As We Watch It Fall into a Modern State

I became aware of Microscope a few years ago via its creator’s blog. After several years of really good advice for a variety of games (e.g., the group initiative I’ve used in my games for several years was borrowed directly from there), he spent a while explaining the mechanics of his open-table West Marches game. That seemed to percolate through the blogosphere as part of the Old School Renaissance, encouraging lots of people to take up the classic D&D concept of doing dungeon and wilderness exploration in a semi-competitive style where there are several groups of players potentially after the same treasure (only semi-competitive because the groups would often trade members based on whoever showed up). Interestingly, the experience of hosting a game that can take on a bunch of players that show up unpredictably on a game night seems to have flipped his focus from classic systems to lightweight story games that can even more easily accommodate a variety of players with different skill levels and a short window of playtime.

Microscope is his first entry into the genre, and it’s hard to think of a bigger divergence from a crunchy D&D game. It’s a collaborative history-building game, that uses some simple rules to allow players to invent a complex timeline for a setting they invent on the spot. It has some freeform roleplaying elements and a nod to long-term play, so it’s essentially trying to hit three targets:

  • Provide a few hours of structured fun for players with potentially no rules knowledge
  • Have potential for an ongoing campaign spread across multiple sessions
  • Be a GM-less roleplaying game

In addition, there’s a fourth target it’s not trying to explicitly hit, but which may be its greatest strength: create investment in a setting via giving players authorial input before using it in a traditional RPG. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

Core Mechanics

Microscope is completely diceless and statistic-free. The rules largely consist of a turn structure to determine which player currently has near-total authority to create a game element within certain guidelines and a way to assign characters and frame scenes for freeform roleplaying.

Ultimately, the point of the game is to fill out a timeline. At the highest level, there are Periods, these contain Events, and those contain Scenes. Nothing has any actual dates attached, because players can add these elements totally out of order. For example, you could go for hours on a timeline and then suddenly someone adds an entirely new period right near the start. As long as the new element doesn’t contradict early information or appear outside the agreed-upon start and end Periods, you can fill in your history in whatever order interests the players. The tabletop version expects the players to put information on notecards that can be easily move to accommodate new entries, but it also works very well online using a shared document.

Each round, one player is the “Lens” and gets to decide a focus for that round (e.g., “this round, everyone’s entries have to have something to do with ghosts”). That player gets to add an element or linked pair of elements at the beginning of the round, then again at the end after all the other players have gone. When a player gets to go, he or she can add an entirely new Period, attach an Event under an existing Period, or attach a Scene to an existing Event. The major agenda of play is adding things that are interesting enough that the other players want to explore them further; you’ll be sad if, at the end of the game, you see a bunch of stuff you added sitting without an other elements attached. After the round, one player gets to define a “Legacy,” and pick something that was invented that round to call out, then add one more element about that Legacy or any of the other ones currently on the table. Then the next person becomes Lens and play continues.

If the element that was added was a Scene, it triggers a brief, well, scene of roleplaying. The acting player determines a question that the Scene has to answer (which should give more context for the linked Event), where it’s set, and requires or bans characters. Every player then picks a character, invents a thought for that character on entering the scene, and they all freeform roleplay until the question is answered. Any player’s free to invent new details and describe his or her character’s actions as long as these choices don’t contradict anything or take away agency from other players over their chosen characters. If there’s a disagreement, or someone wants to contradict an idea with one they think is better, the whole table votes and then proceeds with whichever idea won. If you’re pressed for time or just want to preserve authorial control, you can skip the roleplaying portion and just dictate the results of the Scene.

The crucial rule of the game is that players aren’t supposed to directly collaborate: you’re supposed to save your best ideas until it’s you’re turn or they make sense to introduce during a Scene, and spring them on the other players. The results you get are, thus, each player’s sharpest ideas undulled by compromise. If you think something is cool, and it doesn’t contradict anything or interfere with another player’s agency, you add it and it becomes a part of the history that the other players can react to.

Next week, I’ll talk about how all of these come together at the table.