The Microscope Palette, Its Usefulness in One Shots, and a Dungeon World Starter Discovery

Note: This blog entry was also published as an article I wrote for the Gauntlet Blog published on October 22, 2018.

One Shots With World Building

The majority of the games I play are one-shots. I don’t have a regular gaming group, and until recently did the real bulk of my gaming at conventions. In the last 2 years, I’ve also been an organizer for a fairly active story game meetup, and an active GM and player in The Gauntlet online community, so I run and play games constantly and consistently. However, they are still one-shots, for the most part.

One of the issues with many of the games I love, is that although I love the build-at-the-table nature of many story games and indie RPGs, the process can be time consuming, and eats into the 3-4 hours allotted to the game. This isn’t a problem when you can spend “session zero” of a campaign doing world and character and backstory generation, but for a one-shot game? It’s an issue.

One solution is to come to one-shots with pre-generated characters or world settings to save time on world building. However, after asking many of my players after these games, almost all agreed that they wouldn’t want to sacrifice the world building due to the collaboration and unique gameplay that resulted.

GoPlayNW, ET, and The Microscope Palette

I recently went to Seattle’s GoPlayNW game convention, and got to play a game of The King is Dead, run by my friend ET. Instead of doing world building as a conversation, they used the system of the Palette from the Microscope RPG. Although I’ve played Microscope many times, I have to admit I was completely dumbfounded and in shock with how easy this was to use in our game, and how quickly we were able to establish a unique setting that all of us players were both responsible for making, and invested in.

For those not familiar with Microscope, it is a world and history building game written by Ben Robbins, and can easily be used to create an amazing unique world or setting for any game, or just for the sake of doing it. However, the game itself can take hours. That said, the Palette, which is part of the initial setting creation, is a process of adding and banning elements from the game and takes only minutes. It’s a quick round-robin, where players get to add or ban one item during their turn, until we’ve gone around a few times and someone has decided to “pass”. At that point there is a final round, and we’re done. We now have a list of things we want to see (or avoid) in our game.

After seeing how excellent it was in this use-case, I decided to steal the process and use it in one-shots that I was running over the next months, and it has yet to fail. I used it for The Quiet Year and Atlas Reckoning, two extremely different RPGs, and it worked fabulously each time.

It turns out that there is some consensus that this may be an excellent idea, as a Google search, which I just performed while writing this article, revealed a Gnome Stew article with the title Steal This Mechanic: Microscope’s Yes/No List written by Martin Ralya. It effectively says this very same thing!

Keep in mind that many games might already have a strong established setting (such as Urban Shadows), might have their own system for generating content (such as Dialect), or may make use of a pre-generated list of questions (such as The Warren and Dungeon World starters). In some of these cases there is no need for this procedure, or the GM may want to run the game in a specific setting. However, for games where you want to build the setting at the table, you can easily benefit from this procedure.

The Palette To Create A Dungeon World Starter

I didn’t really plan for what came next, but was so happy with how it turned out, I new I had to share it. It was our 2 year anniversary of our Story Games Glendale meetup, and I decided to run Dungeon World, which I hadn’t done in maybe 6 months or so. To establish a fun custom setting, I pulled out the Palette procedure, and we went around the table adding and banning things (myself included), and ended up with this list:

ADD: Planar Gates, Unicorns, Martial Arts, Magic Fabric, Underground Villages

BAN: Aliens, Future Tech, Children

(It is important to establish here that in clarification, the player wanted to ban children - the last item in the ban list above - from being around in the society of this world, and not to ban them from being in the game itself.)

The players next chose their playbooks, and started filling out their sheets. As the GM, I was sitting there wondering what to do to run the adventure, and then had an idea… create a bit of a “Dungeon Starter” by listing a series of questions that they could choose to answer. And for inspiration? The lists above!

I ended up with the following question:

  • Who took the children? How long ago?

  • How do your people produce without children?

  • What do you fear most about the above-ground?

  • How do you control the planar gates?

  • Where did you get your magic fabric? What does it do?

  • Why are you searching for unicorn?

  • How long have you been seeking your master?

It took me less time to write up these questions then it took them to fill in their playbooks. When they were ready, they each chose two questions, and after answering these, also filled out their bonds. It was fantastic!

We had devastating unnatural storms that had decimated the above-ground, forcing our people underground in recent generations. We had teleportation portals powered by blood, but that would only stay open 12 hours (after which no one had ever returned). We had a curse upon the people that stole the children 20 years ago, and a “unicorn” that was being searched out to try and lift that curse. Magic fabric had been found, and was a key reason why Salamanders now had enhanced powers (and hence: one of our PCs was an elemancer). And we had a party, and in fact an entire society, that was actively trying to find the children (some few of which had been recovered, including one of the PCs).

As a GM, this was magic. I no longer had to create some generic adventure, and didn’t have to create everything from scratch. Instead we all collaboratively came up with a unique set of elements that I could react to, by making questions. And then they all answered the questions, so that again I had something I could react to: In this case, their answers… and that spawned adventure prompts and directions.

I don’t know how useful this will be to others, but I know how I’m going to run my next Dungeon World adventure!