No, you didn’t miss a week; I did.

Scenes

Scenes are what theoretically makes Microscope an RPG, instead of just a collaborative history-building system. They’re the opportunity to take on characters and engage with one another. In theory, they’re not too different from the freeform roleplaying of Fiasco: a little setup up front, a little debriefing at the end, and a lot of agency in the middle.

In practice, they fell flat for my group. We played two out, then wound up dictating the rest. And this group was all players that have happily participated in story games with minimal rules before, so the problem was not inexperience with the medium. Instead, I think it had to do with a lack of real stakes. In most such games that I’ve read, you each have one main character that you’re portraying. There’s an investment in seeing how the story of your character and the other players’ characters turn out, even for a short game. In Microscope, you’re usually inventing an entirely new guy each scene, and it becomes a struggle to find a character and a motivation, even with the setup.

Compounding this is that the “real” game puts pressure on scenes to rush. In the time it takes to roleplay out one scene, you could have done a whole round with dictated scenes. There’s a fair chance that before one person added a scene and decided to roleplay it out, everyone else at the table was thinking ahead to the cool thing they wanted to add next. There’s an urge to answer the question as quickly as possible to move on.

That’s not to say roleplaying out a scene isn’t superior, because it is: you get much more interesting results through the other players doing the unexpected. In the long run, once you’ve played a few times, it’s probably possible to get into the groove and have a lot of fun with scenes. But the bulk of the mechanics seem to support your phenomenal power to write entire epochs in broad strokes. Really, scenes seem similar to what it would be like to play a Nobilis game where every time you do something in public, you have to turn around and play a scene where normal peoples’ lives on the street are interrupted by the miracle; interesting, sure, but a distraction from what the game really seems to be about.

Ultimately, I feel like scenes are missing a real mechanical hook to make playing them out feel superior to just dictating them.

Collaborative History-Building

What I keep alluding to is that Microscope doesn’t necessarily have to succeed as an RPG, because its mostly undocumented feature is its strongest: it provides a structured framework by which a group of friends can generate a backstory for any setting you’d like that they’re all interested in. You can fill it in over one or more sessions as deep as you’d like, and then you can set any other RPG you want in it.

It’s Smallville’s Pathways writ across the entire backstory of a setting. A GM could roll up with a general campaign idea like “I want to do a gritty supers game” or “I want to do a game about magical Vikings right after Ragnarok” or “I want to run transhuman space opera.” The group then can, in a couple of hours, turn out the framework for a history that they’re all invested in for the GM to use as the skeleton for the game’s backstory and plots. My group ended the session with the general consensus of, “that was pretty fun… but what I really want to do is start a regular RPG set in this world.”

The one caveat is, like many story games that give players a ton of agency, you have to watch that the ridiculousness bar doesn’t get set too low. One player adds a dinosaur planet, and then hopefully nobody else thought that they were playing a game where a dinosaur planet would be too silly. We generally felt like we should have added more Yes and No details to the palette at the start, and if you’re using this to prep for a game there’s probably room to establish a social contract up front establishing the general tone/seriousness you’re going to try to stick to.

A Zillion Noises Whimper

Of the four targets I mentioned in part 1, Microscope certainly hits them all.

  • It was easy to explain with only one person knowing the rules (though really getting everyone to buy into scenes might have benefited from more rules knowledge) and provided a fun time for several hours.
  • When we were finished, there were certainly areas unexplored that we could have reconvened to fill in; I don’t know that we would have been interested in doing more than a couple sessions more, but we could have certainly continued past one.
  • No GM was required (though a bit more GM-like powers handed to the player framing the scene might have been one way to help make them more interesting to roleplay).
  • It’s an awesome tool for collaborative setup before a more traditional RPG.

It’s short and easy to pick up. It’s probably less intimidating to more traditional gamers than a lot of other story games (since you can enjoy it as a shared invention tool even if you don’t like the freeform RP). It’s a neat way to get a game in when you’ve got a couple hours and a stack of notecards. And it’s a really interesting way to prep a traditional campaign. Check it out.

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