Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Kingdom of Staircases: A Microscope AP

Microscope remains some of the most fun I've had at the table in years. It offers a collaborative role-playing experience, in which the players take turns building up a history. That's the game- you spin out a story together, trying to play off of each other's work. The system has some conflict and conflict resolution, at the smallest level, but that's about who gets to have final say about a particular fact. You play characters but instead do the kind of world building that GMs do for campaigns.

And we've used it as that kind of tool, a means of collaboratively building a game world. The advantage to that is everyone knows the world equally well. Microscope's also easy to drop in as a pick up session. That happened last Thursday, when a sinus headache put a dent in my prep time for our session of Changeling the Lost. They're in the middle of a quest cycle, so we didn't want to wing it too much. I threw out a few options and they decided to do Microscope. All four of us had played it before a couple of times and enjoyed it.

We decided we wanted to build another fantasy world, both for the fun of doing that creation at the table and to create something we might run in as a pick-up game later. I'm still looking forward to trying Microscope with a non-fantasy premise. We batted around a number of ideas about what kind of world we wanted, until we modified an idea Sherri created. We would be doing the history of a Kingdom with strange otherworldly refugees. For reasons unknown, this kingdom became a nexus for persons fleeing from other worlds. Sherri added that the refugees would arrive via enormous magic stairways, generally identical, but appearing in different places. We had some interesting discussion about how the locals might deal with these kinds of interlopers. Before we got too far, we stopped and set up the beginning periods for our history.

The first period would be "The First Refugee 'Stairways' Appear." That established the refugees as key and allowed us to consider the fallout from their original arrival. The history would end with the period, "Founding of the New Dynasty." We discussed and came up with some things we definitely wanted in the history. First, all magic would be summoning in some fashion. In order to cast a spell, you had to call something and constant effects required binding. It would look a little like magic in Elric. Second, the world would have lost technology of the ancients (like Glorantha and Exalted). Third, people had knowledge of massive, probably magical, construction technologies. I'm thinking of the kinds of things you see in FFXII. To contrast those, we also picked some things we didn't want. First, there would be no gods- they would have been destroyed. Instead people worship ancestor spirits and other Shinto-like forces. Second, there's no genetic predisposition for evil or good. No race can automatically be assumed to be awful (like Orcs) or good (like Hobbits). Third, besides the stairways (which only work one way- into this world) there would be no magical teleportation or gate magics. Fourth, there would be no native magical creatures in this world- all of those would have arrived via those magic stairs.

I think one of the interesting things to look at in the history created here is how much ends up implied or unspoken. The events under a period often add new twists, rather than just presenting the details of the theme suggested by the period. The other thing that I noticed in typing this up is that you do lose something of the back and forth of the creation in reporting it this way. For example, the Black Court was created, then it was destroyed several periods later, then we added details later- in between- establishing some of the things the Black Court had done in the interim. Laid out here from beginning to end, it feels very different from the puzzle game it actually is at the table.

This time represents the period when things significantly changed for the world, with the unprecedented arrival of these strange and magical refugees.

*Ziggurat of Wonders: A ziggurat is discovered by a local farmer and his fumbling he activates something which intensifies the number of gates and stairways. These have appeared before in small numbers, but now more and larger ones appear. The city of Seras is founded and builds up around the location to conceal the ziggurat and conduct studies.
*Founding of the Kingdom: The increased influx of refugees forces an accord between the three major city states of the region. They create the Kingdom of Avastar, and enthrone the dynasty which takes its name. The new kingdom works to deal with the new arrivals.
*Communications: The Ritual Greeting is formulated with aid of the refugees from the Ruby City, who can speak any language. This becomes a consistent practice for any new stairs which appear.

With the gates weakening the fabric of reality, various factions work to summon their gods through into this world. The gods arrive, war and destroy one another in a massive conflagration which changes the landscape and creates unusual and magical places.

*New Laws: A series of new laws and proclamations regarding the refugees. The devastation in the wake of the divine 'mosh pit' makes refugees of even the natives. Resettlement erases the sense of Us vs. Them between natives and the first waves. The new laws will stand.
*Fiery Arrival: The White Elves appear, tumbling down a new staircase in a burst of flame and debris. They arrive just outside the city of Seras.

An ancient device activates. Boats loaded with masonry, pre-cut lumber, frames, metalwork, glass panes, and roof tiles begin floating down river from Garsk. Although no one can read the ancient instructions, the illustrations are quite clear to experienced builders. Many cities and structures get built.

*The Hollow City: An influx of new people arrive in Garsk. They find the uniformity strangely unsettling, and discover that summoning doesn't work in the city.
*The New Capitol: Following the discovery, the Avastar Dynasty relocates the capitol and bureaucracy to Garsk. While the aesthetics are banal, the safety of the location wholly recommends it.
*Rising Corruption: The newly centralized dynasty falls into the habit of looking the other way so long as regional lords pay proper fealty. Abuses, particularly those involving newly arrived refugees go unrecognized.
*Scene Question: How does the dynasty squelch the resulting unrest? Magic items obtained from the refugees as a 'tax' get redistributed as a form of bribery, bringing those who cause turmoil back into line.

Ifreet gathers his army and pushes across the kingdom to take the great city of Seras. He is repelled only through the intervention of the Kaliniour Knights, and his campaign comes to naught.

*The Welcoming Rotundas: Lady Absolute casts down the slaver families and calls upon her Life's Oathed Summons to consecrate the Welcoming Rotundas. These locations act a lightning rods for the gate stairways, drawing them to key points rather than scattered across the kingdom.
*The Black Court: Renmar undercuts his brother, the Duke of Withering Mountain. He loots the armory and arms his spies and bandits with the treasures. They go on to form the Black Court.
*Magical Tinkers: Knitters Hill, a boondocks village on the river Rei strikes a deal with the refugees of "The Husk." They create a bustling trade in 'recalibrating' magical items from beyond. Despite constant rumors about the legitimacy of their trade, they flourish.
*Scene Question: What was the aim of the people of Knitters Hill? They were trying to build a cache of 'just in case' objects for the time when things go wrong- because they are sure that they will.

The Binders arrive, bringing with them the knowledge of how to bind summoned creatures into physical objects. This changes sweeps across the kingdom.

*Seras' Protections: Great Elemental Spirits are bound into the towers of Seras to provide a defense against any future large-scale incursions.
*Demon Refugees Defeated: Char Hyaran lures and traps the Demon Imperator- binding both of them in the Sceptre of Bale, and destroying the Dark Staircase.
*Transport Spheres: The Warlord of Thought perfects and tests the first Sphere Launcher transports. These are based on ancient technologies. They send flying across the skies enormous metal carrier spheres, crossing the kingdom where they land safely and gently- ready to be reloaded and launched again.

A new group of refugees arrives from a world nearly identical to the kingdom. Many of the refugees appear to be exact doubles of people here, including many of the ruling caste and leadership. Complications ensue.

*Dark Plots Hatched: The Black Court joins forces with a number of the Mirrored Nobility. They set in motion a plan to destroy and replace the lords of the Avastar Dynasty.
*Scene Question: Who did the Black Court target first? Lord Starvael and his wife, the Star-Born Queen, but their success drew the attention of Duke Conch- forcing them to act against him next.
*Mirrored Weapons: Duke Conch of Seras discovers that magic items from Mirrors react powerfully to their counterparts. When crossing swords with his mirror double, the Blade of Madness is born.
*Scene Question: Why wasn't the Black Court revealed by Duke Conch? Conch tried to convince the other lords of the Black Court's actions, but is not believed because of the Blade of Madness. He is exiled with his sword.
*The Unmasking: Lady Zarvantis, when confronted with her husband's mirrored double interrogates the man for hours. Afterwards she claims that his captors have been tricked and that he is her real husband. Her own mirror twin murders her a year later.
*Opening the Vault: Shava, an enslaved earth elemental, guides Voorsh to the lost Jade Vault. Here he finds of a number of fantastic mechanical weapons, including the war machine known as Behemoth.
*The Duke Seeks Aid: Duke Conch, exiled, secretly meets with the Binders. He seeks help in revealing the Mirrors. They bind him into the metal of his sword and remake it as a mirror which reveals the truth.
*The Purge: Clanless warriors in mechanized uniforms penetrate Withering Mountain and kill the members of the Black Court.

The Binders and the newly formed Tech Brotherhood set aside their differences and begin the first peace talks. They seek to repair the damage done by the Black Court and settle the most recent conflicts.

*The Beastkith Rewarded: For their role in the downfall of the Black Court, the Regent allows the founding of Rainlore, a city dedicated to an run by the Beastkith, animal-men refugees who came from a world much like that of this kingdom.
*Scene Question: How did the Beastkith help? They have burrowing folk among them...after a camp out on Knitters Hill they became strangely powerful...and laden down with backpacks.
*Black Heart of the Palace: Renmar, founder of the Black Court, is discovered in his magical guise of the Regent by a senior member of the nobility. Renmar's mirror (and partner) quickly kills the noble..
*Behemoth's Rampage: The Binders collaborate with the Tech Brotherhood, binding a great guardian spirit into the Behemoth to defend the kingdom. The binding to the ancient artifact causes the Behemoth to go berserk, killing many before it is buried.
*The City Sighted: A great commotion rises in Garsk. Late one night in the light of a full moon, a floating city is seen in the sky. It then vanishes from sight.
*The Horde: While some magical creatures and monsters have appeared in the past, nothing matches the sudden onslaught from the Scaled Stairway- as a host of magical horrors stream out for three days and nights. They seem to be escaping a massive dungeon world.

With the Avastar Dynasty all but extinguished and the Regency revealed as a villainous plot, the nobles draw together to anoint a new dynasty to lead the Kingdom.

*The Regent Falls: Lidian Zhakovas reveals the Regent and his double- and finally kills Renmar. She refuses at first, but finally accepts the Crown of the Kingdom. She has a condition to create unity- the remnants of the line of Avastar must be adopted or marry into her own house. The Zhakovas Dynasty is founded.
*Ancient Survivors: Storms and Quakes signal a monumental event. The strike of a comet unseals the Impenetrable Ziggurat- releasing a group of the Ancients and the machines of war long sealed away.
*Royal Plots: Though a member of the new dynasty, Prince Avarin wants nothing to do with it. Instead he desires power only for himself. He gathers supporters to him and plots the doom of the Zhakovas Dynasty from within.
*The New Queen: Following the carnage from her cousin's Avarin's failed coup attempt, the young Princess Estarsia is forced to take up her family's duties. A cluster of advisors close in, hoping for influence, but the Princess has her own ideas...
*Night on Withering Mountain: A successor decides to reestablish the lost and fallen Black Court. This distant descendant of Renmar makes his way and secretly reopens Withering Mountain, armed with secret lore of her locks and traps.


  1. Very interesting. Descriptions of things done with Microscope always seem cool to me, but I'm not sure I would enjoy it in actual play for some reason. Maybe it's the novelty of it that makes me suspicous, I don't know.

  2. Microscope is pretty brilliant IMO. I was able to play a little bit during the beta of Google Wave - the medium may have detracted from the experience, a few of the participants lost interest. Nevertheless, we started with some ideas that I was dubious about and it did not take long for me to get very engaged with it.

  3. Trey- I can only speak anecdotally on this. I was pretty jazzed about the idea of Microscope when I read it. When I decided to bring it to the table, I had a number of people who were skeptical. They worried about what exactly we would be doing, the play and about other people messing things up. I would say that without exception those people came away convinced and excited to do more. They each said they'd been won over by the fun of it.

    On the other hand, I have a friend who did a session and for the most part his group really enjoyed it. There was an exception- a player who mostly GM's and did not like the shared power and authority of the game. He didn't see the point of the play and much preferred a single authorial voice. He saw little point if one wasn't going to use it as a starter for a campaign, and even in that case felt that it diminished the GM. I mention that as a kind of important exception.

    I should note that we play with a modified version of the "Scene" system from Microscope, to keep the focus on the higher levels.

    @Greg- yea, Microscope seems like a natural for doing an online/forum game, but I've never felt the pull of those. I know many people enjoy them so I'll probably have to try that at some point.

  4. Awesome as always. I'm so getting the itch to do another game of Microscope. I'm considering facilitating Obe for DC Game Day.

  5. BTW Risus, I finally picked up the Mythic GME based on your discussion of it- a very cool tool.

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