Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Focusing the Microscope

The last weekend of August was PAX, a huge convention here in Seattle. I ended up quadruple booked that weekend. I ran three RPG sessions in the Games On Demand area, spent a day with a friend from Chicago who was in town briefly for an unrelated business meeting, and then helped out a little at the Flying Frog Productions booth between other commitments. Triple-booked like that was intentional.

What I wasn't expecting was for Jury Duty to run long and eat two whole weeks just before the convention. People had to cover for me at my job while I was deliberating and convicting, and then I had to cover for them over the weekend to make up for shifts I missed. So I was going in to work at 6am each morning, throwing freight for 8 hours, and then rushing down to the convention center to do my hastily rescheduled volunteer work at the con. It was a very exhausting weekend, and came at the end of an entire month without a real day off (between three conventions, jury duty, and work, I had 8+ hours of commitments planned every day from August 4th to September 2nd with no exceptions). So wonderfully tiring.
3 days of painful deliberation.
Despite all that craziness, I had a lot of fun at PAX. The three RPG sessions I facilitated ( two games of Microscope and one of PSI*RUN) were all highly enjoyable laugh riots. Natalie and Morgan from Games On Demand were able to provide me with an extra one-day PAX badge so my friend Brendan from Chicago could actually attend the convention with me on Sunday. That was pretty damn cool of them.
Me and Brendan just outside the convention.

The Games:
The first Microscope game I ran was an exploration of a post-apocalyptic setting, with Mahmood, Quintin and Brian. We chose that both of our end points (the start and the finish of our tale) would be nuclear explosions. In between those mushroom cloud bookeneds, we'd be spending time with a mining community that took shelter underground to survive the end of the world. Most games of microscope cover a stretch of made-up history running hundreds or thousands of years. This one, however, was measured in decades, and saw a lot of recurring characters as a result.

All three of these players were amazing. They were hilarious when it was appropriate to be so, and really dove into the world-building during the less flippant scenes. Voice acting and characterization were really rich, so you got a sense of this fictional community and its problems. We built a great palette, including the wonderfully fresh "RULE #7" which forced us to avoid stealing characters or plotlines directly from pop culture. Tropes were still okay, but everything needed it's own fresh spin. The rule was placed mostly to prevent Quintin from just lifting characters whole-cloth, but to his credit he stepped up and did a marvelous job bringing in new fresh ideas and being very respectful and conscientious of the rule.

Subplots involved rigged local elections, a justice system devolving into gladiatorial games, a war with the next town over (Greenspring) for very petty reasons, nordic naming conventions, deserters from a nearby military base usurping power within the town, sensitive data stored on milspec e-readers, three months of nearly-daily drone attacks from an unknown enemy, and goat-based bestiality.

Microscope palette for Mining Town #37b
The goat fucking was my fault. (Not a phrase I utter lightly.) We were having an in-character argument in a tense scene and my opponent said that he had a confession to make. Since the confession was almost certainly going to be the revelation that he'd helped my Mayor character rig the elections in a previous event (years in the past), I felt the "need" to head him off at the pass and discredit his testimony. "There's no need to confess. We all know about the goats, Scott. There's just so few of humans left after the nuclear war, so we've all agreed to look past your repeated visits to the barn." And everybody just rolled with it, from then on and for the rest of the game in every scene involving any of those characters, it was just taken as fact that Town Clerk Scott Johansen was officially a notorious goat-humper.

Another great moment in the game involved unexpected revelations about a mysterious sniper. Early on we'd alluded in-character to there being stranded units of some sort of Chinese army on American soil during the run-up to the first nuclear exchange. So when a few characters went off on a quest in one later scene, I chose to introduce the "Unknown Sniper" character mostly as a plot device to be overcome on the way, and again I heavily implied (by way of equipment and vehicle choice) that the sniper was from the remnants of one of those Chinese units but never established it as definitive fact. In a later scene, Mahmood played the same sniper that I had, and when he did so he revealed she was actually sent by the Mayor (a prime mover in several previous scenes) to ensure the quest (which would have undermined the Mayor's authority and power) failed. That was a brilliant turn of events that I did not foresee. Well played, sir.

Note as well that one of the restrictions on the palette was that there are fewer than 1,000 bullets available in the entirety of our timeline. Brian tracked that religiously. He noted every gunshot on-camera, and assigned bullet costs for off-camera conflicts. In the end, 809 bullets were fired. Brian also played a recurring gunsmith/gunrunner character, who had a penchant for boobytraps, as well as selling blank cartridges to those he didn't trust. So many good moments in that game.

Emergent Complexity:
 I've said this before, but I'll reiterate it. "No" statements are of great importance and value when starting Microscope. Some folks just put "Yes" statements on the Palette, but I find that "No" statements impose interesting limitations and force people to get creative. Too many "Yeses" can make your game messy, and you can often get away with just laying down the things you're dead-set against.  Here's the entirety of the palette from the second game of Microscope I ran at PAX:
A streamlined minimalist Microscope palette.

 This second game started with an odd and unique premise. It was all about bugs and insects. Our start and end points were "Pre-Sentience" and "Ordinary Again (Our Reality)". In between, we'd tell the multi-generational tale of intelligent arthropods rising to the top of their food chain, building multiple civilizations and figuring out dimensional physics so they could interact briefly with our world before somehow losing the ability to reach between worlds. None of that showed up in the palette, it was just in our basic premise. All we felt the need to say in the palette was what we didn't want to see, and this keep it tight and focused. Astute readers will notice that "Rule #7" was reprised --- I'd told this group (two of them strangers, and the third a person I'd gamed with before at GwenCon several years back) about the previous night's pop-culture ban and they fell in love with the idea behind it.

All of these factors together forced us to really think outside the box and try new things. There were elements of Alternate History, Cosmic Horror, a scene about the devil's successful efforts to eliminate hominid (and more generally mammalian) life on the bug-world, communication barriers and societal differences between different bug types, a ton of 6-legged characters, fire-ants with pyrokinesis, bug-on-bug violence, a clan of stickbug/spider hybrid ninjas, pscientist and inventor (and eventual speed-based superhero) Phineus Polonius Pillbug, and a never-ending series of puns. Oh, dear God, the puns. I will not repeat them. Brian (the guy I'd gamed with at GwenCon years ago, _not_ the same Brian as played Microscope with me the night before) loved to make bad jokes and worse puns... but he also came up with the amazing idea of exploring the politics and religion of dimension-hopping sentient insects, so I've got nothing to complain about overall. Another great game.
Tragedy + Time = Comedy

In addition to the usual cards for periods, events and scenes that always show up in microscope (for example the cards surrounding the devouring of the queeen, above), we made other use of spare notecards figuring out ways to make the game more insectoid. We spent a lot of time, energy, and flash cards on trying to emulate all the non-verbal ways that intelligent bugs might communicate with each other. "If anyone would like to smell my pheromone trail, you may read these notecards and learn what they reveal..." was announced to the room in several scenes. Which was dangerous, because within the setting, "the devil" was a contagious and willful scent that could drive entire hives wild. (And again, nothing like that was expressly listed in the palette, it just grew up organically during play.) It was pretty cool.

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