Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Undoing Begins: Playing Microscope

Last week my sister, Cat Rambo, sci-fi and fantasy writer, came through to visit. She'd been at WorldCon and brought us copies of her newly launched book, Near + Far. Most of our campaigns didn’t fall during the days she would be here or were difficult to set up for a guest spot. But I wanted a chance to sit down and play a game at the table with her. I settled on Microscope because it generates creative ideas and could be useful for a writing group. It’s also something she could easily take to a con or party.

We began by setting the premise. I’d been thinking about
Clockwork& Chivalry and the idea of the ritual slaying of a king as creating devastation across the land. I suggested doing fantasy post-apocalypse. We decided to do the start of that process, rather than in the devastation after or the lead up to the crucial event. We would follow the slow fall and decay of the setting into ruin, beginning with the initial event “The Undoing Begins” and finishing with the last era before everything fell to pieces “The False Reunification.”

First we established the palette:


• No races are inherently evil (like Orcs, Goblins, etc)
• No direct divine proof or intervention, all is uncertain.
• No dragons
• No universal magic: magic cannot be used to create, mend, or heal.
• No magical flight


• All magic is music in some form.
• Firearms exist- i.e. projectile weapons which are not muscle-powered
• Magical training and skill is passed down through tattoos.
• Magic always requires or causes some kind of destruction, often uncontrolled.
• Many races
• High level civil engineering
• Some rocks can talk
• New races appear all of the time (this is an interesting one as we left open how they appear- magical popping in, mutation, etc- but we never actually ended up defining this in play)
• Laws are based on squatters rights- i.e. occupation defines authority
• No fantasy half-race children. Children of mixed fantasy races breed true for one race or the other, and it is random.

Then we went through and played it out over five turns. We used our simplified version of scenes (for a scene you can ask a question about an event and have someone else answer it). For the five turns we had the following lenses and legacies:

Turn 1: Bridges/The Eight Bridges
Turn 2: Diamonds/The Citadel
Turn 3: Threads/Haflings
Turn 4: Despair/The Sword of Sorrows
Turn 5: Engineers/The Spirit Radio

The last time I posted one of these
Microscope session summaries a commenter criticized me for not writing things out in the order they actually hit the table. I think that’s a valid critique- as that approach would show the play better than the final summary. However I thought about it and ultimately decided to put things together in the final order. I think it is easier to read this way, shows connections more clearly, and is easier to manage in assembling. Someday I will write up on the other way, but for now I keep my conventional approach. I've marked things with (D) for dark and (L) for light.

I. The Undoing Begins

The crisis which threatens to engulf the world has its roots in this period. (D)
*The Sky Skein Unwoven

Sheshara the Widow Queen attempts to bypass the prohibitions against magical flight. She rises and grasps the Dome Thread of the sky and pulls it loose. She herself is Undone and the Undoing takes hold. (D)
*The Border Stones Gain their Voice

Stones which marks the borders between regions begin to tell travelers that they have crossed a limit and declare who now controls the land on either side. (L)
*The Diamond Conclave Ends

The convocation of divine philosophers breaks apart, leaving Toldark and his radical faction in charge. They purge those who denounce their approach to the “Gods.” Toldark’s way calls upon extreme embrace of a single emotion: scorn, sorrow, terror, lust, shame, etc. (D)
*The Heretics of Sand

This group decides to dispute and undermine the Philosophies of Toldark with doggerel verse and children’s songs. Although the Diamond Conclave hunt them ruthlessly, oathed to prove the power of Despair to their naysayers, no amount of executions can silence the sing-song sounds of contempt. (L)
*The Life Taker

Master Engineer Greybeard Lowpants successfully solves his problem of mortality. He builds a machine that will, in future years, magically force his memories into the children of prominent families. He will live on as a kind of magical virus.

II. The Year of Inventions

In the face of decay and strangeness, a period of unprecedented, unwanted, and unwarranted creativity occurs. (L)
*The Sky Bridges

Whith magical flight prohibited, scholars look for other means. They develop the first Sky Bridges, allowing them to cross vast distances. However, the were first prototypes and not perfected, with problematic results. (L)
*The Thieves of Magic

The Elves discover the art of granting the skins of their foes to them. By taking the magical tattoos from their enemies, they can bridge their magical arts with those of less fortunate races. (D)
*Compliant Workers

Haflings invert the art of Necromancy. They weaving spell threads to hold bodies together after death. They then sell these techniques to provide work forces for other nations and peoples. (D)
*Secrets Hidden

The leaders of the Haflings decide to conceal their connection to these necromantic constructs, even those created by others. They will use these bodies to act as spies across the land. (D)
*Cloak of Skin

Elf Princess Ollrya uses twisted magic to preserve the tattoos flayed from her many opponents and sews them together into a cloak of skin. She is subsequently devoured by her creation. (D)
*Costs of the Sky Bridges

Joram the Smiling finally perfects the Sky Bridges when he discovers that only lifeblood will anchor them. His apprentices, seeking to avoid the bloody experimentation that has already claimed several of them, rise up and kill him. (L)

III. The Refrain of the Bridges

The twenty-two students of the Magus Erb travel the lands, building conventional bridges modeled after the work of Master Engineer Grey (Erb’s brother) as monuments to their master. (L)
*”The Bridges of Loss”

This song is penned by an unknown bard. Non-magical, but powerful nonetheless, it is the first warning to the greater populace of the Undoing. (L)
*Guns of the Citadel

Using the largest diamond found to date, Lord Velcast erects the Sun Cannon atop the Tower of Dawn. He uses this weapon to keep desert clans from attacking the Citadel and deposing him. (D)
*Excavated Secrets

The new magical bridges, formed by reshaping the earth beneath the water, reveal many secrets- including a diamond studded arc spanning the Grey Lune swamplands. A series of battles to seize the site follows the revelation. (D)
*Dwarven Craftsmanship

Dwarven engineers discover that the great bones of Giantess enemies harden slowly, but become stronger than stone. They use these to build the Bone Fortress. (L)

IV. Ember-Born Exodus

Fires across the Bara Range send many races out over the borders and shift the population density of the heartland. (D)
*The First Bridge Falls

Lord Toggle holds the First Bridge across the Scarlet Sea for a week. This his troops falter and fail. The Empire of Scorn rides their newly crafted war machines into the Heartlands. (D).
*Old Hatreds Put Aside

When floods bear down upon the No’Pac, the highland cliff-dwelling Mo’shun come down to rescue them, despite years of warfare and strife between the two peoples. (L)
*The Citadel Falls

Fires have raged around the Citadel for months, sending up a constant violent fugue of chimes and percussion. One night the sounds suddenly cease- and the earth itself melts and swallows the towers of the Citadel and all within. (L)
*New Sounds

The first of the Dirgesongs, melodies of despair are written. Thus is born a musical genre out of the many laments for lands and lives lost to the fires. (L)

V. Night of the Falling Stars

The stars begin to fall from the dome of the sky, crashing to the lands below. Eventually all stars fail and fall creating darkness and hampering navigation. (D)
*Blame Crusade

Tara Diamondhand blames the fall of the stars upon surrounding races. She issues her declaration of war. (D)
*The Diamonds Sing

Talking Diamonds prophesize the places where new races will appear. Leading to a rush to seize, capture, destroy, or consume these new peoples. (D)
*Academy of Despair

Constable Coin storms the Academy of the Path of Despir, a divine philosophy rivaling the paths of Scorn and Terror. Their new edict “The Gift of Mercy” has resulted in countless deaths. Coin takes the head of the patriarch and puts the remaining faithful to unresisting torch. (D)
*Bloody Aftermath

Tara Diamondhand’s crusade finished with the destruction the fourth of the neighboring people’s she’d blamed. She burns the city of Qwell as a sign of the end of her current purges. (D)
*The Star Sword

Despair, the Sword of Sorrow, is crafted from the final fallen star-diamond. It immediately fills all who see it with despair as it is first drawn. Many immediately kill themselves. (D)

VI. Day of Tremors

Massive earthquakes sweep the land. Each one leaves immense tears and gashes upon the landscape. (D)
*The Barges

The eight bridges of the river Gawayle survive the massive mud-slides. Midnarian the Engineer turns them into barges and sails his people to sea. (L)
*The Storm

Powerful waves strike the Midnarian Flotilla. Seven miraculously remain together, but the eighth containing Engineer Midnarian vanishes. (L)
*Lost Explorers

A third party of adventurers vanishes into the mysterious underground city. Months before the earth had split here, revealing the glint of diamonds which has lured the foolhardy into the depths. (D)
What is killing the adventurers? The groups press deeper into the caverns until they reach the Threadbare and fall out of the world.

VII. The Year of Blood

Now that the threads of this world have grown thin and weak, the Fey come forward and reveal themselves as the true masters of the races. (D)
*Treachery Revealed

Hendrall Sightunseen reveals the Gnomish Plot and their illusionary Fae Host, woven from threads stolen from the sky. In the final battle, he uses the Singing scissors to slice the false Fae Host and free his people. The Gnomes are driven into the Lost Caverns. (L)
How did Hedrall learn the Fae were false? The Gnomes’ illusion was perfect in all ways, except that sunlight upon the Fae looked like torchlight.
*The Gnomes Cry Fae

The Gnomish King gives into despair and summons the real Fae Lords, who turn upon them and make the gnomes their playthings. A few escape and make their way to outside where they are disbelieved and killed. (D)
*The King Weeps

To further taunt the Gnome, Salien the Foul, the Fey Engineer of Flesh tells Boris Shortgate, the gnome king, a secret. She reveals that Tara Diamondhand is their agent and that her crusade will next be unleashed against all remaining Gnomes. (D)

VIII. The False Reunification

A chance to save the world comes and passes. (D)
*Pingus’ Spirit Radio

Dondral Pingus, creator of the Sun Cannon regrets his earlier follies. He descends into the Diamond City to sequester himself. His experiments lead to a bizarre discovery. One day, by attaching a device to one of the diamonds, he manages to faintly pick up the voices of the lost adventurers. (L)
What do the adventurers tell Pingus? They seem to be repeating the same incidents over and over- a maze filled with traps. Each time they die, they begin at the ‘start’ with all memory of the previous trips. Madness sets in.
*New Threads

Ciennna of the Whispers discovers the Melodious Threads of Orientation strung between the Border Stones. She tries to re-weave the Threadbare near the Grey Lune battlefield and fails to darn it properly- but she is able to create a drawstring to close the hole. (L)
*Barren Dreams

The Prophet Phalim wakes from a terrible dream. In it his god warns him. If the people of the world do not turn from their path, the women of the land will be struck barren. (D)
*The Reunification

Hedrall manages to bring together the leaders of most of the surviving races and kingdoms. They negotiate accords and set treaties to fight against the Undoing. But even as the delegates prepare for the final statement, the Skin Cloak of Princess Ollyra appears and releases the sword, Despair. It drives most witnesses mad and the rest to suicide. (D)
*Song of Refuge

In desperation Cienna and her engineer cousin Ciril compose a symphony of nets by using the Border Stones’ threads as the strings of a massive harp. Ciril programs the parts in a five-day marathon with Cienna preserving his instructions with her melodic pleas to the stones. The song rings out to guide refugees to the former site of the Citadel. (L)


Well...that was dark.

I really enjoy
Microscope; it remains great fun. I’m surprised how much from the ban/add list we didn’t end up exploring in play. Perhaps if we’d had a couple more turns. There are some concepts on the list that could have generated some cool details. I also need to stress the distinction about events next time. They represent a discrete happening- something happens. You can include the lead up in your description, but the event card shows a narrow point in time rather than a span. So you can’t say what the fallout is from the event- that’s something for another card. If you want something to cover some time, then write up your event as the finale or end point of something. In writing this up, I had to make a couple of changes to make that fit. That approach forces the players to be more concrete, which I think makes it stronger.

The Fleet Departs
The Road to Doubtfall
The Hunts Begin 
Kingdom of Staircases 

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