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The Problem With Microscope Scenes

Microscope is great, but as a designer I’m always looking for ways to make my games better. And Microscope has some spots that could use an upgrade.

What’s the problem? Scenes.

I think scenes are important to Microscope, because scenes are when we zoom all the way in and see how the big history impacts individual people. It makes the whole thing more personal and meaningful. You have a better total experience when you include scenes.

But players use Scenes less than other parts of the game. Some groups leave them out entirely. People are missing out on the full experience.

I want to fix that, and this is a design journal peek into how I’m going to do it. First I’ll review the issues that push people away from scenes, then I’ll talk about the improvements I’ve been experimenting with. Solutions you can start using in your Microscope games right now.

Issue #1: Making Big History Is Fun

This first issue makes total sense to me, and I’m not even really against it: It’s that lots of games let you play scenes, but most don’t let you raise up or destroy entire empires with a wave of your hand. So players gravitate to the unique opportunities Microscope gives them and use their turns to make big history in Periods or Events instead.

People wanting to flex their big creation muscles is actually great, but I’d like to tilt the balance a little bit back towards a healthy dose of scenes.

Issue #2: Scenes Take More Time

It’s no surprise that scenes take up more playtime. It naturally takes longer to frame a situation, have everyone pick characters, and role-play together, then it does to just have one player narrate a Period or Event.

On the plus side, everyone at the table gets to participate in a scene, so the time is being shared, but you could argue that in that same amount of time the group could “cover more ground” by sticking to Periods or Events (or dictated scenes): everyone would get to contribute just as much by taking their own turns, and we’d make more big history.

Issue #3: You Have To Switch Styles of Play

Scenes require players to shift to an entirely different style of play. Instead of taking turns and solo narrating, everyone is talking together and being their character on the fly. There’s a whole different set of rules for how to play.

That change of tempo can actually be a lovely break from the rigid structure of the rest of the game, but there is mental overhead learning a whole new system. Game designers take note: every time you require players to switch gears and use a whole different system, you are adding overhead. Make sure it pays off.

Issue #4: Too Much World-Building In Scenes

In addition to role-playing, every player in a scene can invent world-facts as fast as they can talk. Want an earthquake? Just describe feeling the ground tremble. It’s like the world-building power each player has on their turn when they make Periods or Events, except now everyone can do it all at once. Microscope is all about making stuff up, but while carefully moderating everyone’s ability to contribute — scenes have practically no limits.

Making up world stuff is also a distraction from role-playing. You’re trying to explore these character and their decisions, but you’re also busy trying to make up big history. You’re doing two things at once, which makes it harder to really get into the characters.

Issue #5: Fuzzy Answers

Everyone in the scene is supposed to be trying to work towards an answer to the Question. But that can be a very fuzzy process, because none of us has “dibs” on the answer and we all might be moving in different directions. What if two people have strong but contradictory ideas? What if no one has a clear idea? Do we roll for initiative? What? It can be awkward.

The Push mechanic was intended to help resolve disagreements but it’s a very crude fix. Note for designers: providing a veto is not as good as avoiding an undesired behavior in the first place.

So those are the issues that I’m seeing. They all interact, and they are not all problems that can be solved. But if I want people to use scenes more (and get the full Microscope experience) I need to make sure they get a satisfying return on the time they invest making and playing them.

The good news is that I have already been testing some changes to improve scenes, hinging on one key idea: Giving scenes back to the people…

Next up: Microscope Scenes 2.0

    Ben Robbins | April 1st, 2024 | , , , | show 14 comments