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Yohann Delalande
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Microscope, "a fractal role-playing game of epic histories" designed by Ben Robbins and published in 2011 by Lame Mage Productions is a GM-less and diceless RPG in which the players create worlds, settings, events and scenes on an timeline that is not bound by the chronological constraints of plot developments.

In this game, 2 to 4 players will either make decisions that conflict with the other players or collaborate during the role-played scenes with this constant rule in mind: everyone know how things will end before they even start.

Dice and character sheets won’t be needed for this game, only a good pile of blank flash cards and a good dose of willingness to play pro-actively.

Why did I get this game?

Microscope is a brilliant Indie RPG that received a lot of high praise and coverage here on RPG Geek since its release in 2011 with regular Play by Forum games and more notably by being nominated twice for the Golden Geek RPG of The Year 2011 and Golden Geek RPG of The Year 2012, meaning that a copy would have ended up in my library one day or another.

But more importantly, I purchased this game as I’m in a period of my life as a RPGer when I’m trying to explore new ways of role-playing and storytelling, but also to challenge my GM self in both being a more imaginative world builder and by improving my skills at coordinating entertaining RPG sessions in which everyone is to eventually game-master parts of a game and utterly enjoy this.

So, what’s in the book?

Microscope first struck me as not being a very thick book. Everything is concentrated in an uncluttered 80-page long book. Everything looks minimalistic in this book: no pictures except for examples of cards layout and each section of the book can be easily be identified on the book edge. It gives a feeling of efficiency over being pleasing to the eye, and it’s quite a refreshing thing actually.

Starting a New Game

The 1st chapter of this book explains how to set up the “big picture”: the players will divide their history timeline into ‘periods’ and will decide straight on how it all begins and how it all ends, and then summarily report everything onto flashcards with either a light circle or a filled dark one to indicate the tone of each period - light: positive, dark: definitely grim. This setup phase will also see the players define a “palette”, a list of elements which will have to be added to the history or which will be completely banned from the game.

Playing the Game

Now it is time to go deeper into our history. At each turn of the table, a player will be ‘the lens’ and will decide on which part of the history they will “focus”, and each player can decide to create a Period, en Event or a Scene onto which a light or dark circle will be put.

● The “Periods”, the largest units of the history, define the main story arcs and may easily encompass big brackets of time, like decades or millennia.

● The “Events” are more specific storylines like a famous battle or the birth of a pivotal character.

● The “Scenes” are the smallest units of the history and this is where the players will have the opportunity to do some actual roleplay.

A very important aspect in this game is also addressed in this chapter: although all the players stand equal in front of the history, as there is no GM, Microscope isn’t exactly a collaborative RPG.

During their turn, each player will have to decide what to plot to implement individually and independently. The others are forbidden to influence the decision in any way, the rationale behind this decision being to avoid two things: a control of the fiction the table is creating as a “committee” would inevitably come up with a less suspenseful, too stereotyped kind of story than if the players are building up upon each other by making decisions the others don’t have to like but will have to abide to.

The second thing is also to have everyone participate equally and avoid the usual RPG table synergy made up of both dominant and passive players. Here on the contrary, all the players have to take a pro-active stance in this world-building scheme.

Discussion and Advice

This chapter is particularly interesting as it teaches the owners of the book to teach the game to their fellow players. It also provides many insightful comments on how to deal with world-building and also what to avoid, such as having too many players at the table or creating stories about time travel.

Afterword

This last part reminds us of the importance of “independence and interdependence”, the fact that even though we are playing to together, each player is the only and final decider of their choices, a situation that will always create story plots that go against what another player created without ever removing or changing what has already been established, but from which interesting twists can be built.

So?

In my knowledge, there is no RPG such as Microscope, which is absolutely innovating in its approach of roleplaying games. And unlike other GM-less games, here we don’t discuss to make a decision that may never be come back to and be changed. There are no dice rolls either, as the only randomizer here is the other players’ imagination.

The other aspect I definitely like in this game is the unchronological "fractal" dimension that enables the players to dwell on any plots the players want to focus without being compelled to follow a linear progression. This truly represents of inspiration and creation as no choice may be considered ‘wrong’ or ‘illogical.’

This is why I now consider Microscope as the ultimate RPG tool for players and GMs alike who could need to both build a world for whatever their need is but who could also need to be taught how to be either more pro-active and stop resting on the other players’ decisions or less dominant and give more room to more timid, less self-confidant players.

Microscope does deserve all the praise it has gathered and it definitely belongs to these great Indie roleplaying games that are aimed at providing countless hours of imaginary awesomeness with a minimum page number to all the RPGers who would like to challenge their own creativity while building on their friends’ imagination.

Note: This is my 5th entry in the 2013 Iron Reviewer series.
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Jorik
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Nice review. microscope deserves more attention.

Nice picture you've used there, I vaguely recognize it cool
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Yohann Delalande
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Thanks for the picture by the way Jorik, it perfectly illustrates the card part of the game.
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Shadow Hexagram wrote:
Thanks for the picture by the way Jorik, it perfectly illustrates the card part of the game.

I just snapped some with my phone while playing but they do illustrate nicely what the game looks like IRL

the most important bit about the cards is:
get someone who's handwriting everyone can read (not me )

and another thing: number the cards so you can always look back at how the timeline developed.
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Yohann Delalande
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HerrJork wrote:
Shadow Hexagram wrote:
Thanks for the picture by the way Jorik, it perfectly illustrates the card part of the game.

I just snapped some with my phone while playing but they do illustrate nicely what the game looks like IRL

the most important bit about the cards is:
get someone who's handwriting everyone can read (not me )

and another thing: number the cards so you can always look back at how the timeline developed.


Great advice indeed! Thanks Jorik. We may play a game via PbVoIP on G+ Hangout this Friday so the numbering of cards is definitely something I'll implement.
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Not a system I'm familiar with, but one I will be investigating thanks to the review. It sounds very intriguing indeed. Thanks Yohann!
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