Back before Gencon, Phil threw out an article asking for Gnome Stew fans to pick games for us to pick up and review. Phil reviewed Vornheim – The Complete City Kit  and I am now reviewing Microscope. We got no compensation or free copies for these games. I take a long time to do my reviews, mostly because I want to get deeply into what I’m reviewing and usually I prefer to have at least one play session. It took me a while to get this one out, but I think you’ll find the wait worth the while.
Microscope is an independent RPG put out by Lame Mage Productions. Microscope has a tagline of “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories” and what this boils down to is that it is a collaborative history building game. The goal of any game of Microscope is to sit down with your friends and delve into the details of a particular fictional span of time. You begin by defining the time period that you will work within and then take turns making up and modifying the various details of events within the time period. The book is about 80 pages, softbound, and is available for $19.99, a PDF for $9.99, and as a bundle with book and the PDF. You can find links to purchase the book from various sources off of the Lame Mage Productions  page.
The Game Play
Microscope is very simple to play. Once the general concept is understood, a group can get into it almost immediately. The book advises that at least one person should read the book before playing, but there is no GM controlling the game. Everything is in the hands of the players. The gameplay is simple and makes use of index cards to track the history. Here is a picture of example play from within the book. Each event added is marked by an index card with some notes and questions. There are also markings for whether the element is light or dark. By the end of the game, your table will be covered with cards outlining an incredible history.
When you sit down to play, you will first engage in a kind of getting started phase where you set some big picture items and absolutes about the history you are creating. You first state a story hook that determines what kind of time period you will be working with. Maybe it will be the rise and fall of the space-huns, the destruction of an ancient empire, or the journey that the fey races took to build the hidden city within the sewers of Chicago. This big picture hook helps the players narrow down what kind of events they’ll be making up.
Once the general idea is figured out, the players will then bookend the time period with a starting event and an ending one. This gives the Alpha and Omega of the game and lets players know what outcome they will be working towards. Players then get a chance to set certain ingredients into the stew of history as banned or definite. After this phase, pretty much nothing remains sacred. You might declare a historical alliance between two races, hoping to use that all the way to the end of the timeline you are working with, but then another player decides that one of the ambassadors gets assassinated and that sparks off a war.
After the initial phase of the play is set up, the players take turns moving through the game and placing Periods, Events, and Scenes into play. The person whose turn it is gets the title of Lens, because they are the one looking in to the history at the current time. Periods are a large chunk of time that could encompass many events. Events are smaller chunks that are very specific. They help determine how the larger periods play out. These elements are narrated by a single player, but can be modified later by other players adding in their own events and periods. Scenes are deep zoom on the metaphorical microscope. They are the events that aren’t determined solely by one player, instead they start with a question about how something particular happens and then the players act out the specific parts to determine how it happens.
Gameplay goes on like this until the players are pretty much ready to end the game. The history is built and defined, stored on the index cards, and can be pulled out again at a later time to examine and add to. The game only ends when the players are ready for it to end.
Narrative Wins The Day
As you can probably determine, Microscope is all about the narrative. This makes it a perfect game for those groups who like to tell stories and can take turns. One thing the book mentions is that this is not a collaborative narrative in the sense that everyone gets a say in everything. When a person is on their turn, very little is out of their control. To try to build a history where every player has some say in every little thing would bog things down and prevent tumultuous events occurring. The players collaborate on the big picture, but individual events are in the purview of individual players. That doesn’t mean an event can’t be changed by subsequent events, it just means that you don’t get to say “Nuh-uh, that messes up something I was planning”. I can see some players having a hard time destroying elements that other players created, but that very conflict is what makes history move along.
One other thing to mention about Narrative, the book is wordy and full of narrative advice. After the play section, a good 30 pages of the book are dedicated to advice from the creator. This section acts as a kind of play notes, developer’s corner, and filler section. A lot of the advice is good, but some of it feels like filler to expand the book’s page count. I’m not sure much of it is necessary, but I can also see that some players who prefer more strictured or controlled gaming styles might need the extra clarifications and guidance to bridge the gap into the narrative style of play. Also, you can’t really beat play examples and advice from the developers of a game.
The Incorporation Factor
While Microscope is fun as a stand alone game, it has a lot of application as an addition onto other games. Using Microscope you could build the backstory of campaign world, play out the plot of a novel you are contemplating, or collaboratively flesh out the details of a chunk of unexplored history in an established world setting. I might actually make use of it in just that way when I start developing an unexplored continent in a game world I work on. Microscope would also be easily adapted to an online play style. With a simple shared desktop and a program to make notes, like Text Block Writer or another virtual index card program, one could easily run the game with friends far away.
I really liked Microscope. It seems like a great history building game, and something I’ll probably go to when I want to build some ideas collaboratively with my group. I found the writing to be a bit too structured for how I like to play games, but I fully understand how the elements that restrain are there for a reason. I see a lot of room for Microscope at gaming tables, and I also see a lot of room for it at the tables of game developers. There is something about it that organizes the often chaotic process of putting together a world in a way that people can work with. Even if this isn’t the type of game your group usually plays, you’ll get your money’s worth with just one session.