“I am your king!”
“Well I didn’t vote for you…”
“You don’t vote for kings!”
— oh my god, it’s a Monty Python quote
The thing I always really enjoy about Microscope is the unforeseen creation. Someone introduces a simple idea, then someone else explores it a little more, then someone else takes it even farther, and before you know it you have something completely surprising. It’s usually turns out to be something far more innovative than what I expected.
Of course you get surprised in lots of games, but in Microscope “evolution, not design” is baked into game’s DNA. It happens pretty much every time.
We sit down to play some Microscope. Three players including me, but no else has played it before. We start off with a pretty normal “stellar empire falls and is forgotten” concept.
During setup one player puts forward a Period with fleets of scavengers roaming the stars, salvaging what they can from the planets ravaged by the civil war (our starting Period). Another player makes an Event of the scavengers deciding to settle down — they’ve picked a world and they’re going to stop roaming and call it home. I start off as the first Lens and make the Focus the leader of the rebels who are against settling on the planet. The Question is “why are they against settling?” Of course I have no idea, so Scene time it is.
We’re already three steps along the creative spiral: one player made the scavengers, another has them giving up roaming and settling down, and I’m twisting things farther and asking why some of them wouldn’t want to settle down.
Character choice, revealed thoughts, and roleplaying lead to unexpected results: the starting presumption is that the resistance leader (Arnhem) is a good guy, but boy are we wrong. It turns out Arnhem is a loyalist to the aristocracy, the powerful few that fear settling planet-side will break up their traditional authority and move towards (gasp! horror!) democracy. We didn’t even know there were nobles before the scene started. On the ships the nobles can keep people under their thumb, but with a whole world to spread out to, people could (gasp again!) go live their own lives. The gall!
This launches what turns out to be the central ideological conflict of the game: democracy vs aristocratic authority.
More twists follow. Ousted aristocrats prey on free planets, space pirate style. Arnhem’s wife (and sister to the best friend he murdered — don’t ask) goes on a stellar pilgrimage to spread democracy and is remembered as the founding saint of a new religion. Yep, democracy becomes a religion.
Centuries later, during our “feudal primitivism” Period, we’ve got petty kings locking down the warp gates in their systems to maintain tight control of their domains (and plunging their subjects into the dark ages in the process). But now that we’ve seen, in hindsight, that the religion has this core principle of democracy, how the heck are there kings at all?
So we zoom way in, and watch a new king’s inauguration. We see the dukes and other nobles going through a ceremonial “voting” process to pick him as their new lord. It’s a mock election with only one candidate, which is of course the best kind of election if you’re that candidate.