I’ve mentioned before that I’m an avid player of role playing games: games that have you take on the role of some character you create as you go off to do…something. I know that doesn’t seem very specific, but honestly, it’s impossible to be more specific given the vast array of RPGs on the market nowadays.
Dungeons and Dragons is obviously a classic, but there are a nearly limitless number of combinations out there for whatever you might want to do. Want to be an orc in the distant future who can wield cyber weapons? Go play Shadowrun. What about an investigator in Elizabethan times on the hunt for a deadly group of cultists with a secret that could change the fate of the world forever? Call of Cthulhu has your back. Want a game that just gives you the most basic essentials and lets you put in all the variables? GURPS allows you to do literally anything you can come up with and is pretty easy to use. When you think about it, the only thing a RPG can’t do is allow you to not role play a character in the first place.
Filling in the gaps
But you know, the more I think about it, the more that actually seems to be a hole in the genre. What can people who want to delve into these new worlds and explore them without having to get into character really do? Sure, you can be the game master, but that just means that other players making the decisions will force you to adjust, and you can’t even really tell a true story because it has to be left open for player interaction and decision making. If anything, being a game master is laying out the foundations of a story such that a truly terrific story can be told, but he is not a storyteller by himself. So what is there for the storytellers to do? Well, I’m glad you asked, because now I can talk about Microscope, an indie RPG developed by Lame Mage Productions that is worth every ounce of your time and money.
Microscope describes itself as “a fractal role playing game of epic histories”, and should also add, “that is absolutely frickin’ insane”. In this game, you and a few friends (their recommendation of 3-4 is totally on point, but 2-5 will work just fine. I suppose one could play entirely on one’s own, but at that point, you’re more brainstorming for a book than actually playing a game) determine a broad scope of history that you’d like to examine, and then actually go through and examine it. These broad scopes can be anything, real or fictional, that you all feel like delving into. One game could have you looking at the rise and fall of the city of Ravnica and the guild system contained within. Another could look at the development of the Earth’s hyperspace capabilities and the race to contact alien life. And a third could center around an alternate version of the Dark Ages in which the world actually became dark and humans were forced to adapt to a world without sunlight. As long as this scope lasts a few hundred years, you’ll have more than enough history to play around with.
Once you’ve gotten your scope of history that you’d like to examine, it’s time to break that down into workable chunks. Before the game even begins, players will come up with the first and last period of the game. Each period should take at least a few decades, so these are once again larger gaps of time that will be further broken down later. One of the things I love most about this game, though, is the notion that you already know the general gist of what’s going to happen. Let’s look at that middle example of the development of Earth’s hyperspace capabilities. The first period would be the initial space race during the Cold War between Russia and the U.S., and the last period would be the first contact of alien life forms. Since this is an analysis of history within the context of the game, we already know the outcomes of each of these periods. Clearly, the Russians dominated the space race and used it to propel the Soviet bloc forward, and in the end, it was somehow a secret team of scientists from Madagascar that discovered the Zetoxian race hidden galaxies away from our relatively puny planet. At first, the idea of knowing everything that’s going to happen takes away from the mystery of it all, but it’s not long before you realize that each of those two ideas I just threw out there brings with it an entirely new series of questions just waiting to be explored. And oh boy, will we explore them!
Diving into history
Each period is given a tone (light/dark), giving an overall idea of what the universe is going through at that point. It doesn’t mean everything going on in that period is great or terrible, just that the overall effect has a tendency towards some particular direction. From there, each period is broken down into smaller time periods called events, which can cover a range of times, but usually carry some significant weight with them. For example, a potential event within that final period is the massive grant given to Madagascar for interstellar travel by the African Coalition after their own space program collapsed. The world gains as much life and vibrancy as you put into it with your description of these events to the other players. After all, there’s a very big difference between the African Coalition turning to Madagascar as their last real hope and the African Coalition being blackmailed into such an action.
Furthermore, these events can themselves be broken down into individual scenes. Maybe the head of the African Coalition got a call from a kidnapper saying he’d never see his son again if he didn’t send Madagascar a large sum of grant money. Maybe he’s brothers with the President of Madagascar and the whole thing was settled over a family dinner. The possibilities are endless, and only by delving further into what we already know can we uncover a hidden truth that we had no idea was there to begin with when we started. These are the moments that make this game so dang fun.
Of course, those starting two periods aren’t the only periods worth delving into. Players will take turns naming new periods, and placing new events within them, thus focusing or broadening the current focus of the game. Everything I just mentioned was merely a small fraction of the history you will cover in a full game, and that one event alone probably has enough depth and life that, if further developed, could provide the means for a standard role playing game in its own right. And you do this over and over again until you’ve got hundreds of notecards spanning hundreds or thousands of years of a rich, vibrant history that you had no idea existed before you sat down to the table that day.
If you’re a writer, world builder, or someone who simple likes delving into whole new worlds and asking “what if” and “why”, you’re going to love this game. This is an RPG that satiates the curiosity in ways nothing else I’ve ever played truly has. Oh, and you can get it today as a PDF for $9.99. So what are you waiting for? Get behind the Microscope and develop some histories!