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 of 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 | , , , | show comments