Under a Microscope

This is what the table looked like as we were finishing a game of Microscope last weekend. What an amazing little game design! I don’t think I have encountered anything quite as streamlined and intuitive since my first brush with Prime Time Adventures. The way PTA structures a character-driven story into series, episodes, and issues, Microscope structures a more epic story into eras, events, and scenes.

The game invites players to tell a history, adding eras to expand the timeline or events and scenes to detail it. The results are both fluid and inspiring.

Our particular story was inspired by R. E. Howard’s Hyborean Age in that it was the story of a civilization that rose and fell prior to what we know as recorded history. Our starting point was “Cephalopods erect the first underwater cities.” Our ending point was “The experiments go suddenly wrong, wiping out all intelligent life.”

The story we told began with a race of intelligent (and evil) cephalopods who erected underwater cities. Early on they were an inquisitive race, exploring the underwater world and the coastline above. There they encountered early hominids and turned them into servants, attaching symbiotic creatures to their brain stems. Thus they were able to vicariously experience the odd delights of surface world for extended periods. Even during this early period, however, a group of cephalopod priests exerted undo pressure on the cephalopod society and politics, raising huge temples to their sleeping god. (Cthulhu references here.)

Over time, natural forces began to lower sea levels worldwide and threatened to expose the cephalopods’ underwater cities, so the scientists invented a network of “amplification crystals” which could be used to retard or force changes in sea levels.┬áThe scientists also decide to toy with human DNA to create a second, more intelligent servitor race that could do their bidding below the surface of the water.

In the council chambers a fight broke out between the leaders of various sectors within the cephalopod society. The general of the warrior caste vehemently argued against replacing his band of underwater warriors with air-breathing abominations. In an unexpected move, the church and the scientists banded together to gain an iron-fisted (iron-tentacled?) control over the cephalopod civilization. The DNA experiment resulted in early dolphins (with arms and hands). The scientists quickly realized, however, that they had made a mistake, as the church exerted its power over the population to subjugate the scientists, making them vassals of the church.

As time passed, the dolphins revolted and the cephalo-dolphin wars began. There was never any real doubt as to how they would end, but the dolphins struck a final and seemingly futile blow, ravaging the flesh-tanks where the cephalopod symbiants were grown. Though this ended the war and most of the dolphins were eradicated, the strike was a cover for planting mutated symbiants into the flesh-vats. ┬áLater these symbiants would accelerate human evolution and independence, “infecting” humans with increased intelligence and rudimentary psionic abilities.

Eventually, humans on the surface began to rebel, like their dolphin relatives, moving further inland and founding their own cities in the jungle. Their rebellion made it harder for the cephalopods to get raw materials from the surface world and the scientists, under the power of the church, gradually lost most of their knowledge. As a result, when the amplification crystals began to fail and the waters once again receded, the cephalopods could do nothing to keep their cities from becoming exposed to the sun. The cephalopods repeatedly retreated deeper into the sea and slowly devolved. Modern day octopi may or may not be their descendents.

During the cephalopod decline, the golden age of humans was founded on their burgeoning psionic powers and the strange sciences borrowed from their one-time masters. They discovered sex, having been largely cloned by the cephalopods as homogeneous batches of males. They also learned body modification techniques. The symbiants began to wither and die in increasing numbers. During this age, marked by experimentation and decadence, a recidivist group materialized, romanticizing the life they once had as servants of the cephalopods. This (all-male) group cherished the symbiants, handing them down from generation to generation, and took up the dark religion of their former masters. After a time they began to make human sacrifices in the bleached out temples of the cephalopod civilization.

In one of these bizarre rituals, the group nearly awakened the sleeping god of the cephalopods. The flood of alien thoughts that reached through from “the other side” incapacitated the cultists and short-circuited the fragile network of the remaining amplification crystals. The surge created one last massive pulse of power through the crystals, rapidly altering the earth’s climate. The result was a mass-extinction event and rapidly rising sea levels that wiped out the last remnants of sentient humanity and the cephalopod civilization.

The remaining dolphins, with their withered arms and fused fingers, looked on and laughed.

Okay. Yeah. It’s a little weird-silly, but it was actually pretty cool in its formation. I’ve left out a bunch of stuff, and it’s amazing how much detail we crammed into a four-hour session. We played out this last scene FIRST, which means we abruptly “invented” the symbiants, clones, the amplification crystals, and the exposed cities (lowered sea levels), without really defining what any of these things. A fair amount of the rest of the game was an effort to incorporate and make sense out of why these things existed at the end.

The game was brilliant, though we felt the “legacy” mechanic felt a bit impotent and unnecessary. Like many others who have played the game, we immediately began to dream about the possibilities of playing this game before beginning a campaign. The idea that all the players would be heavily invested in, and knowledgeable about, the history of the campaign world is exciting. I suggested that at the end of a game of Microscope, all the players could take a handful of pawns and, one by one, put them down on the index cards that represent eras/events they would like to play game sessions in. Another player suggested that it would be cool to do a Microscope and then have everyone at the table GM a separate one-shot representing an event or extended scene. So many good ideas, so little time to game! As for our own game, I think the human setting with the decadent jungle cities and the dry sea beds with their bleached out temples of the ancients would be an awesome, almost Barsoomian, setting for adventure.

I can’t wait to try this game again.

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