Idle Musings

Microscope: a game where you make history


I can’t think of a better $10 I’ve spent.

First off, Microscope is not complex.  It seems like it should be, but it’s not.  It doesn’t even need a GM.

You start with a general concept of your history, no more than a sentence.  You move on to discussing what elements you want to see and don’t want to see - each person can add or ban a few elements.  Then you decide where history starts and where the history ends.  That’s all the group discussion that’s necessary.  Each person then adds one Period or Event.

That’s where the fun begins.  The game is divided into Periods, Events, and Scenes.  As you’d guess, Periods are the larger eras, Events take place within one epoch, and scenes occur within each Event.  They are each represented by notecards or flashcards you write yourself: Periods are upright, Events are sideways beneath them, and scenes are upright beneath Events.

You choose whether Periods and Events are light or dark, to help everyone get a feel for the moral tone of the events. (E.g. If the rebel victory is light, then the government must have been bad!)

Each player in turn is the Lens, responsible for deciding what the focus of this round of history-making is.  It could be something general or very specific, but there must be room for people to make historic events around and about it.

When each player expounds a Period or Event, what they say goes.  The bedrock rule of the game is that you cannot contradict what’s been done.  If someone else makes an amazing city, you can nuke that city!  Once it’s in play, it belongs to no one, and the great thing is that nuking the city doesn’t stop them from going and embellishing the past of the city.  This is a nonlinear game, and a game where you determine outcomes.  It’s not enough to say “terrorists attack.”  You’d have to say which terrorists attack where and whether they succeed or fail.  We may not know the nitty-gritty details - but someone else can flesh them out with Scenes.

Scenes answer questions.  You pose the question, like “why did the terrorist attack the country where he was born and raised?”  You establish the scene - a meeting of his terrorist cell, for instance, deciding whether the mission is a go or no-go.  You choose a few characters who are required.  Then you go around the group in order choosing or creating the characters you play.  You roleplay it out until the answer becomes clear.  You roleplay thoughts, perceptions about the world (which become facts!), and actions.  Often the question will hinge on the decision of a single player, but the Scene gives that decision context and meaning.  Once the question is answered, the Scene ends.

In Scenes, if players disagree on something that exists in the world outside the character, there’s a mechanic to decide whose vision goes.  It’s called a Push.  It is, in essence, a pause in the game while the alternative is proposed, any other alternatives are solicited, and people vote by pointing their fingers at the people whose ideas they like.  It’s a way of showing how strongly you support any given idea.  You then count up fingers as votes, not people.  This idea is a great solution to the common nerd-tension problem of simple up-down votes.

In time, you have an expanse of Periods running in order across the table, with Events beneath them and Scenes still further beneath them.  What if a scene ended and you wanted to still explore those characters?  Ask another question!  Create another scene on your turn!  But bear in mind you won’t all be playing the same character you were last time.  In the meantime, history takes strange turns.

People don’t make or solicit suggestions in this game.  When you’re in the hotseat, it’s your time to create.  It doesn’t have to be complicated.  Like anything improvisional, people riff off each other.  They may take your seemingly-dull suggestion and attach something genius to it.  This is the other side of having absolute authorial control on your turn.

What makes such a free-flowing game work is the organized turn structure and that the ending is defined.  That allows events to be nonlinear.  It lets everyone be comfortable when the unexpected happens, because survival isn’t at stake.  You know where history ends.  As a group, you decided it up front!

I have no grasp of how long it would take because there are no victory-or-defeat conditions.  There is the advantage that by simply putting the cards in order and maintaining their vertical or horizontal orientations, you can save your history and work on it more later!  You could end after any number of turns.

I think I may try to give it a go this weekend, if I can get people on board.  It might be a hard sell, especially so soon after I convinced them to try Burning Wheel, but I would like to play it before I have to move home… if I do have to move home.

Rating: Two thumbs up.