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.


  1. GreyKnight

    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?

      • Agreed. I see the letters as a way of keeping track of where you are in the game, and a Question repository could serve the same purpose.

        I feel like I’m mangling Lexicon in a horribly good way here.

        I also have a nagging feeling that I might want a ticketing system to keep track of these things. “Question/description” entries, and a log of who’s working on it. and whether or not it has been resolved.

        I think it’ll be sufficient to just have a category for those pages that says that they are Questions, describe the question (possibly grouped by the subject of the question), and resolution status. When an answer is found, that gets marked as well.

        Oh yes. Questions are not just expressed as questions, queries. They are _named_. It’s not “who killed the Altansian King”, make a story title out of it. “Death of the Last Altansian Monarch”.

        • If you’re so inclined, you can represent such “open research questions” in-universe. Perhaps the Altansian regicide is a topic of debate amongst historians, and if some brave adventurer could turn up some actual concrete evidence about the subject they would be delighted. This has relation to my earlier comment about characters writing books (or papers) inside the game world. Some cultures might prefer an oral telling, perhaps as an epic saga, or theatrics, but there is a similar principle.

          • I think at early stages the death of the Altansian king is largely accepted as fact (though I can imagine there being some element of doubt — or belief, as it were, if you consider the Arthurian stories), but the details are unknown.

            In fact, to model after Arthur as an example, the Altansian was in parlay with someone (who might or might not be named) when thing fell apart and violence happened. He was seen to struck a horribly blow that none would survive, and indeed fell. He was spirited away (perhaps literally) before his body was recovered. It was not recovered by his vassals or allies, it was not captured by his enemies (or they would have made sure everyone knew), it was never seen again… except for a lone witness who claims the Altansian king was led away into the mist by a black-haired maiden riding a blood-red horse [which matches some other element of the beliefs of the time].

            So… what happened? Visit the location, examine the records and diaries of those who were present, call to the black-haired maiden riding a blood-red horse, and find out.

    • This was a strange post for me. It’s not that weird that I end up somewhere I wasn’t planning to go, but I rarely take the beer scooter to get there.

      However, we’re moving house, so SWMBO wants get as much consumables consumed before we go as we can. So, glugluglug.

      To actually answer your questions, though… I think that the alphabetism requirement goes, that is a largely procedural component to help track things. Instead, there would be a roster of Questions, each identified by at least one existing Lexicon entry, and the resolution likely identifies at least one more. Resolution the Question, finding the answer, probably involves a quest or exploration of some sort.

      I envision the Lexicon as something of an adventure register, and an artifact of the adventures and exploration. The historical structure is created by the Lexicographers as well (so periods and events are identified) but the details of these things are not known until someone goes to take a look. Periods and events might be shared pages. “Time of Fallen Angels” might start with a high-level description of what it’s about, just as a Microscope period, then events are identified by the Lexicographers such as “the Betrayal at Shana-an” and “the Redemption of Thoren”, and questions are asked about these events; answering these questions tells us more about the period and might be summarized on that page.

      Locations, people, creatures, and artifacts can all be incorporated in that as well

      • Hm I made my above comment about “open research questions” before reading this (maybe I shouldn’t’ve done that) and you just made me think it’s an even better idea. The original description of Lexicon even explicitly states that you’re taking on the role of a scholar, so it’s expressed that these scholars exist in the game world (Microscope makes no such assumption). Essentially the lexicographers are something like quest-givers portrayed by the players, in addition to their adventurer personae.

        EDIT: Actually, I suppose it’s possible for a single character to both define the quest and go on the adventure.

        “Fellows, thank you for helping me find the truth of what really happened on the Day of the Hawk. My people will be glad to hear this tale. I must ask another favour; it has long been known that our ancient leader Thoren, dishonoured after the Day of the Hawk, abdicated and took himself into the desert of Zin to atone in heroic combat or die trying. I should like to know the nature of his redemption.”

        Either way, it’s an interesting treatment of a responsibility that is more traditionally assigned to the GM.

        • Right, Microscope strikes me very explicitly as mostly being from the outside looking in, with the exception of the players stepping in to resolve a scene.

          I picture the Lexicographers being very much within the world (that is why they have personalities; Microscope players undoubtedly have personalities, but apart from during scene resolution don’t play them within the game). They might be hoary old quest-givers, but when I was writing this last night I couldn’t help but be reminded of the series The Riddlemaster of Hed by Patricia A. McKillip.

          In this series there are in fact ‘Riddlemasters’ who try to solve things. They learn debate and other intellectual practice, and a large store of knowledge, including riddles previously solved by others, but some of the most famous died or disappeared attempting to solve particular riddles.

          • I would lean towards introducing the characters of the Lexicographers at the outset; I think it should be entirely doable to present the Microscope-like part of the game as scholarly discussion. The “adventurer” characters can be generated after this stage. A given player’s adventurer character needn’t work for that same player’s lexicographer; in fact, I’d outlaw that. Instead, either have the adventurers working for the lexicographers en masse, or perhaps have each adventurer working for a different player’s lexicographer. Or, you could have some point in-between these two, such as having subgroups of the adventurer ensemble working for subgroups of the lexicographers.

            The possibility of a player wanting to take a lexicographer out into the field shouldn’t be discounted. Perhaps give him a bodyguard (played by the same player) if you want to break up the lines a bit. I assume that a player doing this would typically want to play the same lexicographer he has already been portraying, so a rule to the effect that “you can only take other people’s lexicographers into the field” would be pointless (and arguably silly).

            • I can see why you might restrict having the Lexicographer and adventurer serving him played by different characters, but I don’t know that it’s actually needed. The shared knowledge is a feature, not a bug, and I think that the biggest potential issue is that the player might blur the characters.

              This is starting to feel kind of like Ars Magica, with one major character and a bunch of grogs. I have no problem with a Lexicographer being built on the same chassis as any other adventurer. Indiana Jones, for example, is arguably both in this context, as is his father (who does lean more toward the stay-at-home part in Last Crusade, true, but is still out in the field).

              • I wasn’t thinking along the lines of shared knowledge so much as introducing an extra layer of player–player interactions. I noticed the parallels with Ars Magica too; I don’t think it’s a bad thing as I think it’s fun to play both the rear echelon and the grunts!

                Indiana Jones is a good example. I think you missed a possibility for your “I” post :-)

              • Fred O'Nia

                If you’re doing this for setting generation, you could even do it within an Ars Magica campaign. If you tied generating the articles to the magic research rules somehow, you’d also be providing inherent motivation for answering the Questions.

        • And I agree, the implications of this for world creation and scenario design deserve some thought. I’ve long encouraged my players to take part in world development, but this stands a chance of making the DM again more of a referee or rules arbiter. It might make scenario design a bit more of a challenge because you want to address specific topics, but simplifies some of the larger arcs by making it really clear what the characters are looking for.

          It occurs to me that at an abstract level the GM might not even explicitly define the information at each step. I could reskin any number of adventures to use as filler of sorts, pointing to the next step (adding clues to each that can get you closer to the answer), and the final result is the ability to declare what happened! The truth is in the hands and mind of the one who found the Resting Place of the Last Altansian King. Several Lexicographers have different theories, but only when the RPotLAK is found is the truth known.

          I also realized that this could work really, really well in a shared world setting. The number of Questions that can be produced could be prodigious, so there would be lots of adventure fodder. It might be worth having a dozen or so GM’s working on the core history, then their groups try to find the answers.

          Still, I like your idea that the Lexicographers and the adventurers interact, and might in fact be the same characters. I don’t mind having the players act as Lexicographers, then rushing off (either as the Lexicographers, or perhaps someone better-suited) to solve the mysteries they have discovered.

          I particularly appreciate that while the player Lexicographers get to declare history, the inability to explain the history can lead to greater engagement with the players because they by necessity literally develop the background of the setting, but don’t lose the excitement of discovery because while they have a good grounding, they don’t know the details.

          That’s a brutally long sentence, even for me.

  2. David Lamb

    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. 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.

    • A Question could be asked that way, but I think it still legitimate to make declarations. The Redemption of Thoren was an Event. It happened. Having that assertion in your pocket makes it easy to build around.

      However, later discoveries can, as described in the Lexicon rules, change the interpretation of things. Thoren was a Dark Wizard, tried to take over the known world, enslaved whole nations, etc., but eventually saw the Light of the Paladins of Trenneth and repented, undoing his horrible deeds, defying his Horrific Patron (not named here because, you know) and being destroyed….

      Or actually… Thoren did do those things, but it was a ploy by a manipulator in the ranks of the Paladins of Treneth to eradicate the infidels among the nations conquered by Thoren’s Dread Legions and draw all the bad guys into one alliance that could be smashed flat in one step. When that paladin faced down Thoren and “showed him the Light”, it was the Light of “see, we aren’t that stupid, look what you did” and he was the one who obliterated Thoren, not the Horrific Patron… who was so impressed by the massive deceit and betrayal and sheer vicious ruthlessness that he took the (ex-)paladin into his service before sending him back to his brothers to serve justice on the world.

      In other words, it is entirely possible that the Events are the public-facing knowledge, and if you dig too hard you’ll find things you might wish you hadn’t.

      • Major mechanical elements I can see:
        Facts: Created by lexicographers; it definitely happened, even if it’s not necessarily what it appears to be. I feel there should be some mechanic to define that a statement is a Fact, even something as simple as verbally declaring it to be one. As in Microscope, there may be layers of detail (facts are like onions). Lexicographers create a bunch of facts at the start of the game to seed the shared world, but can also create others during the second stage of play, based on explanations. A fact declared from an explanation still definitely happened even if the explanation as a whole is misleading.
        Questions: Created by lexicographers, these are basically quests (potential for wordplay here but I don’t have anything witty to hand). Based on facts and explanations, but may be based on a misinterpretation; hence, not necessarily factual.
        Explanations: Created by adventurers based on their discoveries in the field. Answers a question, but again the explanation may be based on a misinterpretation.

        Perhaps a given quest should be run by any player. He takes a Question posed by somebody else’s lexicographer (not his own) and then his lexicographer acts as the “quest-giver”, asking/ordering the adventurers to find out a solution to the mystery. He then basically acts as GM for this adventure too (his adventurer character sits this one out; BYO excuses).

        • Facts I can largely agree with, but the wording for Questions and Explanations seems a little strained.

          I see the need for only two elements here, I think. I’m not certain of the need for Explanation.

          A Fact is an answered Question, or a Question’s answer. We wondered about it, now we know. Facts may be asserted at the beginning of play.

          A Question is a thesis, assumption, or unknown information that someone wants to know.

          When a Question is answered, you have a Fact… and possibly more Questions, of course.

          I am not certain what sort of adventure format (GM and players) would work best. I don’t know that I would want to expect that the set of all players and the set of all Lexicographers are the same. I think I’d expect a core of Lexicographers to develop (who document Facts and Questions), who can each run whatever groups they want (open table, sandbox, etc.) to resolve them. I would not want to expect any real continuity between things. When the adventurers (possibly accompanied by a Lexicographer) return with their knowledge it can be incorporated into the Lexicon.

          • I distinguished between Facts and Explanations on the assumption that it was permissible for the players’ explanation to be based on a misunderstanding. If you have that their explanation is always correct (either declared so by principle or just making sure they reach the right answer) then there is indeed no need for a separate Explanation concept, as the answer is just a Fact (possibly several).

            • I could go either way. Either “plant the actual answer in clear terms” (you find specific evidence and proof of the answer, handy clue post explaining that yes, the Last Altansian King is dead, here are his bones and his stuff, and we need someone new to take up his role, and finally you have shown up) or “conclusions drawn are correct by definition”.

              I’m assuming people aren’t going to do silly things, but given the collaborative nature of the game what might be apparent nonsense… just raises more Questions, so I’m good with it.

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