Microscope and Setting Design

I was originally going to write something about nodes tonight, but since I’m still thinking about ‘M’ and I think my Midpoint Check-In is a bit of a cheap post, I’m going to write about something else.

Microscope is a wonderful cooperative tool for world building. The primary focus is on building history — nested periods, events, and scenes — but players are encouraged to add any supporting information needed, especially regarding geography and historical figures. These incidental creations imply much about the setting, and the first person to mention an element might not be the one who actually explains it.

My first Microscope session (linked page contains the full timeline of the Age of Gods, with links to the pages containing the historical element descriptions, and a postmortem of the session itself) was for my Seekers of Lore campaign (that sadly fizzled out before we actually played much, but we did manage to get one or two sessions in). It was also followed up with a Lexicon exercise (and the associated wiki itself) where we expanded on the elements identified during the Microscope session.

I’ve also done a couple more sessions, both starting from the same premise (the rise and fall of the Shenlong Empire, from scattered kingdoms to faded empire). They ended up with wildly different results.

  • Shenlong Empire, Mk 1 describes a fantasy interstellar setting, where on the second turn of the game we learned the council of evil dragons sacrifices five willing chromatic dragons (and a city of not-so-willing mortals) to form Chu Xiang (um… they made a Tiamat).
  • Shenlong Empire, Mk 2 describes an empire run by halflings and gnomes, wherein the dwarves hollow out under the empire’s capital city and drop the entire thing into a sinkhole. (We didn’t get as far with this one, a couple of scenes took a long time to play out.)

Despite some of the apocalyptic events, we could easily have continued these explorations. When playing Microscope you may not directly contradict statements from other players, but you can shade their interpretation and, failing all else, simply explore what happened before the catastrophe… with some insurance against disaster because the element being discussed existed after the time you are examining.

The times I have used Microscope, I have ended up with setting material I never would have imagined for myself. There is a sort of internal coherence that develops, but at the same time there are always questions that never get answered. I’ve never managed to run a Microscope session for more than about five rounds, but I’ve heard of some that run dozens. I can only imagine to complex tapestry that comes out of that.

Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to try that myself.

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