Lexicon and Microscope: A Study of an Imaginary World

Rambly rambly time. I am just starting to explore the idea of combining Ben Robbin’s game Microscope with Neel Krishnaswami. I am not aiming for a particular target or result beyond seeing if they can work together, so I will be (was, actually; I wrote this sentence after everything below it) writing more or less flow of consciousness.

Seekers of Lore

Seekers of Lore

Ben Robbin’s game Microscope is a collaborative history-building game where people define a timeline’s start and end points, some constraints on the history (“these things do exist”, “these things do not exist”), then define a chronological hierarchy of periods (times in which things happen), events (things that happen), and scenes (exploring what happened in an event). Each of these can be light (‘good’ or generally desirable) or dark (‘bad’ or generally undesirable).

I’ll stop writing about Microscope here for now. Lowell Francis of Age of Ravens wrote a review of Microscope (where I first heard of Microscope, as it happens, and caused me to buy a copy more or less immediately). He also wrote about using Microscope for City Building, and a followup showing an example of Steampunk City-Building: Using Microscope. This later post was after my Links of the Week went on hiatus, which is why I didn’t know about it until now. I am looking forward to having time to read blogs like I used to, so much rich gaming material and wonderful ideas out there!

Lexicon is a collaborative game made up by Neel Krishnaswami, originally posted to 20x20room in November 20, 2003. Sadly, the original site is no longer available.

However, the Wayback Machine was able to give me a copy of Lexicon: an RPG, the post describing Lexicon.

Only because the original site is gone, I don’t want people to have to depend on the Wayback Machine, and I think this is important enough to not want lost, I’ll quote the original in its entirety before adding my comments.

Here’s a little roleplaying game that I’ve been toying with. I call it theLexicon rpg, in honor of its inspiration, Milorad Pavic’s Dictionary of the Khazars.

The basic idea is that each player takes on the role of a scholar, from before scholarly pursuits became professionalized (or possibly after they ceased to be). You are cranky, opinionated, prejudiced and eccentric. You are also collaborating with a number of your peers — the other players — on the construction of an encyclopedia describing some historical period (possibly of a fantastic world).

The game is played in 26 turns, one for each letter of the alphabet.

1. On the first turn, each player writes an entry for the letter ‘A’. You come up with the name of the entry, and you write 100-200 words on the subject. At the end of the article, you sign your name, and make two citations to other entries in the encyclopedia. These citations will be phantoms — their names exist, but their content will get filled in only on the appropriate turn. No letter can have more entries than the number of players, either, so all citations made on the first turn have to start with non-A letters.

2. On the second and subsequent turns, you continue to write entries for B, C, D and so on. However, you need to make three citations. One must be a reference to an already-written entry, and two must be to unwritten entries. (On the 25th and 26th turns, you only need to cite one and zero phantom entries, respectively, because there won’t be enough phantom entries, otherwise.)

It’s an academic sin to cite yourself, you can never cite an entry you’ve written. (OOC, this forces the players to intertwingle their entries, so that everybody depends on everyone else’s facts.) Incidentally, once you run out of empty slots, obviously you can only cite the phantom slots.

3. Despite the fact that your peers are self-important, narrow-minded dunderheads, they are honest scholars. No matter how strained their interpretations are, their facts are accurate as historical research can make them. So if you cite an entry, you have to treat its factual content as true! (Though you can argue vociferously with the interpretation and introduce new facts that shade the interpretation.)

4. This little game will probably play best on a wiki, and it should take a month or so to play to completion. At the end of it, you’ll have a highly-hyperlinked document that details a nice little piece of collaborative world-building.

The owner of the wiki should set the general subject of the Lexicon. I suggest that he or she make use of the technique of “open reference” when describing the historical period: “You are all revisionist scholars from the Paleotechnic Era arguing about how the Void Ghost Rebellion led to the overthrow of the cyber-gnostic theocracy and the establishment of the Third Republic.” What a cyber-gnostic theocracy is, or what happened to the first two republics, or what the Paleotechnic Era is are all unknown — they are named to specifically to evoke a mood and inspire the other players’ creativity. (This is an idea which I’ve first seen in fully articulated form in the character creation rules for Robin Laws’s Hero Wars game.)

In Lexicon, though, rather than players sitting around a table and identifying periods, events, and scenes, “each player takes on the role of a scholar, from before scholarly pursuits became professionalized (or possibly after they ceased to be). You are cranky, opinionated, prejudiced and eccentric” documenting some period of history.

The tie-in with Microscope should be obvious. While I think either alone can be effective, I think a two-round exercise could prove rather interesting. The Microscope session could establish major elements and the starting conditions to be explored by the Lexicon. I imagine the lexicographers referring to elements from other periods, events, or scenes as well, though perhaps less frequently. It is possible that those are the responsibility of other lexicographers, or truly useful information simply is not available — depending on what happened during the Time of Fallen Angels, a lexicographer of another period might know only of some of the artifacts and ruins of that time, without knowing any more than a name or some vague information.

Of course, the Lexicon exploration could continue to add to the fragments to be studied. Just as the Microscope session can identify physical places and artifacts that can be involved in the periods, events, and scenes described, the Lexicon exploration can expand on these things and add more.

Whoa. I just had a thought. I wonder if I can leverage these tools for Seekers of Lore?

The simplest way, of course, would be to run a Microscope session followed by a Lexicon exploration as described above.

What if, though, everyone started off more or less ignorant?

The world is as it is right now, which sets an end point. Some elements might be identified, but the questions raised are solved not through declaration or discussion, but through exploration and discovery?

Perhaps drop the scenes from the Microscope session, instead they are replaced with Questions (each scene in Microscope exists to answer a question about some aspect of an event) that might be investigated. The Lexicon exists primarily to document the findings. The lexicographers can describe what has been found, much as originally described in Neel’s original rules.

This would lend itself to incredibly episodic play (which is good for an open table). A developing list of Questions provides concrete goals, specific information to seek.

I’m also reading the Pathfinder treatment of Earthdawn, and the treasures (magic items) are much as I remember — in order to ‘attach and develop threads’ to each item it is necessary to discover ‘representative information’ about the item. That is, you have to investigate, study, and/or research an item and its history (which can include exploration and adventure) to learn a specific fact, and learning that fact represents having learned enough about an aspect of the item that you can now have a tighter bond to the item. I wasn’t actually planning to touch on this tonight, but I think it too interesting an idea to let it be forgotten.

Starting with a skeletal history means there is some shape there, with lots of room to explore. The players start with a simple body of knowledge, the GM gets to discover things at much the same time the players do (I like surprises!).

This does run into some discrepancy between the rule sets, in that the Lexicon rules say that the lexicographer’s statements are true. Possibly misguided and subject to later interpretation coming to different conclusions, but…

Actually, this shouldn’t be a problem, really. In this framework there is not so much conclusively established until it is confirmed via exploration and discovery, so identification of new elements should not particularly adversely affect things. If a lexicographer describes an element that was not previously described, it falls on someone to investigate and learn more (adds a Question).

In fact, this could be a different way to combine the games. Instead of a Microscope session with a Lexicon exploration to find detail, perhaps drive it via the Lexicon. The articles created in the Lexicon are expected to cite each other as Neel describes, but ‘period’ and ‘event’ can be added to the things to be described. A lexicographer identifies each of these things, plus artifacts, places, and so on. Citations to undefined elements can be treated as Questions to be answered, and I see little reason why new articles could not allude to these same things. To use my example of the Time of Fallen Angels, perhaps a particular artifact was known to be during that period. It might be possible to describe the artifact and what it does, but because the Period of Fallen Angels is not fully understood there will be Questions to investigate.

Oh yes, this could be a valuable tool indeed. I want to sharpen and polish it, but I think it could be a wonderful addition to my toolbox.

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28 Comments to "Lexicon and Microscope: A Study of an Imaginary World"

  1. GreyKnight's Gravatar GreyKnight
    April 14, 2013 - 7:49 am | Permalink

    Not sure I understood: the Lexicon entries are being written alongside the regular RPG part? Or does the Lexicon stage take place before that (and after the Microscope part)? Do you retain the alphabetism requirement of Lexicon or make it more random-access?

    • David Lamb's Gravatar David Lamb
      April 14, 2013 - 9:40 am | Permalink

      Somehow the Questions ought to be able to take the role of the Lexicon letter-based entries. Not sure of how to manage the details.

  2. David Lamb's Gravatar David Lamb
    April 14, 2013 - 9:38 am | Permalink

    This brought to mind some much-decayed memories of Aria: Canticle of the Monomyth, which while primarily an odd role-playing game had a minigame for creating campaign settings. I’ve long thought of digging it up and translating the rules from Ariaspeak into English.

  3. April 14, 2013 - 2:00 pm | Permalink

    Both Microscope and Lexicon have a certain inviolability of fact: if one player makes a factual statement, it’s true and can’t be contradicted by other facts (you could alter it with other information, e.g. if John makes a statement that the City of Sand exists, Mary can’t directly say it doesn’t exist, but she can say that it was destroyed later in history).

    I think this should extend to the nature of Questions. For example, if a Question asks “How did Thoren achieve his redemption?” then the redemption itself is assumed as a fact. But if the Question is “How, if at all, did Thoren attain redemption?” then “He didn’t” is a possible answer. Of course, “He didn’t, and here’s how he failed: […]” is a much better answer.

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