Push your own or pull together – common storytelling and Microscope

I have just read through Microscope, a story game by Ben Robbins, in the hope of getting to play it at some point during the summer. The basic idea of Microscope really speaks to me, and I’m sure I’ll have a blast playing it, but there is something about the way the game handles ownership and responsibility for the story that does not sit well with me.

Microscope in a nutshell

Microscope is a game about telling a world history from the broad strokes to the minutiae of the moment. You start by bookending your game by saying which broad period of history you want to talk about – in our world, it might be from the transformation of Rome from republic to empire until the discovery of the new world, or even further up in history.

After setting up the game, you take turns adding elements to the history of the world. The game operates on three levels of detail: periods (World War II, the Cold War, the decline of the Western Roman Empire or the colonization of the New World); events (D-Day, the Cuba Crisis, the Sack of Rome or Columbus’ landing in America); and scenes, posing a question to clarify something in relation to an event (“How did Columbus react when his lookout told him that he saw land?”).

An important principle of the game is that you don’t tell history in a linear way – in other words, you can always insert a new period between two periods, an event between two events or a scene between two scenes,  as long as you don’t contradict anything already established. In this way you zoom back and forth across history, looking at a new aspect of world history each time by selecting a “focus” for this go-around of the table.

“No-one can help you now!”

My problem with the game is in how it deals with joint storytelling. I’m used to joint storytelling from playing games like Fiasco, Apocalypse World, Geiger Counter, Gloom, as well as from improv theatre and creative writing exercises. In most of such endeavours, you accept and build upon whatever is added to the tale by the current storyteller, but you’re free, and even encouraged, to give ideas to that person if they’re unsure how to proceed.

Not really so in Microscope. This is from the Playing the game part of the game (on page 20):

“Only the current player gets to contribute. Other players should not give suggestions or ideas, and the current player cannot ask for input either. Other players cam and should ask for clarification if they can’t visualize what the current player is describing.”

 

Why? I get that this game is about everybody contributing, and that Robbins wants to avoid a scenario where one player is forcing their own vision through by making other players play what the domineering player wants to see. On the other hand, I’ve played with newbies often enough to know that sometimes, it’s just necessary to help some players along. Even experienced players sometimes can use a bit of a push to get started. And I think leaving a stumped player without aid can be as bad for them – and the game – as another player trying to remote control them.

As such, ruling out asking for “input” seems to be an unnecessarily antagonistic approach to joint storytelling. Instead, I would have encouraged input or “nudging” that doesn’t amount to remote controlling another player. “Well, we haven’t heard from that character in a while,” or “What kind of effects do you think what just happened would have further down in history?”. Posing questions or drawing attention to things that can give a jumping off point for adding to the story.

Later, under the headlines “You build on each other…” and “…but don’t collaborate” (page 27), Robbins writes:

Nothing will kill your game faster than playing by committee. When it’s someone else’s turn, don’t coach. Explaining the rules is fine, but don’t suggest ideas. Even if another player wants ideas, don’t give them. Let them come up with something.

Be interested in what other players create. Ask questions, demand clarification. If there are contradictions, point them out, but resist the urge to make suggestions, even tiny ones. You’ve already inspired them with your contributions to the history. Now wait and see what they do with it. Keep your poker face.

If you collaborate and discuss ideas as a group, you’ll get a very smooth and very boring history. But if you wait and let people come up with their own ideas, they may take the history in surprising and fascinating directions. It can be hard to sit silently and watch someone think, but the results can be awesome.

And I get a lot of that. I really do. But I think Robbins is painting a false dichotomy here. Not playing by committee is not the same as not helping someone come up with an idea. It’s true that letting others come up with their own ideas can give you a great story, better than what you could have made yourself. But in both Geiger Counter and Fiasco, I have seen “current players” sparring with other players to come up with a logical next scene to set.

I agree that players should come up with their own ideas, and I agree that you should be patient with players while they consider their options. But I would trust players to know when to give a hint and when not to, particularly if Robbins had given some structured way of doing that.

Pushing your own idea

I have similar issues with another, related, aspect of the game. When a scene has been set, each player selects a Main Character to play in that scene, and may also play one or more secondary characters.

During scenes, players have authority over everything their character says, does and perceives, and anything that happens to their character. If you want to create something in the outside world, you can make your character perceive it. You can suggest actions to others, but they have to go along.

If someone during scenes introduces something about the world that you want to replace with your own idea, you can do something Robbins calls “Push”. When you push, you describe your alternative idea, then everybody at the table may give their own idea without negotiating or discussing, then you vote for your favourite one or two ideas, then play the winning suggestion.

There are a number of special circumstances where you have to push instead of just playing:

  • If you want someone to perceive something particular,
  • If you want to describe something that none of the characters can see,
  • If you want to say that somebody else already knew something.

The reason for this is that as a rule, you only have authority over your own character. So if you want to include something beyond that, you must make sure everyone is OK with it. That’s fair, and in many ways quite reasonable.

On the other hand, it rubs me the wrong way that Robbins starts up the creative conflict resolution before anybody has even opposed a particular suggestion. Sure, he does indicate that it’s all right for everybody to just say sure – but the way the rules are stated, everybody should consider whether they have a better idea every time somebody introduces any of the above elements. Why not state that you should ask if anybody would like to Push against your suggestion, rather than saying that you are Pushing?

MY character

Another aspect of the Push-rules in Microscope is that you can never Push to change what somebody else’s Primary Character does. During the scene, you have absolute control over your character. And that puzzles me as well.

Having control over your character in a regular role-playing game makes a lot of sense. In a traditional game as well as many story-games and indie games, your primary way of interacting with the game is through your character. But in this game, you only have possession of a certain character for one scene at a time. Next time, the same character might be played by somebody else, and that character might not even appear again.

So while it’s good that each player can make decisions for their character, thus making the game smoother and keeping everyone involved, I do wonder whether the game could not have benefited from having some way of changing what somebody does with a character that is, after all, a part of a story you are all telling together.

Antagonistic storytelling?

I have yet to play Microscope, and it may turn out that my concerns are misplaced. I definitely think that it will be a small concern with the people I am likely to play it with (and I WILL play it – it seems too awesome a game for me NOT to play).

And that might be where part of my resistance comes from: I may be used to a certain way of role-playing that is different from what Robbins is used to. To me, it seems that Robbins assumes that the players’ natural inclination is to fight over the story, and to try to force their own vision of the game through. That’s not something I see that often. I usually prefer cooperative storytelling, where you take and give suggestions from everybody all the time. That holds, even in games like In A Wicked Age or S/Lay w/Me, where your characters are in opposition to one another: you are still working together to create the best possible story.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Thais Munk on July 20, 2013 at 11:09 am

    Heya Elias,

    I suddenly thought of this, almost 2 weeks later: Have you tried playing it? And how did it work out? 🙂

    Reply

  2. He is more or less busy right now playing the game, so he’ll soon have an answer 😉

    Reply

  3. Posted by Thais Munk on July 26, 2013 at 9:56 pm

    A week later, I’m still fairly curious as to how it went? 😉

    Reply

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