Tabletop Storygames: Microscope Union

I’ve written before about the storygame Microscope, in which players collaboratively generate the timeline for a fictional place or institution. Microscope Union is a spinoff of that, focusing on the development of a single family tree.

You start by naming a person who did something — it should probably be something extraordinary, but you can decide what extraordinary means to you — and some traits that allowed them to do this. Then you work backwards, filling in details about previous generations (back to the great-grandparents), and showing where those traits came from. Each phase of the game, you select one “union” to focus on. (You can also choose to have parents/grandparents not be biological parents per se, but be key influencers of the child’s life — we went this route a couple of times.)

The resulting play experience feels more coherent and directed than standard Microscope: because new people and events fit into a defined graph, it’s easier to remember who’s who, and easier to reason about causation. By the time we finished the game (two sessions of about 2-3 hours each), I felt like I had a pretty good idea of the driving forces in the final protagonist’s life.

I also liked that we wound up roleplaying the same characters in the context of their relationships with their parents, their spouses/romantic partners, and their children: this gave us a reason to explore some depths and idiosyncrasies that don’t always come out in RPGs.

What took me aback a bit was coming to the end of the game and realizing that we’d spent very little of our gameplay time actually focused on that protagonist we’d invented at the outset. Most of our role-playing scenes involved the protagonist’s parents and grandparents, whom we came to know rather better than the protagonist themselves. At the end of the game we actually tweaked the rules a little so that we could each add a few sentences of epilogue about the protagonist, Fiasco-style, and I felt like the game really needed that to tie off the loose ends.

Microscope Union also needs a different kind of hook from standard Microscope. In a lot of tabletop gaming scenarios, you want to come up with a premise or scenario that could have interesting repercussions. “Scientists develop the capacity for instant teleportation between locations on the face of planet Earth — what results?” Or “This empire is ruled by a princess descended from the god of fire, and she controls all the volcanoes in the land.” There are loads of standard-trope science fiction and fantasy premises that, despite frequent use, are still interesting enough to play with if you give them a bit of a twist, and coming up with new ones is often a matter of tweaking one of the standard rules of our current universe.

But in Microscope Union that kind of premise is of less use. You’re exploring the history of a heroic/surprising deed, not its outcome. That means you want something where the interesting questions are less “what results from this?” or “what would it be like to live with this situation?” and more “why would anyone do this?” or “how would this even be possible?”

In the game that we played, the deed in question was establishing an undersea utopian colony for artists. While that was interesting to play out, I came away thinking that a goal for which the players felt less initial sympathy would have been more productive in gameplay terms, because we would have had to work harder to explain it. We also put relatively little of our time into the “how did this even become possible?” question, perhaps because we were not that well informed about the technical requirements of such a project, and it’s always a challenge to roleplay too much from ignorance. I’d be curious to replay Microscope Union as explicit tragedy, a little like Polaris: the final character has done something awful, and you have to trace back what could possibly have gotten them to that point.

All the same — this is a cool variant on standard Microscope, and I really appreciated how tight it felt.

And speaking of premise-exploration, I could also see doing a further twist on this, Microscope Tech Tree, where you’re developing (forwards or backwards) the technologies of a fantasy or alien race…

6 thoughts on “Tabletop Storygames: Microscope Union

  1. Did you play a version with “the Necessity” as one of the steps? That was an addition that prompts players to explain what about the past made the Hero’s deed necessary or drove them to act. It’s a simple question but it helps frame the “why” of the history.

    re using Union for a tech tree: one of the options in the book to explore the origins or nations, religions or even schools of thought. Each “parent” can be a different ideology or group that inspired, merged with, or flat out crushed another.

    • We did play with “the Necessity”, but the answer we came up with in this case was basically “because CAPITALISM.” And then found that later in the game it was hard to tie legacies into trying to explain why capitalism arose. This was, obviously, on us as players. Probably a more nuanced Necessity would have invited a lot more exploration there.

      Even so, a lot of the background play was around how various predecessors of our protagonist had been sort of screwed over by the system, their past experiments with utopian/co-op living (which crashed and burned but in interesting ways), their relationships to the traditions of their society, etc. So we did get a fair amount into the question of why this particular protagonist would a) see the status quo as very problematic and b) think of separatist approaches to resolving that.

      re using Union for a tech tree: one of the options in the book to explore the origins or nations, religions or even schools of thought. Each “parent” can be a different ideology or group that inspired, merged with, or flat out crushed another.

      Sweet! I’m looking forward to the book. (Microscope Chronicle sounds fun too, from what I’ve read on your site, but I haven’t yet had a chance to try it out.)

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