Behind the Scenes: What You See Is What You Get

A little while back, Jackson asked me if I was talking about my design process publicly (as in, online). I said no, because really I don’t, and he agreed he couldn’t really blame me, because he didn’t either.

Well this is a behind-the-scenes look at a key change I’m making to the final version of Microscope. All the playtest feedback, along with my direct experience playing it with hordes of different people, has highlighted a particular problem, and I want to give everyone who has played a heads-up on the fix, along with some insight into what it means and why.

The Problem With Scenes

When you’re making history, the game intentionally puts each player in the creative hot seat. You’re called upon to tell the other players what is reality, to dictate history. You’re the boss. You’re describing from on high.

Scenes are the exact opposite. When you drop into a scene, everyone needs to shift gears and get into a totally different mindset. Now you’re interacting, playing a character and experiencing the world through that character’s eyes. Everyone’s roleplaying together. Everyone’s on equal footing. As a player you’re still sitting above your character, using them as a tool to show us whatever it is we’re trying to understand about the history (i.e. the Question), but you’re also showing us that character’s experiences so the scene feels like a real moment, something happening in real people’s lives.

But during scenes players still need the ability to declare big things about the universe outside their characters. There may be things about the world we need to see to flesh out the scene, or there may be big world truths we have to establish to answer the Question. Players need some authorial power even while playing characters.

In previous versions your power to take control and dictate reality during scenes was a limited resource: you only had so much Drama (or Tone Debt) you could use. Version 4 fixed a different problem by introducing finger-voting, but it also remove the bottleneck on narrative control: anyone could suggest an idea and start a vote whenever they wanted.

Which sounds very “power to the players” but it has a negative side-effect: as soon as even one player has an idea they want to push, roleplaying stops. Everyone else is forced to summarize where they want the scene to go, rather than playing it out organically. Interactive, in-the-moment gaming stops, and everyone is pushed back into a narrative / dictating mindset.

If you’re lucky maybe you can pick up where you left off roleplaying after you’ve finished summarizing, but most likely you’ve lost momentum and derailed the scene. Plus the whole thing could happen again a minute later.


What’s the solution? Keep scenes in the moment. Keep the character the tool for playing the scene, even when you’re authoring the world. How? Describe the world through your character.

Here’s the new rule: If you want to make something up about the world, just describe your character perceiving it, and then describe how they react to it. That’s it.

The characters are exploring ancient ruins. I’m playing an intrepid archaeologist, but as a player I want an earthquake to level the place. I say “The archaeologist is bending down to look closer at the stonework, when he feels a deep shudder run through his feet. The ground is shaking and stones start crashing down everywhere in a massive earthquake. He should run for cover, but he’s frozen with despair that this amazing cultural find is crumbling all around him. Oh the archaeology!”

With this method, you don’t have to stop roleplaying to make big things happen or be true in the world. Instead, because you’re required to describe it through your character and to show how they react, making stuff up in the world feeds right back into roleplaying.

Voting is still there, it’s just a step farther back. If another player disagrees with what you describe, they can push their own idea and go for a vote just like before. The difference is the threshold: before you needed to stop the action to make something happen, effectively getting group approval (literally, establishing a lack of disagreement). Now agreement is assumed, and you only stop if someone steps up and disagrees.

We’ve gone through scene after scene with players seamlessly describing massive changes in the world, all without leaving the perspective of their characters. It’s pretty sweet.

    Ben Robbins | December 19th, 2010 | | hide comments
  1. #6 Joey says:

    Sweet! That’s by far the best possible response I could have gotten. :)

  2. #5 ben robbins says:

    Thanks Joey, but Microscope is done with playtesting and almost ready for release.

  3. #4 Joey says:

    Hey Ben, are you still looking for Microscope playtesters? I could probably get a group together within a few weeks if you need more data!

  4. #3 ben robbins says:

    Hey Adrienne, sorry you can’t make it for a meetup: they’re always chock full with good gaming.

    I’m avoiding making promises about the Microscope release date. The best answer I can give is “soon.” I’m carefully looking back over _all_ the games we played in the last two years to make sure the end result really captures and communicates what we learned. I want to make sure when people get it and play, they have just as awesome of a play experience as we all have.

  5. #2 Adrienne says:

    Hi! The last few days I’d been thinking about how to do a fantasy game setting with a rich sense of history without breaking myself on the work, and then I stumbled onto your blog posts about Microscope and light shone through the clouds. But burn, I’ve missed the playtesting phase (double burn, I’m in Seattle soon but it’s Friday through Wednesday, so I’ll just miss the Story Games meetups). Any idea how long it might be before the game is released? I ask not to nag or add pressure, just to let you know that there are people out there looking forward to it. :)

  6. #1 Frank Krivak says:

    Heh. Thanks for the quick reaction Ben ; )
    It sounds like an elegant solution to what (for us) was a bit of a show stopper.

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