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Lenses & Legacies: Microscope Design Journal

Another deep dive into the Microscope Chronicle (re)design process. Today I’m talking about three more changes I’m trying out. The first is a refinement of scene questions and the other two are about the Lens and Legacies.

This is all early playtesting, nothing is final. It’s like shining a flashlight inside my brain and seeing the creative process in all its murky glory. Lucky you!

And if you didn’t read The Problem With Microscope Scenes or the follow-up, A Microscope For The People, you’ll probably want to catch up on those first.

#1 Resolving Questions About Action

The new and improved scene questions generally cover two things: what a person thinks/believes/feels and what a person does.

The first part works great. Showing what your character thinks/believes/feels is smooth and easy, because the person playing that character can just say what it is.

But if the question is an action, and it involves doing something to another character, then, by the normal rules of Microscope, the other person decides the result. Which undermines getting a decisive answer to the question. It goes back to haggling for an outcome.

No good! The fix is: when that character takes action to answer the question, that player takes over and gets to narrate the outcome, even if that impacts other characters. If the question is whether the sheriff shoots the preacher, the person playing the sheriff gets to say if the preacher is shot dead, escapes unscathed, if the sheriff is gunned down first, etc.

#2 Lens Makes One Thing, Not Two

Normally the Lens picks a focus for play, and can, if they want, make two nested things instead of just one. So if they want to introduce a new idea and need a Period to put it in, they can both make a Period and put an Event inside it. Or make an Event and then make a Scene inside that.

One downside has always been that this can make the Lens’s turn long: they could describe the focus, then a Period, then an Event. That can be a lot. But the justification was that it lets them make something wholly new (like a Period) and still get into specifics.

But there’s another downside, and it’s a little subtle: if the Lens makes an Event and then plays a Scene inside it, they often create a fuzzy or incomplete Event because they’re saving their big idea for the Scene.

A classic example would be an Event about a peace summit, but then a Scene asking about the assassination of the President at that summit, even though the Event never mentioned it. The Lens knew they were making this Scene, so they left out the assassination to avoid repeating themselves and keep us interested, but now our Event description feels totally off. The other players are like “wait, what happened?”

That Lens is effectively thinking of one complete idea and then “dividing up” their description between the Scene and Event, instead of making an Event description that stands alone they way it should.

Here’s an easy test: if you imagined this Event and Scene as contributions from different players, would you think the second player contradicted the first? And to be clear, I don’t think this is the Lens trying to be sneaky, I think it’s a natural human tendency to reveal information that way, and the rules are leading the Lens to make this mistake.

So how am I thinking of fixing that? One solution would be to just not let the Lens make played Scenes as their second contribution, but that’s a weird exception, and the “Lens makes two nested things” is already an exception. So that would be an exception inside an exception (Inception!).

The more graceful solution is just to axe the Lens making two nested things. The Lens just picks a focus and then makes one thing, like any other player. They still go again at the end of the round to wrap up the focus

It’s a trade-off, but I think the positives outweigh the negatives. And here’s a gut-check of whether this is the right choice: for years now, every time I teach Microscope, when I tell the Lens they can make two nested things, I always emphasize that it’s an *option*, they don’t have to if they don’t want. I’m low-key discouraging them. So clearly I don’t think it’s essential to a good history.

#3 Death to Legacies, Sort Of

Ahhhh, Legacies! A rule that makes a lot of sense to me, but that everyone else in the world wonders about or just skips. People look at the steps and don’t understand the purpose.

One of those purposes is to bring back recurring themes in longer games. That’s why you have the added step of picking and replacing Legacy cards. For a shorter game, it isn’t needed, and even in a longer game, you don’t see the value until you’re several rounds in.

But there’s a second, much more important purpose of Legacies, and that is to give us some breathing room between focuses. It’s an opportunity for one player to roam wherever they want in the history, making something totally new or tying up some loose ends. The big pattern is shared focus / single creation / shared focus / single creation, etc.

The first function we don’t really need, but the second function we absolutely do.

The solution I’m leaning towards is to remove specific Legacies and just to let that player make *anything* on the Legacy turn. They can introduce something new, bring back something from before — whatever they want, so long as it’s a Period, Event or dictated Scene.

Do we lose reintegration that way? Well after many, many games of Microscope, I can tell you that you never have to worry about players bringing back material from earlier in the game. If anything players err on the side of reintegrating too much, and pulling the threads too tight. This may even reduce that problem and make it much easier for the Legacy player to just make totally new things if they want.

Of course given this change I should really call it something other than “legacies”, and inventing a new name is a whole different problem.

That’s where I’m at right now, as far as changes to the original Microscope rules. And of course, all these changes are being playtested for Microscope Chronicle, so it’s Anchors, Anchors, everywhere…

    Ben Robbins | June 9th, 2024 | , , , , | show 5 comments