Jackercon Interlude: Microscope

Last night I ran a session of Microscope RPG for Jackercon (an online convention I've previously talked about here). This was an experiment in a number of ways.

Running table top RPGs online

Online is definitely not my first choice of venue for gaming. I'm very lucky to have a gaming group I run things for regularly, all of which I love to play with. And I'm very lucky to be able to regularly attend Strategicon, which runs 3x a year in LA, with some fantastic GMs, games, and players.

But occasionally you want to play with someone who is far away, or can't get a local game going. Or maybe you just want to play something someone else is offering and you can't get where you're at. So I get those reasons why you'd play.

But I don't want online gaming to be a lesser thing. I want it to be almost the same as playing with people at a table. Which is to say: interactive, fun, and without the distractions that the computer, in front of your face, provides. This is difficult. When I've been a player in online games I've found myself to easily distracted by the call of the web browser (similar to that modern complaint of players getting distracted by their phones at the table).

I've been an instructor, and I've had to teach online. And it's hard. You have to try to be as interactive as possible. You need to maintain a connection with the audience using all sorts of tools, be they Q&A, getting the audience to help you finish your statements and thoughts even if they are obvious, use a cadence in your voice, constantly get feedback to ensure the audience hasn't died, whatever.

So, on to the second online game I've run...

A request for Microscope

I played Microscope for the first time at GoPlayNW 2015 (as mentioned here). Much like The Quiet Year, Microscope is a GM-less story-based game that involves lots of world building. Unlike The Quiet Year, however, Microscope actually contains more than a bit of role-playing, which is one of its big draws.

The premise is that you (as a group) create the big picture for the game, the bookends which frame the history you will explore, and the palette which narrows the types of things we agree can and can't happen within that exploration. And then we make history. All of these are game terms, as defined by Microscope.

This is a game that can work well with a table full of non-gamers who are interested in playing something new, or a table full of GMs or thespian / creative type players. But it probably won't work well if you have folks who just want to sit back and be entertained, because everyone has to do the "heavy lifting" in this game (which is to say: create).

But specifically, I had some very motivated Jackers who were interested in playing...

History of the Zorthons

Players: Curt, Harry, Ronnie, Tomer

We started with the initial game setup. For those not familiar with the game, these steps are performed with some group discussion, as well as taking turns adding things to the palette. I ensured that the players understood that we want to play with any detailed ideas or planned concepts close to the chest, and this was really setting up the broad strokes and framework for the game. We ended up with:

  • Big Picture: The prehistoric pre-humans create a civilization on Earth.
  • Bookends: The Zorthon civilization begins to grow [Light] <-> Modern Humans open a Zorthon crypt in the 21st centry [Dark]
  • Palette (YES): Saurian / lizardmen, science-based rational world, different species of Zorthon, massive underdark cave system
  • Palette (NO): Time travel, global-spanning empires (nations OK)
A screenshot that shows some of the game setup, rules, and palette (as well as information about the 2 rounds of play, which came later)

A screenshot that shows some of the game setup, rules, and palette (as well as information about the 2 rounds of play, which came later)

After this, we each have a first pass, where we get to each create a Period or Event. In Microscope Periods are long swaths of time, Events are noticeable events that occur within a specific Period, and Scenes (used later) are individual moments within an Event.

We created a few of these, and already we started with interesting periods such as "Zorthons optimize crystal-based energy source", and events such as "The first of many terrible meteor showers brought the crystals to the earth". Within a few minutes, you start having meat to work with.

We played a round with me as the Lens (the controlling player, of sorts, for this set of creations). As the Lens I get to create the Focus for this round, that we all have to play off of. Although I had nothing to do with the idea of adding the crystals to the game, my focus was "Crystal-based energy source", because I found that intriguing. 

^ This, by the way, is one of the charming things about the game. Someone will add an ingredient or component, and others will just grab it and run in all sorts of interesting directions. All this compounds and makes a beautiful tapestry of a story that everyone is responsible for, and yet no one specifically.

We continued playing the round through, and then most of another, before Curt's internet connection - out in the remote tundra of Alaska - caught up with him. Or maybe it was Wendigo, or whatever they have up there.

Regardless, we got play a few Scenes, which are little role playing encounters where everyone is involved, and everyone agreed that these were probably the highlight of the session.

The four scenes we played out, including characters (players) and various notes

The four scenes we played out, including characters (players) and various notes

In the end, we ended up with a history that looks something like this (where yellow sticky notes have a "light" theme, and purple sticky notes are "dark", as defined by the players during the game):

What worked well.

Excellent players with great motivation to make a great story. Everyone was collaborative in the right ways, but kept ideas (if they had any) close to heart, so surprises were had by all. 

We used NoteApp as the tool to keep track of sticky notes, and although there were definitely problems (more below), it was great that it provided different colored notes. I used one color for the rules, one for light and one for dark period/event/scenes, and another for scene information that we wanted to track separately.

Hangouts was decent. I still wish I could use my video camera and screen share simultaneously, but hey, those are just limitations (apparently).

What didn't.

Being an online game, sometimes the connections aren't perfect, and so that is annoying. The inherent delay in voice communication over the internet is always an issue in a game where people are excited and want to chime in, which many RPGs fall prey to. However, I think everyone here was versed in online play, so we didn't run into too many problems there with people stomping on each others words and such.

Although NoteApp had its advantages, it only allows up to one other collaborator without paying for a license. To work around this, I maintained the entire cork board, and used screen sharing in Hangouts to show everyone what was what. 

Managing the "index" cards by yourself can be OK, in that everyone gets a consistent view of what they look like. In my game I did all the typing and organizing. That can be good if the person is organized, and horrible if they aren't. However I do like sharing that work, and in person, on a table with index cards that seems to be the de facto way it's done. That wasn't an option here.

When running a Hangout, you sometimes also have to be a DJ. For instance, if you watch the video you'll notice that the first minutes of play the video focus is on Harry (and his son Charlie). Why wasn't it going to the other speakers? How can you get it to focus on the NoteApp board regardless of who's speaking? Ah, you have to click on that player, as the one sharing NoteApp, and that probably is what gets recorded in the Hangout on Air, right? Maybe? And what if during a scene you want the video cameras on, and want the recording to go back and forth to whomever is speaking? Oh, you either have to click on whomever is speaking, or you have to "unclick" on the focused screenshare / camera and let Hangouts takeover with it's automatic audio focusing. OK, so that's a bit of work.

The Microscope RPG community

Before I run off, I would love to say that the Microscope RPG community on G+ has been excellent. If you have already purchased this and plan to run a game, but haven't done so already, get your questions answered there. Ben Robbins, the designer, is often found responding, and always appears genuinely interested in how people are playing the game.

When playing in person, people use index cards. However on the forums, I found a number of other suggestions for how to run this online. Suggestions included using Google docs, but also Google Drawings, where you can collaborate for free. Setup a few template objects for Periods, Events, and Scenes, and everyone can just copy and paste them and place them where needed.

What next?

Well, Microscope is a game where you aren't supposed to (for good reason) bring players in and out of the story in later sessions. But, if these players are down, I'm open to exploring this some more. It's always great when a game session leaves you feeling like you want more! (Even if we never play it again.)

Hangout on Air