The bulk of my online session prep consists of reading the rules again, making Google spreadsheet character holders, and hunting down Pinterest NPC images. This year my Gauntlet Quarterly games have generated more work: maps, game elements, and resources. I like the ease of that, but there's a joy to creating tactile elements for face to face games. I had a full poster map of Duskvol on the table for Blades in the Dark, a wall-mounted conspiracy board for Ocean City Interface, and a white board sketch of the players' Ark in Mutant: Year Zero.
I have figures as well—lots of figures, a horde of terrain, and multiple battle mats. But I don't use those much these days. They come out for special epic events. Part of that's because I'm lazy. But it's also because our group's Pathfinder GM has dropped thousands of dollars on his set up: everything Dwarven Forge has made, hundreds of painted figs, and now 3D printed buildings and scenics. I can't compete with that...
But when I get the chance to do something for a face to face game, there's every possibility I'll go overboard. A few weeks ago we wrapped our Blades campaign. After listening to several pitches, the group settled on something comfortable: 13th Age, but with a homebrew world. As we've done several times, we'd use Microscope to build that world. (At the post's end I link to examples).
Microscope has always been a tool rather than an rpg for me. I substitute Questions for Scenes and don't zoom down to play out moments. It's a great, structured mechanism. Microscope offers a concrete frame for people to build on others' ideas. It decentralizes authority. Participants have their say without pressure or contradiction. This last one's vital; you avoid kibitzing when other players have their turn. You can ask clarifying questions, but everyone has to respect those choices. It's an important trust system (something I plan to come back to in a later post).
For this session, I handled things slightly differently. Usually I participate in order to model play, but everyone had played with Microscope several times. Instead, I facilitated. Besides keeping things moving, I prodded players to make Events concrete. It's a common misstep; players often say something like "The Heart Plague Ravages the Land." That covers a broad swath of time and would fit as a higher-level Period. In contradiction to the no input rule above, I asked if the player could frame a particular moment. For my example, rather than the plague years they could say "The Heart Plague Breaks out in Wayward" or "Gallina discovers the cure for the Heart Plague."
I also dropped the concept of Legacies where the penultimate player in a round adds something to the timeline. Instead, I had those players come up with an Icon. 13th Age's Icons remain one of my favorite elements of the game and I wanted player input on these as well. I'll talk more about those in a latter post.
We opened the session with the Palette aka the Add/Ban list. Tomer Gurantz has an great upcoming post on using Microscope's Palette elsewhere. In our case, players only chose a few things but they made a difference. Originally, I suggested banning Dragons but some players objected. Since their current Pathfinder campaign is dracocentric, we agreed we'd have Dragons, but they wouldn't be major forces in the world. Another player banned Dinosaurs, which I'm OK with. I banned Race as a term. Finally one player asked that the Icons be mortal—not great ageless figures, but just really powerful people.
The Add side gave us one element that flavored the timeline: reincarnation. People in the world would be reborn immediately upon death. Sometimes they could call on those ancestral memories from this. These souls also migrated across different peoples and cultures. The group opted not to create a timeline theme, but limited it to the last twenty years. To kick off the history building, they came up with two "bookend" eras: The Opening of the Abyss and The Alliance of the Icons. We then set to figuring out what that meant.
I dug the session. I liked their Icons and still had room to add my own. I opted to associate each new Icon with a 13th Age symbol. That allows me re-use my Icon coins at the table. I also had players choose one from several blank fantasy maps I'd found online. Between sessions, I printed it as a poster and mounted it on the game room wall. I made up sheets of frosted but clear stickers with names, landmark images, and city symbols. I spent a couple of hours cutting and adding places from the timeline to the map. In play, the group players have the chance to add stickers and places, maybe even draw on the map. I then spent several hours with Cecil Howe's awesome Hex Kit, building a starting city and converting the Southeast section of the map over to hexes. Finally I made up a deck of cards with NPC images.
So I overdid it a little.
In any case, here's the Microscope timeline we created. I have some ideas about what I want to draw out/pull together at the table (the connection between Star-Spawn and Starshards for example). But I'm also curious about what other GMs might see as the "grabber" concepts.
ERA I. THE OPENING OF THE ABYSS (-20 to -18)
The world is turned upside down as a demonic attack leads to chaos. Actions by Radiant Queen, The Silver Circle, and the Benevolent Caretakers in a battle with the wizards of Sarthos lead to the destruction of old magic seals everywhere. All but one of the human icons perish and several others die as well. Old structures, kingdoms, and systems collapse as demons run amok. (Dark)
- FALL OF SARTHOS: Demon Lord Zavos destroys the mage kingdom of Sarthos, bringing an end to the Abyss War and leading to the formation of Zavos’ Demon Kingdom. (Dark)
- Why did Zavos target Sarthos? Zavos came to collect a millennium of debt and he took the opportunity to sow discord by demonstrating just how mortal the present archmage was. (Light)
- TRI-WAR SACRIFICE: Solara Minling, a heroic human mage of Sarthos sacrifices herself to an ancient Elven artifact to protect the Great Forest and the Mother Tree during the Tri-War attack. The Tri-War came about when the orc king Brognack the Mighty aligned with the demon mistress Xolis (one of Zavos’ lieutenants) and the lich queen Anzora Lis. On the other side stood the elven queen Arwen Moonblossom aligned with human king Bartholomew Haxmantle and dwarven king Rulgin Brewforge. (Light)
- DIVINE MAGIC OUTLAWED: This decree from king Haxmantle and allies means that Followers of the Radiant Queen, The Silver Circle, and the Benevolent Caretakers are driven out or underground. (Dark)
- NEW FOREST: An oasis is found in the Desert of Sorrow. The Druidic Order hears of this and decides to travel there. They want to develop it into a forest called the Great Forest of Galern and make it their home. (Light)
- DEMON SPAWNS: The first half-demon child is born in one of the cities near the Abyss. Others follow. They all have different abilities (teleportation, mind reading, etc). (Dark)
In response to the Abyss, the physical continent itself changes. Mountains rise and fall, rivers change course. If that does not obscure past borders, the skirmishes and battles between surviving Icons and their followers does. (Dark)
- TREASURES UNEARTHED: Murkfallow drains to reveal the site of an ancient battle. Three items are found by Carbon Nasker, Priest of Beggers. They are all powerfully magical and curiously specific. A trumpet silent to all but the deaf. A stunning blade that slices through metal but leaves all else untouched. An orb with an embedded pointer that swings wildly to point away from something. (Light)
- YEAR WITHOUT A SUMMER: Mount Rithga erupts. It cloaks the lands in darkness and cold for a year and a day. Those born in this year are called Nightsummer born and thought to be cursed. (Dark)
- FIRE FLOWERS: In the wake of Mount Rithga’s eruption, travelers spot the first fire spore. These spore, released from the lave, create fire blooms in the nearby area. When touched these blooms create a very hot gas and deliver more spores in the area. The fields of fire blooms continue to grow. (Dark)
- RISE OF THE GOBLIN TRIBES: With the chaos of the changing lands the Fist , Bite, Scorch, and Scratch goblin tribes gather in a moot and set aside their differences. They band together to pillage and actually succeed in claiming a worrisome amount of land. Their campaign ends with the conquest of the city of Harondale. (Dark)
- PRIESTESS’ CALL: The High Priestess of Light gives a great speech at the Battle of the Crossing. As a result, Divine Healers join with her cause. They unite with her existing followers, the Protectors of Light. They do great things in the name of the gods. (Light)
ERA III. THE YEAR OF BLUE FIRE (-14 to -11)
A crystal is discovered deep in the Talltooth Mountains. This crystal, when placed in a forge, makes weapons significantly easier to enchant with magical properties. A mad rush ensues to mine this crystal. The high demands mean buyers pay large sums of gold for any pieces. The crystal is referred to as starshard crystal. (Light)
- FORGOTTEN PEOPLES: Previously unnoticed by the world, the halfling home of Treebottom Grove gains fame when halfling Fosco Blackfoot makes his fame with the discovery of the starshard crystal. (Light)
- SOULBREAKER: The elven artifact Soulbreaker, a gem which uses the soul of a person to empower it was lost and forgotten by most shortly after Sulara Minling used it to protect the elven forest. It is discovered nearly ten years later in the great vault of fallen Sarthos when a scribe loses his life accidentally mis-handling it. This causes conflicts between the heir of the lost kingdom of Sarthos and the Great Forest. The item is eventually reclaimed by elf queen Moonblossom’s spies, though she denies it. (Dark)
- SEA CRYSTALS: With the help of the Sarosa, a civilization of merfolk, the Brithwith Development Company finds seams of starshard crystal below the waves off Dunfair Point in the western sea. The newest crystal rush brings riches to the area and Dunfair becomes a tourist destination. (Light)
- YUREKA: When the steady source of starshard eventually runs dry in the Talltooth Mountains, the small towns that sprung up during the rush gradually dissolve. Only the town of Yureka remains. Ridley Ayamar, former criminal turned prospector turned gang leader, steps forward and declares himself mayor. None openly oppose his promotion. (Dark)
- AASIMARS: High Priestess of Light’s Grand Cathedral is completed. It is a place where all are welcome to come and make offerings and attempt to speak with the gods. As the last stone falls into place, the first of the divine touched Aasimars appears. These heavenly beings are reincarnated spirits in new forms. They begin to move out into the world on various missions. (Light)
ERA IV. THE YEAR OF BROKEN BIRTHS (-10)
A new group of divine casters gather devout followers to the false god of fertility, Tava-Tendru. They use a newly discovered hybrid of herbs to bring about an increase in birth rates. However this angers the Goddess of Life and Creation, Jitendra. She retaliates by changing the order of creation. For this year children born do not come from the peoples of their parents. Elves are born to dwarves, humans to orcs, halflings to trolls. Worship of Tava-Tendru falls and while the year ends, people remain nervous and wary. (Dark)
Meteor showers cover the land. One strikes the great city of Halkihm, dwarven capital, and destroys it. The survivors scatter and become refugees in the surrounding human lands. (Dark)
- CELESTIAL SHIFT: On the day the meteors stop falling, Seer Morcut Renfield is the first to note that the stars are no longer where they should be. While stars in constellations remain grouped as they should be, the constellations themselves have rearranged themselves in the night sky. (Dark)
- DWARF CONQUEST: In the battle of Crow’s Pass, Brewforge defeats Bloody Nail, leader of the Scratch goblin tribe. They use this to carve out a new kingdom of the Dwarves. (Light)
- ALLIANCE: Lord Greensummer and Grudgebearer Docald fight against the Star-Spawn from the Sky at the battle of Lake Bloodglaze. This leads to a compact between their dwarven and elven kingdoms. (Light)
- What are the Star-Spawn like? To those with magical talent, the Star Spawn remain indescribable-- appearing to shift and reshape their forms. Those without magical talent cannot see them and the Star Spawn invade and devour their dreams. (Dark)
- LOST SOULS: The Shadow Circle convenes in the Great Forest for the first time in a century. They discuss the starfall and the reshaping of the world. Archdruid Lorthain announces his discovery that since so many souls await reincarnation, souls drawn from people have begun appearing in animals. (Light)
- FAMILIARS: A hedgehog named Declan becomes familiar to the wood elf Elinsa Heihorn. Heihorn discovers that Declan possesses a person’s reincarnated soul and recalls its past lives. Many more animals with people’s souls and memories of their past begin to appear as familiars. (Dark)
- GOBLIN LEADER: Kreesh, long-lost daughter of defeated warlord Kirsk re-forms and seizes control of the lost Scorch goblin tribe. They overrun the border kingdoms on intelligent, soul-bound wargs. (Dark)
ERA VI. THE CRAFTING OF GREAT WORKS (-5 to -3)
Brewforge discovers starshard crystal can also absorb elemental properties. This leads to new forms of item and crafting enchantment. The secret quickly spreads and many great works are created. (Light)
- SOULBREAKER BROKEN: Thunderfall, of the 7 Great Weapons, sunders the elven artifact holding Sulara Minling’s soul so she can rejoin the wheel, be reborn, and fulfill the Prophecy of Light. (Light)
- THREADWEAVE: Queen Moonblossom has her people create and activate the Threadweave Network throughout the Great Forest. This links the scattered elven enclaves and is based at the Mother Tree. (Light)
- NEW HEALING: Queen Moonblossom meets with a representative of the High Healers. As a gesture of goodwill she reveals that if ingested in very specific quantities, starshard crystal can actually regrow lost limbs and remove curses. Though if the incorrect amount is administered it is fatal. (Light)
- THE CIRCLE OF THREE: A great red dragon, a black unicorn, and a gryphon join forces together. The last of these remembers his past life as Grim Greybeard, killed in one of the meteor strikes. The three begin a vengeful battle, striking out at all of the Star Spawn and carving out a kingdom of followers in the crater of the once great capital, Halkihm. (Dark)
- BLOODY NAIL: The goblin shaman Scargut learns of the starshard’s healing properties.He experiments with the crystal and manages to reanimate the corpse of Bloody Nail. It is unknown if Bloody Nail’s soul was recalled and placed into the body or if some other sinister entity resides within. (Dark)
- PROPHECY: The Radiant Queen scribes the second verse of the Prophecy of Light. She awakes with the arm she’d lost when driven out years before. She finds a quill in her newly regrown hand. (Light)
- MANY GIFTS OF THE RIVER GWILON: The centaurs dedicate a temple to the River Gwilon. In the first days after the Abyss appeared, the Gwilon turned north and left its former path to snake through the dry plains of the nomad people of Sur-Equeen. It wove above ground and below, leaving behind springs, fertile valleys full of fruit, and flowers richer than any in the centaur’s memories. Now, years later as they finish their temple, the river wraps itself around it. (Light)
- SOULJAR: Zantir the Crafter finalizes his method for trapping the souls of the dying, interrupting their turn on the great wheel. Those who later volunteer for the process pay double, first in gold, second in a cursed existence within the Souljar. He hasn’t found a way to transfer the soul into a new body...yet. (Dark)
Having gathered his power together, Zathos leads an assault on multiple fronts. His forces consist of many demons, but also allies including nations and the Icons The Naga Prince, The Binder, and The Lich Speaker. Many Icons join together to fight this foe-- though a few remain neutral. Icons die, the battle is won, and Zathos falls-- though the Abyss remains and his demon forces are more scattered than destroyed. (Light)
- THE SUMMONING JOURNAL OF ALFRANC SUMBERLY: 19 year old mage Alfranc rediscovers the lost summoning rituals of Sarthos. He makes a bargain with a weak demon of some numerical bent-- his aid and the debt to be paid a millennium from now...the first name scrawled: Zavr1s. (Dark)
- SELECTION OF THE GOLDEN STANDARD: Gor Tre-Sorborne, the Icon of the Banner, is the sole surviving human icon from before the Abyss. His highly anticipated arrival at the concord of the allegiances turns into a confusing transition when The Standard casts itself into the wind and wraps itself around his lover, Lena Nasker, one of the many adopted daughters of Carbon. (Light)
- ONE BOLD PLAN, TEN DIFFERENT AGENDAS: The Icons make a pact to recreate the ancient Paths of Light, destroyed in the upheaval following the Abyss. Many activities will be required, but first among these is the rediscovery of the 13 Temples of the First Stars. (Light)
- KEEPER OF NEEDS: Overnight magic shops appear in nearly every major city across the continent. They all possess a wide variety of items. (Light)
- What single-use curse and blessing are incredibly reasonably priced at most of these shops? The Curse of the Withered Limb and the Blessing of Unwavering Warmth. (Dark)
- THE PROMISING OFFER: In the capital of Grandspire, a group appear in the town square and announce they can provide a blessing which will guarantee reincarnation into one’s own bloodline in exchange for a vial of blood. Many accept. After the last vial is collected, the strangers reveal themselves as members of the Silver Circle and disappear in a flash of silvery light. (Dark)
- STOLEN WEAPON: The undead Bloody Nail steals Cursespewer, one of the Seven Great Weapons from the lair of Tychos, the eldest black dragon. (Dark)
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