"Microscope" as a Worldbuilding Tool

Discussion in 'World Building' started by Drakevarg, Aug 9, 2018.

  1. Drakevarg

    Drakevarg Lore Master

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    I don't know how many here are familiar with the game Microscope, but it's a tabletop collaborative worldbuilding game which I picked up a while back, which a friend of mine has described as being the rules of improv theatre applied to a writer's room (or something to that effect).

    I've only run one game with it, which fell apart after a few sessions because of scheduling conflicts, but it was an interesting experience. Added a few features to my setting that I never would've considered myself, though at least part of that could be attributed to the party not getting the tone I was going for. Either way, I'd definitely try it again had I a stable group to run with.

    If anyone else has experience with this game or just understands the basic idea behind it, do you think it has much potential as a worldbuilding tool? And do you think it makes any sense to try and develop a "solitaire" version of the game, or would that kind of defeat the point?

    Edit: It occurs to me immediately after posting this that linking to the game's website might be in violation of the forum's rules, so I've removed it. I can link it in a later post if not and people want to see it.
     
  2. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    I was entirely unfamiliar with Microscope, never heard of it, so I checked out YouTube for helpful videos. There was one three-part, 3+ hour live Microscope game, which was too long for me (and started off very, very slow during the "setup" phase), so I ended up watching this video instead. It's pretty good for an overview:


    As a worldbuilding tool for one's own novel, the problem of collaboration seems to be the biggest issue. I'd think that you would need to get release forms filled out, and/or offer some kind of compensation and acknowledgment, if you use the contributions others have made to that world.

    That said, it seems like a great tool that could be modified for solitaire use. The basic concepts and process for developing an epic world history are great. I particularly also liked the bit about creating scenes: great advice for scenes in a novel. ("All scenes start with a Question and end with an Answer discovered through play. Creating good questions is the hardest part....")

    I wish the video had gone into more detail about Creating Legacies. It skims over this. Why? What's the purpose? How does that affect the development of that epic history? What exactly, beyond creating a new event or scene—which happens in other ways during a game turn—does creating a legacy do? I can guess some of this; but I'd've preferred more depth in the video.

    Same goes for "Focus" also, but to a lesser extent.

    It would seem to me that the problem of doing this solitaire might be the limit on the imagination any one of us would bring to the process. Maybe this could be worked around using some random generators, or perhaps creating a very, very long list of actual world events, important historical figures and concepts, cutting the list into individual slips of paper, and putting those in a hat for an occasional random draw. Then, use what's drawn to think of an analogue, or transform it into fantasy/sci-fi terms befitting the general milieu and story of the whole game. Perhaps, also, as you create periods and events, put each of those on slips of paper for a random draw, to see where these actual world events and persons, etc., get applied.
     
  3. Drakevarg

    Drakevarg Lore Master

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    Focus is easy. Basically it's to keep things "on topic." Each round has a particular Focus, as decided by the Lens. All new additions to the timeline need to be related to that round's Focus. This basically keeps people from playing in their own corner, spending each turn adding to a particular facet that interests them alone, and makes them participate in the topic of the current round.

    Legacy is kind of like a compromise to that, a sort of secondary Focus that allows a thread of continuity through the world. Once a round ends, the player who was the previous Lens gets to pick or keep a Legacy drawn from something that was already on the board that they're interested in, and adds in a scene or event for it. That way, even if the game as a whole moves away from a topic you were interested in, you can keep building on it using your Legacy.
     
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  4. FifthView

    FifthView Istari

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    Thanks for that explanation. Those two things might be more useful when playing Microscope collaboratively, simply because a solo player would always be the Focus and Legacy! Again, the only solution I'd have is to create some kind of random draw, to keep from developing tunnel vision. It's not a big deal, should be simple enough. Maybe like the Palette, one could make a list beforehand of areas, concepts, etc., that the creator would like to be foci.

    You'd asked about using Microscope for world building, but I think it could also be a tool for brainstorming an individual story.

    The structure is interesting:

    Big Picture: Come up with a Big Picture for what the story will be about. This is like developing a premise statement or logline, but not quite. I like the examples given in the video. Your story could be epic in scope or intimate, a story about the colonization of space or about the high school years (or even one year!) in the lives of a group of friends.

    Book Ends: Next, determine where your story begins and where it ends. Perhaps brainstorm a scene or chapter for each, the beginning and end. This is common advice for writers, not necessarily a requirement, but forcing oneself to do this while playing a game of Microscope could have major benefits for brainstorming the story and developing its structure later.

    The Palette: Create a list of things that you desire to see in the story and a list of things you don't want to appear. Let your imagination go wild; this speaks a little to the heart of the matter, the things that interest you about this particular Big Picture. Don't worry about how these things will be incorporated just yet. When your brainstorming later hits a roadblock, refer back to The Palette for inspiration.

    Once the initial brainstorming and setup is finished, then brainstorm the Periods, Events, and Scenes. Don't worry so much about determining these in chronological order. So these would allow you to brainstorm and focus on those that interest you most, in the order that feels natural, and move back and forward to interweave things.

    Periods: These are like the 3 or 5 or 7 acts in the story combined with a consideration of the major plot points.

    Events: These can be broad or narrow events within each Period. E.g., a broad Event might be that the kingdom comes under attack in one Period, and a narrow Event within that same Period might be that the MC goes exploring in a tunnel under the castle and discovers what will be an object that will be major later as a clue to solving a mystery, but at the moment it seems to him to be an odd curiosity.

    Scenes: Brainstorm the scenes within each of those Events. As I mentioned in my first comment, I love the way the video says every Scene begins with a question and ends with some kind of answer.

    Rinse, repeat the Periods, Events, Scenes brainstorming, in whatever order. If you are unsure of the scenes that might appear in a particular Event, skip on to brainstorming an Event in a different Period. Or maybe skip to brainstorming one of the Periods you haven't yet determined.

    I'm not sure how Focus and Legacy would be incorporated into this general process, but I think the overall shape of a Microscope game could be used for outlining a story. (The video seemed to waver a little bit on the "purpose" of Microscope. It's a game about creating an epic History, but at the same time the narrator referred to it, paraphrased, as a storytelling RPG. Either and both together seem possible.)

    The one area that Microscope doesn't seem to address, were we to use the tool to brainstorm a story, is characters and character arcs. In fact, in the game, you don't play a character, heh. However, in a way the players are the authors, and characters can be mentioned in Periods, Events, and Scenes, and can appear in multiples of these, so it's not really different than what we do as authors when creating a story. I suppose one could use the bold concepts above fractally when brainstorming a character arc, also; then, weave that into the plot arc.
     
    Last edited: Aug 11, 2018
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