I have a player who does not want to form emotional attachments to characters (or anything else in the game fiction) and also hates making decisions. The player also cannot learn anything but the simplest of rules without effort beyond that which we consider reasonable, and has a very short attention span.

Google-fu has indicated to me that Microscope might be a good game for her. I want explanation as to how and how much Microscope meets all of the following positive criteria and how and how much it avoids the following negative criteria.


  • ability to rapidly and semi-permanently abandon scenarios and/or scenes that have become too complex or involve an undesired negative consequence to an action

    • This player is very easily overwhelmed. When the player is overwhelmed by an emergent situation in the game the first few times in a session I think, for various reasons, that it would be beneficial both to her RPGing experience and to that of the other players' if the situation could be abandoned in keeping with her very strong inclinations in that matter. The player in question would be happy with completely abandoning any campaign as soon as an overwhelming situation came up, but this is too frustrating for the rest of the group to handle. I have heard that scenarios are written on index cards for Microscope once they are completed and then shelved in the history-box while the game moves on to a potentially unrelated scenario. That sounds like it would help with this, allowing us to leave situations that have become overwhelming to the player both before she loses interest and starts repeatedly biting one of the other players and without entirely abandoning the nascent game-fiction.
  • fast start-up time

    • Fate 2.0's character creation time (with the rules already understood) (~1 hour max) is pretty much the absolute maximum time we can spend doing prep-work involving the player for a system to be feasible. Shorter is better. No prep-time is the best.
  • One player/GM can know the rules for everybody.

    • It's ok if she has to know some rules, like how to roll dice if there's only one consistent method. Dice rolling is not something the player enjoys. We have taught the player a simplified version of the rules to make characters in FATE 2.0, but it was a long and arduous process for everyone involved (though probably worth it). When we actually play FATE, though, other players help her check off aspects and spend Fate points and decide what to do with those things in order to accomplish the stuff she wants to accomplish in game. This is sometimes difficult. The easier it is for people to be able to deal with any abstract meta-game things for her the better.
  • ability to veto things in some limited way

    • She often refuses to articulate reasons for refusing other player's ideas when she doesn't like something and just says "No" in an artificially childish voice repeatedly. This is her response to not being able to engage in rhetoric capable of convincing people of things. Having some way of letting her do this a little bit, so she doesn't feel trodden upon, while limiting how often she can do it so she doesn't trod over others, would be good.


  • Long-term consequences

    • This is sort of tied to being able to abandon stuff. It's not a problem if there are consequences to things but if something she doesn't like happens as a result of her actions and it keeps coming up, she feels like we're punishing her for being dumb, which isn't good. We have talked about this and she understands that no one is trying to do this, but she still feels this way when this happens and so minimizing the recurring reminder factor for decisions that are perceived as 'mistakes' would be good.
  • complexity (in rules, inherent philosophy, etc)

    • She doesn't like it when rules pertaining to her character are in other peoples' hands because she feels it impinges her agency. She doesn't like learning rules, but she's willing to do so if it would help with this and doing so is reasonable. Abstract or complex rules are extremely difficult for her to learn. Rolling d20s in D&D 3.5 is a good example of something that it would be practically impossible for her to learn; there are just too many edge case things that affect what rolling a d20 means. It could be attribute bonus + d20. It could be some skill ranks + attribute bonus + d20. It could be saving throw + d20 or Base save + attribute modifier + d20 or maybe those are the same sometimes. It could be the bonus from standing on high ground + the bonus for a masterwork longsword - the penalty for being shaken + BAB + STR (or DEX, since you have Weapon Finesse) + (did you want to Smite Evil now or later?). This is not good. Extreme rule parsimony is desired.
  • too many options

    • I don't think Microscope will deal well with this, but I wanted to make sure. One of the primary things that overwhelms this player is having too many options and thus feeling unable to choose any for fear of choosing the 'wrong' one. If Microscope limits player options in some way, great. If not, that's cool too, I just want to know beforehand.
  • having to make a decision

    • This is the other (and greater) primary thing that overwhelms the player. It's not that she never makes descisions, nor that she doesn't want to make decisions. She just can't have to make a descision-- no matter how small or obvious-- or she freezes up, freaks out, and gets unreasonably upset with everyone. This is a problem with character- focused RPGs because we can only ignore her character for so long before we really need to know whether she is, for example, leaving the ship with Jane or staying with Bob. I have been using various GM-techniques to get around this for a while but it is a royal pain and I'd really like the system to just take care of that for me. This is one of the primary reasons I am considering Microscope; I think she will be able to join in when she wants to and just watch and not make any decisions when she wants to without the game 'forcing' her to make a decision. I want explanation as to what that would look like and how that would work.
  • pathos-derived value

    • She doesn't care about her characters except in a very non-empathic way. This is why, for example, Polaris wont work for her. She doesn't care about her character or other people's characters as people, she cares about them as toys. Not like 'it's a doll, lets have a tea party' toys, like 'it's a doll lets burn it and see what happens'. If the game is designed primarily around players deriving value from qualia resultant from empathy with some aspect of the game fiction, this will not work. Some minor amount of requisite empathy is ok, but it can't be about in-character emotions/drama because there won't be any.
  • math

    • She pretty much can't do it. Maybe some extremely simple arithmetic (adding and subtracting) would be ok, but multiplication is right out, as are fractions, decimals, differential calculus, etc.
  • PvP conflict

    • She has trouble separating 'Bob's peace and art loving elven aristocrats don't like my murderous, foul-smelling, goblin raiders' and 'Bob doesn't like me and thinks I smell bad'. We deal with this regularly by stopping the game and having conversations. The less time we have to spend doing this the better.

I do not own Microscope, and page numbers are not going to be helpful unless I buy it. I am looking for a discussion of how the system meets my requirements, not just affirmation that it does. Consider using limited quotes from the text to support your claims.

The player we are talking about is mentally challenged. They want to play, but are extremely self conscious about said mental problems. I've GMed for mentally challenged people of various kinds.

I am aware that Microscope is not a 'normal', D&D-oid, rpg. I am considering Microscope as a sort of 'upgrade' to Dawn of Worlds which requires too much group-driven in-game discussion of what should and shouldn't be allowed, has lots of long-term consequences to decisions, and allows for a fair amount of player conflict.

  • 27
    \$\begingroup\$ In all seriousness - does she want to play any RPG? In all seriousness - do you want to play with her? Decision making is sort of the cornerstone of all games, from tic-tac-toe on up. Really - with no desire to engage with characters or settings, and an aversion to options and decision making, I'm genuinely asking what the motivation for play is and where it comes from. \$\endgroup\$
    – gomad
    Mar 4, 2015 at 10:59
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ A different question might also be helpful, but until that time answers here should answer THIS question. Check meta on how to challenge the frame of a question, but just suggesting other games is not it. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Mar 5, 2015 at 14:40

4 Answers 4


Sometimes the only way to win is not to play.

Our hobby, unfortunately, has some necessary prerequisites. The primary one being "willingness to engage in the hobby." Your "player", by not involving herself with rules nor involving herself in the world nor involving herself in the mechanics nor involving herself with the rest of the group... fails this requirement. This game is not suitable for her, nor is much of the hobby, save without specific design for people with similar difficulties.

Microscope is not a rules heavy game, but it does have rules that must be abided by. It does not provide for vetoes once the palette has been established, that being contrary to the intention of everyone laying down their own facts. Given that it's entirely powered by creativity and imagination, I imagine it's rather too complex for your player's intended "menu of options."

The entire point of the game is to decide the course of history. Passivity cannot work. There are no observers, there are only creators. And the only interesting history is one where the players have conflicting motivations.


I'll just go through this as a checklist, since that's essentially what you've presented. While I've attempted to answer your questions, my memory of the proper terminology is somewhat slipshod. I would also strongly suggest watching a "Let's Play" or "Actual Play" video on YouTube to get an idea of how the game works in practice.

  • Ability to rapidly and semi-permanently abandon scenarios and/or scenes that have become too complex or involve an undesired negative consequence to an action

The only true "scenes" in Microscope happen at an extremely small scale and are initiated by asking a question. For example "How did the Queen of All the Buggers die?" Such scenes are done when the question is answered, with each involved player taking turns expanding on the scene. Outside of this, each player is able to place freely within the timeline where-ever they wish, although every round has a "lens" (or focus) to which all the plays are supposed to be relate. For instance, "xeno-culture clashes". Therefore areas of play can be rapidly abandoned and any individual can semi-permanently abandon an area. However, consistently playing away from the other players does limit the essential point of Microscope.

  • fast start-up time

After taking turns adding Musts and Bans (things that are essentially true and untrue about the history in question) and placing the beginning and ending periods of history, you're pretty much ready to play. All you need to play is a stack of index cards, a sharpie, and a large play area.

  • One player/GM can know the rules for everybody

Technically. The game will go much smoother if everyone understands the rules and the rules complexity is very low, but if need be you can tell the player when it is her turn to go and what sort of element she needs to contribute.

  • Ability to veto things in some limited way

The only way to do this within the rules is through the Bans presented at the beginning of the game. If your player is uncomfortable with certain topics, you can also use some variant of the "Yellow Card/Red Card" or "X Card" topic-change mechanics sometimes employed among groups who don't know each other well (or have frequent issues with "out of bounds" topics). However neither of these features is designed to give the player any ability to veto attempts to change their story intentions. Subverting other players' works is an essential part of the Microscope story-game.

  • Long-term consequences

Although you can change the analysis of events by inserting new events between two preexisting event, everything in a given scenario is permanent. Everything. So depending on how important this is, this might not be the game for you. However, that information is always available to player in the form of the same index-card timeline you are playing.

  • Complexity

The rules of the game are very simple, however the game is one of creative storytelling so everyone playing has to be comfortable being a content producer and storyteller.

  • Too many options

As mentioned, the mechanical options are very limited. However, since this is an infinitely expanding and entirely story-based game the options are all open-ended.

  • Having to make a decision

Decision-making is critical to the gameification of storytelling. I don't think there is such a thing as an RPG that doesn't include making a decision. However, if the player wants to they can avoid all, or almost all, decisions involving player conflict. I'm not sure that would make for a fun game, but it can be done.

  • Pathos-Derived Value

Microscope does not feature anything resembling a character-based system. In a scene, players play an arbitrary character for that scene but no emotional investment is necessary or even necessarily good. However, one of the keys to good storytelling is generally considered to be the ability to evoke emotion.

  • Math

No math at all! Lots of spatial placement to keep track of with the index card-based event map but no rolls or anything else.

  • PvP Conflict

There is no direct PvP conflict since there are no PCs, unless you are participating in a scene, but since a large part of the the game works off the principle of changing the perception of history this may be a real problem for your player. Here's an example: She puts down an event "The Buggers attack the human colony." under the period "The Human-Bugger War". Then, later, another player comes along and places another event under the same period, before her event that reads "The humans terraform the Bugger homeworld." This reframes the conflict from being an unprovoked attack by the buggers to retaliation for an atrocity.


Why in the world would you want to subject someone who is very clearly defined as someone who does not want form emotional attachments to characters or anything else in the game fiction and hates making decisions to any type of social game?

Yes, I am aware that "they want to play" is specified by the end. But the you are not the only person who has been involved with gaming with mentally challenged players. By dint of who I am and what I do at conventions, I've done it a lot. I can tell you this for free – no good can come of this.

In my experience, when someone with these particular dysfunctions tells you that they "want to play," what they really want to do is be part of the social group at that particular time. And that can be really cool; they make excellent outside observers. If their writing skills are strong enough, they make even better event recorders, distanced from the things that are going on, able to let other people engage in the conflicts in decisions that they enjoy, while being part of what's going on. But they are terrible players, and if you intend to run a game which involves anybody but you and the challenged individual – you've just committed to making the game miserable for everybody else.

It's pretty simple.

I've always found it more than a little disheartening that questions like this don't start with the most important things about any particular person, and any particular player – what do they like, what do they enjoy, and how can I integrate with that? It always starts out with a list of things that someone can't or won't do.

That's the wrong way to deal with anybody, not just the disabled. That's the wrong way to look for things that people will actually enjoy, not just the mentally challenged. It's just wrong.

In particular, "not liking to make decisions" is an inherent signifier that social gaming is the wrong thing for you to be leveraging. Maybe, maybe, a one-on-one, GM-and-player-style game like Beast Hunters would be a nice place to start, and by nice I really mean "probably going to be very difficult."

Shoehorning in someone whose essential maladaptions are absolutely opposed to the style of recreation is unfair to them, unfair to you, and unfair to anybody that you might be playing with. If you really want to help somebody, establish what they enjoy and work outward from that. Don't establish what you enjoy and try to drag them into that. That doesn't work.


My short answer is no. The conflict on the game is often indirect, but it is always there. Would your player get upset if someone changed a story element they had created? It is a part of the game.

Also, the game requires players to make their own decisions without assistance from other players when it is their turn. From your above description, this sounds like it might be a problem.


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