Monday, July 18, 2011


I was in Seattle last weekend for Go Play Northwest, an indie tabletop RPG convention. It was a great time and I appreciate the friends that encouraged me to go. The focus is on small RPGs with unusual mechanics, aesthetics or settings, almost always created by an individual author or small team instead a big organization like Wizards of the Coast or White Wolf. It's a scene resemblant to independent digital games in a lot of ways.

I think I've mentioned this before, but I think all digital game designers should spend time with tabletop games, both RPGs and European style board games. There's a lot to learn from them about balance, providing meaningful decisions, the marriage of theme and mechanics, etc (see my frothing adoration of the Battlestar Galactica board game, which has only increased since I finally started watching the show). So I went to GPNW as much to look for interesting designs as simply to enjoy the games.

And pleasing to say, I was not disappointed. Nearly everything I played had some interesting feature, even if the game wasn't something I'd want to play on a regular basis. But the most interesting "game" I played was Microscope by Ben Robbins (who was actually at GPNW). More akin to an improv game than most tabletop or digital games, Microscope is a collaborative world-building game. I'll try to provide a quick overview, but if it's muddling, the important thing is: the game is awesome, play it.

The players do not control any particular character or group. Rather, the game begins by selecting a very broad theme, e.g. "Howard-esque low fantasy" or "hard, near future sci-fi." After that, they establish two events that begin and end of some portion of a great historical timeline. Those bookend events can literally be anything appropriately grand, from "The Rise of the Southern Empire : The Fall of the Southern Empire" to "Mankind Develops Spaceflight : Alpha Centauri Becomes Dominant Human World." These events are written on index cards and laid on the table. The players decide whether the bookend events are considered good or bad by those looking back upon history. This decision is signified by a black or white circle on that index card. The last step is to select Adds and Bans. The players, in turn, add or prohibit specific elements given the theme. Once the players are satisfied, play begins.

Proceeding in turn, each player can add a Period, Event or Scene to the timeline. Similar to the above, these are all labeled as good or back in the perspective of history. Periods are long, distinct eras, like the Renaissance in western history. Events occur within a Period and would be analogous to, say, the painting of the Sistine Chapel. Scenes involve actual characters during some event, like Michangelo speaking with the Pope. Scenes are defined by a Question and the Answer is either dictated by the player who created it or is role-played by all the characters until an Answer is reached. It's more complicated than that, but that's the gist.

The only additional bit of structure is each round, one player is the Lens and they define a Focus. The Focus is a broad theme for the next set of turns. It could be a person, place, trend, etc. It can be very general, but each new Period, Event or Scene must be at least tangentially related to the Focus.

That's basically it. There is no failure or set end conditions. Play continues for as long as the players wish, but two or threw hours can easily go by without dragging at all. Microscope provides just enough structure for successful collaboration and encouraging creativity, much like a good improv game. It has a very similar feeling of building upon others' ideas while still going to unexpected but excellent places.

The closest analog I could think of is the collaborative building that takes place in multiplayer Minecraft. Although the players are literally building structures, it can similarly have that very real sense of working together while still being surprised by your partners' contributions.

With "creation as gameplay" being the underpinning of some of the most successful games of all time (SimCity, The Sims, Minecraft), it seems like the notion of shared creation is ripe to be more broadly explored. Although, in keeping with the maxim of The Internet Ruins Everything, the face-to-face nature of Microscope does prevents griefing and similar derelict anonymous Internet asshole behaviours. Still, given how astonishingly satisfying just a single session of Microscope was, it feels like there are real opportunities to explore here. A digital game with similarities would allow for more persistence and easier sharing compared to the analog tabletop version, and that's just to scratching the surface.

The other thing that occurred to me was that Microscope would be a brilliant tool for world-building. Anyone creating a fictional world with a significant history, be it for a game or media, would served by considering Microscope instead of purely freeform brainstorming. I'd wager the results will take you places you'd never expect, in a good way. Even if it's just a throw-away world, it would still be great exercise for thinking in terms of connections rather than despirate events.

I can't recommended Microscope and similar indie RPGs enough (this seems like a good place to start). From a game design perspective they're often very interesting and usually, they're quite fun. And if that ain't a win-win situation, I don't know what is.

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Blogger JPLC said...

This is really reminding me of role playing forums (as in, forums in which people role play, not forums about RPGs or anything). Both basically are collaboratively making a story as it happens. Microscope sounds more concerned with the large scale rather than the small scale, though.

Considering I frequented role playing forums in my youth, this intrigues me. I actually imagine that a digital version may not look that different from a role playing thread.

July 18, 2011 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Matt said...

Again I am reminded of shared authorship in games. This time, it's not just designer-to-player; it's player-to-player.

Very cool idea.

July 18, 2011 at 5:15 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@JPLC Sounds similar, yeah. But the real why Microscope seems to work so bloody well is it's just structured enough to keep ideas flowing. The taking of turns keeps anyone from dominating and the constraints provide just enough grist for the mill.

@Matador It is, check it out if you can!

July 19, 2011 at 10:20 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

This reminds me of a game called Shock by Joshua A.C. Newman. The game starts by collectively creating a world with different themes and rules. I won't get into the depths of the mechanics after the world is created, but most of us that played said that the world creation was our favorite part! I'll definitely give this a try.

July 20, 2011 at 9:45 PM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Alli893 Oh interesting, I hadn't heard of that. I'll have to check it out, thanks =)

July 22, 2011 at 9:16 AM  
Blogger Adam Bunnell said...

This game sounds great. I love it when you make indie RPG recommendations on here. My friends and I have been playing Lady Blackbird all summer (per your recommendation) and it's the most fun we've had with a tabletop RPG in years!

Still working on buying that BSG board game. Some day...

July 23, 2011 at 10:13 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@abunnell Glad you all are liking it! There's definitely a whole host of awesome indie RPGs out there. We're been rotating through them pretty regularly, so I'm sure more recommendations will be dropped from time to time =)

July 23, 2011 at 10:50 AM  

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