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“The rules are there to help you get the most out of your time”

A quick interview with the nice folks of Pizza Games in Milan:

I would definitely double down on the idea that the purpose of game rules is to help us get the most out of our time. All the other stuff — having fun, getting on the same page, being clearly written — comes back to that: respecting and maximizing the return on our time. Because time is our ultimate finite and irreplaceable resource.

If you want to think about it in stages, step 1 of good rules is to be clear about what the game is like and what we can expect if we play it, so we can decide if we even want to spend the time bringing it to the table (sales pitches that lead you down the primrose path are bullshit). Then step 2 is clarity in the rules, so we can easily follow the instructions and play the game as it is intended. And then, step 3 — ah, step 3! — actually being a structure of play that delivers. What the kids call “being a good game”.

Ben Robbins | July 18th, 2022 | , , , , | 2 comments

Festival of Rain

Story gamers make shit up constantly. It’s a big part of the process. We invent whole cities, cultures, and worlds at the drop of a hat and then maybe burn them down two hours later. We build and explore fast fast fast… and also slow slow slow.

And we share our toys. We create specifically so that everyone else at the table can use what we’re building. If I introduce a religion, it’s not just for me, it’s part of everyone’s story. Nothing is a greater compliment then when someones take what you made and runs with it. “That religion you described? Yeah my character is going to be the high priest…”

It goes without saying (but yeah, I’m saying it) that respecting what others create is a bedrock principle of good play. But to respect someone’s idea, you have to understand it. It is incredibly easy (and disappointing) to describe something, think everyone gets it, and then a minute later hear someone else talking about what you said and realizing they totally didn’t get what you meant.

And that’s where asking questions comes in. Asking questions isn’t disrespectful. Quite the opposite. Asking questions helps everyone. It helps the person creating something, because they get to make sure everyone else is really hearing their idea the way they intended. And it helps everyone else, because it makes sure we have a clear picture of the fiction so we can build on it confidently.

Not leading questions or hints of what you think it should be — that’s bogus play! Just sincere questions to make sure you understand what someone is thinking and how it connects to what we already know.

Because your whole game is one interlocking jigsaw puzzle. Nothing — and I mean nothing — stands alone.

Sharpen Your Swords, Watch the Skies

A concrete example, from our excellent Sunday night Kingdom campaign.

Caroline is introducing a Crossroad where our rebel knights are deciding whether to *assassinate* a dignitary who helped betray our murdered lord. Because we’re back in our dead lord’s realm, doing Robin Hood shit to overthrow the new lord sitting on her throne… and occasionally brooding over our failures at our dead’s lord’s burial mound, hidden deep in the woods. It’s hot stuff.

So the first obvious question is, why now? Why are we suddenly thinking of taking this drastic action? It’s part of the Crossroad maker’s job to explain that, so Caroline says, yes, this traitor isn’t normally here, they’re visiting the new lord. So this is our chance to strike! Awesome.

Caroline says there’s a holiday, the Festival of Rain, and that’s when we’ll have the chance to strike, so that’s our Crossroad: “Do we assassinate the traitor at the Festival of Rain?”

We would ask “hey, what’s the Festival of Rain?” but Caroline is a pro and is already telling us. It’s a celebration of the first big downpour of the rainy season. You mean a celebration after the rain happens, not a ceremony to bring the rains? We ask. Caroline says yep, exactly.

But that raises more questions. If it happens right after the first big rain, it couldn’t be a specific date planned in advance. We wouldn’t know exactly when it would happen until the weather decides? Which is a pretty big deal when it’s the fulcrum for our assassination conspiracy.

Caroline, ponders, evaluates, and says yes, that’s right: we don’t know exactly when the Festival of Rain will be. We have a rough idea based on normal seasonal weather, but that’s all.

Which is awesome and winds up totally changing the tone of the scenario. Now every scene, characters cast a glance to the heavens, looking for hints of grey or gathering mists. Mechanically it’s not changing the pacing of our Crossroad. But dramatically? Dramatically it is tasty. It holds up a mirror to the deep doubts our characters feel since we failed to protect our lord. Like the coming of the rain, our future is not something we can control.

So we sharpen our swords. And we watch the skies.

Ben Robbins | July 12th, 2022 | , , , ,

Pick a Hat, Any Hat…

Oooooh, look what I got in the mail! Yep, it’s Fedora Noir, where you can be a Detective… or you can be the detective’s Hat.

Fedora Noir

Fedora Noir

I’ve been using the online tool to play but it’s great having the actual cards. Soooo pretty…

Ben Robbins | July 11th, 2022 |

All the Stuff You Never See

“Show us all the stuff you haven’t posted and the games you abandoned!!!”

I write a lot of stuff that no one else is ever intended to read. Thoughts, theory, reflections, problem solving. Lots and lots of stuff. But it’s just for me, to help me figure things out. If you did read it, it probably wouldn’t make a lot of sense, because I haven’t put the effort in to turn reflection into communication — I haven’t taken the time to explain to the reader my mental starting point or the big picture I’m trying to address. Because I already know that, and I’m the audience.

That’s the vast majority of what I write, day-to-day.

Then there’s the flip side, the outward facing stuff, that is intended for other readers. Stuff like games I publish, ars ludi posts… or this thing you’re reading right now.

My two key criteria for putting out material are that, one, I’m putting in the effort to provide context and explain what I’m talking about so that someone else can understand my point, and, two, that I think what I’m writing about is actually useful to someone else.

Point one is about time and effort — you can just do more work to make it clear what you’re talking about. Time is the ultimate finite resource, but in fact it is almost never the work involved that stops me.

Point two is entirely more fundamental, and it usually is the thing that stops me from publishing something, either a game or a blog post or whatever. If it doesn’t seem like it’s really a new idea, or it doesn’t convey something useful to the reader, why post it? If a game doesn’t add something new and interesting, why make it?

I can get very far along, do a lot of work, and then just decide nope. The world is full of lots of people talking already, so I try to save my voice for when there is genuine merit. I’m not saying that’s how anyone else should operate, but that’s how I roll. One could argue (and I’m going to argue it right now) that deciding what part of your work has virtue and what does not is a big part of the job of a writer or game designer. Editing out the parts that don’t have merit. Scrutiny. That’s why we get paid the big bucks harhar.

But even the work you never see accomplishes a purpose. It helps me shape thoughts that will (often) lead to posts and games you do get to read.

Even as I type this, I question where this post lands on point two. If I decide it isn’t truly interesting and I put it on the discard pile, it will not be lonely.

My instinct is to give this essay a thumbs down. But I’m going to post it anyway. An exception that proves the rule.

Ben Robbins | July 4th, 2022 | | 1 comment

It Never Ends

The most unrealistic thing about Microscope is that the history has an end. There’s a starting bookend and an ending bookend.

Real history never ends. It just keeps going and going. Every victory sets the stage for the next battle, but so does every defeat. The next election will fix things! Or destroy things! Yes, an election will make a difference, but there will be another election after that. And another, and another, and another.

Things just keep happening. It’s never over.

When I talk to friends and family about the simmering hellscape that is current events, this is the thing I keep coming back to. We discuss the importance of the next election or how someone should face punishment for their crimes or what should be done about today’s tragedy. But I remind them (and myself) that the truth is it will never stop. It’s never over. When this thing is done, there will be something else.

If we don’t accept and embrace that this is how the world works we risk exhaustion and perpetual disappointment. We risk giving up on fixing things because it never feels like anything is *settled*.

Because, honestly, nothing ever is. It never ends.

Ben Robbins | June 26th, 2022 | , | 1 comment

He Needed His Anger

I forget how juicy family stories are in Union. Then I play it again and… wowzers.

The Crimson Knight was a vigilante who put on a mask because he was an angry, violent man, and fighting crime was the most positive outlet he could find to vent that anger.

But anger is not a bullet proof vest. And for all his fury and skills, Stephen Jones was just an ordinary man. And so one night, battered and bloody, he found himself in the hospital. Which is where he met his future wife, Deborah Steward.

Deborah was a nurse, and to Stephen (and herself) her life seemed ordinary, but as players we knew it was not. Her father was a down-on-his-luck boxer who had taken jobs with the mob to make ends meet and raise his daughter by himself. Deborah never knew her mother, because the woman her father had loved and lost was not who she said she was. She was really an infiltrator from a distant star, a spy sent to our world who fell in love with a human — because our story was ultimately about the hero born of that alien and human bloodline, a child of two worlds. (Did I mention that part? The alien bloodline that gives humans superpowers? Yeah that’s the conclusion we’re building towards in Deborah and Stephen’s grandchild.)

Deborah was only a baby when her mother returned to the stars, and neither father or daughter ever learned her secret. Deborah has no idea her half-alien heritage gives her powers, and in the hospital she heals the sick and injured without even knowing it. And yeah, there’s a ton of irony that the costumed superhero has no powers but the “ordinary” spouse does, though neither of them know it.

Their Union was simple. They met that night. Eventually they fell in love and had a child.

But every Union also has a Fate, so we can see how this couple’s story ends, and we see that what happiness they had was not to last. The Crimson Knight tries to infiltrate a criminal gang to bring it down but he is found out. He fights, he’s killed, and his body is dumped in the river. Deborah never knows what happened to him, only that one day he never came home, leaving her alone with their one year old son. It’s a sad ending, and a sad echo of her own childhood when her mother never returned.

But because Union is full of Microscopy goodness, that doesn’t turn out to be the whole story.

A player goes back and narrates a scene showing how before the Crimson Knight’s death, they spend long hours talking as Deborah tries to help him get over the rage that always haunted him, because yeah, that’s no good for a relationship. And now trying to help her husband find peace, the same power that healed the sick frees him of the anger that burned inside him. His hate is gone.

But he didn’t hang up his cape. And what is the Crimson Knight without his anger to drive him? We already know: a dead man. He needed his anger.

Now you tell me: was that scene Light or Dark?

Ben Robbins | May 10th, 2022 | , | 5 comments