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©2019 by To the Death! Games & Pastimes. 

  • Dakota Winslow

Game Breakdown: Microscope RPG (and others)

Once again, this is a post in our bi-weekly segment highlighting other games as sources of inspiration. Enjoy!

The subject of this week's game breakdown is Ben Robbins' Microscope. This is a nontraditional tabletop role-playing game, where players work collaboratively to tell a story by starting with a broad road map and working out the details a little at a time. While the game is certainly unique and very fun, it is a good representation of a larger class of games, one that I like to call 'story making games'. The games in this genre are mostly role-playing games, but differ from the classic RPGs by avoiding skills, abilities, and often character sheets; players are usually encouraged to improvise actions on a free-form basis, with emphasis on the creation of a strong narrative over personal achievement. This makes the game a very group-centered experience, and can provide incredibly rewarding game play. It is for this reason that I want to break down just what makes these games work, and how we can apply those principles to more traditional tabletop games. This article will focus on Microscope, but the concepts apply to any game in this category, like Fiasco, Archipelago, The Quiet Year, etc.


Microscope begins with a concept. Players (it doesn't matter how many) choose a broad concept for the world they want to create; examples include humanity setting sail for the stars, the rise and fall of an empire, or even the life of a single man. Once the group settles on a concept, a beginning and end for the "playable timeframe" are chosen; usually, these are major events in the history of the world that bookend a given era, and frame the concept. Players then take turns creating rules about the world, to both give a concrete basis for the world and encourage creative ingenuity. After the basic structure is created, play continues by "zooming in" on specific periods, events, and scenes within the narrative. With each successive turn, more of the story is discovered, while ever more questions are raised. Microscope describes this as "fractal" gameplay, where every new development offers the opportunity to explore ever deeper into the world.

Mechanically, the game is simple; a clever system of cards keeps the timeline in order, while players take turns at the helm, directing the narrative however they please for once scene at a time. There is no rolling, no checks, and no restrictions on what can happen other than the rules that were set at the beginning of the game (by the players themselves). Over the course of the game, players may role play as dozens of different characters, filling roles and creating the story as the need arises. The game has no set end; it finishes when the players are finished exploring and fleshing the world they have created, and the narrative within it.


  1. Reward players for playing nice. Story making games are the most fun when everyone buys into the story. If players are focused on creating an interesting world and an engaging narrative, the experience is rewarding for everyone. If players throw eachother under the bus for easy points, however, it cheapens the game and makes the experience less fun. To combat overcompetitive players, create game situations that encourage teamwork, even in pvp games. Mechanics like shared rewards for joint efforts or group goals make games more fun for everyone, while still allowing competitive players to reach for greatness. For an example of rewarding niceness, look at Munchkin. Players that are struggling can ask any other player for help, and offer nearly anything in return. This helps lagging players catch up, and allows ambitious players to earn a few more levels or loot by helping out.

  2. Let players make something. Microscope has no winner. Success in the game is determined purely by thr creation of a new world, and a story to drive it. Not every game can or should be as open as this, but the principles behind the fun are still there: players like to be creative. They like to spend time and thought on the creation of something, and they like to have some proof or symbol of it when they are done. Sometimes this means including tokens or even building pieces to give players to construct with; other times, it is only an assortment of cards or list of achievements. Whatever it is, be sure that players have a tangible way to represent their success, whether it is collaborative or solo. Carcassonne is a great example here. Even though it is a competitive game, players are still building the map together. The end result is a grand mosaic of tiles, with areas that each player was responsible for creating. The freedom of tile placement allows players to be creative, while the shared nature of the space encourages cooperation.

With these simple lessons in mind, we can learn to adapt these story making games into our own games, of any genre. The qualities of a good game are genre agnostic, and as we explore more of this series, the patterns of success will become ever more clear.

--Dakota W Winslow