Classic Cartography: Star Frontiers

Time for some map nostalgia!

When Star Frontiers came out in 1982, we were so excited about lasers and gryojet pistols that we briefly dropped our long-running D&D campaign like a hot potato and went all-in. I remember wistfully wondering whether we’d ever return to our gelatinous cubes and +3 longswords. In the end the break was probably less than four months, but to a kid, that’s a life time.

These are some of the maps I drew for that first Star Frontiers game, an interconnected web of adventures on the barren backwater planet, Laco. Complete with authentic smudges, stains, and eraser marks!

Port Nacano

The main attraction was Port Nacano itself, the only “city” on the planet and the center of the action. In hindsight that “6 meter” scale seems way off. Clearly a clerical error.

Laco Planetary Map

The plains of Laco were littered with starship wrecks, including the shell of the Myyrs-Varn that was now being used as the camp for a hoverbike gang, the notorious Dentriss Howlers.


I used to draw *a lot* of maps back when I ran campaigns, as GMs do. I was about 14 years old when I made these, so it’s interesting to see how quickly my style changed and developed, as you’ll see if I get around to posting more blasts from the past.

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

Mind of Sandra Birch

“It’s Inside Out, the game”

I have a short list of go-to GMless pickup games, “games to play at a moment’s notice.” What I’m always looking for are games you can jump into easily but still have endless replay, usually because they handle a lot of different flavors of fiction.

Mind of Margaret is one of the few games on that list.

You tell the story of one main character, but each of us role-plays different emotions inside that person and debates what they should do at key points of their story — hence the “Inside Out” reference.

We played it recently, as part of Go Play NW this summer: Sandra Birch is trying to rediscover life after ending her marriage of twenty years. She has shared custody with her nearly-adult and eternally opinionated children. Her job is head of HR at the community college, but her dream is to go back to painting, which she gave up when she got married.

A pretty ordinary human situation, right? Not super dramatic. But one thing I love about Mind of Margaret is how even the most mundane decision is dramatic and interesting to play once the emotions start debating. Should I join the chess club? Should I pet that dog? In most games those would not be meaty scenes, but in Mind of Margaret all the inner drama comes out.

Sandra’s excited to discover that she’s sold her first painting! She’s doing it! But when her kids let slip that the buyer is really her ex-husband (“the patronizing bastard!!!”), will her Resentment, Fear, or Love decide whether to throw it back in his face?

Will Sandra revert to her maiden name? Will she try to finish that old painting she started in college? Will she let her new boyfriend sleep over? Every debate digs right into the *why* of each decision. There is no such thing as an uninteresting question once the emotions get their hands on it, because they’re all referendums on who this person really is and what drives them.

And while, yes, Mind of Margaret rocks “mundane” human stories like Sandra Birch, it also scales perfectly in the other direction. You can decide whether to attack the Death Star or slay the dragon. Both ends work great. It’s solid exploration of the human condition.

What I’m saying is, you should play it… but which emotion will win, your Curiosity, your Bravery, or your Doubt?

Ben Robbins | September 6th, 2022 |

Finger Dice

You and your friends are trapped on a desert island. What better way to pass the time than to play games? But you have no dice! What do you do?

You could whittle some out of coconut, but instead here’s an easy way for a group of people to simulate rolling a six-sided die. I originally laid out this method in Microscope Explorer, but it seems like a useful thing for everyone to have in their toolkit so I’m sharing it here.

You’ll find that you can also quickly eliminate sets of six as you count fingers. Drop fists or group together fingers that add up to six and drop them as you go, so long as there are still more fingers remaining (i.e. don’t go down to zero).

Statistically all results from one to six should be equally likely, regardless of how many people you include. Can you cheat and rig the results? Only if every player cooperates. If even a single player picks randomly, the result is unpredictable, which is pretty solid.

Ben Robbins | August 29th, 2022 | , | 6 comments

Metal of the Gods

Humanity steals metal from the Gods… HEAVY METAL…

In a classic case of someone suggesting an idea, then someone else taking that idea a little further, than someone else going even farther, we decided to do a quick Microscope game that was pure cosmic metal, and discovered in the process that my friends are stone cold liars: like when Jem says he “doesn’t really ‘get’ metal”, and then every single thing he lays down is a fullblown album cover that leaps off the page.

In our history METAL is the ultimate power in the universe, and eventually the universe’s undoing. Our fiction demanded a certain amount of all caps. In fact lots of all caps. And umlauts. (But also, palette: “no Nazi stuff”)

… the ancient warrior, WÜLFHELM, is given METAL by the capricious GODS to claim his vengeance. When his dirge-song washes across the battlefield his foes quake with fear, unmanned. METAL rises.

… the modern band, DEATHWÜLF, plays an apocalyptic battle of the bands against the very GODS themselves, wresting METAL from them forever in the Ragnarok-and-roll. METAL is liberated.

… the cosmic emperor, STORMWÜLF, from the throne of his Citadel-World, plugs into a pulsar and broadcasts METAL into the very fabric of the universe, to shake the very GODS in their thrones… and annihilates the universe in his hubris. METAL destroys.

… but in the final death throes of the cosmos, the spirit of the long-fallen METAL-DRAGON escapes into a new universe. METAL is reborn.


And that’s not even going into the METAL WARS: RISE AND FALL OF THE SEPULTURIANS (also a perfect album title, like all our focuses), where a peaceful alien race comes into contact with the Shredding Emperor’s METAL armada, shattering their utopian society forever.

Remember kids, the METAL-DRAGON died for your sins.

Ben Robbins | August 28th, 2022 | ,

“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 | , , , ,