This weekend we did a session of Microscope aimed at crafting a fantasy city. I've used that game several times to create campaign frames and settings. (And I've even talked about it on this blog before). This time we focused on creating a high fantasy urban landscape, with an eye to returning to it later to develop further. Recent classic fantasy city products inspired me: Almbrecht After Dark, Spire, The Streets of Avalon, and Umberwell. Our session used the "Territory Not Time” Variant from Microscope Explorer. We had five players, including myself and it took about 2 1/2 hours.
We started with a few guidelines I'd put together:
- The setting is high fantasy, meaning a relatively high level of magic, gods, monsters, etc. Think Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Anglekite, etc.
- It has multiple fantasy peoples, including the classics (Elves, Dwarves, etc), but exactly what they’re like is open.
- In the future we may return to the city to do a “low-magic” version. By that I mean an earlier or later period in time when magic and the supernatural are fairly rare or constrained. Think Blades in the Dark, Lamentations, The Witcher, etc. So the setting itself should allow for that kind of change.
- What it takes to do magic
- Old built on the bones of different civilizations-- old and new adjacent
- Diversity-- structural reasons-- feature
- Class struggle
- Fringe science and magic
- Intelligent creatures-- non-humanoid peoples
- Multiple Realities
- Artificial Intelligence
- Magical Infrastructure
- Build Tall
- Lots of Dragons
- World is old
- Essentialist view of races
- One Evil Threat
- Hereditary King
- City itself as colonialist force
The City play has three levels, nested like this:
- Neighborhood (a section of the city, like the thieves’ quarter or the market)
- Location/Feature (a tavern, fountain, underground ruins)
- Rumor/Person (stories which may or may not be true, important NPCs)
ROUND ONE: Cohesion
ROUND TWO: Magical and Fringe Science
ROUND THREE: High Society
ROUND FOUR: Artificial Intelligence
ROUND FIVE: The Gods
Then we did three free play rounds where everyone added one more detail.
The Third Bazaar
A sprawling open- and closed-air market. It has been burnt down and rebuilt three times.
Tungsten’s Anvil: Renowned metalsmithy
- Tungbern & Morsten: Dorf Tungbern, a dwarf, and Sprakle Morsten, a gnome, formed a partnership to smith the finest, most intricate silverware.
- Quirm, God of Indulgence: This god wandered the mortal plane for eons searching for earthly delights before finding satisfaction within the Fire House. He has now taken up residence there. He has shining golden skin, a round belly, and a cheerful disposition.
The Gilded Basin: Auction house that specializes in selling old artifacts, both period pieces from the city’s history or magical artifacts that still contain a bit of their power. It's frequented by rich collectors and the poor who want to turn their lives around.
- The Auctioneer, Abel-1: An artificial being with Brass coverings, wooden and floral components, and some moss in there. Unknown how they came to sentience. Speaks calmly but can also speak unintelligibly quickly.
In a city this dense, you need people who locate people and things. Specialized tracking and scrying services can be found here.
Lunarium: A stable portal to the moon, used for trade and immigration.
- Moon is dying and no one knows what’s wrong with it. (Rumor)
- There’s a secret group in the city who want to build their own moon. (Rumor)
- The Interstellar: A singular being who watches over and maintains the moon portal. No one is sure how old they are or where they came from, but they have advice and opinions aplenty!
- They aren’t actually moving souls/ghosts out of the city, but reanimating them to complete the Underdark. (Rumor)
The Mirror Board: A magical "job" board which moves around. Those looking to hire someone for a suspect job can anonymously post a task. Adventurers and mercenaries who go there will be shown jobs which fit with their talents.
A new sewer system being built out underneath the city. Underground but also with excavations reaching up into the streets above.
The Empty Space: A void room wherein one can perform whatever magic they want and have it be undetectable. Moves around a lot, heavily contested, and newly visible thanks to the new sewer system being built.
- The Void Hag: She brokers with visitors who stumble upon the Empty Space so that they may use its powers. Beware a deal made with the Void Hag!
The Sleeping Space: Some gods who fall to earth tire of their existence. They come here, to a mausoleum of tombs filled with sleeping gods.
A roost for any and all creatures who want a place to live in the sky. It absorbs lightning through rods to hold itself aloft.
High Garden: A large impractical space set aside for hedges, flowers, and fountains. Technically a public area, but aggressively policed by elitist rangers and arcane rules.
- Lemma the Cirrocumulus: A massive cloud dragon curled around the Aerie and resting in High Garden. Likes being struck by lightning. Very aloof and prefers the quiet respect of the gardens.
- Kell & Crimson: Unique amongst the snooty Storm Riderz are the folk heroes Kel the halfling and Crimson the ruby wyvern. They fight crime!
The oldest district in the city, with buildings that date to the city’s earliest conception. Only the rich and powerful live here. It has a museum-like feel due to all the preservation happening.
Seknova's Statue: The wealthy can pay to incarnate neighborhood spirits to watch over and protect their neighborhoods. Seknova's the oldest of these and well on the way to senility. Locals have begun building a new statue to replace and usurp the aged spirit.
- The Architect: a god who pushed their consciousness into a crystal and then “reawoke” as a crystal intelligence. It is building a statue to replace Seknova in order to create a cult to themselves and reclaim their place in the current pantheon.
- Servitor Undallon: A senior Paladin who wields the spirits of gods as weapons, though she cloaks it as "magic". People have often reported seeing her in multiple places at once.
For some a destination, for many a place to call home, Wizardport sits on a well-trafficked ley-line and caters to the magical beings of the city.
The Crystal Cavern: Some magicians uncovered the secret to unlocking crystalline intelligence. By organizing and refracting the structure within a crystal, a magician can unleash the sentience within. With the aid of technological devices a crystal can communicate and move about of its own free will.
- Never: The first crystalline intelligence awoken. It serves as a repository of ancient memories and pet/mascot to the Crystal Cavern. Has a hard time sorting through their ancient memories and the ones they’ve made since. Very sad.
- There’s a new drug going around that is made from extracted memories. (Rumor)
The Drowned Palace: A massive pool connected to an underwater manor. That in turn leads to a tunnel out into the ocean. It offers an access point for undersea people and creatures. Crafted by Chamjask, a lost god of the undertow.
A neighborhood which has accumulated large numbers of non-humanoid peoples. There they can associate with their fellows and local businesses are tailored to their needs. The population includes familiars, machines, uplifted monsters, etc.
The Tower To Heaven: Massive, impossible tree that grows in the middle of a square. It is impossible in the sense that from it blooms a bevy of flowers and fruits that normally wouldn’t bloom from the same place.
The Elf’s Ear: An explorer and naturalists’ club where you can find hastily drawn maps, rumors of distant geographic features, and the hot gossip on this summer’s best hiking trails.
When pantheons get thrown down, the gods can either fade away or plummet to the world. In the city, this is where those fallen gods gather-- a divine slum.
The Invisible Temple: A scam college run by fallen gods. They claim to teach forbidden secrets. Most people know it's bad news, but newcomers often get conned.
- Trevin: An AI who does a "Tour of the Gods," but is actually gathering intel for The Relinquished.
- Jax Thirdeye: An orcish artist whose method involves entering a drug-fueled fugue state and painting graven images of formless gods.
The Outland Taverns: Inns near the city's various gates. They offer a stopping point for newcomers from different regions. Previous emigres help those from their homelands.
Ozone: Cult that worships an aspect of lightning; obsessed with the Aerie’s lightning rod array. They're called “Whips” derisively because they float around the Aerie on stormy days hoping to be struck by lightning (which makes a whip cracking sound, etc.)
The Menders: A group of elemental spirits and creatures that go about the city repairing old structures and adding flora to the city. If you have enough money you may be able to convince them to beautify your area of town.
The Relinquished: Thieves guild made exclusively of artificial intelligences of all species. They act as consulting criminals to other groups but secretly want to prove their existence by building their own god.
The Union of Specific Deities: An organization of deities with very narrow and specific domains that, individually, have few practitioners but when gathered together form a powerful faction within the city.
Haunters of the Final Hour: Group which believes that the city's time has come and now it needs to collapse and be reborn again. They work to disrupt order and create chaos. Their agents wear alabaster animal masks marked with spirals.
THROUGH THE GATES
We had one of the best sessions of Microscope I've ever played. I've done it before online with success, but this felt stronger. The players listened to one another and built on ideas. Surprisingly, online participation brings something f2f doesn't. Microscope doesn't have many rules, but a crucial one is no kibitzing on another player's turn. You can ask for clarifications after they've added elements, but the game gives each player space during their turn, without outside judgement or influence.
That rule works IMHO. At the table it adds weight to everyone's work and declaration. It keeps one player from driving things and gives equal spotlight to shy players. But it also makes for long, awkward silences. When we play f2f I keep lots of snacks on the table. We redirect our desire to jump in over to eating. In our online session, however, the players used the chat in Hangouts to discuss ideas while a player worked. It offered a lively space and kept the group's energy and excitement up. The active player could easily work without that distracting. You can see our video of the session here, though it doesn't include the chat...
The players noted at the session's end that we didn't come up with a name for The City. I'll probably crowdsource that on The Gauntlet. As I mentioned at the top, I'd like to do a future Microscope session covering the history of the city or the world. It'd also be fun to have a session adding on to this after having some time to reflect. Finally, I'll probably run something set in this city. I'd like to explore its streets further and I'm considering systems. I want something that handles high fantasy, but has room for social interaction and issues. My current thinking is to reskin The Veil. We'll see.
My Other Microscope Constructed Campaigns
- Shadow of the Titan
- The Last Fleet
- The Hunts Begin
- Guards of Abashan
- Invasions: Earth!
- The Road to Doubtfall
- Grey Reign
- Spirals, Songs, and Summons
- City Building for VirtuaCon 2015