o you ever get blackout drunk with your friends one night, then the next morning, all of you gather around some medicinal mimosas and first-aid pancakes to play a game where you piece together what happened? Microscope is that game.
In Microscope, you and your friends choose two fixed points events – the rise and destruction of Atlantis, the establishment of a moon colony and the shattering of the Galactic Earth Empire, the discovery and the loss of natural oil deposits in a small American town – and fill in the time between with stories. As part of the setup, you compile a list of ideas that you do and do not want to see in the session and compile them into a ‘Yes’ and a ‘No’ list. Want to play an epic space opera? Put interstellar spaceships on the Yes list. Want to focus more on interpersonal conflicts? Put physical violence on the No list. This is a quick and easy way to determine the genre and tone of your game session. Once everyone is satisfied, start making history.
In Microscope, play is conducted on three levels: the era, the event, and the scene. Eras are general chunks of time like the Middle Ages or European Colonialism. Events are formative moments in eras. Think the Rise of King Charlemagne or the Founding of the City of Nassau. Scenes are even smaller bits of time. In them, everyone at the table creates a character to act out the scene and, through their actions, answer one specific question. Scenes do not encompass the same breadth that events or eras do, but the course of these bigger chunks of time can hinge on the outcome of a scene. Use them to flesh out cultures or to determine the outcomes of wars. Nurture familial feuds and show strangers banding together in a cataclysm with scenes. During my play through, one character’s actions formed a schism in an organization, throwing it into a bitter civil war none of us could have foreseen.
Microscope plays best when no one knows what will happen next. There is nothing better than hearing other players coo at every unearthed wonder you bring to the table or scream at every unexpected loss. You will build a glorious city on a hill and you will grit your teeth when another player tears it down. But always remember, when you’re playing with time, nothing is lost. Tell the table about that city’s founding or about the new city built on the bones of the old one. Stop at any time and pick up where you left off, or take two events in your timeline and use them as the bookends for a new Microscope game.
The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ lists are a great addition to most table-top, role-playing games. As a Game Master, ask your players to fill out lists of their own then craft your narrative to hit their interests. As a player, keep a pair of lists for yourself and update them as you go through your campaign to keep yourself up to date with your character’s growth.
Microscope doubles as a writing tool to fill out the timeline of your universe. Gather some friends to play a game of Microscope and figure out how those orcs got to Alpha Centauri. I promise that the other players will come up with solutions or situations you have not considered. The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ lists will also remind you which themes you want to focus on.
Microscope puts the ephemeral reins of time in your hands and asks ‘What happens next?’
You can pick up Microscope at Lame Mage Productions or ask your local game store if they have it in stock.