Pathways World Creation

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A friend asked:

I wonder how hard it would be to manufacture a character-first campaign. Like “Write up whatever kind of character you want to play, with whatever tropes or abilities or background you like. I’ll design a world and classes for it when you are done” sort of thing.

And I replied:

Probably implausibly hard unless everyone happens to be on a wavelength you’re into, though it might be workable with some kind of hybrid between Microscope and the group pathways thing I do, such that the players are setting rules for each other to conform to as they go by detailing out the setting.

And this is a lightweight suggestion for how to do exactly that. (If it wasn’t obvious from the quotes and the tags, this is borrowed heavily from both Microscope and the Smallville pathways creation).

Big Picture

All players settle on an overall idea for the campaign space. This can be as specific as everyone is comfortable with, and might include a Microscope-style bounding timeline (e.g., from “Fantasy” to “Heroic Fantasy” to “Mercedes-Lackey-Style Heroic Fantasy” to “The Saga of the Bard-Mages of the Court of Light” to “The Canticle of the Time of Long Shadows and the Birth of the Star Prince”). It can also include space for intentions to mash things up (e.g., “Phase-Style Sci-Fi/Fantasy Dimensional Crossover” or “Modern Occult with Cyborgs” or “Dieselpunk Sailor Scouts vs. Cthulu” or I don’t know what you’re into, okay?).

If everyone can nail down a fairly specific framework here, great. If all you can agree on is the broadest strokes, that’s fine too (you’ll nail it down further with the palette). The important thing is to rein in the possibility space to give you some initial tropes to consider/delete and have some limitations to push off of with your characters.

The GM, despite the insanity of trying this experiment in the first place, does have veto power here if the suggestion is absolutely not in her wheelhouse as a storyteller. (“I don’t care how funny you think it sounds, I’m not running Anthropomorphic Animal Sex-Mages.”)

Palette and Pathways

Each player goes around the table in the following rounds (do each substep of the round for everyone before moving onto the next; e.g., everyone puts down an Add before connecting their character to an Add). This is done on a big blank sheet of paper (click the Smallville tag above to see more explanation about this if you haven’t read my other posts on the subject).

Round 0

  • Place your Player Character (inside a double circle). You just need a name or general concept at this point (e.g., “Liam of the Red Branch”, “Midnight Jenny,” “Song Mage,” and “Ambassador from a Foreign Court”).

Round 1

  • Place an Add (inside a star). This is a trope that isn’t excluded by the Big Picture, but isn’t outright guaranteed by it either. For example, if your Big Picture is Heroic Fantasy, then your Adds might be “The Monarchy is Generally Good and Just,” “Some Magic is Corrupting by Its Nature,” “Song Magic is Non-Corrupting,” and “There are Anthropomorphic Races” (there’s always one guy). Anyone’s Add can be vetoed by a unanimous vote and the player has to pick one that doesn’t annoy the rest of the table.
  • Draw a line from your Player Character to any Add except your own. Define how something about your character supports this trope. For example, (in the same order as the Adds above) “Loyal Bodyguard of the Princess,” “Witch Hunter,” “Court Bard,” and “Homonid Wolf.”

Round 2

  • Place a Ban (inside an octogon). This is a trope that might be implied by the Big Picture, but isn’t guaranteed by it, and you want to make sure it doesn’t show up in the campaign. For example (continuing the same example), your Bans might be “No Proof of the Divine,” “No Races that are Always Evil,” “No Meddling Old Mages Distributing Quests,” and “No Magical Technology.” Like Adds, Bans can be vetoed by a unanimous vote.
  • Draw a line from your Player Character to any Ban except your own. Define how something about your character subverts this trope. For example, “Recent Convert to the Cult of the Dawn,” “Donates to the Goblin Orphanage,” “Spymaster Gathering the Latest Threats,” and “Fears Magic, Uses Guns.”

If all the players still have ideas to Add and Ban, you can repeat rounds 1 and 2 again. You probably shouldn’t repeat them a third time unless you want players with very busy character concepts.

Round 3

  • Add an Element: an NPC (inside a circle), a location (inside a square), or a McGuffin (inside a pentagon).
  • Connect the Element you just created to any of the Tropes (Add or Ban) and define how it supports the Add or subverts the Ban.
  • Connect your PC to one of the Elements someone else created and define the relationship.
  • Connect an Element that you didn’t create to any other Element or Trope and define the relationship.

Repeat round 3 until you feel you have enough campaign background and character concept and connections.

The GM then goes away to pick a system and write the campaign, hopefully happy at the inspiration that has been gained rather than terrified at the prospect of turning all of that into a game. Players try to realize their characters (as defined on the map) as completely as possible within the system selected (and can hopefully argue politely with the GM if the system or character creation method chosen doesn’t make it possible to create the concept to the player’s satisfaction).

System Review: Microscope, Conclusion

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No, you didn’t miss a week; I did.


Scenes are what theoretically makes Microscope an RPG, instead of just a collaborative history-building system. They’re the opportunity to take on characters and engage with one another. In theory, they’re not too different from the freeform roleplaying of Fiasco: a little setup up front, a little debriefing at the end, and a lot of agency in the middle.

In practice, they fell flat for my group. We played two out, then wound up dictating the rest. And this group was all players that have happily participated in story games with minimal rules before, so the problem was not inexperience with the medium. Instead, I think it had to do with a lack of real stakes. In most such games that I’ve read, you each have one main character that you’re portraying. There’s an investment in seeing how the story of your character and the other players’ characters turn out, even for a short game. In Microscope, you’re usually inventing an entirely new guy each scene, and it becomes a struggle to find a character and a motivation, even with the setup.

Compounding this is that the “real” game puts pressure on scenes to rush. In the time it takes to roleplay out one scene, you could have done a whole round with dictated scenes. There’s a fair chance that before one person added a scene and decided to roleplay it out, everyone else at the table was thinking ahead to the cool thing they wanted to add next. There’s an urge to answer the question as quickly as possible to move on.

That’s not to say roleplaying out a scene isn’t superior, because it is: you get much more interesting results through the other players doing the unexpected. In the long run, once you’ve played a few times, it’s probably possible to get into the groove and have a lot of fun with scenes. But the bulk of the mechanics seem to support your phenomenal power to write entire epochs in broad strokes. Really, scenes seem similar to what it would be like to play a Nobilis game where every time you do something in public, you have to turn around and play a scene where normal peoples’ lives on the street are interrupted by the miracle; interesting, sure, but a distraction from what the game really seems to be about.

Ultimately, I feel like scenes are missing a real mechanical hook to make playing them out feel superior to just dictating them.

Collaborative History-Building

What I keep alluding to is that Microscope doesn’t necessarily have to succeed as an RPG, because its mostly undocumented feature is its strongest: it provides a structured framework by which a group of friends can generate a backstory for any setting you’d like that they’re all interested in. You can fill it in over one or more sessions as deep as you’d like, and then you can set any other RPG you want in it.

It’s Smallville’s Pathways writ across the entire backstory of a setting. A GM could roll up with a general campaign idea like “I want to do a gritty supers game” or “I want to do a game about magical Vikings right after Ragnarok” or “I want to run transhuman space opera.” The group then can, in a couple of hours, turn out the framework for a history that they’re all invested in for the GM to use as the skeleton for the game’s backstory and plots. My group ended the session with the general consensus of, “that was pretty fun… but what I really want to do is start a regular RPG set in this world.”

The one caveat is, like many story games that give players a ton of agency, you have to watch that the ridiculousness bar doesn’t get set too low. One player adds a dinosaur planet, and then hopefully nobody else thought that they were playing a game where a dinosaur planet would be too silly. We generally felt like we should have added more Yes and No details to the palette at the start, and if you’re using this to prep for a game there’s probably room to establish a social contract up front establishing the general tone/seriousness you’re going to try to stick to.

A Zillion Noises Whimper

Of the four targets I mentioned in part 1, Microscope certainly hits them all.

  • It was easy to explain with only one person knowing the rules (though really getting everyone to buy into scenes might have benefited from more rules knowledge) and provided a fun time for several hours.
  • When we were finished, there were certainly areas unexplored that we could have reconvened to fill in; I don’t know that we would have been interested in doing more than a couple sessions more, but we could have certainly continued past one.
  • No GM was required (though a bit more GM-like powers handed to the player framing the scene might have been one way to help make them more interesting to roleplay).
  • It’s an awesome tool for collaborative setup before a more traditional RPG.

It’s short and easy to pick up. It’s probably less intimidating to more traditional gamers than a lot of other story games (since you can enjoy it as a shared invention tool even if you don’t like the freeform RP). It’s a neat way to get a game in when you’ve got a couple hours and a stack of notecards. And it’s a really interesting way to prep a traditional campaign. Check it out.

System Review: Microscope, Part 1

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As We Watch It Fall into a Modern State

I became aware of Microscope a few years ago via its creator’s blog. After several years of really good advice for a variety of games (e.g., the group initiative I’ve used in my games for several years was borrowed directly from there), he spent a while explaining the mechanics of his open-table West Marches game. That seemed to percolate through the blogosphere as part of the Old School Renaissance, encouraging lots of people to take up the classic D&D concept of doing dungeon and wilderness exploration in a semi-competitive style where there are several groups of players potentially after the same treasure (only semi-competitive because the groups would often trade members based on whoever showed up). Interestingly, the experience of hosting a game that can take on a bunch of players that show up unpredictably on a game night seems to have flipped his focus from classic systems to lightweight story games that can even more easily accommodate a variety of players with different skill levels and a short window of playtime.

Microscope is his first entry into the genre, and it’s hard to think of a bigger divergence from a crunchy D&D game. It’s a collaborative history-building game, that uses some simple rules to allow players to invent a complex timeline for a setting they invent on the spot. It has some freeform roleplaying elements and a nod to long-term play, so it’s essentially trying to hit three targets:

  • Provide a few hours of structured fun for players with potentially no rules knowledge
  • Have potential for an ongoing campaign spread across multiple sessions
  • Be a GM-less roleplaying game

In addition, there’s a fourth target it’s not trying to explicitly hit, but which may be its greatest strength: create investment in a setting via giving players authorial input before using it in a traditional RPG. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Core Mechanics

Microscope is completely diceless and statistic-free. The rules largely consist of a turn structure to determine which player currently has near-total authority to create a game element within certain guidelines and a way to assign characters and frame scenes for freeform roleplaying.

Ultimately, the point of the game is to fill out a timeline. At the highest level, there are Periods, these contain Events, and those contain Scenes. Nothing has any actual dates attached, because players can add these elements totally out of order. For example, you could go for hours on a timeline and then suddenly someone adds an entirely new period right near the start. As long as the new element doesn’t contradict early information or appear outside the agreed-upon start and end Periods, you can fill in your history in whatever order interests the players. The tabletop version expects the players to put information on notecards that can be easily move to accommodate new entries, but it also works very well online using a shared document.

Each round, one player is the “Lens” and gets to decide a focus for that round (e.g., “this round, everyone’s entries have to have something to do with ghosts”). That player gets to add an element or linked pair of elements at the beginning of the round, then again at the end after all the other players have gone. When a player gets to go, he or she can add an entirely new Period, attach an Event under an existing Period, or attach a Scene to an existing Event. The major agenda of play is adding things that are interesting enough that the other players want to explore them further; you’ll be sad if, at the end of the game, you see a bunch of stuff you added sitting without an other elements attached. After the round, one player gets to define a “Legacy,” and pick something that was invented that round to call out, then add one more element about that Legacy or any of the other ones currently on the table. Then the next person becomes Lens and play continues.

If the element that was added was a Scene, it triggers a brief, well, scene of roleplaying. The acting player determines a question that the Scene has to answer (which should give more context for the linked Event), where it’s set, and requires or bans characters. Every player then picks a character, invents a thought for that character on entering the scene, and they all freeform roleplay until the question is answered. Any player’s free to invent new details and describe his or her character’s actions as long as these choices don’t contradict anything or take away agency from other players over their chosen characters. If there’s a disagreement, or someone wants to contradict an idea with one they think is better, the whole table votes and then proceeds with whichever idea won. If you’re pressed for time or just want to preserve authorial control, you can skip the roleplaying portion and just dictate the results of the Scene.

The crucial rule of the game is that players aren’t supposed to directly collaborate: you’re supposed to save your best ideas until it’s you’re turn or they make sense to introduce during a Scene, and spring them on the other players. The results you get are, thus, each player’s sharpest ideas undulled by compromise. If you think something is cool, and it doesn’t contradict anything or interfere with another player’s agency, you add it and it becomes a part of the history that the other players can react to.

Next week, I’ll talk about how all of these come together at the table.

Going Post-Verbal (Microscope Timeline)

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I’ll just add this here as reference for the Microscope review that’s probably coming Thursday. Things might make more sense then, if you’re not familiar with the game.


Big Picture

A civilization flees the planet around a collapsing star.



  • Magic and tech can integrate
  • Organic Computing
  • Magic Aliens
  • Pyramids
  • Multiple Native Sentient Species
  • Ghosts
  • Space Megastructures (e.g., Dyson Sphere)


  • White Magic (all magic has some corrupting influence)
  • FTL
  • Harmonious World Government
  • Souls


  1. The STAR!
  2. Magical Aliens
  3. The Search for a New Home
  4. Escape!


  • Lee: The Prophetic Telescope
  • Stephen: Octagagon
  • Wendy: S^3 (The Sorcery-Scientific Symposium)
  • Colin: Dinoworld

Periods, Events, and Scenes

(START) Period (DARK): Discovery of a Dying Star

Event (LIGHT): The Prophetic Telescope Goes Online

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did the Technomage attempt to sabotage the project?
    • The Prophetic Telescope Observatory, Night
    • Technomage (Lee), Burly the Security Guard (Colin), Widget the Repair Specialist (Wendy), Director Jupiter (Stephen)
    • Because the research says it’s a horrible idea that makes all future bad because it was seen with magic

Event (DARK): Scientists Announce Death of Star

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did They Choose to Announce This During the Octagagon Semifinals?
    • Government Planning Room, Afternoon
    • Dictate
    • Something significant is going to happen during an Octagagon match, so it’s important to stop it and get the news out with one fell swoop!

Period (LIGHT): The Church of the New Sun (Religious Bargaining)

Event (LIGHT): Alien Relics Found in a Pyramid Predict Space Jesus

Event (DARK): We Held a Party for Space Jesus and He Didn’t Come

Period (LIGHT): Light on the Horizon (Rise of Relic-Based Science)

Event (DARK): Gibbering Truth (Rise of a Space Alien Anchorite)

Period (LIGHT): The Long Hello (First Contact with Magical Aliens)

Event (LIGHT): We held a Party for Space Jesus and He Actually Came this Time

  • Scene (DARK): How Did the Church of the New Sun React to Space Jesus?
    • Stadium for the Octagagon Finals!
    • Space Jesus (Wendy), Famous Technomage Atheist (Stephen), Nearly-Washed-Out Octagagon Player (Lee), CotNS PR Rep (Colin)
    • Space Jesus raptured ghosts only (after magic eruption created mutants), therefore the Church now hates magic!

Period (DARK): The RECKONING (Panic and Anarchy)

Event (LIGHT): Angry Mob Burns Down Prophetic Telescope

Event (LIGHT): Ghost Solar Flare (Ghosts suddenly everywhere!)

Event (LIGHT): Totally Awesome Helper Pyramid Ghost

Event (DARK): All Giant Creatures Hunted to Extinction to Serve as Spaceships

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did We Kill All these Creatures Without a Plan?
    • Last magiliphant preserve, southern continent
    • Dictated
    • Because if we didn’t use them for spaceships, they would have just been turned into fertility powders

Event (LIGHT): First Ever S^3 (Sorcery-Scientific Symposium)

Period (LIGHT): Beyond the Stars! (Proof of Extra Offworld Homes)

Event (LIGHT): Discovery of Space Jesus’ Ship

Event (LIGHT): Discovery of Many Worlds that Support Life (but are Far Away)

Event (DARK): The Northern Collapse (Natural Disaster makes Northern Half of Major Continent Uninhabitable)

Event (DARK): Only One Habitable Planet Close Enough (Guess We’ll Go There)

  • Scene (DARK): Is the Planet Really Habitable?
    • Sorcery-Scientific Symposium (S^3)
    • Dictated
    • It has the atmosphere and resources, but we expect a lot of Sentient Dinosaurs riding Less-Sentient Dinosaurs (Do we have the right or capabilities to take this planet?).

(END) Period (LIGHT): Civilization Escapes the Planet

Event (DARK): Sabotage of the the Space Elevator

  • Scene (DARK): Why Did Magical Aliens Try to Blow Up the Space Elevator?
    • The Top of the Space Elevator
    • Dictated
    • Magical Aliens totally hate first humans off the elevator, and remember that they suck from way back when Space Jesus raptured them ghosts

Event (DARK): Space Battle over Evacuation Priority

Event (DARK): Mass Suicides (Makes a lot of spare ghosts…)

  • Scene (LIGHT): Why Did All the Suicides Occur?
    • On Public Television
    • Dictated
    • It turns out that if you choose to commit suicide, you can give extra evacuation lottery tickets to loved ones.

Event (LIGHT): The Ark Finds Dinosaurs After All (Space Jesus’ Ship to Dinoworld)

  • Scene (DARK): How Does Space Jesus’ Ship Work?
    • In Space Jesus’ Ship
    • Dictated
    • It burns ghosts (it wasn’t a Rapture after all, it was a pit stop!)
  • Scene (DARK): How Are We Gonna Get All of Those Ghosts in There?
    • Primary Spaceport
    • Dictated
    • We’re going to get the ruins of the Prophetic Telescope and find the next Ghost Flare and time our horrible, horrible ghost-sucking ritual for then
  • Scene (LIGHT): Does Humanity Escape Surfing a Giant Ghost Flare?
    • In Space Jesus’ Ship
    • Dictated
    • Yes, yes they totally do
  • Scene (DARK): What Was the Result of the Dino Wars?
    • The last human colony fort on Dinoworld
    • Dictated
    • At last armistice on a decimated planet, instead of a peace treaty, the Dinos unleash the Dinovirus, rewriting humanity into subservient dinosaurs.