“…and they flee to the colonies to escape oppression.”
“This family is always fleeing things. That should be their family crest: Fugit Omnis!”
I think because you have so much freedom to create in Microscope, there’s an initial urge to invent really far-out settings. Personally I think the real payoff comes when you zoom in and see people living the critical moments in their lives, so I tend to favor simpler settings with fewer exotic bits to distract from those meaningful moments. Give me a history with three feuding nations and I can guarantee the drama will follow.
So when we sat down to play some Microscope at Story Games Seattle last week and someone suggested we do the rise and fall of a great family, I was pretty excited. That’s exactly the kind of simple history seed I like.
When we made our starting bookend, we also decided on a dubious start for this great lineage: the founder was actually adopted into an existing great family. She inherited the Vandershrike family name but actually supplanted their bloodline with her own. A noble cuckoo. We followed the Vandershrikes throughout history, knowing it’s really a new and different thing than the original lineage.
The fascinating thing about playing Microscope is that there’s always room to go back and explore something in greater depth. Like the founding of the bloodline: we put out the idea of the cuckoo at the very beginning, but didn’t really explore how and why that happened until the end of the game. Exploring the beginning last put everything that had “already” happened in a totally different light.
But sometimes it can be hard to remember what you don’t know, to rigorously separate your assumptions from what has actually been established. Sometimes you have to remind each other not to jump to conclusions, that we don’t know something for certain because it hasn’t actually been shown.
Case in point. In the midst of a period of religious turmoil and schism, the younger Vandershrike son, bitter at being overlooked by his mother (as we later see), betrays his family to the inquisition. He reports his own mother and siblings as heretics and sees them hauled before a church tribunal to be stripped of their wealth and probably burned at the stake.
After the “betrayal” Event, another player made an Event for the actual trial and described it being resolved by a duel (which we had already established were an essential tradition among the noble houses) between the treacherous son and his own mother. But wait, because it’s an Event, there’s no cliffhanger. “Who wins?,” we ask. Oh, the Matriarch wins. The family is vindicated. Go Mom.
But that raises some questions. We love it when things raise questions. We’ve already seen that the mother is rather old and her son, while treacherous and hate-filled, is in the bloom of youth. Seems like the odds would be against her. Time for a scene! Jump to the family chapel in the pre-dawn hours before the duel. Trusted seconds are standing vigil over the mother’s sword. It’s a sacred tradition, etc. But lo and behold, conspiracy is afoot, because the Question of the scene is “Which one of the conspirators refuses to poison the mother’s sword?” Yep, everyone else agrees, but one person won’t go along with it. The Question says so, so it’s true.
Mom is banned from the scene. It’s part of the setup that she (apparently) has no knowledge of this little caper and wouldn’t approve if she did. Everyone picks characters and we see her daughter, her other older son (conveniently missing an arm so he can’t fight), a stalwart family man-at-arms and the family chaplain, all plotting to poison the blade to save the mother and by extension the Vandershrike family and themselves.
The plotters plot and argue and scheme but in the end go ahead and poison the sword, save one who storms off in disgust. Question answered, scene ends.
Afterwards, everyone at the table was jumping to the logical conclusions, saying “oh, well I guess that’s what happened: the mother had the poisoned sword so she beat her son.” But oh no! Not so fast! We only know what we know. We know Mom wins the duel and kills her son, because the Event said so. We know the plotters poisoned the sword, because we saw them do it in the Scene.
Everything in between is still up for grabs. Anything could have happened. The mother could have found out about the plot and refused to wield the tainted blade. Her son could have switched swords and gotten the poisoned blade himself. We have no idea, and we won’t know until we play and find out. At any time for the rest of the game we could suddenly jump back to those moments before the duel and reveal the unseen truth. But until then we have to embrace that we don’t know.
It’s strange, but I actually love those “mystery” moments, when everyone at the table can see some central unanswered question. I think it’s great stuff, because we’ve pointed this huge spotlight on a critical juncture in the history, and we all know the question is sitting there unanswered, but no one has gone quite so far as to shine the light right on that moment and reveal the truth. That anticipation, everyone’s brains’ churning over what it might be, that’s good stuff. It’s like xmas morning.
(And yes, it was the daughter who refused to poison the sword and stormed off in disgust. The Vandershrike women are always the best of the bunch, as the history shows time and again.)