Tuesday, March 01, 2011


Ben Robbins, the originator of the much beloved West Marches sandbox concept, has written an awesome new game that is (at least in part) a role-playing game. An alternate and perhaps better classification is that it is a collaborative world-building game that can fractally generate a setting over vast swaths of history.

Here's the product summary:
What is Microscope?
Humanity spreads to the stars and forges a galactic civilization...
Fledgling nations arise from the ruins of the empire...
An ancient line of dragon-kings dies out as magic fades from the realm...
These are all examples of Microscope games. Want to explore an epic history of your own creation, hundreds or thousands of years long, all in an afternoon? That's Microscope.
You won't play the game in chronological order. You can defy the limits of time and space, jumping backward or forward to explore the parts of the history that interest you. Want to leap a thousand years into the future and see how an institution shaped society? Want to jump back to the childhood of the king you just saw assassinated and find out what made him such a hated ruler? That’s normal in Microscope.
You have vast power to create... and to destroy. Build beautiful, tranquil jewels of civilization and then consume them with nuclear fire. Zoom out to watch the majestic tide of history wash across empires, then zoom in and explore the lives of the people who endured it.
Mock chronological order.
Defy time and space.
Build worlds and destroy them.
A role-playing game for two to four players. No GM. No prep.
As a compulsive world-builder, I read that description (and a bunch of design posts at Ars Ludi) and immediately bought the PDF.  Microscope seems to be a distant cousin to Greg Christopher's Statecraft, albeit one with a very different perception of time and space (and storytelling, for that matter). This is what I very much wanted Aria: The Canticle of the Monomyth to be.

Without going into a full-fledged review, I would like to say that I think game is very well done and has tremendous potential for some very interesting play. More importantly, it looks like it would be a great tool for developing a shared campaign world. My only experience with collaborative world-building thus far has been when Professor Pope and Cthulhu's Librarian and I tried to come up with something for the great WotC setting search (the one that ultimately yielded Eberron). If we had had this game back then, I think our proposal would have bene much stronger. It also might have yielded a setting that we would have used in play.

Other thoughts:
  • It might be possible (and potentially awesome) to take this game and use a more traditional gaming system for individual scenes. A system that can support near-instantaneous character generation (Risus, Over the Edge, old school D&D, Old School Hack) is a great candidate for an alternate scene resolution mechanic, where the lens player becomes a temporary GM. Of course, it goes without saying that any rules system could be used to run games set in the world that is created using this game.
  • Even without rounding up other players, the game provides an interesting framework for world design that could guide a solo world-builder (with or without the help of the Mythic GME).
  • Though it is specifically warned against in the rules, this is the first game that had given me an inkling of how to run an Immortals game (i.e. a flashback-heavy game of Highlanders, vampires, and assorted demigods). I've been chewing on that idea for well over a decade.
  • This game would be perfect for extrapolating alternate histories.
  • It would cool to use Microscope for a game based on familial legacies. The relationships between the characters of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon immediately comes to mind.
  • I can totally see using this to create the history of a very particular place over the ages...like a megadungeon! (See How to Host a Dungeon).


C'nor (Outermost_Toe) said...

Someone should combine those examples.

GeneD said...

I'd certainly be interested in seeing how well Microscope could be applied to an immortals-style campaign, which we discussed ages ago. As a fan of world-building, flashbacks, and collaborative realm play, this is worth checking out!

Porky said...

I'd love to see the tools that make it possible, but even being told they might exist is electrifying. Better too, in the sense that it an independent attempt could produce new. What a concept though.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this looks insanely cool. The thing I love about GMing is building worlds. The problem I have with GMing is that I don't much like running game sessions (it's probably no accident that my best Buffy sessions have been the ones where I mostly just played NPCs, and Drew of course, and let the players worry about advancing the plot).

This, however, if it lives up to it's billing, sounds like all the cool parts of running a game without the annoyances of actually having to run a game.


Trey said...

Hmmm...I'm not sure how this is realized, but you've got me interested in it.

Risus Monkey said...

@C'nor: No doubt somebody has or will. :)

@Gene: Yeah, I distinctly remember discussing the immortals concept with you back in the 90's. I think this game would a good way to do it.

@Porky & Trey: It's a surprisingly simple concept involving the use of index cards to represent periods (eras), events, and scenes arranged in chronological order as you go (but not created in chronological order). The meat of it is how turns are structured and how the collaboration is organized. Nothing is designed by committee and there are neat little ways that you can build off of existing creations. Scene resolution has a nice little dice-less system as well.

@Greg: I'm down for playing it, either in person or PbEM. I think it would be a hoot. Be nice when we can't otherwise assemble a full group.