The Spot Check with Ben Robbins and Microscope

Back in 2011, dungeons and dragons had started to lose a bit of its pizazz. Sure I still play it regularily and it is still my default fantasty RPG go-to, but I needed something to freshen things up.

Looking around the web for some inspiration, again and again I came across this tile: Microscope. It appeared on dozens of "Top Ten" RPG lists, each time describing an RPG not about adventuring, but about creating worlds. It sounded great! With the power of a god I could shape and create the histories of fantastic and far away worlds! Just the kind of change I was looking for.

I decided I would get it, but it actually took me another 4 years before I actually got around to buying a copy...

Since I bought the paperback copy rather than a PDF, It took a couple weeks to arrive. However upon opening it, I was surprised at how small it was. Not sure what I was expecting, I guess I just thought it would be bigger.

Pretty thin.
The book may have been small, but the RPG system was incredible! Microscope allows a group of people to create the history of a world, using nothing but cue cards and a pencil.

You start by coming up with a concept. A simple statement of what your world is going to be. The idea that my group had for its first game was "A Forest Becomes Sentient".  You want to keep your idea vague so that you have plenty of room to expand and explore the concept.

You then build your world by taking turns to create different ages, either creating a Period (representing an era of history), an Event (an important happening of the world's history; nested in a Period) or a Scene (a specific moment from history; nested in Events).
A Forest Becomes Sentient
To ensure that the game has a bit of focus, each round, one player take the mantle of the lens. This is the player that decides what part of the world's history the group will focus on for the round.

Using that simple format, you play round after round, growing your world, and seeing what happens throughout its history. I found it was impossible to predict what would happen! As people add in new Periods, events,scenes and explore your focus for the round, everyone's individuality really comes out, and you will see your idea get moulded into something totally unique!

Now microscope doesn't really have a logical end, so you just keep playing until you are satisfied with the world, and you can always pick it up and expand on it later.

Talking with a few gamers from around the community, I have also learned that a lot of people use Microscope to create the setting for other RPGs. I would love to give this a try! I would play the game with my player party and then host the game within it. It would mean that your players would have a real connection to the world, which would give you some great roleplay!

Let the adventures begin!
Quickly after tweeting about my first game, I saw that its publisher Lame Mage Production favourited my tweet. So I followed them on twitter; I just had to talk to Microscope's creator Ben Robbins. A few weeks later he got back to me and was gracious enough to give me an interview!

1) What's your name and where are you based?
I’m Ben Robbins and I live in the lovely Pacific Northwest. Possibly in a secret volcano base.

2) What got you into RPG Design?
Like probably every GM, I tinkered with game design back in my old school D&D days. But what really got me into design was being exposed to indie games that completely challenged all my assumptions about RPGs: one-shot games that would cover an entire story arc, diceless games, GMless games. Games that genuinely put the players in the driver’s seat.

In one of our first indie games we had a run-of-the-mill “party is attacked by bandits” encounter that mutated into something out of Greek myth — complete with meddling divine fathers and jealous goddesses — because the rules gave us the power to bring those elements in on-the-fly and take the game in awesome directions. I was hooked.

3) What inspired Microscope?
So many different things. From one angle, I had been a GM for decades and I *loved* crafting worlds, building the history and lore. I didn’t even care if the stuff I made ever appeared in play: the fun was creating it. I wanted to make a game that shared that fun with the whole table and also made it part of play, instead of something that happened only during prep, outside of play. From a different angle, I wanted to make a game that gave a voice to people who were too quiet at the table, people who never found a way to contribute.

Microscope also reveals a certain fundamental fascination with time. We think about the past all the time. When things are gone, are they really gone? Without the past, the present would be meaningless. When you are creating a fictional history, like when a GM builds a world, you are always jumping all over the place fleshing out things and discovering/inventing whole new bits you hadn’t thought of before. But that’s also how we learn about the real past, by starting with a broad overview and drilling down into the details later on. Microscope takes the best of all of that and let’s us do it together.

4) What is the biggest challenge you've faced?
Compressing Microscope into a slim 80 pages. It is much harder to be concise than it is to drone on and on, but at the table players don’t want to flip through pages finding the rule they need. That's a waste of valuable play time.

5) What do you have in the works now?
I’m almost done with Microscope Explorer. It’s an expansion that is chock-full of treats and toys to make your Microscope game even better. Plus it’s got three whole new rule spin-offs that let you play Microscope in totally different ways, from exploring the ancestry of a single character to actually traveling back in time to change the outcome of a history.

I’m behind on launching the kickstarter for it, but if the stars are right that should be appearing reaaaaal soon.

6) Fave game?
Leaving out my own games, one of my favorites is Polaris. The way it handles creative conflict is genius. Instead of getting deadlocked or one side winning and the other losing, you build on each other’s idea and wind up making something even cooler than you expected.

7) Most overrated game?
Monopoly! No joke, that game is terrible. I went on a Monopoly spree recently to see if there were some redeeming aspects but it’s like someone intentionally wrote a game to incorporate everything un-fun (which may be exactly the case, given the theory that the original author intended it to skewer capitalism, not praise it).

8) Favourite meme?
Something with cats. So… that’s most of them, right?

9) What game character would you be out of any?
What’s that dot in the original Atari Adventure game? That dot is intrepid. Doesn’t even have hands, still slays dragons.

10) Best alignment?
Lawful Evil. It gives the good guys something to do.

11) Magic or melee?
Teleport away from battle. Retreat to secret lair. Spend days scrying opponent and sending waves of Invisible Stalkers at inopportune times. Which is *technically* a melee attack, by proxy. Because no one with d4 hit points should fight fair.

12) Old school or new school?
The cool thing is that the old school always starts as the new school! When Major Wesely ran Braunstein and accidentally invented GMing it was a totally radical thing.

13) Sci-Fi or Fantasy?
Some day I’ll actually write Star*Axe, an utterly metal game of space vikings with laser axes conquering planetoids from their flying longboats. And then I’ll have both.

14) Most epic win?
Learning to make fire was a pretty good one. Oh wait, you meant *my* most epic win. Doh.

15) In a battle for middle earth where would you be?
Taniquetal has the best view but I can’t resist Nargothrond. Finrod Felagund is the best elf.

Microscope Explorer



Microscope  Explorer is currently on kickstarter (Until august 5 2015).

Get in on the action now, I have pledged my support! Thanks Ben Robbins and all the best in the future from JADE!

Written by: Andrew Gregory

The Spot Check with Ben Robbins and Microscope The Spot Check with Ben Robbins and Microscope Reviewed by Jade GamingNews on 7/22/2015 12:20:00 pm Rating: 5

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