only a few generations later. Because we don’t have that many bloodlines to work with…

Ben Robbins | August 11th, 2021 | , , | 1 comment

Gods & Kingdomon

It’s been a while since I’ve posted an update about our epic Pokemon-inspired Kingdom Legacy campaign, but now Caroline has taken up the torch to talk about our very latest era, in which we worship our adorable pocket monsters as GODS…

There’s always another Kingdom

Less Than Three blog: There’s always another Kingdom

Each era we’ve really thought about how our relationship with the Jedo has been different, and worshipping them as gods really takes the cake.

Also, the Kickstarter for Caroline’s new game, Fedora Noir, only has a few days left, so go check it out! You might play the detective, or you might play the detective’s Hat…

Ben Robbins | August 6th, 2021 | , , ,

Behold, You Can Get Email Notifications!

Social media is awful for actually communicating, so how’s a clever person like you to avoid missing the stuff I post here in the dark hours of the night, when even the owls are asleep?

Well now it’s easy, because I’ve set up email notifications. Sign up and you’ll get a message every time I post a new article.

Hopefully this will make life a lot easier for folks who want to keep up with my posts. There shouldn’t be too much traffic since I don’t post that often and you can unsubscribe whenever you want.

Welcome aboard!

Ben Robbins | August 5th, 2021 | | 2 comments