Microscope – playing a world building game

A lot of authors of speculative fiction are also gamers. Brandon Sanderson plays Warmachine. Jim Butcher does live roleplay. China Miéville, a significant voice in literary intellectual circles, has talked about the joy of reading roleplay sourcebooks.

At the same time, gaming is evolving. In terms of roleplay, this has included the emergence of more story-oriented games such as Fate and Inspectres. Story telling and game playing are merging in new and fascinating ways.


One of the most fascinating, which I discovered via Everwalker’s blog, is Microscope, a roleplay game that’s more about world building than going adventuring. And last night I played it for the first time.

Explaining Microscope

Microscope is a game in which the players create a setting and then tell its history, though not in chronological order. The time and place could be almost anything as long as it’s fairly large – the rise and fall of an empire, humanity’s colonisation of a star system, an age of superheroes.

Within your imagined history, players take it in turns to skip back and forth in time, adding eras, events and scenes. Sometimes you play through those scenes together, taking on different roles in the story to answer a key question. Why did the president push the alien ambassador out of the airlock? Why did the crops fail? Who invented the clockwork gigolo? The questions will entirely depend on the setting you’re building and the wildness of your imaginations.

This is not a cooperative exercise in the conventional sense. There’s very little negotiation. If someone else adds a detail then you pretty much have to accept it, like it or not.

That’s what makes it so fantastic.

Microscope as a world building tool

Authors of the fantastic tend to like world building. We like to invent the people, the places, the technology, the races, the magic and mysteries and mayhem that make up our worlds. It’s something you can get entirely lost in, creating something rich and exciting.

But there is a smoothness that comes from a world emerging from one imagination, or even through collaboration. There’s little of the unexpected or the contradictory. Whatever sort of world you started aiming for, that’s what you’ll end up with, and while the possibilities remain limitless, they are also tamed by expectations, for better or for worse.

If you’re willing to let go of some control then Micrscope is a great way to build a more varied world, one that’s less familiar and rounded at the edges. The people you play with will introduce ideas you would never have thought of, and your responses will take those ideas in directions they could never imagined.

In our game last night a single sentence of dialogue transformed the religious future of our world, as it emerged that the singer of spring rites at a famous funeral was in fact an automaton, breaking the expectations of his own mechanical kin. And this happened in a world originally about the discovery of magic. That’s the way that Microscope goes – utterly and gloriously unpredictably.

Microscope as a roleplay game

I love Microscope as a game. But as a roleplay game? I’m still trying to work that out.

The moments of actual roleplay are brief scenes with characters you will probably never play again. As a player your aim is to answer a historical question, not to forward your character’s agenda as is usually the way in roleplay. This needs a very different mindset. It’s one we hadn’t quite mastered by the end of the night, and I think it’s one some roleplayers won’t enjoy. It’s too alien, too strange to wrap your head around.

You’re playing as a storyteller trying to tell the best story, not as a roleplayer trying to play the best character.

Also, you might not do a lot of roleplay. We played from eight in the evening until we grudgingly acknowledged that we were too tired at 2.30 in the morning. In that time we only roleplayed four scenes, some of them quite brief. You could include more roleplay in the game, but the mechanics don’t necessarily drive you towards it.

So, great story telling game, has some nice roleplay elements, but I’m not sure I’d call it a roleplay game.

So many possibilities

I love this game. I’ve already got a session planned with Everwalker and some others, and I’ll be reconvening last night’s group once we’ve caught up on sleep. If you enjoy world building, or story telling, or like roleplay games and are willing to risk something new, then you should give this a try. As a gamer it has some fascinating mechanics. As a writer it challenged my imagination and helped it to grow.

Heck, I might even write a story in the world we invented last night. I really want to know what happened to that singing robot; to the hill goblin sage; to Jonny Galzabo and his replica Golden Palace.

I want to return and put my creations back under the microscope. I expect you will too.


Thanks to Ben Robbins, the creator of Microscope, not just for inventing this great game but for offering me advice for my first game via the Microscope RPG Google+ group.

A few great blogs

The end of this week’s got a little bit crazy, so it’s time for another lazy Friday post listing my favourite things. This week, some blogs I’m really enjoying.

Owen W Brown

 For Whom the Gear Turns

You like steampunk, right? Then you’ll like this one. For Whom… features reviews, videos, picture collections and craft ideas on steampunk themes. It’s my favourite blog for going through and pointing excitedly at shiny things.

Creative Writing With The Crimson League

The name of this one surprised me, as I used to play in a completely unrelated Victorian live roleplay campaign also called The Crimson League. But personal nostalgia aside, this is a blog full of regular writing advice with an active community of readers adding their own ideas in the comments. Well worth a look if you’re seeking writing guidance.


More writing advice from another smart cookie. Everwalker and her Raptor are among the people who have kept me mostly sane over the years and who most provoke me to think hard about my views of the world and of writing. Highly recommended.


Blog posts about monsters myths. What more do you want? These pieces are fascinating and well researched. It’s a great resource for fantasy fans and writers.

Beachcombing’s Bizarre History Blog

What, you want more than that title? OK, fine, it’s a blog of obscure and fascinating historical incidents. Great if you love history. Even better if you want odd ideas to throw into your writing or impress people in conversation.

Jane & Bex’s Book Blog

My friend Jane works in a book store, so she gets to see all the latest releases. She and her colleague Bex review the books they read. A lot of the books aren’t my normal thing, which makes it even better for dragging me out of my science fiction and fantasy corner. Who better to advise you on what to read than people who spend their days surrounded by books?

What am I missing?

So there you go – some reading to see you though the weekend.

What other great blogs are out there that I should be reading? Let me know, make some recommendations below.


Picture by Owen W Brown via Flickr creative commons

Scotland the Bravehearted – historical accuracy in fiction

It’s been nearly 20 years, but I think I might finally be ready to forgive Braveheart. As a history graduate who specialised in that era, this is a big step for me. I used to rant at great length about the dreadful historical errors that riddle that film. But recently I’ve been doing some freelance work writing historical narratives, and it’s made me re-evaluate my own perspective on this.

Why all the anger?

I used to hate Braveheart with a fiery passion. The Battle of Stirling Bridge was missing the vital bridge. Mel Gibson impregnates a seven year old girl who’s living in another country. The kilts. And so on and so on. When Lee and Herring did their ‘freedom’ sketch, they could have been speaking for me.


Why should I let go?

But writing about the Middle Ages again, trying to create an exciting non-fiction narrative from the limited events of the Battle of Stirling Bridge, has forced me to change my tune. It’s not that I’ve accepted inaccuracy – I am sticking to the truth as we know it – but turning that truth into a story involves making subjective choices about emphasis and interpretation. Even as a trained historian writing about real history, I’m projecting my own perspective, my own agenda, onto the past.

Was Robert the Bruce an inspired national hero or a calculating opportunist? Was Julius Caesar a power-grabbing ego-maniac or a realist who saw that the republic couldn’t govern an empire? The minute we start exploring questions like these, we’re no longer in factual territory. But we can’t turn history into stories without making a decision on which way to show it.

My friend Clare2043 actually called me on this six months ago. She’s studied historical film from a film-making perspective, so views it rather differently from me. As she pointed out, historical films are something we create, rather than flashes of reality. They represent us interacting with the past, using it to explore modern concerns – in Braveheart, questions of freedom, oppression and national consciousness. The aim isn’t to present factual truth, it’s to create a great film that encourages us to take an interest in the past. If that leads us to explore the truth afterwards, then great. While Braveheart led to a massive worldwide delusion on the subject of William Wallace, by fostering interest in him it also vastly increased the number of people who were well informed about the era.

Why does it still matter?

This isn’t to say that this doesn’t matter. Marina Oliver, in Writing Historical Fiction, points out that an inaccuracy can destroy the credibility of your story for a well informed reader. And those well informed readers, the ones who know history, are the ones most likely to pick up a work of historical fiction or historically set fantasy. They’re also the best advocates, enthusiastic about material that deals with their favourite subject, connected to others who will be interested. You want them on board.

And using real history can strengthen your fiction. Look at some of the tips everwalker picked up in a recent workshop with Tim Powers. That man knows how to use history in fantasy.

Drawing the line

I still think that Braveheart went far further than it needed to in messing with reality. The truth of that period was far more exciting, there was no need to piss Hollywood nonsense all over it. But at least it was an enjoyable film, so while I’ll still criticise it, I no longer hate it. The Patriot, on the other hand? Urgh.

So if you’re writing or reading fiction set in the past, think about where the inaccuracies go. What do they contribute to the story? And in factual terms, do they really matter?

Gender in genre

Everwalker recently wrote a blog post about gender equality in genre literature. It’s a topic I’ve been thinking about for a while, and touched on slightly in discussing The Hunger Games, so I decided to throw in my two pence worth.

There’s an issue of cultural bias here. Men tend to be shown in particular roles, which sets a norm which becomes self-perpetuating. When we see warriors we usually see men, so when we depict warriors we usually depict men, which means when we see warriors we still see men, and hey presto, self-perpetuating cycle. Men tend to be shown in roles which are more outward-facing and empowered. And though those of a more conservative disposition might not agree, I think that this is harmful because it has a limiting effect on what women achieve (this is a big topic so sorry, I’m not going to justify myself here).

There are two aspects of genre fiction which particularly tend to bring out this bias. Firstly, it’s often action oriented. And because of the bias already mentioned, we tend to default to men in action roles. Secondly, much fantasy is based on taking elements from history, and we tend to think of men as the influential players in history, with women limited by the norms of their society. But there are two big problems with this. Firstly, it’s not half as true as you might think. And secondly, so what? If you’ve put in dragons or magic or crazy steam machines then you can certainly change gender roles.

Now comes the confession. I’m terrible at writing gender equality. When I’m not thinking about it, I default to gender clichés as much as the next person. Until I started making a conscious effort to change, nearly all my characters were men, especially the lead ones. I’m far from perfect, but I’m trying.

Oh, and if you’re interested in more analysis of gender representations in popular culture I recommend Feminist Frequency – well argued and presented videos connecting in with recent hot topics.

Let’s Get Down to Business

Today I’ve provided a guest blog for the ever-eloquent everwalker. In return, she’s been good enough to write a guest blog for me. I definitely get the better of this deal, as do you if you’re reading this. So sit back and enjoy her words of wisdom…


To defeat the Huns… no, wait, that’s Mulan. What’s I’ve actually been invited to talk about is the biggest lesson that I have learned from completing my first full-length writing project (and by that, I don’t just mean finishing the novel, but several rounds of editing and then submission for publication as well). Well, it’s probably not going to be a popular lesson, and you are very welcome to ignore everything I’m about to say and go on about your business in your own way. This is just what I learned works for me.

Writing is work. If you really want to get to the end with the best book you can write, you need to approach it with a fairly rigorous mindset. Plan it in advance, with chapter outlines and character arcs, and all that jazz. Use spreadsheets for cross-referencing and graphs for plotting tension progression. Compile research notes and read up on weird things (my latest included the original names for various German cities, the outward symptoms of criminal child neglect, and medieval medicines for an arrow to the knee). And then, when all the prep is done – or at least has a solid foundation – you keep strict working hours. That takes discipline, whether it’s self-inflicted or imposed by other factors. Write for at least an hour every day, and try to make it the same time so it becomes part of your routine. When you hit editing stage, do the same (that part’s harder). Try not to jump around within the story too much – writing linearly is actually easier in the long run, no matter what your unreliable mind might tell you. Be business-like about it.

I know, it was a shock and disappointment to me too. Writing used to be a hobby, of sorts, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with the more impulsive approach. But I don’t think it’ll get the project finished.

There’s one other important lesson I want to mention, and it’s a word of warning. I found that, by approaching it in this way, I got more done. But I also thought about it more, to the point of obsession. There’s only so many hours in the day, after all, and you have to work and eat and sleep in some of them. Now, I’ll be honest – I’ve never been that great at keeping a good work-life balance, and when you’re juggling work and writing and life, one of them is bound to lose out. Just be careful you don’t ignore one completely.


You can read everwalker’s blog here.

Using scrivener

In my post on writing tools, I mentioned the scrivener word processing program. And everwalker said that she’d tried it but just found she used it to prevaricate. I can see how that would happen – part of scrivener’s usefulness is in giving you a place to store ideas and research, and organising that can be a great distraction from actually writing. But if you can get past that, I think there are some ways in which it can be really useful.

For me, the main thing is breaking the story down into manageable chunks. There are other ways to do this, but for me scrivener’s one of the best. I can click on a scene in the side bar and I’m straight there – no scrolling through a huge document or opening separate documents for each scene. And those blocks are easy to rearrange – if I realise that an incident should happen earlier in the story I don’t have to mess about with cutting and pasting, I can just drag it to the right place.

I also find the pinboard overview handy. It’s a place where I can look at what scenes I have planned, and in what order, with brief notes on each one. Again, it’s a place for rearranging, and for planning, without getting sucked into the details. But when I want the details, I open the file and my notes off the pinboard are there.

And that’s the last useful bit for me – the notes. When writing in word I used to keep my plan further down the document I was writing, and skip up and down to check what I’d meant to include. With scrivener it’s there automatically in the sidebar, visible in the document but not in the way.

I’m starting to sound like a salesman now, and not necessarily a very interesting one, so I’ll stop there. For me, scrivener’s not so much about the research files as the writing ones, and I’ve found it worth having just for that. But it’s only a tool, among many available. Some people will find it handy, and for some it’s a distraction.

Some other reading

A friend of mine, who is far more lucid and well read than I am, recently started a blog about stories and her experiences of writing at http://everwalker.wordpress.com/ . Almost every day she posts brief, intelligent snippets about stories and writing, and it’s well worth reading.

This reminded me that I know quite a few people who write stories. Unsurprisingly, they’re all writers of sci-fi, fantasy and horror. Most of the people I know socially live knee deep in Buffy box sets, ten-sided dice and dog-eared copies of Tolkien, and with that come particular literary tendencies. So, in no particular order, here are a few of them….

The aforementioned everwalker – ridiculously creative – poet, costume maker, crafter of epic fantasy, and the person who kept me sane during my brief, ill-fated career as a teacher.

Charlotte Bond – primarily a horror writer, her recent novella Hunter’s Moon is available from Screaming Dreams. Charlotte’s the one who inspired me to actually get on with writing, rather than just thinking about it.

Carl Barker – writer of dark tales and reviewer of books for the British Fantasy Society.

R. A. Smith – another dweller in the greater Manchester sprawl, I think there’s something about this place that inspires a particular sort of escapism. Has just started a facebook page, and has a blog as well.

Jennifer Kirk – sci-fi novelist and proof of what you can achieve through self publishing.

Zoë Robinson – writer, cartoonist, video blogger. How anyone finds the time for all that I’ll never know. I suspect she doesn’t sleep.