Microscope RPG

Microscope is a unique tabletop world-building game in which players create a setting collaboratively. This setting is then explored in detail over the course of the game. Unlike traditional RPGs, players don’t roll dice and there are no character sheets. Instead, players come up with locations and characters and role-play scenes to flesh out the setting.

If this sounds like a very simple concept, it’s because it is. It’s also a really fun and educational game for use in the classroom.

[Also Check Out Our Review of Barebones Fantasy, a Simple but Fun RPG for the Whole Family]

A closer look at how Microscope works

Before the game begins, players take turns creating a setting, establishing what should and shouldn’t be in it. They then define when the timeline begins and when it ends.

The game then begins with one player creating a major time period, event, or scene, by writing it down on an index card. He is then allowed to create one more period, event, or scene before the turn is passed to another player.

A period is essentially a long period of time, usually lasting years. An event is a major occurrence in a time period. A scene takes place during an event.

Diagram showing Period, Event, Scene in Microscope RPG

Scenes are where the fun really starts. In a Scene, each player chooses which character he or she wants to be. Players then act out the scene impromptu, thus deciding its outcome.

And basically that’s how Microscope is played! There is a bit more to it that I won’t cover in this review (to keep it succinct), but the basic gameplay loop is as explained above.

Using Microscope with dyslexic students

Photo of how Microscope is playedI’ve played Microscope with several classes over the years. There is a lot of educational value to it. For one, it encourages students to get creative when adding periods, events, and scenes to the timeline. We’ve created all sorts of wacky settings, from demon-infested lands to an era of war between titans and demigods. I don’t restrict students’ creativity, except that whatever content they come up with must be age-appropriate. This often leads to interesting moments and insightful post-game discussions.

Moreover, students need to think logically when developing events and scenes. They need to follow the rules of the setting while making sure there is continuity across the timeline. Some students have trouble organising their ideas coherently, and Microscope is superb for training them to connect the dots.

Microscope also teaches students to see big picture, as well as from different perspectives. It is about creating and fleshing out a setting, and students need to see things through a macroscopic view in order to get as much enjoyment out of the experience as possible. I’ve found Microscope to be tremendously helpful in getting students to write better personal recount essays, especially when used in conjunction with my other writing techniques.

What makes Microscope fun

Microscope can be used as an educational tool, but that doesn’t make it any less fun. It engages everyone at the table and pushes players to come up with new ideas on the spot, similar to improv theatre. Because of this impromptu nature, there is a lot of unpredictability in how a story can play out. Those of our students who enjoyed acting or drama had found a lot to like about Microscope.

Furthermore, Microscope encourages players to take on different roles over the course of the game. One player might play the role of Zeus in one scene, then switch to a different demigod in the next. This reinforces the concept of the game being played as a collaborative storytelling activity. Thus, at the end of the session, players would be talking about the world they had created, fondly reminiscing the events and scenes that had occurred.

Microscope’s drawbacks

Despite the glowing praise above, Microscope has some drawbacks. For one, it requires a certain frame of mind to get into. Players cannot just be passive observers. Everyone has to be a part of the role-playing experience. As such, those who are shy may find it an awkward experience.

The game is also best suited for 3 to 4 players. Any more than 4, and the game will start to slow considerably, as each player waits for his or her turn to do something interesting. It may also create a situation of too many chefs spoiling the soup, particularly if one player can’t see eye to eye with another player’s ideas. Because of its strongly collaborative style, Microscope does not handle actual, interpersonal conflicts well.

Overall thoughts on Microscope RPG

Will I continue to use Microscope in the classroom? For sure! Microscope offers plenty of educational value. It is a glorious toolbox for teachers. Nevertheless, I highly encourage teachers to take note of the following when playing with students:

  • Conduct a trial run first, so that students can get a feel for the game’s rules and flow.
  • Keep the group size small. Microscope works best with 4 players.

Again, as mentioned in the previous section, it might also not work well with students who don’t enjoy role-playing. Some just can’t get into the spirit of the game, and that’s fine. Pick another game that works for them. However, for students who enjoy role-playing and creating stories, Microscope RPG will provide an experience that will be remembered by all participants for a long time.

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun

...is a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one. He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.

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