History Is a Lie

I finish Microscope Explorer and I immediately start coming up with even more ways to play. Doh!

Jonathan Walton asked:

Thinking about using Microscope for a grad class on Friday. Anyone run it (or Echo) as attempt to uncover/obscure “true” history? I’m hoping it might be useful for exploring multiple competing narratives about the same historical event. Maybe?

Uncovering the truth is a perfect fit for Microscope. The entire game is a process of revealing more and more than we initially knew. But competing narratives where we’re not sure what’s true and what’s fiction? Not so much. It’s very much baked into the design of Microscope that what players establish about the history is fact, not merely an opinion. Characters in the history may lie, disagree or be deluded, but the players are always correct.

Why? Because doubt is the enemy of creativity. Certainty lets players build with confidence. They know that what has been established is dependable fact. Without that firm foundation, it’s very hard to know what you can make. It becomes a morass.

So given all that, it sure sounds like Microscope would not work.

Surprisingly, I think there’s a way to do it.

Setup: One truth and two lies. Maybe.

Start off with a normal big picture of a history. This is the “accepted” version of the past that most people believe is true. It might even actually be the truth. We don’t know yet.

Then come up with two alternate versions that are close to the original big picture but deviate in a critical way. That gives you three big pictures total (you could do more but I think even three might be pushing it).

Each version should be similar enough that any of them could be possible — no blowing up the moon in one history but not the others. Two people within the history should be able to believe different versions of the past without someone being demonstrably wrong. To take the old “humanity expands to the stars” concept, your accepted big picture might be that humanity went to the stars with the spirit of adventure and exploration. One alternate might be that Earth was used up and the exodus was driven by desperation. The third might be that the people who left were fleeing oppression: they wanted to escape the old society. Each tells the same basic story — humanity settled the stars — but the why and how of the past might be quite different than what they teach in the holo-books.

You’ll branch your history (just like the Parallel history example from the Microscope Explorer), except instead of branching the end, you’ll branch the beginning. So the second half of your history is one unified story — the undisputed present — but the first half is actually three different “contested” timelines. To tell them apart, write the big pictures on cards and put them to the left of each timeline. Clearly mark which one is the “accepted” history.

(pictures, they tell me, are worth a lot of words)


The critical bit is that each timeline is internally consistent and uncontradictable, just like normal Microscope, even if we aren’t sure it’s what really happened. If you’re adding an Event to the version of history where the financial collapse was secretly engineered by foreign powers, you cannot contradict anything that has been established in that *version* of the history (including facts in the latter half, which is shared by all the versions).

You should also define what the dividing line is between the “contested” and “undisputed” history — make a Period that’s near enough to the “present” that there isn’t any doubt about what happened. Why have a unified section of the history at all? You could play without it and just have three parallel histories, but I think having a unified section lets you see the common fallout of the what was done in the past. Seeing a singular present can help players think about what they think would have caused such an outcome.

Play: How it really happened…

Play is almost entirely like normal. On your turn you’ll make Periods, Events or Scenes in one section of the history (either the undisputed latter half or one of the earlier contested versions).

Two exceptions:

First, all three contested timelines share the same Periods. So if you make a Period in the contested section of the history, describe it in a way that works for all three big pictures (or fits the “accepted” history but is not quite what it seems once you dig down and make Events). For example, we know there was a war, we’re just learning the truth about really happened during that war.

Second, if you make an Event in contested history, you also get to immediately create a matching Event that shows how a slightly different version of that same thing happened in one of the other versions of history. So you might make an Event describing the riot of ’88 in the accepted history, but then make another version of that Event in one of the disputed histories describing how the “so-called riot of ’88” was really a peaceful protest that the military cracked down on. Highlight the critical difference.

Same with Scenes. If you dictate a Scene in contested history, you can dictate the alternate version in another timeline. If you play a Scene, when you’re done the current player gets to dictate a Scene just like the one you just played, but with a key difference, if they want.

You can also just say the Event and Scene is the same in both. That’s fine too.

Would it work?

As I said, the key is that even though there are conflicting versions of history, each version is solid and internally consistent, which means players can build with total confidence. It’s almost like you’re playing multiple games of Microscope in parallel. After all, every game of Microscope is fiction, and here you’re just creating three different related fictions.

How do you decide which one is right, in the end? I’d steal the Judgment system from Echo and vote. You could even vote every round, just like Echo, to see how the table was changing its mind about what *really* happened.

    Ben Robbins | February 18th, 2016 | | hide comments
  1. #1 ben robbins says:

    Copy-pasting this from Jeremy Kahn on the G+ thread:

    “I wonder about the possibility of each timeline recording *different narratives*, as opposed to *different truths*. I imagine for example each thread corresponding to a textbook written at a different period, or by a different political party (“Tenth Grade American History”, “People’s History of the United States”, “The Record of the Latter-Day Saints”).?”

    Absolutely. You could easily use this method to show how people spun history. It’s a perfect fit.

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