Monday, May 19, 2014

Story Games - Microscope

    A divergence from the normal topic of writing and delving into a bit of gaming.

    I got a chance to play a story-telling game called Microscope on Sunday. I've heard about it and read the rules, so I had an idea what I was getting into and had a blast. The basic premise is that 2-4 players are exploring a period of history that they've created. It can be modern, fantasy, sci-fi, or whatever you happen to feel like. You make the "bookends" of the timeline and then each person makes either a period or event. The only restriction is that events have to go under a period and the bookends are valid periods. All you need are some note cards [3x5 work well], a writing instrument, and a table to lay everything out on.

    Play is pretty simple. Each person will take turns making periods, events, and scenes in the game. Periods are place in the timeline, events are placed under a period, and scenes go under an event. I should note that each period/event/scene is light or dark, indicating the general tone. You may have a dark themed period, but have light events and scenes underneath or vice-versa. The first person in the round is called the lens and sets the focus or topic that will be explored during the round. They also have an option to place two items on the boards such as a period + event or an event + scene. They may just make a scene and leave it at that. Play continues clockwise with the other players placing one period/event/scene. At the end, the lens get the option to go again with the same choices as the start. After the lens is done, the person on the right makes a legacy, which is a theme about the previous round of play, then makes an event or scene about it. The lens then shifts to the left and play continues.

    While this is a story telling game, there's a role-play mechanic in terms of the scenes. Be default, the person creating the scene creates a question that needs to be answered during it. Such as - Does King Rodrick escape the assassin? The player designates mandatory roles [The king, the assassin], plus any other ones that are deemed important. He may also restrict roles if they aren't appropriate. Starting on the right, players choose either a mandatory character or makes one up that's in the scene and have an investment on what's happening. The cavaet is that the mandatory characters must be played, so those spots must be taken by the last players as needed. Play then commences until the question is answered. This may leave other things unresolved, but that's an opportunity for more scenes.

    The beauty of the system is that you can jump back and forth along the timeline to explore whatever interest you as long as you stick to whatever the focus of the round is. You cannot contradict what's been established already, so if the town's been destroyed in a period, you can't visit it in a future period. But you can go back to before the destruction and explore events or scenes in the town.

    This is a cooperative game and there's some mechanics for trying to change how a scene happens and players are encouraged to ask questions to clarify events or periods. Outcomes are rarely dictated and everything is fair game. An example is the death of the warlord which was the starting period of the timeline in the game we played. One player setup a situation surrounding the the death of the king and his heir. Another player added a scene about it which took it in a different direction that the 1st player didn't expect or plan. Not to say that it's bad, but there's no "ownership" once something is on the board. You may create the great city of the Gods and another player may nuke it from orbit. Someone could be a jerk and spoil another player's fun, but hopefully that's not the case.

    One of the players pointed out this is a good way to create a history for an RPG if you were so inclined or a shared world for writing between friends. I'm looking forward to playing it again. As a note, we had 4 players and while the first round drug a bit, once we got familiar with the game, things sped up. In the four hours of play, we managed to get three rounds done. I have the cards and, if time permits, post the timeline in its full glory. The author of Microscope has put out another game called Kingdom. This one focuses on a single community or group. I've not played it, but hope to do so in the near future.

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