Sunday, October 14, 2012

Microscope RPG: Review and Actual Play

This last Friday at Magpie we changed things up for the first time in quite a few weeks, and instead of Warhammer Fantasy we played a new indie RPG called Microscope.  Josh couldn't make it, so it was just me, John, Armaghn, and Emily.  This apparently worked out well because the game is meant to be played with 2-4 players (which btw is my only complaint so far, because that is just a little too limited for an RPG in my opinion).  This is an interesting game that is very very indie in style and execution.  The game is both GM-less and dice-less.  It is heavily narrative in play, with the actual roleplaying in it being done via either one person narrating or the group dividing up roles and playing out a scene in total storytelling mode.

As you play the game you are building a world and a timeline and telling stories all along it.  Here is how things basically work.  You start off by deciding on a theme for the game (We decided to do:  Magic re-enters the world as mankind leaves it).  The next step is to decide on the beginning and ending of the timeline you are going to explore with the game (We started with Magic reappears as the Mayan calendar ends, and the end was Mankind joins the Galactic Republic).  Then you define a "palette" for the game, which is a list of stuff that definitely will be allowed in and stuff that will definitely NOT be allowed (I won't list all the stuff we came up with here, but we did stuff like Yes to Orcs and Gods, and No to Elves and Steampunk).  The final part of the "setup" portion of the game has everyone going around the table adding in new "periods" (defining large periods of time) and "events" (specific events within a given period).  There was some sort of system for how many of these you do before you dive in to the play portion, but I can not remember what it was.

At this point you have a bit of a framework put together and you dive into the action.  One person starts as the active player and chooses a focus.  The focus will define and shape the current go around the table and all the stuff that gets added.  For instance in ours we had a period where Mankind meets alien-kind.  John was the first active player so he chose to focus on First Contact initially.  Therefore all of the stuff that the rest of us added had to deal with that subject either directly or tangentially.  We could add periods, events, or a new thing called "scenes", which are exactly what they sound like and are were the actual roleplaying takes place, as long as they dealt with the focus.  You go around the table with each person adding an element and then once it comes back to the active player, who has one more chance to add something, the active player title will pass to the next person and the pick a new focus.  Wash, rinse, repeat.  Oh, something I just remembered is that the active player can add two elements as long as they are nested, i.e. a period and an event, or an event and a scene.

To be even more scatterbrained I should point out that when you are adding periods and events to the timeline you also will be defining an overall tone for them, either bright or dark.  Might have mentioned that earlier.  For scenes you do this as well, but there are also some more steps beyond just writing out a description and picking the tone.  You start by asking a question that you want to answer via the roleplay of the scene.  Then you set the scene, where are you at and are there any limits.  Next up each person chooses a character to play, starting with the player to the right of the person who defined the scene.  Then just dive right in, play the characters, enjoy the scene, and explore the question until it is answered.  As soon as it is you stop and move on.

That seems to be pretty much it.  There are probably some more elements to the whole thing, but that is all we encountered as we played.  You keep choosing new foci and adding periods, events, and scenes until you feel that you've explored the setting and the game enough.  There is no chronological order enforced, you can jump back and forth in the timeline.  There are no limits on how many elements you can add under a given higher tier, you can explore a single period for the whole game and neglect the rest if that is what you find interesting.

Overall I found the whole thing to be very interesting and extremely enjoyable.  I had a little bit of my usual problems that I always have in narrative games, in that I take a bit to get comfortable just jumping into character and roleplaying off the cuff, but I got over it.  That is entirely a personal issue and is in now way a problem with the game.  I absolutely LOVED the setting we came up with and will more than likely either run some future games in it or right some stories or both.  I'll give a full summary of it down below.  Everything was easy to comprehend and to execute.  The game flowed well, with only a minor hang up here and there caused by someone having a little trouble thinking up an idea.  I don't know if there is an ability to pass when you are having a brain fart, but that might be a nice house rule.

For the most part, whatever you say goes.  This seems kinda scary, and rife with chance for people to cock things up and "ruin" the game for you.  But I think the game can handle people's diverse visions and creative decisions quite well.  Also, this can easily be overcome by playing with good folks and not sabotaging bastards.  LOL.  There was some sort of system for pushing back against something that you do not like or agree with, but it was rather specific in execution, and I do not at all remember the details because it never came up with us.

I found some great links to other reviews and the like, including one talking about doing the game solo.  I think that would be a really interesting way to guide yourself in worldbuilding.  Here they are:

Here is all the information that I recorded in the word file, which is basically all the stuff that was written out on index cards and introduced to the game as we played.  Later when I have some more time I might type up details of the scenes, we'll see.

Overall Theme:  Magic re-enters the world as mankind leaves it

Yes List:
Insectoid Demons

No List:
Good Magic

Bookend 1:
Era:  Magic reappears as the Mayan calander ends (dark)
- Event:  A portion of humanity mutates into orks (dark)
- Event:  The first Mage Lord comes to power (dark)
- Event:  A tenth of the world population wiped out due to magic fallout (dark)
- Event:  The first trans-planet gateway is opened to Pluto (bright)
- Event:  Humans discovers the ruins of a spacecraft on the other side of the gate (bright)

Era:  The Reign of the Incarnate Ones (dark)
- Event:  The first human harnesses magic in order to ascend to godhood (bright)

Era:  Mankind meets alien kind (bright)
- Event:  The human ship Hermes discovers a damaged alien trader (dark)
- - Scene:  Why does the Captain of the Hermes fire on the alien trader? (dark)  (Set on Bridge of the Hermes) Resolution:  Captain believes that increased energy readings indicate imminent attack by the 
- - - Scene details:  Navigator, ship's Oracle, ork security officer, and communications psychic.

- Event:  News of an alien race makes it to Zeus, the leader of the incarnate ones (dark)
- - Scene:  How do the other incarnates convince Zeus to let his humans join the Republic? (bright)  (Set on the planet Olympus)  Resolution:  Ra convinces Zeus to go along with the tides of destiny and 
control it.
- - - Scene details:  Hoplite Mecha on planet (insert name) rebelling in light of discovery of beings not governed by the gods.  Ra and Hades convincing Zeus to allow humans to join with the aliens

Era:  The War of Talaran Aggression (dark) 
- Event:  Talaran strike fleet wipes out human colony in revenge (dark)
- - Scene:  Does the Olympus escape the Talaran fleet or stay to defend the colony  (Set on sensor station, Olympus ship, colony, planetary government)  Resolution:  Olympus & its fighters sacrifice 
themselves to allow some people to evacuate (bright)
- - - Scene details:  CAG of the Olympus Commander Tobias Gemini, sensor station Oracle Damalis, planetary governor , ground control Plebb Johnson

- Event:  The Oracles are wiped out by an alien virus (dark)

- Event:  Hades is killed in the invasion of Tartarus (bright)

- Event:  Aztec gods, led by Tezcatlipoca, offer their power to the Talarans in a planet-wide sacrifice (dark)

- Event:  Aliens show humans how to kill gods (bright)

Bookend 2:
Era:  Mankind joins the Galactic Republic (bright)

Focus 1:  First Contact
Focus 2:  Magic Reappears
Focus 3:  The War of Talaran Aggression


  1. There's specifically no chance for someone to pass their turn in the game. This is because one of the design goals is to prevent the usual dominant personalities in the group from dominating the game, and to force the wallflowers to participate in a more meaningful way.

    If someone is having a lot of difficulty with an idea, the key is to simplify. A simple, apparently boring idea for a period, event or scene can turn into something very interesting once the other players build on it.

  2. I really like this idea. I used something similar to start a campaign a while back. It is a great way to make sure everyone participates. I also added tokens that were used, so if they added a fact, they added a token to a bowl that became an in game bonus later.

    I would to participate in further experiments with the game. :)