Monday, November 19, 2012

Steampunk City-Building: Using Microscope

In a couple of weeks I’ll finally be starting my homebrew L5R campaign with a character and family campaign (you can see notes on this here). We have a party of five players; two of them have a number of obligations (family and otherwise). They often miss together. It occurred to me tonight that it might be useful to have a “failsafe game.” That way if we’re missing the pair we don’t have to skip or have these players miss important events or plot development. Tonight I had the three more regular players and we built the basics for the campaign.

I offered them three options, all of which involved the party as some form of law enforcement in an urban setting. A) A fantasy setting with the PCs as city guard dealing with rivalries and out of control adventurers. B) A modern game where the players serve as ‘police’ for the secret world of monsters and magic. CSI Diagon Alley. C) A steampunk game with magic and the weird out in the open. They settled on this last one and after some discussion we decided it would be an alternate history America, set in the late 1800’s.

I posted earlier on my idea of city-building using Microscope. It owes some inspiration to the Dresden Files City-Building mechanics I read recently. First we established a set of facts about the world in general. Then we did a series of rounds with players establishing:
  1. Neighborhood;
  2. Place/Person/Event
  3. or a Rumor/History
As with Microscope these items are nested beneath one another. We did four rounds where the lead player established a theme, and then four rounds without a theme. After each rounds I had the player to the right of the lead player establish a group- a faction, conspiracy, or organization present in the city.

  • There are competing groups of wizards (the nature of that competition remained undefined).
  • Travel by water or rail is more efficient and faster than any other means (magical or mundane). These systems have been well defined and work better than airships or sorcerous travel.
  • No Vampires
  • Paganism flourishes and has active results in the world. Christianity and other like faiths are but one among many.
  • Canada is a wild, dangerous, and unexplored territory. A land of monsters and untamed magics.
  • Every known form of magic is cyclical in some form. It runs stronger/weaker according to those cycles (day/night, seasonal, tidal, lunar, etc.).
  • The New World is not a United States, but instead is divided into territories with independent control (ala America in Castle Falkenstein). Even within these territories there’s a strong decentralization streak.
  • Mad Science exists. Delving into it makes you mad. The more mad you get, the smarter you get. And vice versa.
  • In the New World, to belong to a city as a citizen and/or resident, you have to be a member of an “organization”. They must have at least one vouch for them, with more memberships giving persons greater stability and pull. However membership costs dues- a kind of indirect tax.
  • Firearms are of the late Victorian period. Despite Mad Science they have not advanced into the 20th Century (so no machine guns, big bombs, etc.).

We had four rounds with themes: Bad Places, Getting Around, Secret Things, and The Law. At some point in the process we decided that the city, called Grey Reign, would be relatively in the location of Detroit. This would involve some slightly shifted real-world geography, but that would be easy. The city would sit on locks between two great lakes and have a canal system running through it.

A lovely, lonely penal neighborhood filled with special trees and flowers. Soporific, they keep the worst criminals “pacified.” Guards on site have to be equipped with gas masks to protect them from the effect. Rumor has it that some guards have become prisoners after succumbing to the flowers and mixing with the prisoners.
  • Madame Retunia: A Caretaker/Botanist to the Garden of Tranquility. She also provides services to private parties.
  • Moshi: Flower sprites. The very small creatures are mischievous and create problems on the island.
  • Asylum of “Reformation”: A fortress to hold Mad Scientists, whose brains are so consumed with madness that the Gardens are ineffective.

The governmental hub of the city of Grey Reign. This massive, maze-like building has expanded and now covers several city blocks. Covered walkways and connections have been used to absorb neighboring blocks and stores. It contains offers of government, order, and justice.
  • The Red & Wire Web: Law officers have access to a byzantine communication system manned by minor magically talented operators. In the field, they can report up the chain and receive messages.
  • “The Councilor”: A title/position earned through deeds and accomplishments, and assigned by the “higher ups.” The duties are said to be mysterious.
  • Vincent Ralboryo: An agent and envoy of The Windy Cities, a neighboring region which hopes to annex Grey Reign and the surrounding areas. He is said to supply a network of infiltrators, but nothing has been proven.
  • Corner Florists: Ubiquitous flower carts commissioned by City Government to ‘brighten’ the streets…and to act as a network of spies.

The colorfully named area which houses the city’s main rail station.
  • Emperor Han Zu Pang VIII: He controls the rails that move goods and people through the city and beyond.
  • Rumor: The Younger Emperor is not young at all; there has only ever been one Han Zu Pang. He uses dark sorcery to maintain his youth and hold on his rail empire.
  • The Bad Day: Once a year, bad things happen in the Empire district. People go missing, buildings burn, and organized mass deaths (of things like mice, frogs, etc). Suspicions point to the doings of Emperor Han Zu.
  • Aubrey “Locklock” Sadubya: Leader of the Reborn, a group of those who through overgrafting have become possessed by new and mysterious identities.

A center of manufacturing and processing industry for the city.
  • Esterine Warbler Rescuer: Founder of the Universal Gift Mission and a saboteur dedicated to bringing down the industries which prey on the weakest in the city.
  • Wreckers, Inc: An underground workshop devoted to stolen tech and supplies for Mad Science. They’ve managed through various means to keep themselves away from official scrutiny. Has a front as a pawnshop.
  • Rumor: Mockheart, the proprietor of Wreckers, Inc, has a sideline in disposing of “awakened” mechanical persons. Normally these beings are tested and given rights- but some owners skirt this or dispose of them illegally to avoid “problems.”
  • The Carving Hall: For a price, persons can buy or sell organs or limbs, magic or non-magical. The Hall conducts their operations outside of legal channels, a “grey” area at best.

The wealthy section of the city, named for a number of small but lavish shrines.
  • Palace of Heavenly Delights: A brothel and a gentlemen’s club. Well known for its exotic services and discretion.
  • The Brethren’s Gate: A legendary club and order for the chosen wealthy of the city. The rarely seen City Elders are said to hold secret ceremonies here.
  • Climey Baste: “Agent” for the newly arrived and unduly unconnected. Knows everyone, amiably clownish. Hooks people up with civic organizations and guilds. Gets paid to recruit.
  • Dr. Thaddeus Gue: Once a successful Mad Scientist, by accident. He is always trying and failing to reclaim former glory. Some believe he’s been cursed with sanity.
  • The “Underworks”: Grey Reign was built upon and older city, the heart of which Holy Hill was built upon. It contains a maze of underground tunnels and supposedly lost treasures.
  • Confluence Day/Hour/Minute: Every three years or so, all of the major magical orders reach their arcane zenith simultaneously. It is a festival and a time of great trepidation.

Ships locks used to pass between the two lakes and connect up with the canals of the city. The many warehouses for the city are here as well.
  • Captain Ducky King: A famous ship’s captain. He’s reportedly the best captain for hire.
  • “Gutter Rails”: An ersatz illegal system of gutters & scaffolds allowing rapid travel across rooftops- from the Locks to the Ovens to Central Hub to Rook’s Law.
  • Asimov’s Sanctum: An area of steamworks where clanks and other “awake” robots hide to escape the wreckers.
  • Drop-Penny Doors: Multiple magical societies maintain “bolt-holes for a price.” If you don’t belong, you can still get in by dropping a penny in a slot. But if they do so they must agree to whatever favor is requested.

The bad part of town.
  • The Sawtooths’ Dump: While the canals of the city offer options for transit, horses remain important. The Sawtooths are a family of Wererats who have collected manure and nightsoils for generations. They scavenge through the material and dispose of waste.
  • Precinct of the Lost: Ruined and disgraced officers go here when they screw up.
  • Corben Sethand: Reputed half-god summoner and “protector.” The children of the gods grow up and gain both power and madness. If they come of age they become out of control and deadly. Sethand finds and utilizes their talents for his own interests, an illegal trade.

The city runs on canals which allow for traffic and travel through the city. The Hub is the huge network at the heart of this system. There are above ground waterways as well as tunnels and underground networks connected to this. One of the largest districts and crossroads of the city.
  • Taffy’s Eatery: A gigantic cafeteria serving hundreds daily. Noodles and sauce are the “City Dish.”
  • The Breeder: A man shrouded in mystery. He breeds the fastest, strongest and healthiest horses around. No one knows where his facilities are.
  • Rumor: The “horses” may not be horses at all. They seem to be more ‘aware’ than they should be. This is also part of their allure.

Order of Theseus: Operators of the Magical Communications of the Maze-like Gallowshall. They’re voices from the squak boxes, no one has ever seen one.
The Constants aka Lich-Given: A dangerous group of magically gifted persons. They’re a secret conspiracy dedicated to controlling the city. They increase their power and sustain themselves by imbibing vitae distilled from the body of their fallen dark master, the legendary warlock-lich, Thomas Paine.
The Masked Lamplighters: Mysterious Guild who keep the city lit at night. They wear strange animal masks.
The Mockingbird Signers: A criminal organization of thieves, ruffians, and second-story men. Notable for their use of ghosts- controlling them or using bottled phantasms as weapons.
Vigilant Cartographers of Grey Reign Proper: They keep and publish maps and catalogs of civic badges. Theirs is a society of sleuths, explorers, artists, and some say, vigilantes. Misspelling the city’s name will get you beat up- a point of honor.
The Fist of Gallowshall: Enforcers of the law. The limits on their power is set by the Councilor and his cohorts in the Gallowshall.
The Artists: Tattoo artists who imbue their art with power. They may or may not reveal this to the client, and some of their gifts may be entirely random.
The Pragmatic Order of Forgiveness of Potential: Children of and former not-quite “Mad” scientists who gather together to support each other in ignoring the lure of their own shining genius. 

It felt like it really went well- I enjoyed the process and everyone had a good time. We had three people who had played Microscope before (myself included) and one complete newbie. She had no problem getting into the swing of things and developing really cool ideas. The process went more smoothly than I could have hoped. We managed to do everything here in under two hours, and we could have easily done another round or two. It feels natural. I expect we’ll probably use some version of Fate (probably Kerberos Club) or World of Darkness for the game itself. Both offer ways to connect characters to place, so that will be useful. 

I did notice that there’s less “interaction” between elements in this version of Microscope. I don’t think I’d realized how much of that there is normally until I played this. It really reveals some of the power and genius of the original game. Also we had a focus on the second level down- Persons/Places/Events, while we only had a few Rumors/History. I wonder if there’s a way to incentivize those elements. I’m not sure if you could do that with the interactivity question- unless you had perhaps more concrete themes (like people or places) from the Lens. On the other hand, it might be worth having one or two rounds where people have to put down Rumors/History. Alternately/additionally players might ask open questions about those people or places- story hooks they want to explore for later. “Who is the mysterious cloaked figure seen on nights of the full moon around McSweendon’s Pie Shoppe?”

I enjoyed it and it would be easy to come back to and expand. Nicely, while Vamps are out, I still have plenty of room to use Changelings and other classic types in the game. I’m really curious about trying to do this in or as a G+ hangout game. You could easily use Google docs to set it up. I wonder how well that would work.


  1. Looks like you guys turned out the making of a really interesting setting.

  2. Holy crap, this is awesome. I'm totally going to steal this approach for upcoming Supers game.

  3. I've been thinking that next time, instead of Rumors/History, I'll probably do "Rumors/Questions." One of the things I noticed was that the group spun rumors off the cuff when someone put down a Person/Place/Event. A good GM will encourage that (and make notes!). I also think that I might allow players to add new things (especially Rumor/Questions) during play to generate some form of game currency (drama points, hero points, new contacts, access to special buys). This adds more to the world and lets the players define what they're interested in as well.

  4. I like the names that you have given people and places. That adds to the imagination and fills gaps nicely.
    The "Underworks" is perfect. It is an easy accessed dungeon crawl when needed.
    I get the feeling that the city is in peril from a magic outburst or the latest scientifics discovery. Which is worse?
    There is something about the "The Masked Lamplighters" that creeps me out. Why animal masks for simple lamp lighting?

    Our group played Microscope and came up with a sci fi setting. It was very interactive, we riffed of each other quite a bit. So many aspects surfaced that we wouldn't have come up with on our own.