Monday, May 23, 2011

Warring Clans of Cajun Elf Ninjas (vs. Pirates!)

Click on the image for the notes
Saturday night's Microscope game was the first time that I ever played the game in person. It's also only second time that I've ever played a face-to-face roleplaying game without a GM (never-mind the dispute as to whether or not games like Fiasco or Microscope can even be called roleplaying games to being with). I was supposed to run a game of Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG but I failed to find sufficient time to develop the idea kernel that I had floating in my head. Even after my wife's graduation, life's been a whirlwind of activity and it has been hard to find peaceful moments that are free of distraction.

I floated the idea of Microscope because it doesn't require any advance preparation (indeed, advance preparation would be mostly pointless). One of my regular players was enthused about the game when I mentioned it earlier because he said (and I'm paraphrasing) "that it sounds like the fun of GMing without getting stuck with running an actual game session". This particular player really digs world-building and I totally understand where he is coming from. The other two players are both writers and I imagined that they would appreciate the game for similar reasons.

For the uninitiated, Microscope is a game of creating a world's history. You define the starting and ending points and explore the bits that interest you in non-chronological order. There is a roleplaying element, but at least in the games that I've played, it is largely subsumed by this world building aspect. That's not to say that it doesn't scratch a certain roleplaying itch. For me, at least, Microscope really taps into my GM's urge to create while at the same time wanting to not be in control of the creation. The interaction of other players offers the potential of huge surprises and building on those surprises allows me to create things in turn that I would never have thought of otherwise.

The Initial Agreement
Before the game even got started, we needed to agree to a set of ground-rules.  As facilitator (the guy who explained the rules to everyone else), I worried that we'd get hung up on this part. As I expected, nobody really wanted to step forward and say "I want to play X". Instead, we mostly tossed out vague preferences.

This is where my GM nature asserted itself (and not for the first time in the evening). I wanted to get a Big Picture selected in a hurry, so I asked everyone to volunteer one concept (the game itself provides a whole page of examples). The idea is that we could always roll.

Here is what we game up with:

1] Magic returns to the world
2] The rise and fall of an Ancient Civilization
3] A tranquil suburb is transplanted into a sword & sorcery world
4] "Kalabar spoke the world into existence."

Looking at this list, it became apparant that we didn't have to role at all. Concepts #2 and #4 clearly went together and everyone settled on that fairly quickly.

Then we moved onto creating the Palette. In Microscope, this is the part of the game where each player can specify things that are explicitly present in the setting or that are absolutely forbidden. This part was fun, easy and immediately led to an evolving sense of the world as some kind of Earthdawn-meets-Wuxia kind of place.

The Map
A really unexpected addition to the palette (see above) is that one player proposed that we use the I.C.E. map of Middle-Earth, minus all the familiar bits. The map is beautiful and comes pre-labeled with exotic place names. While not appropriate to all Microscope concepts, I strongly recommend the approach for similar fantasy games. Every event or scene was fixed in the world's geography and it was geography that often suggested details that surprised us.

Periods and Events
Before the start of the regular turn cycles, we came up with our Start and End Periods:

As it turned out, we never get to explore that first period during our session. The idea of a mortal(?) singing/speaking the world into existence seemed pregnant with possibilities. But play has it's own rhythm and riffing off other players can lead you into very unexpected directions.

As per the rules, each player then asynchronously contributed one Period or Event to the history. It didn't take long for the players to jump into this enthusiastically, though I felt a little like a GM as I asked questions of the players to elicit more detail. In this stage and during the regular turn order, there was also a fair bit of unsolicited suggestions from other players when it came time to define Periods and Events. While the rules advise against this, I think it was unavoidable for a first game

First Turn, First Scene
To my knowledge, Microscope is unique in that is gives explicit advice for teaching the game to other people. Part of this advice is that the facilitator (the guy who knows the rules) should go first and dive in with a scene right off the bat. I followed this advice by creating a focus of "Dragons" and an Event in which Dragons turn the tide of the Pirate Rebellion Against the Empire (using another player's Period as suggested). I then proposed the following question for our first scene:
So here is where play became a little tricky. As the player proposing the scene, I set the stage and suggested characters that could be played (I only required the Dragon and at least one pirate captain petitioner). From that point, we had to roleplay until the question was answered. It worked and produced an interesting scene but it felt a little uncomfortable (in much the same way as I found Fiasco to be uncomfortable). Lacking the traditional structure of a roleplaying game (not to mention the traditional Player/GM divide), I had this little internal panic that the entire game would collapse right there. Of course, it didn't and we went on to have a great time. But there was that moment of fear...

I'm still trying to figure out my feeling about scenes in Microscope. It seems to me that they are an awesome way to really make a history personal. But they take much longer to run then then rest of the game. In an approximately three hour session, we only managed one full scene and one dictated scene. Ideally, I'd like to see one full seen for each pass around the table and I'd love to give every player a chance to be the Lens. Without playing for at least five hours, I'm not sure how that could happen.

Play By Post?
After the game, we talked about how things went and we all agreed that the game would be great for the Play-by-Post format. It's almost ideal for it, actually. Other than scenes, turns are completely sequential. Players could take as long as they liked to compose their posts and there would be a nice written record of what transpired. You could probably even manage a player or two more than the recommended four-player maximum.


Greg said...

The scene may have made you nervous -- as soon as you described your pirate navigator and what he was carrying, I (playing the dragon) knew immediately what the dragon wanted and why they entered the war. From that point on, it was just a matter of leading you there.

Trey said...

Very cool. I always envy your play-posts. I envy the player's with such a creative GM, and I envy the GM who has a group of player's that seem willing to try any game that strikes his fancy. ;)

Risus Monkey said...

@Greg: As we progressed in the scene, I kind of figured that you had it under control. Didn't know the price was going to be books, specifically until near the end.

@Trey: Alas, I only wish I had more time to try new games *and* to make progress on our existing campaigns.

Lowell Francis said...

Excellent- glad to see and read through another group's approach. And to see especially how you handled scenes.