What is Microscope?
- Humanity spreads to the stars and forges a galactic civilization…
- Fledgling nations arise from the ruins of the empire…
- An ancient line of dragon-kings dies out as magic fades from the realm…
These are all examples of Microscope games. Want to explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon? That's Microscope.
But you don’t play the history from start to finish, marching along in chronological order. Instead, you build your history from the outside in. You start off knowing the big picture, the grand scheme of what happens, then you dive in and explore what happened in between, the how and why that shaped events.
You are free to jump backwards or forwards, zooming in or out to look at whatever you want, defying limits of time and space. Want to leap a thousand years into the future and see how an institution shaped society? Want to jump back to the childhood of the king you just saw assassinated and find out what made him such a hated ruler? That’s normal in Microscope.
You have vast creative authority. You can make whole empires rise and fall at will. Dream up a utopia or destroy one with nuclear fire. You have that power, but remember you’re not alone: everyone else at the table can do it too.
You create independently, but not in isolation. Each facet you add to history builds on what other players built before you. You expand on their ideas, and they expand on yours. History might not turn out the way you expected. Be prepared to think on your feet.
The website for Microscope is here. Having a copy is not required, but highly preferred. Microscope uses index cards to represent periods, events, and more, so for our digital equivalents we've got a Google Draw (an example game is laid out here).
The timeline you build in Microscope is comprised of three things:
- Periods' - Broad stretches of time time that could be decades or centuries. Periods are very broad - new technologies, ideologies, and more change from period to period. A description of a period can include its relation to adjacent periods, but keep in mind that someone can always add another period in between any two existing periods.
- Events - Something specific that happens in a Period. An event should include an outcome - it's never a question how an Event ended, though we might not know the how or why precisely. An event should be detailed enough that other players can figure out what physically happened.
- Scenes - Scenes are the smallest units of history. They show us exactly what happens at a specific place, at a specific time, with specific people. Scenes answer specific questions about an Event. They're also different from Periods and Events in that they can be played out but the group rather than dictated.
Everything in Microscope is defined as either Dark or Light. These are value judgements, applying your own sense of right and wrong to the history, and explaining it to others. You can never be 'wrong' about what the Tone of something is, but you do have to explain it.
Starting A Game
- Big Picture
- Create a one-sentence summary of the world you want make. Something like "Mankind leaves the sick Earth behind and spreads out to the stars" or "An ancient empire rises and falls."; history in the broadest possible overview. Don't worry about it being generic; the interesting parts come from the details.
- Bookend History
- History will be divided into Periods, large time spans that could be decades or centuries. Describe how the history begins and ends; everything else in the game will take place between these two periods. Decide whether or not the period is Light or Dark, and agree on a short description of each period - no more than a paragraph or so.
- The Palette is a list of things the players agree to reserve the right to include or, conversely, outright ban. It gets everyone on the same page about what belongs in the history and what doesn’t. Everyone can choose to add something to the Palette, or ban something. Adding something means that the element, whatever it is, belongs in the history even if it seems out of place otherwise, and it's always okay to introduce it. A ban is the opposite - it's never okay to introduce that. If everyone has added or banned something, repeat, until at least one person doesn't want to add or ban anything. The Palette doesn't need to be an exhaustive list, just a list of exceptions - you wouldn't need to add 'dwarves' to the Palette of a fantasy game, but you would need to add 'wizards' to a space opera game. Conversely, you wouldn't need to ban 'knights' from a cyberpunk history, but you would need to ban 'knights' from a fantasy game.
- First Pass
- Players add either another Period between the bookends, or an Event (a specific thing that happened inside a period), going in any order.
Playing The Game
- One player is the Lens for a given round. They pick a Focus for a round; it could be a specific individual, a concept, a theme, an object, an organization - whatever. Everything has to be related to that thing.
- The Lens goes first, and creates a Period, Event, or Scene, or creates a pair of nested objects - a Period, and an Event inside that Period, or an Event, and a Scene inside that Event.
- Everyone else goes in order (to the 'left'), creating a Period, Event, or Scene.
- The only limits to what you can do are - Don’t contradict what’s already been said, Make sure what you add relates to the current Focus, and Don’t use anything from the No column of the Palette.
- The Lens goes again, and can again make a nested creation.
- The player to the 'right' of the Lens picks something created or referenced in the last round to be a Legacy (or keeps their current Legacy). They then make an Event or Dictated Scene about any one of the existing Legacies.
- Quick intermission to discuss how the game is going - talk about what you liked or what intrigues you, but don't plan what happens next. Then, the player to the 'left' of the Lens becomes the new Lens, and the process repeats.
Scenes are the part of Microscope where you take the roles of specific characters. The rules for scenes are the largest individual chunk of the book, and while they're not complicated, they're slow on IRC, and sometimes confusing even for people who grok what they're doing. I'm not saying we should necessarily avoid them - but I'd be comfortable doing so.
In addition to the dictated scene - where a player just says what happens in a scene, like an Event - another way to run a scene is the Election Scene. The player whose turn it is decides the setting and question, then asks for answers to the question. Every player has the opportunity to propose answers to the question (including the person who asked it), and then the group votes. The person whose vote won dictates the course of the scene.
History Seeds / Genre Ideas
Some possible history seeds and genres. Feel free to add new ideas.
- Space pirate gangs become new empires after the old empire collapses.
- A fantastic society descends into tyranny based on sorcerous power to compel binding oaths and read minds.
- Inhabitants of a megastructure fight for control of their environment and destiny.
Post your name if you're interested, any ideas, genres, or other things that you're interested in, and whether or not you would like to do this game via voice or IRC.
- Acatalepsy. I'm prone to transhuman space opera, but like any number of other genres. I'm free days that aren't Wednesday. I'd like to do voice if possible, but am more than fine with IRC.
- Mal. Fantasy. IRC.
- BM. Fantasy, preferably about corruption and transformative supernatural (Gothic) elements. I'm free Tuesdays or Thursdays, possibly Mondays or Sundays. Voice or IRC.
- Oseng. Fantasy, including Space Fantasy. IRC