Microscope RPG is a tabletop roleplaying game described as “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories.”
I picked it up a really long time ago, sometime back in 2011-2012, when the only place it could be found digitally was an indie RPG store – Indie Press Revolution. You can get it now direct from Ben Robbins’ Lame Mage Productions website store, which is probably the best route.
It’s designed for collaborative storytelling – its systems elegantly make use of the human players in each game as the main randomizer for a shared narrative between that group of players.
In the last couple of years, some (probably aging) RPG enthusiasts who find themselves with neither the time nor inclination to drag a bunch of friends to sit around a table (virtual or otherwise) and talk to each other for 3-4 uninterrupted hours have developed a spin-off variant of the roleplaying hobby known as solo or solitaire roleplaying.
The great grandfather of this style of play (at least in internet time) was an unassuming little document that showed up on RPGNow/DriveThruRPG called Mythic Role Roleplaying. The paradigm shift was introduced in the set of rules that have been separated out into its own product – the Mythic Game Master Emulator.
Essentially, it split up the role of the GM – which is to answer a player’s questions as to what’s going on and whether something succeeds (taking into account dice rolls) – and delegated those duties out to a randomizer (dice and tables) and the solo player’s imagination/judgment (after taking into account dice rolls.)
It gave us the concept of an Oracle. The player asks some questions, the Oracle tells you ‘Yes’ or ‘No.”
Variants abound these days. Some systems like Mythic vary the chances of Yes or No occurring based on how likely or unlikely the player judges the likelihood to be. Some systems insert “Yes, but…” “Yes, and…” “No, but…” “No, and….” for added narrative complication.
Complex questions are answered by throwing two words together from a set of tables, serving as thematic word prompts for the player to interpret creatively based on the question’s context.
My go to resource for quick rolls is www.rpgsolo.com– a handy little website with a bunch of buttons to make dice rolls as needed.
Blend the two together, with enough time on my hands (a truly hard thing to find) and you get my first ‘serious’ solo playtest/gameplay session of Microscope RPG.
I stole some ideas off this solo play report – Under a Lens by chance. Essentially, it would be a two-player Microscope game with me and an imaginary “Random” player as simulated by a randomizer.
I discovered that I could get a little confused over whose ‘turn’ it is, so don’t expect a faithful rules-perfect recreation. You can go buy the original rules for that. Think of this as a variant that I was inventing for my own amusement
The first step of Microscope RPG is to lay out the initial setting premise.
Big Picture: Magic returns to a sci-fi space opera world.
Normally, this is a discussion among all the players playing, but since it’s just me, I went with what I felt like exploring. (Yes, I’m still on a Shadowrun bender. I just decided to kick it out to an even more extrapolated future.)
The Palette is usually where players in the group discuss what they would like to see appear in the game and what they definitely wish to ban from the game. This can range from placing a moratorium on serious topics like rape, sex, genocide or whatever, to just being tired of hearing about the zombie apocalypse or the latest X-COM game and declaring “no zombies” or “no aliens.”
Again, since it’s just me, I know very well what I’m okay with covering and not covering, thank you. So instead, I decide to experiment with random spins from TV Tropes…
…In my opinion, this turned out to be of varying degrees of usefulness.
I like the reminder that I should try to get baddies to go up against each other. I have no clue whether it will ever be possible to insert something significant involving language drift. Bonus feature failure is probably going to be a failure… unless we count the inclusion of this somewhat useless Palette as the useless feature! (Boy, this got meta in a hurry.)
I have no clue how to interpret war for fun and profit, because I actually -like- wars as a narrative device. So I decided I’d avoid ‘cheesy’ wars where one-note villains like Emperors and Dark Lords decide they want a war just because. If I have a war, it’ll be for other reasons besides fun or profit… such as ideological ones, and so on.
I wasn’t a fan of numbers anyway, so the numerical motif one was a little odd. It only affected me once so far, by perplexing me on the number of some significant objects that should exist, and I got around it by rolling a dice for it. No significance to the number there, if it’s random!
Figuring out the Sister Ship trope was equally confusing. Apparently, this is where all your main characters decide to hook up together in relationships within the clique. Seeing as I’m not writing fanfiction but a timeline spanning eons, this seemed fairly safe from a rational perspective of “any main characters are probably separated by epochs and won’t get together,” but I decided to be safe and tried to avoid any ‘obvious’ answer of love and relationships as a motivating factor between characters in lieu of something else.
And so we begin.
Bookend Periods are the start and end of the history that we will be exploring in the game. I rolled a random dice to decide whether they were Light or Dark periods.
I had no idea where I was going with these.
My first vague imagining was that some kind of celestial-seeming being started appearing across spaceships and various planets, perhaps granting magic or bestowing gifts of superpowers to those that came in contact with them. We will see this concept subtly evolve in subsequent gameplay.
I end with destruction, mostly because I can.
Anyway, if I have angels, that’s pretty good cause to leave potential room for a Revelations-style apocalypse, right?
There is a sort of pre-game turn where each player can add a Period to flesh out the history a little more.
For the random player, I dice roll for whether his Period is Light or Dark. I get Light.
Since I’m simulating his creativity, I roll a Complex Question from RPG Solo (Mythic, C.Q.) and receive the enigmatic phrase “Starting / Expectations” as a reply from the oracle.
I interpret this as all spaceships that start long journeys have an expectation that mages will be part of the crew. In other words, there is a kind of normalcy regarding magic. It becomes another kind of technology to help humanity – mages have their roles in society.
As the first Period, this obviously has to go in between the two Bookend Periods.
For myself, I decide to add a logical sequence of events. My ending looks like death, doom and destruction. What could cause that? I’m a big Babylon 5 fan and I want to throw in my own version of the Vorlon and Shadows’ massive planet-killer ships. I imagine them as robotic and metallic (which might run us a little afoul of Mass Effect’s Reapers, but we’ll see if we can diverge from that later.)
Why are the planet-killers launched in the first place? No clue yet.
We may discover that in time as gameplay goes on. Or we may not. Microscope is a game about exploring history in fractal form. We’ll move backward and forward in time.
There is a faint inkling that maybe some faction wants to genocide the mages, or maybe the mages have factionalized to an extent that they hate each other, but I try not to second guess at this point. We are explicitly told in Microscope not to do this; things are only set in stone when they land as cards on the table – everything else is only implied for now.
Now the game begins. One player declares a Focus, a topic of interest that everyone’s creations this round need to center on.
Focus 1: The robotic planet-killer ships
I put in robotic on purpose this time, locking that down. No alien organic bioarmor, thanks. Got enough of that in Warframe.
Players can choose to create Periods, Events or Scenes, and decide whether they are Light or Dark. I random roll for it most of the time.
I blame the prevalence of PUBG for this. I was just trying to imagine “how the ship is made” and something in my brain insisted there needed to be a battle royale. Because I hate battle royales, I evilly decide that the guy who wins… doesn’t actually win.
Whether he becomes the ship, or the ship eats him, or something else, I don’t know at this point. But I do know he doesn’t get out. Mwa ha ha.
This Event obviously takes place in Period 3, where all the planet-killers start traipsing across the galaxy countryside.
(In my cleanup of my scribbled notes for this, I fractally add on more detail by naming things and making things more specific. The first planet-killer becomes known as The Raven at this point.
I found this made things more interesting and gave scenes more depth. After buying the Microscope Explorer supplement, I discover that this specificity is also recommended by the game designer. Good to know.)
I roll another Dark Event.
Needing a creative prompt at this point in time, I random roll a Complex Question answer and get “Trust/Fame.”
I put two and two together. I need to talk more about planet-killers. I have magic in the universe and mages. Surely there is a trusted, famous mage that exists? An Elminster or Gandalf analogue?
It’s a Dark event, so welp… So long, famous mage.
Theoretically, the player who created the Focus can make two nested events for a structure that is similar to AABAA or just ABA.
At this point, I am already confused by the new rules and struggling to get through a round, so I call it there to start the end-of-round section known as Legacies.
A player chooses a Legacy – something mentioned in the previous round – that interests them and that they’d like to hear more about over the course of gameplay. They can keep a prior Legacy or choose a new one. They then create an Event or Scene about any of the Legacies in play.
The design theory for this portion, if I understand the designer correctly, is that it acts as a sort of safety valve when multiple players are playing Microscope. It lets players who are interested in a topic explore it, away from the constraints of the current Focus.
I’m not sure where I’ll take this yet, or how to adapt it for my solo playstyle, so I follow the structure for now.
Legacy 1: Mages
I’ve had enough for the planet-killers for now.
I roll a Scene for the Legacy portion. Crap.
In the normal game, this is where individual players choose and create characters, decide on a Location and then get involved in a bout of normal ad lib roleplaying that strives to answer the main question raised by the Scene.
Here I make liberal adaptations to the rules involving multiple players (for obvious reasons) – trying to roleplay Scenes, for example, don’t make sense when you’re alone. It makes sense that a group of players would want to roleplay it out, but if you try to do it alone, you end up as an author playing out predictable imaginary scenes rather than playing a game and being surprised by unpredictability.
So I treat it as half-Dictated Scene, helped along by Mythic answering questions for me so that it doesn’t turn into a novel-writing worldbuilding exercise out of my brain alone, and half-vignette creation writing exercise.
Scene: What prompts the mages to fight it out, instead of escaping from the ship? (Dark)
Location: Interior – a ship’s cell, we see a captive mage wake up groggily as the cell door automatically slides open.
The captives stumble out and come face to face with each other. Seeing each other’s robes, markings, sigils and tattoos, they realize they are from different factions and eye each other uneasily. One more tense and hostile individual starts verbally blaming a rival faction mage. That mage puts up with it for a while, then another is drawn into the argument. Attempted violence ensues, except they realize with a shock that they are all drained of magic and down to mere mortal human power.
A disembodied mechanical voice announces from the ship’s speaker the rules of the battle royale. Each eliminated mage will award the victor a little dribble of magical power. The last survivor that holds the prize will win their freedom and regain all their power. We fade out as the realization sinks in, and the mages scatter / grab makeshift weapons and chaos breaks out inside the ship.
Later, a group of mages do try to break out with what magical power they have, but as they blast and cut through the ship’s metal walls, they end up staring down a labyrinth of even more twisted metal and tunnels and ship’s corridors. The ship has them locked down deep inside somewhere… or is also somehow magically keeping them trapped…
I confuse myself again at this point, and roll again for the other player’s input. (I believe that one Legacy item is all that is actually needed. But this round has two, just because.)
I decide to give a reason for the mages to belong to different ideological factions, in order to plausibly wind up in a battle royale against each other. Who dumped them onto that ship as captives though? That’s a question for another day.
Mercifully, the self-confusion of the first round ends and I start my second foray through the same rules with round two.
Focus 2: The survivors of the planet-killers
I decide I want to know more about the death, doom and destruction portion of my timeline.
Specifically, I want a Scene answering this burning question in my mind.
Scene: How do the survivors survive on a blown apart planet? (Light)
Location: Exterior -on a wrecked planet, darkness, the sun blocked by dust clouds in a “nuclear winter” type of scenario. We fade in on a junk heap of scrap metal and rubble, and a scavenging child clambering precariously across the ruins.
The child is on the thin side, but not scrawny or skeletal, clothing torn and dirty but not primitive. We see the child turning over bits of junk, foraging for bugs and insects, which he stores in a container on his belt. He uncovers a small motherlode of mushrooms and smiles, harvesting them and storing them in another pouch.
Movement catches his eye and he sees a rat staring at him from the top of another heap, whiskers twitching. He looks at it, considering his chances, as he moves a hand slowly to a slingshot. He attempts a shot and misses, the rat takes off and the chase is on -if a little half-heartedly on the part of the child.
We see why in a couple seconds, the rat moves too quickly, and the child slips and slides on a loose stacked heap of rubble. As he tumbles, he grabs at various items for purchases, some of them tumbling loose as well. He hits the bottom with a bone-jarring thump, catching his pained breath for a couple moments, before he notices something odd and glowing with a soft white light, obscured somewhat by the dust of his landing.
An expression of hopeful wonder spreads slowly across his face and he scrabbles towards the light, clearing away chunks of stone, trying to uncover it. He shifts a flat piece of dark metal, and the glow blossoms into the full and warm bright light of an almost-mini sun. It’s a mini-version of an “angel,” a seed almost, which floats upward, slowly rising in cherubic defiance of gravity. Stumbling back, shading his eyes, he stares at it in awe.
A hand grips his shoulder, and we follow it upward to see an adult mage, dressed in grimy robes. “Good work,” he says as he raises his hands and begins a chant to manipulate the small ball of warmth and light.
We subsequently see the mage move the mini-angel through the locale and down into a series of tunnels and caves. They come to a stop in a large underground cavern, lit by the light of several mini-angel suns. This is where their small community of survivors is growing food for themselves.
Ok, I confess this Scene didn’t turn up fully formed like that. It went through a couple revisions before the blog post.
The child, the mage, the angel bloom and the underground cave farm were there in scribbled draft 1.
I also blame the cave farm idea on Minecraft. The thinking went along the lines of “With no natural light, maybe there is magic light.” “I remember Minecraft where I grow trees and crops with magic light.”
A Google search for food sources in nuclear winter revealed some interesting (if icky) articles where some researchers speculate that certain species will remain alive through a lack of sunshine. Insects are a decent source of protein. Apparently.
All the ideas get thrown into the fictional Scene as grist for the mill in the cleanup draft.
I realize the Scene as written above doesn’t quite fit into our existing eras. I also felt it was special enough to give it extra significance. So I make a Period and squeeze it in between our old Period 3 and 4 to become a new Period 4.
Now we have a bit more Dark and Light balance.
The next random roll is a Light Event.
I want a source for the angel seeds.
Dark Event, says the random roll. The next logical segue-in is, “What about the planets without angel seeds, what happens to them?”
Nothing good, apparently.
Legacy 2: the planet Damocles
Come on, you can’t just name the planet and then walk away before we know more about it…
Scene: Is this harvest of survivors organized? / Who is doing it, aka preying on human flesh? (Dark)
Location: Transylvanian-style village with a mage tower in the background.
Rurik, a Van-Helsing type of hunter, arrives to investigate the rumors of human hunting/harvesting in these here parts. In usual fashion, he finds the locals taciturn and unwelcoming of strangers.
Heedless of warnings, he follows a group of hunting undead, which leads him right into the mage’s tower. The Lady Elaine is a necromancer that has sent her undead servants out foraging for human flesh for her.
It turns out that she is using the flesh not just for herself, but also to keep another mage alive. This mage is a rival that she has overpowered; she is busy trying to obtain the magical key/password to his tower from him.
Rurik manages to surprise and kill her. He marches up to the captive, who is hoping to be freed, but when a shotgun is aimed right at his head, the captive begs for his life in terror and offers up the key to his tower.
It doesn’t save him. Rurik splatters his brains all over the wall.
Rurik takes the key and walks over to the mage portal in Elaine’s tower. He seems to know his way around. He uses the key and crosses over to the captive’s tower…
… but something is wrong as we fade back in. There is a noise like that of an angry mob rioting. In the mage’s absence, his fief’s peasants have broken into the place and are looting and trashing the joint.
They react in a panic to Rurik’s sudden appearance – thrown rocks hit the hunter, and we see him go down under the boots and fists of a lynch mob…. The camera view lingers on one or two members of the mob, who appear to have shriveled human skulls hanging on their belt… as we fade out…
This is a more roughly-written scene than some of the above. Can’t win ’em all. It’s a game, I don’t want to rewrite and polish everything. It’s enough for me to know what’s going on.
Mythic helped to resolve some of the plot points above. The questions and answers were:
Does he kill the mage? Yes.
Does he spare the captive? No.
Does he use the key instead? Yes, but…. (Abuse/Exterior Factors)
That was good enough for me to decide that the hunter also doesn’t get away scot-free. As a bonus, I threw in the last minute insinuation that other people are also cannibals in this setting too.
After two rounds, our timeline now looks like this. Quite some meat on its bones.
Coming up in a future blog post – Round 3 – There be Dragons in them thar hills…