Monday, June 3, 2024

An evening with Microscope

I heard about Microscope from Ben Robbins' interview on Justin Gary's podcast. It is a game about creating a history: the rules guide the players in the collaborative creation of the periods and events that make up a historical arc. I became intrigued, and it seemed like the kind of game one would have to play to follow a conversation about it. I borrowed a copy of the rulebook and convinced my wife and two elder sons to try it out with me.

The rulebook gives specific advice on how to introduce the game, and I appreciated being able to follow the script. Our first decision was the overall theme of the history, but we could not settle on one that we all liked. We agreed to take the first one of three that were recommended for players like us who weren't sure how to start: three nations are united as a single empire.

Our next step was to bookend history. One of my sons recommended that the end of the history should be that three nations, each on the back of a turtle, come together under one emperor. We then came up with the idea that at the beginning of history, there was one nation, on the back of the Great Mother Turtle, but she died, and the nation divided onto the backs of her three children.

As we got into the game, we created the history of three turtle-nations who lived in harmony until a blight caused scarcity of Turtle Orchids—the only food eaten by the giant turtles. The three turtle-nations separated to search for new sources, and their cultures evolved due to the different environments under which they found themselves. We never got into the details of how the turtle-nations came back together after this separation, especially not how they resolved religious differences that emerged, but we know they did, and that it was positive for them.

There were some rocky spots, as to be expected in any first play of an RPG where only one person has read the rules. The last page of the rulebook is a convenient rules summary, but Robbins has not provided this as a downloadable player aid. I feel like it would have helped the players—including me—keep some of the terminology and sequencing right. 

One scene did not go particularly well. Scenes answer particular questions in history, and this one was supposed to answer the question, "What monsters attacked Medium Turtle that caused the society to become more militaristic?" It was only our third played scene, and we jumped into it with gusto. It didn't seem to go anywhere, though, as no one roleplayed an answer that satisfied the question. At one point, I just put the kibosh on the scene, suggesting that the answer seemed to be that we didn't know. This was a little unsatisfying, but so was the scene at that point. 

I did some work afterward to better understand the rules for played scenes. The introductory advice that we followed had us start with a played scene, and that one had gone well. In re-reading that portion of the rulebook, though, I was reminded that playing the scene is a combination of narrative and dialogue. We had only been engaging in dialogue, and if I were to teach the game again, I would make sure to open a scene by using both. We also were too light with setting the stage, which is an explicit part of playing a scene: while we had established who and where we were, we had not established what we all knew and what happened prior. 

I came across two interesting resources during my post-play research. One is this rules cheat sheet created by Nicole van der Hoeven. It may be a good way to introduce someone to the game, but it's a great summary of the rules. Reading it provided a more convenient reminder about the core rules over re-reading the book itself, since the book necessarily combines rules and exposition. Seeing the topic list on van der Hoeven's site, I think I may spend some more time exploring her notes on other topics as well.

The other interesting resource I found was a recent blog post by Robbins himself. It presents alternate rules for scenes which I am sure would have given us a better experience even in our first play. Among the benefits of the revision is that it eliminates the need for "push" rules. These are the rules that allow players, during a played scene, to push back on something that someone has introduced into the world. They seemed necessary but secondary in the book, containing more details than I could hold in memory when teaching the game. They were to be deployed in reaction to play, which also meant that I did not want to review them while we were actually in the game. I am not just happy with the simplification of the scene rules, but I am also chuffed to see a designer improving a game he published over ten years ago.

In summary, I enjoyed my first play of Microscope, and I would like to play again, now having a better understanding of the rules and a handy revision thereof.  If I were teaching my game design class in Fall, I would likely bring this in as an example of an RPG. In an era where all of my students are at least aware of Dungeons & Dragons, it would be a great example of how "role-playing game" is bigger than that.

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