Let’s skip over the question of whether Microscope counts as a “roleplaying game”, so-argued because players assume the perspective of detached observers, and only rarely historical participants. Whatever your definition of “RPG”, world building has always been a part of it, and collaborative world building the very best way to engender mutual investment in a setting. Given that is Microscope’s raison d’être, it’s no surprise it does this extremely well. There’s a reason this has become the go-to setting generator for “proper RPGs”.
It would be a disservice, though, not to celebrate Microscope as a one-off game in its own right. It’s remarkable to see how the disparate ideas of multiple players get weaved together to tell a complex and layered chronology. Microscope has two main tools for achieving this. The first is a telescopic approach to history, where one player can create a period, another player an event within it, and a third a single scene to explore it even further. Each builds on their fellow player’s offering with successive iteration, turning one person’s contribution into a shared creation. The second is non-sequential storytelling – players get to jump forward and backwards through time at will, giddily destroying whatever they want, without risk of removing something others weren’t finished playing with. No-one’s invention is ever invalidated.
Microscope works for any kind of genre setting, and anything a mad god could imagine can happen. Consequently the biggest problem when playing is analysis paralysis. To prevent vocal individuals running roughshod over others, you are expressly forbidden from pitching ideas to active players, which can mean long decision times for those who are less confident. Depending on your patience, this can make for an enjoyably leisurely pace, or interminable social awkwardness. Scenes are the worst example of this: given players devise the framing, location, and cast of characters from scratch, even set-up can be a significant time sink. Some people I’ve played with prefer to ditch the in-character bits entirely, instead determining scene outcomes exclusively by dictation.
Perhaps my favourite things about Microscope is the timeline itself – a visual representation of the history established so far. It’s very handy reference in play, but mostly I like having something to take away afterwards. Some gamers keep their character sheets as a memento of an RPG enjoyed. I prefer taking home an entire civilisation.
(I never review a game I haven’t played or run. Check out https://michaelduxbury.com/category/reviews/ for more RPG reviews.)