Monday, June 6, 2011

Leonardo's Microscope

I've tried quite a few different rules-light GM-less games over the years (Off the top of my head: Microscope, Remember Tomorrow, Fiasco, Universalis, Rune, Baron Munchausen, and Pantheon), and I strongly feel that Microscope is the best of the bunch.

Microscope is settingless, and indeed that's really the point of it. In-game, you create a setting turn-by-turn, and then zip your focus around to various eras within that setting for impromptu scenes exploring it. In our experience, it was lively and wild, an excuse for everyone to ham it up... even the more usually quiet and passive players dove right in! I suspect it'd be hard to do an entirely serious setting and find it satisfying at your first go. Aim for humor and over-the-top cinematics in your first testdrive of Microscope, and it won't disappoint.

I read in a forum thread somewhere that Microscope works really well for alternate history since you have a common ground to riff off of, and thus plenty of inspiration. I'd like to submit our game as further confirmation of that observation.  Our setting began as just the concept of "Steampunkish alternate history where all of Leonardo Da Vinci's craziest  ideas work as imagined, and empower the Italian city-states to dominate the world." We opened right up with the cathedral-airship of the Anti-Pope pursuing the floating city of Venice.... and it just got crazier from there.  Assassination attempts against Empress Lucrezia; Sicily colonizing Japan; Napoleon leading the Genoese mammoth corps vs Baba-Yaga's lumbering mecha-bird-hut; analog computers stocking the Pope's personal bordello; and Venetians vs Zulu's at the battle of Beppo's Drift.

Like I said, it was a wild ride. Here's one of the tamer moments:
Click-click click-click. Vacuum tubes glow and fade, gears whir and ratchet. A large loom arm glides over the top of the machine, and then it spits out a punched card with rows of woodblock-printed letters across the top. His excellency The Steam Pope adjusted his lenses and regarded the message at arms' length.

It read: "Airship to Queen's Elephant 3. Checkmate. I am Deep Cerulean."
So as not to entirely disappoint those who expect me to be overly critical of every game system, I have a couple minor gripes I can air here. These are things I wasn't as blown away by as the rest of the system:
  • The mechanism that the victim chooses the success and/or consequences of the attack worked plenty well, but didn't exactly motivate anyone to mount an offensive. Some scenes that could have been dramatic or violent lacked tension because of it. We had enough wackiness and scenery-chewing to keep it fun, regardless.
  • Some scenes didn't suggest characters naturally. Especially since our group was large (the rules state it's for 2-4 players, but it worked smashingly well for our group of 7). You might think you're introducing a major character and then have nothing to do, or plan to play a background character and realize you're the only person representing one of the two factions involved in the scene.
  • The "point" of Legacies is not particularly clear, nor is the "point" of rating every scene as light or dark. Both exist just for thematic considerations, but masquerade as mechanics.  It wasn't until I carefully read the PDF the day after the game that I could be certain there wasn't anything more to them. I think this could be spelled out better in the rules... or that the virgin design space of making such things matter more in-game could be explored.
  • I think named characters could end up on cards of some sort. It's not really necessary, perhaps, since they might only be in one scene and have no stats, but I think a bit more to remind us they exist would have facilitated making them recur. Or perhaps we just could have done a better job of titling our scene and event cards to make the characters more accessible later. Without some way to record the characters,  the game definitely favors hamming-it-up and not taking things too seriously. Anything that fosters recurring characters and the time to develop them would help to reduce Microscope's need for grandstanding antics and outrageous humor.
Those are my four complaints, all very minor, and one of them was only an issue because our group was so large. Overall, I loved it, and I imagine it will get even better as we get more experience framing scenes. I'd happily play again without any house-rules, or with either of the following:

  1. For a large group, I think it might be a good idea to pack a dozen chess pieces along with the note cards. Four pawns and a king and a queen of each of two colors. When you introduce a character, you grab a chess piece. Pawn vs Royalty indicates whether or not you're a major mover & shaker in the scene. Color indicates which faction you're with for conflict scenes. That way, if you're the last person to introduce a character in a round, you can immediately tell if it's 5-against-1 and then choose to side with the underdog. No restrictions, just a tool for helping spot who your friends and foes are amidst the narrative chaos.
  2. If you find your group reluctant to take pot-shots at each other's characters given the mechanics, you might test out this variant: Have the person making the attack roll 1d6. On a "1" they get to narrate the results, on a 2 to 6 the target does (per the rules as written). That may make aggressive actions seem more worth it, without too badly subverting the point of the game. If using the chess-piece idea from the previous paragraph, you could even make it that the attacker wants to roll equal to or less than the number of chess pieces engaged in the attack. Just a thought.

1 comment: said...

You know, I wouldn't mind doing another session of Microscope. I can think of a bunch of different histories we could develop.