The Seven-Sided Die

Juggalos In Space, a Microscope playtest

Posted Friday October 01, 2010 at 09:18 AM

A Wednesday in mid-September we had an evening of Microscope. We had a friend over, D, who is a geek of many stripes but roleplaying is not one of them. However, she much enjoyed Zombie Cinema a few weeks ago. She's also working on an Interactive Fiction game, so she was totally on-board with playtesting an unpublished roleplaying game. So. Microscope.

Since this is a playtest report, I'm going to go through the paces:

Big Picture

We started with the concept, which I always find the most challenging when I'm teaching people. People are very invested in the first idea they come up with, whether it's of a useful form or scope, or not. So it takes a while to pin down a concept we all like. I tried a rhetorical tack this time that I've taken from reading the most recent Burning Wheel supplement, the Adventure Burner: I asked everyone to put ideas out there, offering and then discarding them quickly, until one landed on the table that made everyone excited. The trick seems to be to emphasise how much more we'll enjoy it if we're all excited in the idea, and that it's not that the discarded ideas are bad concepts for a Microscope history, just that there are many ideas that are good for a set of people other than the one around the table right now.

We hit on the idea of the rise and fall of the Second American Empire, which had a few bits and pieces that excited us, but none of the ideas that name gave each of us were compatible. A few iterations later we came to—ironically—the bog-standard rise and fall of a galactic empire that seems to be the first default of Microscope groups. In our defense, we got there by parallel evolution and surprised ourselves that we'd come to the stereotypical history concept.

Bookend History

We discussed structure of the game a bit and our concept of the galactic empire, and set our starting and end points:

First Settlement (light) [START]

In which many colony ships set out through wormholes discovered in Earth space, and settled the habitable systems found beyond.

PAX Flu (dark) [END]

In which something called the PAX flu[1. Both of them had just come back from PAX.], also known as the Peace Flu, was the final blow that shattered the empire.

The "PAX flu" was also the first sign that the game would definitely have at least small bits of silliness in it.[2. My reasons for gaming lead me to be more impatient than amused by the silly stuff people bring to the table, but my wife is a silly person and I love her. The "PAX Flu" was D's idea, so I was definitely out-voted by the silly faction.]


I explained the palette, which is the other thing that seems to take a bit every time I explain it. I should mention here that I didn't read the How to Teach Microscope section before the game due to *toddler-mumble-mumble-toddler*, so I get to wear the Playtester Shame Hat next GoPlayNW.

I jumped in first with "no FTL (except wormholes)", giving us a nice fragile network for the empire. My wife M added "no wormhole machines", i.e., things that could make new wormholes apart from the naturally-occurring ones. After some though, D added "no time travel". I wanted to do another round and added "yes sentient robots". M anted up "yes juggalos".

And in such moments is history made.

Juggalos, in case anyone is unfamiliar are… oh hell, just go Google it. The relevant parts are that they're fans of Insane Clown Posse, who recently did that mock-tacular song "Miracles" about how they consider high school–level physics to be examples of Clarke's Third Law; they wear a lot of grease paint; they're tightly-bound by their identity as a tribe; and their view of the world is vaguely nihilist. I made a face and promised to blow up their planet as my first event[2. A toothless threat in Microscope, which is kind of awesome.], but she was passionate about it and I was already adapting to having a serious game liberally sprinkled with silliness.

So. Juggalos in Space.

First Pass

We had three players, so after our first first pass we did another to get a more fleshed-out timeline to start normal play with. (Again, I was just making this up: Shame Hat. But it worked fine.)

The first first pass gave us the periods:

Trade Constellation (light)

In which the colony worlds have knit together a trade network of yet more wormholes that connect them to each other directly, not mediated by Earth space, and an era of prosperity is enjoyed in the Trade Constellation.

Robot Prohibition (dark)

In which sentient robots are banned, and they are forced underground. There is some kind of robot underground railway, but nothing more than that was nailed down. This was placed after Trade Constellation and before PAX Flu.

…and the event:

Founding of Faygo Colony by The Dark Caravan (light)

In which the Juggalo colonists of The Dark Caravan have finally made planetfall, and deploy their pre-fab dome city, to much joy, ICP-playing, and Faygo-drinking. This was placed, naturally, in the period "First Settlement."

Our second first pass added the periods:

The Robot Regency (dark)

In which an infant emperor is orphaned, and a robot is given the responsibility to rule in the child's stead until their majority. Although the robot's regency was just and measured, it was a dark period because of the intense resentment felt and unrest caused by of a few groups. Placed after Robot Regency and before PAX Flu.

Silence of the Juggalos (light)

In which the wormhole to Juggalo Space collapses, cutting them off from the rest of the wormhole network. Light, because, well, yeah. Placed between Robot Regency and Robot Prohibition.

Renaissance / Enlightenment (light)

In which a rediscovery of First Settlement and Trade Constellation culture, technology, and learning leads the empire into a new era of prosperity and so forth. Placed after Robot Prohibition and before PAX Flu.

That gave us a starting timeline that looked like this:

With that we were ready to start the normal turn sequence.

First Focus: Juggalos + Technology

Damned Juggalos.

M was the first Lens, and picked "Juggalos + Technology". That included their relationship to their own technology, since that was already an outstanding "bwhu?" for our group that needed some answers.

(At this point in writing this playtest report I developed a bad stomach bug and then we had a family emergency, so the memory of the game had two weeks to become fuzzier. I'm going to be less exacting from here. Alas.)

M opted not to make a nested set of history, going with a Scene in "Founding of Faygo". There was some waffling about whether we should kick off with a scene, but having seen Ben Robbins do that at GoPlayNW to good effect (and having read in passing that part of the "How to Teach Microscope" section!) I assured her that scenes go much smoother in this version of Microscope.

1st Scene Question: "How did SnazzyDog, Juggalo Prince, die during the deployment of Faygo's prefab environment?"

Set the Stage: The Dark Caravan is in orbit of Faygo, a barren planet around a star in an alien system, after wanding for years in Earth space looking for a wormhole. The crew are preparing to deploy the dome city, also to be known as Faygo. The Prince and pilot are on the bridge.

Check Drama: Light Drama was applied to the Period since there was none before the scene began.

Choose Characters: Prince SnazzyDog and the ship's pilot are required. D picks a Juggalo janitor, I pick the pilot, and M is left with the Juggalo Prince.

Reveal Thoughts: Crap, this is always where I need to write things down or record them. I don't remember the exact thoughts revealed. D's was about something leaking, I think. Mine was wondering what that blinking light on the control panel meant. I don't remember M's, but it set up the Prince as flighty.

The scene started on the bridge, with the Prince nagging the pilot about when he could push the Big Red Button. The pilot was flustered, trying to figure out what the blinking light meant. He flipped through manuals, getting increasingly flustered with his superior dancing about nonchalantly and pestering him about the Big Red Button. The janitor comes in, makes obeisance to the Prince, and sets about cleaning stuff. The pilot goes to another locker and pulls out more manuals as the janitor humbly asks the Prince to join in on the celebratory dancing about. The pilot finally finds something that explains the blinking light, and informs the Prince that the Big Red Button is broken. But there is a backup button in the cargo bay holding the prefab environment! They go down there, followed by a gaggle of Juggalo reporters and various hangers-on.

The hanger is long and could hold a small spaceship. (Picture the hold of a Star Destroyer.) There is a massive rectangular object taking up most of this cavernous space. There is a raised platform with the Backup Big Red Button. Before the Prince pushes it, the pilot hands him a bottle of Faygo to cristen the prefab brick, which smashes satisfactorily. The Prince pushes the Backup Big Red Button and… D shouts out "Nothing happens!"

At this point we each have different ideas of what happens. I've got an idea, so I explain the scene-resolution vote mechanic. I offer the counter that the Button works, but the containment field doesn't and so everyone gets sucked out into space as the prefab environment drops toward the planet. That would answer the question! The vote goes to D, so nothing happens.

The Prince is not pleased, he pouts and stamps his feet, and then… we do another vote. We were still shaky on the voting mechanic itself and how to leverage the voting to make things happen smoothly, so there was a bunch of discussion at this point and some explanation that counters can be "what she said, and…". The vote get done, and it turns out that there was an activation switch that the pilot forgot to flip on the Backup Big Red Button. He notices it, and goes to flip it. Meanwhile, the Prince has lost all patients and reason, and gone over to the bay doors with a crowbar to impotently try to lever them open. The pilot flips the switch. The containment field works, but the Prince is so close to the prefab brick that he gets sucked out through the field's shaped breach along with the brick. Victory and sorrow for the Juggalos.

So that went well enough, and we got a taste of how scenes work. We judged that dark, because despite how eliminating a parasitic and unpredictable noble did the Juggalos a lot of good at that critical juncture, it was a blow to morale and a tragedy on the day that should have been a celebration.

We struggled a bit in both votes because our proposals and counter-proposals somehow had to be "light" in order to invoke the Drama necessary to bring things to a vote. We weren't entirely consistent with that. We already knew that the Prince would die, so to bring the scene to a resolution we either had to make up stuff to frame it positively ("maybe the Prince is a jerk and his people would be better off without him"), or we had to set up a negative event (death) with positive things. It didn't feel quite natural.

Following that, I made a Dictated Scene. I'd been wondering how individual Juggalos, being willful technical incompetents, survived the hazards of colony life, and decided that it was time to introduce the Sentient Robots from the palette and implied in the "Robot Regency" Period.

2nd Scene Question: "How do Juggalos survive colony hazards?"

Answer: "Guardian Angels", sentient robots assigned to each Juggalo, keep them safe. I narrated a bit about the Juggalo "techs" going into the Angel containment section of the ship, going to each pod with a printout of how to do the activation, and releasing each Angel. Pre-programmed to seek out their assigned Juggalo, the Angels took it from there, leaving the containment area and going to meet their Juggalo to accompany them down to the newly-deployed colony. Judged light, because the Guardian Angels were definitely a hopeful element. The Prince's Guardian Angel is orphaned…

After that, D made a new Event in "The Robot Regency" Period: "Royal Robot Sex Scandal (w/ a Juggalo)". This she was marked light because, though it was a PR disaster, it distracted the rebellious elements away from effective activism against the Robot Regent by giving them something titillating/enraging to waste their energy on.

M finished up her turn as Lens by making an Event in the "Silence of the Juggalos" Period: "Guardian Angels collapse the Faygo-system wormhole to prevent war", a dark period. Again she declined to make nested history in favour of moving the game along.

First Legacy: The orphaned Guardian Angel

D, to M's right, picked this Legacy. I opted to make an Event: "Death of Emperor & Empress, Appointment of orphaned guardian angel as Regent" inside "The Robot Regency" Period, which nicely explained how that happened. This was light, as the new Regent was an able and fair ruler in the child's name, despite the nay-sayers.

Second Focus: Wormholes

It was my turn to play Lens and I wanted to hear more about the wormholes. I didn't really have an idea of where that might go, and I wanted to find out.

I made an Event in the Renaissance/Englightenment Period: "The wormholes of the Imperial Homeworld are reopened." This implied that the seat of the Empire had been cut off at some point. I like to make stuff like that to show off how making history can imply something about events in the rest of the timeline simply by existing and the game forbidding that existing history be contradicted. At some point, the wormholes around the seat of the Empire must have become unusable! This reopening was light.

D opted to make an Event in the "Trade Constellation" Period: "Discovery & Slavery of tentacle monsters" through a new wormhole. This amused everyone, and we were curious to explore this bit of shameful strangeness on the part of the proto-empire. She understandably marked that dark.

M made a Juggalo-related (of course) wormhole Event to expand the "Renaissance" Period: "Juggalo Civilization redisovers wormhole; is reunited with greater humanity." She marked it light, since it was good for the Juggalos.

I opted for a nested bit of history to finish this Focus off, in the "PAX Flu" Period. I made the Event "Something changes in the wormholes—humans who pass through sicken & die soon after." Definitely dark, that. Inside I made a Dictated Scene.

Third Scene Question: Why are the wormholes deadly?

A: A traveller in robes and cowls goes from system to system. This one itinerant guardian angel poisons the wormhole network as it passes through each wormhole. It is carrying something in its torso that does this passively. The reason is inscrutable, but must be (at least to its best belief) for the greater good, due to the implications in the "Peace Flu" alternate title for the enclosing Period. However, this is a dark, dark thing that is done in the name of peace, and we judge it so.

This Focus turn passed fairly quickly, without any scenes, since we'd got the hang of it. Alas, we'd also run out of time, so we didn't get in a third Focus for D as the Lens.

Second Legacy: Guardian Angel Robots develop a libido!

To my right, M created this one. To her right, D was given the chance to make some history Focused on this Legacy. She made an Event in the "Robot Prohibition Era" Period: "Original Robot Sex Scandal eventually deposes current emperor." The details of how the sex scandal from the earlier Period came to haunt that later emperor weren't clear, but we speculated about how long guardian angels lived and whether it might be the same robot from the original scandal (which was tentatively named "Orangina"), causing trouble for later Imperial generations. This was dark, in line with the enclosing Period.

And that was the game. We had to pack up because it was a week night and we all had to get up in the morning.

The final history

The history timeline looked like this at the end:

The focus record was:

  1. Juggalos + Technology
  2. Wormholes

The two legacies were:

The palette was:

Comments (1)

ars ludi » Insane Clown Planet

Monday June 18, 2012 at 02:11 AM

[…] them, but here’s one from our elite playtesters north of the border. Ye older stellar empire with a rather large twist: Juggalos in Space […]