The Seven-Sided Die

microscope playtest: ice ages and transgenic humans

Posted Sunday July 19, 2009 at 08:44 AM

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.

Our history

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.

Two legacies were created: "Adam L16 (starts light)"; and "Philosophy: Gengineering is moral when benefiting humankind as a whole (starts light)".

Some context

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

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.

The Scenes

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.

The end

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.

Comments (6)


Sunday July 19, 2009 at 05:56 PM

I think the scenes could benefit from some sort of mechanic to provoke a plot; something to provoke a conflict around the question. Or at least an interesting way of answering it. Maybe there are two characters sponsoring differing answers?

I was also surprised that the hic and the scientist I played were both labelled as male. I referred to the hic as "it" during play. I did this both because I figured that the hic's would probably not have a grammatically-linked gender identity (or a sex for that matter) and because I thought that if they're "disposable non-people" humans would refer to them with the nonhuman inanimate. I also assumed Dr. Morgan was more like Adam's mother, but never used a pronoun. I know you guys would cool with me bringing this up, but I've got some deeply ingrained taboos after a decade in gaming around this subject ( rather than through) in places where it wouldn't be okay to mention this.

I have a qualm over the use of the dark/light mechanic. I'm not sure if it's the best way to assure balance in the game. Why are those two moods in conflict instead of two other oppositional themes (war and peace; love and vengeance). Second, as someone with a Daoist background, I have problems with the way our culture tends to use "dark" and "light," with "dark" tied to the unwanted, morally objectionable, evil and forbidden and light the converse - so that, in a story, dark and light aren't really a "balance;" dark is just bad stuff that happens so that the light stuff seems more interesting. Some PoCs might also feel uncomfortable with the terms dark and light as used in this game. If you're going to keep the mechanic, might i suggest "tragedy" and "comedy" or "lightness" and "weight." Or even picking your own themes as outlined above.

Thanks for the game!


Sunday July 19, 2009 at 06:36 PM

You forgot the "picking required and banned topics" stage at the beginning.

Dictating a scene doesn't seem to make a lot of sense, yeah. The clever ideas that other players inject into each scene are just too much to pass up. The secret seems to be asking questions you don't know the answer to.

My free edit from the legacy I created didn't get used, but not because I forgot it was there. I just didn't come up with an "OMG MUST DO THIS" idea before the end of the game.

Re: going meta too much: really, now, how long would it have taken us to get that much detail into the world if we had to create a period, event, or scene (or invoke Control) for every factoid? I see what you mean, but I think there needs to be a certain amount of out-of-band communication, if only so each player has some idea which direction the others are heading in.


Monday July 20, 2009 at 07:33 AM

@Raggedylass: Sorry about the pronouns. That's my own bad habits around gender assumptions in fiction, especially when so much is unformed that genre stereotypes and tropes are doing a lot of heavy lifting. "Head scientist" left me to assume a lot of details, including gender, and I just didn't notice/check that assumption. I think the lack of personal identification/avatarism between the players and characters played into that, too.

That's a good point about darkness and lightness. I'm personally fine with interpreting them in a variety of ways, but the greater the number of players, the more likely mainstream interpretations will be used... I do like the fact that it's left to the group to give "dark" and "light" meaning, although the examples of play in the rules do strongly imply a mainstream interpretation.

I also like the simplicity of the visual metaphor that it allows. From a rules handling standpoint it makes it very quick to notice matches and mis-matches in tone between nested elements, and I'm not sure how that could be accomplished if they were something else. It's also drawing on a lot of established English literary tradition: there really isn't any other way to say that a scene has the particular quality that "a dark tone" has come to mean. "Sombre" doesn't contain everything that "gravitas" does, nor do either cover the same ground as "horrible" or "tragic". All of those and more are contained by "a dark tone", though... I picture "light tone" and "dark tone" with atmospheric metaphors rather than actual pigments, for what it's worth. None of that avoids a potential objection that PoC might have, it's just: rock <> hard place and my rambling thoughts around that possible objection.

All that said, I don't think it's a matter of balance. Tone debt didn't get used in our game so it wasn't obvious, but the rules for it can't actually safeguard any balance between the two. The only thing tone debt can do is give players the power to enforce the tone that has been declared for a period or event. Every period and event could be declared "light", and every scene could be played out such that it gets judged "light", and that would be fine as far as the mechanics were concerned.

Switching topics, I think there already is an implied mechanic to provoke conflict around answering the Question: All of us have strong authorial control in a scene, and the mechanics assume we all have an agenda for the scene. Perhaps that assumption that we need to go in with an agenda needs to be called out in the rules, if not mechanically.

@Fimmtiu: Oh right, I forgot the Palette! "Yes: Artificial Intelligence", and "No: Clowns, Aliens, Anti-grav or FTL degrees of tech". Damned zombie clowns.

I don't know if Making History credits are something to use only when there is an "OMG!" level of desire to create stuff. I think that they'd be more about just making more stuff faster, and just seeing a touch more of your influence in the direction of the history. I would totally have used mine for something throw-away, but I forgot I had it. I think a poker chip in front of me would have been a better reminder than a check box way over there on a card in a pile of communal property.

On meta stuff: That's just it. I'm not sure where the line between "free" facts and "paid" facts lies.

This ties in with what I wrote to Raggedylass about agendas. I think that we'd need less out-of-band communication if we were playing "bumper cars" with some strong agendas. It sometime felt (and I certainly was doing this too) that we were tip-toeing around, not wanting to trample on the plans that we assumed the others had for the scene or their characters while we tried to gently feel around for what those plans might be so that we could play along. When all of us played conservatively, there were no plans for the others to pick up on and play along with.

Not to say that it should have been adversarial. I just think that by strongly pushing an agenda, by strongly telegraphing an agenda for a scene via the PC's actions, that it would be much easier to pick up on the others' agendas, riff off each other, and play along with or build on what the others are doing. I suspect that the rules assume more of this than they explicitly say. In fact, the rules and playtest notes do explicitly say that one needs to let go of preconceptions and plans about how the history or a scene will go. The fact that the rules contain a reminder that there comes a time to stop pushing your agenda makes it look to me that microscope assumes that players will have strong agendas.

I suspect too that this might just work itself out with more play. After a while we should get a better feel for how the different scene-setup steps can shape the upcoming scene, and we'd probably start using that to give scenes a bit more bang right at the start.

I wrote in the post that I think Dictating a scene might work well for small vignettes, but I don't see those being useful very often. I can see it if we were all creating a lot of scenes within one Event (or two related Events), since such dictated vignettes would serve well as bridge scenes and colour scenes between the played-out scenes.

Actually, I just thought of radically different use for a dictated scene. You could dictate a short scene that answers a very tightly-phrased Question, but provokes more Questions that the next player might want to answer with their own dictated, short scene. A series of dictated scenes might serve as an alternative to a longer played-out scene.

For example, within the "Castle Bergstrom repels the Mogrish invaders" event you might dictate a short scene: "Nighttime. A cowled figure slowly inches up the curtain wall of Castle Bergstrom, carefully keeping within the two-foot-wide blind spot caused by the wall's design. Reaching the battlements, the figure slips through a crenel and disappears." That might answer the Question, "How did the assassin get inside Castle Bergstrom?" A player going after could dictate another scene that builds on that in the same short, open-ended way.

Thinking of that, a side effect of more dictated scenes might be a quick build-up of tone debt. That side effect could be used strategically if one has a plan for a climactic scene that really reinforces the Event's tone, or could just be a nice way to say, "hey! look at all that tone debt! someone do something cool with it!" Rather than a side effect, quickly generating some tone debt might even be the entire purpose of dictating a very brief scene with conflicting tone.

Thanks both for the feedback on my feedback. It's given me lots of ideas!

Ben Robbins

Tuesday July 21, 2009 at 05:40 AM

Very interesting discussion everybody! I don't want to jump in and derail it, so I'll just make a few quick points:

When you play next time, definitely try "no negotiation, no coaching, no meta discussion" once play starts. There may be moments of silence and some awkward pauses, but if you wait those out and are a little patient, you will get a much better game. That attitude is a very critical component of Microscope (and it's going to be made it's own section in the next version).

You're definitely right that when you're teaching the game, it's very easy to fall into coaching. Because the game structure is a bit unusual, it can be pretty challenging to teach it and play it at the same time. That's why I always want to know how many of the players read the rules before play.

Bumps and all, your game sounds really interesting. I definitely want to hear how it goes when you play again. I'm also always curious to hear people's impressions who read the rules after they played.

Ben Robbins’s last blog post: Capes: My Story Games Eureka Moment

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