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Kafka and His Precursors

This is about games, trust me.

The poem “Fears and Scruples” by Browning foretells Kafka’s work, but our reading of Kafka perceptibly sharpens and deflects our reading of the poem. Browning did not read it as we do now…

The fact is that that every writer *creates* his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

–Jorge Luis Borges, “Kafka and His Precursors”, 1964 (maybe?)

Emphasis mine. I read this ages ago and even though it’s about literature, I’ve always pondered what … [read more]

Ben Robbins | May 15th, 2024 | , , | 6 comments

“Over the next 12 years I ran three different experimental campaigns…”

Had a great talk with Markus Widmer and Harald Eckmüller on the 3W6 Podcast. We dig into In This World and Microscope, but also West Marches and the other experimental campaigns that got me into GMless games in the first place.

3W6 Podcast: Ben Robbins Interview

We also spend a surprising amount of time talking about (*gasp*) my college thesis, exploring the relationship between a player’s self-acceptance and how much the characters they play are like their real-world self. Does it still hold water? Listen and find out!

Ben Robbins | May 15th, 2024 | , ,

In Defense of “Boring” Worlds

Caroline has stepped up to the typewriter to talk about the beauty of creating “boring” settings with In This World. Worlds that aren’t incredibly strange or fantastic, but are just a little bit different from our own.

The fun of boring worlds (Caroline Hobbs on <3 Blog )

She talks about our dreams game, and there’s even a callback to our lovely Furniture game from last summer — be still my heart! (Did I ever post about the Furniture game? I did not!)

It’s a great, thoughtful piece. Go read it!

Ben Robbins | May 3rd, 2024 | , ,

Our Last Beautiful Dream

I could tell you about our In This World game the other night, when we explored the topic of Dreams. I could tell you about the Leviathan haunting our nightmares, or planned dreams as a therapeutic tool, or the whole world sharing one wondrous, endless dream in the millisecond before all humanity goes extinct.

I could tell you about all those worlds we made, because they were beautiful, and making them together was surprising and amazing.

But that’s not really the point, is it? It’s not just about the end … [read more]

Ben Robbins | May 3rd, 2024 | , | 3 comments

A Bard, As In Shakespeare

We’ve been using In This World to explore D&D concepts, as you do. Last week: dungeons. This week: character classes.

One of our statements is, in normal D&D, bards are musicians. They sing and play music. But in this world, bards are writers. They write and tell stories, traveling across the land to share tales, lore, and news.

So in this world, do rogues steal stuff? Sort of. Rogues are plagiarists. They claim bards’ stories as their own, sleazing into town and telling bad imitations in the market square, … [read more]

Ben Robbins | May 3rd, 2024 | ,

The Layer Cake of Gaming

Every time we sit down to play a role-playing game, we build this layer cake, stacking each level upon the previous one:

First we decide what our game is about. What are the themes.

Then we make a setting that reflects those themes.

Then we make characters who fit that setting and those themes.

Then we create a situation that fits the characters, the setting, and those themes.

Then we see what those characters do about that situation.

Keep repeating that last step, and when the situation is settled either … [read more]

Ben Robbins | April 25th, 2024 | , | 1 comment

West Marches: Finding the Dungeons

There was a question in the comments about whether a West Marches GM should tell the players where the dungeons are or make them go out and search.

Players having the free will to make decisions–and get themselves into trouble doing “a little light exploring”–is at the very heart of the West Marches charter. But equally essential is the idea that, to make interesting and useful choices, you have to have information to work with. Making decisions totally blind (“you’re in a forest, do you go left or right???”) is … [read more]

Ben Robbins | April 24th, 2024 | , | 2 comments

“I’ve got the big wrenches out, I’m gonna go smash the machines”

I had a great time talking to Justin Gary on his Think Like A Game Designer podcast. Justin includes a great text outline of some of the big topics we hit on the web page, including some of the major takeaways.

Think Like A Game Designer: Ben Robbins — World Building in Microscope, Gaming with Strangers and Writing Effective Rules (#64)

Yes, that’s me in a museum. I suppose I should say it was because I was talking about Microscope so I used a picture involving history, but honestly … [read more]

Ben Robbins | April 16th, 2024 | , , | 2 comments

A Microscope For The People

In a previous post I talked about the issues with scenes in Microscope. Issues that often lead players to avoid scenes, which (I think) robs you of the full experience of seeing how the big history affects human lives.

The good news is that I’ve been working on a solution, which is to make scenes focus on what they were supposed to be about all along: People.

These are the rules changes I’ve been testing. There are only three small but critical updates, and you can start using them … [read more]

Ben Robbins | April 10th, 2024 | , , , | 2 comments

In This World, In This Classroom

Okay, show of hands: who’s interested in a course called “Science Fiction & Public Health”??? Sign me up!

In their latest podcast, Alexis Dinno and Nell Carter talk about how they brought In This World to the classroom at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health:

Science Fiction & Public Health Podcast, Episode 8

The In This World part starts about 33 minutes in, but the whole thing is an interesting listen. Their topic? Libraries! Which has been on my wishlist for a while now. Caveat is they had a larger … [read more]

Ben Robbins | April 2nd, 2024 | ,

The Problem With Microscope Scenes

Microscope is great, but as a designer I’m always looking for ways to make my games better. And Microscope has some spots that could use an upgrade.

What’s the problem? Scenes.

I think scenes are important to Microscope, because scenes are when we zoom all the way in and see how the big history impacts individual people. It makes the whole thing more personal and meaningful. You have a better total experience when you include scenes.

But players use Scenes less than other parts of the game. Some groups leave … [read more]

Ben Robbins | April 1st, 2024 | , , | 14 comments

Union: Cousins Once Removed

Say you want to make characters who are all from the same small town. Or from related noble houses. Or who all came to this planet on the same generation ship.

Maybe you just want to make up their backstories, or maybe these are characters you’re actually going to play in a campaign.

Normally you could play Union and explore the family ancestry of one character: find out all about the lives of their grandparents and great parents and how all their unions led to next generation, and so on.… [read more]

Ben Robbins | March 23rd, 2024 | ,

Campaign Zero

The idea of “session zero” is a genuine step forward in the technology of gaming. Instead of just leaping into a game blindly and hoping we all enjoy the same things, we sit down together and talk about it. What kind of world do we want? Want kind of themes do we want to explore? Will our elves be imperialist jerks? Will our space smugglers struggle with debt or just do hijinks?

Discussion and consensus is a good thing. But clever gamers realized that instead of just improvising the whole … [read more]

Ben Robbins | March 20th, 2024 | , | 4 comments

More Worlds In The Wild

Even more copies of In This World arriving around the globe (and also Portland).

In This World books

The kickstarter is done and done! There are still stragglers who haven’t answered their surveys (there are always stragglers) but the vast majority have gone out.

And I have to say that, as a game designer, it is tremendously satisfying seeing an idea you kicked around turn into a book that people can hold in their hand and play.

Ben Robbins | March 20th, 2024 | | 2 comments

Dress For the Job You Want

People have had a long week, everyone’s tired, but we still want to do a little gaming-something-something. This looks like a job for… IN THIS WORLD!

Our topic: Clothing! We were doing the normal brainstorming and we had some good topics (but also “trains!!!”) but when Caroline threw out Clothing I knew that was the one I wanted. I’m always looking for ideas that hit that sweet spot where physical culture and human behavior interact, because I think that makes for really tasty worlds.

If you’re not familiar with … [read more]

Ben Robbins | March 12th, 2024 | , | 1 comment