Microscope Under the Microscope

One of the things that enraged me about Ron Edwards’ awful brain damage thing is that Ron wheeled out his horrible opinions on how White Wolf games warp developing minds in the process of making a point which was actually fairly reasonable, but which got derailed by the impossibly crass way he expressed it and the terrible ideas he wheeled out in the process of being crass.

That point is one I’ve also wheeled out a lot in discussion of artsy narrative-y indie RPGs: that many such games would benefit from walking away from the conventions of tabletop RPGs altogether. For instance, some games seem to retain ideas like players having a particular identification and control over a particular character, or particular bits of the scenario being under particular people’s authority, when that just doesn’t serve them well.

Such is not the case with Microscope, which marches into novel territory so firmly that I’d almost hesitate to call it a role-playing game. It sort of is, since it’s a game in which role-playing can take place and is explicitly supported as part of the process, but at the same time it’s a game where that is just one aspect of play and an awful lot can happen without any role-identification occurring whatsoever.

Microscope by Ben Robbins is a game in which the participants construct a history: you pick a broad concept for your history which can take in great stonking expanses of time, like “The rise and fall of a great empire” or “the terraforming and colonisation of an alien world”, pick a definitive start and end point for your history (defining the extremes of the timeline), and then the process of play sees people taking it in turns to add elaborations to the timeline. Different categories of addition have differing levels of specificity; the most specific are “Scenes”, where the role-playing takes place, which are little vignettes that are intended to answer a specific question set by the person proposing the scene and which wrap up as soon as the players decide that the question has been answered. (If people particularly want to keep playing with the same characters and find out what happens next, you can just have the next person make a Scene to answer a question resolved immediately afterwards.)

The genius of the game is that there is absolutely no requirement to work in chronological order – you can jump around the timeline however you like, and thus once something has been added to the history it is always accessible and available to play with, because even if someone throws in an event that causes it to be destroyed you can still go back and add more stuff that happened with that thing before it met its end. The knock-on effect of this, of course, is that everyone is freed up to do precisely what they want with the history: there’s no need to be precious with it or handle someone’s contributions with kid gloves because whilst you can kill their favourite character, you can’t make that character never have existed in the first place.

Indeed, the text of the book strongly advises that people don’t collaborate on their contributions and cook them up by committee or vote or whatever, but simply add what they want to add – you can clarify stuff if people are confused about it or request more detail, but you are not meant to open your contributions up for debate or try to shoot down other people’s additions. The intention of this to avoid the situation where the history comes off as a bland product produced by committee – yes, creating it is a group process, but if it works as designed it works more like a bunch of individuals with their distinctive personal styles putting their unmistakable fingerprints all over the history rather than everyone’s bits being smoothed over into bland homogeneity.

In order to support this, all features of the timeline are fully available for anyone to tamper with – nothing is proprietary in the game except when you are playing a Scene, in which case the main character you are portraying is yours for as long as the Scene lasts. An idea which I don’t think the book enunciates but seems interesting to me is that you could have the same character being played by different people in different Scenes, which can allow for a very different take on the character in question. And if it seems like an inconsistency, that isn’t actually a problem – as the book notes, any time you look at the history and think there’s an inconsistency that’s a great opportunity to posit a Scene whose question provides an answer to the riddle in question.

The book advocates the use of index cards in recording the individual bits of the history, and explains how to stack them up when you are done so you can reconstruct your history at a later point, which makes this an indie game far better suited to long-term play than many others of my acquaintance. Indeed, I can see how running a Microscope campaign to make a unique history can become a hobby in itself, as well as an interesting adjunct to traditional RPG play. You could use Microscope to cook up the backstory for your next Dungeons & Dragons setting, for instance, or if you realise that a particular point in the history would be really interesting to run an RPG in that offers a bit more depth and mechanical crunch than the very freeform, light, and brief setup offered by the Scenes, you could nominate someone to GM a campaign using whichever conventional RPG system seems most appropriate to the group.

If you like, what makes a traditional RPG a traditional RPG and a truly innovative storygame a truly innovative storygame is that they have distinct and different structures of play. Just as many “fantasy heartbreakers” take the basic system setup of Dungeons & Drsgons and slip in maybe one or two genuinely interesting innovations that the whole game should have just been built around from scratch, there’s a bunch of “indie RPG heartbreakers” out there where they take the traditional structure of play as established by Dungeons & Dragons and maybe do a few interesting things with it, but what they do differently either gets overwhelmed by what they do the same or isn’t really compatible with it and ends up making the whole process a bit awkward, and they’d be better off sitting back and rebuilding the structure of play from scratch to support their basic idea. This, of course, is precisely what Ron Edwards was advocating, though it’s highly debatable as to whether Ron ever actually succeeded at it himself. (Perhaps rather than harping on about the mote damaging other people’s brains, Ron would have been better off working on the beam in his own.)

So, the bottom line is this: Microscope succeeds because it doesn’t simply take an existing structure of play and try to do something a bit experimental and avant-garde with it; it instead defines an entirely new structure of play, and provides substantial and detailed thoughts on how to make that structure of play work and what ideas everyone needs to buy into in order to make it work and how to communicate all that both to the person reading the rulebook and to participants who haven’t read the rulebook. (There’s a section specifically dedicated to providing a method of teaching Microscope to others to ensure that the important conventions of play, like boldly doing your own thing and not turning it in to a collaborative committee process, are properly explained.) I think it’s an incredibly important release, and I hope to see more people exploring the possibilities of this exciting new structure of play it offers.

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One thought on “Microscope Under the Microscope

  1. Pingback: A Microscopic Supplement « Refereeing and Reflection

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