Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Spirals, Songs, and Summons: Building History for a Portal

Last Friday we had the good fortune to have our old friend Gene Ha drop in. He gave a presentation at a local college, but made time to sit in on for one-shot session. I'd played with Gene is high school and more recently he's played in my online Mutants & Masterminds campaign. Gene and I had spoken about Microscope before, so I wanted to give him a crack at it. To make the exercise practical, we opted to build the history for a Portal from our OCI campaign (more details on that here).

One OCI player, Scott, had selected Masks of the Empire as his portal. The tagline for that is “With the fall of the Witchwalls, the Empire of the Hours expands. Now they must dispatch agents to bring new lawless borderlands to heel. Can the Masks tame this magical frontier?” Using Microscope, we would write the history of this isolated frontier region with the following details in place:
  • The place had once been a distant borderland of the Empire of the Hours.
  • A magical barrier had cut it off- we would determine what that involved in our play.
  • Eighty years had passed in isolation and that would bookend our history.
  • We would be building a world for the PCs to play in- and that play would happen immediately following that last era.
With that premise in place, we decided to set the palette. More than usual, we ended up with a pretty modest list of Add/Bans…

  • Intelligent Magical Machines, not necessarily robots, but other kinds.
  • No Arcane “Firearms”
  • No Black-Powder
  • No individual manufacture or maintenance of magic items. Magic items require a consensus to craft and empower.
We had five participants and five rounds. We did an extra round without a focus to allow players to wrap some threads up. As I’ve done with previous world-building exercises using Microscope, instead of scenes we used Questions. Players could ask a Question about an event and either answer it themselves or pass it on to another player. That trick speeds things up, but does move away from a more rp feel. Usually I see questions when players find themselves stuck. In this case we ended up with everything clicking along so we only had a single use of a question.

I also tried an alternative drawn from our work using Microscope for city-building. Instead of a Legacy, I had players write up a faction, society, group, or people present in the world. The intent was to depend some of the on-the-ground player choices when this world pops up on the tabletop. You’ll see the list of those groups created at the end of the timeline.

Lens Focus (by Round):
1. Masks
2. Building
3. Given Voice
4. Betrayal
5. Scars

Note: I didn’t define the nature or source of the barrier further than this. I figured that would develop through play. My writ was simply that a frontier area of the empire had been cut off by a magical barrier. You’ll see that gains some definition later in the history. Note that, as sometimes happens, it isn’t clear exactly when the barrier arises during the chain of events listed below. That could reshape some of the details.
  • The Tribes Gather in Council: The work to regain contact with the Aether Spirits. (L)
  • The Face of a God: While speaking as Metatron for the God of Evenstar and Death, the Face of the Arch Pontiff is stolen in Mid-Ceremony. His ghost has no face or voice.  (D)
  • Tasks of the Unsleeping: The remaining Unsleeping are set to building canals and slowly turning windmills to redirect the winds and waters blocked by the Barrier. Few outlast the endeavor. (L)
  • The Face Returned: Prince Kalikos returns from the border to the Heartlands with the Face of the Arch-Pontiff and seals it away in the Grand Cathedral. (L)

Air Spirits, driven insane by their captivity within the Barrier, rise and thrash- their screams becoming howling winds striping the land and creating deserts. (D)
  • The Fleet Crashes: The magical air-spirit bound ships of the fleet go mad, betraying their crews and crashing into the ground. They litter the ground and end such travel in a matter of days. (D)
  • The Garden Lost: Betraying her lover’s trust, Pael Nael steals the Fifth Verdant Walker, a massive, mobile mechanical garden. However she gets only a few miles before she sends it tumbling over a cliff. (D)
  • The Earth Revolts: Winter’s Scar opens for the first time. It is a great chasm in the earth stretching across the isolated region. It begins a cycle, with the crevice snapping shut in spring and opening in winter. While open, it reveals great mineral wealth. (L)
  • Lost Tombs: Deep within the Cistern of Morg, uncovered by the rending of the Air-Spirit Illiath, the Tomb of the Curse Warden is found by scavengers. (D)

The spirits of the dead cannot pass through the Barrier. They accumulate and haunt the living. (D)
  • The Devas of Solace Return: Percadrix summons nearly forgotten legends back to the Marches of this fragment of the Empire. (L)
  • Liancarn Reaches the Hollows: Liancarn finishes his pilgrimage across the sealed region with The Key. At the Hollows he breaks the seals and reveals the great store of Fane Silver lost there. (L)
  • Mask Makers: Orchul, high arcanist, and his fellow mages work the Fane Silver into thin masks. Placed upon the spirits, they hide the dead from the living. (L)
  • Question: What is the dark secret Orchul didn’t tell the community about the making of the masks? The Fane Silver binds not only the ghost, but also those of its blood line. When they pass, they find themselves drawn to and merged with the mask’s power as well. This prevents newly dead souls from moving on or finding rest. In later years this would create dreadful masses of bound spirits. (D)
  • The Water Walls: Twerek Scorned completes the Tangled Seals, a set of locks and barriers to protect the Last Lakes from the encroaching desert and keep the waters under the authority of Sibilance. (L)
  • Spirit Rafts: Anlazuli builds the first of the Spirit-Rafts- floating platforms of chimes & lanterns- intended to draw the spirits away from populated areas. A simple and useful enchantment, the rafts soon become a common sight. They seem to cycle the spiral of the central rivers permanently, floating forever. (L)

Cut off from even the most distant Imperial rule, lawlessness rises.
  • Bandit Wars: The Bandit King Zonn Tral takes the Heartlands in a bloody revolt against his former mentor, Jael Allblood. In the midst of Jael’s sudden death, the control rod for “Sanras” is lost. (D)
  • Artoth Reborn: Tine Zeckt-Falling leads the refugees to the abandoned cliff city of Artoth to rebuild its former glory (L).
  • Curses Revealed: Pael Nael unmasks the Queen of Sibilance, revealing Mist-Eyed Drinker who took took the Queen’s form. Drinker, the Curse Warden, slays most of the guests at the grand ball to hide her secret- but many escape and seal the lake-borne palace. (D)
  • Hero’s Path: The Questgiver leads the Troop of the Vanguard through the Misty Glen of Shadow. (L)
  • Spiral-Heart Duel: The rivers, redirected, spiral uniformly to the center of the barriered lands. The three Bandit Kings agree to duel for control at the island in the center. They go but none return and their men fall to war. (D)
  • Bandit’s Fall: Caught out from his paid off Shock Troopers, the last Bandit King Auburth is captured by the Vanguard and jailed in the Tower of Sunfire. (L)

The Moons Vanish from the Skies for a Time (D)
  • The Tower of Lament: Imprisoned by the Curse Warden for her defiance, Tine’s daughter Knaipara learns the Tower of lament was not built as a prison. It is a giant mechanical historian, full of tales. (L)
  • New Masks: Tine’s daughter lives long enough to see the twelve Masks of Aroth- modeled after those of the Empire of Hours- completed and distributed to their fated agents. (L)
  • The Devas Undone: Sacrificing the last Beacon of the Unsleeping, Pael Nael collapses the northernmost section of the Winter’s Scar, burying the Devas of Solace and freeing the region from the perfection-demanding rules of this legendary spirit host. (L)
  • The Lost Ship: With the help of the Barrier Guides, the magical intelligent airship “Savras” and crew attempt to sail above the barrier and find the Moons, but they never return. (D)
  • Godkiller: The Hall of Sign-Solace collapses as Regent Hess, betrayer of the Barrier Guides, drains away the essence of the God of Evenstar and Death, using the blade Saint-Sinner, originally created by the guides to pierce the Barrier. (D)
  • The Summons: Var-seth of the East brings forth the Song of Valor from her Mask of Artoth, calling all heroes to assemble at her side. (L)
  • Death Takes All: The sand, the screams of spirits, and burning winds, the ever darkening sky…few can hold out against the Malaise which begins at the turn of the season. Only the hardiest, the Unsleeping, the Barrier-Touched, and a few of the Guides survive the moonless summer. (D)

Note: Again, I only put the title for this end era before the group. I figured they would develop an explanation which would tell us more about the world.
  • Whispering Lake: The Questgiver’s squire is nearly drowned by the new Bandit King Auburthrit. But young Fain survives to report the dead voices are trapped under the Last Lakes. (L)
  • Litany’s End: Myso, the spurned heir to the Throne of Hours- finally dies. His litany of curses trails off. Finally, the Chorus of the Mask of the Dutiful son is heard. Soon after, the Guides find weakness. (L) Note: this actually refers to events outside the Barrier. The Empire of the Hours is a larger plot point- the Empire which controlled this frontier state previously. The meta-game concept is that the players will be agents of that Empire coming to retake control after the Barrier’s fall.
  • Gates Left Open: Pael Nael arrives at Crotallan, last city of Sibilance, and finds it empty. It has fallen to the Malaise. This leaves only three settlements of significant size left within the Barrier. (D)
  • New Song: For a time the Voice of “Sauras” plays through many other machines. Each delivers a word of a message, but the whole cannot be pieced together yet. (L)
  • Grand Theft: Forgesteel Focus, the core assembly of the War Colossus, has been forged at South Landing. Agents of Regent Hess steal it under cover of darkness. (D)
  • First Cracks: King Dumas of the Dwarves and Technocrat Ablis of the Argent Gnomes find a weak point in the Barrier. They begin piercing it with a great magical intelligent drilling machine. (L)
  • The Second Betrayal: Orchul, traitor high arcanist and minion of Mist-Eye Drinker betrays his new master. The wizard has almost collected all of the words from the Voice of “Sauras” and is disemboweled for his efforts. (L)
  • Enemy of My Enemy: Hess- now a mass of scarred flesh and automaton war colossus- and The Listening Mirror seek to seal the breach. The Curse Warden escapes the Lake Bounre Palace so she can enter the fault and become the Barrier. Fight! (L)
  • True Names: Tine’s daughter’s mechanical scarab escapes her tomb with a secret: the Curse Warden’s True Name is a Millambet, a 1000 syllable poem. (L)
  • The Millambet: The last of Var-Seth’s heroes collects the final verses of Sauras with those Orchul had gathered. The Curse Warden has merged with the Barrier, and her death as her True Name is spoken shattered the Barrier. (L)

  • Argent Gnomes: One of the few peoples with any knowledge of the craft of intelligent machines. They rework and restore these into wearable devices, including armored suits and sleeves.
  • The Barrier Guides: Spirit-Deaf and hardened to desert life, the Guides travel the length of the Barrier testing for the beginning of its prophesied fall.
  • The Farspeakers: Those who can communicate with the Legend Spirits of the Empire and reveal their secrets.
  • The Barrier Touched: Some children are born too near the Barrier or come into contact with it for too long. They develop strange marks and in some cases unusual curse abilities.
  • The Listening Mirror: The secret cabal within the Barrier Guides who seek to become Gods within an eternally sealed realm. 
I'll talk in another post about how to unpack and find threads from that material. 


  1. I'm interested in the fact that you did away with the roleplayed scenes entirely. Does that make much difference to how other parts of the game feel? The group I played with struggled most with the roleplay scenes, so I'm interested in how other approaches pan out.

    1. It does focus things on the session as a "project" and "shared experience" rather than an rpg. I originally chose to try this approach because we had six people present the first time we tried it out and I wanted to get more in. I liked the idea of exploring an event through a question, but wasn't sure about how much time that would eat up.

      Taking out any kind of rp'ing scenes means that the focus is on the creation and development of the world. You don't switch out of that mode so the process feels a little more uniform and straight. I don't want to knock the traditional scenes approach, but from the several times I've used it this technique makes things a little easier to teach and to get something useful for later play.

      I also think it does even more to make everyone feel like an equal participant. Some of my players aren't as comfortable with freeform improv play, but they all enjoy the creative act of the rest of the game.

      OOH I love Kingdom for the way it uses those freeform scenes to create history and drama.