History in the making

Posted: September 24, 2012 by mearrin69 in Gaming
Tags: ,

LL recently picked up a couple copies of the Microscope RPG from Lame Mage Productions. I had heard of the game previously but have to admit that I had been a bit baffled by the concept behind what designer Ben Robbins bills as “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories”. That confusion ended on Monday when LL and I sat down to experiment with it for a few hours…though, I suspect, we barely scratched the surface of what this thing can do.

Microscope allows your group to collaboratively build a fictional history, examining events in that history in whatever detail you desire. Getting started is a four-step process:

1) Big picture – Players discuss and come up with a sentence overview that defines the history you want to examine in the game. It can be anything, really, but specific is good.

2) Bookend History – Define the starting and ending periods of your history. You also decide whether these periods are “light” or “dark”.

3) Palette – Decide what elements will be allowed in the game. Players take turns adding items to the “yes” and “no” columns of your “palette”. You only need to add something if it would be expected and you don’t want it (e.g. wizards in a fantasy history) or if it wouldn’t and you do (e.g. nanotechnology in a fantasy history). Adding “No FTL travel” to a history covering interstellar civilization will, obviously, change the nature of your history. The elements in the palette must be agreed upon by all of the players.

4) First pass – Each player adds one new item to the history to kick off the game. These can be “periods” or “events”, which I’ll describe in a bit.

After those steps you start playing the game in turns.

Microscope uses notecards to record your history. The starting and ending bookend periods are each summarized on a notecard, oriented vertically, and placed on either end of the play area. As play proceeds, new periods are summarized on notecards, also oriented vertically, and inserted into the timeline as desired. Players can also create events that drill into things that happened during a specific period. Events are summarized on notecards and placed horizontally beneath the period in which they occur. The final level of detail players can add are called “scenes”, which seek to answer a specific question about the history that took place during a given event. Scenes are summarized on a vertically oriented notecard and placed under the event in which they occur.

The first player takes the role of the “lens”, defining the current “focus” or specific element in your history to be explored in this turn. The player writes down the focus and her name on a notecard. The focus could be a person, place, thing, event, or something else. All history created during this turn should be related to that focus.

After the focus is established, the lens creates a period, event, or scene that explores that focus further – actually, she can create two elements of the history as long as they’re nested (i.e. a period and an event within that period or an event and a scene within that event). Then the other players each create one period, event, or scene that also explores the focus. Finally, the lens wraps it up by creating another element of history (or two nested elements) about the focus.

Each player takes turns acting as the lens, defining a focus for the history created on their turn.

Periods and events are dictated by the player that creates them, within the boundaries established by the palette and established history. Scenes are a little different. They can be dictated or played out as a role-playing vignette, according to the wishes of the player that creates the scene. If played out, the creator establishes the question to be answered, the setting in which the scene takes place, and required or banned characters. Then each of the players takes on a role and they play out the scene until the question is answered.

A final bit of the game I’ve left off so far is “legacies”, which are created between changing focuses. After one lens is done the player to his right chooses something from the history just created to become a legacy and then establishes another historical element related to that legacy (or another legacy that already exists). This gives the opportunity to highlight some key person, place, thing, event, etc. as historically significant and explore it further without the limitation of the focus.

The rulebook makes it all much clearer than I can here, of course, all in a sensible 80 pages. Go get it. Really. In the meantime, LL and I will try to play a real session of the game next Monday and I’ll post the results here.

Addendum: There’s also an iPhone app called Microscope Journal, which lets you record your history. I did a little solo play with it and you can see the resulting PDF output here. It’s presented in play order, not chronological, so it’s a bit hard to read. Chronologically it’s more like:

Period: A “superflu” virus emerges.
Event: Meyer steals and releases superflu virus.
Scene: Why did Meyer release the virus.
Event: First cases detected.

Period: Civilization breaks down.

Period: Postapocalyptic civilization reaches new heights.

I only got partway through the first turn of the game. The current focus is Colonel John Meyer, so the next player would now add another historical element related to him. It could be more exploration of his role in the release and spread of the virus…or it could be Meyer reappearing later in the history as a survivor.

  1. Risus Monkey says:

    Welcome to the wonder that is Microscope. IMHO, best new discovery of 2012. 🙂

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