Microscope: First session

Illustration of concentric circles

Going deeper

As mentioned in the comments of last post, John, the GM for our main campaign, was sick last week, and so the rest of us played Microscope. We started by talking a bit about how the game works — for old hands at RPGs, it has quite a few concepts that are out of the norm — and then I used the game’s explicit instructions on how to teach the game. Seemed a waste not to try them, right?

The one-sentence history we ended up with was, I think, “The Rise of the AIs”. For our Palette, here’s what we got:


  • FTL via wormholes
  • Implications for religion
  • Uplifted animals


  • Civil war between AIs and humans
  • Moustache-twirling AIs

I was already pleasantly surprised here; I had not been expecting uplifted animals to be part of this story. And I was glad that we were all on the same page about “evil AIs” — we’d all seen the AIs as the bad guys far too often.

Our start and end points:

  1. Sentient computers arise on Earth ⬤
  2. The sentient computers recreate human life ◯

So, an ultimately uplifting story. Interesting implications, if the creation of AIs is dark and the AIs themselves aren’t the bad guys.

The Rise of the AIs

  1. Sentient computers arise on Earth ⬤
  2. The first animals are uplifted ⬤
    1. Architectural AIs hit labor disputes with humans, resolve situation by uplifting gorillas to replace humans as labor ⬤
  3. Most humans drop opposition when animals pay large tax > Humans stop working > More animals are uplifted > (and back to the beginning of the cycle) ◯
  4. Major religions denounce AIs for uplifting animals ⬤
    1. Animals denounce major religions for denouncing their existence ◯
      1. Why was this the beginning of a schism among the AIs? | The AIs debate what to do about human cruelty to animals and AIs | The AIs disagreed about self-preservation vs. observation — some demanded release of the Martyr ⬤
    2. Animals that had been practicing human religions create their own religions when they are barred from human services. ⬤
  5. AIs and humans part amicably ⬤
    1. Humans stop communicating with AI. Uplifted cats are intermediaries. ◯ (and the circle has cat ears)
      1. Why did they choose cats? | Dolphin hackers destroy records of humans for AI in space station | Only the cats were calm ⬤
    2. Anti-human hacking memory virus spreads & AI start to lose ability to perceive humans ⬤
      1. How did the virus lead to an amicable separation? | The AIs decide to purify themselves by going on a wormhole pilgrimage | Everyone’s happy with the AIs’ decision to leave Earth ◯
    3. Gibbons & octopi on strike, internet shuts down ◯
  6. AIs colonize other planets & systems ◯
    1. The AIs and the animals have an interfaith council and reconcile, and realize they share a spiritual goal of going to the stars. ◯
    2. The cat-AI alliance is strengthened when they decide to co-colonize Mars ◯
    3. The sentient computers recreate human life ◯

As with any “let me tell you about my RPG session”, that doesn’t sum up the invention and niftiness that we experienced in the moment (that’s not how RPG’s work, after all). Especially because this kind of staid presentation doesn’t capture the iterative, generative wonder that the session itself contained. That makes it tempting to present the chronology in the order that we created it — but a) that would take too much space, and b) I don’t remember the order anyway. (Note for future games: write turn numbers on the cards.)

The Scenes were very memorable, though. I was surprised how easily we fell into it, and how easily we adapted to the game’s dicta, especially the “play the scene to get an answer to the question, and no further” rule.

The “Why did they choose cats?” scene was the first one we played. In it, a human general increasingly distrusted the AIs on an important space station; an overseer AI became worried at the sudden appearance of alien intruders (who were actually humans, but it didn’t realize that; its human-recognition subroutines were being messed with); and an uplifted night-watch/overnight maintenance cat was the only one who could handle it all. The increasing human/AI tension, counterpointed by the laid-back cat attitude, was great. The scene was a lot of fun, and we had a few Pushes — good sign that we were getting into the spirit of the game.

The second Scene was the dispute among the AIs about how to handle the growing human threat. Set inside a wormhole, there was a wizened old logistics AI, an observer AI and a radical religious AI, all arguing different sides of the issue. That logistics AI ended up getting traded around through different Scenes, and all three players — we liked the character so much that we all wanted to play it, at different points in its life. The fiery zealot AI became an imprisoned martyr around which a movement, and a schism, grew.

The last Scene, the one in which the AIs decided to go on a pilgrimage of purification, had less conflict and was resolved relatively quickly, but still fun. (And with that scene, everyone had gotten to play the wizened old AI, I think.)

We had two Legacies, but to be honest, we didn’t do much with them; they allowed for that little extra bit of development, but because the history created cannot be a played Scene, it feels less dramatic and invested than other ways of making history in the game. Perhaps they’d have been more dramatic if we had gotten far enough for us to come back and revisit our Legacies.

Next time, a few reflections on how Microscope worked in that session.


Microscope: First session — 2 Comments

  1. All of this sounds extremely fascinating and fun. Cordwainer Smith’s future history with uplifted animals (including cats) MAY have been the first, and has a different history and trajectory, but there is something very Smithian about this set up. I think he would have approved.

    It sounds like Microscope really does a great job helping people think about causal impact several steps out. i can see why a number if Diaspora players use it to flesh out the Cluster they create. Thanks for posting all this detail.

    Not to be triumphalist, squeeist, or elitist but I can see how playing games like this could just possibly substantiate the claim that game design HAS had moments of breakthrough and advance since the creation of D&D.

    I look forward to trying this out next session.

    • It was indeed fascinating and fun. And yeah, the way the cause and effect cycle works is especially fascinating. The way it meshes with the Focus system, even more so.

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