Posts Tagged ‘indie games’

Push your own or pull together – common storytelling and Microscope

I have just read through Microscope, a story game by Ben Robbins, in the hope of getting to play it at some point during the summer. The basic idea of Microscope really speaks to me, and I’m sure I’ll have a blast playing it, but there is something about the way the game handles ownership and responsibility for the story that does not sit well with me.

Microscope in a nutshell

Microscope is a game about telling a world history from the broad strokes to the minutiae of the moment. You start by bookending your game by saying which broad period of history you want to talk about – in our world, it might be from the transformation of Rome from republic to empire until the discovery of the new world, or even further up in history.

After setting up the game, you take turns adding elements to the history of the world. The game operates on three levels of detail: periods (World War II, the Cold War, the decline of the Western Roman Empire or the colonization of the New World); events (D-Day, the Cuba Crisis, the Sack of Rome or Columbus’ landing in America); and scenes, posing a question to clarify something in relation to an event (“How did Columbus react when his lookout told him that he saw land?”).

An important principle of the game is that you don’t tell history in a linear way – in other words, you can always insert a new period between two periods, an event between two events or a scene between two scenes,  as long as you don’t contradict anything already established. In this way you zoom back and forth across history, looking at a new aspect of world history each time by selecting a “focus” for this go-around of the table.

“No-one can help you now!”

My problem with the game is in how it deals with joint storytelling. I’m used to joint storytelling from playing games like Fiasco, Apocalypse World, Geiger Counter, Gloom, as well as from improv theatre and creative writing exercises. In most of such endeavours, you accept and build upon whatever is added to the tale by the current storyteller, but you’re free, and even encouraged, to give ideas to that person if they’re unsure how to proceed.

Not really so in Microscope. This is from the Playing the game part of the game (on page 20):

“Only the current player gets to contribute. Other players should not give suggestions or ideas, and the current player cannot ask for input either. Other players cam and should ask for clarification if they can’t visualize what the current player is describing.”


Why? I get that this game is about everybody contributing, and that Robbins wants to avoid a scenario where one player is forcing their own vision through by making other players play what the domineering player wants to see. On the other hand, I’ve played with newbies often enough to know that sometimes, it’s just necessary to help some players along. Even experienced players sometimes can use a bit of a push to get started. And I think leaving a stumped player without aid can be as bad for them – and the game – as another player trying to remote control them.

As such, ruling out asking for “input” seems to be an unnecessarily antagonistic approach to joint storytelling. Instead, I would have encouraged input or “nudging” that doesn’t amount to remote controlling another player. “Well, we haven’t heard from that character in a while,” or “What kind of effects do you think what just happened would have further down in history?”. Posing questions or drawing attention to things that can give a jumping off point for adding to the story.

Later, under the headlines “You build on each other…” and “…but don’t collaborate” (page 27), Robbins writes:

Nothing will kill your game faster than playing by committee. When it’s someone else’s turn, don’t coach. Explaining the rules is fine, but don’t suggest ideas. Even if another player wants ideas, don’t give them. Let them come up with something.

Be interested in what other players create. Ask questions, demand clarification. If there are contradictions, point them out, but resist the urge to make suggestions, even tiny ones. You’ve already inspired them with your contributions to the history. Now wait and see what they do with it. Keep your poker face.

If you collaborate and discuss ideas as a group, you’ll get a very smooth and very boring history. But if you wait and let people come up with their own ideas, they may take the history in surprising and fascinating directions. It can be hard to sit silently and watch someone think, but the results can be awesome.

And I get a lot of that. I really do. But I think Robbins is painting a false dichotomy here. Not playing by committee is not the same as not helping someone come up with an idea. It’s true that letting others come up with their own ideas can give you a great story, better than what you could have made yourself. But in both Geiger Counter and Fiasco, I have seen “current players” sparring with other players to come up with a logical next scene to set.

I agree that players should come up with their own ideas, and I agree that you should be patient with players while they consider their options. But I would trust players to know when to give a hint and when not to, particularly if Robbins had given some structured way of doing that.

Pushing your own idea

I have similar issues with another, related, aspect of the game. When a scene has been set, each player selects a Main Character to play in that scene, and may also play one or more secondary characters.

During scenes, players have authority over everything their character says, does and perceives, and anything that happens to their character. If you want to create something in the outside world, you can make your character perceive it. You can suggest actions to others, but they have to go along.

If someone during scenes introduces something about the world that you want to replace with your own idea, you can do something Robbins calls “Push”. When you push, you describe your alternative idea, then everybody at the table may give their own idea without negotiating or discussing, then you vote for your favourite one or two ideas, then play the winning suggestion.

There are a number of special circumstances where you have to push instead of just playing:

  • If you want someone to perceive something particular,
  • If you want to describe something that none of the characters can see,
  • If you want to say that somebody else already knew something.

The reason for this is that as a rule, you only have authority over your own character. So if you want to include something beyond that, you must make sure everyone is OK with it. That’s fair, and in many ways quite reasonable.

On the other hand, it rubs me the wrong way that Robbins starts up the creative conflict resolution before anybody has even opposed a particular suggestion. Sure, he does indicate that it’s all right for everybody to just say sure – but the way the rules are stated, everybody should consider whether they have a better idea every time somebody introduces any of the above elements. Why not state that you should ask if anybody would like to Push against your suggestion, rather than saying that you are Pushing?

MY character

Another aspect of the Push-rules in Microscope is that you can never Push to change what somebody else’s Primary Character does. During the scene, you have absolute control over your character. And that puzzles me as well.

Having control over your character in a regular role-playing game makes a lot of sense. In a traditional game as well as many story-games and indie games, your primary way of interacting with the game is through your character. But in this game, you only have possession of a certain character for one scene at a time. Next time, the same character might be played by somebody else, and that character might not even appear again.

So while it’s good that each player can make decisions for their character, thus making the game smoother and keeping everyone involved, I do wonder whether the game could not have benefited from having some way of changing what somebody does with a character that is, after all, a part of a story you are all telling together.

Antagonistic storytelling?

I have yet to play Microscope, and it may turn out that my concerns are misplaced. I definitely think that it will be a small concern with the people I am likely to play it with (and I WILL play it – it seems too awesome a game for me NOT to play).

And that might be where part of my resistance comes from: I may be used to a certain way of role-playing that is different from what Robbins is used to. To me, it seems that Robbins assumes that the players’ natural inclination is to fight over the story, and to try to force their own vision of the game through. That’s not something I see that often. I usually prefer cooperative storytelling, where you take and give suggestions from everybody all the time. That holds, even in games like In A Wicked Age or S/Lay w/Me, where your characters are in opposition to one another: you are still working together to create the best possible story.

[AW: Shadow of the Mountain] First Session summary

A while back, I played some Apocalypse World with Asbjørn as the MC. This was a lot of fun, but we never really got to the end of it. Also, I was quite curious to explore the game from the MC’s chair. It seemed it had some interesting ways to run the game that are both similar and different to how I’d usually run a game. Also, most of the story games and Indie Games I’ve played have been one-shot, so I’d like to see where we’d get playing a campaign version game.

Add to this that I have had a bit of a drought in my roleplaying for a while, and I was really yearning to get to playing some roleplaying games. So, long story short, I gathered three players and set up a game of Apocalypse World. This is a brief account of the first session.

Too much choice

When I played with Asbjørn, it seems we did a lot of worldbuilding quite early. I can’t recall whether we did it before or after making characters, but I seem to recall that we quickly had a good idea of what kind of place the game was taking place in. That seemed a bit harder going here. This might have to do with the way that I presented it, with the amount of Post Apocalypse we all knew, with my knowledge of the game… Ah, well. My players did say that the whole community building thing was one of the great fascinations of the genre, which made me think we were onto something here.

I started out with having my players choose which kind of character to play. I introduced the basic characters and a number of limited edition ones. I think I may have overdone it, because my players looked rather shell shocked at the many sheets of paper when I was done introducing all the options, and it took us a fair while until they had all chosen.

After that, everything went rather smoothly, and we got together a good cast of characters. We did the “history thing,” and went into the 1st session rules. Man, it’s intense MC’ing (at least the first session of) Apocalypse World. So many principles and moves to remember, and you have to keep them all ready all the time, cause the players are looking at you ALL THE TIME.

Anyway, I stole a custom move from Asbjørn, which means that whoever does a summary of the events of a session gets to mark experience at the beginning of the next session. And so, below is a short summary, written by Erik, and a short description of the characters, written by me.

Dramatis Personae

There are three players in the game:

  • Maki (played by Ole) is the Hardholder of Mount Harren. He wears loose, colourful clothing, and carries an ornate rifle on his sholder.
  • Smith (played by Erik) is a Brainer. He used to be a member of Maki’s gang, but struck out on his own. He wears spelunking gear, and lives in the caves in the mountains.
  • Spider (played by Cheresse) is a Hocus. Her cult is “The Sorrow,” a group that assembles in the darkness in the caves.

A note: we decided that you must be in shadow to enter the Psychic Malstrom. This was done, not least because the two “weird” characters (Smith and Spider) both lived in the caves.


The city of Mount Harren is plagued by hunger and sickness (the runs). Medical personnel have gone after supplies.

Crudhammer* complains to Maki that his girlfriend Momo is very sick, and Maki suggest that Crudhammer* (and his buddy Humty Dumty*) go shake the Kult Of Sorrows down for some food and medicine.

Smith observes Goldman*, Tor* and Ork* having a clandestine meeting with the merchant Fleece in the mountains. They suggest that Smith say nothing about the encounter, but as Tor spots Smith eavesdropping, he kicks Smith into the stream. Smith is so angry, he reports the meeting to Maki anyway. Later Goldman* explains that Fleece and his fellow merchants from the city of Ronsville, are unhappy with their town lord Ron, and want to move their trading to Mount Harren. Mutiny is brewing in Ronsville…

Meanwhile Spider have declared that the mountains are sacred, and hunting rights are only for the cave dwellers, not the city folks. A city kid is killed by some of the Kult Of Sorrow for trespassing/poaching, and Rothschild (the city kids father) and some of his friends try to storm the cave with the cult. Smith tries to calm Rothschild down, but fails. Two cult members get killed in the attack. A conflict between the city folks and the cave dwellers are imminent.

* Gang members that are Maki’s enforcers

Next, on the Shadow of the Mountain

That’s a very brief version of the game – doesn’t include Smith trying to talk sense into Maki or being rejected at the gate, doesn’t include the way Spider left his followers to die, or casually sent his people to kill any city dweller that went into the mountain (talk about opportunities on a platter…). And of course, much more is already happening in my mind. I ought to sit down and make the fronts RIGHT NOW, but I haven’t really got the energy. Anyway, I’ll post the Fronts later. Till then!

Planescape meets S/Lay episode 1: The characters

I have talked about making Planescape hacks of indie games. This post and the one or two to follow, contain my attempt at a hack of Ron Edward’s S/Lay w/Me. Or rather, this isn’t so much a hack as a “mission pack,” I guess – I don’t change any of the rules of the game, I just suggest appropriate ways that the Planescape world might fit the (very world independent) system of S/Lay w/Me.

S/Lay shortly

S/Lay is a a swords&sorcery storytelling game for two players. One person will be “you” and the other will be “I,” the “you” controlling the protagonist of the story, the “I” controlling the Monster and the Lover. “You” start the game by stating who they are, where the story takes place, and what the protagonist’s Goal is. “I” then decide the nature of the Monster and the Lover. In order to make this game work with Planescape, then, what is needed is some new protagonist concepts, and some new locations.

The protagonist can vary a whole lot. Looking at the ones in the book, they are all written around a contrast, indicated by a “but” in the description: “I am a young warrior, fierce and feared, but my hair is grey.” Most of them are constructed like this: “I am a [type of person], [description], but [sentence about me].” Only one falls outside of the template: “I am lamed and sick, but my iron will commands even the dead.” The types of person varies a lot, but they have the common denominator of implying hardened, tough and able people.

I am thinking that for the hack, I will make characters from all the factions in the book, and add some for some of the planes. It would be most typical S&S to have only humans, but I think for Planescape, some almost-humans are acceptable – in a very wide sense of that word.

The locations in the book are stated in a single phrase, often very generically: “The cemetary that is also a city.” A lot of them imply beauty and civilization, but all of them contain a hint of something sinister and dangerous.

For the hack, I may write them a little longer than the ones in the book, as I’ll want to tie it to specific places in the setting. I will probably try to avoid some of the Good planes, as I don’t think the whole concept of the “monster” would fit too well there. Apart from that, I will try to get as far about in the cosmology as possible.

Who are you?

Ok, so here goes. First the characters:

I am an Athar, out to spite the Gods, but I still have faith / I am a Beliver of the Source, certain of better things to come, but I can take care of myself / I am a bleaker, living a life I know has no meaning, but my laughter is warm / I am a Doomsguard, a believer in decay, but I am compassionate / I am a Dustman, living among the dead, but I only kill when I must / I am a Taker, my eyes calculating, but I don’t care much for wealth. / I am a wizened Guvner Lawyer, but I know how to fight dirty. / I am a Hardhead, crusading for Peace and Truth, but I have vices. / I am a Mercykiller, out to punish the guilty, but I can be gentle. / I am an Anarchist, and I live to free the enslaved, but I cannot free myself. / I am a Signer, bending the world to my will, but I long for company / I am a sensate, feeling everything around me, but I can be callous. / I am a Cipher, in tune with myself, but my face is gaunt and hollow. / I am a Xaositect, riding the chaos of the world, but my mind is focused.

I am a tiefling, decended from fiends, but my bearing is noble. / I am a Githzerai hunter, grim and brooding, but a fire burns within me. / I am an Aasimar, bearing the marks of celestial ancestors, but my attire is less virtuous. / I am a mighty mage, bending the planes to my will, but I can still see wonder. / I am a seasoned freelance, having served both Heavens and Hells, but I am my own master./ I am a veteran from the prime material plane, a stranger to the planes, but I can rely on my instincts.

Here are the characters. I am not entirely satisfied with them. Not all of them are quite concrete enough, being a little too much about the ideology and the general idea, and less about how they appear in the story – Edwards’ character are very viceral. I do think I achieved that a bit more in the non-faction oriented. Oh, and I could have gone on, but this is where I chose to stop. Feel free to suggest additions or alterations below.


Next time, I’ll take a look at some locations.