[MICROSCOPE] Building a campaign setting through Actual Play

edited October 2012 in Actual Play
So, I’m really excited to write this up. It’s my first time doing an actual play report, so I’m a little high on naïveté and adrenaline at the moment. Please excuse any excessive gushing.

For all my gaming “career,” I’ve always been a player. Mostly, I’ve played in one-shots and game-store demos because of a lack of real-world time. Last year, I had the time problem resolve itself, and I concurrently joined two different groups -- one for Pathfinder and one for the West End Games Star Wars. I really enjoyed being a participant, but I want to move from being in front of the camera and refocus my efforts to the production end of gaming. I want to GM.

I like the idea of playing homebrew settings more than established settings, so I decided that my group would build the world from scratch, using Microscope. It seemed appropriate because I want my players to be invested in the setting. I’m also hoping to work in several story game techniques, but my players aren’t very familiar with that type of gaming. To be honest, I’m pretty new to this kind of gaming, too. So we’re learning this together.

We first met a few weeks ago, and It was pretty easy to get started. We knew we wanted to do something in a more post-apocalyptic setting. One of my players had recently been playing mostly Pathfinder, and he was tired of a “traditional” fantasy RPG setting. He wanted to see either a post-apocalyptic or cyberpunk genres. Considering that the other players enjoy games like Star Wars and Shadowrun, they were enthusiastic about the idea. So we started with the focus:

Culture rises again after an apocalyptic event destroys the world as we know it.

It’s a very broad statement that could go almost anywhere. What was amazing was how quickly it became defined by the palette. We began discussing what the players wanted in the world, and I was surprised that they wanted straight out horror. I was thinking that our world would be similar to something like Steven King’s The Dark Tower series, which has dark themes, but has a lot of light in it as well. Or perhaps something like Alas, Babylon, where nuclear war has happened, but people are making the best they can out of life.

I was really surprised how responsive the group was when it came to input for the palette. We had to refine some of the entries, but for the most part, they had put a lot of thought into what they wanted. They were gung-ho!

The next part, the development of the initial periods, was a little more complicated. We had to spend several minutes discussing how periods work, and the general method of Microscope’s top-down outlining structure.

Since I had the most experience, I served as the lens first. I decided to make an event and a scene focusing on the Supervirus Outbreak. The roleplaying of the scene was a bit awkward. In part, I think this was because the rest of the group weren’t sure of the actual goal of the process. This had a couple of factors. I don’t feel I explained it well, which was my fault. Another factor was the lateness. Our group is only able to meet starting at nine, due to family commitments and such. By the time we got to this point in the evening, midnight was fast approaching.

As an aside, I think the scenes are the hardest part of Microscope to do (the second hardest being Legacies). I think they can be very rewarding but it seems overwhelming to those I’ve tried the game with before. After that first scene, we didn’t do anymore.

Once the group understood the mechanics, the game began to hum along nicely. We managed to do two complete rounds, focusing on the first two periods before breaking for the evening. Our group is a bit larger than what the game recommends, so that added to the amount of time.

It was a few weeks before we were able to get back together, but we were able to get into the game with only a minor recap of the rules. Our session last night was good for a couple reasons. First, it was really cool to see my friends grok the world we’re building. There were some fist-pumps when they realized how they could take different pieces that other people were writing and work it into their own entries. More than once, I heard them say to each other:

“This is such a cool world.”
“Yeah, it really is.”

Some of the contributors did have a hard time expressing their ideas. So I did workshop some with them individually. Mostly, I had to ask questions to get the creative juices going. I also pointed out a few interesting things others had written and asked what kind of consequences they thought would come from those entries. At a couple of points, I had to remind the players that the collaborative part was done because they would suggest what they wanted to see. But overall, it went really smoothly.

Once again, though, time became an issue. We wrapped up at 3 in the morning. We may have gone a little too long, but we managed to add to all but three of the remaining periods. We’re planning to have one more session to wrap up the world outlining. I then plan to flesh the outline out into a full history. A few of the players have said they’ll help with the writing chores, which is a really good sign.

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed using Microscope this way. I could have thrown together a homebrew of my own and then told the players to come up with characters. But Microscope makes the world in and of itself a multi-faceted character that they know. Once we finish the world, the players will have a lot of gaming goodies to choose from, which will make my job as a GM that much easier. I know that they’ve got an investment into the game already. f you would like to see the outline we’ve developed so far, you can view it here.


  • Nice! Creating a campaign setting with Microscope seems to be a popular idea with everyone who tries it, but you're the first person I'm aware of to actually pull the trigger on it. Hope it goes well!
  • Thanks! I'll definitely let you know how the last session of Microscope goes.
  • Yeah, exactly what Joe said. Great post!
  • We did something similar to kick off our Stars Without Number campaign couple of weeks ago.

    I did not have a strong feeling for SWN's default milieu and I did not want to teach it to the players so I decided creating the background together with Microscope would be a better option to have a shared background for our game.

    We had a little problem with attendance as only 2 players ended up in the Microscope session with me. What we lost on our creation being shared with the whole group, we gained on pace – we were able to do three whole rounds.

    We chose the emergence of star gate system as a starting period and the re-emergence of star gates as an end point. We agreed that our SWN game would take place in the middle, at a point after the star gate system would collapse.

    At first we concentrated on using wide brush strokes to flesh out periods and events on the scale of galactic humanity. On third round, we concentrated on the sector we would play SWN in.

    The result was mostly the big events leading to the 'Scream' (the cataclysm where most psionics die and star gates are rendered useless) and a couple of other big plot lines. I used some of my voice to make up palette and events to comply with the general constraints of SWN play (I also got to create lots of other cool stuff). One other player joined that somewhat as he was familiar with Traveller-style play.

    All in all, the results are very good. Our SWN game (we've played one session now) is based on the power struggle between BioCorp (de facto ruler of the sector with genetically engineered super-soldiers) and the psionic resistance that we created in Microscope. This was easy to negotiate based on our presentation of the results of our Microscope game to the rest of the group.
  • Neat! I did something similar a while back using Universalis (w/o the conflict rules) to create a shared input fantasy setting. It seems like Microscope might be a bit better structured for creating a campaign setting?
  • We're in the midst of doing this, too, for a sprawling sci-fi space-exploration setting. We couldn't fit it all into one session last week, so we're picking it up again next week. The group I'm playing with apparently did this before for an occult Americana setting (or part of it) and it worked great.

    Thanks for sharing this AP report! It's great to see what you're doing with the game, too.
  • Wow, this is super interesting. I've seen other people talk about using Microscope in this way, but this is the first write-up I've seen actually describing how it went and sharing information about the resulting world. Thanks!

    I've been looking for good mechanisms to generate storyworlds for VORPS (my online story game system). This gDocs writeup doesn't seem far removed from a VORPS-compatible definition. I wonder if I could somehow streamline the conversion process, so that you could go from creating a world to playing games in that world in one fell swoop. It might also be a cool way to share these generated worlds with peers. Mind... racing...
  • Just wanted to say I give this thread a big thumbs up. I love this cross-pollination and comparing of notes.
  • Inspired by your post I managed to get our group to try Microscope.
    My pitch to them "This could help us all get into the setting of our roleplaying."
    It was a hard start and the baggage of traditional gaming kept getting in the way! But as you found once we understood the mechanics and concept of Microscope it hummed along nicely.

    We created a history with the big picture "The evolution of Transhumanisam"
    Book ends were Start "Humanity struggles with Earths ecological pressures." and End " Humanity is enslaved "

    We had some great scenes and one came to a push The vote was done secretly by tics or crosses on paper.

    Over all it was a great success and we all agreed to carry on developing the history for a role playing setting.

    With all the group invested in the setting I'm looking forward to see how this impacts the roleplaying with a traditional system.

    I would love to see if possible a 2nd edition of Microscope that helped with the transition to a traditional way of playing.
    Any thoughts welcome.

  • edited November 2012

    We created a history with the big picture "The evolution of Transhumanisam"
    Book ends were Start "Humanity struggles with Earths ecological pressures." and End " Humanity is enslaved "
    Huh, kind of amazing, my group's first-ever Microscope game was about Cthulhu-Mythos transhumanism and ended with humanity being turned into biotools for the Mi-Go, in a Period called, of course, The Stars Are Right.

    With all the group invested in the setting I'm looking forward to see how this impacts the roleplaying with a traditional system.

    I would love to see if possible a 2nd edition of Microscope that helped with the transition to a traditional way of playing.
    Any thoughts welcome.
    I think you will be very interested in Ben's next game, Kingdom. It's working from some of the same ideas as Microscope, but less macro and asynchronous, and with more emphasis on role-playing scenes.
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