Sunday, April 10, 2011

Cycles of Apocalypse: A Microscope RPG Play-Through

On Thursday we had a player out from our regular Changeling the Lost campaign. We’d had to miss a session for my surgery, so I didn’t want to do a session with a reduced number of players. Instead I decided to try out a new GM-less game I’d purchased, Microscope. This session report is intended as a companion to my review of that game, which I plan to post in the next day or two.

Basics
I’d read through Microscope a couple of times, and had printed out the reference sheets. I’d ordered flash cards a while back which we used this evening to handle the items for the table display. We did two full rounds, allowing each player to serve as the Lens twice- the Lens role gets to establish the focus for the round (all things must deal with the focus in some way) and gets extra chances to add material to the timeline. For reference, here are the foci for the rounds and the Legacies players chose:

Lowell
Foci: Round One: The Sword of Summoning; Round Four: Non-Humans
Legacies: The Great Beast, Avatars

Scott
Foci: Round Two: Dragons; Round Five: Gods
Legacies: Dragon Plague

Sherri
Foci: Round Three: Riddles; Round Six: Transportation
Legacies: The Map of the Infinite Tunnels, The True Sword of Summoning

Except for the first round, we stayed general with the focus. I’d be curious to see how much that choice affects the play at the table.

The Big Picture
After some discussion we decided to do work with the following premise: "Cycles of Apocalypse and Rebirth in a Fantasy World." The idea would be that our history would be just one of those cycles. For the starting period we came up with "The Waters Retreat: Birth of the Deserts." For the Ending Period, we came up with "The Skyfall Summoned." There was some discussion as to how those cataclysms might be elementally tied as well.

Palette
For the Palette, you get to choose items to add or to ban. In our case, I split them into three add items, and three ban items. In retrospect, they’re actually six ban items, with some discussion at the time about how they would be replaced. The one’s we originally considered adds I mention first, but I’m rewording them in their clearer negative statement form:

d10-1No Free Magic: All magic cast has an equivalent cost or trade off in some form. There’s no mana or open energy to be tapped.
d10-2No Magical Talent: The ability to cast magic is entirely trained and learned. No one has a "natural" talent for it. Training is difficult and time-consuming, even for the most basic abilities.
d10-3No Conventional "Undead": Instead, Ghosts and other like undead creatures arise when a mage dies while miscasting. So all miscasting has serious risks and all undead used to be mages.
d10-4No fantastical gadgets or technology: No Steam devices or even magical devices which ape engines, guns or the like.
d10-5No Healing Magic: Magic cannot be used to heal, restore or revive.
d10-6No Creation Magic: Magic cannot create new things. It can summon them from elsewhere or transform them, but cannot create.
During this period, based on the last couple of points we decided that each time the world suffers a magical apocalypse like these, some magic vanishes from the world, hence the absence of Healing and Creation magic. We’d later tie that into some other details.

The Actual Play
I’m writing this out as it looked at the end, not in the order of things being added. A (D) after an item means the tone is Dark; an (L) after an item means the tone is Light.

Period One: The Waters Retreat: Birth of the Deserts (D)
In this period, the magical apocalypse which gives birth to this history occurs. The old world is lost, along with some of the magics.
1Event 1: All of the Gods Die: There’s the equivalent of Ragnarok, but we pictured it as a kind of inevitable die off rather than a battle against anything. (D)

Period Two: The Avatars are Chosen (L)
In this period, the survivors of the downfall find some succor through prayers to the gods.
1Event 1: Avatar-Led Exodus: Each of the gods chooses an avatar from among the survivors. These avatars lead the people to the safe places. (L)
2Event 2: The Avatars Ascend and Become the Gods: The death of the gods is revealed, and the Avatars become the gods who had apparently chosen them previously-their ascent to Divinity powered by the prayers of the people. (L)

Period Three: The Generation of Scouring (D)
In this period, the Dragons, awakened by the events of the apocalypse, strike out at the survivors. Some dragons attack and then head off to sleep again, while others continue until they are exhausted or killed.
1Event 1: The Dragon Plague: To fight against the attacking Dragons, the peoples discover a way of killing them, through the creation of a magical plague. However this plague is made from ghosts. So some must heroically sacrifice themselves to become ghosts while others are tricked into miscasting and then processed. (L)

Period Four: Establishment of the Magical Sanctuary City of Vendrau (L)
The great city of Vendrau is created- it will serve as the largest safe harbor for the people and the repository of the most magical knowledge. Wizards will be trained here in the generations which follow.
1Event 1: Sisters of the Joyous Disaster erect the Welcoming Wings (the ward around Vendrau): These mages travel out and around the countryside to risk their lives- and the energy from that risk creates a zone of safety around the city. (L)
2Event 2: Lord Kaldron Murdered and the Sword of Summoning Stolen. Lord Kaldron had gained leadership of the city of Vendrau before his death. (D)
Scene: Why Was Lord Kaldron Really Murdered? Kaldron attempted to place limits on the Sisters of the Joyous Disaster, wishing to regulate mages more tightly and fill his coffers from payments for training. The Sisters "convinced" a petitioner from Kaldron’s home city of Clod to talk with the Lord. A series of misunderstandings occurred, resulting in the accidental death of Kaldron and the petitioner being convinced to make off with the sword to provide a less humiliating explanation for the Lord’s death. (L)
3Event 3: The Annual Riddle Exam Established: Any who wish to be trained in magic must pass a set of riddle examinations. (L)
Scene (Dictated): What of those who fail the exam? They must pledge themselves to the service of the city of Vendrau for a year. They may then take the exam again.
4Event 4: The Grand Fleet of Vendrau Christened: Sand Ships depart from the ports. (L)
Scene (Dictated): What is the Fleet For? On the surface trade, but in reality gathering elements to help counter-balance the growing wealth of the city. They seek to prevent magical blowback.

Period Five: Golem Legions Conquest: the Age of the Golem (D)
With serious constraints on food and water still a problem, the mages create golems to serve as a labor force. Over time those number grew and mages made increasingly sophisticated creations. Eventually they gained a measure of sentience and independence, and in a sweeping war, took over across the land.
1Event 1: Brass 17 discovers the secret of Diamond Steel: In a result which gave the Golems an edge in warfare, they discover how to make a metal stronger than any other steel and able to cut the hardest armor. (L)
2Event 2: The Tower Built: The Elves Steal the secret of Diamond Steel from the Golems and use it to build a great spire into the clouds. (L)
3Event 3: Sky Elves War: An Elvish cult known as the Sky Elves seize control of the Cloud Tower of the Elves. They ascend it, hoping to find a path to exit from the cycle of apocalypse. They fail in what becomes known as the Year of Raining Flesh. (D)
4Event 4: The Goblins forge the Contract of Caretaking: The Golems realize that they require others for their magical upkeep over time. The underground dwelling Goblins make them an offer which they accept. They and the Golems commence the building of the Infinite Tunnels: The Golems abandon the surface world and their empire, returning the places to the hands of the various survivor races. (L)

Period Six: Founding of the Ice-Cutters (L)
The Ice Cutters learn the art of traveling to the poles on great ships and cutting away segments of ice, shipping them back to the various cities. There they can be used magically to draw waters hidden away below the earth. This allows the expansion of civilization and the creation of cities to rival Vendrau’s influence.
1Event 1: The Beast Awakens: The Ice Cutters unearth The Great Beast, summoned in a previous age by the Sword of Summoning. The Great Beast escapes to wreak havoc. (D)
2Event 2: The New Steeds: Following another conflict with The Great Beast, the Ice Cutters discover that pieces sliced from the beast grow into smaller versions which can be domesticated (mostly). (L)
3Event 3: Dragons Reborn: The Northcliff Detachment discovers the first clutch of Basalt Dragon Eggs, dragons which are immune to the Dragon Plague.

Period Seven: Age of the Ghost Archons (D)
A wizard accidentally uncovers the method to allow the undead both greater consciousness and the ability to affect the physical world more strongly. These Ghost Mages seize control and institute a rule of arcane legalism and judgment.
1Event 1: Archons Awakened: Tian-Killar solves the Riddle of Eternal Life by making contact and modifying the magics lost in from the previous cycle. This creates the Ghost Archons. (D)
2Event 2: Flying Cities: The Triple Djinn Cities lift off and travel the land, offering rivals to Vendrau’s influence and a sanctuary to those fleeing the rule of the Archons. (L)
3Event 3: The Sword Reborn: Arvenexus, the Wraith Archon, reforges the Sword of Summoning (D)
Scene (Dictated): Who killed Arenexus? The Sisters of Joyous Disaster using the true Sword of Summoning which they found discarded at the bottom of a well in the town of Clod. (D)
4Event 4: Dragons Return: Dragons re-emerge from hiding after the threat of Arvenexus vanishes. The Dragon Riders are born. (L)

Period Eight: Narya’s Refutation of the Doomsayers: War Against Prophecy (D)
Believing that oracles, visionaries and soothsayers actually create and cause the dooms they predict, Narya begins a grand theocratic crusade to rid land of any and all who possess such skills. All works of prophecy are burnt, eventually leading to the burning of any forward-thinking material. Narya’s Crusade sweeps through all the peoples.
1Event 1: New Exams: With magic itself now suspect, a few wizards manage to keep learning alive through the creation of the Clandestine Riddle Exams. (L)
2Event 2: Mages' Retreat: The remaining mages of Vendrau retreat en masse to the Infinite Tunnels. (D)
3Event 3: End of Narya: Narya’s Divine Protection fails and she is overcome. (L)
Scene (Dictated): Why Does Narya’s Protection Fail? Narya discovers that just as with the magics, when the cycle of apocalypse occurs, some of the Gods do not pass on to the next age. She learns that her own deity, Taldare, will not survive the next transition. (D)

Period Nine: The Skyfall Summoned (D)
The doom of the world is summoned, as the last age suffered from the Doom of Water, this one comes from a Doom of Earth with a great stone falling from the heavens.
1Event 1: The Great Beast Destroys Vendrau- the cycle is returned as the city which grew based on waters and the ice of the Cutters now is destroyed by something released by that process. (D)
2Event 2: Naimless discovers the Unanswered Riddle. He puts it to the Great Beast, stymieing it and putting it into slumber. (L)
3Event 3: A Gathering: The Mages call out across the land and gather together all magic items of power in an effort to use them to forstall the Skyfall. (L)
4Event 4: The Dragon Martyrs: Dragon Riders wielding the artifacts gathered fly up to stop the Skyfall but are destroyed. (D)
Scene (Dictated): Why did the Dragon Riders fail? They were betrayed by one of their own who grew to love the item which had been entrusted to him. (D)
5Event 5: Flight from History: The remaining Sand Ships of Vendrau are refitted with Djinn. These ferry the last held magic into the rift in an effort to preserve some of the peoples from the destruction of the Skyfall. Few in number, they manage to survive. (D)
Scene (Dictated): What balanced the successful escape of these peoples? A hero secretly brought along his steed- carrying a piece of the Great Beast forward into the next age.