I'll start with nutshell summaries of the four games, in order of when I played them:
- Alternate History / Steampunk: Leonardo da Vinci's craziest inventions all work, which leads to floating Italian city-states ruling the world.
- Science Fiction: The trials and social upheavals of a generation ship on it's centuries-long voyage to a new eden.
- Urban Fantasy / Secret History: A conspiracy to protect the unwitting masses from their own imagination in a dark world where popular literary characters can sometimes spontaneously come to life.
- Epic Fantasy: A "bigger-is-better" take on high fantasy with city-sized dragons, meddling gods, and the infamous 'Goarcs' (Goat-Orc Hybrids).
In the two games that didn't work as well, the players weren't really seeing eye-to-eye, and we were all over the map thematically. It just didn't come together as it should, which I'm thinking probably means our palette wasn't refined enough.
Good Palette, Bad Palette: Less Is More
(For those unfamiliar with Microscope: the palette is a list of thematic elements that the players nominate for inclusion or banning during a particular session of the game. The palette is constructed first, taking a couple minutes at the start of any game of Microscope.)
Not surprisingly, the best games are the ones where the setting was most clearly defined. Microscope really shines when the players are on the same page: riffing off each other's ideas, and reusing characters or concepts. As near as I can tell, there are two ways to achieve this:
- Alternate History (with a defined sub-genre and deviation point): A setting that looks like Earth, or like Earth until a particular event or time. This gives you a common well of ideas to draw from, and ensures everyone is picturing roughly the same images in their mind. The trick will only work if everyone has some grounding in the history, theme, or sub-genre you're proposing. Steampunk Renaissance (and the world that would evolve from it) was easy to grok, but a more obscure era or culture might not have worked so well.
- Really narrow palette: I believe you could make any setting work, provided the majority of the palette were "no" statements instead of "yes" statements. Confusion and vagueness are the enemy in Microscope, but too much freedom can likewise be disruptive. You want a couple of cool simple ideas to play with and explore. The game is at its best when you explore an idea and its ramifications thoroughly, and when individual characters or events get revisited and built upon. To quote an art teacher I once knew, "restrictions breed creativity". A large number of "yes" statements encourages people to just keep adding new eras ("periods" is the game-term, IIRC) and events that exist in isolation from the rest of the narrative, trying to shoe-horn in anything from the palette that hasn't yet been introduced. If you leave the field open for just about anything, you end up with an ugly mish-mash that doesn't hold together conceptually.
Early on, we had a notion that monsters would occur mostly as one-offs, the way they do in Greek myth, where there's one minotaur, one hydra, three gorgon sisters, etc. But that was expressed as a "yes" option in the palette, and it was followed up by another "yes" that we could also include races of monsters if we wanted. Which meant the number of races in the setting kept creeping up. You know how I said that there were orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, kobold, and goat-orcs in the setting? Want to know all the established facts about them? Curious what the difference was between a kobold and a goblin? Here's all we knew:
- Orcs got a well-defined culture, especially for a one-shot. They had dinosaur-riding shamans early in the timeline, who were then overthrown by magic-hating orc-amazon heroines. If you were playing an orc, you had some backstory to play with and have opinions about.
- Goarcs were created by a wizard who magically crossbred goats and orcs. Some where centaurian, others were goat-headed orcs, and still others were a random mix of goat and orc parts.
- Humans were also made by wizards, not gods. In an inversion of an established fantasy trope, humanity was created by breeding orcs and elves.
- Kobolds had big families with lots of children.
An aside about Goat-Orcs: Alas, the Goarcs were introduced too late in the game to get used. We all responded to the concept, but they didn't get proposed until probably half and hour before we folks had to start heading out to their buses. Had the Goarcs shown up 2 hours earlier in the night, they would have defined the game. If we'd had Goarcs early on, I doubt anyone would have bothered with Goblins, Hobgoblins, Kobolds, or other generic fantasy races.
I fully expect that Goarcs will show up in other games we run, and not just Microscope, either. I may just need to write a Goarc RPG.
What's the point of having all these races if you don't develop them? At least in D&D, you've got game mechanics and illustrations to differentiate them. In microscope, we had nothing. If the player needed a threat, plot device, or faction for a new scene or event, they'd just name-drop a generic fantasy monster race and leave it at that. Since we're not a D&D group at all, I'm guessing we had different people picturing different editions (and games) versions of these monsters, at least to the extent that they were being pictured at all. Mostly they were a blur in the background.
I'm going to contrast this with the gods. If there's one thing we did right on the palette of that epic-fantasy game, it was Peter's awesome restriction of "no" to there being more than 5 gods. I should note that 5 was also the number of players. This restriction ensured that people wouldn't just throw out gods casually, or mix pantheons. All of the gods that showed up were unique creations. You'd give them a cool name, a description, and a large purview / dominion (like "Goddess of Ice, Suffering, and Childbirth") that suggested even more about them. Only 3 of the 5 possible gods entered the narrative, but the two that got introduced early on showed up again and again. They rocked.
I strongly suspect that similar limitations being applied to other areas would have worked wonders for this game. If there was a limit of roughly the same number of fantasy species as there were players, then we would have reused species instead of paying lipservice to them. If wizards were defined individuals, not just a race or profession, we might have ended up with them being a bit more flavorful.
The more you reuse something, the more definition it gets. Confusion and vagueness are the enemy in Microscope. The whole point of the system is to keep narrowing in and discovering new things about what you've already looked at from a far. When allowed limitless freedom and left to their gut-instincts on a blank canvas, we end up just throwing around cliches, tropes and buzzwords, doing the same old thing we always have. When you have a limited palette is when the really interesting revelations come up.