Lexicon and Microscope: Microscope Overview

Seekers of Lore
Seekers of Lore

We’ll be applying the Microscope and Lexicon techniques a little differently, and a few people have expressed concern about not having a copy of Microscope in the first place, so I thought I’d do a brief summary of how I see the techniques being applied.

Microscope Structure and Element Types

Our application of Microscope is going to deviate somewhat from the published book. Rather than complicate things by explaining the differences, I will try to briefly describe how I think we will use it.

I suspect most of our time will be spent identifying periods and events, but higher-level/lower-resolution and lower-level/higher-resolution elements are available.

It is important to understand that Microscope is described as “designing history fractally”. We will identify agesperiodsevents, and scenes (Microscope has periodsevents, and scenes; I want to explore things differently) in more or less arbitrary chronological order. The different elements will be added in top-down order, from highest-level/most-abstract/lowest-resolution to lowest-level/most-specific/highest-resolution, but may be added in any chronological order.

  • The parent element must be added before any child elements. A period may only be created ‘inside’ an age, an event happens during a period, and a scene is part of an event, and none of these can be created anywhere except within their parent (ages have not parents but do have siblings).
  • A new element may be added at any level (though adding a new age is unlikely). A new element will be added either before all sibling elements, after all sibling elements, or between two sibling elements (or be the first addition). The position among the siblings determines the relative chronological sequence of events, but there is no specific measure of time or schedule involved.
    • In the period “Colonization of the Far Continent”, the “Settlement of the Far Continent” event happens after the “Discovery of the Far Continent” event and before the “Rebellion of the Far Continent”, but the time between each of these is not defined (and more events can be added around them and new scenes added within them).
  • A newly-added element cannot contradict or overrule an existing element. Once the king is declared as having been murdered, the king is murdered and nothing can be done to prevent it from happening. However, things may be done about it.
    • If revivification magic (or technology) is available, the king may be brought back to life. However, he still would have been murdered.
    • If there is room in the setting, it may be that it wasn’t actually the king. I would suggest some sort of complicating situation (doppleganger replaced the king, the assassin was trying to expose this). This can be implausible, but not impossible. [I’m still thinking about this point.]
  • Each element will have a tone, ‘light’ (generally good or pleasant or desirable) or ‘dark’ (generally bad or unpleasant or undesirable).
  • No element may conflict with the palette. It is not necessary to add elements using something from the ‘Yes’ column, but no element may use something from the “No” column.
  • Participants may ask for clarification of an element or challenge its validity (such as if it seems to contradict an established fact or use something from the “No” column of the palette) but may not otherwise influence another participant in creating an element. Negotiation and point-wise collaboration are allowed during palette creation, not during element creation.

As described below in this exercise we are focusing primarily on the ‘Dawn of Civilization’ age. It is possible we will add another age, but I think it unlikely right now.

The Microscope book uses cards to indicate the various elements. Because we are playing via wiki, I think it will be sufficient to create and maintain a tree (list of lists) in a wiki page, with links to pages for individual elements. The tree on the summary page will indicate the hierarchy of elements, and the name, tone, and very brief (10-12 words at most) summary, the individual pages will contain any further detail required and maybe taken as the start of the Lexicon session to follow.

Element Type: Age

I am adding a larger element than is present in Microscope: the age. A period is described as “a very large chunk of time, probably decades or centuries”. An age is thus likely be centuries or millennia.

In human history, the ‘ancient age’ might span everything up to the fall of Rome (and this ignores prehistoric ages). Various dynasties in the nations, the general dominance of one over the others, or even the time a particular ruler holds power might be periods.

Fictionally, the Midkemia books might have the time of the Valheru as an age, the Time of Madness as another age, and the current age as a third. In the Dragonlance books there is something similar, with the pre-Cataclysm world being one age, the time without dragons or gods a second, and the time after the return of the gods and dragons as a third (sadly, I don’t remember the names of these ages). There are periods within each of these that describe what happens over time, but within each age certain fundamental things differ from adjacent ages.

The rules can change significantly between ages, quite literally. Each age may (and probably will) have a different palette.

Element Type: Period

Periods are much as described in the Microscope book. They might be described as defining the conditions and circumstances in which events happen, and even describe to some degree the nature of the events, but do not go into specific detail. The Microscope book presents a sample period that is

A time of great terror, with evil wraith-spirits possessing and corrupting the lords of the realms, from the king on down.

This does not identify any specific possession or event coming of it, but makes it clear that they happen.

I make a distinction between periods and ages that is not present in the book.

Element Type: Event

Events are much as described in the Microscope book. Each happens in or during a particular time (within a period, but may have duration). An event happens in a definable place (that might be very large; in the Lensman books there are battles that literally consume solar systems!) and has an outcome.

If an event would be a continuation of (leading up to or describing the aftermath, for example) an existing event, it is probably actually a scene of that other event.

Element Type: Scene

Microscope usually uses scenes to ask and answer questions that do not have obvious answers. If a stronger army overwhelms a weaker army, that would be expected and would likely not need a scene to explain it (but may have a scene to illustrate details of the battle, see below). If a weaker army defeated a stronger army, however, a scene could be used to explain why (wily leadership, dauntless warriors who refused to give in and managed to win the day against the odds, horrendous luck — or dysentery — on the part of the stronger army).

Scenes may also be used to provide representative or historically-important details of an event. If we have a period representing a particular dynasty, and the ascension or reign of a specific ruler as an event, scenes might be used to show details of the ascension (perhaps there was a bloody struggle against an attempt to usurp the throne) or illustrate the nature of the reign (we can say the new king is just, or provide a scene where he demonstrates his just application of power to resolve a problem).

I think for this exercise any such use of scenes will be resolved by declaration rather than role play.


Step 1: Big Picture

For this exercise, the big picture is “The gods created the world, and it was greatly changed by Primal Chaos”. I do have some idea what happens afterward (since this is setting the stage for those events to happen) but they are outside the scope of this exercise. I want to know what came before, exploring what changed can be done later.

Step 2: Bookend History

The ending age is “Amorphic Maelstrom” (tone is dark, civilization shattered, the surviving remnants are scattered, and the gods have left the world). I have some idea of what I want from the period after this, but because we are not yet exploring it I am ignoring it.

The starting age, though… perhaps “Dawn of Civilization”. The gods have been created and they have created the elemental planes and begun work on the Prime Plane. They are not yet done, but life is happening and becoming intelligent enough to start organizing itself (tone is light; the gods are no longer casually obliterating civilization when it gets in the way and civilization can start to gain momentum). I really don’t know much more than this right now. I don’t know what civilizations rise and fall, nor any other significant detail.

At this point I do not see new ages being added; the time before the Dawn of Civilization is not of interest to me right now, nor is the time after the Amorphic Maelstrom.

This suggests, then that each age should have bookends, periods at the beginning and end… but I’ll leave those for later consideration.

Step 3: Palette — Add or Ban Ingredients

At this point the only things on the palette are

  • Pre-Maelstrom: Yes: Gods walk the earth
  • Dawn of Civilization: No: Gods no longer walk the earth

I know they will be going away when the Amorphic Maelstrom happens, which means they must be present in order to go away. Beyond that I cannot think of anything a standard fantasy setting could be expected to have that won’t be present, or that a standard fantasy setting could be expected to not have that can be present.

Building the palette will be done pretty much as written in the Microscope book. As written, each round each person may add one ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ element, until a round in which at least one person passes. Each element so added must be agreeable to all people taking part in building the palette — participants can negotiate to find acceptable compromises or alternative palette entries.

It is important to remember that the palette identifies exceptions to expectation. This is a primarily fantasy setting, so most common fantasy tropes (wizards, barbarian warriors, and so on) can be expected to be present. However, an exception may be made that there are no arcane spell casters (the gods walk the earth, all spell casters are godspeakers). If all present find this agreeable there will be no arcane spell casters, at least in the period identified (I’m going bend things a little — the Maelstrom changed many things; arcane casters may have come about during this time because the gods departed). Similarly, ‘gods walk the earth’ is not a given, and might be either true or untrue for any given setting, so adding them to the palette makes it explicit.

Expectations may also be driven by palette elements. The absence of gods may or may not imply the presence of demons or divine agents such as angels, so if the point is important to anyone explicitly adding them to the palette can make it clear.

Step 4: First Pass

Each player adds one period or event, according to the guidelines above. Players may act in any order, but each places only a single element.

Main Activity

Now that the preparation is complete — we have determined the bounds of the exercise, the palette, and a starting set of elements — each participant can start adding new elements.

Each round one participant will be the ‘Lens’, the person who decides and guides the current round of development.

  • The Lens declares the focus, the topic of the current round. This might be an element to be specifically developed further (such as exploring a particular period or event), or it might be something else in the world (such as a place or person or thing). All elements added this round must somehow relate to the focus.
  • The Lens adds one or two elements related to the focus. If two elements are added, one must be subordinate to the other (such as a period and event, or event and scene). This is to provide some impetus and guide the round.
  • Each participant may add one element. This element must be somehow related to the focus.
    • The Microscope book says that control passes to the left. Lacking a table because we’re playing by wiki, and because it probably doesn’t much matter, players may act in any order.
  • The Lens adds one or two elements related to the focus to finish things off. As above, if two elements are added, one must be subordinate to the other.
  • The player ‘before’ the Lens chooses a Legacy, something that is specifically notable about the topic. The player adds one more era (period, event, or scene) relating to any Legacy that has been identified, not limited to the Legacy just added.

This accounts for the primary work in each round.

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