Tabletop Storygames: Microscope

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.

15 thoughts on “Tabletop Storygames: Microscope”

  1. I agree about the random feel of the early game: tone, in particular, which is usually one of those things that is either defined by the game’s parameters or explicitly negotiated early on, seemed to come about randomly as the result of a couple of off-the-cuff decisions (one of the Yes elements was a bit silly, an early scene ended up getting played mostly for laughs because I didn’t do a great job of distinguishing between OOC snark, character thoughts and character speech.

    The other thing is that the worldbuilding-y nature of the game made for a lot of assertions about the world, some of them quite off-hand, that ended up being a little tricky to keep track of — or, at least, the feeling that there were lots of things to keep track of and that we might be writing ourselves into a corner was a bit difficult to get over, which made it harder to focus on the scene question and the lens. Being familiar with the system, trusting that the process would work out, would probably help with this.

    1. Yeah, the tone thing was my fault. I suppose I was feeling both for accessibility and constraint that it would be nice to have one or two Yes votes that were concrete and not super-conceptual, but what my brain landed on was a bit goofy.

      I wasn’t really worried about writing ourselves into a corner per se — there’s almost always a way to explain apparently contradictory world facts. (Just ask dedicated Who or Star Trek fans.) But I did feel a certain amount of urgency to see pieces connect up into story-ness.

  2. It sounds superb, just bought it and read the first bit – though you going to this gathering is costing me a fortune in indie rpgs :)

    World building was always my favourite part of RPGs, the thrill even of playing a character was creating the story, rather than the agency.

    I’ll see how I feel after a play.

  3. Another thing: from the way that it was pitched, I expected something more social-history than Turning-Points and Great Men history, and a lot of the decisions we made were sort of aimed at social-history issues: but the need to build some narrative shape into the overall history meant that almost every scene ended up being a Rubicon scene.

  4. Recently I played another game of this, which was more focused than the first attempt: in particular, we focused on the rise and fall of a single dynasty, and most of our content revolved around a couple of particular characters within that history. That kept things fairly focused, and many of the events and scenes played with the question of motivation — why did particular members of the dynasty do the things that shaped the course of their power?

    It also helped that we went for some constraints that limited magic, deus-ex-machina, and surprise changes to the ground rules of the universe. Not that I have anything against universes with strange ground rules, but going for a more realistic setting meant that content tended to be more tonally consistent.

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