The Meeting of Galaxies

Today we played Microscope for the first time. Microscope is a story-building game, where you map out a great history – not from start to finish, but from the outside in. You begin with the big picture, deciding how the story starts and how it ends. Then you zoom in on the different ages of the tale, building in more and more detail in the parts you find interesting, leaving empty the parts you don't.

The story that resulted turned out to be rather dark, much darker than I think any of us had originally intended.

The Meeting of Galaxies

This is a story of two galaxies; how their inhabitants met, warred, and came to peace in the face of a common threat.

We started with a big picture: "Two galaxies come into contact and go to war. A third party cuts off contact between them." At the start, that was all we knew. Presumably it would be a science fiction story, but we didn't know who the inhabitants of the two galaxies were, how they came in contact, what the war would be about, etc.
Being a science fiction story, some things were assumed to be reasonable: spaceships, lasers, aliens, and the like.
Banned — Clones of sentient beings were out: if someone died in the story, we weren't going to allow someone to announce that it was really a clone the whole time! Terraforming was out: the only habitable planets were those you found. A
Allowed — Human-habitable worlds were allowed, but they had to be rare. Planet-sized organisms could exist. Cloning sentient life was banned, but cloning extinct creatures from fossil DNA was allowed – the Jurassic Park scenario. We also decided that psionics could be part of the story, though we deliberately left them vague at this point.
Throughout the story, this symbol 🌕 indicates a light age/event/scene, and this symbol 🌑 indicates a dark one. Going by the symbols, this game was 11 🌕 to 16 🌑. Going by the resulting story, I'd say the game was almost entirely dark.

The Age of First Contact 🌕

In our galaxy, humans alone were the sentient race. But in the far-off alien galaxy, there were two species that enter this story. The Aliens were like us; they dwelt on the surface of planets, traveled in ships, ate food, grew old, and wondered about the universe around them. But the other species was something far different. Planet-sized and incredibly ancient, the Baleful Orbs lived in the vacuum of space, devouring whole planets when they drifted too close.

At the start of the game, we deciding on the bookends of the story: a hopeful Age of First Contact, and a withering away in the Age of Isolation. Little did we know that the first age would turn dark through the course of the game.

The Alien Homeworld is Devoured 🌑

For millions of years, a Baleful Orb drifted lazily in orbit around the Alien homeworld. It was their moon – normal to them, and everpresent, but over the millions of years, it had drawn closer and closer to the planet's surface. One day, it grew close enough to crash into the planet, breaking it into pieces and devouring what remained. Those Aliens who were able to escape in their starships did. Those who could not were eaten by the Orb.

The Baleful Orb Grows Powerful 🌑

Alien physiology was much like our own (though they breathed a different air), but their physiology had one important peculiarity. An organ in their body produced a compound not found anywhere else in the two galaxies, a compound that provided telekinetic powers to anyone who absorbed it. The Orb that had devoured the Alien homeworld had consumed untold millions (perhaps billions) of Aliens. As it rested in orbit around the Alien star, it slowly realized the power that it had gained.

The Baleful Orb found that it could now move itself at will; slowly, but deliberately. It reached out with its mind, looking for more power to absorb. It found another world, a planet in the same system that the Aliens had colonized long ago, a planet where many of the refugees from the homeworld had fled. The Orb moved towards the second Alien world and broke it apart to sate its growing hunger. Once again, many Aliens survived, fleeing into space. Many more perished.

This section was written fairly late in the game. For the first half of the game, we hadn't figured out what exactly the psionic powers did, nor did we figure out that the Baleful Orbs used them to travel around.

Earth and New Earth 🌕(🌑)

Surviving Aliens took to their starships, traveling through the void between galaxies to come to our own. They discovered Earth, where the humans had not yet traveled beyond their own moon. There they made surreptitious contact with a few of the human leaders, who appointed an ambassador to speak to the aliens on humans' behalf.

Not far from Earth, the aliens discovered another world, also suitable for human life. Their sensors suggested the presence of a valuable mineral, so they organized a mission to the surface. The air of that world was like Earth's – well-suited for humans, but toxic to aliens. So they asked their contact on Earth to come along, bringing someone they sought suitable for a dangerous mission of exploration on an uncharted world. The ambassador chose Alan Fairfax, a former soldier who had been involved in a secret government project before. The aliens sent a habitat capsule down to the planet, containing one of their own, the ambassador, and Fairfax.

The mission was a success: Fairfax reported that the mineral was relatively abundant on this world, a world that he and the ambassador chose to call Terranova, the New Earth. But there was a dark side to the aliens' mission. The mineral they sought was so rare (on worlds they could inhabit) that the alien captain feared his crew might mutiny and steal it if they knew of its presence. To preserve the secret of the mineral, they abandoned the humans on the planet, along with the one of their own who had been sent to look after them. Only the captain and the political officer knew what they had found.

The mission to explore Terranova was the first role-played scene in the game, and we generally found it awkward. It did, however, yield some great ideas for the story. When we orginally played out the scene, Fairfax returned to Earth with the rest of them. Read on to see where we changed the story.

Opening the Gates 🌕

A few years later, the aliens came to Earth again, but this time they made their existence known to the world. They taught mankind the secrets of flight between the stars, a technology that depended on the use of a single mineral – the mineral that could be found on Terranova, and also on Earth itself.

To explore the green world that the humans could inhabit would be dangerous and costly for the aliens, so they gave the humans their knowledge of spaceflight, knowing that they would go out and acquire this mineral for them, gathering it together where the aliens could reach it.

Our first dictated scene, answering why the aliens told the humans about the mineral.

Humans Colonize Terranova 🌕(🌑)

The people of Earth sent out volunteers to settle on the new planet the aliens told them about. They thought themselves to be the first settlers on Terranova, and they nearly were. But there was one settler who had been there since before they arrived: Alan Fairfax. Years of solitude and isolation had broken him. Early on, after the death of the ambassador left behind, Fairfax killed the alien who had been sent to watch over him. He killed his alien captor and ate his body for sustenance. When the settlers from Earth came, Fairfax retreated into the wilderness.

This was where we changed the narrative that was already written. Fairfax was originally back on Earth for the whole time after the mission, and only later returned to Terranova for the colonization. One of the players had a much better idea – that Fairfax had been left behind on the planet – and wanted to change the story to include it. This went against two major precepts of Microscope: 1) you don't change what's already been said, and 2) you don't collaborate on writing the story. These are very good rules, letting everyone contribute freely and boldly, and making sure the story doesn't get watered down by committee. But the most important rule is to have fun telling a good story – we all liked the new idea so much that we went back and rewrote the earlier event, leaving Fairfax behind on Terranova to go mad.

The War Begins 🌑

The aliens had found something in abundance in our galaxy: the mineral that spaceflight required, but it was only found in such abundance on worlds that were poisonous to them. Humans soon found something of equal importance among the aliens.

When the concept of the war was introduced, we knew that the two sides wanted something the other side had, but we didn't know anything about what those resources were. The mineral of spaceflight was a fairly benign introduction to the story. What the humans wanted was a bit darker.

Humans Discover Telekinesis 🌑

A crazed old man was dragged into a hospital on Terranova, covered in blood and ichor. A policeman had found him in the street, eating from the corpses of three aliens who had been torn from their environmental suits. His medical examination wasn't the baffling part, it was the strange things going on around him. No one could remember undoing his handcuffs, but they were undone. The mainenance staff was sure they had the right keys for the door, but none of them fit. The policeman went into the man's room, and found all the furnishings to be floating a foot above the floor. The old man's name? Alan Fairfax.

This was our second role-played scene, and it went much better than the first. Everyone seemed to get into their roles, and people started figuring out how they could introduce story outside of their own characters.

Terranova, Strategic Resource 🌕(🌑🌕🌕)

Terranova had become a place of strategic importance, falling under the command of the military. They threw out the aliens who were slowly mining the mineral there, and took over mining it themselves.

A curious theory arose in the research labs on Terranova, that animals with the right sensory organs could be trained to seek out the mineral. After a long period of research, the right creature was found, a creature that could smell the mineral in the air. Unfortunately, the creature was long extinct, and a dangerous carnivorous dinosaur. Cloning technology had improved in the years since alien contact, so the humans set to work cloning a dinosaur from ancient DNA.

Early in the game we introduced the dinosaur cloning lab on Terranova. We all had a good laugh, then moved on. It was shaping up to be a complete dead end in the story, but then just before we ended the game, we came up with the idea that the dinosaurs actually had a purpose, sniffing out the mineral. It didn't lead to any more story content, but it made the cloning lab a more relevant part of the story.

Arrival of the Baleful Orbs 🌑

During the war between the humans and the aliens, a more powerful enemy came from across the intergalactic void. Several Baleful Orbs, made powerful by devouring alien worlds, arrived in our own galaxy.

Earth is Destroyed 🌑

The same Baleful Orb that ate the alien homeworld destroyed and devoured the Earth. Billions of people died, the survivors fled to Terranova.

Like I said, the story started getting dark.

The Battle of Terranova 🌑

The fleet of survivors from Earth were in orbit above Terranova, along with the human military fleet, when the aliens launched their attack. Until this point, battles between the humans and the aliens had been minor skirmishes over control of resources. This was the first major battle of the war. The humans won, capturing as many of the aliens as they could, eating them to gain telekinetic powers.

The explanation at the end of this event changed its tone completely. The player presenting the event described it as a treacherous attack, foiled by the protagonist humans. We all assumed it was light, since the heroes won at the end of the day. But that player chose for it to be dark, the aliens being eaten by the humans after the battle.

Peace 🌕

Human researchers discovered that telekinetic powers were granted by a compound produced by the alien organ, a compound that the aliens could extract without having to be eaten. The humans offered peace to the aliens, where the aliens would provide the compound that provides telekinesis and the humans would provide the mineral that allows spaceflight.

This was described as light, since peace was finally made, but a peace requiring one party to extract a compound from their own bodies to send to the victors of the war? Darkest peace I've ever seen.

Mission to a Baleful Orb 🌑🌕

The humans sent a mission of exploration to investigate a nearby Baleful Orb. They landed on its surface, finding it to be inhabited with strange forms of life. The living planet began to speak in their minds telepathically, telling them they had to leave. Storms began to form over the humans' landing site, so they got in their ship and left.

As the humans watched from nearby in space, the Baleful Orb died, breaking apart into fragments.

If we had continued playing the game, this would have been an excellent section to explore further. Explorers on a planet covered in alien life, where the planet is alive, telepathic, and malevolent? Sign me up!

The Age of Isolation 🌑

The war between the humans and the aliens was over, but the Baleful Orbs were a far bigger threat. They had destroyed Earth and were somehow able to find human ships no matter where they hid.

The Devastation of Terranova 🌑🌕

The humans surviving on Terranova were desperate to stop the Orbs, fearing that they would devour this new planet the way they devoured Earth. Given their experience with the aliens' desire for the mineral of spaceflight, the humans concluded that the Orbs were eating planets to consume the mineral, allowing them to travel between the stars. The humans had no idea that the Orbs were actually using telekinesis to travel.

Armed with their incorrect understanding, the people of Terranova decided to destroy all the remaining mineral on their planet, hoping that the Orbs would pass them up as no longer worth eating. They detonated hundreds of nuclear bombs, buried deep underground at all the sites where the mineral could be found. The mineral deposits were vaporized, raining toxic fallout all across the planet. Terranova was rendered nearly uninhabitable.

Space travel, both among the humans and the aliens, soon came to an end. Without the mineral, interstellar flight was impossible. Any human ships that could make it to Terranova on their remaining fuel did so.

The destruction of the mineral was described as dark, but the end of space travel was described as light. The theory the humans were using, that the Orbs required the mineral to travel, was still a possibility until nearly the end of the story. The Orbs' use of telekinesis to travel was added rather late in the game, and it gave everything a darker twist, reaching back to the first age of the story, and forwards to the end.

Into Hiding 🌑(🌑🌕)

The Baleful Orb that had eaten the alien homeworld ages ago, the same one that devoured the Earth, was on its way to Terranova. It could sense all the telekinetic humans gathered there, and it wanted their power. The telekinetics found that they could sense the Orb approaching, and they realized that it was not powered by any mineral of spaceflight, but rather that it propelled itself with telekinesis.

One of the telekinetic humans came forward with a plan. He was old, extremely old, and extremely powerful, having eaten the organs of hundreds of aliens during the war. His name was Alan Fairfax. No telekinetic human could survive the onslaught of the Baleful Orbs, so the best they could do would be to die protecting all the non-telekinetic humans that remained.

The telekinetics gathered on a ship in orbit above Terranova, where they began to focus all their powers on the planet. Fairfax (with the help of a few loyal followers) used his powers to merge with the planet itself, using his telekinesis to hold the planet together. All the powers came together, and in one moment, the planet of Terranova vanished, driven to a far corner of the galaxy. The people on the ship awaited death as the Orb approached.

Leaving Terranova isolated and alone was essentially the dark ending we had planned since the start of the game, but the addition of Alan Fairfax changed it quite a bit. His merging with the planet was seen as his redemption, giving up his powers and his human form to save that remnant of humanity that could be saved.
Notice that the fate of the psionic humans left behind on the ship was never fully explored. One could imagine that they were consumed by the Orb, but one could also imagine that their telekinetic powers gave them other options.

Death and Rebirth 🌑

Terranova was a poisonous ruin, burned and scarred from the destruction of the mineral. Fairfax and his followers were gone, having fully merged with the planet itself; their power nearly expended, but their will and understanding intact. The people surviving on the surface soon found that the blasts had rendered them infertile – theirs was the last generation of mankind.

Fairfax/Terranova used the last of its power trying to find a safe place for its people to live out the end of their days. It found one, placing itself in orbit around a larger planet; a planet where the last surviving aliens were trying to rebuild. The humans, living on what was now a moon, slowly died off, leaving Fairfax/Terranova uninhabited; a sentient moon watching the alien civilization rising from ruin. It watched and waited, through untold ages, knowing that a day would come when it could come crashing down and devour the planet below.

This was the last event of the story, and also the last event added during the game. It neatly brought the story back around to its start, making for a terrible cycle of devastation and ruin. We sat around brainstorming for a bit after the actual game was over, imagining how the aliens and the humans were actually seeded onto planets by the Orbs to provide them with telekinetics to devour, eating them in one galaxy after another.
At the end of the evening, we realized that we had never introduced a third party cutting off contact. Every time the third party was brought up, we all decided to leave it as a mystery for later. But when the game ended, we had already cut off contact between the galaxies without every needing a third party. This, we decided, was just fine.