Introducing novices to microscope

edited February 2019 in Play Advice
I absolutely love Microscope by Ben Robbins. However, my game sessions often turn into just awkward moments linked together by strained brainstorming sessions that gets punctuated by "why are we playing this? ". So far my ratio of having a good to painful session is 1 and 4. Does anyone else suffer from this problem? I've had a wide range of players, novice to veteran, improv artist to introvert, and the sessions rarely play out the way you think they would. People are often confused by the rules despite how often we explain them, no one ever hardly touches the Scenes rules, and people often feel a lack of satisfaction that extends from the games perceived lack of purpose. Anyone else have this much difficulty getting a good Microscope Session?


  • Ooh, I want to hear all about this! This is basically the opposite of what I normally see, so if it's okay with you, let's dig in and see what's going on. For science.

    First off, not playing scenes is not a big deal. It's actually pretty reasonable if you're trying to get a handle on mastering the grand scale to leave that for later. I often make scenes when I'm facilitating just to show how they work but I don't worry if other people don't.

    You said 'brainstorming'. Do you mean actually discussing what people should make on their turns?
  • Yes, the rules clearly state not to help and to keep autonomy. But inevitably, with new players they can't help but just put in two cents especially when the lens "Just can't think of anything". Doing my best as a facilitator will eventually get things moving. I was just really wondering if others had as difficult time with newcomers as I did.
  • When people want to help or jump in, I use the poker analogy: if you've got great ideas, keep them close to your vest. Don't reveal them when it's not your turn.

    It can definitely be a test of patience to sit and wait while someone else tries to think of something, but as a facilitator I reinforce that that's how play goes and we should all just kick back and relax. It also gives us time to think about what we might want to add later.

    Another question: when you start, do you have everyone read the intro (page 7) aloud?
  • edited February 2019
    About 50% of the time we have players read straight from the book. I also do my best to use the descriptions you give when you did the hyperRpg twitch. That was a great video. I end up with a lot of "this is my first time i need some help to get started"
  • The first time I played Microscope, one of the players took 10-20 minutes to come up with something to say each time their scene came around. We stuck pretty hard to the sit-and-wait thing and it was excruciating.

    Even leaving that experience aside, the other two times I've played weren't very fun. The fiction was cool, but something in the gameplay was lacking. I think it might have been that it's hard to engage with the story very meaningfully when you only jump into it for brief, disconnected moments.
  • All of our Microscope session were at least okay (I played it with story gamers, trad people, students, etc). My problem though is that we never managed to experience it as a campaign. Even if we made it to the second session, it died... Just like with one-shot type story games its always looses its steam.
  • I really like the one shot story games like microscope and fiasco. My one wish would be to eventually play this with a regular rpg group that would want to play in the history we created. But in order to try and make a gaming group I started a biweekly series of narrative games. Mostly we played Fiasco, sometime microscope or Follow. Always had at least one new player who'd never heard of these games or had heard of it and wanted to play but never played RPGs before. Bringing new players up to speed is always a challenge, but I guess I learned that Micrscope is not the best for first timers. I was just wondering if any others had similar experiences with newbie gamers.
  • The only time I've played Microscope was with a bunch of players who were really keen to do the "structured brainstorming" which the game facilitates. Everyone had ideas they were excited to throw in.

    Are your players aware of what they are signing up for when they sit down to play? If they're not interested in the creative responsibilities of the game, maybe it's best to suggest they should play something else, instead.

    Microscope isn't really a "game" in the traditional sense, after all.

    For adding focus and direction, I'd try creating a context or frame for the session. Perhaps you're running a D&D campaign, and you can use Microscope to flesh out the history of the empire a certain character is from - something like that. ("Let's find out what happened during the Three-and-Twenty Year War tonight!" Perhaps even taking on some meta-roleplaying and pretending you're a bunch of historians comparing notes on your research...)
  • I've only played Microscope twice. The first time was at the SG Meetup while visiting Seattle. I was in the other group though, not the one with Ben! I don't think anyone there had a hard time coming up with stuff, and the game played out just the way I'd imagined Microscope would: with a race of seafarers escaping the volcanic destruction of their homeland, making their way across oceans and eventually, galaxies in search of someplace to call home.

    Second time was teaching my daughter (10 or 11 at the time). She may not have understood the rules 100%, but she also had no hesitation in coming up with stuff when it was her turn. The only remotely frustrating part was our, ahem, *somewhat* different aesthetic ideas about what fairies are like and how the history of their kingdom would play out.

    That being said, I feel for you, OP, as I have had similar issues getting other games to work the way I'd like. It seems like maybe some combination of expectations and who you are playing with... also, you mention you love Microscope but only have a 1:4 ratio of good to "bad" sessions with it so far. Did you initially have some positive experiences playing with a different group? What's different between the sessions that turn out well and the ones that don't? Are you playing with different folks, or doing anything different in those sessions?

    It's cool if you don't want to analyze this any further, I'm just curious.

  • edited February 2019
    I just really fell in love with the mechanics and the premise the first time i read the rules. I always saw it for its great potential. I watched a lot of actual play videos on youtube and twitch and it always looks like such a great game. My best sessions have always been with folks who are already well versed in RPG community, have played several RPG systems before and already know the Microscope premise very well. My bad sessions always have one thing in common; at least one player has "no clue"(their words). They're new to RPGS and heard about the Meetup, or they used to play D&D and want to get back into it so their first question is always how to make a character. The only common factor that i can look to improve is my technique for delivering the rules so that's what i've been focusing on. What else can one do to make sure players know what they're getting into and the only conclusion i come up with is working before the session even starts. It seems just so many of the bad sessions come from players who had expectations of playing D&D and then find out they're just story-boarding.
  • Oh, yeah. That sounds bad on so many fronts: if you're trying to play a game with players who find themselves engaged in a completely different activity than they expected, I'm not surprised at the poor results (and it's probably not too happy an experience for them, either). I'd feel disappointed and unenthusiastic if I expected play D&D and had Microscope sprung on me, too.
  • The way it could be done is preparing a menu of games with very different experiences (system, genre, colour, amount of input) and making the players pick what they want "à la carte". It won't be a perfect fit for everybody of course, but players will know that the perfect fit was not achievable, so they'll have to adapt to the other players' expectations.
  • edited February 2019
    Yep, that HyperRPG game was super fun. I'd never played in front of audience before (as such) but it was great.
    It seems just so many of the bad sessions come from players who had expectations of playing D&D
    When people pitched games at Story Games Seattle, the cardinal rule was "don't sell or hype the game, give people a clear picture of what they're getting into". Misaligned expectations will ruin you every time. There's a reason there's a big "this is not a normal RPG" warning label in the front of the book.

    The worst story games I've ever played, hands down, were with people who had a ton of experience with "traditional" RPGs, expected to ace story games, and simply could not change gears. It frustrated them immensely, and I can see why.
    About 50% of the time we have players read straight from the book.
    I have people take turns reading the overview on page 7 every time I sit down and play Microscope -- come to think of it, that HyperRPG game might have been the only time I haven't. It's a great way to get everyone on the same page.

    My experience is that you don't need any gaming background whatsoever to play Microscope. I've played with lots of folks who never touched an RPG in their life and rocked it. It's much more about personality and temperament then being some kind of expert player. But again, critical to that is making it clear what we're doing (like by reading that intro and being consistent about the rules) and reinforcing that everyone gets input on their turn and it's not a contest of "cool" ideas. Even the simplest contributions are building blocks for the history. That takes a lot of the pressure of.
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