Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Microscope session

I've been playtesting Ben Robbins' Microscope for a few months now. Microscope is both an excellent world-building RPG and very hard to describe from the rules alone; it's one of those games that instantly clicks when you just play it.

So I've posted one of my (edited) playtest reports here as an example of play.
Thanks to the test group!

Playtest group (In order of play around the table)

Malcolm (Total newcomer to RPGs; experienced wargamer and actor.)
Ian (Roleplayer and LARPer.)
Heather (Roleplayer and LARPer.)
Joe (Roleplayer and GM; likes diplomacy and tactical realism.)
Kirsty (A casual gamer who usually avoids RPGs as too complex.)
Daniel (Experienced RPGer, GM, and rules geek.)

Setup stage

By a quick proposal from Malcolm (hastily seconded by Joe), our setting was ‘the rise of empire in ancient China’. Or at least, it was until the palette of setting contents had been assembled; our setting looked less historical the more we added…

Yes: Tame Dragons (Malcolm had just finished reading Temeraire.)
No: Observable Deities (Ian throwing an interesting surprise in there…)
No: Sea Travel (Heather, responding to the dragons. Then a big surprise from Kirsty: )
No: Paper. (Kirsty suggested that writing is done on those giant clay vases. Pottery record-keeping should certainly cut the Chinese bureaucracy…
At these point we all commented that the palette was becoming all Noes, but I felt this actually made the setting more interesting. Nevertheless, Joe added:
Yes: Immortality. But only by mastery of secret Kung Fu techniques.
Yes: Ninja. (This was starting to sound like a bureaucracy full of nasty infighting, so Daniel wanted spies and assassins.)
No: Gunpowder. (A final detail from Malcolm here; at the time I thought he was trying to prevent unhistorical premature use of firearms. However, when asked afterwards, he explained that he was trying to prevent mass troop formations / group slaughters; he wanted to try and keep the setting personal to the characters. He felt this would encourage initiative.)

To simplify the rules for new players, Tone Debt (now called Drama) was not introduced until after the first Scene had been played. Legacies were not introduced until after the first complete round, when the lens first shifted.


Getting on with the game, a few hours of play rapidly established a number of historical periods and key events. Here is the complete timeline after two rounds of play (twelve turns).

(To make it clearer how the game developed, Scenes are marked with the order they were played. The timeline is highlighted according to tone: Periods, events and scenes with a light tone are blue, those with a dark tone are red.)

  • Creation of the First People by Dragons.
    • The man who will be crowned Emperor begins to study martial arts.
  • Settlement of farmlands.
    (We never figured out why this is a dark event.)
    • Invention of rice noodles.
  • Taming of Dragons.
    • Humans learn the secret of immortality from the dragons.
      • Scene 3: Who was the first immortal?
        • Mrs. Tzin, elderly student of martial arts.
        • A mountainside dojo. A group of students have just returned from a journey up the mountain.
  • Rise of the Vase Runners.
    • Tzin family runners establish first message route between capital and coast.
    • Tzin family create large commercial monopoly transporting noodles in record vases.
  • Wars of Unification.
    • Spirits join the war.
    • Tzin family claim victory.
  • The Clay famine.
    • Collapse of bureaucracy & law courts.
      • Scene 1: What happened to all the lawyers?
        • They became dragon tenders and assistants.
          (Yes, the dragons took over all judicial duties…)
        • Outside the central criminal court of the capital, after the doors are shut for the last time.
    • Emancipation of the dragons from Mr. Tzin’s clayworks.
  • Exodus of the dragons.
    • Man who will be crowned Emperor is proclaimed a hero.
      • Scene 2: Where did the dragons go? 
        • To Shangri-la. (Yes, really.)
        • Outside the Imperial Court, after it has become apparent that dragons are leaving. Tzin family cartographer confronts a restive mob.
  • Crowning of the first Emperor.
Two Legacies were also in play by this point:
  • The corruption of the man who will be crowned Emperor. (added by Joe)
  • The fall of the dragons from divinity. (added by Kirsty)
Going first, Malcolm chose ‘the rise of the Tzin family’ as the focus for the first round of play. Ian, intrigued by the collapse of law courts in the timeline, immediatly started the first roleplaying scene, asking the question "What happened to all the lawyers?"
Notably, character choices for this scene were often direct responses to each other.
(Malcolm: Town Mayor. Daniel: Town Mayor’s bodyguard. Joe: Town Mayor’s bodyguard’s riding dragon.)

Nobody having picked a Tzin, Ian gave us the obligatory one as a petty criminal.

It was assumed by all that courts were closing due to lack of clay for record-keeping. Some brilliant improv by Malcolm and Joe led to the dragon being offered the new chief justice’s position. Dragons, it turns out, have eidetic memories.

The clayworks event in the timeline was an immediate follow-on to this scene. Obviously, kept dragons were being used to forge the pottery, and that was no longer practical once clay got scarce and dragons with judicial authority appeared…

In the second round, Ian therefore picked ‘Dragons’ as the focus.

Scene 2 involved an entertaining clash between ‘cartographer who knows where the dragons went, but is on their side and doesn’t want to tell’ and ‘everyone else in a mob’. There were some entertaining conflicting agendas too.

(After Daniel took ‘ninja out to assassinate the speaker before he reveals the dragon’s location’ as a character, Joe responded with ‘ninja out to defend the speaker by eliminating assassins’.) Kirsty added the idea that spirits joined the war because they hate dragons, just by adding her character (an angry spirit possessing members of the mob).

There were some places in scene two where the conflicts of six players' ideas prevented some interesting things from happening. An example: Ian and Heather introduced the man who will later be emperor, and his girlfriend, into the back of mob scene. Clearly they intended to give us the reason the Emperor is ‘proclaimed a hero’ – he was going to save a noblewoman from being crushed under a mob of people fuelled by their possessing angry spirit. But precisely because this was a good idea and they tried to implement it smoothly by working with the other players, it never happened – the time they took to weave the girl through the mob and let the results happen naturally was enough to have another player simply get straight through to the question, ending the scene.

More experience with the use of tone debt would have avoided this problem, however.
(Of course, anyone who was interested could immediately have revisited the scene to find out what happened to the Emperor immediately after...)

Kirsty’s invocation of tone debt (from the 'Fall of the Dragons' Legacy) to ensure the mob found the dragons played nicely with Malcolm’s RP of the Tzin cartographer (played as being only reluctantly on the dragon’s side); the scene conclusion was a rapid result of those.

It is of note that in the third scene, some players responded by picking characters that weren’t intended to have much influence on the scene outcome. (‘Visiting master from another school’, ‘elemental rock spirit’ and ‘hungry roc’.) Note that in fact the roc turned out crucial to the result, by attacking the school. (It ate the visiting master.)

Some observations

So far, nobody in any game we’ve run has chosen to dictate a scene instead of asking the question and roleplaying the results. Apparently as soon as our players ask the question, they want to roleplay the answer.

The quieter players, who normally avoid acting, rapidly started to get extremely involved in the world design, even when they were still shy about performing in the roleplay. In particular, non-roleplayer Kirsty rapidly got involved in major changes to the world. Microscope is definitely a strong ‘gateway game’.

As a world design tool, Microscope is astonishing. I’d happily spend the next six months running, say, an Everway campaign in this game world. And I suspect I’ll feel like that every time I play.

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