Create a Little World With Your Friends

Posted by on April 6, 2012

Microscope is a game of world-building. Grab a couple of friends and some index cards, and you make up a world’s history (or a significant chunk thereof). The game provides a helpful structure for keeping the players focused on world-building. If that sounds like fun, read on.

The Basics of Building a World

'Leave it all.' by nathanhayag on Flickr

'Leave it all.' by nathanhayag on Flickr

The group begins by brainstorming the Palette, which consists of two lists: Yes (all the elements you definitely want to have in the world), and No (all the clich├ęs and other elements you want to avoid). Pretty self-explanatory, and this is the most chaotic part of the game.

The group then defines a beginning Period of play, and an ending Period. These each get an index card. Written on each card is the name of the Period and a white or black dot, the dot indicating the relatively positive (white) or negative (black) direction of that Period’s history.

From there, the game proceeds in rounds, with each player getting a turn. One player in each round is the Lens, and starts the round by announcing the round’s Focus. The focus can be anything: a person, a place, a theme, a moment in time, an item, etc. The Lens then creates a new Period and an Event within it, or a new Event and a Scene within it. The Lens describes these to the players, and each Period, Event, or Scene gets an index card.

Each other player gets a turn, in which the player creates one Period, one Event, or one Scene that relates to that round’s Focus. Anything can happen as long as it fits the Focus, includes nothing in the No list, and fits with pre-established history. This new Period, Event, or Scene gets its own index card.

Microscope includes some extra rules to help with Scenes. Each Scene starts with the current player asking a question, such as “Why was the prince exiled?” or “Who was responsible for destroying the lab?” By the end of the scene, that question must be answered. Moreover, the rules encourage players to role-play out Scenes, with each player grabbing a character.

Also, each Period and Event gets a dot: a light dot indicating that the scene was an overall positive direction for history, and a dark dot indicating a negative direction. This is subjective, but helps the players think about the consequences of each Period and Event.

I’m not sure why Scenes need this much help. I assume this is a problem because Scenes are specific, and players can easily get stuck coming up with details. It also keeps players from creating “too much” in one Scene. The game should be collaborative, and I imagine would-be novelists could turn each Scene into a half-hour short story.

That’s about the entire game. Play continues until the players run out of time or are satisfied with the history.

Playing Microscope Online

Several Stewards of the Assembly have been playing Microscope online this week, and it’s been going well so far. I created a shared document, into which I typed a quick summary of the rules in gray italicized text, and created an empty Yes list and an empty No list. I invited people in, and we started filling things out, typing commentary and discussion below the lists.

After a few days, each list had about half a dozen items, and we’d run out of steam. So, I took on the mantle of Lens for the first round, announced that the Focus would be dragons, and laid out a schedule. Each player had a specific day to play, though other players could go early if they worked that out with the current day’s player, and a late player could similarly catch up after checking with the current day’s player.

I then added an Event (The War of Claw and Fire) and a Scene (The turning point of the Battle of the Vongthul), and we were off!

The first round started well, but soon real life intruded and players got behind. After some discussion, we came up with a better solution:

Each round takes one week. One player is chosen as the Lens, and chooses the Focus. Players can add their material any time in the week. Players won’t clobber each other, because the shared document shows changes as they happen. All you have to do is open the document to see if anyone else is adding their material right now. It’s working well so far.


Discuss the Palette freely and in detail. This is when you’ll establish your boundaries and expectations, and this is the one time when you can be chatty and completely free-form.

Treat every player’s contributions as sacred. At most, ask a player to expand or explain a contribution.

Enjoy the process. Micrscope spawns wild, complex worlds. Relish it!

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