Microscope (The RPG)

Microscope is available here and it’s a wonderfully weird game written by Ben Robbins. Word on the tables is that Ben Robbins is also the individual who is credited as the creator of The West Marches style of RPG play.

Microscope is a game where all the players involved have equal say in the narrative that they create collaboratively. Nobody has Player Characters, or Character Sheets, people are equipped with only with their creativity and imaginations.

There is no definitive end to Microscope and there is no definitive goal to achieve beyond having fun with your friends. How the game achieves “fun” is strange.

The first step to having fun with Microscope is throwing out all your preconceived notions of Game Masters, linear story-telling, and characters unique to an individual player.

Microscope starts with a beginning and an end and play revolves around exploring that big nebulous middle.

You start with a Big Picture, a story seed that defines The Beginning and The End of the chronology you are going to explore. An example of one I tried was “A vastly powerful Illithid empire falls at the hands of a slave uprising.”

Then the players agree on what the game calls A Palette.

A Palette is what everyone agrees upon as things that should or should not be in the story. Something I added to the above palette was “NO Snobby Elves.” because I’m sick of stories with aloof elves which are basically analogs for British imperialist bullshit. A Palette consists of “No’s” and “Yes’s” but you only need to make a Yes when you wouldn’t expect that to be in the Big Picture story but you want some insurance that it will be fair game when it comes into play. So a Yes for the above example could be “Some Illithids side with the slave uprising.” Because common considerations for Illithids are they are all evil and I want to make sure there’s room to explore “good” Illithids.

What’s interesting about Microscope is two players could have completely different ideas of where the narrative should lead and then they can both act on those ideas and take the story in weird an interesting ways. One player could see the Illithids as the protagonists of the story while another player sees the Slave Uprising as the protagonists.

Once a palette is agreed upon by all players the actual play of the game begins. Each player takes turns adding Periods, Events, and Scenes to the chronology and they can insert these wherever they feel it fits between the Big Picture’s Beginning and End points.

Periods are large amounts of time (years all the way to millenia) and they should be painted in broad strokes that beg the question “Ok so how did this period get summarized as ‘The Age of Chains’? ”

Events are much like what they sound like, discrete moments in time, although they could take anywhere from 1 minute to 1 year. Like “An Illithid Ambassador sympathetic to the Slave Uprising is assassinated”. Events should also beg more questions about how that event happened, what came before and what happened after.

Scenes are the smallest increments of time in Microscope they could take anywhere from seconds to hours. Scenes are treated a little differently than Periods and Events because suddenly all the players should be involved in role-playing out a scene. The important thing to note with Scenes are that they should never be formulated with an answer already in mind. Scenes should pose a question and role-playing them out should answer that question. Whenever a player creates a new Scene they can just flat out answer the question, but sometimes they aren’t sure of the answer themselves and the group collaboratively role-plays to discover the answer.

And that’s the down and dirty basics of Microscope. Players go around the table creating Periods, Events, and Scenes, they take turns choosing what The Focus is of a particular round, and certain elements can be voted to become Legacies (recurring themes or motifs within the entire history).

On paper it might not sound at all like a game, more like a team-building exercise, but in play it can be very interesting. Since any player can create anything its possible for characters to be created and die within seconds of the same round. One player “creates” the Illithid Ambassador on their turn and the next player decides “Ok so 20 years later that Ambassador is assasinated.” Nobody really owns anything exclusively in the narrative and people can create anything they find interesting within the story.

The other interesting thing about the game is that time is very much an almost irrelevant concept. Time is infinitely flexible and mutable and you can “zoom-in” on any section of time at any point in the game. All the players are equally powerful omniscient narrators that drive the story by focusing in on whatever they feel is interesting.

I’ve only played Microscope two times and both times my thoughts are ignited by one firecracker of an idea. Microscope would be an amazing way to spend a session zero and build a setting for an RPG campaign. Everyone in a group creates a world’s history together, and then the group chooses to play characters within a particularly interesting section of that history. Lore, NPCs, objectives, quests, all could be organically developed collaboratively, germinating adventure hooks in the mind of whoever is going to be the GM for the campaign. Players would already have a sort of buy-in for the campaign because they get to pick what section of the history interests them and they want to explore at ground level.

Someday I will DM a D&D campaign that is the product of a Microscope session zero. As soon as I convince my players that Microscope is in fact a game.

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