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 | leave a comment