Microscope: Reflections

Illustration of concentric circles

Digging down

Last time, I related the content of our first Microscope game. Now, some reflections on how it went.

There were a few other things that didn’t go totally smoothly:

  1. We found that we needed some way of reminding us of the current Focus. A small whiteboard would’ve been great. I found myself looking for sketchboard apps for my tablet.
  2. The direction of play sometimes got confusing. Remembering when it’s the person to the right of the Lens or the person to left got a little tricky at times. It might’ve been good to have a marker for the current Lens, too.
  3. It sometimes seemed like there were a lot of subsystems. For such a short book, for a diceless game, it felt like the terminology, conflict resolution, direction changes, levels of interactions (are we allowed to collaborate at this level of the game, etc.) and other mechanics could almost have been overwhelming; there was a lot of “wait a moment while I look up that rule”. But we managed quite well, and I’m sure that by our second time playing, we’ll have a much better sense of how to do it.
  4. It was hard to get out of the collaboration mode at times. We’re all used to indie games where everyone works together, continuously and synchronously, to make for a more amazing game; this is a hard habit to break. A couple times, we suggested ideas to each other because we couldn’t stop (and it was a little unclear if it was allowed at that level of the game).
  5. There was a fair amount of downtime, as players decided what to do next (what kind of history to create, what character to take in a Scene, etc.). And because of the way the history creation works, it can be hard to be thinking of your next action while the current player is thinking of theirs.
  6. It was hard at times to decide if something was an Event or a Period.

There were a lot of things that went really well, though:

  1. The game’s section on how to teach it to others is quite well done: it hits the important points with a lot of clarity but without bogging down in details.
  2. As I mentioned in the play report, we slipped into the Scenes really well, and had fun even just declaring characters.
  3. Having other people’s ideas to play off of during a worldbuilding session can be very rewarding, and a lot of the structure of Microscope — especially, I think, the asynchronous collaboration — really brings this out well.
  4. A lot of the specific situations, characters and dialogue we created were just very entertaining: the uplifted laid-back night shift cat, the fiery religious AI, the wizened old AI, a variety of working class characters and issues, the idea of AIs appreciating cats on keyboards as massage… The nifty ideas kept flowing.
  5. The asynchronous collaboration went really well. The other players kept coming up with ideas that were surprising, sometimes a little wacky and very original, and I’m sure the whole was richer for it.
  6. The Focus system does an interesting job of ensuring that we see different aspects of each historical era and event. It’s much like reading histories written by different people — regardless of the topic, different scholars will point up different nuances and details.
  7. The game is pretty much pure distilled worldbuilding fun.

A more general observation: when we were choosing characters for the AI schism Scene, just by announcing our characters, it was almost obvious what the answer was going to be. I can see that this could be a problem, but it was also a benefit, in that we saw how much influence these characters were going to have.

It’s very easy to imagine using Microscope to do collaborative worldbuilding for a campaign or other purpose. It’s equally easy to imagine using other RPGs to play out Scenes. The trick would be that the canon has already been written — the history requires that Scenes play out in certain ways. But this doesn’t seem like an impossible hurdle.

Overall, Microscope is really quite a wonderful game, and I hope to play it again soon. The trick will be whether we revisit our future history, or dive into some other, equally-interesting worldbuilding…

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