The game involves a group of players collaboratively creating a timeline chronicling an epic history on a tremendous scale with near-limitless possibilities. It could be a history that mirrors our own or something completely new.
The players collaboratively create a Mythopoeia that grows organically with each turn that passes. The big picture is epic in scale, but the title of Microscope comes from how the players can zoom in on any period of their emerging history and start a scene, which they and other players participate in. The scene might inspire another historical event, or even another historical period. New parts of the timeline can be created in any order.
2015 saw the release of Microscope Explorer, an expansion book that adds a number of alternative rules, gameplay tips and step-by-step seeds to help facilitate smoother gameplay sessions.
Microscope contains examples of:
- Alternate History: The alternative to full-blown Mythopoeia or future settings is to have the players create a history that mirrors real life history, but with several noticeable changes to key events.
- Anachronic Order: By design, the order in which the players come up with the events on the timeline is not the order in which they happened. More often, the players come up with events earlier in the timeline that influenced later events.
- Backstory: Scenes and Events can be this for each other, with players jumping back and forth between certain events to explore parts of the world's earlier history that might have been a key influence on later events in the timeline.
- Bookends: The beginning and end of the history are chosen at the start and tend to be linked thematically.
- Constructed World: The result of a game—though a game can go on indefinitely with more and more detail being added to the world by the players.
- The End of the World as We Know It: One of the possible outcomes on the timeline is for the world the players construct to be destroyed, something touted in the game's blurb - "Build worlds and destroy them".
- In Medias Res: Scenes are often done this way. The purpose of a scene in Microscope is to answer a single question, as dynamically as possible.
- Mythopoeia: The main point of the game is to create a fictional world with its own fictional mythology.
- Nuke 'em: The blurb casually mentions that a grandiose civilization can be ended with a nuclear apocalypse - "Build beautiful, tranquil jewels of civilization and then consume them with nuclear fire".
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: The players can set the tone of the game with the use of the Palette system, noting down general concepts and themes under "yes" and "no" depending on whether they are acceptable in the particular game.
- Spin-Off: A number of alternative rulesets are included in the Microscope Explorer expansion book:
- Time Travel: ECHO, a Spin-Off ruleset included in Microscope Explorer, involves the players travelling back in time and rewriting history.
- Universal System: Almost anything goes in Microscope as far as genre is concerned. That said, the base game doesn't handle time travel particularly well thanks to the Anachronic Order used throughout the gameplay.
- Worldbuilding: The emphasis is on the history of the world rather than precise detail, but a robust world can emerge after enough sessions.