As mentioned in my last brief blog entry (available here) myself and my wife Hannah sat down to do a test game of Microscope last night; although the game is recommended for more than two players, it does provide some useful advice on how to adapt the game for only a couple of players.
The basic premise behind Microscope is that a group of players each create a fictional timeline or history between them using a number of different constructs that can be nested inside each other
- Periods: The largest division of the history, a very large chunk or time that can cover whole centuries depending on history (in my transcript the ‘Golden Age of Dragons’ was the first period in the game).
- Events: Events cover specific events that happen during a period (in my transcript the ‘First elves are born to the wild magics of the forest’ is a scene within the ‘First age of elves (creation/birth of species)’ period.
- Scenes: Scenes are the smallest unit of time and answer specific questions related to any event (in my transcript the ‘What finally caused the Dragons to unite against the dwarves? | Sighing Mountains | Harrad a Dwarf Engineer-King killed the last pureblood dragon to build a great skyship’ scene answers a question about the ‘Dragons unite against the Dwarven Empire when Dwarf Technicians begin hunting Dragons for the innate magic in their bodies’ event which is itself part of the ‘Last great dwarf Empire is destroyed in the First Dragon War’ period.
How is this done?
At the start of the game the players are directed to collaboratively come up with a brief ‘mission statement’ or summary for their timeline (in our example we chose ‘A dark power rises and is defeated’ and then to create the first and last period in their fictional history (for our example we chose the first period being ‘The Golden Age of Dragons’ and the last being ‘The Dark Lord is defeated.’
Players then create a palette of ingredients that are either approved or banned from the history, banned ingredients are those story elements that you might expect to see in the genre of the timeline but that the players have agreed not to include (in our game Hannah chose to ban beastkin races from the timeline) whilst the approved ingredients are things that you might not expect to see in the genre but the players have approved for use (such as magitech in our example game).
Once this is done each player adds a Period or an Event to the timeline, placing them anyway that they see fit within the rules; the game uses index cards written in a portrait orientation and laid in a line to represent periods, place in landscape orientation underneath Periods are the Events that occurred within them and Scenes are also written portrait and are then placed in order behind the Events that they are answering questions about.
An example layout diagram is shown below for clarification:
Play then proceeds with one player being designated the Lens each turn, the Lens gets to add a couple more elements than the non-Lens players during a turn and they also define the Focus at the start of the turn. The Focus determines what plot element the game will focus on this turn, it can be anything, but every element placed on that turn must be connected with the Focus. Once a Focus has been decided on the turn then moves through a number of phases with each player putting down their own element on the timeline; the Focuses are written (we used a single index card for this) in a list with the name of the person who came up with them next to it.
The rulebook provides clear guidelines on how to write cards for the various different elements (Periods, Events and Scenes), it also directs you to put a circle at the bottom of the card and colour in the circle if it is a dark/negative element or to leave it blank if it is a light/positive element. Personally, although the writing was extremely clear and concise, enabling us to quickly press on with our game, neither myself or Hannah could see what point there was in the dark/light circles at the bottom of the cards, although I suppose that they may be useful as a general measure of whether your setting is overwhelmingly light or dark.
During their action players have complete narrative freedom to make up anything they want and put it anyway on the timeline as long as their entry is connected to the Focus, doesn’t contradict anything already in play and doesn’t include anything from the banned list; the game suggests that other peoples should only be allowed to the ask the current player for clarification and should not be able to offer any narrative advice or suggestions, keeping their ideas until creating their own elements. I found this a very enjoyable part of the game and several times I spent phases setting up something, only to have it turn out different when either Hannah introduced some of her own elements or when I changed my mind based on how the timeline had altered since my previous phase.
Once all the phases have been completed, the player to the right of the Lens chooses a concept from the last turn to become a Legacy; the only restrictions are that the Legacy has to be some that appeared in play this turn and it should be something that the Legacy-chooser is interested in exploring in more detail. There can only be as many Legacies as there are players, and if you want a new Legacy then you must replace your old one (either with a new Legacy or a previously discarded one).
After the choosing of Legacies has been resolved the Legacy-chooser then gets to make an Event or a dictated Scene then is connected with one of the Legacies in play and place it on the timeline. Once this is done the turn ends and the next player becomes the new Lens. During our test game, since we only had two players, we ignored the Legacy limits and just wrote them in a list on a single index file, this seemed to work reasonably well and certainly didn’t impact on our enjoyment of the game.
There are guidelines in the book for roleplaying out Scenes and filling in the details of precisely what happened (although the outcome is decided at the beginning when the Scene is created), however, because of our limited player numbers and time, we chose to simply dictate the Scenes and write down the outcomes rather than RP through them, although I think that given more time and players the RP element would be an interesting avenue to explore. The rules for RPing Scenes are written in a similar informative and easy to understand fashion as the rest of the book.
Overall I thought that the book was extremely well written, allowing you to jump into the game with a minimum of prep and reading, the only thing beyond the book being required is a pack of index cards and some pens (although i’m sure other media such as flowchart software, a wipeboard, a piece of paper or others could easily be substituted); despite starting off with a fairly standard fantasy idea for our sample game it quickly developed into an interesting history that went to a number of places that I didn’t expect when startin the game. I think that the game is great as long as all the players are comfortable with creating narrative details off-the-cuff as it were, although I think that people who prefer a more structured form of RPing might find it more challenging; it also seems that the game would be a a great way of having a group sit down and create the history of a setting that could then be used with another system to actually run a more traditional RPG in.
A very enjoyable book and evenings entertainment that I highly recommend 🙂