Fractal history-building RPG Microscope was my introduction to modern storygames; within that niche of gaming, it’s kind of a foundational work. If you’re interested in GMless, narrative-focused, low-prep, and/or diceless tabletop role-playing games, or even just in history-focused world-building, it’s a must-play. Its first official expansion, Microscope Explorer, is now in Kickstarter. (Disclaimer: author Ben Robbins is the lead organiser of Story Games Seattle, at which I’m an event organiser; I’ve enjoyed many excellent games with him.) At 2500 US$, it’s a pretty lean Kickstarter, and it passed its target before I had time to finish this post.
Here’s how I usually pitch Microscope: it’s a game about big swathes of history, covering hundreds or thousands of years. You fill in a time line of eras – like chapter titles in a history book – and then zoom in on specific events within those eras, and play out scenes that elaborate on those events. It’s non-sequential, so you can zoom out and move the action to any part of the timeline. If something you were really interested in gets destroyed, no problem – go back to before it was destroyed and do some more scenes about it. You don’t play the same characters in every scene: it’s rare that the same character appears in more than one scene.
My main problem with Microscope is that I’ve played it dozens of times, many of them with new players, and often new players come up with pretty similar histories and scenes. Part of that is my own fault – as a game facilitator I need to learn how best to steer players towards more uniquely interesting scenarios, while still respecting the things they’re enthusiastic about. But that’s extra brain-load – I often find it difficult to come up with super-creative ideas and teach a game system at the same time.
There are two obvious ways to keep things fresh: game seeds, which are premises for kinds of story crafted ahead of time, and hacks, reworkings of the rules to make them apply to a more specific purpose. The Microscope book already comes with a few seeds, and hacks already exist – notably Jackson Tegu’s Kaleidoscope, in which, rather than recounting a history, you’re piecing together the weird art movie you saw last night and didn’t really understand.
But, well, Ben has played this game approximately a thousand times more than I have, so he knows this better than anybody. Microscope Explorer adds a bunch of seeds – but, most significantly, three major hacks that push the game into directions that go a little bit against the normal grain of Microscope games, letting you play games that are still Microscopey but work in significantly different ways.
Base Microscope isn’t really about the stories of individuals, only touching them in passing – which is fine if you’re doing a big sweeping history, and is excellent practice for letting go of ‘this is my character and I’m going to advocate for them as hard as possible’ – but what if you wanted something that was still a history, but a bit more personal? Microscope Union develops a family tree rather than a timeline, and explores how things are inherited. Time-travel and changing established history is usually a terrible, game-breaking idea in Microscope – so Microscope Echo is designed specifically to accommodate it. Microscope often sprawls over vast areas and stretches of time, a different planet every scene: Microscope Chronicle tightens the premise to the history of a single thing – a city, a sword, a book.
If you’ve read the successfully-Kickstarted Kingdom book, you’ll have some idea of the diligence and craft that Ben applies to his work. Clear layout and organisation are often pretty weak in indie RPGs, leaving you leafing awkwardly through the book in search of an ambiguous rule while your players tap their feet; Kingdom is organised and presented with simple, inobtrusive but really usable design: the core game and its summaries are strictly kept apart from play-advice and setting materials, the headings are situated to be maximally legible when quick-flipping through the book, that kind of thing. There’s similar care taken over honing mechanics. You can expect a professional-quality game.
Of the three versions, I’ve only played a late beta of Microscope Union (Emily has a play report up here, and also wrote a more general review of Microscope some time ago.) It’s a welcome change of gears, although the narrative jumping-around feels a little trickier to handle in a more confined format; there’s a sense of putting a puzzle together, rather than scrawling freely on blank paper. But I’m always really interested in games that explore family connections (I really need to finish up Infinite Cadence, dammit).