Microscope and Kingdom
The reference wormed itself into my head because it was a novel idea for me. Microscope and Kingdom are games that are branded as RPGs but your goal is not, as it is in most RPGs, to control and develop a single character, or group of characters, and their individual story. In Kingdom your goal is to develop the story of an entire community and in Microscope your goal is to develop an entire history.
About a year ago, my gaming circle was tossing around the idea of a rotating-DM game as something to do in off-weeks where someone couldn’t make our main game. Our characters could be members of a mercenary company and different teams would go on different adventures, depending on who wants to DM and who is available. Nice and easy.
I suggested that we try Microscope to create a shared world to use. A small group of us went through the rules trying to figure things out, and played a few sample rounds. Players start by writing the broad strokes of events, and then drilling in deeper and deeper until you are actively adopting characters to act out individual events and interactions. It’s a really interesting mechanic from a game design perspective. In practice though, we didn’t feel like we were playing a game. It felt like an improv exercise. Microscope is pleasingly abstract, and different, but it’s honestly too removed from the basic structures of goal and reward that I recognize and enjoy in games.
Microscope wasn’t to our taste. I was still impressed enough at the design philosophy that I wanted to try Kingdoms but… honestly. The Kingdoms handbook is 176 pages, and I was not prepared to do that amount of prep for a game I would likely run either once or, like Microscope, not at all.
Having read the game since, I will admit that the rules section of Kingdom is only 80 pages, roughly the length of Microscope. It has added structure to the character building and introduction of conflict, but ultimately the abstractness, complexity, and theatricality still create a real puzzle for me regarding whether or not it would actually be fun to play.
Dawn of Worlds
I don’t recall where or when exactly, I stumbled upon Dawn of Worlds, but it’s at this point in our framing story that it reoccurred to me. It seemed to be exactly what we were looking for. The rulebook is a humble 12 pages, free, and a seemingly perfect commitment for something you’re likely to only play once or twice. It exists on a funny, half-finished and remarkably dated website with a bafflingly unfortunate name, but I was certainly prepared to look beyond that.
Like Microscope and Kingdom, Dawn of Worlds is a collaborative world-building game. The first two games, however, are explicitly role-playing games: gameplay focuses around assuming the role of different characters and playing out the results of scenarios and conflicts. In contrast, Dawn of Worlds has exactly zero explicit roleplaying, except to the extent to which you ostensibly play the role of a deity in your world.
Dawn of Worlds embraces the gamification of worldbuilding, and play unfolds in a way that’s instantly recognizable if you’ve ever played other 4X turn-based empire-building games, such as the Civilization series, with which I am very familiar. The only striking difference is that no player in Dawn of Worlds explicitly controls a single faction.
The world creation is split into 3 ages, the players roll to accumulate points, and on their turns these points can be spent to shape the world to their desires. You spend these points to add or erase details to the world, building off what players did before you. It lacks explicit competition or goals, aside from creating an interesting world, but as other players come up with ideas you like or dislike, goal-setting becomes an emergent activity.
For all the praise Microscope has received, Dawn of Worlds was, to my group, way more fun to play, which is worth something.
I would give Dawn of Worlds a strong recommendation, it certainly filled the role we were looking for, but as I played it I couldn’t help but notice gaps in design. The main gap was conflict:
- Nobody wanted to save up points for Events and Catastophes, because they were expensive and didn’t necessarily permanently add something to the game world in the same way a new race or city would.
- Combat was awkward and not particularly fun to resolve.
- The game was framed as cooperative, so spending your own resources specifically to interfere with another players’ plans, just for the sake of it, felt mean.
As a result, we had a game world with little to no conflict in it! Nearing the end, we decided to give every player a free Catastrophe, just to add more points of interest.
- The pacing didn’t feel good. The turn order changed every round, there was a degree of bookkeeping involved with the amount of points you accumulate every round, and voting to proceed to the next age is interesting in theory but unwieldy in practice.
- It was difficult to judge how large the map should be, and shaping the land/climate felt way too slow (we adjusted the cost to include multiple hexes to speed up play early on).
- Although it’s not a competitive game, there were still “balance” gaps – it was far too efficient to create avatars and use avatar actions to increase the amount you can do on your turn. Players who chose not to play this way consequently did less.
- It felt very implicit, geared towards the groups that made it, rather than explicit for an audience that may not share the same assumptions. Purification and corruption, the difference between a Race and a Civilization, the scopes of the various command actions… they weren’t well defined.
The World-Building Game as a Genre
All that said, we still had loads of fun. I think Dawn of Worlds is a unique and important game because it essentially carves out a genre all its own. It’s not an RPG – you don’t play characters and you are largely not concerned with the stories of individuals. But it’s also not a Strategy game because you don’t have explicit goals, ownership of game pieces, or win conditions. It is a World-Building Game where you exercise the same tools as you would in an RPG, collaboratively, and on a completely different scope.
There is so much design space in this genre that is unexplored. Dawn of Worlds came out in 2005 and the design hasn’t, to my knowledge, been iterated upon in a meaningful way. Why though? Despite all the problems I had with it, I would recommend it to most gaming groups. Even though the world we made is goofy and stupid, there’s an odd sense of investment in all the adventures we run there.
There is so much room to apply different game mechanics and different player motivators to this basic skeleton and produce really interesting gaming experiences – and really interesting shared worlds.
Land & Legend
I’m currently working on my own take on this underdeveloped genre. I made a very, very rough draft shortly after playing Dawn of Worlds, mainly just editing some of the things in that game that I didn’t think worked, and I went back to it recently. I’ve made four or five very major revisions and rewrites with a lot of very deliberate changes that really re-frame the main goals of the game in interesting ways. It really doesn’t have anything common with Dawn of Worlds now, aside from the premise.
I am all about finishing projects these days, so playtesting has started on that. I might consider streaming it or something, I probably see value in that, or getting the first draft of the ruleset out for feedback. Really excited to see how it evolves as polish is applied.