I’ve been exploring quite a lot of roleplaying games recently, but Microscope is probably the most unique I’ve come across thus far.
Arguably, it isn’t even a roleplaying game, although roleplaying is part of it. The goal of the players is not to play a character but to create a fictional history, potentially spanning tens of thousands of years.
The basis of the game is a timeline with a simple beginning and ending. This could be anything. For example, the start point could be “humanity struggles to recover from the zombie apocalypse” and the end point could be “humans and AIs form the galactic federation” (fantasy and mythical settings, indeed anything, can also be used – I’ve even considered it as a tool for developing a democratic reform counterfactual as an exercise for work).
In each player’s turn, they can either establish a new period, a new event (which must take place during an established period) or a scene (which must take place during an established event). You can place your chosen period, event or scene at any point in the timeline and can thus bounce around continually. The only restriction is that you must follow the “focus” – a particular thing that one of the players chooses all the players must explore during each round.
The scenes are the most complex aspect of the rules, and the closest the game gets to traditional roleplaying. For each scene, all the players pick a role and, in the process, work together to answer a question set by the person whose turn it is. So, if the question is: “Why did Halo Jones kill Luiz Cannibal in cold blood?”, one player might play Halo Jones, another might play Luiz Cannibal, and so on. The scene ends as soon as the question has been answered. If the players want to continue that story, another player will have to choose a scene on their turn to continue it.
One thing the game designer Ben Robbins is quite emphatic about is that the players must not attempt to write a history by committee. Instead, when it is your turn you have complete autonomy. The other players are banned from making suggestions, although they can ask for clarification. The only restrictions are that new elements can’t contradict old ones, and that they must stay within the basic rules. There is a slight exception to that in that during a scene a player can “Push” for something to happen – in which case the options are discussed and the players take a vote. Aside from that, and the fact that the players must initially agree what the overall theme is to be, that is the only point in which players have to reach some level of agreement. I disagree with some of the terminology used in the rule book: far from “banning” collaboration, this is an interesting way to enforce it in a meaningful way (as opposed to having the strongest willed player dominate); it takes the improvisational dictum of “yes, and…” and turns it into a fundamental building block for the rules.
The best genre settings drip with history, yet the idea of developing one of your own has been curiously unexplored by game designers up until now. I say “curiously” but it never occurred to me that it might even be worth considering until I came across this game. Now my mind is racing with possibilities, enthused by such rich histories as Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Nikolai Dante, Warhammer 40,000 and Vampire: the Masquerade. But of course, those should only be starting points: the real genius of the game is not letting you explore established backgrounds but in creating your own by having a group of players subtly pulling in opposite directions. In short, this is another game to add to my burgeoning “must try” list.