Frontier Games – A Weird Western Story

A while back I wrote an episodic fantasy western. I’ve gathered it here on one page, so it’s easier to read and share the whole thing. There’s action, tension, and more than a little magic.



Part One: The One Night Town

Lizzie tugged at the reins, steering Hunter and her little waggon into a side street outside the saloon. Already she could tell that this would be a one night town, a quick stop on her way to the mining settlements in the hills. There couldn’t have been more than a couple of hundred people living here. Tracking down the ones who knew about mineral deposits wouldn’t take long. Whatever her employers needed to know, she’d find it out tonight.

She got down from the waggon, checked the purse secreted in the folds of her dress, and tied Hunter up next to a watering trough. The horse guzzled eagerly at the filthy water, anything being better than the dusty landscape they’d been riding through.

As she walked along the creaking boards out front of the saloon, she noticed dust rising from a work site beyond the far end of town. It looked like the railroad was coming. Maybe there was something worthwhile here after all.

All eyes turned to her as she entered the saloon and approached the bar, a collection of reclaimed planks that had been proudly polished until they shone. She ordered a whiskey, to the surprise and delight of the moustached barman, and scanned the room while she waited for him to pour.

Only the middle of the afternoon, and already there was a poker game going on in one corner. Four men clustered around a table, cards in their hands and coins piled in front of them. One was a native, two labourers. The fourth man caught her eye. His suit might be dusty and patched, but it was better than most out here.

He’d be the company man.

“Room for one more?” she asked as she approached the table.

All four men showed the same mix of surprise and delight as the barman. The native pulled up another seat beside him. His smile was soft, but there was a hardness in his eyes. The company man grinned and ordered a bottle of whiskey for the table.

Even as she picked up her first hand of cards, Lizzie felt the power stirring in her guts. The same power she felt whenever she entered a game, the rituals of play letting her tap into her magic.

As she stacked up coins in front of her, she let some of that power flow into them.

The labourers didn’t interest her. Men like that understood the practicalities of mining, not the big picture. Instead, she started with Laughing Wolf, the native. His tells were subtle, but they were there. She could see by the twitching of a finger when he had a strong hand. Then she made sure to gamble more than she sensibly should, weaving her magic into the winnings as they slid across to him.

She knew that her power was working. Whenever one of the other men got lucky and won some of her funds, he would blurt out something about the resources she sought. Old Jim talked about a silver seam in the high hills. Ben, a lean youth with barely a wisp of beard, showed off his knowledge of how to dig coal.

But Lizzie wasn’t here for silver or coal. She was relieved when those two ran out of funds and had to leave.

Meanwhile, Laughing Wolf remained tight lipped. If he knew anything about minerals, then something else was protecting him from her power. Meanwhile, her funds were running dangerously low. As she watched her steadily decreasing pile of coins, she fought not to clench and give away her tension.

It was time to change tactics.

“Looks like I finally got lucky,” said Figgis, the company man, as he piled up winnings in front of him. “Reminds me of the day we found a gold seam out by Red Bend.”

Lizzie smiled inside. She played the next few hands carefully, challenging Laughing Wolf when he was strong, giving small bets away to Figgis whenever his eyes narrowed in triumph.

But things were tougher without a couple of easy marks to win hands against. For all that they had tells, Figgis and Laughing Wolf hid their feelings better than the labourers. Lizzie was struggling to win enough hands to stay in the game, and Figgis still hadn’t told her what she most needed to know.

The day was growing cooler, afternoon stretching toward evening, but Lizzie was sweating beneath her dress. She would hate herself if she’d given so much away for mere fragments of knowledge. Where was the win in that?

She had to take a real risk.

She dealt out the cards and watched the others look at their hands. Laughing Wolf’s finger twitched. Figgis’s eyes narrowed a little.

Someone was going to win big.

She glanced casually at the aces in her own hand. If she double-bluffed now, tried to signal that she was covering up weakness, maybe she could win a decent pot. But what if that didn’t work and she gave away her last real chance to lose to Figgis?

“All in,” she said, sliding her remaining cash into the middle of the table. As she did so, she chewed at the corner of her lip, a tiny gesture, but hopefully enough for Figgis to pick up on.

Laughing Wolf matched her bet. So did Figgis, barely suppressing a grin.

Laughing Wolf laid out his hand, a spade flush. His eyes gleamed behind his soft smile.

Figgis grinned wider as he presented a full house, jacks over threes, and the native’s face fell.

They turned to look at Lizzie, who in turn considered her own full house, aces over queens, enough to win the pot.

“Dammit,” she muttered, placing the cards face down in surrender. “I’ve got nothing. Was hoping you were both bluffing.”

Figgis drew the pile of coins across the table.

“Last time I saw this much gold, it was that big seam up by Blue Rock,” he said. “Gonna make a fortune off that when the time comes.”

“Fat good that does me now,” Lizzie said. Inside, she was beaming. Gold deposits were what her employers paid so well for. She’d head for a town with a telegraph office and let them know to come grab the claim.

As she stepped away from the table, the magic tying her to the game dissipated. For a moment, she thought she felt some other strand of power tugging at the table, but she shrugged it off.

“Pleasure playing with you boys,” she said. “But it’s time for me to move on.”

“Good luck with that,” Laughing Wolf said.

He too stood up, shovelling his winnings into a deer hide pouch.

“What, you giving up now?” Figgis grumbled.

“While I’m winning,” Laughing Wolf replied.

On her way out, Lizzie looked up at the sign board above the saloon. “The Pawn Sacrifice” it read. Strange name for a saloon, but then saloon keepers could be an odd lot.

She untied Hunter, got into the waggon, and rolled out toward the hills. As she rounded a bend, she saw another town in front of her, near identical to the one she had just left.

She smiled. As long as she could keep moving, who wouldn’t love this work?

Part Two: Sometimes You’re a Player

As Lizzie approached the town, a feeling of familiarity settled over her. It wasn’t the comforting feeling of seeing something well loved and long missed. It was the terrible familiarity of seeing something where it shouldn’t be.

This town wasn’t similar to the one she had just left behind. It was the same town.

Looking over her shoulder, she could see it behind her. A fistful of wooden buildings scattered along the dirt road, hills rising up to either side. The saloon called the Pawn Sacrifice stood out from the rest, with its balconies and its tall frontage.

She looked ahead and there it was again – the Pawn Sacrifice, jutting out of the same string of buildings.

With a snap of the reins, she urged Hunter to hurry through the town. They emerged on the far side, rounded a heap of rocks, and there the town was again. With growing speed and mounting frustration, she raced through the same streets a dozen times. Every time, she found herself back where she had started.

At last, she pulled up out front of the Pawn Sacrifice. An exhausted Hunter guzzled eagerly from the water trough.

“What the hell?” Lizzie yelled into the darkening sky.

“I said good luck.” Laughing Wolf, the native she had played poker with, stood on the porch of the saloon. “Guess it didn’t work out.”

“What the hell’s going on here?” Lizzie demanded, striding up to him.

“It’s the railroad company,” Laughing Wolf said. “They set this up to stop anyone leaving. Drifters, hunters, traders, even wild animals that wander by, we’re all trapped here.”

“Why?” Lizzie asked.

Laughing Wolf shrugged.

“It is what it is,” he replied. “Not my sort of magic. I just relax and enjoy what this place has.”

“Not your sort of magic?” Lizzie asked. “Wait, did you know that I was using powers during our game?”

“Didn’t bother me. You weren’t using them to win.”

“That bastard Figgis,” Lizzie snarled. “I knew there was something strange going on. I’ll hunt him down and make him let me leave.”

“No point. He’s just a pawn for his boss.”

Lizzie pressed her fingers against her tired eyes.

“Fine,” she said. “I’ll stay the night, get moving in the morning, or whenever this wears off.”

“I wouldn’t mount your horse yet,” Laughing Wolf said. “It’s been like this for months.”

“Months? I can’t stay in one place for months.”

Lizzie tried to contain her growing sense of panic. She pictured the men she had fled from back east, men who nearly caught her a month before. Men with muscles and guns and debts they felt they were owed.

“It’s not up to you,” Laughing Wolf said. “Sometimes you’re a player, sometimes you’re a piece. Just relax, drink whiskey, play cards, wait for this to pass.”

“No. I need to get out of here. Who’s the top company man?”

“His name’s Mr King.”

A deeper discomfort settled across Lizzie.

“Not Alfonse King?” she asked, without much hope.


Alfonse hadn’t changed since the day Lizzie gave him back his ring. His moustache was neatly waxed, every hair on his head perfectly in place, his suit fitting him like a second skin.

“What an unexpected pleasure,” he said as his assistant showed Lizzie into his office.

The door clicked shut behind her and the two of them were alone.

“It’s certainly unexpected,” she said, surveying the room. A set of shelves held books on engineering, history, and games. Wine and spirits were lined up neatly next to glasses on a side table. The window behind the big wooden desk showed a view across low hills to where the railroad was being laid down.

“Why did you do it?” Lizzie asked.

“Do what?” Alfonse replied.

“This trap.” Lizzie walked over to a low table by the shelves. A game of chess was in progress across a board she had seen many times. It radiated power, just as the cards did when she was in the middle of a game.

“You always were smart,” Alfonse said. “I might as well tell, it’s not like you can get a message out.

“I want my railway to be the only way into and out of this place. No-one will be able to walk, ride, or run away. I’ll control the flow of traffic into one of the most valuable regions of the west. Imagine how much that’s worth.”

“You don’t need me to make your profit,” Lizzie said. “Can’t you let me go, for old times’ sake?”

Alfonse laughed bitterly.

“I should slap you for old times’ sake,” he said. “The humiliation you brought on me, my fiance running off like that.”

“Then how about a game?” Lizzie asked, pulling out a deck of cards. “If I win, you let me move on. If you win, I marry you. You can put all that shame behind you, tell people that you brought me back into line, or whatever you need to feel powerful.”

The thought of marrying him sickened her, but so did the dread at her pursuers catching up. It was a desperate gamble, but it was worth taking.

Alfonse looked at the cards and then at Lizzie.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I know who’s after you. I know what they’ll do. And I’ll take more satisfaction in that than I ever could from keeping you in my life.

“Goodnight, Lizzie. Enjoy your stay.”


Laughing Wolf looked up from his table as Lizzie slouched into the bar.

“I told you,” he said. “We’re not the players. Sit back and try to enjoy the game.”

Lizzie sighed and sat down beside him. There was a pack of cards on the table and a row of whiskey bottles behind the bar. There were worse ways to spend her final days.

“Fine,” she said, accepting her fate. “Deal me in.”

Part Three: Gathering Dust

Laughing Wolf woke up in the same small bed in the same small room above the same small saloon where he’d been waking up for weeks. He had the same hangover too.

In the corner of the room, his coup stick was gathering dust, a grey fuzz settling across its bright ribbons and dangling feathers. There was no point picking it up if he wasn’t going to channel the magic of the coup game. And there was no point fighting against the powers that held him here.

Besides, life wasn’t that bad.

He slid into his buckskin pants and loose shirt, then headed barefoot down the stairs. In the main bar, Ernie was laying out plates of eggs and toast for his regulars. Food kept coming in, even if folks couldn’t get out.

As Laughing Wolf picked up his plate from the bar, four hulking white men came in off the street, the saloon’s doors swinging shut behind them. Two of them were carrying axe handles and one was wearing brass knuckles. They all wore six shooters.

The Pawn Sacrifice Saloon, never the most exuberant establishment, fell deathly quiet.

The leading thug walked up to Laughing Wolf.

“Looking for a woman by the name of Lizzie Wayne,” the brute said. “You know her?”

Laughing Wolf pointed up the stairs. No point fighting, as he always said these days.

“Third door on the left,” he said.

As the men tramped up the stairs, Laughing Wolf took his usual seat by the window and started eating his eggs. The sun fell across the same patch of table it did everything morning. The eggs tasted the same as every morning. So did the over brewed coffee Ernie brought to the table. It was all comforting in a way that his wandering life, following the herds of buffalo across the plains, had never been.

The banging of a door came from overhead.

Laughing Wolf tried to ignore it, focusing on his eggs.

There was a rushing of feet, a shout of anger, and the sound of something smashing. A woman yelled in alarm.

Everyone looked down at their eggs. Laughing Wolf found that his had lost all their flavour.

A gunshot was followed by a bellowed curse and the woman shouting again.

Laughing Wolf’s table by the window didn’t feel so comfortable any more.

As the crashing and yelling continued, he pushed away his plate, got out of his chair, and walked up the stairs. He walked past the open door with the splintered frame, down the hallway to his room.

It had felt good to let his coup stick gather dust, not to accept responsibility for himself or his world. He would miss that dust.
He picked up the coup stick. It was as long as his arm, with a hooked end. He left his six shooter and his hatchet by the bed. Those were the rules of the game. You couldn’t count coup if you also fought to kill.

Barefoot, he padded down the corridor. The woman was cursing someone out at the top of her lungs.

“Where’s the money, bitch?” someone yelled.

There was a slap.

Laughing Wolf rounded the doorway and looked in. Two men were holding Lizzie Wayne against the wall by her arms. Curly black hair tumbled across her night dress. Blood ran from her lips. Another man stood facing her, while the fourth smashed up furniture and peered at the pieces.

“I won that money fair and square,” Lizzie Wayne said.

“That’s not how Mister East sees it.” The thug pulled back his hand.

The smasher of cupboards caught sight of Laughing Wolf.

“What?” the man snarled, drawing his pistol.

Laughing Wolf darted toward him. The gun rose. He twirled his stick. The shot went wild, the gun’s roar leaving a ringing in his ears. Then he reached out and tapped the man in the chest with the coup stick.

Immediately, the man froze. Glassy eyed, he gazed at Laughing Wolf.

“Protect me,” Laughing Wolf said.

The man turned sluggishly to face into the room.

Two of the others had drawn their guns now. Laughing Wolf flung himself to the floor behind the bed. Bullets ploughed into the wall above him and splinters of wood sliced his forearm.

The man he had touched with the coup stick fired at his companions and they fired back. Seconds later, Laughing Wolf’s protector lay dead on the floor, along with one of his former comrades.

Laughing Wolf rolled under the bed and stretched out with his coup stick.

“To hell with you, red man,” the lead thug said as he trapped the stick beneath his heavy riding boot. He bent over and peered under the bed, pointing his gun in Laughing Wolf’s face.

There was a yell and a thud. The man turned around just in time for Lizzie’s knee to collide with his face. He flew back in a spray of blood and teeth, his head hit the wall, and he slumped motionless onto the floor.

Laughing Wolf rolled out from under the bed. The man who had been holding Lizzie lay sprawled by the door, head lolling to one side, his face turning from red into the purple of a massive bruise.

“Thank you,” Lizzie said. “That was mighty kind.”

Laughing Wolf shrugged.

“I’m going back down for breakfast,” he said “You want to see if we can get sausages?”

“I thought it was always eggs,” Lizzie said, picking a dress up off the floor.

“I think it’s time to make a change,” Laughing Wolf replied.

Part Four: Blood Washes Out, Bullets Don’t

There were four dead bodies in a room above Ernie’s saloon. Big guys wearing spurred boots and solid gun belts. Two looked to have been shot. One’s head had been smashed in against the doorpost. The fourth had his neck bent like a neck just wasn’t meant to bend.

From the doorway, Ernie looked at the room’s two living inhabitants. Lizzie Wayne, the woman he’d rented the room to, looked defiant, her arms folded across her chest. Laughing Wolf was emerging sheepishly from under the bed, clutching some fancy stick covered in ribbons and feathers.

“Didn’t figure you for the sort to make a mess,” Ernie said, making no effort to hide his resentment.

“Sorry,” Laughing Wolf said. “They started it.”

“It’s always the dead ones who did.” Ernie pushed over one of the bodies and peered at the wall behind him. “Clearing up costs extra. Double for gunfights.”

“She’s paying,” Laughing Wolf said.

Miss Wayne glared at him, then back at Ernie.

“I’m not paying extra because they brought guns,” she said.

Ernie pointed at a hole in the wall.

“Blood washes out,” he said. “Bullets don’t. Pay extra or fix up the room yourself.”

“Fine,” Miss Wayne said. “Add it to my bill.”

Ernie would have made most customers pay up front, but Wayne wore big city dresses and tipped at meals, so he didn’t have to worry whether she was good for it. Besides, it wasn’t like anyone could leave this town. That was the curse his business was built on.

He went to fetch old blankets to wrap the bodies in. By the time he returned, the killers were deep in conversation.

“No, this makes it even less my problem,” Miss Wayne said as she dragged one of the bodies onto the landing. “Now I can just wait it out.”

“You’re saying no other trouble could come your way?” Laughing Wolf said, piling pistols and ammo belts on the bed.

Ernie kept quiet and tried to ignore them. It didn’t do any good to get drawn into your customers’ problems.

“Somebody’s got to take down King,” Laughing Wolf said. “We’re the only two in town with the power to try.”

Ernie slowed his work, making a show of labouring over carrying the body, buying himself time to listen. Mister King would pay well to hear about this conversation.

“It won’t just be him,” Wayne said. “Alfonse has a gift for finding wretches to do his dirty work.”

Ernie glanced up. His heart was in his throat. Were they looking at him? Had that been an implication, the beginnings of a threat?

Hurrying to get out of the room, he tripped on the doorframe and dropped the body with a thump. Now they were definitely looking at him. His face glowed like dawn across the plains.

“It’s not just us, either,” Laughing Wolf said. “As long as no-one can leave town, people’s pasts will keep catching up with them. What happened today, what you felt meeting King again, do you want to force that on others?”

“Fine,”  Wayne said, rolling her eyes. “If – and only if – you have a plan.”

“Got to get soap and a bucket,” Ernie blurted out, bolting from the room.

He hurried down the stairs and around behind his bar. The breakfast crowd had fled at the sound of gunshots, leaving the place deserted.

It was strange to hear other folks talk about their pasts catching up. That was what had brought Ernie out west. It was the reason he’d accepted Mister King’s deal – service for protection.

He crouched behind the bar, opened a small cupboard, and peered inside. The thing inside could have been a chequers board, except that Mister King used it for more complicated business. Instead of nice simple disks it had chess pieces, odd figures whose names Ernie struggled to recall.

Which one had King said to move in an emergency? The one meant to summon his men…

“What you got there, Ernie?”

Ernie jumped so hard he slammed his head against the bar. Laughing Wolf stood barefoot beside him, that crazy stick in his hand and a stern look on his face. There were footsteps as Lizzie descended the stairs, a pack of cards in one hand and a six-shooter in the other.

“Nothing,” Ernie said.

He tried to slam the cupboard shut but Laughing Wolf thrust his stick in the way. The indian peered inside.

“Games, huh?” he said. “I should have noticed the smell of magic was strong here.”

“I’ve got friends,” Ernie said, backing away from the furious native. “Powerful friends.”

“See this?” Laughing Wolf said, raising his stick. “This is my game. This is my magic. We play coup and I can take control of you. You want that, Ernie?”

Ernie shook his head frantically, backing toward the shotgun stashed beneath the cash box.

“Mine’s a war game,” Laughing Wolf said. “The minute you pull that thing, that’s when it starts. You think you can shoot faster than I can steal your soul?”

Ernie froze. He was shaking so bad his muscles ached.

“Leave him,” Wayne said, heading for the door. “He’s nothing.”

“No I ain’t,” Ernie snapped, finding a surprise store of courage buried inside him. “I own this bar. I’m my own man.”

“Of course you are,” Wayne said.

She probably thought Ernie didn’t know sarcasm, but he heard it. It stung.

“Get out of my saloon,” Ernie yelled. “And don’t never come back.”

The other two exchanged a look.

“Fine,” Laughing Wolf said, heading for the door. “But think about this. Did you name this bar of yours?”

Ernie followed them out, telling himself it was to make sure they were gone. But when he looked up at the sign above the door he knew why he was really there.

“Pawn Sacrifice,” the sign said. Ernie had never understood what that meant, just that it was part of Mister King’s deal. Now the sign mocked him, a reminder that his life wasn’t his own.

He’d never been much for games, but he’d hated the idea of being someone else’s playing piece.

He went back inside to fetch a ladder and a saw. Five minutes later he was hacking the sign down. Next he’d deal with the bodies. And then…

Then he didn’t know.

“Hey, Ernie,” a familiar voice said.

Laughing Wolf was looking up at him.

“What?” Ernie asked, leaning on the sign.

“Can we come back in?” Laughing Wolf asked. “We’ve could use your help.”

“Fine,” Ernie said. It wasn’t like he wanted to turn down custom anyway. “But you’re mopping up that blood first.”

He heaved on the sign. With a crack, the image of the Pawn Sacrifice fell into the street.

Part Five: High Stakes

Watching Ernie shuffle cards hurt Lizzie. It wasn’t that she wanted to hold them in her own hands, to feel the flow of magic through the deck. It was the sheer clumsiness of the man, the ungainly way he mashed the cards together. Watching someone make such a mess was unbearable.

The doors of the saloon swung open. Alfonse King stepped inside, his gleaming shoes clacking against the floorboards. He twirled the end of his moustache between his fingers. Behind him came Figgis in a crumpled old shirt, followed by half a dozen matching thugs, all wearing six-shooters.

“You came.” Lizzie pushed the empty seat away from the table. Alfonse dusted it off with a handkerchief before sitting down.

“I hear you beat the men hunting you,” Alfonse said. “I figure now you’ll get bored and start making me trouble. So I’m offering you the chance to leave town.”

“Just me?” Lizzie asked.

“I’ll release you from the spell so you can move on,” Alfonse said. “Let the past be the past.”

“Not interested,” Lizzie said, looking around the table. Laughing Wolf gave her a slow nod. Ernie just focused on the cards.

“But my offer still stands. One game, high stakes. If I win, you let down the barrier trapping folks here. If you win, I’ll marry you.”

“You said you’d marry me before.” Alfonse’s tone was bitter.

“This time I’ll be bound by my own magic,” Lizzie said. “You can put that old humiliation behind you.”

“What’s his stake?” Alfonse pointed at Laughing Wolf.

“My tribe’s knowledge of these lands,” the native said.

“Alright.” Alfonse nodded. “I’m in.”

Ernie slid a pile of counters in front of each of them and then dealt the first hand. The minute they placed their bets, Lizzie felt the power binding them to the game.

That was magic. It used you as much as you used it.

Within half an hour, Laughing Wolf’s stack of chips was almost gone. Lizzie wasn’t surprised. Alfonse had played in the most powerful cabals New York and Washington had to offer. It was all she could do to counter the card tracking spells and distraction cantrips he was using against her. Laughing Wolf never stood a chance.

“All in.” Laughing Wolf slid his remaining chips into the pot.

They flipped their cards over. Alfonse hadn’t been bluffing about his strength on this hand.

With a sigh, Laughing Wolf got up and went to stand by the bar, taking his brightly coloured coup stick with him.

The next hand went Lizzie’s way. Then two went heavily against her. She was down to a handful of chips. That meant less room to take risks, less chance to scrape back a win.

She gritted her teeth, trying not to let her frustration show. She’d thought she was onto a good thing. Instead, she risked having that snake Alfonse paw at her every night.

“You’ve been practising,” she said, trying to get him to open up a little.

“That and business are all I’ve got out here.” He ran his gaze up and down her body. “Until now, anyway.”

She won a couple of small pots, but not enough to balance the stakes. Then she let him win one so that she could run a spell through the winnings and try to expose his mood. But he sensed the magic and countered it by tipping Ernie with the critical chip.

Next, Alfonse hesitated over a big bet. She thought she had a winner and kept pushing the bets higher, only for him to reveal a full house, Kings over Queens, and take it all away.

Lizzie’s spirits sank. She was down to her last few chips.

“Why are you doing this?” Alfonse asked as Ernie slowly dealt the cards.

“I didn’t want anyone else to feel trapped,” Lizzie said. “Like I did back when we were engaged.”

Anger flashed across his face, the first real emotion he’d shown all game. Then he picked up his cards.

He tapped his finger and thumb together. Just a little gesture, but one she recognised.

The facade had cracked. He had a bad hand. But she didn’t have enough chips to make the most of it. He could just bet small, let her win, and wait to beat her later.


“All in,” Lizzie said. “And I’ll offer you something else too.”

“You’re going to marry me twice?” Alfonse asked with a raised eyebrow.

“My power with the cards,” Lizzie replied. “I’ll bet that against everything in front of you.”

“High stakes,” Alfonse said. He looked at his cards, then back at her. “Alright. I’m all in.”

As he pushed his pile of chips into the middle of the table, she felt the power flow out of her and into that heap. The game had heard her bet. It had bound her.

Everyone in the room held their breath.

Lizzie revealed her hand. A pair of Jacks. Together with the one on the table and the pair of threes beside it, that made a full house.

She smiled. Then a doubt gripped her. Why had Alfonse agreed if his hand really was bad?

Solemnly, he revealed his own cards.

A pair of threes. That made four of a kind.

Lizzie felt like the breath had been ripped out of her. Under pressure, she had missed the most obvious thing in the world. She stared in horror at Alfonse’s winning hand.

He tapped his finger and thumb together.

“Thought I’d forgotten how well you know my tells?” he asked, grinning.

He swept his winnings over to him. Lizzie could sense the magic of the game, could see the glow of power swelling around him.

Alfonse pulled a ring from his pocket and flung it across the table.

“Congratulations,” he said. “You’re going to be Mrs King.”

Lizzie stared at that tiny, gleaming prison. Then she picked it up and slipped it onto her finger.

What else could she do? She’d played and she’d lost.

“I need some air.” She stumbled to her feet, trying to control a sob as she stumbled out into the street.

Part Six: Sometimes the Bad Guys Win

Sometimes the bad guys win. Laughing Wolf had known that his whole life. How could he not know, when white men had been driving his tribe from their homes for generations?

As he watched Alfonse King and his goons follow Lizzie out of the saloon doors into the street, Laughing Wolf knew that this was one of those times. Lizzie had tried to do the right thing, had risked her future for the sake of the people in this town. For that, she’d been robbed of her power and her future.

Because sometimes the bad guys win.

Ernie appeared behind the bar and poured them each a large glass of whiskey.

“This one’s on me,” he said.

“Not today,” Laughing Wolf replied, pushing it away.

With growing determination, he stepped away from the bar and out through the swinging doors. Bells and feathers rattled against the coup stick in his hand.

This wasn’t over yet. He could start a new game, one where his coup magic would let him free Lizzie. But for that to work, he needed to start a fight.

“Hey, Figgis,” Laughing Wolf said.

King’s foreman turned just in time for Laughing Wolf’s fist to collide with his jaw. It was the most perfect and satisfying thing Laughing Wolf had ever done. Teeth and blood sprayed in a fine arc. The grumpy thug staggered back in shock and pain.

The coup stick pulsed with power. The worse the odds, the more glorious it was to count coup, and here he was facing six men with six-shooters.

As Alfonse turned to see what was happening, Laughing Wolf lunged at him with the stick.

There was a bang. Pain smashed through Laughing Wolf like a sledgehammer. His leg gave way and he sank to his knees, staring in horror at the pulped muscle and shattered bone that had been his shin.

He looked up. The world was spinning, but Alfonse King was perfectly clear, standing over him with a look of disgust. Beside him, smoke drifted from Figgis’s gun barrel, blood running from between his lips. Behind them, Lizzie looked lost and broken.

“Idiot,” Alfonse said. “I won at the poker table. I won at the great chess game tying you all to this town. I’ve never found a game I couldn’t win at, but you keep challenging me.”

“There are other games,” Laughing Wolf said, looking past them at Lizzie. “No-one wins by giving up.”

Lizzie looked back at him. Her slumped shoulders straightened. She cast aside the pack of cards she had been clutching and looked around.

Laughing Wolf could feel his strength fading. With a trembling hand, he raised the coup stick.

“Still fighting?” King took the gun from Figgis. He pointed it at Laughing Wolf.

There was another bang and a terrible burning pain in Laughing Wolf’s belly. He slumped forward, his face landing between King’s boots, his arm and the coup stick stretching out past the businessman.

“Stupid fucking redskin,” Alfonse said.

There was a click as the hammer was pulled back on a gun.

As the world grew darker, Laughing Wolf saw a slender hand pick up his coup stick. There was a rattle of bells and feathers and the soft thud of wood tapping flesh.

“What did you-” Alfonse began.

“Stop talking,” Lizzie said, her skirts rustling inches from Laughing Wolf’s face. “I counted coup. You’re mine now.”

Two of the other thugs were visible from where Laughing Wolf lay. They drew their pistols.

“Tell them to drop the guns,” Lizzie said.

“Drop the guns,” King repeated.

“Are you sure, boss?” Figgis said. “All she’s got is a damn stick.”

“A stick that could steal your boss’s soul,” Lizzie growled.

Laughing Wolf laughed. That wasn’t how counting coup worked. It just gave you control over someone for a while. But then, white folks seldom bothered to learn about other people’s games. Away from the poker table, they were easy to bluff.

Laughing brought blood to his lips. He wondered if it was better or worse that that didn’t hurt. But it was an idle sort of wondering. Everything seemed far away now.

“Drop the guns,” King repeated.

There was a thud of weapons hitting the dirt.

“Now tell them to leave town,” Lizzie said. “And not to come back.”

“Leave town,” Alfonse repeated. “Don’t return.”

One by one, the men walked away. After a few minutes, there was a sound of hooves disappearing into the distance.

“Ernie, grab a gun and keep it trained on Mister King here,” Lizzie said.

She knelt beside Laughing Wolf, her face inches from his.

“We’ll get you through this,” she said. “I’ll send for a doctor, and-”

This time it hurt to laugh. But it was worth it. This was the way Laughing Wolf wanted to go. The punchline of a joke on every greedy bastard who’d ever tried to trample folks into the dirt.

“Sometimes the good guys win,” he said.

Then he closed his eyes and went to sleep.

Part Seven: The Forever Town

Lizzie tugged at the reins, steering Hunter and her little waggon onto the patch of dirt next to Laughing Wolf’s grave. She jumped down from the driver’s board and stood beside the freshly dug earth.

“I wanted to say thank you before I go,” she said. “You didn’t just save me from Alfonse King. You saved me from giving up just because I lost one source of power.”

She took Laughing Wolf’s coup stick from the waggon and planted it in the ground at the head of the grave.

“I’ll learn to make my own one of these,” she said. “And to channel my magic through other games. I might not have the cards anymore, but I’ve got other options. Thanks to you.”

She got back onto the waggon and rolled out toward the edge of town. She could do that now, with King’s spell broken. They were all free to move on.

Ernie was packing saddle bags on a horse outside his saloon.

“Thought you were staying,” Lizzie said as she passed.

“Figgis is taking over King’s business,” Ernie said with a frown. “Made himself sheriff too. I don’t want to be around for that.”

It figured. Lizzie wouldn’t have wanted to stick around under Alfonse’s henchman either. But then, her plan had always been to leave. To get back to her old work, gathering investment information for businesses back east. Earning herself a nice Washington town house full of fancy dresses and parties.

She rolled on past the saloon, the store, and the houses of the little frontier town. People peered nervously out from behind their curtains.

Just past the end of the street, a body swung from the branches of a wind-swept tree. Death suited Alfonse King. Pallid skin contrasted with his sharp suit.

The thugs who had left him to face the penalty for Laughing Wolf’s death were back. One of them had climbed up the tree to cut the body down. Two others stood below, ready to catch it. They turned as she passed.

“Hey you!” one of them called out. “Stop there!”

“Sheriff Figgis wants words!” another shouted.

They picked up hefty sticks and started running after her.

Lizzie felt annoyance as much as fear. All she wanted to do was leave town, but these idiots were making even that difficult. Without the magic of playing cards or a coup stick to help her, she wasn’t ready to deal with them.

She snapped the reins and Hunter picked up the pace. Soon the men were left waving their fists in futility.

Looking back, she should have felt triumphant. Instead, she felt ashamed. Was she really going to leave this place in the hands of men like Figgis?

She wheeled the waggon around and headed back up the road into town. The thugs beneath the tree yelled in alarm as she thundered through them, knocking one to the ground.

Other men emerged from a doorway at the far end of main street. Leading them was Figgis in his patched and dusty suit, a sheriff’s star gleaming on his lapel.

Lizzie didn’t have a plan, but she had more righteous determination than she’d ever felt in her life.

Pulling on the reins, she brought Hunter to a stop outside the tavern. Ernie stared at her in surprise as she leapt down and strode toward Figgis.

Four men flanked the sheriff. Like him, they all had six-shooters at their hips.

“I’m arresting you, Miss Wayne,” Figgis said, grinning like a cat with a mouse between its claws. “Not sure what for yet, but we’ll find something.”

“Your boss couldn’t beat me,” she snapped, stopping face to face with him. “What makes you think you can?”

“This.” Figgis patted his pistol. “Plus you ain’t got your magic stick this time.”

The men closed in. Figgis started drawing his gun.

Lizzie had never been a soldier, a lawman, or a hired thug. But years of card tricks had sharpened her reflexes and the deftness of her fingers. With a single smooth motion, she stepped forward and punched Figgis squarely in the nose. As he staggered back, his grip on the gun loosened and she twisted it from his hand, spinning it around to aim at his so-called deputies.

They stood stunned, guns half-drawn.

“Shoot her, you idiots!” Figgis gasped, blood streaming down his face. “She can’t shoot you all.”

“Not alone.” Ernie appeared around the waggon, a shotgun in his hands. His customers had emerged from the saloon behind him. Most of them were armed.

The thugs exchanged nervous glances then raised their hands.

Figgis flinched as Lizzie’s hand shot out, snagging the silver star off his jacket. Still aiming the gun with one hand, she used the other to pin the badge onto her chest.

Around her, the townsfolk disarmed Figgis’s men.

“Get out,” she said, glaring at Figgis. “If I ever see you around here again, your boss won’t be the only one swinging from that tree.”

As Figgis and his men tramped despondently out of town, Lizzie turned to Ernie.

“You got a room spare?” she asked. “Looks like I’m going to be here a while.”

“Of course, sheriff,” Ernie said. “Right this way.”

Lizzie’s neighbours cheered as she made her way back to the saloon.

She smiled. This place wasn’t so bad, for a one night town.

* * *


Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed this then please share it and consider signing up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free e-book, updates about new releases, and fresh fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.

Dead Detectives and Exponential Complexity

Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by paurian via Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve been writing a murder mystery dinner party. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this, but it is the first time I’ve created one with so many player suspects. It’s been a real eye opener on the exponential effect of adding complexity to stories.

There are a dozen characters in this game, plus the victim, who doesn’t get played. When I write this sort of murder mystery game, I create various details for each character – three secrets, three resources to influence other people, three aims for the evening, and two relationships with each other character – the relationship the others see, and the secret relationship behind that. These details are there to ensure that no-one is ever bored and to create the haze of suspicions and red herrings through which the players try to identify the murderer.

You can probably see already why doubling the number of players doesn’t just double the complexity. Every new character has to have relationships with each other character, and that creates an exponential growth in relationships. As a creative exercise they’re a lot of fun to create, but it’s also taxing – there’s a lot to think about, and each time I’m adding a detail I have to work out how it connects up with the rest.

In a way, this applies when writing stories, and in another way it doesn’t. Each detail you add – a person, a place, an event – has the potential to interact with everything else, so the growth in potential is exponential. But you control the narrative, including which things interact, and so you can avoid defining all those interactions – something I can’t do with a murder mystery game.

The problem comes if you’re too controlled. There might be interactions readers will look at and go “what about those two characters? surely they would have talked about x?” You don’t want to look at all those interactions, but the more of them could exist, the more holes can be picked. The potential to miss something important grows exponentially.

So if you want to write about five ideas, and you don’t want to spend a long time writing about them, is it better to split them into two stories than to roll them all into one, dealing with all their interactions?

Maybe. I’m not totally sure. I’m still thinking through the implications. What do you reckon?


If you’re interested in commissioning a murder mystery party, you can find the details here. And remember, my new book A Mosaic of Stars, collecting together over a year’s worth of weekly short stories, is available for pre-order as a Kindle e-book now.

R. A. Smith On Conflict in Games and Stories

Back in May, I heard fellow fantasy writer R A Smith talk about conflict in games and stories at Nerd East in Durham. Here are a few notes from that talk – really more of a relaxed chat with the audience – that I found useful:

  • The protagonist is either the lens for the trouble around them or, more often, the person going out and causing the trouble.
  • They never start by just wandering the world, their intentions just a blank sheet – they need to have an objective.
  • When talking about conflict in roleplay games we often start by thinking about fighting, as that’s what the characters are statted for.
  • Jim Butcher writes good blog posts on writing. He recommends focusing on the story question – what’s the book about? what’s driving the main plot?
  • When it happens, fighting should progress the story in some way.
  • How characters behave in a fight shows their personality – for example, do they disregard civilians?
  • Character and anticipation are important. This is why professional wrestling is successful – the draw is the soap opera element that makes fans anticipate each match in advance.
  • The Princess Bride has great storytelling fight scenes – for example the early fight between Wesley and Inigo Montoya, showing their motivations and styles.

If that’s given you a taste for more from R. A. Smith, the first two books in his Grenshall Manor Chronicles are out now, starting with Oblivion Storm. And if you’d like to see what I do with conflict, my collection of short fantasy stories By Sword, Stave or Stylus is still free on the Kindle until the end of today.

Murder Mysteries and Writing to Suit the Audience

This week I wrote a murder mystery game – the third time I’ve been commissioned to do this professionally – and it was a reminder of the importance of writing for your audience.

The first time I wrote one of these games it was for a small group of cosmopolitan twenty- and thirty-somethings. This time it was for a church youth group running the game for fifty teens. The mechanics are completely different, but so is the tone. In come non-player suspects to be questioned. Out go the sex and drugs.

The biggest lesson for me was in how much assumptions colour what I right. I put in infidelity as a motive because I’m so used to that being a feature of murder mysteries – even Miss Marple is constantly running into respectable English people who can’t keep it in their pants. But that was the one thing I was asked to change, because while infidelity might be an acceptable feature of murder mysteries, it definitely isn’t an acceptable feature of church camping weeks.

Sure, as writers we work in a creative field. You could even call what we do art. But art is never pure, it’s always affected by who you’re writing for. So the dead hotel manager has put his wandering willy away, and by the time he winds up dead he’ll be in a whole other sort of trouble. He clearly hasn’t learned his lesson, but I have.

Betting Big – a #FlashFriday story

7161430491_c1bb1e6f18_zRemi lowered Fiscal and Tromp into the brackish water of the pool, the two otters sliding in with soft splashes. Sleek fur glistened as they swam around the edges, testing the wooden fence that set this place off from the rest of the bayou.

“Y’all ready?” Bobby Reed called out. Not waiting for an answer, the big man tugged the rope hanging from an overhanging branch, raising the gate at the pool’s far side. The gleaming menace of an alligator slid out of its cage, slit eyes scanning its surroundings, mouth wide with pointed teeth and hungry for flesh.

Bobby dropped five whole dimes into the tin cup hooked to the fence, and looked to Remi to do the same. Along the bank on this side of their improvised arena, other men and women were also placing bets. Remi could hear that the odds were against Fiscal and Tromp.

He felt a familiar tingle, a thrill of something more than just excitement, as he matched and then doubled Bobby’s bet.

Already the gator had the otters on the run, chasing them around the pool. They split up, and as the gator chased Fiscal, Tromp gouged at the beast’s side with paws and teeth. The gator snapped at her and she twisted away, but blood trailed from one of her paws. Remi could almost feel her hurt, a stab at his own heart. He kept strong, kept accepting bets as they came his way.

“So much for your pets.” Bobby grinned as the gator chased a panicked-looking Fiscal. “Don’t reckon you’ll be boasting ‘bout how fierce they are no more.”

“It ain’t over yet.” Nervousness tightened Remi’s chest. He dug into his pocket and pulled out an old copper coin he’d taken from a Union soldier back in the war, a coin with symbols like no other he’d seen, but one that had been worth the saving of that man’s life. He dropped it into the tin cup, and as he did so he felt the thrill of their game grow, become something more powerful, something that energised him in proportion to the growing bets and the cheers of the crowd.

Out on the water, buoyed up by that same power, Fiscal turned and gouged the gator on the nose, making it rear back in pain.

“You still in?” Remi asked.

“Course I’m still in.” Bobby fished out a dime, then peered at Remi’s coin. “What do you call that?” He picked it up with a sneer. “This ain’t worth shit to me, boy.”

Without the coin in the pot, Remi could feel power flowing away again. There was a thud as the gator flung Tromp against the fence. Fiscal, suddenly losing the energy that had powered her attack, fled from the snapping jaws.

Remi tensed as those teeth sliced the end from Fiscal’s tail, winced as blood flowed out behind her.

“Here’s another dime then.” He flung it into the pot, then snatched the special coin from Bobby’s hand and dropped it in on top. “This one’s for free.”

“Sure thing.” Bobby added his own dime and turned, grinning, back toward the pool.

His grin melted as he saw the two otters turn, fast and fierce. Fiscal leapt over the gator’s open jaws, planting her claws straight into its eyes. As the creature writhed in pain and panic, Tromp dived beneath it. A red stain spread across the water. The gator rolled over, revealing a deep gash along its belly. It writhed and snarled, but its energy was fading. As the otters swam back toward Remi, the gator finally went limp.

Remi tipped the contents of the tin cup into his satchel. Beside him, Bobby Reed stood slack-jawed.

“How…?” the big man said. “What…?”

“Maybe next time you shouldn’t bet so big.” Remi felt the power of the moment fade as he slid that special coin back into his pocket. But the thrill of the game remained.

* * *

This one is for Everwalker, inspired by a slightly surreal internet conversation she was part of. It’s also another addition to my weird western setting where magic is achieved through games, and which I should probably come up with a name for.

If you enjoyed this story then you might like By Sword, Stave or Stylus, my collection of fantasy short stories, available now on Amazon.


Photo by Butterbean via Flickr Creative Commons.

Change, Reaction and Pain – Coping With Cultural Backlash

'Hello, God? I know I don't believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens - things are getting way too tense down here.'
‘Hello, God? I know I don’t believe in you, but could you please send everyone fluffy kittens – things are getting way too tense down here.’

I love that the world is changing. I love the variety that brings and the novelty it creates within our culture, even as the dark fingers of uncertainty send tremors of fear through my body.

Unfortunately, fear of change is currently rearing its big, ugly head all over geek culture.

The most prominent and hideous example of this is the treatment of feminists in computer gaming. There are some great designers and critics out there critiquing the domination of gaming by white, straight, male gamers and characters, and the way this excludes others. This has triggered a huge backlash, in which people have been called the vilest names and even had their lives threatened for expressing their opinions on a medium they love.

Then there’s the fuss, for the second year in a row, around science fiction and fantasy’s Hugo awards. I think there are a lot of problems with the Hugos, but they’re certainly high profile within the core of sf+f. This year, a reactionary group have managed to dominate the nominations with a slate of conservative, white, male authors. It’s a shame, but it is at least getting people engaged with the awards, and may favour the pro-diversity arguments in the long run.

Outside the world of geek, anti-immigrant party UKIP have risen to prominence in this year’s British general election. It’s no great revelation to say that an anti-immigrant party is reactionary and playing on people’s fears.

I find all of this distressing, especially given the way that it has impinged upon what I normally consider a safe space, the welcoming a varied world of geek culture. And I find it hard to balance my own emotional reactions.

On the one hand, I understand that change is frightening, that many of the reactionaries respond this way because they feel threatened. I feel sorry for their hurt and for the way that they aren’t able to embrace all this wonderful variety. But in understanding them and trying not to become reactionary against the reactions, I risk undervaluing my own feelings on the subject. They’re attacking things I value, they create an unpleasant atmosphere, and it’s not unreasonable for me and others like me to feel hurt by that, even a little frightened at where this is going.

I remain hopeful. I’ve always been something of an opportunistic humanist, and the history of humanity, as well as that of the culture I love, to me shows an upward trend toward great diversity and understanding. But there are downward moments as well as upward ones, both becoming ever shorter and more frequent as humanity grows and change accelerates. For the sake of my sanity, I’ll lean into the hurt as well as the hope, use it to power my own work, and remember that this too will pass.

Whatever the outcome of the Hugos, the general election, and a series of nasty Twitter spats, the diverse and joyful things I love aren’t going away. The ranting of sad and angry reactionaries will never stop that.

The Making of Meredith Brown – a #FlashFriday story

Menelaeus’s fingers were sore from picking cotton, his back stinging from Mr Stenson’s lash. But he wasn’t going to let that stop him. With one hand he clutched his totem, intertwined figures of man and woman, diviner and spirit. With the other he picked up a handful of corn and scattered it across the skin of the drum.

“What do you see?” Octavia’s expression was serious, making her face appear even more wrinkled in the oil lamp’s light. He had learned much from her wisdom, her strength and her grace, but had still more to learn. With her man’s clothes and her fierce resolve, she embodied the world in between, the place where boundaries fell, where humans and spirits met. She was, in so many ways, the person he wanted to be.

Most of the kernels had bounced away to the floor. He looked carefully at the positions of those that remained, where they lay on a grid that served as both game board and tool of their art. The signs were all too familiar.

“This is Stenson.” Menelaeus pointed at a dark, twisted symbol marked by the corn. “Tomorrow we will suffer his wrath.” He pointed to the signs for suffering and for the field hands, both singled out by his spirit twin through the grain. Another symbol had been marked, one that filled him with even more dread. “There will be a death.”

“Again.” Octavia nodded. “Now tell me anything we can use to lessen the harm.”


“Keep back, boy.” Blood dripped from Stenson’s whip. At his feet, Octavia Brown lay dead beside the cotton buds she had dropped in the dirt – ruined, as Stenson put it.

At least Octavia’s son Saul was not here. His fury would have got him killed. Thanks to Menelaeus and Octavia, the Brown children would not be orphans.

That knowledge did nothing to still Menelaeus’s pounding heart. He wanted to rip out Stenson’s throat with his bare hands. But Stenson and his men had guns, and Menelaeus would not be the only one they would punish.

So he stood still and silent. But now he knew – divining the future was not enough. He had to shape it.


In the stillness of the night, Menelaeus stared at the totem, two carved beings intertwined. He could still feel his spirit twin, but without Octavia he was weaker, and he needed to be stronger than he ever had. He was just a man, and that was not enough.

“Stenson comin’ for you.” Saul stood beside Menelaeus’s bed. “Says you been stirrin’ trouble. You want I should kill him?”

His voice was ragged, torn up by hate.

“No.” Menelaeus rose from the bed. “Ain’t no-one else gonna fight for me. But I’m gonna need some things of your momma’s.”


“Who the hell d’you think you are, boy?” Stenson’s voice was even more menacing coming from the darkness behind the lanterns. His men cackled at his words. “Goddam faggot as well as a nigger now, huh?”

“My name is Meredith.” It felt natural, not just the name but the dress and the shawl. Becoming more than just the man he had been. Becoming both parts of the divination.

As the person who had been Menelaeus placed the corn kernels on the drum, she could feel the power flowing through her, her spirit twin stronger for sharing her change, for breaking a line that defined and divided him.

“Always knew you were an uppity nigger.” Stenson’s gun clicked. “Now we gonna end that.”

“No.” Meredith slid a kernel across the drum skin, from the sign for the overseer to that for death.

A shot rang out.

“Oh shit!” A different voice this time. White, male, scared.

“What the hell you done, Hank?” The lights shifted, illuminating Stenson’s body and casting Meredith back into shadow.

“I don’t know,” the man whimpered. “It just gone off in my hand. I don’t…”

As fear turned to panic and accusation, Meredith picked up her drum. The plantation men would be busy for a good long while.

As she walked away into the night she touched the totem hanging around her neck and remembered Octavia. She felt torn by loss, and yet, more than ever, she felt whole.

Lies banner 2

* * *

This is the latest in a series of stories set in a weird western setting, where magic is (for the most part) achieved through games. I think this one may have given me more insight into how that works. If you enjoyed this then you might also like the previous stories, Straight Poker and Counting Coup. And you can read my other weird western work in my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring, which is free if you sign up to my mailing list.

This particular story comes about thanks to Ben Moxon, who came up with the idea for connecting games and divination through a decorated drum. He also led me to this fascinating article on divination, around which Menelaeus/Meredith is built.

One future for stories – DEVICE 6

If you want to see where the future of storytelling might lie then you should step away from the books and have a go at DEVICE 6.

Playing The Prisoner

DEVICE 6 is a mobile app game that combines textual storytelling with unusual design and problem solving. Extra Credits sold me on the joys of this game, so I’ll pop their video here so you can see why I was intrigued:


I agree with James from Extra Credits on the strange and engrossing nature of the app, which is part game, part short story, part work of visual art. It is a bit on the short side, but for only a few quid you’re getting several hours of entertainment – more than you’d get from a trip to the cinema and at less than half the price.

But the real reason to try this is to see what they’ve done. DEVICE 6 is a fascinating combination of different media. They mostly mix well together and actually interconnect rather than just sitting alongside each other. It’s an atmospheric story akin to the old The Prisoner TV show, and the unusual design adds to the disconcerting atmosphere.


The story side

So why should this interest people who read and write books?

Basically because it covers so many of the points China Miéville raised in the video I posted yesterday. It’s made up mostly of text, but it explores new ways of telling stories. By involving the audience it makes an interactive experience in which the audience becomes author of their fate. It’s a collaboration, not a lone ‘genius’ spitting out stories for a distant audience. It shows how we can do things differently.

This isn’t a perfect creation. There’s a pattern to the interaction between puzzles and text that starts to feel repetitive by the end, and though this means they cut the game short at the right point it does still feel short. But it’s a fascinating experiment, and if you’re interested in the possible futures made available by the e-reading revolution then I recommend giving it a go.

And in case you were in any doubt, here’s a song from the soundtrack, because this story really does use all media – Anna by Jonathan Eng:


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.

Empire by Profound Decisions – that’s what I call world building

Writing about working with the core of your world has got me thinking again about world building. We talk about this a lot in fantasy and science fiction literature, but one of the best examples I’ve seen doesn’t come from books. It’s a wiki for a live roleplay game. So today I’m going to enthuse about Empire.


A damn fine game

Empire is a fantasy live roleplaying (LRP) game run by Profound Decisions (PD). It’s a game designed for thousand of players, set in the high fantasy world of an empire on the verge of collapse, with barbarian orcs battering at its borders, the empress dead, and internal machinations capable of tearing the whole thing down.

To support the game, PD have written and published a huge background wiki. This gives the people playing their game an opportunity to fully immerse themselves in the world, creating something that’s complex, consistent and completely engrossing. For a LRP, this is great for creating immersion and atmosphere – a point Matt Pennington, PD’s founder, talks about so eloquently that I’ve cited him when writing about teaching.

The aims of a LRP background are somewhat different from those of world building for a novel, but there’s also a lot that’s the same, and that’s what I want to look at here.

Working from what’s known

As long as there has been fantasy literature it has taken features from the real world and from established mythology, using them as shortcuts to evoke atmosphere. If an author shows you a world of samurai and ninjas, you immediately fill in a lot of the gaps around them – geisha, robes, minimalist furniture, translucent partition walls, whatever says medieval Japan to you.

Empire uses that. By creating nations that seem familiar, such as evoking Medieval English yeomanry in the earthy Marchers, they let your brain fill a lot of gaps.

But they don’t just present you with real things. Where would the fantastic be in that? They mix it up, showing how these countries are different from the ones we know, how their magic and history make them distinctive. It’s not some hotchpotch re-enactment of the past – it’s something fresh derived from it.

Working out the detail

One of the things I most admire in China Miéville’s writing is his clear grasp on the deeper structures of his worlds – the economic, social and political elements that hold them up. This applies in Empire as well. Each nation has its own culture, costume, magical traditions, social hierarchy, military structures, and so on and so on. You can even hear what sort of music they like to make, and read about how they treat children. It’s an extrapolation from the starting point of each nation, just like Chew extrapolates from food super-powers, and it’s fantastic. It’s a depth and richness of background that’s pretty much incomparable in its detail.

Which results in…

Of course, by running a game for all those people, PD stop being the sole authors of their world. Every single player contributes. And it’s those players who take this material and, like Layman and Guillory in Chew, push it in all sorts of logical but crazy directions, bringing the world to life.

As a player, I initially found it intimidating. But then I realised that, as with the background to a well written fantasy novel, I didn’t need to know it all. In the same way that a novel can give you just enough information to be getting on with, and let you learn the rest as you go along, this wiki let me learn just enough to get started, then soak up the rest from the atmosphere other players created.

Even if you’re never going near the game of Empire, give their wiki a look. It’s a great example of world building, peeking into what’s hidden behind many authors’ story telling. If you’re the sort of person who likes to read guides to Middle Earth, or who buys D&D supplements just to read about the cities and monsters, then you’ll love this.