Normally I'd start an introduction with something like this: "Lorems & Ipsums is a roleplaying game that focuses on filler text for lazy people." In this case however, I feel compelled to start with a very clickbaity question:
Is Microscope a game?
Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Microscope is a... collaborative... activity... in which you and a group of people generate a story together. What kind of story? Well, any story really. The flexibility of Microscope is clearly a bit part of its design principles, as well as its appeal. But as the blank page or canvas is often intimidating to a writer or painter, it can be difficult to ask a group of people to come up with a story to tell— of any genre— out of nothing.
This leads into one of my biggest take-aways from Microscope: it requires a high level of engagement and interest in the core process. It's probably not for everyone. Most people who play Dungeons & Dragons wish their game time could be sacrosanct, but it's also fairly doable for people to make nachos and put their two-year-old to bed in the middle of combat. "MJ, it's your turn!" "Just have me attack somebody!" "Okay." Microscope demands a lot more attention as every card that is laid down ties into all others and the group discussion really matters.
We started by defining our story as starting in the aftermath of an environmental apocalypse and ended with finding peace among the stars. This was fine-tuned by a series of topics to include or exclude from the narrative. It quickly became the story of a planet of sign language speaking mer-folk (including one named Chris Tucker) who travel to other planets via ancient alien technology rather than spaceships, but don't encounter any living alien life.
This Ouija board-like process of creation is as much a staple of Microscope as index cards are. This was before the main portion of the game had started and already we were way off from how any one of us had expected things to go. My favorite part of tabletop roleplaying games is not knowing where the story is going until you play to find out, and that is what Microscope is all about.
Armed with our lists of must/must not includes, we began hashing out our story. We started with two index cards labeled "The Environmental Apocalypse" and "Finding Peace In The Stars." From here we added more and more index cards representing different time scales: periods containing events containing scenes.
The story, in a nutshell, is that in the chaos surrounding the crash of the mer-folk civilization, a warlord named Chris Tucker became emperor and reunited the world. He didn't do a very good of improving things however, and fled from office. A star gate was found by rebels during this time and early attempts to use it proved disastrous. An intrepid merman named Merman McConaughey successfully used it and returned for the first time, opening up a period of dangerous exploration and colonization of the cosmos.
Merman McConaughey became ruler of one of these colonies and— mad with fame and power— attempted to conquer all the colonies as the "Galactic Bully." He lost the war and the mer-folk found peace among the stars. Chris Tucker came back at this point, possibly in disguise, to replace McConaughey and live happily ever after...?
All of this, and more, was told through these index cards which we took turns laying out. This was done completely non-linearly. I believe we started more or less in the middle, moved forward, and then jumped backward to fill in the backstory. If we had played longer we could have filled in even more gaps and created whole other eras that aren't present in this version of the story.
We ended up not really playing any "scenes," which in theory should be a big part of Microscope. When playing scene cards, the players take on specific roles to act things out with the goal of answering questions about the events of the story. This is the portion that is closest to traditional roleplay, and we completely skipped it! I think if we had dedicated more time, we would've done more scenes after sketching out the larger events, but it's also perfectly enjoyable just to lay out periods and events.
I've often heard of Microscope recommended as a tool for game masters to use in a "Session 0" to plan their campaign setting along with the players. Previously, I always assumed this meant that it would form the backstory, and then the real game would take place at the end. I was a little surprised to realize that since we ended on a relatively stable note, it would be much more interesting to play a game set during the wars of Chris Tucker or Merman McConaughey. Maybe even using Stars Without Number.
Webster's defines "game" as "activity engaged in for diversion or amusement." That's a really bad definition that includes all sorts of activities that aren't games— both PG and NC-17. I have a textbook with an entire chapter dedicated to trying to define games, so to be fair, it's not an easy task.
I'd classify Microscope more as an improvisational creative writing exercise. I think it's the lack on any "challenge" that makes it feel like something other than a game. "Improvisational creative writing exercise" is not exactly a significant genre, or easy to say, so I guess "roleplaying game" will do. If you do more of the scene acting, I'm sure it feels much more like a "true" RPG.
It can be hard to review most of the games I look at in this blog because they're simply not designed to be played in a single session. Microscope fits that bill easily, so it's great for a change of pace with a regular gaming group who wants a break from just fighting orcs. It's also a powerful tool if you're a flexible game master who wants to create buy-in from your players by giving them a hand in creating the world they'll be playing in.