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City Building with Microscope: Ideas & Campaign Frame

Lowell Francis
United States
South Bend
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So far I've used Ben Robbins' Microscope three times to create campaign world backgrounds (The Fleet Departs, The Hunt Begins: Artifacts Wielding Heroes, and The Road to Doubtfall). Each group has enjoyed doing that and I think they've been more invested or at least aware of the background as a result. They know as much as the GM at the start, and can still be surprised when the GM twists or uses something from that history in a new or novel way. That's especially true when something created by a player comes back to them at the table. In any case, Microscope has been the best game purchase I've made this year and the product which has most inspired me.

Next years will see all five of my campaigns wrapping up, so I've been working on a list of capsule ideas. I'll come back to those in a later post. Some of the ideas I'd batted around I'm enthused about, some might work with the groups, and some might not work at all. When I started thinking about these, I also began to think about how I might use Microscope as a lead in. It works better for some concepts. For example if I end up doing a Trail of Cthulhu game, I want an aura of mystery and detachment. But for other games it practically demands to be used. One idea I had that has stuck with me has been a fantasy City Guards campaign (given my love for games like L-1: City of Lies). I figured I could set that up with a session of Microscope. Then I started thinking further- having a history could help, but what I really need is to build an interesting and living city- one the players knew and had an investment in.

So here's my approach- a pretty obvious one- but one I hope the players will enjoy. Most of them have done Microscope before, so they should be comfortable with the structure. We've played with a modified version of the "scene" rules. We did this in interests of time, since we had a larger group. In the standard rules, a player adds a scene below an event. That scene takes the form of a question about the event (Why did the Duke decide to abandon his mistress? What made Aquaman decide to call off the sharks?). Then players take up characters on the fly and play until that question has been answered. Then play moves on. In our games, players could add scenes by stating a question about an event. They could then answer that question themselves or point to another player to answer it. This lacks the actual rp of Microscope but it worked fairly well for our purposes.

Here's how I imagine City Building using Microscope:

1 Begin with a premise, a simple statement about the city. (Decaying New England Industrial Town, Dwarven Trade Center). Obviously you should have some sense of the genre there.

2 Build a palette. If there are elements which might usually appear in the setting/genre but you don't want, establish those (i.e. no dragons in a fantasy game). Alternately, if there are elements which might not appear in the setting/genre, this can be established (i.e. fairies in a vampire game). This should be done by some consensus, with players offering options until someone passes. So pretty much we follow the normal Microscope structure, with a narrow focus.

3 Normally players would now take turns adding elements to the timeline. We follow that structure for turns (one free round, players begin and end a round, legacy ideas) but what we're actually adding differs:

Neighborhoods: At the top level, players will name and describe a neighborhood of the city. These can be districts, neighborhoods, sections, markets, souks, precincts, wards, quarters, hoods, etc. They might be defined by walls or by common lore (the High Castle vs. the Gathering Wells). Any neighborhood should be large enough to contain a number of lesser elements. Right now we won't care about the relative size or if there's any overlap (the GM can sort that out after). We also don't care about the geography. Players should name and offer a general description of their neighborhood. The general tone and wealth of the neighborhood should be understood from the description. Order and placement doesn't matter. This element corresponds to Eras in Microscope.

Sights (or Sites): Below each neighborhood will be a collection of sights. A sight is a Person (shopkeeper, rumormonger, civic leader, mysterious wanderer, local kook), a Place (a store, an inn, a burned out grotto, place of execution, warehouses, a temple, a gypsy camp), or a Thing (a particular festival held there, an important guild, the enclave of a race, a secret organization). The order of Sights below a neighborhood doesn't matter. This element corresponds to Events in Microscope.

Rumors: Finally, each Sight may have one or more Rumors attached to it. A rumor should be a statement or question about the sight. Rumors can be floating among the populace or may be limited to a particular group. Most importantly, they may or may not be true- or they may be partially true. So a rumor about a person might be "He's actually legate for a demon prince from the land of Iod." A rumor about a place might be "People looking for rare herbs can usually find them here." A rumor about a thing might be "The festival may be delayed this year because of the vanishing of the youngest daughter of the high priest." This element corresponds to Scenes in Microscope.

Players will end up constructing the history, people and details of the setting as they build the city. They're encouraged to develop connections between people, use elements from one neighborhood in the story of another, and twist things around as they wish- so long as they don't directly contradict something established. Of course rumors don't directly establish things, but more hint at concepts. The idea behind rumors is that these develop local color, give the GM plot hooks, and even more importantly give the players storylines they can opt to pick up and develop as they see fit in play. In that way, players will be building their own version of the The Kaiin Players Guide or the RumorQUEST system from products like Geanavue: The Stones of Peace.

I think this might actually work- but to put it into play after will require the GM to organize things after. They should draw a rough map after the creation, actually putting things in a physical relation to one another. Special locations can then be marked on the map. I have to do some more thinking about the process- for example, how determining the Focus works in the each round, but I think it has real potential.

Now here's how I'd actually put this into play...

The players taking the role of city guards in a fantasy city. The actual genre background could be anything (steampunk, high fantasy, more medieval)- determined in this case by the city creation session. Players would work to maintain order, uncover conspiracies, limit the Thieves Guild, and most importantly- keep adventurers from burning the whole place down. I imagine the city would work best as a crossroads (like Lanhkmar) with several distinct cultures and/or races. Players could come from all walks of life, perhaps some having been sell-swords before taking an arrow to the knee. I see this as a hybrid procedural/networking/adventuring campaign.

To that end, I'd probably use a portion of GUMSHOE- at least the investigation mechanics. I talked about a number of hacks for that earlier. One option would be to pick up Lorefinder, the GUMSHOE adaptation for Pathfinder, and use that. That might work for other GMs but I haven't played PF and heading that route would take some investment or time and learning. More likely I would build a hack using either modifying either the standard resolution rules of GUMSHOE or FATE. For the former, I could easily adapt over some of the new "Thriller" combat, chase and action options from Night's Black Agents. For the latter, I'd have a little bit looser framework to play with. FATE has the advantage of being something my players have started to enjoy and building some of the sub-systems I want would be easier. Some things to consider:

In Mutant City Blues, all superpowers fit on a chart called the Quade Diagram. So if you see evidence of one kind or power or effect, you can look nearby on the chart and make an assessment of the other likely powers. That's a conceit that helps make the set-up playable in a straight mystery campaign. I think that you could build a similar device for magic in a fantasy setting. Mages might have access to several different schools, each with some specialties. They could be really distinctive, like the magic traditions presented in Greg Stolze's Reign. Alternately, it might be fun to build a set of characteristics (smells, physical components, visual cues, etc) associated with different kinds of occult practices. Different chantries could be given their own magical personalities or signatures. Perhaps different magics might be distinctive across racial or ethnic lines. Ideally these kinds of details would be nice pieces of the puzzle for the players. I don't necessarily want to have the logic challenge depth of something like Lord d'Arcy, but magic should offer clues and have limitations.

I'd go with a smaller pool of investigative skills (a always default to that terminology)- and I probably should look at Lorefinder to see how they handle it. We'd want a number of lore skills. Cultural and/or Racial Lores would be useful and ideally we'd keep the number of those small, which offers a constraint on the setting. Monster Lore would be a useful ability as well, especially if something got loose in the city. That would be an investigative skill with a combat or tagging element as well. How one breaks up 'forensics' would be a question. Could a warrior identity a style or a weapon from the wounds inflicted?

I would also consider issues of corruption, evidence disposal, covering up and so on. (I've been watching the Aurelio Zen series, so I have that in mind). Pull with superiors could have a rating and be based performance and "keeping things quiet" instead of how well you actually solve crimes. That rating or pool could be used for favors, access to resources or covering one's ass. Drawing on it too much depletes it- meaning you don't have it as a defense when the heat comes down. Cover Up or Evidence Disposal might be its own skill, or simply an aspect of the existing skills. I wouldn't have the player competing against one another- instead I think have aspects or ratings represent trust and teamwork between them could be more useful. Of course all of this could be treated more seriously or more comedic, depending on how the GM wants to turn that dial.

Also of interest to me would be developing some mechanic for players establishing relationships with people or groups. I know Smallville uses something like this and Ken Hite mentioned a mechanic like this in discussing the future Evil Hat project, Bubblegumshoe. You could have a general network or contact skill, but then gain specific affiliations. Your relative reputation and level of corruption could affect who would deal with you- I like the idea of tracking those on a spectrum. But for example, if a PC has established a link/relationship with someone from a minority group (let's say Gnomes) he might be able to spend or invoke that connection when dealing with a Gnomish Anarchist collective. Of course doing that strains and might even break the tie. The obvious idea would be to have friends in places like the Wizards' Chantry, the King's Guard, the Thieves Guild and so on. I think having some mechanism for public trust and friends in the community could serve as a nice balance or "carrot/stick" device for the players.

So that's the idea- when I try out the city building exercise I will report back. I'd be curious if anyone else has done collaborative city creation, either using this system or another.
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