For this post I’m going to take a minute to plug somebody else’s work, instead of mine or ours, and that’s the game Microscope, by Ben Robbins. Along with those guys in New York, Ben blogging about his West Marches sandbox D&D campaign was one of the original inspirations for Chris to start Red Box Vancouver, which makes him one of the reasons I play D&D today, and enjoy doing so. Considering how committed Ben is to playing and promoting the West Coast Story Games Style, this is almost ironic. Almost.
Microscope: A Fractal Role-Playing Game of Epic Histories is a game that is, much like old-school D&D, all about the setting. Unlike D&D however, players don’t discover the setting because there’s no DM to reveal it to them. This is a game where you build a setting, much like Universalis or Tony Dowler’s How to Host a Dungeon.
But the settings that you create in Microscope aren’t build around a map, they’re built around a timeline. Where things are in relation to each other isn’t so important as when. You’ve seen those epic histories plotted out for the Forgotten Realms, Dark Sun, Tékumel, Traveller, Warhammer, and like every cyberpunk game ever made—Microscope turns making those timelines into a game.
At the start of the game, the group of players decides on how this timeline will start and end, and some basic ground rules—like “no furries,” or “this is epic fantasy,” or “all guns are laser guns!” (or that’s the gist of it, the actual details are in the book). Your timeline can be sci-fi, fantasy, cyberpunk, alternate history, alien beings, or an animated cartoon if you want. You could do an alternate history of Marvel Comics even, where instead of gold, silver, and bronze ages, you have classical, psychedelic, post-Kirby, and recession eras, and the only scenes you play out are those that happen in the comics.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Once you start, everybody takes turns. On your turn, you can add a new era, somewhere in between the start and end points, or you can add an event to one of the eras (or a scene, once you have events). This event happens sometimes within that era. If you add a new event to an era that already has one or more events, you add it in wherever—or I should say whenever—you want. Before or after events that exist already, it’s all good, and there’s no veto from other players, so as long as you follow the rules established at the beginning, you can create whatever you want.
Once you have events, you can also add a scene, instead of adding a new era or event. A scene goes with a specific event, and if you declare a scene, players have to pick characters and role-play it out! This is where we “zoom in” on our timeline (Ben likes the phrase “drill down”), to pivotal moments, and play out scenes like Churchill, Stalin, and Roosevelt carving up Europe, or the botched negotiations between the Elven prince and the Dwarven ambassador that lead to centuries of war, or Captain Picard matching wits with Q. You can use scenes to find out why the uplifted orangutangs decided to live underwater, how the first demon was summoned and bound, or what finally convinced the anarchist to throw his bomb at the tsar.
It’s actually slightly more complicated than that, with stuff like a spotlight player who gets to make up more stuff, and some rules for deciding creative conflicts while role-playing scenes, but I’ve given you the basic idea. Once you’ve played for a few hours, you end up with a timeline that looks like this:
Since there’s no built-in end-game, you only stop when you feel like it. You can pack up your timeline and continue playing it next week or next month, making it even bigger and bigger. If you like this kind of co-operative world-building exercise, you’ll probably be interested in Microscope. It’s not the only game that does world-building, and it’s not the only game that does timelines (although Jackson’s Hydra isn’t published yet), but it’s the only one that does world-building timelines. And considering how well it does that, it will probably stand alone for quite some time.