ars ludi

if you asked Ben's brain about gaming, this is what it would say

Microscope Q&A: In a forest, in Poland

I got a couple of questions from Polish gamer Maciej Sabat and I thought the answers might interest you too, gentle reader. Maciej has been running a summer RPG camp, deep in the forests of Poland and he’s unleashed the kids on Microscope.

Wait, did you say “pics or it didn’t happen?” Oh you internet:

Anyway, the questions:

What is the purpose of deciding the Tone of the Scene? Is it a leftover from previous editions, where the players to had to keep Tone balance or something like that?

In earlier versions of Microscope there was a complicated “rise & fall” system. Having Light things happen in history that we already knew was Dark (or vice versa) would create dramatic debt that pushed things back the other way later. Which sounds very cool, but playtesting showed it didn’t work in a non-linear game like Microscope. Think of it this way: because you’re playing out of order and perhaps never seeing everything that happens in a particular Event, enforcing a dramatic arc on just the pieces you see looks rather strange. Plus there were many, many cases where the players had a better sense of what was dramatically interesting. They could play contrasting Tone when that appealed to them, or match it when they liked that. They could see the fiction so they knew what fit. The mechanical enforcement just got in the way.

But in the process I discovered the real value of assigning Light & Dark, which was having the players discuss what they thought mattered in the fiction (as I describe in the book). For Scenes particularly, it plays an even more critical role: it’s the one time during play that everyone is encouraged to talk and discuss what’s going on in the game. It’s a crucial chance to huddle and share what you think about what happened.

Why are Legacies so underused? I have one or two ideas how to expand their rules (they could serve like ‘aspects’ in Archipelago for example).

Legacies went through a lot of evolution. Originally, a player would create a Legacy during a Scene to take control of what happened in play. If the king was surrounded by enemies and about to be slain, someone could suddenly narrate that in fact he has the legendary blade Gravehammer, which lets that player take over narration and describe how the sword helps him win (or causes something else entirely — it’s up to the player).

On paper it looked good. Great, in fact. But in play Legacies wound up being flat and uninspired. Why? The creative process was backwards. You weren’t making a cool Legacy because you thought of one, you were coming up with a Legacy on the fly because you wanted to make something else happen in the Scene. [It's no accident that in the final version you can do exactly the same thing (invent the sword and describe how it saves the king), you just aren't required to make up something to have that authority. If you invent the sword it's because that's what you wanted to do.]

Now Legacies serve an entirely different, but very critical, purpose — really, only the name is the same. In the short-term, the Legacy phase lets a single player branch out in a totally different direction, without being restricted by someone else’s Focus or by having to be concerned that what they’re picking is interesting enough to be a Focus for everyone else for a whole round. If you think of the Focus as being the chapters, the Legacy is an intermission where we may get to look at something else entirely, or go back to something they wanted to say more about from earlier in the game.

In longer-term play, usually multiple session history, the Legacies become reminders or themes players thought were interesting. One player’s choice of a Legacy makes other players to come back to that idea much, much later.

Death to Sacred Cows

If there’s a lesson, that’s it: know what the point of your game is and kill your sacred cows when they aren’t serving that vision.

I really liked both old Legacies and mechanical Tone enforcement, but I had to admit that they didn’t do what I wanted. By clinging to them, I was putting the cart before the horse. Killing them (or transforming them into something entirely different and actually useful) was a painful process, but it made the game better.


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