Sometimes characters surprise you. One minute they’re complete strangers, and the next you are knee-deep into the most important moment of their lives.
Haskell, Kevin and I sat down to play a game of Microscope. The one-line summary we came up with for the history is that a massive colony ship crashes on a planet inhabited by dinosaurs, where the survivors build a new civilization from scratch after collapsing into stone age primitivism.
As we play we see that dinosaurs become the main source of labor for the colonists — they’re beasts of burden, powerful tools, and when necessary, war-machines. They’re the “technology” that helps the new civilization grow (and no, you’re not the first person to say “You mean like the Flintstones?” No, not like the Flintstones. Like Dinosaur Planet, or Dinotopia, or some other book I haven’t read.). We’ve also established that the dinosaurs are basically normal animals — they have beast-level intelligence and they can’t talk or anything cartoony like that. Again, not the Flintstones.
So it’s late in the game session and I’m the Lens again. We’ve already played four other Foci, so we’ve fleshed out a lot of the history. In a “well, let’s see how this works” moment, I make the Focus a dinosaur. One specific dinosaur. I decide it’s a triceratops-like beast, and his name is Hruck. And that’s all we know.
Why should we care about this dinosaur? What’s interesting about him? I have no idea, but I figure we’ll find out together.
If you want to get things rolling in a Microscope game, a good rule of thumb is to ask incriminating questions about total strangers: you’ll learn interesting things about them very quickly.
I jump right into a scene with the Question “Is the boy who raised Hruck willing to put his family and the whole village in danger to keep his dinosaur?”
This is during the “Savage Revolt” period we created earlier on, a time when some humans emerge who have the psychic ability to empathically communicate with the dinosaurs, and they rebel against using them as slave labor. These self-proclaimed “Savages” want to smash civilization and return to natural harmony. Bitter guerrilla warfare ensues.
Soldiers from the local warlord have come to the village to take beasts to serve in the lord’s service (yes, it’s a dinosaur draft) and one of the dinosaurs they’re taking is Hruck. The boy weeps and wails, but his mother holds him back and pleads for him to just let the beast go and not bring disaster down on them all. The warriors aren’t taking any lip from peasants — their leader tells the mother to keep the boy from being a nuisance if she knows what’s good for them. No good. As the groaning dinosaur is being dragged away the boy dashes to his beast friend, calling out to him to break free.
We stop the scene immediately because the question has been answered: the boy has put everyone in danger to keep his dinosaur. Whether he succeeds or not is a separate issue, but overall the situation looks pretty grim: the boy and his dinosaur are surrounded by angry troops. If the villagers help they’ll get slaughtered too. It’s an inch away from tragedy.
Kevin has been playing the boy, and he says ‘no way!’, grabs some Light Tone Debt, and postscripts that the boy does escape with his dinosaur, fleeing into the jungle before the warriors can stop him. Yea, happy ending!
It’s Kevin’s turn next, and he makes an event years later, where the boy (now a man) and his dinosaur are part of a bandit party raiding a caravan. They’re still together after all these years, and they’ve found a place for themselves in the world.
Very nice, but not for long, because on Haskell’s turn he decides to make a scene in that same event, with the question “Why do the other bandits leave Hruck and the mortally wounded boy (man) behind?” Ouch. So much for that bright future. The boy was wounded during the raid, and now lies there breathing his last breaths.
We pick characters, and Kevin throws a curveball and creates the boy’s girlfriend. Yep, not only did he find a new family among the bandits, he found true love. That sounds happy, but we already know she’s going to leave him behind: she’s one of the bandits and the question said so.
The scene reveals that the raiders aren’t just bandits, they’re Savages, empaths who have befriended dinosaurs. The boy isn’t, but they took him and his dinosaur companion in anyway. The grizzled leader had always known no good would come of taking him in: “He was never one of us.” The girl is heart-broken, but she obeys her elders and goes with her tribe, leaving the dying boy behind with Hruck.
We’ve come all the way back around to me, so it’s time to go out with a bang. I create an event of a bloody battle, a brutal assault by Savages with waves of fighting dinosaurs against a walled town defended by the warlord’s armies and their own war-beasts. The battle has left dead littering the field, so much carnage that it’s hard to tell which side even won.
Then I put a scene inside that event with the question: “Does Hruck kill the girl for abandoning the boy all those years ago?”
This is years after the bandit raid, maybe a decade. Hruck is a scarred old war-beast, harnessed in the service of the local overlord, the very fate he escaped so long ago. The girl in the question is of course the bandit lover, likewise older and sadder, fighting on the side of the Savages. The battle is over, but dazed combatants still wander the field, and in the hazy blood-drenched twilight the two meet for the first time since that day years ago.
We’ve avoided having dinosaurs as characters before now, because well, they can’t talk. But this is a special occasion, so Hruck is required along with the girl. Haskell takes the girl, and Kevin takes Hruck.
Rather than intrude on the very personal and very bitter reunion with some random third character, I bend the rules slightly and play the dead boy, figuring I can easily “talk” to either of them by describing memories of things the boy said or did long ago. It is a mean, mean kick-you-in-your-sorrow, rub-salt-in-your-old-wounds trick, but I don’t tell them that until it’s too late.
The scene starts and it’s pathos squared. The moment their eyes meet across the carrion-laden field there is immediate recognition. The girl is still looking on in amazement as the old dinosaur charges, dragging his tattered barding through the mud, and with a toss of his head flings the girl to the ground.
As Hruck looms over her, poised to kill, she tries to reach out to him with her psychic empathy, to let him feel her sorrow and regret over the death of her one true love, but I immediately interject bittersweet memories of the three friends together back in their bandits days. Having seen the empaths’ gifts, the boy wants nothing more than to be able to really communicate with his life-long friend, so he asks the girl to use her abilities to speak to Hruck for him, forging a special bond between all three of them. Trying to psychically reach Hruck now just brings up the painful memories of happier days for both of them. I spice it up with lots of cheerful “we three will be best friends forever!” quips. Knife- twisting-!
There are long moments as the girl awaits her fate, the hot breath of Hruck washing over her. Just when death seems imminent the great beast turns and trudges away, spattering her with mud but never so much as glancing back. Hruck spurns her, giving her neither forgiveness nor the solace a death — a punishment that she would probably welcome as absolution for her betrayal. It’s about as cruel and spiteful as a dinosaur can be.
The Focus is done, and we’re about to wrap up for the night. It’s a bitter end to the saga of dinosaur Hruck. Heavy, heavy stuff.
But we still need to play the Legacy stage, and it’s Kevin’s turn to add something. He takes a mysterious valley Legacy from earlier in the game, and creates an event with old, weary Hruck finding his way to this sheltered spot, seeking a tranquil place to lay down his tired bones and end his days. It’s a clever use of the Legacy to put a sad but more satisfying cap on our story. His life might have been hard, but we know that in the end Hruck finds peace.
In Microscope you’re not advocating for “your guy” to win, but players naturally have different ideas of how they want the things to turn out: you want a happy ending, or you want that guy to get what he deserves, etc. But because different people play returning characters, your perspective also shifts around. You’re not entrenched in one point of view the way you are in a normal game.
At the beginning Kevin pushed for a happy life for the boy and his dinosaur, and it was Haskell who slammed the boy with an untimely death, but in the last scene it was Haskell trying to have the girl make peace and Kevin who rammed home the very bitter ending instead. Since Kevin was playing Hruck, he was the final decision maker in that scene — he could have just had the beast weep and forgive the girl if he wanted. But by flipping around and really pushing the tragedy to the end, he made it a much hotter game for everyone.