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Thoughts on Microscope and Grand Storytelling/Collaborative World Design

So just finished reading Ben Robbins Microscope . Very clever design. I’d call it a ‘Grand Storytelling’ game in the vein of Aria’s Interactive History. It has two major phases, the setup phase in which everything is collaborative and focused on consensus building, and the play phase, which calls upon each player to author era’s, periods and scenes of their own, with the requirement that it be of the players own invention, and each player is required to contribute on their turn.

Working from a ‘big picture’ which is a sketch of the world concept. (e.g. Mankind leaves the sick Earth behind and spreads out to the stars’)
You lay out the sweep of time as various eras, Book ending them with a starting and ending point as presented in the world concept, and a tone (light or dark in the base game.) The final concern of the setup phase is creating the ‘palette’ These elements which can be either a ‘yes’, for concepts you want to be expressly included as options, or the no column, for ‘appropriate’ concepts you expressly don’t want included. In this way it is a bit like Tenets in Universalis. Though with a much more cursory treatment.

From this setup, you begin authoring ‘history’, with the option to go backward and forward in time, around events or scenes, with the caveat that ‘history is immutable’, in that once added to the game by a player, periods/events/scenes are inviolate, they happened.

The game makes use of a clever note-card based play system, in which you fill out note cards, stacking them vertically from left to right for your timeline of era’s, and events stacked horizontally beneath them, with scenes being stacked underneath these events. Thus, your timeline becomes the ‘board’, essentially.

During a round of play, one player becomes the ‘lens’ (clear ether chum!), who provides the focus, a target event/person, etc. that the other players riff on with their authoring. Each contribution must be related to the current focus, not necessarily ‘contiguous’ to it in the timeline.

One major Point is the requirement that each player MUST provide their own contribution, other players can only ask for clarifications, not make suggestions/coach the other player. This ensures that each player is represented in the product of the group’s collaboration, and it makes for more engaging game play, less one player end up dominating the proceedings. (Upon thinking about it, this is a VERY Good idea, and something I will have to stress in the design of O:COTEC’s design, Just like the Mobile Infantry, everybody fights, and no gets left behind!)

There is a push mechanic that allows other players more impact in scene play. Overall it is an ingenious design, and has been well-polished through actual play. When you finish, you end up with a physical timeline of periods/events/scenes and rich bits of people, places and events within the ‘very loosely defined’ game world.

Microscope’s game play provides an excellent tool for generating broad details, drawn from all the players involved in the game. The play-mechanics offer several options for genericizing it for collaborative design.

By replacing it’s scene play mechanism by something along the lines of Aria’s Interactive history tests, it would provide a great scale of play. (This would make great second step from the initial world-building of the game.) (Indeed, putting your bookends as major breakpoints for your ‘campaign’ focus is a great way to immerse players in the setting after world creation.

Speaking of which, I recently read Diaspora and Other Worlds, which I’ll be commenting on soon. But Adding a Microscope like Interactive history play layer to complement the collaborative world-building play layer sounds pretty juicy.

In summary, I give Microscope a big thumbs up, it show’s how not all RPG’s have to heavily character focused story play, but can be world-focused grand storytelling as well, which can be just as rewarding and fun.

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