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.


Death by monkeys – great genre apes

I love monkeys. Not in the bad way, like those ancient folks who bred with horses and gave us the centaur menace. In a clean, wholesome, childish fascination kind of way. Because monkeys are awesome.

I should clarify that I don’t just mean monkeys, I mean all apes. But ‘monkey’ is a far better word to say. Just role it around in your mouth for a moment. Monkey. Then ape. It’s like deciding between trousers and pants. Let me tell you, Americans and other linguistic heathens, you are missing out by abandoning the trouser.

Monkeys know how to live
Monkeys know how to live

It was a trip to the zoo on my way back from holiday seven years ago that cemented apes among my favourite creatures. I watched the gibbons going nuts in their cages, swinging around, screeching, rattling the bars, flashing their teeth and everything else at passers by. And I thought to myself, that looks like fun. Those guys know how to live.

But what’s even better than a monkey? A science fiction or fantasy monkey of course. So here are some of my favourites.

The Librarian

You’re civilised folks, so I’m going to assume that you’ve read some Terry Pratchett. And while those books are full of great characters, by far my favourite is the librarian.

The librarian is basically the part of my brain that wants to be a gibbon. Transformed into an orangutan, he not only accepts his change of state but relishes it. It’s pure wish fulfilment, staying smart enough to read but dumb enough to communicate in ‘ook’s, swinging through the rafters by your toes, eating bananas and screeching at idiots.

And lets face it, what bookish nerd hasn’t wanted the strength and social licence to beat their mockers senseless?

Toy Story 3

I never watched Toy Story 3 before last night. I know, shame on me. It’s a beautiful work of children’s fantasy, full of noble ideals and talking toys. But what’s even better than a beautiful children’s fantasy?

A beautiful children’s fantasy with apes.

Honestly, they had me three minutes in with the line ‘death by monkeys’. But it was the monkey watching the security screens that really did it for me. A cute animal was made sinister by his bared teeth and the washed-out glow of those monitors. The juxtaposition with his happy clapping cymbals just made him all the more menacing.

Because that’s the thing about apes. Like people, they’re not just smart, funny and adorable. They can also be sinister and downright dangerous, like the baboons that invade isolated South African commuter townships, or the Mediterranean apes that raid cafés for booze. These are monkeys as mad villains or outsider antiheroes. I love those monkeys too, though I wouldn’t want to stand between them and a whiskey.

Ack-Ack Macaque

A gun wielding, cigar chomping, pulp action pilot ape. If that sentence doesn’t make you want to read a book then you’re lost to me.

I haven’t got round to reading Ack-Ack Macaque yet, but it’s been on my list since I read this review. I love the wild spectacle of old pulp stories, before people had such fixed ideas about what was possible and what fitted in each genre. You got space rockets to planets full of purple people. You got mole men beneath the earth. You got hidden temples, alien invaders and two-fisted heroes, probably all in the same book. And a cigar-chomping ape pilot seems the perfect embodiment of that.

Gibboning it up

How much do I love apes in fantasy settings? I have spent a whole weekend being one. Inspired by my visit to the zoo, I decided to play one in a live roleplay game.

What I actually played was a demonic imp called Gibbon, who ate monkey nuts, threw the shells at passers by and only spoke in ooks. I walked the monkey walk, screeched at people I didn’t like, generally aped it up. It was some of the best fun I’ve ever had, and though I only did it twice in fifteen years at that game, it’s still one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done. Years later, people I didn’t know at the time would say to me ‘wait, you were that guy?’.

I love monkeys, but how about you? What apes have I missed? Or is there another beast you prefer in your fiction?

Picture by Ian (cr03) via Flickr creative commons