Microscope: First thoughts

Illustration of concentric circles

Zooming in

For about as long as I’ve known of its existence, the game Microscope has fascinated me. I love the worldbuilding that it implies, and the collaborative aspect has always been intriguing. So a few weeks ago, I admitted to myself that I should just get a copy and did.

The rules are quite short; the book is only about 80 pages long, and a good chunk of that is theory, reference and a section on how to teach the game. And the rules also seem fairly straightforward on a first read-through, but as I discovered in this week’s game, the game-play can actually be rather intricate.

In structure, it’s a game about setting up broad swathes of fictional history and drilling down into specific eras and events to see how they turned out, and why. It’s much like doing worldbuilding alone, with the addition that other people’s ideas will often make it richer, in surprising ways.

As the game reiterates fairly often, when it’s your turn to create history, you have nearly absolute narrative control. If you want to destroy something that someone else has created, you can; in fact, there’s a section of the rules called “Nuking Atlantis” that describes how to do it. There are two wrinkles: one, you can’t change the canon already established; and two, players are free to move the Focus around in the history. If someone else has created something that bugs you, you can describe how it is wiped off the map, and what you describe has then happened — but the other player can then go to other eras where it still existed, or where it was recreated. The game is really a marvelous toolkit for worldbuilding.

Also, having near-absolute narrative control means that collaboration in the moment is mostly forbidden. You really shouldn’t give others ideas on what to have happen, and they shouldn’t ask for advice. It goes against a lot of the gaming I’ve done over the past few years, with everyone working together in near-simultaneous mode to make everything more fun and interesting. But there is collaboration, of course; it just happens on a larger scale, with players exploring and expanding aspects of other people’s ideas. I like how this works, because you end up seeing aspects of history that others wouldn’t have thought to explore, and they end up expanding aspects of things you’ve created in equally unexpected ways.

Next time, I’ll post an actual play report from our first session.


Microscope: First thoughts — 4 Comments

  1. Hi Rachel:

    Whenever I am not available, ya’ll try cool new things. As far as the highly structured sequencing goes, I was thinking of the Mouseguard rules, which structures play very differently from most RPGs. It can take some time to get your head around these changes, because we are so used to playing in a specific way… I guess.


    • It certainly requires some of the same mental gymnastics that Mouseguard requires… Probably even more, I’d say. And yeah, even though lots of different games require different mindsets, there are certainly overall tendencies. (And I don’t think that’s bad — people aren’t required to challenge themselves constantly in gaming.)

      Hopefully you’ll get to try it sometime, too! I bet you’d have a lot of fun with it — and maybe we could fill in some holes in the Alwyn campaign.

    • As I was watching the episode, I was thinking of how much it parallels the Microscope structure: broad eras sketched out in low detail, with Scenes to illustrate particularly pivotal moments… That episode is like the ur-Microscope game or something. 🙂

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