Microscope is a superb game in its own right, and one I recommend without reservation, but it also features two things that you can easily make use of in other games: collaborative setting creation and its yes/no list.
Collaborative setting creation is the point of Microscope; it’s the whole game. When you play Microscope, you build a setting and its history together in a unique and fascinating way. After two sessions, when my group wrapped up a game bracketed by humanity’s first contact with aliens and the extinction of humanity, we all agreed we could play in that setting. If that sounds even remotely interesting, go buy Microscope. You won’t be disappointed.
But that’s not the bit I want to talk about here. The bit I want to talk about is the yes/no list, a concept from Microscope that I was actually introduced to during my first session of Apocalypse World — where this mechanic had been drifted from Microscope.
Technically it’s not called a yes/no list; it’s called a Palette. The basic idea is that before you play everyone gets a chance to insert things into the game world or ban things from it. You can do either (add or ban, say yes or say no) when it’s your “turn,” and if everyone contributes you do another round, then another, until someone doesn’t want to add/ban. When that happens the other players get one final chance to put something on the list and you’re done.
Discussion is encouraged. No one should be unhappy with what goes onto or is removed from the list. There’s some other advice in the book around the Palette, but that’s the concept in a nutshell.
And it just plain works. It’s especially fun to add surprising things or ban expected things, guiding the game — subtly or not — in surprising directions. In our Microscope game we added planet-busting battleships, a menagerie of species (think Star Wars), wormholes that use fixed jump points, and Hollywood science; we banned replicators (think Star Trek), old dead empires, a unified “one world” government on Earth, and AI. Just reading that list tells you a lot about the world and the game, which is the beauty of the list.
Before I knew about Microscope’s list I was stealing a similar technique, Three Things, from the Stew’s own Don Mappin. This equally simple trick involves asking your players for three things they want to see in the game; it’s fundamentally a positive exercise, and it works well. In fact, in that same campaign — a “traditional” (as opposed to “indie”) Star Trek game — I also asked my players if there was anything they didn’t want to see in the game. If I’d known about the list, I’d probably have done it the yes/no way instead, but the end product was similar: a quick, simple collaboration that improved the game.
Based on that experience, on the use of the yes/no list in our Apocalypse World game, and on its use in our Microscope game, I love this technique. It’s not perfect for every game or every group, but its simplicity makes it easy to drift and powerful when applied.
Now THAT is a wonderful idea! I have, in the past, tried to get player input before launching into a new game, and have been the player in those situations as well. Sometimes it worked well, and other times, well, less well. Mainly the issue was when different players wanted opposite things.
I may have to add Microscope to “the list” as it were.
Reminds me of the collaborative world-building technique you see sometimes on RPG forums. Each poster gets to provide one factual statement about the world. I think the biggest/best one I participated in was about 10 years ago on ENworld. I forget the name of the world now… probably sadly lost to history…
I’ve never tried that, but it sounds like fun. How do you decide when it’s done?
In this case the comments eventually numbered in the thousands and only the die-hards had any appreciable cohesive grasp of the setting. They/we tried to organize it for publishing but in the end we just left it as an unfinished draft. I made a pretty nice map for that world. I think i have the whole thing archived somewhere. Wish i could remember the name…
Anyway, for a one-off campaign, probably best to just take the first several dozens comments and run with it. Those who want super-detail can delve deeper.
And that reminds me of a collaborative world-building that took place a few years ago on the blog of Robin Laws. Each person had a chance to make a statement, as ironregime outlined, but it was further refined by then collecting the statements and having everybody vote on them; only the top three or so were retained as true. The polling was also used to resolve any conflicting ideas or clarify things that needed it.
Again, as ironregime said, probably a bit much for a one-off campaign. But as an exercise, definitely a lot of fun!
The whole process is still around in his old LiveJournal blog, and the result was collected in the Korad Bible.
I remember seeing that play out! I’d forgotten all about it. That could easily be adapted to the table by having the group pitch an idea apiece, voting for one to include, and repeating as needed. You could also use topics or other constraints to produce ideas specific to the game.
When I read this I was a little jealous because Microscope is a game I’ve been itching to play. It just sounds like a fun game. The thing that really hit with me was the idea of putting no’s on the list. I’ve never done that before when coming up with ways to build out games with the groups I’m playing with. I’ve always done it by feel for the group and the game being played but I think it’s a fantastic idea. My question is, and next time I’m going to try using a no list, how does it change the dynamic of the creation. I think I can see how it will differ but what was your experience at the table with it? Were people more thoughtful when doing things because they had the list of no’s. Did anyone every try to create something and then realize they couldn’t because of the no list?
It made it more interesting than only defining positively. Things on the no list took the game in surprising directions and informed choices I made when it was my turn to contribute to the Palette.
I wouldn’t see it changed how thoughtful we were during play; the list became a reference tool like any other. I did once start riffing on an idea and have to discard it because of a no (a no I had added!), but it didn’t cause a problem.