“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 they wanted a landscape picture and it’s what I could find. Bonus points if you can name that museum!

I’ve done a few interviews recently and they’re always so much fun. I think it’s because instead of treating it like it’s about me, I think of it as a chance to talk with someone about all the stuff we love. How could that not be fun???

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 in your Microscope games right now:

With these changes, scenes are out of the business of narrating world-facts, and are purely focused on seeing what people do and think. We’ve already got Periods and Events for declaring big history, so we don’t lose anything by removing that option from Scenes. Which also means the Push mechanic can go on the scrap heap. Rest in peace, Push!

The player making the scene can of course add details as part of describing the situation, just as they always could. And when in doubt, they have final say over any kind of background action or the situation where the scene is taking place, because they made it.

Answering questions also gets a lot easier. Since questions are now always about people, someone playing that character is in a position to decide the answer. That’s intentional! If the question is “does the Captain believe in her mission?” and you’re playing the Captain, everyone knows from the start of the scene that what you do is critical. Other players can use their characters to add context and or try to change what you think about the situation, but ultimately you decide what the Captain believes.

Sometimes you make a game better by adding things, but in this case I think the right solution was to take things away and work in a smaller space. Going back and evaluating these changes in light of the five issues I described, I don’t want to do anything about #1, I can’t eliminate but I can reduce #2 and #3, and I’m completely eliminating #4 and drastically reducing #5 (avoiding it entirely in most scenes). Scenes still take longer than just making a Period or Event, but with these changes they run smoother and go faster because there is less potential for fumbling around. It’s easier for everyone to understand what we’re doing and get it done.

With these changes, we spend more time thinking about the lives of these characters than being caught up in our own heads. Scenes *feel* right.

Chronicle 2.0

So yes, I’m very happy with these changes and how they play out. But I’m not done yet. I have even more upgrades I want to try. Which means I’ll need to play more Microscope games with a lot of scenes to test them. And you know what’s perfect for that? Chronicle from Microscope Explorer.

The original idea of Chronicle was to simplify Microscope by centering the history on a single thing, like a city, a magic sword, or a secret society. The whole history would be the story of that place, object, or concept.

But another important aspect of Chronicle was to make Microscope histories that were more focused on people. Each Period had “anchor” characters whose lives showed us how the chronicle changed over time: the smith that forged the sword, the knight that wielded it, the tomb robber who stole it, or the wealthy baron who hung it over his mantle as a trophy. A classic example is Flight of the Madamas aka the Citizen Kane of spaceship games.

When I made the Chronicle, I think that, if anything, I didn’t go far enough in pushing people and scenes. Part of that was because I originally wrote all the Microscope Explorer variants (Chronicle, Union, and Echo) as supplemental instructions rather than standalone rules. You had to read the new rules, and then go back and look at the core Microscope rules and combine them on the fly. As I saw when I revised Union, turning it into a standalone game with all the rules in one place made it a lot easier to just do whatever seemed best for *this* game rather than worrying if jumping back and forth between the two texts made things too confusing.

So I’m revising Chronicle as a standalone game, not only to experiment with these scene rules to improve Microscope-proper, but also so Chronicle can fulfill its destiny as a more focused, character-driven take on Microscope…

There will doubtless be calls for playtesters when the new Chronicle is ready, but you don’t have to wait: you can start trying out the rules I already described in your Microscope games right now. I want to hear how the new scenes work for you.

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 group (8 people) and only got to make one world, so they only got a taste and packed a lot of ideas into that one world.

Educators everywhere: the gauntlet has been thrown down.

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 them out entirely. People are missing out on the full experience.

I want to fix that, and this is a design journal peek into how I’m going to do it. First I’ll review the issues that push people away from scenes, then I’ll talk about the improvements I’ve been experimenting with. Solutions you can start using in your Microscope games right now.

Issue #1: Making Big History Is Fun

This first issue makes total sense to me, and I’m not even really against it: It’s that lots of games let you play scenes, but most don’t let you raise up or destroy entire empires with a wave of your hand. So players gravitate to the unique opportunities Microscope gives them and use their turns to make big history in Periods or Events instead.

People wanting to flex their big creation muscles is actually great, but I’d like to tilt the balance a little bit back towards a healthy dose of scenes.

Issue #2: Scenes Take More Time

It’s no surprise that scenes take up more playtime. It naturally takes longer to frame a situation, have everyone pick characters, and role-play together, then it does to just have one player narrate a Period or Event.

On the plus side, everyone at the table gets to participate in a scene, so the time is being shared, but you could argue that in that same amount of time the group could “cover more ground” by sticking to Periods or Events (or dictated scenes): everyone would get to contribute just as much by taking their own turns, and we’d make more big history.

Issue #3: You Have To Switch Styles of Play

Scenes require players to shift to an entirely different style of play. Instead of taking turns and solo narrating, everyone is talking together and being their character on the fly. There’s a whole different set of rules for how to play.

That change of tempo can actually be a lovely break from the rigid structure of the rest of the game, but there is mental overhead learning a whole new system. Game designers take note: every time you require players to switch gears and use a whole different system, you are adding overhead. Make sure it pays off.

Issue #4: Too Much World-Building In Scenes

In addition to role-playing, every player in a scene can invent world-facts as fast as they can talk. Want an earthquake? Just describe feeling the ground tremble. It’s like the world-building power each player has on their turn when they make Periods or Events, except now everyone can do it all at once. Microscope is all about making stuff up, but while carefully moderating everyone’s ability to contribute — scenes have practically no limits.

Making up world stuff is also a distraction from role-playing. You’re trying to explore these character and their decisions, but you’re also busy trying to make up big history. You’re doing two things at once, which makes it harder to really get into the characters.

Issue #5: Fuzzy Answers

Everyone in the scene is supposed to be trying to work towards an answer to the Question. But that can be a very fuzzy process, because none of us has “dibs” on the answer and we all might be moving in different directions. What if two people have strong but contradictory ideas? What if no one has a clear idea? Do we roll for initiative? What? It can be awkward.

The Push mechanic was intended to help resolve disagreements but it’s a very crude fix. Note for designers: providing a veto is not as good as avoiding an undesired behavior in the first place.

So those are the issues that I’m seeing. They all interact, and they are not all problems that can be solved. But if I want people to use scenes more (and get the full Microscope experience) I need to make sure they get a satisfying return on the time they invest making and playing them.

The good news is that I have already been testing some changes to improve scenes, hinging on one key idea: Giving scenes back to the people…

Next up: Microscope Scenes 2.0

Ben Robbins | April 1st, 2024 | , , | 12 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.

But what if instead of just playing one family history, you do quick games of Union for each character, except you intentionally crossover characters in the family tree. Make sure at least one person appears from one of the other histories, either as an actual shared ancestor or someone important to their story.

Maybe we share the same great-grandmother, but our grandparents were different siblings, or even children from different marriages. Or maybe our grandfathers were childhood friends before they got older and became rival suitors for the hand of my grandmother. Or maybe the Fate of one of my ancestors was that one of your ancestors killed them in a duel.

Do that for a while and you will have an *elaborate* shared history full of juicy stories and old grudges… or adorable bonds and crowded holiday dinners.

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 process, they could use other systems that were designed for world-building and group setting creation to structure the session. Why reinvent the wheel when there’s a perfectly good wheel right over there?

So you bust out Microscope. You bust out In This World. You bust out Downfall. You bust out Shock. You bust out A Thousand Years Under the Sun. And you play a session of that to help create the setting for the other game you’re going play.

And heck, that was pretty fun. Maybe you should do another session, with that game or maybe a different one, just to really flesh out this world. And then you’re playing Kingdom week after week, confronting Crossroads and trying wrestling for control of your community… but still to get ready for that D&D game you intend to play!!!

And that’s how you start with Session Zero and wind up with Campaign Zero…

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 In This World, the idea is that you start off with true statements about your topic in the real world and then use those as springboards to say how your fictional world is not the same. And instead of making just one world, you make several, rapid-fire, so you get to explore a bunch of different takes on the same starting point.

We had barely finished our statements and Marc was ready to come out of the gate strong: no, in this world the statement “Uniforms identify profession” isn’t true. You dress for the job you WANT.

I could see him wavering between making a realistic world, where we’d have ways of distinguishing between real firefighters and people who just put on a firefighter outfit that morning, but then he made the leap and said, nope, there’s no way to tell them apart. Full hijinks, which was clearly the best of all choices. Everyone gets to chase their dreams, every single day.

For the next world, Caroline swung us back in a more grounded direction, where the statement “Clothing is made of natural or synthetic textiles” is not true: we have abandoned synthetics in our clothing entirely, choosing sustainably grown materials and outfits made to last much longer. It’s a day-after-tomorrow future where climate change has almost gotten the better of us, but we’re working together to bring the balance back, and wearing cozy outfits in the process. Repair instead of replace, and no plastics in our shirts, thank you very much.

So now it was time for me to kick-off world three, but I was ready, because Caroline’s had got me thinking: what if clothing wasn’t made of either natural *or* synethetic textiles? What if it was made of… nothing? Instead of wearing physical clothing at all, people are robed in holograms of clothing. It looks like you’re dressed but it’s just light, coming from a tiny projector on a bracelet or necklace. And you can swap to a new outfit at the press of a button.

“But they’re wearing underwear or something under the holograms?” Me: thinks about my commitment to the concept. No. No underwear. Nothing. That’s the idea. Yes, that means everyone is just sitting bare ass on the same park benches. Caroline: “Thanks, I hate it.” Luckily it’s all future-perfect domed cities, so no one has to worry about getting cold…

Boom, three worlds and we’re done, all in a little over an hour.

Shifting Into Human Gear

There’s this thing that happens every time we make a world, where you have the starting idea, the main concept, but then as people add detail we start to really tinker with the implications. We shift down gears from big picture to nuance. That’s often where the real human vibes kick in.

Like in the second world, instead of people not wanting to be seen wearing the same outfit twice, it’s the exact opposite, because wearing the same outfit over and over again (and keeping it in good shape) shows that you are environmentally conscious and not being a wasteful consumer. You could cynically call it virtue signaling except it’s not just a signal, it’s actually doing the right thing.

And in the third world, with the hologram clothes, we added that people can change their outfit at the click of a button, but not only can people change their look on a whim they will often see someone else who has a look they like and immediately imitate it. Fashions ripple through passersby on the street.

But we never talked about anyone actually *creating* those designs in the first place. Which raises the question, are we just cycling through some huge digital catalog, with so many options that we don’t even know what’s possible until we see it on someone else? Is everyone just copying other people’s TikTok moves instead of making something new?

And in the first world, since everyone has dreams of being someone else and putting on outfits to match, yes, sexy dress-up roleplay is everyone’s bedroom kink. You’ve got a pile of different uniforms stuffed in your closet, so “sexy firefighter” or whatever is always at your fingertips. It’s like a college Halloween party all year round.

Which is trashy and funny, but also kind of bittersweet when you remember that anyone who has a particular uniform at one time actually wanted to be that thing. Their dress-up fantasies might be coming from a much more sincere place.

That’s something we’ve seen time and again in our In This World games, that even the most light-hearted, funny world can shine a genuine light on human nature. And I love it.

Ben Robbins | March 12th, 2024 | ,