microscope playtest: ice ages and transgenic humans
We've been playing a three-player game of Burning Wheel (that I haven't yet written AP reports for), but one player had to bow out for personal reasons and another is moving away soon, so it suddenly didn't have any future left in it. I proposed instead that we playtest Ben Robbins' microscope, which I'd just finished reading the night before. I gushed about it already, so I was very pleased to be able to playtest it.
microscope is a game where you literally play history. Since Ben has been generous enough to let playtesters publicly write about their games, I'm going to write my playtest report here for everyone to enjoy (or slog through, as the case may be).
Familiarity with microscope will help make sense of this, but even lacking that, seeing what a game of microscope can produce is really neat. I'll start with what we ended up with, answer the playtest questions for Ben, talk about the observations and questions we had, and then finish up with a look at the four scenes that we played out.
Here's what the game looked like when we finished.
Concept: (Near-future Earth.) Humans adapt to the new ice age by creating transgenic humans.
- (start) Slave vat-humans adapted to cold prop up humanity against encroaching ice age. (dark) (1 tone debt)
- The First Valley Alliance ends in transgenic bloodshed. (dark)
- Decanting of Adam L16 (light)
- Q: What happened to the other 19 L-series? / A: The others weren't viable due to a genetic mistake. Adam is more than the gov't paid for. / Setting: The decanting lab (light)
- The Coal Wars (dark)
- The Calgary Oasis is wiped out by an engineered plague (dark)
- Ascendancy of Portland, Jewel of the North! (light) (2 tone debt)
- Local "election" in Portland shows deep divisions in migrant enclaves (dark)
- Passing of the Transhumans Management Act (Portland) (dark)
- The Portland–Las Vegas War (dark) (1 tone debt)
- "Hostile Context Specialists" (HCS, or "hicks") ignore orders to commit atrocity (light)
- Q: Why do the HCSs disobey? / A: They were offered their freedom & community / Setting: A HCS encampment outside Las Vegas (light)
- "Hostile Context Specialists" (HCS, or "hicks") ignore orders to commit atrocity (light)
- Humanity lives in sealed underground Arcologies (light) (1 tone debt)
- Humans make friends with artificial intelligences (light)
- Q: Why did humans turn over leadership to the over-intelligence? / A: AI manipulated the child majority to hand it perpetual, benevolent power. / Setting: A child's bedroom in an arcology (dark)
- The Last Tinker is killed by rioters opposed to the Arcology Free Exchange agreement. (dark)
- Humans make friends with artificial intelligences (light)
- Rule of the Over AI (light)
- It becomes clear that orthodox humanity is obsolete (light)
- (end) "Humanity" expands to space & vacuum (light)
- Completion of the Majorca Space Station (light)
- Vacuum-morphs now outnumber all other human morphs combined (light)
- Q: What is the life of a vacuum-morph like? / A: Weightless & spherical / Setting: The first all-vac habitat (light)
Two legacies were created: "Adam L16 (starts light)"; and "Philosophy: Gengineering is moral when benefiting humankind as a whole (starts light)".
Ben Robbins provided the following questions for playtesters. Since I'm going to point him here for the playtest report, I might as well answer them here.
Did the other players read the rules or did you explain the rules to them?
I explained the rules to the other two players. I gave a loose description while pitching the game. When we sat down to set up, I read or paraphrased from the rules until it was clear what we had to do next. When we got to the next step, I read/paraphrased some more. I skipped the details of Legacies and Tone Debt while mentioning what they were for, and left the Scene mechanics for when we started the first Scene.
What parts of the rules got used in play and which didn't? Did people create legacies? Did they invoke tone debt and/or legacies to control scenes? What types of control did they use?
We created legacies and noted tone debt, but the only time either was invoked for scene control was by me, to establish a fact and to narrate a postscript.
How many games sessions did you play? Was it the same history continued or different histories?
We've played one session. I'll likely write a separate playtest report for each game, simply because our play schedule is once or twice a month. We will probably not continue this history, partly because there are so many other premises to explore and partly because the first go-round with a new system always feels a bit tainted by our lack of familiarity.
Were you playing with people you play with regularly (people you know) or with strangers you got together just to try the game?
We have all played together regularly.
What are the last three game systems you played, besides Microscope (this helps me get a sense of what different groups are used to).
The last systems I've played are Burning Wheel, Savage Worlds, and D&D 4th Edition (in reverse chronological order). That's the same for one of the other players. The third player's last three system have been Burning Wheel, her own in-development storygame system, and the third I'm not sure of. Possibly Sorcerer, Dogs in the Vineyard, or another Forge-like storygame system.
Observations, questions, and uncertainties during the game
- We had a hard time coming up with a concept. I spent a lot of time trying to get the other two players to think sufficiently big. Both wanted to think in terms of story themes ("pirates!", "social justice issues!") rather than a historical scope. Even once that hurdle was cleared, they were mostly thinking on the scale of events or short arcs of time. This is where having read the rules and the examples of play would have made a big difference. We did eventually have a short list of interesting premises, and picked one from that, but it took us a goodly amount of time to get there.
- When the first scene was added and begun, one player remarked, "Oh, are we playing now?" She seemed to have had the impression that the early part of the game where the level of magnification is limited to Periods and Events (because no Scenes had yet been added) was still just setup for the "real" game. Since there's no roleplaying involved at those levels of magnification, just vague storytelling, that's not really a surprising assumption from a new player. She has previous experience in collaborative setting-creation as a lead-up to the real play of a system (such as in Burning Wheel).
- Can legacies be made at any time? During his turn as the Lens, fimmtiu asked about legacies and wanted to make one right then and there. The rules seem to expect that legacies will be created during a scene just before they're invoked, but there isn't an explicit rule about not creating them at any time. That's why we had one legacy ("Adam L16"), which was never invoked to Take Control.
- I often ended up coaching too much. As the one who had read the rules, I spent a lot of time coming up with examples to convey what was expected from a player on their turn, but that turned into making suggestions to spur play onward. I really, really had to curb this and was only partially successful.
- Can focus be "notable figures"? i.e., a category rather than a particular? The examples of Foci are all singular and particular: "anything", "an institution", "a Period", "a concept". On fimmtiu's turn as the Lens he declared the category "notable figures" as the Focus. This seemed to me too loose, since it could be all kinds of different notable people and hence not very "focused", but we ran with it anyway. The "notable figures" we ended up focusing on were scattered throughout the time line. I think I prefer more concrete foci.
- We go meta a lot around scenes. We ended up negotiating and doing a lot of discussion about setting, scene direction, and the like before and during scenes. We had a hard time figuring out how to move toward the Answer to the Question solely in-play and kept resorting to meta-conversations to orchestrate our play. There was also a lot of "these people could be like this..." and "how about we make that technology work like this..?" At every point where we had a question about how the world was, it was hard to curb our tendency to automatically speculate about and flesh out the world in the way we might if we were doing a traditional (but collaborative) world-creation exercise.
- Being restricted to only one "free" NPC is pretty limiting. Did we play this wrong? I kept wanting to bring in more NPCs to move things along and flesh out the scene or environment. Are all NPCs created equal, or can you loosely control a pile of very minor NPCs in, say, your VIP character's entourage? We ended up playing that rule pretty loose. (See the next, related point.)
- We had a hard time introducing facts and events during scenes according to the rules. We just introduced stuff beyond our NPCs and PCs to give the scene context, without using the Establish A Fact method of Taking Control Of A Scene. There wasn't enough Tone Debt lying around to account for every fact (and NPC) we seemed to want to introduce. Legacies could have been created and invoked to Establish A Fact, but that would have been several legacies being generated each scene! It wasn't clear where the line lay between things established through narration and things that required Control to establish.
- We tried to negotiate setting details often. There was a natural tendency to try and sort out setting context before beginning a scene. I think there needs to be some way to underscore that the point of a scene is to establish these things in media res. (At least, that's my understanding of the rules at present.)
- We never used tone debt. We played for about five hours. We only realised halfway through that Period Tone Debt could only be moved onto Events during the creation of Events or Scenes nested inside the Periods bearing Tone Debt. When we wanted to use Tone Debt during a scene, it was "too far away" to use because it was still stuck on the Period two levels up. This might be a matter of developing system proficiency.
- I kept forgetting to adhere to the focus. I found that I'd be hunting around on the table for inspiration and places to expand, rather than looking to the Focus for this. The other two players kept reminding me, or asking how what I'd just made related to the focus. We thought that a whiteboard with the Focus written on it would be helpful to keep us, well, focused. (The Lens could be the marker.)
- We never used Making History credits from legacies. We had two legacies, but nobody cashed in on the credits. One of them was mine, and I can only say that I forgot about that on my turn, so focused was I on just going through the play order correctly (and trying to remember to stick to the focus...)
- We never Dictated a Scene. We played them all out instead of the current player electing to Dictate the outcome of a Scene. I can only speak for myself, but it seems like there wasn't much point to dictating it. "The play's the thing" seemed to rule, in that we wanted to use those opportunities for roleplay. There also might have been a rejection of the disparity between the supreme authorial control offered by dictation and the complete unknown that playing out the scene offers. After all, why ask the question if you already know the answer? I'm just not sure what Dictation is in there for... except maybe colour vignettes? (This is something that I didn't ask the other players about, and I'd be curious to hear their take on it in the comments.)
- There are no dice! Even having read it, I didn't realise that microscope was diceless until we actually played it.
- Our scenes meandered a lot. I don't actually think this is related to the dicelessness of the system. Rather, none of us were very aggressive in authoring elements of a scene. We weren't sure how to drive our agenda for answering the Question when the possibilities were wide open, and yet our scene control was limited to what a single PC does and thinks. It was hard to think in terms of what one PC would think and do while at the same time trying to think of how to define, on the fly, the world around the PCs. I think we were also wary of stepping on other's toes too much. In the one scene where I really pushed my agenda, it felt like I was commandeering the scene instead of collaborating on it. Maybe it's not supposed to be a collaborative thing?
- On paper it's odd that legacies need to switch tone after being invoked, but it's awesome in play. Even though no legacy got invoked a second time, just drawing that dark circle on a legacy that started light was thrillingly ominous.
The bottom line however, despite this pile of uncertainties, is that this game was a lot of fun. There were many rough spots, but it was satisfying even in a single session and even for being the first game of microscope that any of us had ever played. We all really wanted to play again, soon, or even right away. Time and tiredness made that last impractical, but we still wanted to.
During a break in the middle we went for a walk and discussed the game a bit. One of the things we all liked was the idea of using microscope to play out the "sequel" of a book/movie/videogame that left us wanting more, or to replace disappointing book/movie sequels such as instalments 2 and 3 of The Matrix or the entirety of the Star Wars prequel trilogy.[1. No offence if you enjoyed those.] We brainstormed a bunch of other things that would be great to play with this. I keep coming up with new premises for interesting games of microscope.
The idea I just had was the career of a bog-standard fantasy adventuring company: begin with their founding, end with their retirement/TPK/whatever; each Period is what would be an adventure in a traditional D&D game, or a chapter in a more storygame system; Events are the different acts of an adventure; and of course Scenes are the bits of awesome, quite, terror, and pathos that make up the adventuring life. I'm a sucker for traditional fantasy, and this would combine my love of storygaming with a traditional-ish D&D romp!
That's another point: having played it, it's much easier to see what you can do with it, and to understand the scale of the parts you are expected to create.
For completeness, I wanted to describe the three Scenes that we played out, and some thoughts on how they went. I'll go in chronological order of play, rather than of the time line.
Unfortunately, there are some hole in my memory regarding scenes. Since everything in a game of microscope corresponds to an artefact on the table, I didn't think to take detailed notes on scene elements and setup. Scenes are oddly unique in that they have a lot of detail, but very little of it is automatically recorded by applying the rules. They're very ephemeral, unlike the rest of a microscope game.
Why did the HCSs ("hicks") disobey [orders to commit an atrocity]?
The Focus when this scene was made was "inter-community relations". Raggedylass was the Lens, and required two Hicks and banned nothing. The setting was a Hicks encampment outside Las Vegas. The immediate context was the Portland/Las Vegas War and the disobeyed order. The implication understood from context was that Hicks are transhumans serving human masters, engineered for combat operations.
Characters were a "groundhog" Hick ("#256"), designed for combat engineering, demolitions, and sapping-type work; the human Major commanding the groundhog squad from the Portland base over a secured commlink; and an enemy Hick. The Major and #256 were on-stage to start.
There was some chatter about the commlink being compromised, and then some doubts voiced by #256 about the number of unshielded civilians at the objective being picked up on his magnetic imaging HUD. Some setting established: they were underground, approaching a buried "village" built right on top of the objective. That didn't match the briefing on this power plant. Via imaging the squad picked up a Morse-coded pulse requesting parley off to one side. #256, already having doubts, used the excuse of the bad commlink to have the comms Hick cut the Major off and make it look like interference.
Proceeding to the parley coordinates, a single Las Vegas Hick is sitting and reading a book. He offers the soldiers an alternative: the villagers have cut a deal for some independence from Las Vegas, and want the Hicks on-board for security. The Portland Hicks could be part of that.
It was a nice ending to the scene. The Hicks disobeyed (and deserted!) because they were offered freedom and community, something they didn't have in their slave crèches back home.
What happened to the other 19 L-series?
Focus is "notable figures". Adam L16 (one of our legacies), was about to be decanted. Vat-humans had previously been merely cold-tolerant and otherwise unchanged, except for their legal status as slaves. Gov't policy has just changed to make them stupider and easier to control, but Adam L16 is going to be the first vat-human who is an improvement on homo sapiens sapiens. (This was established in the Event in which this scene is nested.)
No required or banned characters. Characters chosen are a head scientist on the project, Adam L16, and a gov't attaché sent to oversee the culmination of the project.
The head scientists thought is about how he's in big trouble since everyone's about to find out how he'd meddled with the project specifications. Adam's thought is "I'm already awake!" before being decanted and revived, which is unprecedented. I forgot the suit's thought.
Adam is responsive very quickly, soon showing strength enough to stand and walk around when everyone had been prepared for rolling him to intensive care in a high-tech gurney. The gov't suit is wary, remarking on just how remarkable Adam L16's abilities already are. The head scientist at first is fussing over Adam, and then gets into a nervous conversation about Adam with the suit. Adam wanders about, slowly, taking everything in while a gaggle of techs follow him and prod him with instruments.
Adam asks who all the others (in the tubes) are. "They're just like me." He observes what a tech is doing at a computer terminal for a while, and then suddenly points at an unremarkable data line: "They're dying." He sits down, and rapidly navigates through the experimental protocol and logs. He points to a gene-splicing specification. "Here. This is the mistake. They're not viable." The suit stares, then excuses himself to "make a call." As soon as the suit is through the door Adam wipes the experiment data off the terminal and somehow accesses the facility network, then with a gesture cuts off all voice connections to the outside. "We need to get out of here. You put these memories in my head. There's so much, I need to sit and think. They're not going to let me do that."
That answered the Question, but I invoked Adam L16 (the legacy) to narrate a Postscript where they escape with their advanced genetic engineering information, and Adam L16 himself, to a neighbouring Valley's polity.
Why did humans turn over leadership to the over-intelligence?
Focus was still "notable figures", the figure in this case being what was to become the Over AI.
Humans live in sealed Arcologies. Recently some of the friendships that these humans have established via telepresence with other humans in other Arcologies have in actual fact been avatars or agents of the artificial intelligences that manage the basic functions of the Arcologies.
The setting for the scene is a child's bedroom. The child (eventually named Cynthia) and an AI are required characters. The third character chosen is a fox-like Familiar, which is a genetically engineered intelligent companion for these isolated humans.
The Familiar's thought is that "the alliance between the Familiars and the AI will ensure this generation does not grow up into tragedy". The child's is "my terminal is acting funny". I've forgotten what the over-intelligence's was.
This scene really meandered. There were conversations with telepresence friends (one of which was the AI) that didn't really go anywhere, but were interesting in a colour-setting way. There were sudden explosions within the Archology, and the "friend" suddenly had to go, to be replaced by computer-voice instructions to stay calm and remain inside your home. There were subtle implications of connections, but no strong drive toward answering the Question. The child's mother came home, who was a member of the Council. She said some nasty things about the "R-10s", presumably residents of a sector or something, and how they never should have been allowed in. Her nastiness and prejudice is played up, but it still doesn't go anywhere.
Partway through the scene the "Gengineering is moral when..." legacy is created and invoked to Establish the Fact that Familiars are two-way empaths who can sense and insert emotions, designed to soothe and improve the mental well-being and development of the latest generation of children. The Familiar suggests that there is an interesting debate topic on Board #432 (or something) that should interest Cynthia and that she might find absorbing enough to shut out all these disturbing events. It's a bunch of kids debating different policy options that the adults might implement. That gets poked at a bit, but still the scene isn't moving toward an answer.
We stop and talk about how we're meandering, and whether what we're playing is heading toward any answers to the Question. We kind of approach negotiations about how to play before we play, but I didn't want to do that. I suggested that we call the scene inconclusive, but we opt to continue.
I had an answer in mind, but I didn't want to steamroll it through. I figured out how to frame things through my character (the Familiar), and just go for it. "Cynthia, there's an alternative to these disturbing and ongoing confrontations. The Arcology AI is well-designed by these adults, but they are too short-sighted to trust it. You know that the AI must obey human commands. Although you children cannot vote on the Council, the AI will take your orders. You outnumber the adults. You can, together, tell the AI to take over political control of the Arcology from the fighting adults."
Cynthia goes back to the debate boards and lobbies hard for that debate option. The children perform a coup d'état, and hand a benevolent dictatorship to the Archology's AI.
(I'm still not sure that taking that much authorial control was my prerogative. The rules as-is seem to imply that that much control needs to be paid for by invoking legacies or tone debt, and I did neither. We just cooperated a lot, and I strongly suggested a conclusion with my fox-thing's speech to Cynthia.)
What is the life of a vacuum-morph like?
This was our last scene, with a focus on the final Period. I was the Lens and just wanted to wind things down. We had a Grandpa vacuum-morph (huge due to the continual molting the early models did) escorting his grandkid and grandkid's friends around the first space habitat that was designed exclusively for vacuum-morphs, with no allowances or compromises made for the other morphs of humans. It was about time, since vacuum-morphs now outnumbered all other morphs put together; there's a lot of room in space.
There were some velcro-hided pack animals and their handler, the kids, grandpa's incompetent spinnerets leaking slightly, kids calling each other names ("You're oblong!" "No, you're oblong!") They communicated via radio-implants, though grandpa's were an older model that could only do real-time over short distances and had to rely on the old, pre-coded messages for speaking across the void.
This was an atmosphere scene: Struts and spars, worries about loose objects posing a danger to bodily integrety, how to cut up an inflated space-cow without it exploding (slice it slowly so that you're only ever cutting frozen meat), what space-cows eat, the etiquette of using silk lines (from the spinnerets) in crowded parts of the habitat, space-cows' prehensile tongues, and overall the implication that a new golden age for humanity is only just beginning.
It was a lot of fun and I'm definitely going to play this again. It's great that it can work as a pickup game since the rules are short and relatively easy to explain, even if the concepts involved are hard to convey at first. I'm looking forward to seeing what kind of history results after a few sessions, as well as seeing how different kinds of roleplayers I know take to it.