Destructive world building with Watch the World Die

The phrase ‘world building’ sounds so positive and constructive. Of course for us as creators it is – we’re dreaming up another reality to put down on the page or screen. But that doesn’t mean it’s always going to feel constructive to the inhabitants of that world.

This is your brain on logic
Such a pretty act of creation!


I mentioned Watch the World Die, the game of collaborative apocalypses, in my post on story games. I had it pegged as a potentially useful world building exercise, so last night Laura and I gave it a go.

WtWD as a writing tool

WtWD is about creating an apocalyptic scenario, describing how the end of civilisation as we know it comes about. Like Microscope it’s pretty free wheeling, though it’s narrower in its focus and designed more to inspire you with its list of possible scenarios than to send you running off in all sorts of crazy directions.

While it doesn’t energise the creative faculties to the same extent that Microscope does, I can see WtWD being helpful to writers in two ways. One is that, like any good creative exercise, it sets some limits and makes you work within them, leading your brain to make connections you didn’t expect.

The other is that it’s a handy shortcut if you want a well-developed post-apocalyptic scenario for a story and don’t want to spend hours on it. A few dice rolls, a couple of sentences expanding on each result, and you’ll have what feels like an in depth history without having to dream it all up from scratch. You could even use it to flesh out an apocalypse you’ve already half developed. It’s perfect for short story writing, where you want to create the impression of depth without investing disproportionate time in planning.

So if you like your settings dark then this could be pretty useful.

WtWD as a game

Though not pitched in the same way as a roleplaying game, WtWD is most similar to Microscope, being another collaborative story telling / world building exercise. I think we might see these narrative games emerge as a genre over the next few years, because they really don’t fit within the category of roleplay games, where Microscope is marketed.

WtWD is to Microscope as a quick round of dice game Heckmeck is to spending the day playing Britannia. It’s a quick, pallet cleansing game that you’ll get done in half an hour. It’s fun but without the time commitment or the sense of deep engagement that comes with a longer game. It’s a good world building game for someone who finds Microscope intimidating, with its back-and-forth chronology and wide open spaces of the imagination.

One more tool in the box

WtWD is free to to download and adds one more tool to your writers’ toolbox / games collection. All you need is a pen and a couple of six sided dice, so why not give it a go?



Picture by Maxwell Hamilton via Flickr creative commons

Solar systems and space monkeys – more Microscope world building

Like so many activities, writing is more fun if you can find a way to share it with friends. This weekend I did just that, having my second go at the Microscope world building game. More accurately, I had my second and third goes at it, as Everwalker and I spent all day Saturday inventing imaginary worlds with friends. You can read about what Everwalker made of it here.



So what new things did I learn this time?

Go big

When you’re inventing a fantasy setting, or even a story within one, it’s easy to spend time on the details and take big picture things for granted. Halfway through our first game Dr Nick upended this by revealing that our world revolved around its moon, as did the sun and stars. None of us had seen that coming, but it made that world a lot more intriguing.

Relish contradiction

Our second game was a vast space opera, spanning humanity’s settlement of the stars and the eventual overthrow of an evil empire. This setting got pulled in some very different directions, as Everwalker played up the tragic elements, Dr Nick (a naval architect) filled it full of AI warfare, and I crammed comedic outlaw monkey men into every available space. That might sound like a mess, but it worked really well. These thematically distinct strands played off each other well, and gave our universe a sense of depth, with the absurd and the overwhelming going hand in hand. It felt like a real place, full of inconsistencies and contradictions yet all interconnected, like the real world.

Go with your guts

We almost had a misfire starting the second game. We started talking about a post-apocalyptic setting, but then we struggled to even complete a pallet of elements to include and exclude. It clearly wasn’t stirring anybody’s enthusiasm. We scrapped that idea and the resulting space game created much more energy. It made me realise what a mistake it is to push on through with a story I can’t get passionate about, as sometimes happens. It just leads to a lack of creativity, going through the motions instead of getting fired up.

Whether you’re playing Microscope or planning your epic novel, don’t be afraid to ditch an idea if it doesn’t feel right, if it doesn’t fill you with passion for the task. You just won’t commit to it in the way that it needs.

Under the lens

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again- Microscope is great fun. It isn’t really a roleplaying game, and in our second story we skipped the roleplay entirely. But it’s a wonderful creative activity to share with friends, and a great way to generate unusual ideas for stories or roleplay settings.


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.