Fantasy worlds that break history's back


I am looking forward to playing Microscope; one of my favourite “semi-obscure” systems from years ago was Aria which did something similar although probably not as elegantly (after all, we have learned so much about mechanics etc. in the last few decades.) And the imminent Red Aegis is clearly in the same genre although much more focussed.

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I think the reason that so many works of SF and fantasy are set in thinly disguised versions of either the present or historical eras is that it is basically impossible to know what society would be like with truly a different history. Sure, I’ve read alternative history books where Carthage beat Rome or Alexander the Great conquered the world, etc., but how would we really know what a modern society evolved from these starting points would be like?


I liked Traveller back in the Pleistocene era, but the universe-building always felt wrong. It took me years to figure out that it was probably born as a tabletop strategy wargame, and only later developed into a RPG. The scale was all wrong.

But Microscope sounds really cool!


If I ever got into RPGs, I think I would like the Fate Core system. Alas, I don’t know enough people (nor have the time to get out much).

Hey, I think i wrote something that applies to this situation in an old thread.

This does look like a useful tool for generating interesting and readable situations, however, I don’t think we’re ever really going too get away from fantasy as a place to stand and talk about the present. It’s really difficult to get a view from nowhere, and if the setting is greatly different from modern day Earth, the temptation will always be there to use the contrast as a form of social commentary,

Oh, and the picture used to accompany the article reminds me of one of the unintended uses of the Paradox grand strategy games. Take a “real” starting point, stand well back, and look at the possible histories that evolve.Will Japan build an Asian empire? Will the golden horde stick around until the industrial era? Will an Irish dynasty sweep Europe before them?
Almost anything is possible. Except Poland still cannot into space.

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And most Sci Fi is intended to be a commentary on the present day, so of course many things will reflect the present day more than the actual future.


Does anyone know what a session of this looks like to play? How long, how much knowledge of mechanics required, etc.? This looks really interesting to me but, sadly, these days interest plays somewhat less of a role in what I get to play than more practical considerations.

I don’t know about “intended”. Though that’s a trope that’s popular among fans at the moment, and any fiction will be a commentary on the contemporary world, or at least that author’s view of it, I don’t think that’s even a secondary purpose of Star Wars Extended Universe fiction.

A story-teller wants to tell a story that their audience will understand, and doesn’t want to get bogged down in explanations for every little thing that’s different from our world. A skilled storyteller will have an idea of what can be accepted without undue explanation, what can be elided, and what can be presented as exotic and interesting in order to keep the audience interested in the story.

In George Lucas’ case, he wanted to tell a fairy story with spaceships to a 70s audience. As such, he didn’t want to film a commentary on 70s American mores, he wanted a traditional, mythic story with some tweaks to make it more attractive to that audience. The original movie has a princess because that’s what’s traditional; the princess was fiesty and not just a passive trophy because that’s what the audience would appreciate or accept. The paucity of other female characters, even extras, has been noted elsewhere.

If the EU has only one female admiral in a galaxy full of humans, then that’s down to the relative lack of skill of EU writers, in this case lacking a sense of scale. Lucas had a (limited) excuse for not spending screentime on the roles of women in the Rebellion and Empire in that one can only fit a novella’s-worth of story in a movie format, and tropes naturally biased in favour of visuals at that; but the EU novel writers had far more canvas available to them.

Unfortunately, many failed to expand on the progressive elements in the original story, instead falling back on regressive interpretations of our own society in order to tell the stories they wanted to tell; ironically producing something more alien and more alienating in doing so.

That this was intentional commentary on our culture is arguable, at best; I think most had no interest in such, and just wanted to write about gargantuan spaceships and laser swords. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

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It’s a simple freeform RPG, you take turns filling out 3x5 cards with bits of setting and story. There are a limited number of rounds, you can drill down to more detail, eventually dropping into ruleless roleplaying sessions to work out the actual moment to moment details of the scenes. It works best with people who are good at roleplaying with no rules and stats, and with people who are good at creating interesting stories on the fly. Our sessions definitely had a problem with devolving into absurdism, which I chalk up to our own inexperience with playing it. I’ve been intending to try running it explicitly for some writer and improv friends to see if we get a better result that way, but haven’t gotten around to it.

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Aria was neat, but definitely much more rules heavy and unwieldy than Microscope. Definitely the same sort of territory, but Aria is the giant traditional RPG version of the topic while Microscope is the tiny nimble rules light indie RPG version. Also Microscope will happily tell SF stories, Fantasy stories, Alternate History, whatever…


On the how long front, it took us a couple hours, with folks not having read the rules aside from me, and me explaining everything and looking stuff up. The rulebook is small, mostly examples and philosophy, the actual rule set is quite succinct.

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I’m not into fantasy games, I think because to me most of them just seem to be medieval times and that is not all that fascinating to me, but this one sounds like fun.

I’d not heard of this game. Thanks for the heads up.

There were a lot of interesting things about how Traveller developed. I never played the game itself, but for a few years, I participated in the fan community and was very interested in how the world-building played out, particularly among the fans. At its best, the differing approaches to world-building made for a richer setting.

The game designers were often bemused by the way a subset of the fans took the dystopic elements of the setting as utopian – insisted that the ineffectual and corrupt interstellar aristocracy was an ideal model of limited government, insisted that the heavy-handed Imperial military were paragons of honor and justice, that the interstellar megacorporations that really ran everything were the perfect expression of rational economics, and so on.

Getting to the original article, it does sound like an interesting way to shake up our inclination towards cliched settings. But I think one thing to recognize is that some of those cliches persist because they appeal to conservative world-views. Some of the consumers of these games like them precisely because they like the cliches, and they’re conscious of this. Hence, #Gamergate.


There’s a huge, rich community playing these games online. And, possibly even in your area, even if you don’t know someone today. Fate Core is also getting great variants (Atomic Robo!), and has Patreon zines coming out all the time. (Like Fate Codex)

Microscope isn’t necessarily a fantasy game. I’ve played two post-apocalyptic games using it that both turned out to be really fun.

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Star Wars and the now defunct EU might not be filled up with progressive commentary and diversity, but you can see that the more recent works like Rebels, Episode 7, and the newly announced Rogue One are generating a lot of buzz and interest because of those inclusions.

Microscope does have a round at the beginning where you create the ‘Palette’. I mistakenly trusted one of my groups to play things straight, but you can put in explicit out of character limits like “No pop culture references” into your palette if it’s what you want. I’d set aside around four hours your first go through, but in theory you could play Microscope in series for 1-2 hours at a time and pick up where you left off, after giving ideas time to simmer.

I agree, especially for sci-fi. Writing about the future is like writing a travel guide to a place you’ve never been or even heard of. Either one is going to reveal a lot more about the author’s perspective, views and background than they could possibly reveal about the subject.