Tabletop RPG Review: Microscope

Microscope RPG cover

I first heard of Ben Robbins and Microscope on Matt Colville’s YouTube channel. I’ve always liked the idea of more player-driven games with so-called “sandbox” settings (what in video games would be called “open world”).  So Robbins’s whole West Marches idea was intriguing.  From there, Colville talked briefly about Microscope and Kingdom, two games Robbins had created.  It took me a while, but I finally grabbed both of them, and just got to reading Microscope.  Now, I really want to try it out.

I’ve seen people argue that Microscope isn’t really a role playing game at all.  I’ve even seen people argue that it’s not a game at all.  I don’t agree, but I’ll concede that it’s on the fringe.  Though its play is far different, the thing it makes me think of is Atlas Games’s excellent Once Upon a Time.  It too is about creating and telling stories.  However, with Microscope, you’re not creating fairy tales.  You’re creating histories.

Essentially, you agree between the players what kind of history you want to tell.  Is it the rise of civilization on a fantastical world, from the end of a god-war to the construction of the first Human city?  Maybe it’s the story of Earth after human life is destroyed by a comet strike until a new species takes over.  What about the rise and fall of a vast space empire built by sentient machines but doomed by an extra-galactic destroyer?  Whatever kind of story you want to tell, you just need to pick a beginning and an ending, two fixed points to bookend your history.  Event A happened and event Z will happen.  Now, it’s time to explore the space between.

The players collectively choose some elements they want to explore and some elements they specifically don’t want to explore.  Maybe you’re telling the story of a continent-dominating “Thousand Year” empire and someone very much wants to touch on the topic of superpowers, while someone else doesn’t want to involve racism.  Another person wants religion, while another doesn’t want aliens.  These things are considered your palette, the things you will use to ‘paint’ your history (and the things you will NOT use).

From there you build your Periods, Events, and Scenes.  Periods are large swaths of time.  Using Earth’s history, a Period might be the Renaissance, or an Ice Age, or the Second World War.  Events are more specific, like the painting of the Sistine Chapel, or the flooding of Doggerland, or the Battle of the Bulge.  A scene gets far more specific.  Maybe it’s a conversation between Julius II and Michelangelo, Krat and Min’s frantic but doomed escape from rising waters, or three soldiers who get lost in the woods while German shells explode around them.  It is in scenes that more traditional role-playing likely takes place.  Though it does take on a different aspect, because you’re not likely to be playing characters for long or to come back to them again (you can, but you may not).

There are rules that govern things, but essentially once something is stated as having happened, that becomes fixed in time.  Once Atlantis is destroyed in nuclear fire, that can not be changed.  It is now a part of the timeline.  However, that doesn’t take the Golden Age of Atlantis out of play.  If someone really wants to dig deeper into that story, they can do that.  When it’s their turn to direct the eye of history, they simply turn it to the time before the destruction and go from there.  If you were telling the story of the 20th Century, for example, your game might end up being focused primarily on the Second World War.  Even though events like Hitler’s death and the atomic bomb dropping are fixed, it doesn’t stop you from digging deeper into the events of the North African theater or surviving the Blitz or the build-up for D-Day.  Yet if someone wasn’t so interested in global war, when their time came to pick the focus, they might hop forward to the Shirley Chisholm presidential run.  It’s still within the timeline of the 20th Century, so it’s fair game.  Perhaps it is in a Period called Fight for Equal Rights.  Something I also find sort of fascinating is that you can hop around in time while still dealing with a single, fixed event.  Continuing the example of the 20th Century, you might have an event like The Equal Rights Amendment is Proposed, but then hop forward to the Fight for Equal Rights Period to put in the event Equal Rights Amendment Passed in Congress.  When reading Microscope, I was thinking about how you might be talking about a powerful artifact used in an important battle, and then someone could flash forward to some point in the future where that artifact was being excavated from an archaeological dig.  Again using real world examples, you might be talking about the Event of Da Vinci painting the Mona Lisa, and then introduce a scene of it being stolen from a museum centuries later.

As I said, there are rules.  There are things put in place to keep it from being a history created by committee.  You might introduce something and find that as other people explore it, it becomes something completely different than what you were imagining.  That’s how it goes.  Maybe when you introduced the Undead Demon Lord of Amhek, you imagined he would be the most vile of villains who would be hated as a dastardly monster.  However, when the next player introduces their Events and Scenes, it turns out he was actually a tragic hero, betrayed by the supposed Hero of the People and unjustly thrust into the position of villain.  Suddenly your creation isn’t what you thought you created and that’s part of the point.  Nobody owns history and in this game, as soon as you introduce something, it becomes history and it’s no longer in your hands.

The game is intended for three or four players.  It can be played with two or five, but the sweet spot is three or four.  There is no game master or prep time.  The closest thing to a GM is the person who’s read the rule book, but said person’s only power is to explain how the game works and take the first turn (so you can make sure everyone gets how it works…and there are suggestions on how to do that most effectively).  I imagine most games are played in a single session.  You all come up with our book ends, then spend a night filling in various Periods with Events and Scenes, and then when the night is over, you’ve created an interesting and satisfying story.  You could, however, come back to the history time and again, fleshing it out with more and more depth and detail, building casts of characters, artifacts, nations, and disasters.  However, if you do, it should always be with the exact same players.  Robbins goes into the reasoning behind this and I have to agree with him.  You really shouldn’t add anyone.  And while you could probably keep playing if someone was missing, they really couldn’t rejoin later.  If someone were coming back or you want to add a new player, it’s probably best to start a new history.

Hopefully I’ve gotten across some of why I think Microscope is a cool game and one I very much want to play.  I think it could also be a very handy tool for a writer, game master, or for a game group in general.  Creative exercises like this can produce treasure troves of ideas for a writer.  Perhaps the history a game produces spawns the idea for a story, or perhaps it unlocks some plotting element you’ve been banging your head against.  The out of left field twists on history that can come from getting three or four people together and letting each one have input can remind a writer of the sometimes seemingly random or outlandish things that happen in real life.  For a game master or for a game group, Microscope might also be a good way to create a history from which to spawn a game.  If you want to do a Fantasy game, maybe your Microscope history will tell what happened between the fall of the Dragon Kings and the death of the Red Wizard.  Your game might be set a hundred years after the death of the Red Wizard, so you’ve got a history to draw upon when planning out your game.  If your Microscope players are also in your post Red Wizard Fantasy game, they’ve got more emotional investment in the game and its world, because they helped to create it.  When they hear about an expedition to the city of Ungoth, they know it’s going to be dangerous, because they already know it’s where the God of Seven Eyes was buried by the last Dragon King.  Alternately, you might set a game in a Period of the history you’ve created.  Maybe your Microscope game explored Humanity’s Journey to the Stars and there was a Period called the Magos Invasion that wasn’t explored as thoroughly as others.  It seems like a time period ripe for great stories.  Maybe your players know that eventually Humanity comes out the other side to rule the galaxy until it transcends flesh to become digital beings woven into Dyson swarms, but for now, the Magos Invasion is a great backdrop for the kind of stories you want to tell.

So, Microscope isn’t a standard tabletop RPG.  There are no dice or character sheets.  The role playing might be rare and scattered.  Like with many RPGs, there isn’t really a winner or a loser.  Coming away from the table with a cool story in your head and good memories is the only real victory.  If that isn’t what you’re into, it might not be the game for you.  Like Once Upon a Time, however, I think it could be a fantastic tool for getting the creative juices flowing.  It could be a good palate cleanser between games for a regularly meeting group.  Maybe it will be a good foundation for an ongoing game.  If a Session Zero is where you create your characters and establish your game’s identity, perhaps a game of Microscope would be a Session Minus One.

Are you going to play this game every week with your group?  No.  I don’t think so.  I think it is, however, an excellent tool to have in your arsenal.  If you’re a writer or a frequent game master for RPGs, I think it deserves a place in your library.

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