Microscope

Rating: ***

Type: RPG / world creation

# Players: 3-5

Recommended # Players: 4-5

Time to play: 2 hours or more

Summary: Microscope is a collaborative world-building game. More accurately, it’s a history-building game (in the sense of building a fictional history of a fictional world). Players take turns to create elements of the game history at any point in the game’s timeline, potentially changing the context and meaning of events further down the timeline. It’s badged as a GMless roleplaying game, but roleplaying makes up a relatively small proportion of the game unless you deliberately focus on it.

Gameplay: At the start of the game, players set broad parameters for the history they’re creating, deciding what the scope of the history will be (e.g. the rise of technology from fire to the singularity) and setting a short list of things that are banned from the story or definitely included in it. This is the phase in which everyone can discuss the vision for the history at a high level and make sure that everyone’s happy with it – which is important, because discussion is banned at certain points in the game.

Play proceeds round the table and on their go each player gets to create a single element of history – an era of time, an event within an existing era or a scene within an existing event.  Importantly, nobody is allowed to discuss, cajole or otherwise attempt to influence another player’s creation. In this sense, the game isn’t collaborative at all – the collaboration sort of emerges from individual isolated decisions. The selling point is that the world you create is genuinely an emergent property of all the players, never dominated by one mouthey player.

The history-elements are written on index cards and placed in a big timeline. You can create new elements anywhere on the existing timeline, which means that as you create new elements they add context and colour to the the bits of the timeline that follow them. So, for example, I could create the assassination of a major politician in one turn, only to have you create a scene preceding it which makes it clear the politician was actually an undercover agent working for another country. Again, the timeline emerges from the players as a group.

I said play proceeds round the table, but that was oversimplifying in two important ways. First, every round one of the players gets to be the lens. That means s/he decides what the focus of play will be for that turn (e.g. the invention of the wheel) and everyone else’s turns must relate to that focus. It also means s/he gets two goes, one at the beginning of the round and one at the end, and on each go s/he gets to create not just one history element but two, provided the two are nested (i.e. an era and an event inside that era, or an event and a scene inside that event). Being the lens is enormously powerful.

The second thing I omitted before was the “legacy” phase, which happens at the end of each go round the table. One player gets to create a “legacy”, a thing which will persist from round to round, and then create a history element relating to it or another legacy. In my view, this phase is a little under-used – the legacies could help to create a more cohesive history but because they can only be used once per round, they have a limited effect.

The scenes ought to be the most interesting bit of the game. In a scene, actual roleplaying happens(!) in contrast to the rest of the game. The player who creates the scene sets a question to be answered through it, a situation and some characters to be present in that situation. The players collectively answer the question by roleplaying out the scene. Maybe it was just my group, though, but the game as a whole put us in a mode where we were more interested in creating eras and events, and not so keen on relinquishing the creative control that our turn gave us to the other players. As a result, Microscope feels more like a world creation game than a roleplaying game. If you like the sound of that, I strongly recommend Microscope to you.

Components: An 81-page rulebook, with a simple cover and no internal art. You’ll also need index cards and something to write on them with, and enough space to spread yourself out a bit.

Author: rabalias

Rabalias grew up wanting to be a pirate. But a band of evil bureaucrats kidnapped him and forced him to work for The Man. Even so, Rabalias was patient and cunning. He escaped by gnawing his way through the walls of his prison and concealing the hole behind a picture of cthulhu. He fled to the coast, and stowed away on the Black Armada, where he worked his way up to the rank of Admiral.

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