Microscope In Spanish

El Refugio de Ryhope is bringing Microscope to Spanish speakers world-wide!

They did a great job with Follow, and it’s always exciting to see Microscope unleashed on a whole new community.

Ben Robbins | March 7th, 2023 | , | 1 comment

Emic vs Etic: Invent Words You Can Use

Way back in college, when I was taking anthropology courses instead of focusing on my major, I learned the idea of “emic vs etic”.

Anthropologists, being clever folks who have spent a lot of time studying cultures, recognized a distinction between terms and concepts that were part of the culture they were studying (emic), versus terms and concepts that they applied as outside observers, terms people in the culture would not use (etic). It’s a very fundamental concept once you think about it.

How does that relate to gaming? When we’re gaming, we’re playing both sides. We’re inventing worlds and cultures, but we’re also trying to play the characters in that world. We are outsiders trying to pretend to be natives who don’t actually exist. We’re trying to make a thing we invented feel like a real thing we’re exploring.

Comfortably stepping into the skin of those made-up people and acting like this is the world we live in is a pretty amazing leap. But here’s a tip to make it easier:

When you’re building settings, take the time to invent names for things that the characters within that setting would use, not just things the players would say.

If you’ve got law enforcement androids roaming around your space western, are characters just going to say “law enforcement androids” every scene? They could, but that doesn’t feel very natural. You need an emic term. You might decide on something like “law-bots” or “cyber-sheriffs”, but even if you just decide that people call them “the Law” it’s now an agreed upon in-world term.

And that’s the important part: everyone at the table knows what to say. Dialog and discussion is immediately easier, because you can role-play your character just saying those words instead of fumbling on weird mouthfuls and having to improvise names. Things flow.

Anything that makes talking in-character easier is worth its weight in gold.

Will it take a little bit longer to invent names that sound natural and fit the flavor you want? Yes, but it’s worth it. You don’t have to wrack your brain to name every single thing, but the more central something is to your story, the more it will come up, the more important it is that you give it a usable emic name.

A Name Is More Than A Name

Emic terms make the fictional world feel more real and make it easier to role-play, but the words we pick can also solidify cultural values. They can tell us a lot about how the people feel.

A classic example is our Roots & Weeds game of Shock from back in the early days of Story Games Seattle. We could have just called the Roots “value templates” and the Weeds “people who don’t have templates”, but the labels we picked added a whole layer of implied judgment. Calling someone a “weed” just sounds insulting. You know it’s a bad thing in this culture. And a “root” is something fundamental. It’s important. It matters.

I use this trick in all the GMless games I play, where we spontaneously create worlds together, but the exact same thing applies when you’re a GM preparing a setting. If you want your players to feel that sweet sweet immersion and play characters who act like they are part of your world instead of awkward visitors, take the time and give them the words they need.

Ben Robbins | February 16th, 2023 | , , | 6 comments

Cars vs Clouds: A Tale of Two Kingdoms

In the far future, the world is a blasted hellscape. Car-tribes prowl the wastelands, feuding for turf and pride. But far above the dust and blood floats a city of splendor, a jewel in the sky whose citizens lounge in lush gardens and drink and sing and love, thinking nothing of the suffering of those below…

We decided to try an experiment in our long-running Witches Kingdom Legacy game. I know what you’re thinking: “An experiment?? You??? No way!!!” Because you know how much we love experiments.

Our experiment: Instead of making one Kingdom in our new era, we made two different communities and then played them both simultaneously.

The two Kingdoms were very different paths our witch bloodlines took: in one they went totally Mad Max wasteland-warriors, using their witch-blood to power their monster-machines. And in the other they had withdrawn entirely from the doomed earth and hidden themselves in a floating cloud city and also apparently used less hyphenation. Both groups are the descendants of our same tribes from ages ago. Non-witch humans seem to have died out entirely, though we don’t know why or what caused the apocalypse, though I’m guessing the two are related. Play to find out!

Having decided to do a pair of Kingdoms, the sensible thing would be to play a Crossroad in one Kingdom, then jump to the other for the next Crossroad, right? Nope. That’s not how we roll. We made both entire Kingdoms, threats, characters, locations and all, then went ahead and declared Crossroads for both. Then every turn we switched Kingdoms. So one scene in cloud city, then one scene Mad Max’ing it up.

(Because we had an even number of players, at the end of every full loop we played two scenes in a row in the same Kingdom. If we didn’t it, each player would only ever frame scenes in one Kingdom, never the other, which would be no good.)

We’re playing online, so we keep all our notes in one shared doc for each Kingdom. But for this experiment, instead of making two documents, we made a giant two column table and put the two kingdoms side-by-side. There’s a lot of scrolling down, but seeing all the characters and issues side-by-side really seems to reinforce the contrasts in our story and highlight the simultaneity.

Did It Work?

The ultimate question for any experiment: did it work? Was it fun? Would you do it again?

Yes on all counts. We’ve finished one Crossroad in each Kingdom and we just jumped back in and made a second for each. The stories are hot hot hot. We discussed whether to switch to the more ordinary model of sticking to one Kingdom for a whole Crossroad instead of alternating scenes (because hey, you gotta check in and make sure things are working for everyone) but we agreed that jumping back and forth made it even more fun, since the whole theme was the contrast between these communities.

The tones of the day-to-day lives in the two Kingdoms could not have been more different, which sounds like it could have been a problem but I think made it easier: there was zero chance you would mix up what was happening in the two, or which characters belonged where.

I think we initially anticipated a big conflict between the savage road warriors and the lotus eating cloud dwellers, but so far they have had no interaction, which has been even better. We’re seeing each confront their own problems, and the contrast of those problems feels like it’s just setting the pot simmering for if and when they meet. Checkov’s cloud city, hanging on the mantleplace.

So if you’ve got the chance, I highly recommend giving double kingdoms a try, either as a standalone thing or as part of a legacy game. Just remember not to let the road-rage consume you and fuse your body with your car, turning you into a werewolf-car-berserker prowling the wastelands and terrorizing friend or foe alike. And beware baleful comets hanging in the sky, lest they turn out to be the returning star-dragon come to prove everything you knew a lie and herald an end to the world as you know it.

Yeah, watch out for both of those.

Ben Robbins | February 4th, 2023 | , , , ,

Two-Player Creativity Is Harder

Of course not every game of In This World has been magical, but when I hear about sessions that dragged, they often have one thing in common:

Only two players.

In a high creativity game, the difference between two and three players is bigger than it seems. When there’s only one other person in the game, you’re the only one listening to them and thinking of responses. It’s more like tennis, where you have to field every volley. It’s all on you. You never really have the option to kick back and percolate while other people go. It’s an entirely different dynamic.

On top of that pressure, there is also a smaller mix of ideas coming out because there are fewer brains at the table. That means less opportunity for surprises, and being surprised and intrigued by what other people come up with is a big part of the fun: they say things you didn’t expect and then you build on them, surprising them in return. In a two-player game, there’s literally only one brain at the table which is not yours. It is a much tighter — and scarcer — creative loop.

I’ve had similar experiences in two-player games of Microscope. It *can* work, but it’s more challenging. You either mind-meld with the other player and have an awesome time bouncing ideas off each other or it can be exhausting (or both). Compare that to other more character-driven role-playing games like Kingdom: two-player sessions are not really that different, because in any given scene you are role-playing with each other like you normally do, except you are in every scene instead of only some.

I’m not quite at the point of saying In This World doesn’t work with only two players, but I’m definitely adding a warning that it is *less* likely to work. It doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the bang you normally get. It seems to be more effort and less reward.

Anyone disagree? Anyone having fantastic sessions with only two players?

Ben Robbins | January 31st, 2023 | , , , | 1 comment

In This World, Playtesters Are Awesome

“This was the first time someone said, ‘I wish this was our world.'”

The playtest reports for In This World keep rolling in and I could not be happier with them.

Playtesters, you’re doing a great job. I don’t respond to every email unless I have some questions or don’t understand some of the feedback, but trust me, I am pouring over every one of your reports with a fine-toothed comb.

Keep it coming! If you’ve already played it and get to play again, I’d love to hear about it.

Ben Robbins | January 30th, 2023 | | 2 comments

God Is the Algorithm

In This World, God loves performative activism

I blame Caroline, for making a world where God decides your social media feed based on your virtues or sins, but is also totally cool with virtue signaling.

Ben Robbins | January 17th, 2023 | , | 2 comments