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posted by Tolan Original SA post


Purchase: at RPGNow
More info: Lame Mage Productions

Humanity spreads to the stars and forges a galactic civilization
Fledgling nations arise from the ruins of the empire
An ancient line of dragon-kings dies out as magic fades from the realm

Microscope is a game of roleplaying history, in the sense of deciding on a theme and then exploring that through both broad and narrow brushstrokes. It's got some similarities to a god game: you're not playing a specific individual character generally, and you're deciding history, myth, geography, and all the other fun stuff that go into those kinds of games.

It's written by Ben Robbins, who was perhaps best known for the West Marches sandbox game. He's got a lot of interesting ideas, and Microscope is his first published game. A second, similar, game is currently on Kickstarter. It's called Kingdom , and it looks pretty good.

The rules are laid out very simply, and there's no art beyond some diagrams illustrating some play mechanics. It's clearly explained, and the game rules presented in a straightforward, step-by-step fashion.

We start off with a quick introduction to the game and what's going to be involved:


In Microscope, you build an epic history as you play. Want to play a game that spans the entire Dune series, the Silmarillion , or the rise and fall of Rome in an afternoon? That’s Microscope.

But you don’t play the history from start to finish, marching along in chronological order. Instead, you build your history from the outside in. You start off knowing the big picture, the grand scheme of what happens, then you dive in and explore what happened in between, the how and why that shaped events.

You are free to jump backwards or forwards, zooming in or out to look at whatever you want, defying limits of time and space. Want to leap a thousand years into the future and see how an institution shaped society? Want to jump back to the childhood of the king you just saw assassinated and find out what made him such a hated ruler? That’s normal in Microscope.

All that's needed to play is 2-5 people and something to keep track of the history that the players come up with. Index cards are suggested, but anything will work. I'm going to gloss over the mechanics of using the cards, as it's not critical to gameplay, but each step has a suggested way to orient or fill out the card to record that particular element of the game's history.

Starting a Game

When you're starting a new game, you start big: deciding on the theme (the Big Picture) for this particular game. The statements in italics up at the top of this review are examples of Big Picture statements. It's the one-line summary that you'd find in a history book for this epoch of time. The group as a whole refines this until they're happy, but it doesn't have to be perfect--it's just a general guide for the game.

History in Microscope is in periods (which span anywhere from a few decades to multiple centuries), which are characterized as either light or dark (the "Tone" of the period). The players get together and decide on the starting and ending periods of their game, as well as the tone of each period. Light periods are generally happy and dark periods are generally tragic; the two don't have to match.

After settling on the start and end periods, the group decides on the Palette: general things that are or are not acceptable in the game. Every player gets to add something to the palette, either as a yes or no. Yes items may be included no matter how odd they seem; no items may not be included in any way. The players should be clear about the intent of their items, and the other players can and should ask for clarifications to make sure they understand the intent. The palette is frozen once at least one player decides not to add something.

For example:


One players puts “habitable worlds” in the No column. People have to live in artificial habitats, biodomes, space stations, or ships. Another player asks if terraformed worlds would be okay, but the first player doesn’t want that either. The other players decide to go along with it.

This is the last part of the game that's based around consensus. The players should discuss and decide on the palette, big picture, and bookends together. After this point, everything's going to be done individually, and the game advocates not discussing ideas with other players outside of the structured activities in the game turn.

Playing the Game

After setting up the scene, the group chooses someone to go first. That player is called the Lens and chooses the Focus of the current play. That's the thing that the player wants to focus on in the history: a person, an event, a period--anything, really. Each player then creates a period, event, or scene; the lens can create two things, as long as they're nest: a scene in an event, or an event in a period.

Generally, when you're making history on your turn, there's only a few constraints on what you can do. You can't contradict something that's already in play, you can't add something that's on the No side of the palette, and whatever you add has to relate to the focus.

A period is just like the bookends decided on during setup: a long period of time. After placing it into the existing history, the player describes what happens during the time covered by the period--a grand summary of what's going on. The player also decides if it's a light or dark period.

Events are just that: events within a period. Think a great battle, a coronation, or some other specific thing happening at a time and place. Just like with periods, the player places the event with a period and in the appropriate order if there's already events in that period. He then describes the event--including the outcome!--and decides the tone.

Finally, the player can create a scene . A scene is a very specific event that's played out by the group. The player who created the scene decides on the Question that will be answered through play. After stating the question, the player will then set the stage, putting it in the context of an event or period. The other players will then come up with characters for the scene; the player who creates the scene can specify one or two characters that must be played or that cannot be played. The other players then choose the characters they'll play for the scene: either a required character or someone they make up on the spot.

Scenes are where the roleplaying happens, obviously. Players will work out the answer to the question through roleplaying their characters. There are few mechanics to this process; there's no dice or GM to decide success. The scene plays out until the group has the answer to the question--there's no big revelation, just someone saying "hey I think we answered the Question" and everyone agreeing. There are some wrinkles, like Pushing--if you think you've got a better idea for something that another player's come up with in the scene, you can Push things. All players can propose a new idea for whatever you're Pushing, and then the group votes for which one they think works best. Pushing also encompasses stuff like "things that aren't present in the scene", "you already knew that" (to establish something about another character's background or personality or knowledge), etc.

After the scene is done, all of the players decide on the tone.

When all players have made their contribution to the current focus, the person to the right of the Lens decides on the focus's Legacy: a particular element of the focus that you enjoyed. Each player can only have one Legacy at a time. Once the person's decided the Legacy, they create and event or dictate a scene about that Legacy--this is outside the focus and can go anywhere in the history.

The Lens then moves to the left, and play continues with another Focus and another round of play.

Ending the Game

There's no defined stopping point for Microscope. It's basically whenever the group feels it's explored as much of the history as they're interested in.

That's the meat of the game, and about 2/3rds of the book. The remainder is a discussion of the various pieces of the game: advice on Big Pictures, Questions, and Focuses; things to watch out for (time travel, immortality); and excellent step-by-step tips for teaching the game to new players. The very last section of the book is a discussion of some of the author's intent behind various things in the game, and it's in first person:

Ben Robbins posted:

I talk a lot about how Microscope forbids collaboration or brainstorming, but that’s not really true. What it does is require that collaboration happen through the medium of the game, rather than through open discussion and normal social rules. You’re having a discussion. You’re just doing it through the language and vocabulary of the game. When you describe your Period, you’re telling the other players what you want in the history. When you explain why you think your Event is Light, you’re showing them what you think about the fiction. They respond by making history of their own, using the same language. The entire game is a dialog, just a dialog with it’s own rules.


Microscope is a nice little gem of a game. It can be used to generate a background for other game systems, or just on its own for mucking about with the grand sweep of things. It seems like a nice introduction to "rules lite" gaming and for getting into roleplaying for people who might not otherwise be comfortable with it.

There are more advanced roles one can play in a scene (for example, a character can be played as "Time"--they're responsible for moving the action along, as barbarians at the gates of a city or soldiers hunting for a fugitive), but generally you're just going to have to come up with a couple of sentences describing who you are and then play to that character.