Microscope is a very cool game by Ben Robbins, focusing on the collaborative generation of fractal history. I cannot recommend it strongly enough if you’re interested in that sort of thing. I’ve run a few sessions, including one to prepare for my Seekers of Lore campaign, and I’ve been consistently surprised and delighted by where things end up.
Even without other people to help, I can see it being a very good starting point for a timeline/history creation tool for a world builder. The structure alone is quite powerful, and there are other elements we can add to make it even more so.
I’m calling it ‘Tapestry’, for reasons that will become evident.
… at least, will become evident if you read the entire post. I’m unusually rambly today.
Overview of Microscope
Microscope is, at it’s heart, quite simple. I’ll briefly and simply describe the basics below, without dwelling too much on how the rest of the game works. I will leave out bits I plan to remove or change.
Historical elements are divided into three types: Periods, Events, and Scenes. There is no connection at all to a calendar. The timing of the elements is fairly abstract: the hierarchy and relative order of elements is inviolate, but new elements can be added. That is, if ‘Event A’ happens after ‘Event B’, that will never change… but Event A does not not necessarily happen immediately after Event B, someone could insert ‘Event C’ between them.
- Periods identify lengths of time in which things happen.
- Events are things that happen in Periods.
- Scenes answer questions about what happened in Events.
A Period may have any number of Events (including none at all), an Event must happen in a Period and may have any number of Scenes (including none at all), and a Scene must happen in an Event. Periods never overlap (each ends before the next starts), Events never overlap (ditto), and Scenes never overlap (and again).
At the start of a Microscope game, the group agrees on the timeline being developed, including the start and end Periods. No Period may be added before the first Period, and no Period may be added after the end Period. A new Period may be added between any two existing Periods.
Also at the start of the game, the players build the Palette, a set of items that either are explicitly excluded (I’ve seen ‘no dragons’ and ‘no arcane magic’ in a fantasy setting) or explicitly allowed (it is not necessary for these items to be included, but nobody can claim they aren’t suitable — in another fantasy setting I’ve seen ‘Stargates’ on the ‘allowed’ list). The Palette usually has only things that would not be otherwise assumed.
Each round of the game, one player gets to pick a topic. Each player adds one or more elements related to the topic. The relationship does not need to be direct. For instance, if the topic is a magic sword there could be a scene of a meteor striking the earth, providing the starmetal the sword is ultimately forged of. The elements — Periods, Events, Scenes — can be added in almost any location in the timeline, with certain limits (not outside the starting Periods, and must be nested appropriately, Scene within Event within Period).
This continues basically until people get tired of doing it, at which point the cards the elements were written on can be carefully stacked (‘saving the game’) and set aside, to be continued another time.
How This Applies
The structure itself is very powerful, even without other players. I can simulate the element placement by using random techniques. Because I don’t have actual players involved I have the liberty of having arbitrary numbers of elements (i.e. I could add three, or two, or seven)… this is likely a function of how much effect I expect the topic to have on the timeline.
What I Will Change
I’ve got several things in mind that I expect to do differently.
New Element: Ages
I picture the timeline being larger than even Microscope uses it. I add Ages.
- Ages identify lengths of time where things are very different. In Microscope terms, the Palette changes.
In my Seekers of Lore timeline I have three Ages.
- The Age of Gods, when the gods walk the world. This is literally true; they were building a new home and were on the world to work on it. The gods were present (and potentially mortal), there was no arcane magic, and no dragons.
- The Age of Upheaval, when an amorphic maelstrom swept through, so fierce that it forced the gods out and separated them so they could not bring their puissance to bear and continue their work. The gods were no longer present, wild magic (arcane but not wholly controllable or structured) came into being… there could be dragons, I never found out.
- The Age of Rediscovery, when the amorphic maelstrom had passed and the world settled. Things had changed, much was lost: things, people, places… but they were not necessarily destroyed, just misplaced. There is much that was lost, to be found again.
Unlike Periods, Events, and Scenes, I don’t imagine the number of Ages will ever change for a timeline. I imagine Microscope games each typically exist in only a single Age, but it will be helpful for me to have them available and keep them in mind.
Implementation: Software vs Hardware
Microscope is designed to be played at the table, using physical cards as artifacts to capture details of the game. I expect to write software to manage the information involved.
Microscope captures very little information in written form, basically just enough to serve as a reminder of the various elements and topics.
- Name of the element.
- Indicator of whether it is a ‘dark’ or ‘light’ element.
- Brief, one-line summary of the element.
Physical position indicates when, relatively, the element took place.
Despite the dearth of information, those engaged in the game can retain a startlingly large amount of detail in memory.
However, as a world building tool and because my memory, at least, is fallible, I plan to capture more information.
- As a start, information such as I capture in my entity template. Not all will apply to all elements, and that’s fine.
- Calendar information. Microscope is pretty abstract and uses only relative times (“this happened before that”), but I might want to nail down some specific dates. I’m not sure if this will actually happen.
- Entities of interest (definitely using my entity template here). Microscope encourages players to name names when adding elements, and this really rounds out and provides detail to the elements. Capture that! And use it later. These will not appear in the timeline itself, but will be captured and tracked.
Microscope has three layers of time elements: Periods, Events, Scenes, as described above. This is totally appropriate considering how the game is played.
I’m not playing a game. I’m making a tool for world building, and that can get much more detailed. Many time elements can fit multiple levels of the structure. ‘World War II’ probably isn’t a Scene, but could reasonably be a Period or Event, depending on the context and scope of the timeline. I can also imagine an Event that itself contains other events: World War II might be an event in the Period “Reign of King George VI”, and D-Day and the Bombing of Hiroshima could themselves be Events within World War II.
So, I can imagine the new structure will be something like:
- Ages contain Periods.
- Periods contain Events.
- Events contain Events and Scenes.
I considering allowing Periods to contain Scenes directly, and Ages to contain Events and Scenes directly, but that seemed like too great a jump in detail.
I might go even more abstract and just call every level “Timeline” (internally to the software this is almost certainly true) and give them a type so I understand how the rules for manipulation. I can imagine a Scene having a timeline, a series of elements, though I doubt anyone would actually use it in practice… unless they need to identify precisely how things happened.
Allowing Events to contain Events will be important for the next change.
Microscope focuses on only a single timeline. Actual world history is more complicated than that, so I want to allow for multiple timelines.
This is not intended to be a Trousers of Time sort of thing, there is no bifurcation at the crotch that leads you down the left leg instead of the right, and different things happen. Rather, this is acknowledging that different views of history will put different emphases on various elements (if they’re present at all) and may well have different Periods.
For instance, we could have a timeline in which the “Age of Sail” (‘usually dated as 1571-1862’, and which, despite its name, I will treat as a Period) includes the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). The Napoleonic Wars were something of a big deal for Great Britain, and thus appear in the Great Britain Timeline, and in the France Timeline, but not so much in the American Timeline.
I say ‘not so much in the American Timeline’ because I understand one of the proximate causes of the War of 1812 was Britain pressing American sailors into service. The American Timeline now has an Event for the War of 1812, as do the British… subordinate to the Napoleonic Wars.
- The Timelines of most European nations share the Napoleonic Wars Event (Great Britain and France mostly, but Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands were all involved);
- America Timeline contains the War of 1812 Event;
- The War of 1812 Event is subordinate to the Napoleonic Wars Event. It had greatest effect on Great Britain, but this caused knock-on effect to the other nations.
By allowing Events to contain Events, I have the option of having different Timelines engage with historical elements in different ways or at different times. World War II started in 1939 for much of Europe, but other nations became active in the war much later. For instance, Japan was still involved in a war with China at the start of World War II.
Thus, “World War II” could be one Event with a series of subordinate Events that individual Timelines might interact with. At that, they don’t even need to interact with all of them — the Japanese and Americans likely didn’t have much to do with the Winter War, after all.
ObGreyKnight: “So this is where you deviate from plan? Perhaps you have Events that happen but aren’t necessarily attached to any particular Timeline?”
I might need to adjust my model a bit. It might be that there are Timelines (and thus historical elements) that exist solely to group other pieces, and then each Timeline connects to those subordinate Events without necessarily connecting to the parent.
… this is not actually a deviation so much as a clarification of the model. I think.
Microscope is usually played in group sessions, with multiple people all involved, and there are set ’rounds’ and whatnot. I imagine someone using Tapestry will pull it up and add new elements as needed, without such a group.
I can imagine myself using this as needed when planning an RPG adventure or the like. An entity that isn’t attached to something else is more likely a curiosity than something of interest, so anything that should be of interest should have connections. This can include some history, so I can imagine inserting a few elements for each such entity. Depending on the metadata they could be included in or excluded from Timelines as needed.
Summary of Tapestry
I think I’ve got a rough idea where this is going. And I’m going to call the application ‘Tapestry’ because it ties together so many historical threads.
- Based on Microscope.
- Allows multiple Timelines, each of which conforms to Microscope rules except where I change things below.
- Adds ‘Ages’ and allows nested Events.
- Different Timelines provide different views into history and each Timeline may have different elements, but where they share elements they must align.
- Historical elements will capture more detailed information than Microscope. This might or might not include calendar information, concrete dates.
- Non-historical entities will also be captured.
This should be doable. I hope it’s harder to describe than it is to implement… it probably is. I’ll know more when I model the data.
Something like the Oracles from Ironsworn might be useful here. They are a common idea but Ironsworn has a particularly useful set.
I had a quick look at some of the PDFs — freely available, nice! — and I’m not certain how these fit together. Can you explain? Or point me at the specific bit I should be looking at?
(Admittedly, I’m kind of sleepy right now and not fully functional. I was up until 7:00 AM this morning and slept for about four hours…)
… Checks books … Sorry, the bits I was thinking of are in Ironsworn: Delve. Particularly Chaper 3 “Finding your path” which has a section on relationship maps and the Character Disposition oracle … not worth buying it for a 12 entry random table but the other Oracles are well thought out. If you are interested in pointcrawl mechanisms it it worth it on its own. The rest of Ironsworn is fairly heavily tied to its setting but has an interesting resolution mechanic that is bound into a lot of the design.
I’m interested in pointcrawls, to be sure (check out my Node-Based Megadungeon series — I was one of the people who started it all… though I think of them as nodecrawls, and Chris Kutalik is much better known for pointcrawls).
I’ve added Ironsworn: Delve to my wishlist at OBS. I’ve got the free PDFs and whatnot already and haven’t read them yet. I’ve got time to wait for Delve to come on sale.
Thanks for bringing my attention to this!
I’m curious if you’ve done any further work on your Tapestry idea?
After a fashion… nothing concrete, but I have spent a fair bit of time thinking about it and researching means of ‘randomizing’ history.
… which could make a decent blog post, actualy. Thanks for the idea.
I look forward to it. I always struggle when developing history for settings.
I actually had a small epiphany last night about how to model the data (which was one of my major stumbling blocks). I’ll probably have it in a blog post soonish.