In Microscope, the sense of not knowing what’s going to happen next is provided by the simple fact that humans are unpredictable, and your fellow players are human.
It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men, and he did not like it much. He was glad that he could not see the dead face. He wondered what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil of heart, or what lies or threats had led him on the long march from his home; and if he would not really rather have stayed there in peace…
–The Two Towers, J. R. R. Tolkien
Pretty much what you’d expect, right? Now look at the lines right before that:
Then suddenly straight over the rim of the sheltering back, a man fell, crashing through the slender trees, nearly on top of them. He came to rest in the fern a few feet away, face downward, green arrow-feathers sticking from his neck below a golden collar. His scarlet robes were tattered, his corset of overlapping brazen plates was rent and hewn, his black plaits of hair braided with gold were drenched with blood. His brown hand still clutched the hilt of a broken sword.
It was Sam’s first view of a battle of Men against Men…
That’s the first appearance of a black person in Lord of the Rings. Does Sam say “holy shit, look at that guy’s skin?!?” No. He doesn’t even bat an eye. He thinks of him as just another person caught in this war and wonders if he would have been happier at home.
(This is an excerpt from Kingdom, but it’s a good recipe for making scenes in just about any story game.)
The secret to making a good scene isn’t coming up with an amazing or surprising idea. The secret is painting a clear picture so players know exactly what is going on. Being able to visualize the situation clearly–where you are, why you are there–enables you to play your character like a real person.
That’s the cardinal rule. It doesn’t have to be exciting; it has to be clear. Exciting things may emerge as the scene plays out, but it is much harder for that to happen if the players aren’t sure what’s going on. Playing your character in the moment, even when nothing dramatic is happening, is the foundation for good role-playing.
With that in mind, if you don’t have a good idea for a scene, you just need to answer three questions clearly: who, where, what.
First, pick a character you think it would be interesting to have your character talk with about the Crossroad. It does not have to be someone your character wants to talk to–this is an interaction you want to see, not necessarily a situation your character wants to be in. Talking to or even arguing with someone you disagree with is a great way to see what the characters really think. When in doubt, pick someone who has a relationship with your character that you understand well, whether that’s friendship or enmity. You’ll find it easiest to talk to them.
Second, look at the locations on your character sheet and theirs. Pick one that you can picture and describe well. It should also be some place you can explain being.
Finally, ask yourself: what are you both doing here? Are you meeting each other intentionally? Why? Who invited who? Or is there something else that brought you to the same place at the same time, something related to the location?
This last ingredient–what are you doing here–is critical and often overlooked. If you don’t know why your character thinks they are there, you don’t know where to start. The answer can be trivial (“we’re picking up the weekly shipment of grain”), but it should be crystal clear.
Congratulations! You’ve just framed a scene!
It’s not just that I played a lot of great Kingdom games with them — though I definitely did. It’s that as Kingdom slowly and carefully evolved through versions one, two, three, four and five (and all the tiny sub-variations within each of those main versions), they provided sage counsel and carefully considered reflection about the direction the game was taking.
As a game designer, it’s extremely valuable to have people who truly understand what you’re trying to do with the game — particularly when you aren’t there yet. They aren’t just giving advice that would make your game better in some universal sense, they’re trying to give advice that would make it be a better version of the game you’re trying to make.
See the difference? It’s critical. That’s what makes them the Brain Trust.
Introductions all around:
Caroline did the fantastic art that graces Kingdom, but did you know that over at Underwater Madness she paints funny and/or deeply bitter portraits of sea creatures in adult situations? It’s SFW. Mostly.
Marc and Caroline design story games together (and sometimes separately) under the Less Than Three Games label. If Marc has a heart he’ll finish a version of Eden that you can try. We taught bears to murder and earned the respect of snakes because we showed we could lie.
Pat makes games of the computer species. You can play a few of his creations at patkemp.com. Particularly check out Love Letter because it is super sweet. All three of them are also pillars of Story Games Seattle, but that goes without saying.
I can’t tell you how many polite conversations over the last few years were interrupted by me saying, apropos of nothing, “So, Kingdom question…” and then rattling off some esoteric tweak in the rules that no sane person would notice. Caroline, Marc and Pat were always on it.
Playing A Thousand Years Under the Sun @ Story Games Seattle:
The humble Temple of the Winds becomes of place serenity and wisdom, where the Gods speak to men.
A thriving market grows around it, catering to the pilgrims and seekers who come from distant lands to visit it.
In time, hawkers and charlatans in the market sell false prophesies from their stalls, taking gold to tell the pilgrims whatever they want to hear.
The Temple stands empty.
Kingdom books are now on sale. Go get you one.
You’ll notice that you can order Microscope books too. Now that I’ve jumped into the deep end and set up the infrastructure to ship piles of books for Kickstarter, I’m going to give direct sales a try. Books and PDFs will still be available at other stores as well (well, Kingdom will be as soon as I get around to setting that all up) but you can also get them here, straight from the source.
I’d like to see Microscope and Kingdom on the shelves of more Friendly Local Game Stores, but right now IPR is the only distributor carrying them. The system is backwards of what you might think: distributors only want books if game stores have already asked for them. So if you want to see Kingdom and Microscope in your game stores, you need to ask the stores to carry them. Then the game store owner asks the distributor, the distributor sees demand and decides to carry the books.
And then everybody gets to play, which is the whole point.