Tonight at the Seattle Storygames meetup I played Ben Robbins’ Microscope, which describes itself as “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories.”
Play begins with the participants agreeing on some very broadly-described beginning and endpoint to a history — the rise and fall of an empire, the glory and decline of a dynasty. Our group chose the history of a multi-deity religion from its inception (a sort of contract between gods and men) to its downfall (the point where the gods refused to interact that way any further).
The selected beginning and end are written on blank cards and set on the table. Players then proceed to add more cards to the timeline: named periods (which can be inserted anywhere between the beginning and the end), events (attached to a particular period), and scenes (involving a particular event, and intended to answer some narrative question about that event). The scenes are where the roleplaying actually occurs, starting from some premise and continuing until the narrative question is answered.
There are a few additional mechanics to provide some focus, and it’s possible to challenge a story choice that another player has made, though in practice we never did this.
In general, the mechanics were less concerned about creating and resolving conflicts (a theme found in both the story games I played at a previous meeting) and more about discovering and developing interesting concept threads in the world-building. Players are encouraged to move back and forth through the timeline, creating longterm repercussions for one another’s choices, or conversely setting up other parts of the story by designing prequels for them.
In practice, I felt like this design made for some very loose, uncertain play at the beginning. When the game is just starting out and the players are throwing in almost random events, there’s a sense that continuity is never going to be established. How are we ever going to link up The Great Pilgrimage with The Revision of the Dietary Laws? What matters and why? Do we all just have completely different ideas about who these characters are, or what? And because collaboration is restricted only to the contribution of periods/events/etc., you’re not allowed to propose an idea in full, by, say, laying out a whole imagined sect you have in mind. As in improv, you can only make offers and then let your collaborators pick up on them.
Later on, though, things started to come together in a fairly satisfying way, events plugging into one another and making a more complete fabric. (Sam Kabo Ashwell’s play report for the full session is here.)
Even so — and I don’t say this as a complaint, exactly — it felt to me in a lot of ways more like a collaborative world-building game than an interactive story-telling game. What we ended up with was a semi-coherent history with several major recurring themes or issues and some brightly-colored incidents. People had partitioned souls, and could use specific soul-aspects to do things. It was possible to bottle up some aspect of your soul in order to keep it under control. The Coracle Philosophers discovered the way to elevate the God of Swamps to Living status by accident during a council session, though fortunately their ritual coracle-skirts allowed them individually to paddle away and survive the deluge. The moosetaur guardians — but no, I’m verging on sacred secrets here.
In any case, it all makes a kind of performance art out of the act of invention itself. Which is cool. I think I need a few more playthroughs to really be at ease with this one, but the concept is definitely neat.