Building a Better Fantasy City with Ex Novo

I’ve enthused before about the joys of world-building games like Microscope and Watching the World Die. I love the way that random chance and the structure of a rule set can lead to rich, surprising places that feel organic, coherent, and interesting.

I recently needed to develop the setting for a new story, and as it was set in a city I decided to try out a game designed for this very purpose – Ex Novo by Martin Nerurkar and Konstantinos Dimopoulos.

Ex Novo is simple to play and takes only a few hours. Most importantly given recent circumstances, you can play it solo.  I was creating my city during lockdown, and while my cat does like to play with dice, he’s not so great at urban planning.

Play turned out to be pretty simple. You decide a few basic parameters, including the size and age of your settlement. Then you roll dice and check a couple of tables to determine the terrain it’s founded in and why it’s there. After that, you play a series of rounds in which you roll more dice, look up the results on tables, and add features to the map depending upon those results.

Those randomised additions might sound like a recipe for something disjointed, but that’s not how the game works. Every random choice is both specific and open to interpretation, accompanied by questions that invite you to flesh out the details. Role 325 and you’re adding a new trade route, represented by a resource on the map, but what the resource is, where it goes, who it’s traded with and how, these are all open to interpretation. Just adding that resource to the map creates a relationship between it and other parts of the city, which encourages answers that built on what came before.

It helps that the example game plays a little loose with the rules, in the interests of a better narrative. This encourages flexibility, adding extra details while benefiting from the structure the rules bring.

I’d expected this game to just create a map, but it’s more than that. It creates a history for the city, a history tied to that map. It also creates political factions and develops the conflicts between them, showing the politics and society of your city. As a writer building a setting, that’s incredibly useful for me. It means that my characters have a past to talk about and other people to interact with, enriching my writing.

But the map,  that’s the most useful thing. I don’t normally bother with a map while writing. I might sketch out where named places are compared with each other, for the sake of consistency. But this game has given me districts,  public buildings, surrounding terrain, roads, walls, and ruins. Any time my characters travel from place to place, I can look at that map and get instant, surprising inspiration about what they’ll see.

This sort of game isn’t going to be for everyone, but if you like making up stories and imagining places then it can be a great tool, and with the designers currently letting you name your own price, Ex Novo is a bargain.

Back to Running LRP

Life has a habit of repeating on itself, only a little different. And so, several years since I last did it, I’ve signed up to help run a LRP (live roleplay).

This is going to be an interesting challenge for me in terms of balancing parts of my life. I’ll be writing plot for the event, which means I’ll be using similar mental muscles to the day job, but in different ways. I’ll be collaborating with other people in an act of creativity, which is great because I like people and my work can be quite isolating.

But the biggest concern is how I respond to the emotional pressure of it all. I don’t always respond well to stress (who does?) and my brain has a tendency to register what could be excitement as stress instead. This is particularly true when other people are involved or I care about the outcome, which is obviously going to happen here.

So how do I manage all that while ensuring that I do my part of the project and have fun along the way? I’ve got a few ideas:

  • Proper planning to tackle the tasks I’m responsible for.
  • Tackling them early to reduce background stress.
  • Looking at the excited and positive responses people will have to the project.
  • Stopping regularly to take deep breaths.

I’m glad I’ve been given the chance to be part of something awesome. I’m looking forward to it. And with a bit of care, I can fit this into my life without turning it into a major source of stress. But that care is going to be important.

And expect more details here as the project goes along…

LRP Moments: Death By Clown

Somebody recently suggested that I should try writing up some live roleplay (LRP) memories. I’m wary because what’s dramatic or funny in the moment may not always work in the retelling. But it worked when I wrote up New Pathways in Lycanthropy, so I’m going to give it a go here. Who knows, maybe this will end up as a regular thing…

* * *

It’s late at night in the market field. Overhead, an occasional star peaks through the clouds. My name is Hereward Saxum, a miner from an isolated community that recently discovered the fantastical world of Edreja. Today I’ve seen magical clowns, unliving monsters, and speeches by the most powerful people in my world.

The market field is almost empty as Father Candle and I walk across it, heading for the tavern tent. Candle is our community’s high priest, an old man with little more than a dagger to defend himself. We know there’s trouble out here in the darkness – hit squads hunting each other through the night, monsters looking for prey in civilization’s shadows. But a quick trip to the tavern should be fine, right?

Someone walks towards us through the darkness. I rest my hand on my sword hilt. I didn’t bring my armour or shield, didn’t think I’d need them. Hopefully, I won’t, but you can never be sure in this place at night.

There’s a jingling of bells. I make out the pointed shape of a jester’s hat. The stranger is one of the sinister clowns that stalk the local carnival. I’ve seen them around all day in their bright motley, laughing, prancing, and occasionally assaulting people. They aren’t mere mortal jesters. They’re magical beings who could take on a dozen heroes single-handed.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “I saw a trick earlier for how to deal with this.”

I face the clown.

“This rabbit walks into a butcher’s,” I begin.

That afternoon, I’d seen someone stop a clown in its tracks just by telling a joke. The deadly jester had burst out laughing, all thoughts of homicide forgotten. And this rabbit joke is one of my favourites.

“Hereward,” Candle says, “I don’t think that will work.”

The clown keeps striding towards me. It’s pulled out a wickedly sharp knife that glows with magic in the darkness.

Sure of myself, I keep telling the joke.

“Hereward,” Candle says. “We should run now.”

I keep going, a little less certainly than before. The other clown had started laughing by now.

The creature raises its knife.

“Hereward,” Candle says, backing away. “It’s the wrong sort of clown.”

I try to draw my sword but it’s too late. There’s a flurry of blows and I fall to the ground. The clown crouches over me and starts cracking open my skull, ready to eat my brain.

In my last dying moments, I see Candle stride up behind the clown and stab it in the back. My friend has come to my rescue!

There’s a flash of magic and Candle’s blows are turned back against him. He falls next to me, the life running from his body.

The clown giggles in the darkness.

Wrong sort of clown.

* * *

Out of character, I look up into the face of our friend Dave, who’s running this encounter. It takes ten minutes to die in game, and he has a stopwatch in his hand.

“You idiots,” he says, shaking his head.

Al and I look at each other and laugh sheepishly. This is a tough break for Hereward and Candle, and one of the dumbest things we’ve ever done, but at least it’s a memorable night.

Destroying Myself with Pokemon

I have a new most embarrassing injury ever.*

I have given myself tennis elbow by playing Pokemon go.

I didn’t want to stop catching ’em all, so I carried all my heavy shopping bags in one hand. And now that arm has been hurting for months.

Fortunately, the doctor has given me some things to deal with it. But still, Pokemon elbow. How embarrassing is that?




* Previous title holder: That time I got drunk, lost a city, smacked my knees, and couldn’t bend either leg for three days.

Not Every Fiction Should Be Immersive

Not the real me.

Returning to live roleplay (LRP) has me thinking about immersion in fiction.

Immersiveness hs been a hot issue in British LRP in recent years. Profound Decisions have focused on creating rich, well-executed worlds for players to lose themselves in. The results are spectacular, beautiful, sometimes powerful. Players really get away from reality for a while. New Pathways in Lycanthropy was a fantastic smaller game in this tradition.

The contrast with the Lorien Trust, who run Britain’s long-running festival system, is striking. In and out of character elements are mixed together everywhere, from plastic tents next to in character ones through to the highly visible burger vans at the in character marketplace. The ritual magic system, intentionally or not, encourages jokes that punch through the fourth wall.

Conversations about this focus on quality and effort. Even as someone who’s chosen LT over PD, I see PD’s games as of higher quality. The thought put into them is greater, the effort better directed. This inspires the creativity of their players, creating a rich collaboration. Just the look of the game is a cut above its rivals.

But there’s a related thing that I haven’t seen discussed. These games have very different relationships with reality. PD’s leading game, Empire, isn’t just better at escaping reality. It’s a game built around doing that. The designers have gone to great lengths to create something that doesn’t directly engage with our world.*

The Gathering, the LT’s game, is very different. It’s full of deliberate references to our world, rich with in-jokes at the expense of reality and of other works of fiction. It’s a messy referential free-for-all.

Once I noticed this, I couldn’t help notice parallels with other works of fiction. Terry Pratchett’s early books are full of direct digs at our world, not to mention footnotes that pull you out of the story. Later books focus on immersion, on living within the Discworld and making the comparisons once you step back.

This isn’t an on/off thing. There’s a spectrum of engagement between fictions and reality. Levels of immersion can result from this aesthetic choice as much as from the quality of the work.

At the moment, I’m still mulling this over. In as far as I’ve drawn any conclusion, it’s this – how deeply you’re immersed in a world isn’t just down to the skill with which it’s been created. A story can be skillfully woven and still have you dropping out of its world all the time if it’s deliberately reminding you of reality, referring back to it as part of the text. Of course, this often happens by accident rather than design. There may even be a correlation between these causes of lack of immersion. I haven’t thought about it that deeply yet. But there are two different things at play here.

What do you guys think? Do you object to being pushed out of a world by the way the story’s told? Do you like your texts self-referential? Are good works always immersive? Let me know what you think.



* Of course, on some level, all art reflects upon reality. You could get a lot from thinking about parallels between Empire and our world. But that’s a conversation for another day.

Cryptogram Puzzle Post

I love novel approaches to story and games. So when I saw a flyer for a monthly “art, gaming and storytelling experiment” delivered to subscribers by post, I was never going to resist.

Each month, Cryptogram Puzzle Post sends you a bundle of beautifully presented and interconnected puzzles. There are pretty pictures, brain teasers, and a suggested playlist, all themed around a story of alchemy and nature. It’s so fricking cool.

I haven’t got far with my puzzles. I’m still stuck on the last page of the first set and the second delivery arrived days ago. But even that adds to the excitement. Having something fun come by post, instead of junkmail. The lovely illustrated envelope. The anticipation of knowing that it’ll arrive and of opening the envelope.

The modern world has made it easier to experiment with culture. The internet lets you reach a wide audience with niche products. But this means we can get stuck doing stuff electronically.

Cryptogram Puzzle Post is something a bit different. For that alone, I salute it. And spend hours obsessing over it, trying to solve that last damn puzzle.

New Pathways in Lycanthropy

Alan and his new friend Libby. Such a happy day!

It’s late on Saturday night in the heart of Leeds. I’m sitting in a deconsecrated church with twenty people I met for the first time today, staring at my phone and waiting for a call I know will never come.

Everybody here is going to die. It’s my fault and it was the right thing to do.

This is New Pathways in Lycanthropy.

New Pathways

New Pathways in Lycanthropy was a one-day live roleplay (LRP) event. It was run at Left Bank Leeds by Penn Tynan and her splendid team of volunteers. It was intense.

The concept for the game was that, in 2014, a strange new disease had emerged. Quickly labelled lycanthropy, it effectively turned people into werewolves. We were playing people whose work related to lycanthropes, from police specialists to the manager of a celebrity spa facility to an insurance executive struggling to understand the disease’s repercussions. We were all attending a one day training course on lycanthropy-related issues.

Or so we thought.

Meet Alan, He’s Out of his Depth

I was playing Alan Kirk MP.

A local independent MP, I’d got my seat as an anti-corruption protest candidate. I thought that getting involved in lycanthropy was the best way I could do some good with my new job, so I’d got onto the Parliamentary Select Committee for Lycanthropy. Most professional politicians didn’t want to touch lycanthropy with a barge pole because there were few votes and no easy answers. They were more than happy to let me drink from the poison chalice.

Before I became an MP, I was a children’s TV presenter. As a politician, I was well-intentioned but completely out of my depth. It didn’t help that I wasn’t feeling well.

Meet Andy, He’s Not Sure About This

As a live roleplayer, I don’t usually go in for anything serious. I find LRP incredibly emotionally engaging, but that can also make it very draining. So if I’m going to play, I normally play something silly.

My friend Jules convinced me to try New Pathways, even though it looked very serious. It was only one day and it was local, so there wasn’t a huge time commitment. Plus it was a one-off event, so I wouldn’t get into the energy drain of thinking about my character and the game between events. I was wary, but up for it.

This shaped the character I created. I needed to mostly be serious, so that I could engage with the game and its issues. The MP seemed an excellent choice. He was a character who would give me a reason to take on a role leading and enabling others, which is something I enjoy in a game. He was a nice guy, so I could be friendly and sociable. I also gave him an extra little emotional twist that I’ll come to later.

The children’s TV part was a concession to my inner fool. This way, if I got bored or things got too intense then I could dip into that background and start pratting about. If you’re going to LRP, make sure you’ve got a backup source of fun, because even the best events have lulls. You have to be prepared to take the initiative and entertain yourself.

Now you’ve met both my personalities, let’s see how they got on with the day…


The day started with a message from the local Lycanthropy Unit. There had been an incident in Leeds and we were on amber alert. Nothing to worry about, just slightly higher security than usual.

Given the public hysteria around lycanthrope attacks, this wasn’t uncommon. Certainly not worth causing a panic by telling people.

Following a brief charity meeting at a local café, I made my way to the New Pathways in Lycanthropy training course. There were a mixture of scientists, public servants, and people from the private sector.

It started off like any other training course. We couldn’t read the slides. The lunch was late. Stimulating conversations had to be cut short to keep the agenda moving. I met some nice people, though none of the scientists I was looking to make links with.

We had some fascinating conversations about the implications of lycanthropy. How it disrupted the lives of people and institutions. The different reactions everyone had to it. The lack of a cure and the different ways the disease could be prevented or managed.

Then rumours started coming in that lycanthropes were changing into their beast form around Leeds. This wasn’t meant to happen during daytime, especially as it wasn’t a full moon. Attendees with infected friends and relatives started looking worried.

The course organiser stepped outside to fetch something from her car.

As we would later realise, she was never coming back.


From what I’ve seen of LRP, there are two main approaches to the hobby.

There’s the approach that’s common in America and Western Europe, where it’s about an escapist experience. It draws mostly from tabletop roleplay games. It’s an exploration of culture in which the best games create immersive drama, action, horror, comedy, or whatever genre you’re in. Players might spend the weekend as wizards at a magical school.

Then there’s Scandinavian LRP. It’s much more strongly linked to art and improvisational theatre. It’s used to explore deep social and psychological issues. Players might spend a weekend as refugees crossing Denmark or as ex-members of a Scientology-style cult trying to recover from the experience.

The first part of the course felt very Scandinavian. Lycanthropy made a great metaphor for current concerns about refugees, health funding, disabilities, and gender divisions. Ten minutes of group discussions about werewolves got me looking at those things and their implications in whole new ways. How do insurers react to a new illness? How do we tackle prejudice when it’s grounded in self-preservation? How can you avoid stigmatising a community while still talking about limiting the spread of their illness?

So far, so interesting. And there were hints of something more coming down the line.


People working for the government received a red alert. There was a real lycanthropy crisis in Leeds and the city was in lockdown. We weren’t to leave the building.

Without the course organiser, we couldn’t carry on with our day as planned. People got bored. They got restless.

The scientists started investigating what was happening in the city. I made myself useful by calling in scientific equipment from the local Lycanthropy Unit, which was set up outside the hall. Some of the top experts in lycanthropy started working intensely on understanding why people were suddenly and unexpectedly turning into monsters.

Halfway through the afternoon, tragedy struck. Brother Simeon, a friend of mine who helped run a homeless hostel, had become infected. He turned into a beast and attacked people. The scientists tried to cure him with an experimental drug. They used too much and he died.

Along the way, he had infected another person.

I mourned for my friend and started making funeral arrangements.

Then I went back to being bored and restless.


This long stretch of the afternoon was when I had doubts about the game. The players of scientific characters had a lot to do. The rest of us, almost nothing.

In retrospect, it was important in pacing the event. It left us feeling helpless and vulnerable for later. But as I sat catching Pokémon and talking about TV shows, I wished I’d come up with an even sillier character. I really needed entertaining.

I needn’t have worried. I was about to be intensely “entertained”.


By half past eight, we’d identified three participants in the course who were infected with lycanthropy. The scientists had worked out what was causing them to transform and attack – a chemical compound released by terrorists. It was in the air. All we could do was contain people, stay safe, and wait for this to be over.

The lycanthropes had been locked in a room. They were getting agitated and battering at the door. We couldn’t contain them much longer.

Meanwhile, Alexander Smith, the government liaison sent to help the scientists, started freaking out. He was staring at his phone and talking about something terrible happening. I’d been trying to keep him calm during an earlier panic attack, so I went over to comfort him.

I saw the message on his phone. It said PURPLE ALERT. I didn’t know what that was, but nothing in capital letters is ever good.

Then the lycanthropes burst out. In ten minutes of chaos and panic, they were driven from the building. But along the way, they severely injured half the people there, leaving them infected with the disease.

One of the injured people was Alexander. With his throat half ripped out, it was doubtful we could save his life, never mind get him conscious to find out more about the purple alert.

Fortunately, as an MP, I had contacts. Going to a quiet corner of the room, I phoned the head of the Department of Lycanthropy. They were shocked to hear that I was caught up in the situation in Leeds. They explained the purple alert.

The contagion couldn’t be contained. For the sake of the rest of the world, in two hours time, the whole city of Leeds would be bombed with nerve gas.

We were all doomed.


And so the final act began.

Suddenly, the game had become intense and nerve wracking. There were werewolves battering at the door. Surviving and treating the injured gave everyone something to do.

We were a long way away from the reflective social scientific explorations of Scandinavian LRP.


I knew that the scientists on the course had made incredible breakthroughs today. That could save lives. I convinced my government contact that those findings needed to get out.

She agreed that, before the nerve gas attack, they would send a team to extract four uninfected people and any information they had developed. It was up to me to pick those people.

For me, this became about saving the most lives, not just in the room but in Leeds and the rest of the world. I had to keep everyone here calm and make sure that the science got out safely. I couldn’t tell everyone what was happening or there would be panic.

The four people I picked would live. Everyone else would die. It was on me.

The first pick was easy – the one uninjured scientist in the room. Anyone injured was infected, so they were out. I told Dr Lockheart about the situation, and he found two other people who understood the science. I took them quietly aside, told them the truth, and told them to be ready to leave when the time came.

One space left. One life to save. I didn’t want to waste it, so I found a group of creative types I’d been talking with earlier. I couldn’t risk telling more people the truth, so I started spinning a lie. There would be waves of extraction teams at five-minute intervals. There was space for one more person in the first extraction. Which of them would go?

In a touching moment, a couple who were novelists tried to convince each other to go, then decided to stay together. Their friend the artist would be the fourth person.

Then we got a call from some of the other scientists. They were hiding in the tent outside. They had developed a cure. They were coming in past the hordes of ravening werewolves.

In an intense and scary moment, they got in safely.

It was ten o’clock. We had half an hour left.

I got on the phone to the government and begged them to call off the attack. But without a method to distribute the cure, they wouldn’t do it.

And still, no-one else knew what I knew.

In thirty minutes, all but four of us would die.


These last two hours contained the most fascinating moral dilemmas I’ve ever dealt with in a game. I had to pick who lived and died. I had to decide whether to tell people the truth. Once the other scientists got back in, I had to decide whether I could change who was leaving. The more scientists involved with the cure got out the better for the whole world. But anyone I took off that list of four for extraction would die. Three of them knew that and might cause trouble if things changed.

By now, because I’d been helpful and authoritative, people were turning to me for information and direction. It was getting really, really intense.

Alan: Decision Time

Twenty past ten. There’s a knock on the door. Soldiers are here to take four people safely past the werewolves.

I call people over.

Dexter Lockheart, the first scientist I put on my list to live.

Libby, a museum worker who understands the science and knows the truth. Nice lady. Glad I got to save her.

Jessica, who runs a spa for wealthy lycanthropes. She was fun to talk with when I was bored. I’m not sure she’s the best human being here, but again, she understands the science, she knows the truth, and if I don’t let her out now I think she might cause trouble.

One space left. I’ve already asked the artist to wait for the “next extraction”.

I look at the other scientists. They’ve found a cure that will save thousands or millions of lives. They’ve worked incredibly hard under terrible circumstances. They’re a gift to humanity.

And I’m effectively killing all but one of them.

I grab the nearest one. I shove her at the soldiers. “This is your fourth.”

“You’re here for the first group?” someone else asks, wanting to know when the soldiers will be back for them.

“First group?” a soldier says. “What are you talking about?”

A vision flashes across my mind. A score of desperate people turning on each other for the sake of survival. Soldiers pulling out their guns. Scientists caught in the crossfire. The cure lost. All of today’s horror and tragedy coming to nothing.

“Just go,” I say. I’m a sickly MP who doesn’t get nearly enough exercise, and I’m shoving a gun-toting professional killer out of a doorway. I really hope they go with it.

Or maybe I don’t. Maybe I want people to hear the truth. Maybe I don’t want these terrible decisions to be mine.

The soldier turns and leaves, taking the four survivors.


Damn, that was close.

Andy’s not really in the picture any more. I’ve forgotten about Pokémon and TV. I’m just being Alan.


I sit down on the floor, staring at my phone. If it rings in the next ten minutes, then the scientists have convinced the government that we can spread the cure. Leeds will live.

If not, we all die.

“Are they really coming back for us?”

I don’t even see who asked the question. I’m too caught up in the fact that I’ve killed everyone here. I’m grieving my own lost innocence, the children’s TV presenter I once was. And honestly, I feel like shit. My meds, combined with the stress of the day, are taking it out of me.

“No,” I admit, to myself as well as them. “I’m sorry.”

I go around the room, apologising to people for not saving them. Most are understanding. One of them admires me for not saving myself.

I sit by the altar. Two people are there. I apologise. They say it’s OK. They thank me for what I’ve done today, helping everyone out.

I sink exhausted onto the floor.

“For what it’s worth, I would have voted for you next time,” one of them says.

“You wouldn’t have had the chance,” I reply. “I was going back for the next round of chemo next week, but we know it won’t work. I was going to be dead by the next election. That’s why I got into lycanthropy issues. Desperately looking for a cure for cancer in this new disease.”

The sound of helicopters approaches. I get up and try to call the government one last time. Not for my sake, but for all the good people in this room and all the other people across Leeds who are about to die.

It’s too late. The air smells strange. I’m choking on my own breath.

I collapse, phone in hand. I watch the world fade away. My last thought is that at least I won’t have to go through more chemo.


When I got home after New Pathways in Lycanthropy, I couldn’t sleep. I kept running over decisions I’d made in character. Had I made the right choices? What else could I have done?

Today is the morning after. I got up and took my friend to the station. Then, for the first time since I moved into my house, I sat on the doorstep. After everything I’d been through, I didn’t want to close myself into my comfortable bubble. I wanted to be out there for humanity to interact with. I wanted to see people, to exchange casual conversation with passing strangers, like I’d done with the people on that imaginary training course. Because I felt raw and vulnerable, and I remembered, in a way I hadn’t for a long time, that people are the only thing that truly matters.

I took a lot away from New Pathways in Lycanthropy. Some serious thoughts on marginalised groups, healthcare, and social issues. Some fascinating thoughts on game design. Some memories I’ll be dwelling on for weeks.

But what I mostly took away was the intensity of emotion I got from living Alan Kirk’s last two hours. It’s left me exposed to the world in the best possible way. I hope it’s something I can hang onto.

Understanding Yourself Through Games

Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.
Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.

I’m a big fan of games. Board games, card games, roleplay games, even the occasional computer game. Games are awesome.

I’ve long thought that games are an under-appreciated part of our culture. Even as fans, we sometimes talk about them as something childish or nerdy. In reality, games can be produced as skillfully and become as thought-provoking as any other part of human culture. Minecraft is a near-limitless tool for education. Profound Decisions create live roleplay of incredible immersion and complexity. The Battlestar Galactica board game captured the spirit of that show perfectly, with its atmosphere of boisterous paranoia.

I hadn’t thought much about how games let us explore our own personalities. That changed for me recently, when I attended Dungeons of Yendor, a one-day game run by Pennine Megagames. This was a sort of giant board game for a hundred or so players, involving diplomacy, war, trade, trickery, and ancient secrets hidden in the darkness beneath a fantasy world. It was an impressive achievement, and the people playing had a lot of fun.

Here’s the thing though – I played it wrong. Not wrong for the game, but wrong for me. I did what I often do in large multi-player games and took on a small leadership role, organising the vanguard of a military expedition. This left me organising supplies, trying to see to the needs of others, and generally doing a lot of stuff that, while potentially satisfying, was actually more stress than fun.

When I stopped to think about it afterwards, I realised that I often do this, and not just in games. I take on responsibilities because I feel like I ought to, rather than because I’ll enjoy them, and I don’t even notice that I’m doing it. It’s killed my enjoyment of hobbies and jobs on many occasions. The open systems of the megagame gave me space to do that, and time afterwards let me see my mistake. I’d have had a lot more fun if I’d just thought about what I enjoy and done that.

Few other forms of culture engage us so actively as games. This makes me wonder if they create a unique opportunity for us to act out our subconscious impulses in a contained space, and so to gain insight into who we are. It certainly seems to work for me.

Can Character Motives Be Too Strong?

I’ve been playing a lot of Fallout 4 recently, and I’m starting to hate the protagonist’s motivation.

Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.
Just me and my dog, playing catch at the end of the world.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Fallout 4 is set in a post-apocalyptic America with a 1950s vibe. It’s an amazing looking game that lets you interact with a fascinating world, just roaming around, exploring, talking with the people who inhabit it.

That’s where the problem with the motive comes in. As the protagonist, you’re meant to be rescuing your son who has been kidnapped. That’s powerful stuff. It makes sense that, as a parent, you’d be completely focused on that task, to the exclusion of all else. It provides the core for a tense, compelling narrative.

But this is a big sandbox game. I want to wander around, get into conversations and side-quests, rebuild settlements, flirt with the scrappy journalist, upgrade my guns, maybe cook some radstag stew. I’m avoiding the quest for my son because I know that, if I follow it, that will drag me at speed towards the end of the game. I don’t want that end. I want to take my pet dog out hunting molerats.

The result is that, if I step back and think about my character, I realise he’s a terrible person. His wife has just been killed.* His son has been carried off by terrible people. And his response is to wander around, eyeing up the scenery, collecting random junk and chatting with strangers. He should be putting all his energy into saving his family, and most of the time he doesn’t even think about them. I’m trying to play as a good guy, a character rebuilding civilisation, but in the context of the plot my priorities are monstrous.

It’s like those moments in films where the lead characters stop to kiss at the height of the action, and you’re sat there thinking “stop wasting vital seconds – there are lives at stake!” It makes dramatic sense, but not human sense. Their motives to press on have been made too powerful for them to do what the writers want.

In terms of writing, I’ve taken a big lesson from this – strong motives are good, but make sure they aren’t so strong that they’ll outweigh everything else you want to include. In Fallout 4 though, I’m going to stick with being an inconsistent monster. I’m enjoying my wanderings too much not to.


To my own shock and horror, I realised this weekend that most of us love a traitor. And it got me thinking – why is that?

Don’t Hate the Player

This whole line of thought started with a board game, or more accurately three board games. On Saturday I was at Stabcon, my local twice-yearly gaming convention. I spent most of the day playing games of back-stabbing and treachery, and relishing every moment.

Despite the box, my friends insisted that I play with my shirt on. Apparently writing ‘abs’ on my chest in biro isn’t the same as having the real thing.

First some friends and I played Spartacus, the game of the TV show, in which you play Roman families trying to outmanoeuvre each other for profit while casually throwing gladiators and slaves to their deaths.

Then it was One Night Werewolf, the speedy version of the classic game of bluffing, gruesome murder and rushed lynchings, in which players are either werewolves or villagers, and your only aim is to live through the night.

Finally I sat down to play Battlestar Galactica, based on the modern version of the sci-fi show. It’s a cooperative game, in which the remnants of humanity look for a promised land – sounds much nicer, right? Except that one or two of you are secretly cylons, murderous robots trying not to get caught while you plot your comrades’ downfall. We survived, to the immense relief of most of the players, but it’s a tense game in which one false move can see you locked forever in the brig or mankind doomed to starvation.

Pick Me! I’ll Be The Baddy!

Two things about these games made me ponder the appeal of treachery.

First is the obvious the games are all driven by trickery and double dealing, and they’re all fun to play. Even as my friend Matt destroyed my Roman household’s reputation, I took great relish in declaring my intention to take bloody revenge (in the game, of course – there were no beatings in the hotel car park).

But the choices of characters people made were also revealing. In Werewolf, nobody chooses to be the werewolves, but everyone knows they’re the most fun. If you’re playing Battlestar, Gaius Baltar is always one of the first characters picked, because fans of the show love the conniving and egotistical scientist who accidentally doomed mankind. Similarly in Spartacus, anyone who’s watched the show wants to be Batiatus, even though he’s one of the hardest characters to play. After all, he’s the fun one.

For The Love Of Conflict

But I don’t think this is just about our love of villains. I think it’s about the value of conflict.

These games are fun not because every single action is a fight for dominance, but because even acts of cooperation could have schemes and conflicts hidden beneath them. It means that every moment is exciting, because every moment is filled with suspicion.

Similarly, these favourite characters are constantly in conflict with the others in their stories. That makes them more fun to watch and to be. In real life, we strive to be helpful people. But in stories and games, when it’s all about aesthetics, picking fights is way more fun. It’s why I swore vengeance on Matt – if I couldn’t win, I could at least have fun going down fighting.

So there you have it – my theory of why treachery makes for great stories. From the classic example of Long John Silver selling out both sides in Treasure Island, to Littlefinger’s duplicitous shenanigans in Game of Thrones, treachery means we see conflict even where there is none, and that makes everything exciting.

What do you think? And who are your favourite traitors, historical or fictional? Share your thoughts in the comments.