A Scene Less Traveled

Science! Invention! Experimentation! It’s what separates us from the apes. The ones on The Planet of the Apes. Those guys were very frowny-faced about new ideas.

While I was working on the new version of Union, I also used that opportunity to experiment with some components of Microscope. The original Union was a variant that required the Microscope rules to play — even though the end result and the actual experience of play is very different — so of course in rewriting Union to be a stand-alone game I had to take a close look at whether all the pieces inherited from Microscope did what I wanted.

There are two areas particularly that I revised in Union but which also have implications for Microscope: improving questions and de-emphasizing scenes.

Better Questions Are Better

In both Microscope and Union, every scene starts with a question. That question is the spine of the scene. It defines the scope of the scene and (should) get us all on the same page on what we’re talking about.

A good question is the key to making your scene flow. But telling players what defines a “good” question has always been a little fuzzy. There are some kinds that definitely don’t work, like completely open-ended questions, but just saying what not to do isn’t very useful guidance.

In Union, I tried a different approach. Now the rules say that your question should be something that can be answered with a single word or phrase, including simple choices like yes or no. If your question can’t be answered that succinctly, it’s probably too open-ended.

“Does the detective know the painting is a forgery?”
“Do the rebels really want justice or vengeance?”
“Which person in this secret meeting is a spy for the Emperor?”

There are exceptions, but this is an easy test and a much better starting point for telling players how to make good questions.

And Scenes Are Secondary

A common refrain I hear is that some people play Microscope without playing any scenes at all. Or that when they teach Microscope, they omit the scenes and introduce that mechanic separately later on. This is particularly true of teachers using Microscope in the classroom.

And that makes a lot of sense, because there is *a lot* going on already. From the start, players are jumping in the deep end and coming to terms with having vast creative control, crafting and destroying whole worlds with a glance. Role-playing scenes, on the other hand, is a totally different kind of activity that engages entirely different skills. Instead of unilaterally narrating you’re jockeying in real-time and trying to read other players and collaboratively synthesize fiction on-the-fly.

And that’s cool, both are good. And each player can *chose* not to role-play scenes on their turn and just dictate instead, but if anyone choses to do a scene on their turn, we all have to engage with this very different activity and tackle this new skill.

In this new version of Union, what I did was simply reverse the assumptions: instead of role-playing being the default for scenes and dictating being the option, I made narrating vignettes the norm and then explain how you could also role-play scenes if you wanted to.

Mechanically it’s all there, but the guidance is different. That may not seem like a big deal, but a big chunk of game design is helping players make good decisions and making it less likely for them to wander into bottlenecks. Or to think of it another way: if you (the designer) were at the table, what would you recommend they do? The rules should reflect what you would advise.

Ben Robbins | November 11th, 2018 | microscope, union

Gladiator: Choose Your Champion!

Hello, America! Tomorrow is Election Day. Go vote.

This summer I started working on a game about elections, hoping to get it into playtesters’ hands before now. That did not happen.

That game is GLADIATOR. Choose your champion!

Gladiator isn’t a game where you play candidates, it’s a game where you pick candidates. Y’know, the way voters do. It’s specifically about the primary process, where we try to pick someone who cares about what we care about and hopefully will go on to win in the main event.

The underlying premise — and this is a true thing about the world — is that to win an election you don’t have to be the best person for the job. Not even slightly. You just have to be a better choice than the person you’re running against. You’re running against your opponent, not the real world, or even all the issues.

So the question becomes, who do you pick to face the opponent? Do you back a candidate who doesn’t support everything you want because you think they’ll win, or demand someone who is closer to representing your ideals even if they are less likely to actually come out on top? As the old saying goes, you go to war with the candidate you’ve got, not the candidate you might want or wish you had…

Obviously a grand game to be playing in the season leading up to major election, but I hit some roadblocks in the design, sadly. Because the tree of game design must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of difficult projects.

Ben Robbins | November 5th, 2018 | dev

Union Released

The new and improved second edition of Union is ready to go.

Get in there and start making family histories, with all their moments of triumph and tragedy.

Ben Robbins | October 17th, 2018 | union | 2 comments

A More Perfect Union

It’s been a busy year, but the new, improved, revised, and rewritten Union is in final editing right now. It’s very close to be ready for your game table. Very close.

I’m stupidly excited to have a stand-alone version of Union that people can just sit down and play. I’ve always thought Union was a very special game, but I never felt I really gave it the spotlight it deserved because it was hidden inside of Microscope Explorer.

And because I never did give it much spotlight, some of you might be thinking, “uh, Union? What’s that?” So here’s the recap:

Union is a game of family and ancestry. You build a family tree and explore the lives of the people who came together to make each new generation. And yeah, if that family tree looks upside down, that’s because in classic Microscope-style we start by knowing the end, a descendent of all these ancestors, then jump back and forth to explore all the lives and loves that got us to this point.

It’s really all about seeing how each of these people is the main character of their own story, even while they are part of the bigger story. Because without every single one of those past unions, that descendent could not exist.


Union was originally a variant of Microscope, included in Microscope Explorer, as I said, but it was always really different enough from Microscope that it deserved to be its own game. If I hadn’t been doing Explorer, I probably would have just written it as a separate game from the start, since it has a very different feel and style from Microscope.

I’m releasing it as a PDF only, which removes a lot of the overhead of doing print runs, maintaining inventory, shipping all over the world, etc. I’ve worked hard to make the rules as concise as possible so that printing it should be painless. The original version will still be in Microscope Explorer, of course, but if you want to play Union, this will be the one to use.

Ben Robbins | October 10th, 2018 | union

Microscope meets 9th Grade English Class

“As the week continued, I could see the students becoming more comfortable not just with the game but with themselves and their interactions in groups. It was transformational for some: I saw students who started the class as awkward, self-doubting students and who were able to take some notable steps in developing their sense of ownership and their voice as the gameplay developed.”

Using Microscope in my 9th grade English class

This is the kind of thing that makes me happy to be a game designer. If you’re interested in Microscope in the classroom (or gaming as an educational tool in general), check out Robbie Boerth’s report. Great stuff.

Ben Robbins | August 26th, 2018 | microscope kids

West Marches: Layers of History

“Run the simulation in your head: who moved here, what did they build, what happened to them, and then what came next?”

Logic is the cornerstone of a sandbox. If things make sense — if there’s an internal consistency to what’s there and where things are — then players can make good decisions. Paying attention leads to good choices and good choices lead to success. Smart characters survive and flourish.

Without it, the environment is just a guessing game of what the GM decided to put around each corner. There is no way to make intelligent decisions. No fun and not fair.

So how do you make a world that makes sense? You build the history, because the past is what determines the present. Yep, this is where Microscope and West Marches intersect.

Long before I designed Microscope, when I made D&D worlds I would imagine layers of history one top of each other, jumping back and forth in my head to figure out what happened and how all of that led to what was here now. Or vice versa: something you create in the present makes you think “hmm, where did that come from”, so you dig back in history to establish its origin.

So when I sat down to make a simple little wilderness I named “West Marches” for some old school adventure, did I just draw some dungeons and pick critters from ye olde Monster Manual? No, first I figured out what was here before. Nothing super-detailed, just a starting concept for the world and a skeleton of history.

Layers of History

A skeleton of history is your friend. Even the simplest outline tells you what belongs in the world and what doesn’t, and that’s a welcome advantage when you’re trying to seed your wilderness with some danger and points of interest. That’s two benefits, if you’re keeping track: it doesn’t just make play better, it also makes it easier to populate your world.

Start with three or four independent layers of history. Just a simple concept, not too much detail. This is the local history of the region, but it might reflect larger world events. Or not. For West Marches, my layers looked like:

That’s descending chronological order, with the most recent (and therefore most visible and known) events at the top, because that makes more sense to me. Farther down the list are things buried in the past, dwindling into myth and legend. The ruins from those elder days are the most worn down and picked over, while the remnants from the top are the most recent and fresh.

Each layer is completely independent and pretty far apart. The Barrow Men kings were mouldering bones in their mounds by the time the outcast dwarves of Black River came looking for hills to hew into new homes. Most importantly (for my plans for the West Marches), each of those layers of history left its imprint, but was also largely wiped away, letting the region revert almost entirely to wilderness by the time another period started.

More stuff happens in between those layers, but these are the big bookmarks, the key phases of the past that shaped this region.

Armed with just those very simple ideas, I can draw inspiration for what to put on the map and I know why things are the way they are. Now when I’m fleshing out the Rotting Oaks and I feel like an empty area needs some kind of interesting landmark, I can say to myself: “hmm, the settlers would not have gotten this far from Minol Valley, but the dwarves would have come through here when they built their second hall in the Lonely Hills, so a Dwarven marker stone or an isolated tomb of someone who died along the way would make sense.” Boom, problem solved.

I could even have multiple layers of history built one upon the other in a single location. I know there are goblins in Cradle Wood because they are the remnants that were pushed back by the Duke’s armies decades ago. The kings of the Barrow Men were here before, so the goblin lair could be an old ruined keep they found and infested. But in the caverns beneath it are the ancient holy caves that the warrior-kings feared and held sacred, remnants of the gods whose names men have forgotten. Now I’ve got a dungeon with three distinct strata of source material to work with. Yeah, that’s a very literal “layers” example, but you get the idea.

The action in each layer of history doesn’t have to be spread evenly across the map. Some events might sweep across the whole region, but others might only affect some areas while the rest remains untouched. The dwarves colonized a few key areas and delved deep there, but most of the West Marches have no dwarven ruins, though I could still put in dwarven treasure and relics that could be found nearby (you read Treasure Tells A Story, right?)

And just like Microscope, your history is not going to emerge all at once. You may start with a mere skeleton (and like I said, you should really try to start with something simple), but as you keep playing you’ll figure out more detail and nuance, which will inform what should be in the world and why. You might even think of new layers you want to add, or maybe you just explore what you’ve established more and more.

Game Master: Keeper of Secrets

Part of my old D&D philosophy was that, by definition, the GM knows more than the players. You create a bunch of stuff, but instead of telling the players, you hide it. You don’t lecture them about the world: they explore and figure things out. Or they don’t.

In most of my campaigns, I kept major secrets for *years and years*. When the players figured it out, their minds were understandably blown.

Even if the background I made never came out, knowing it changed my attitude as a GM. Things in the “present” felt more real, less like things I had just made up, because they were outgrowths of the hidden history. That changed my mannerisms in play. I knew what the players were seeing were just pieces of a larger puzzle, so I treated the setting with gravitas and respect.

I don’t think that’s the only way to GM, but for West Marches, where you want players to think and deduce, it’s a perfect fit. If secrets are hard to uncover, then when the players figure things out it’s a victory. They can be proud of their success just like winning a fight (q.v. finally discovering the Abbot’s hidden study after a half dozen different sorties missed it).

So all these layers of history you’ve made: *don’t tell the players about them*. Don’t even want them to find out. Which is a very appropriate attitude for all West Marches GMing, where as the GM you really should not really *want* anything. Let them explore and experience and figure it out, if they’re interested. If they’re not, that’s fine too, because that’s not what they’re there for. The world will still be a better, more consistent place for them to tempt fate and dare the unknown because of the hidden history.

Ben Robbins | June 29th, 2018 | grand experiments, west marches | 7 comments