One of the key parts of RPGs and storygames is the interaction between diagesis – the story as it is told – and exegesis – the story that emerges from the telling. In most traditional narratives, the two are indistinguishable, but that changes as soon as you have achronological devices like time travel, retrospectives or flashbacks, or unreliable or non-omniscient narrators, or multiple viewpoint characters or countless other literary trickery. In most traditional RPGs (and most games, too), the two are close to indistinguishable, and certainly operate in parallel and simultaneously. And yet even there, as soon as we have the tellers and the avatars as separate concepts in the same body, there is an interesting friction between these things, where all sorts of fun metagaming issues reside. In recent times, more and more games have enjoyed playing with this friction in explicit and mechanical ways, but few in such an extreme way as Microscope.
Microscope’s name comes from the game’s ability to shift focus. The overarching goal is to produce a history perhaps millions or billions of years long, but players can zoom in on slices of that time to find key events, and then zoom even further to pure moments, of dialogue and interaction. For what is history but a series of moments?
But in writing up the game, I find myself in a quandary as the nature of the game is to record for posterity the exegetic narrative, the history created, but it is the experience of its telling, the diagetic creation, that has the most wonder, seeing how it formed so achronologically and so strangely. I will endeavour to give some sense of the diagesis first, so you can see the madness before the final creation, lest you think we somehow planned it or built it in logical stages. You might be tempted to think that because event B comes after event A that A caused B, but other times, knowing that B must happen, we would rather create an A that might be a due instigator. As the rules of Microscope say you cannot change the future, but the past is yet unwritten.
We began with a pitch: I envisioned a town in the USA in the modern day with a strange and chequered past, perhaps as violent and tragic as the city of Pawnee in Parks and Recreation, and definitely with as much strangeness and curious magic as the city of Night Vale from the eponymous podcast. I said that perhaps in modern day there might be touches of Wysteria from Desperate Housewives and Royston Vasey from the League of Gentlemen. I had also taken the liberty of providing the initial framework of the chronology, which is done by defining the first and last Periods (the largest unit of history) such that nothing can happen before or after. To leave our beginning blank, I’d labelled that “Ancient Aeons Ago”. To fix the end in a world of modern day US politics with a dash of satire and fear of the unknown, I dubbed the final Period “After Obamacare”.
Next we moved onto the Palette, an excellent naming advice useful for any shared creation: each player could add an element they would like to see in the history (but was not mandatory) or something they definitely did NOT want to see (and thus could never appear), to give us our palette of elements to work with. Our Yes list was: Family generations, Animism, Secrets and Dragons, and our No list was simply Lovecraft (too overused) and Parody (we wanted it to take itself seriously).
From here on in it becomes harder to tell this story because as I say, the end recording is of the exegesis. And if I tell you that story, from beginning to end, you’ll think I’m telling you the story of Eagle, Crow and the Green Dragon Legacy. Which was where we ended, but only at the very end did we know that. Although be the end of the first pass we did know that 1880 was the height of the Green Dragon’s Rule, and that at one point, ancient aeons ago, Animals Walked As Men. And then it got so much more strange, in the most wondrous sense of the word.
Chronologically in the diagesis, I can only list each of our Lenses, and the Legacies. Each round every player gets to add a Period, an Event in a Period or set up a Scene in an Event, but all of that stems from the Lens dictated by the head player (who also gets more additions), called a Focus. (Note: I have swapped the terms Lens and Focus here as they are written in the book because we liked to think of the Lens as being the lens through which we were viewing history, that made more sense on the day. And I encouraged everyone to think like historians.) After our first pass suggested the rulership of some over others, our first Lens was “Peasant Uprisings”. This cemented much about the noble families, so our second lens was “The Two Great Dynasties”. A throw-away comment in a scene in that round suggested we had robot automotons so our third lens was “The Robocracy of the Greater US”. Our last two Lensed brought us back to our theme, and the nature of Crow, with “Disruption Leads to Change” and “Towards the New Abyss We March”.
Legacies are determined by the player to the right of the Focus, and represent emerging themes, ideas, concepts, bloodlines, groups or aspects of history that are interesting and worth pursuing in the future – perhaps. The Legacy maker gets a scene about their Legacy (or another’s after the first) as well, to finish each round. Our Legacies were “The Preservation of Knowledge”, “The Ghost In the Machine”, “Knowledge versus its Application” and “Shadowy Badger At Work”.
And now: history – Periods in All Caps, Events within below, Scenes in brackets. Periods and Events are given Tones which determines roughly how they feel – but it’s up to interpretation.
ANCIENT AEONS AGO (Tone: Light)
– Animals Walked As Men (Dark) (in which Crow bargained with Thunderlizard so that Crow could make the Builders at the cost of Dodo)
– The Great Wyrm Rises From the Abyss (Dark)
– The First True Folk Are Formed To Till the Gardens of Paradise (Light)
– Eagle Pulls the Prophecy From the Abyss (Dark)
NOBLES HOARD THE SECRET OF FLIGHT (Dark)
– Invention and Production of Aerial Artillery Begins (Light)
– The Worm Vandykr Starts The Cult of the Knowledge Eater (Light)
– The Builders Turn to Worship of the Knowledge Waster (Dark)
– The Destruction of the Abyss Leads to War (Dark)
THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE BUILDERS (Light)
– Sparrow* creates the Chessmaster Armies from Abyss-Ash (Dark)
– The Difference Engine Defeats a Chess Grandmaster (Light)
– The Builders Sell Their Secrets to the World (Dark)
– Badger Teaches All The Animals How To Build Cities (Light)
*-was supposed to be Starling, but I got it wrong. It’s Sparrow now. In errattae veritas.
1680: THE HOUSE OF VAN DEKKER FOUNDS THE CITY BENEATH NO STAR (Dark)
– The Others Found the Great Library for the Common Man (Light)
THE RISE OF “UNCLE SAM” THE PRESIDENT MACHINE (Light)
– The First 100 Days (Dark) (In which reporters reveal Crow has meddled with Uncle Sam’s perfect programming to prevent war with the South, according, Crow says, to make the Prophecy become true)
– Uncle Sam Unveils the World Tree Broadcasting System (Light)
THE GOLD RUSH YEARS (Light)
– Wyrm and Raptor, the Two Bloodlines, Agree to Shimmer As Men (Light) (and in agreeing to do so, Mr Wyrm and his bankers bought control over the Pinkertons and the Town, much to the distress of Ms Starling)
– The Tutelage of the Green Dragon Begins (Light) (and Crow and the Green Dragon become enemies over whether information should be stored in books and studied forever to understand the prophecy, or if knowledge should be created by great men like Green Dragon)
1880: (THE PEAK OF) THE RULE OF GREEN DRAGON (Light)
– The Failed Rebellion of Crow (Dark)
– The Plague of a Thousand Hands (Dark) (which began when Crow took the Last Book from the Great Library to begin knowledge anew)
1913-1946: THE READING OF THE LAST BOOK (Dark)
– The Civil War Overthrows Green Dragon’s Control Of Midnight Meadows (Dark)
THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT COMES TO MIDNIGHT MEADOWS (Dark)
– The Council of 12 Bans Secrets, Ruling That All May Know The Truth (Light) (in which Widdershins Starling unleashes the Emancipation Virus, despite this revealing she was bald as a cueball)
– The World Tree Is Destroyed In A Nuclear Blast (Dark) (sneakily launched by Crow, when Uncle Sam is distracted by a wish to end his own reign, now he is a freebot)
– The Witchhunts Begin: Wyrms Blamed For Allowing Secrets of Nuclear Technology to Go Free (Dark)
RAPTORS SEIZE POWER IN AMERICA: ALL GLORY TO PRESIDENT EAGLE (Dark)
– The Prophecy, At Last, Is Fulfilled (Light)
– Crow is Imprisoned (Light)
– Badger Chooses The Worthy To Join Him (Dark)
AFTER OBAMACARE (Dark)
– Age of Obamacare begins when Hackers Release the Obamacare Virus – then Lose Control Of It (Dark)
– The Hacker Known As “CROW.BAR” Leaks the Town’s Secrets, Ending All Government (Dark)
– Leaving the World Behind, Crow Seeks His Destiny In the Abyss (Light)
That’s it as it stands. The write-up below is my interpretation of it.
This is the story of Eagle, Crow and the Legacy of the Wurm. But it is also the history of the town of Midnight Meadows, the rise and fall of the great United Robotic States of America around that town and the wars that shook it, and indeed, the history of the whole world
Ancient aeons ago, there were animals as there are now, but they walked and spoke like men. And since they had arisen from the Abyss, they had known only two things: The Hunger, which the Abyss had taught them, and the Food, where they were forced to feed upon each other to quell the terrible Hunger. But then one day, Crow – clever, dangerous Crow – called a meeting with an idea. Present was foolish Dodo, terrible great Thunderlizard, cranky, shadowy Badger, wise Eagle and as always, the ever present voice of the Abyss itself. Crow told those assembled that he had a plan, an idea to end the Hunger: to build a thing he called his First Children, who would make a great Garden of Paradise, and from it draw forth endless Food so there would be no hunger. Eagle feared change and warned against it – as always. Dodo said he longed for Food for without he and his wife could never have an egg. Badger wondered where the tea was, if it ever had been. They argued, but the Abyss warned that it knew all fates, forward and back, and that if Crow’s idea happened, one of those present would not live to see it finished, and would descend again into the Abyss. Crow knew this, knowing it would be the price of the others’ agreement – especially when Thunderlizard, as always, cared only for bargains. Roaring loudly he told Crow he may proceed with his project backed by Thunderlizard if, when Crow condemned one to the Abyss, Crow would help Thunderlizard bring one back. Crow made the compact. Quick as a flash, Thunderlizard snatched Dodo and threw him into the Abyss. True to his bargain, Crow designed his Children, and they tilled the fields and ended the Hunger.
True to his word also, Crow helped Thunderlizard free the great Wurm from the Abyss. Wurm was the last of creatures, whom the Abyss had kept from the earth because of Wurm’s great pride and vision – and hunger. Wurm was like an Abyss made flesh, and although Crow’s children produced food for all, the Wurm’s hunger continued and led him to feast upon all the creatures of the earth. Fearing the world’s destruction, and knowing of the Abyss’ great wisdom and foresight, Eagle did what no creature has ever done before or since: he descended into the Abyss and rose again from within. And in his beak he carried the Prophecy, ripped from the walls of the Abyss itself. And that is the day the laws began and time began to pass.
The Children – now known as Builders – and the Animals were so amazed by Eagle they sought to make him their king or god, and Eagle was raised up as a noble. Of course Dragon’s fearsome power and appetite had already caused many to worship it likewise. So it was that there began a great rivalry between the two great dynasties – Raptor and Dragon. But because Eagle had descended into the Abyss, he was immortal, so although Dragon passed his lineage down through countless children, Eagle’s children always gained the wisdom of him in person.
At this point, only Raptors and Dragons could fly, and intent on keeping their power equal to each other (and over the others), the noble bloodlines hoarded the power of flight and left all other animals on the ground. Thus Raptor and Dragon soon came to be prideful and arrogant. The solution came from the Builders who created the first aerial artillery allowing the common folk to threaten the noble houses. To keep the peace with the common folk and lore-loving Raptors, an olive branch was extended when the great wurm Vandykr formed the church of the Knowledge Eater, the cult that understood truth should be written down, like the great prophecy. However, as is so often the way with faiths, there was soon a counter-faith that rejected the Knowledge Eater. Most of this cult were Builders who felt the Prophecy and things like it were dangerous because they inhibited development. It was enough to invent new things, and then copy or improve those things. Kept knowledge – trapped knowledge, unused knowledge – was madness that could only hurt progress. Crow, we suspect, sided with the Builders in their love of the Waster and brought many to its fold, even Raptors that had once marveled at Eagle’s rescued prophecy. Eventually, the Wasters were so afraid of a second prophecy they destroyed the Abyss itself, an act that led to a terrible religious war.
But from the flames of war came a better age – or at least a stabler, more egalitarian one. The Builders blamed Dragon and Eagle for the division and war, so threw down the animal races and set up their rule. In this time technology was granted to all – although it meant many animals found themselves in lower positions, or cast out because of their faiths. Sparrow and some rogue Builders built the Chessmaster Armies with Builder tech and sought to destroy the Builder Equanimity, and it seemed like they would until the first Difference Engine was created – a Builder-built machine that could think and build as good as any Builder, and able to out think and out manoeuvre the terrible Chess Grandmasters. Content that they were no longer needed, the Builders became indolent and corrupt, selling the secrets of their designs to the whole world. Not all of Crow’s First People had been Builders, and they now covered the world, and with all the Builder technology they came to dominate it in massive numbers. The animals, used to depending on the Builders without money, were once again bereft. And if it hadn’t been for Badger teaching them how to build cities, they might have vanished from the earth altogether at that point.
Europe descended into a world of war, as men fought men over their religious schism using the Builder’s terrible weapons, and men fought animals out of general xenophobia. In the face of such strife, many looked to leave and found new cities across the sea. So it was that the foreign settlement of what would one day become the United States began when the worm Van Dekker and his house build the City of No Star. The name came from the lack of any constellations anywhere above the town which the wurm took as a good omen, knowing that it would prevent prognostication and prophecy – things, like writing, that were forbidden in the City. But the new land would soon incur the same troubles as the old as Biblioids fled the religious pogroms of the Knowledge Wasters and formed the Great Library also on that far continent, a shining monument to free knowledge for all.
Soon the land was full of men, and the two great houses of Raptor and Wurm came to dominate also in this far land. The City of No Star changed its name to Midnight Meadows as it expanded, and became the capital. The nation was split by political strife as the South which held the Great Library fought with the north which believed in the destruction of Knowledge. Eventually, the Builders presented a solution: a perfect robot creation in the shape of Eagle and programmed to do exactly what it was elected to do – or so they claimed. We know now that even before the election was over, Crow had sabotaged – or edited, as his supporters claimed – the programming of the bot, to follow Crow’s will and bring about the prophecy – and, no doubt, save the Library from destruction. Even with the execution of several reporters this scandal eventually broke destroying the Robot Uncle Sam’s credibility in his early days. As an olive branch he announced a great plan to convert the Library into spoken knowledge, expounded through the World Tree, his thousand-mile-high broadcasting system. Thus the knowledge would be transient, emancipated from books, but not destroyed. Although of course once a book was spoken it would be destroyed forever. It was not a system which the South would tolerate, but before war could break out, the Gold Rush arrived.
It was in this time that modern America began to be forged. Fearing that a time of beasts was done, Wurm and Raptor signed a great pact in Midnight Meadows that they would Shimmer as men from now on. However, the Raptor family (then under the head of Mrs Aguila Starling) that dragon magic still works when shimmering, allowing the wurms to easily control all the gold, a fortune they used to take control of the Pinkertons and from there much of the entire architecture of the United States Government. Green Dragon was born at this time, and he and his tiny cousin White Dragon were the last dragons to appear in their true form, hence they were known by their appearance. Green Dragon would be perhaps the greatest of all the Dragon line, deciding as a young man that he truly believed in the Knowledge Waster, that knowledge kept was knowledge of no purpose. He believed knowledge could only be made through great action by great men like himself, and hammered the point home by marrying Crow’s wife, Amelia Starling. By 1880, Green Dragon was the power behind the Presidency and working to destroy all knowledge in the United Robotic States. Crow tried valiantly to launch a rebellion with the biblioids but it was doomed to fail. Even the last High Librarian was killed, in the ashes of the Great Library, due to the treachery of the Rat Catcher, Dragon’s spy. Crow took the last book and fled. Desperate to save the last book, Crow visited upon the people the Plague of a Thousand Hands, forcing people to copy the book out again and again, but this too was doomed to fail. Eventually the last book was captured and destroyed, being slowly read out over the World Tree.
With Crow’s rebellions leading to the destruction of all books so quickly, the Southern Compromise no longer could stand, and the Civil War broke out between the States. Uncle Sam blamed Green Dragon for this outcome, and worked to remove his control over the capital and the country. A new government body was installed called the Council of Twelve to advise Uncle Sam. Meanwhile, the war led to much greater outcomes, as it soon became to turn on the issue of Roborepresentation. The head and driving force of the movement was the plucky young Widdershins Starling, who believed that all robots should be free, and was willing to break the Rule of Silence to make it so. (With all knowledge now solely oral, secrets were closely guarded, including the Emancipation Virus, a secret which would give all robots free will.) Ms Widdershins campaigned vigorously on the Council of Twelve to end all secrets, quelling the fears her opponents raised that the robots would rise up and destroy the country. To prove to the Council she could bear any secrets to be told she revealed to them that she was born bald and since then, social justice campaigners have typically shaved their heads in her honour. Such a bold gesture convinced the Council, and the Virus was released.
It has no greater effect than that on Uncle Sam, who, now gifted with free will decided he wished to step down from his weighty office, especially as the Civil War grew into a threat of nuclear armageddon. How could he, one man, decide the fate of millions by launching a nuclear strike? How could anyone? He begged Green Dragon to advise him, begged his Chief of Staff to take over for him, or even asked the man with his hand on the button to decide. A great philosophical debate about action began, while Crow pressed the button. The World Tree burned in the attack, and thus began the fulfillment of the prophecy. The country blamed Green Dragon for the war and its grisly outcome and for causing the nuclear arms race with their emphasis on knowledge application and building. So it was that wurms were hunted down (regardless of Shimmer) in a giant wych-hunt. Into the vacuum left by the departing President and the destruction of the other great dynasty came the return of the Raptors. Eagle himself took the throne, and taking revenge upon wurmkind for disposing his bloodline with an age of brutal paranoia and oppression. Crow explained to Eagle that this was the prophecy coming true, that it was written that Eagle would return Wurm to the Abyss where he belonged. Eagle had Crow imprisoned for daring to suggest that Crow had planned this all along. But Crow’s – and Badger’s – plans could not be so easily stopped. Badger had already dug the second Abyss, and echoed the division of the nation as he chose which animals would join him in returning to it.
Under the dark cyberrule of the Raptors, political rebellion happened online, most notably when hackers threatened the reign of President Eagle with the release of the Obamacare Virus, designed to give health care to all, even wurms and non-raptors. But they lost control of it and it evolved to grant health to humans – and death to animals. It was then that the hacker nicknamed “Crow.bar” revealed that that too was his plan, and released all the remaining secrets of Midnight Meadows. When people realized that almost all politics had been manipulated by Crow to fufill the prophecy at the appointed time (and the other parts were just Raptor and Wurm fighting), they abandoned the concept of the state and formed anarcho-syndicalist self-governing micro-societies. With no more nobles, and no more robots in charge, and with the animals now descending into the new Abyss and the religions of Wurm vanished, Crow saw his work was done, his creation of humanity was truly free, and he flew into the Abyss to seek his next destiny. Eagle sat alone and immortal on a throne that had no subjects and never would again.
And White Dragon, being bored, chased his tail in the corner, as he was wont to do.
Microscope and its expansion can be obtained here. But your mileage may vary, we had some really creative people on this.