A Microscope For The People

In a previous post I talked about the issues with scenes in Microscope. Issues that often lead players to avoid scenes, which (I think) robs you of the full experience of seeing how the big history affects human lives.

The good news is that I’ve been working on a solution, which is to make scenes focus on what they were supposed to be about all along: People.

These are the rules changes I’ve been testing. There are only three small but critical updates, and you can start using them in your Microscope games right now:

  • When you make a Question for a scene, it must be about people. Like what someone does, says, or thinks. It could be one person (“Does the doctor regret her decision?”, “Is the soldier remembered as a hero?”) or a category of people (“Do the miners go on strike?”, “Do the villagers believe the prophet?”)
  • Questions must be phrased to have a yes or no answer (“Did the priest bless the crown?”) or a similar simple binary choice. (This is a change I introduced in the new edition of Union a while back)
  • When you’re in a scene, just play your character. Describe what they do, say, and think. Don’t introduce new facts about the world, just work with what you already know. If you need to introduce or clarify something about the world outside of your character, discuss it with the other players. It’s only true if everyone else agrees.

With these changes, scenes are out of the business of narrating world-facts, and are purely focused on seeing what people do and think. We’ve already got Periods and Events for declaring big history, so we don’t lose anything by removing that option from Scenes. Which also means the Push mechanic can go on the scrap heap. Rest in peace, Push!

The player making the scene can of course add details as part of describing the situation, just as they always could. And when in doubt, they have final say over any kind of background action or the situation where the scene is taking place, because they made it.

Answering questions also gets a lot easier. Since questions are now always about people, someone playing that character is in a position to decide the answer. That’s intentional! If the question is “does the Captain believe in her mission?” and you’re playing the Captain, everyone knows from the start of the scene that what you do is critical. Other players can use their characters to add context and or try to change what you think about the situation, but ultimately you decide what the Captain believes.

Sometimes you make a game better by adding things, but in this case I think the right solution was to take things away and work in a smaller space. Going back and evaluating these changes in light of the five issues I described, I don’t want to do anything about #1, I can’t eliminate but I can reduce #2 and #3, and I’m completely eliminating #4 and drastically reducing #5 (avoiding it entirely in most scenes). Scenes still take longer than just making a Period or Event, but with these changes they run smoother and go faster because there is less potential for fumbling around. It’s easier for everyone to understand what we’re doing and get it done.

With these changes, we spend more time thinking about the lives of these characters than being caught up in our own heads. Scenes *feel* right.

Chronicle 2.0

So yes, I’m very happy with these changes and how they play out. But I’m not done yet. I have even more upgrades I want to try. Which means I’ll need to play more Microscope games with a lot of scenes to test them. And you know what’s perfect for that? Chronicle from Microscope Explorer.

The original idea of Chronicle was to simplify Microscope by centering the history on a single thing, like a city, a magic sword, or a secret society. The whole history would be the story of that place, object, or concept.

But another important aspect of Chronicle was to make Microscope histories that were more focused on people. Each Period had “anchor” characters whose lives showed us how the chronicle changed over time: the smith that forged the sword, the knight that wielded it, the tomb robber who stole it, or the wealthy baron who hung it over his mantle as a trophy. A classic example is Flight of the Madamas aka the Citizen Kane of spaceship games.

When I made the Chronicle, I think that, if anything, I didn’t go far enough in pushing people and scenes. Part of that was because I originally wrote all the Microscope Explorer variants (Chronicle, Union, and Echo) as supplemental instructions rather than standalone rules. You had to read the new rules, and then go back and look at the core Microscope rules and combine them on the fly. As I saw when I revised Union, turning it into a standalone game with all the rules in one place made it a lot easier to just do whatever seemed best for *this* game rather than worrying if jumping back and forth between the two texts made things too confusing.

So I’m revising Chronicle as a standalone game, not only to experiment with these scene rules to improve Microscope-proper, but also so Chronicle can fulfill its destiny as a more focused, character-driven take on Microscope…

There will doubtless be calls for playtesters when the new Chronicle is ready, but you don’t have to wait: you can start trying out the rules I already described in your Microscope games right now. I want to hear how the new scenes work for you.

    Ben Robbins | April 10th, 2024 | , , , | show 2 comments