Microscope: zooming in on emotion

So, I’m a big fan of Character Advocacy in roleplaying games. Advocacy is, simply put, a mode of play where each player (excepting, sometimes, a Gamemaster) has responsibility and authority over a single character, and is tasked to represent the interests of that character in play. It’s important because if, when encountering fictional adversity, the character has no advocate, the outcome can feel flat: triumphs too easily won, tragedies handed down from on high. When we only produce something we all agree to, then nothing can surprise and challenge us. Advocating for a character is a powerful way to ensure that the character’s victories are earned, that their suffering has weight. In short, to ensure that their story matters to us.

So how can you enable that kind of investment in the absence of character advocacy?

Well, I played a wonderful game called Microscope with some friends, including its creator, Ben Robbins. Microscope is a game of epic histories, where players together construct a timeline of large-scale events then zoom in, playing out the individual scenes of the human activity that shaped the course of history. It’s a very top-down, globally thinking game that almost uses the lives of individual characters as pawns in the service of an overarching narrative.

And yet I found that Microscope helped us produce some very affecting, emotionally invested fiction? Why is that?

One thing I noticed is that Microscope places absolutely ruthless restrictions on who can say what, and when. Play proceeds in turns, and each player gets to add one thing to the timeline: a period, an event within a period, a scene within an event. Following the initial brainstorming of what your history will be about, the rules flat-out forbid collaboration: When it’s your turn, what you say goes, so long as it doesn’t contradict anything previously described. And nobody gets to make suggestions, either. On your turn, what you create is entirely your own. This strikes me as vital to maintaining a dynamic quality to your fiction, by leaving no room for story-by-committee. Character advocacy would do that, since each player has fictional interests to push for. In its absence, you need another way of constraining input, which Microscope has.

Another quality I noticed: while a lot of the game is spent in a “god’s eye view,” looking at the entire history as a massive span of time, the real meat of the game lies in scenes, which are individual chunks of more typical roleplaying, where everyone plays a character. Each scene exists to answer a specific question, and each player is responsible portraying for a single character. while other players can describe things to potentially affect your character, only you can say what the effect is–whether they get killed, for instance. This creates a miniature bubble of character advocacy, that lasts the length of the scene, then dissipates. This lets us zero in on the human side of our history, and get in touch with the hopes and dreams of individuals, who may be movers and shakers, or may be just folks, whose stories were never told in the history books. Without this precisely structured aspect of the game, it could be difficult to achieve much emotional investment in the history. I mean, who’s emotionally invested in, say, the War of 1812? But once we’ve spent some time with the lowly privates in Col. Jackson’s camp, answering questions about them that matter to us, we become invested in that.

The history we created that night was based on the premise, “Costumed superheroes fight crime, undermining the rule of law.” We all appreciated the large-scale periods and events we crafted—the eventual collapse of civilization, or mind-controlled heroes laying waste to 1040s Europe, or the 1980s passage of the Superhero Deputization Act. But what really compelled us were the actual scenes of messy humanity we played: the super-powered President to be, confronting his blackmailers, heartbroken at his wife’s reaction to the revelation of his power to instill love in others. The agents of the mysterious Club desperately trying to cover the truth of the events that sparked the Deputization Act. The Gala Charity Ball that wrecked the career of beloved ’30s hero Mr. Perfect when he came out as homosexual. The glimpse of Mr. Perfect’s childhood, showing that he didn’t run away from home because he was afraid of his parents—they were afraid of him. And Mr. Perfect’s superhero debut, busting into a speakeasy and getting a young débutante shot in his grandstanding carelessness.

These were stories that moved and compelled us. Despite nobody having a fixed character, despite the potential for detatched worldbuilding. Microscope was a laser-focused machine for zeroing in on fiction with integrity and bite. It was an experience I’ll savor.




6 Responses to “Microscope: zooming in on emotion”

  1. 1 Willem
    June 13, 2011 at 11:09 am

    Well alright then. Applying “limit” helps create good story! It doesn’t seem so much about advocacy, but about the absence of story-by-committee however you can achieve it. My own experience definitely echoes this; if there is no room for “surprise”, not as in “wouldn’t it be great if…(wow I never would’ve expected you to suggest that!)”, but rather, “then this happens! (oh mi god – that hurts! – i had no idea things would go this way, but I roll with it and keep going with the new crazy).”

  2. June 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    It was also really helpful to this game that we had the right time frame – around a century and change – to fit all our history into. This meant that one potentially problematic thing for Microscope, to the point where the rules recommend against it, worked really well for us: characters that reappeared in consecutive time periods.

    In the playtest game of Microscope I was in a couple of Go Play Northwests ago, the scenes we played felt really tiny and unimportant. I found myself wondering what there was in the whole game for me to want as a player. (And I didn’t mention this to Ben. I’m a bad playtester.) I think one-off characters have to be constructed carefully for scenes to end up with their maximum potential impact, but I don’t rule it out; nonetheless I was (and am) glad for our roughly decade-shaped periods.

  3. 3 Joel
    June 13, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Yes, Willem! That was what I was trying to get at: Advocacy is one way to kill the committee, Microscopes strict regimentation is another. It’s a delicious paradox that Microscope’s unflinchingly rigid procedure provides freedom: Freedom to be surprised, freedom for ideas to butt up against each other in fruitful ways, freedom to put out input that hurts, but everyone keeps rolling with it.

    Vincent Baker recently wrote about this phenomenon: saying a game design’s purpose is to lead us to The Unwelcome.

    “when we want to let our characters off the hook, we need rules to threaten them; when we want to kill our characters, we need rules to protect them.”

  4. 4 Joel
    June 13, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Mike, that’s a good point. We were quite fortunate that we hit on a theme that both clicked with us emotionally and was really easy to explore and engage with by the rules. I do think that constructing characters (and the situations we drop them in, the Questions we ask about them) need to be constructed with care, in any case. It’s good to look at this game as instructive of techniques to do that.

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