Having heard great things about using the Microscope RPG for collaborative world-building, I knew that I wanted to kick-off our new science-fiction PbtA campaign with a Microscope session. Heck, our planned setting is literally the first scenario listed on the website: “Humanity spreads to the stars and forges a galactic civilization”! (Fantasy RPG players, the next two are “Fledgling nations arise from the ruins of the empire” and “An ancient line of dragon-kings dies out as magic fades from the realm.”)

Since we would be playing online, we used the custom app Utgar’s Chronicles to manage our timeline. It provided such a great experience I became a patron.

The game starts with these three steps—

1) Big Picture: Pick a concept for your history, no more than a single sentence.

2) Bookend History: Make start and end Periods.

3) Palette–Add or Ban Ingredients: Each player can add or ban one thing from the Palette. Repeat until a player doesn’t want to add or ban anything. Feel free to discuss–everyone should be happy with the Palette.

Our big picture was “Earth expands through jump gates,” and our bookends were “Earth experiments with blackhole generation” and “First Contact.”

Next we crafted our Palette: “The Palette is a list of things the players agree to reserve the right to include or, conversely, outright ban. It gets everyone on the same page about what belongs in the history and what doesn’t.” Each player takes turns suggesting an item for the Palette or passing, until everyone has passed. For instance, one player wanted real space physics rather than cinematic physics, and I wanted to ban magic such as the Force. We definitely are going more hard science fiction than science fantasy. Our palette:

The Palette by itself is such a useful tool that others recommend it as a mechanic to use with one-shots (see: The Microscope Palette, Its Usefulness in One-Shots, and a Dungeon World Starter Discovery).

The three steps of Big Picture, Bookends, and Palette are a time for discussion and feedback, but after this “Group decisions are now over.” The joy of building a timeline is that you can always add an event before or after it to change its influence, so people are encouraged to expand the timeline on their own, without discussion.

The core loop of gameplay involves either adding a period to a timeline, adding an event to any of the defined periods, or hosting a scene to elaborate on an event. For instance, we had the idea of Expanse-like gates to handle interstellar jumps. One player created the period “Jump Race: Race to Claim Systems” after this gate technology was invented, and another player added an event to this period, “Illuminati-like group organizes jumps to help direct exodus from earth to other systems.” Scenes are designed to answer questions together and involve more traditional role-playing.

The game is recommended for two to four players, but we played with six (it should be noted, explicitly over the author’s written objections in the rules). The main ramifications of playing with too many:

  • It took us two sessions (about 2-3 hours each) to give everyone opportunities to contribute.
  • We only ran two scenes (we found them time-consuming for the payoff).
  • One of the players felt like the game bogged down with so many of us.

Here’s the timeline we produced:

Overall, the game was such a success that two of the players immediately announced their intent to use it in a new 5e campaign they are starting.

Microscope, by Ben Robbins, Lame Mage Productions, ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

An innovative RPG for collaborative world building, and a great way to start any campaign with a Big Bang.