3/10/15

Microscope and the Books of Bardo

Back in the days of disco and feathered hair, sometime in spring of 1979, I happened to attend a small and very tame high school party. It was a nerdy party and heavily chaperoned, so the two wildest activities were me playing guitar and the group playing a story-writing party game. The story-writing party game started with each guest having a sheet of paper. Each person would write one line of narrative on their sheet of paper and then pass it to the person on their right. The next person would write the next line of narrative and then fold the paper so that only the last line written was visible. The papers were passed to the right again. This continued until our original paper made a full circuit and was returned to us. We then each read our stories.

Fast forward one year to the spring of 1980. My high school class was on our senior trip, which was a 10 day trip to Florida, including time at Disney and a 4 day cruise all for under $400. We rode on a chartered bus with a series of sketchy drivers, from Michigan to Florida. To pass the time, two of my friends and I passed around a notebook where we each wrote a line of narrative to create a story. All three of us had been at the 1979 party, so we knew the drill. We had a lot of time to kill and the story, later known as the First Book of Bardo, became a rather lengthy tale of conspiracy, political intrigue, torture by disco, and all out war. Several years later, one of the two friends and I penned the Second Book of Bardo through the mail. Our interest waxed and waned and eventually died in the early 1990's, leaving the Second Book of Bardo unfinished.

Enter Microscope RPG. Microscope is not a story-telling game. Rather, it is a history-telling game with opportunities for more traditional role-playing sprinkled in here and there. Lame Mage Productions describes their game in this way:
You won't play the game in chronological order. You can defy the limits of time and space, jumping backward or forward to explore the parts of the history that interest you. Want to leap a thousand years into the future and see how an institution shaped society? Want to jump back to the childhood of the king you just saw assassinated and find out what made him such a hated ruler? That’s normal in Microscope. 
You have vast power to create... and to destroy. Build beautiful, tranquil jewels of civilization and then consume them with nuclear fire. Zoom out to watch the majestic tide of history wash across empires, then zoom in and explore the lives of the people who endured it. 
Mock chronological order.Defy time and space.Build worlds and destroy them.
The rules for Microscope are sparse and simple. More than anything, they remind of some of the more complicated strategic planning workbooks I have seen. Lots of structure and process to guide group decision making. The group sets a direction and some basic parameters at that start, then players take turns adding bits and pieces of narrative history.

The rules specify that it is a game for 3-5 people and it seems that anything above 4 might be tough. I have been searching for examples of solo play and have found a few bloggers taking brief stabs at running it solo. I think it could be done, but the game would lose some of its magic.

While a small group could create a narrative world history without Microscope, having the Microscope rules back in 1980 would have led to a very different First Book of Bardo. The final pages of the First Book of Bardo tell of a universe destroyed repeatedly only to be miraculously reborn each time. One of the guys on the senior trip bus (not me) tired of the story and sought to end it, only to have to reborn by time the notebook made its way back to him. With Microscope, we all would have agreed upon an ending at the start of the session.

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