Building a Better Fantasy City with Ex Novo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One for the World Builders – Guns, Germs and Steel

I’m halfway through reading Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs and Steel. It’s a fascinating exploration of the physical causes behind history. In particular, it looks at why society developed so differently on different continents.

I’m not flagging this up for history readers. Honestly, I’m behind the curve on this one, and most of you have probably heard of it already. But for the fantasy writers, especially those interested in world building, I really have to recommend this book. It looks at how physical geography can lead to differences in technology that shape almost everything in society. It’s a lesson in cause and effect on an epic scale. Thinking about how the world works in the way that Diamond does could help you to flesh out complex and convincing worlds. And like any good history book, it’s full of interesting examples to be stolen and adapted for imaginary worlds.

Of course, history fans should read it too. This is a book that’s deeply shaped our perspective on history over the past twenty years. Much as I’m enjoying it now, I wish I’d got to it sooner.

Steampunk – Some Missing Bits

The release of my latest book, Sieges and Silverware, together with a conversation at FantasyCon, got me thinking about new topics for steampunk. The bits of 19th-century history I haven’t seen mined by the genre, but would like to see. Things I might even get to myself one day. So in no particular order, here are seven things I’d like to see more of in steampunk…

  1. Factory life, not as a passing bit of background but as something central to the story. After all, factories were a huge part of the industrial revolution. I’ve seen this done a bit in Kate Elliot’s fantasy/steampunk work, so there’s at least some out there.
  2. The birth of nationalism, which emerged in its modern form in the 19th century. The reasons people were drawn to it are interesting, as are those early nationalist movements. More Guiseppe Garibaldi please.
  3. Speaking of romantic revolutionaries, how about some steampunk inspired by Latin America, with its struggles for freedom and identity?
  4. Colonialism. It was a huge part of what made the industrial revolution possible, but we usually ignore it in steampunk. There are some tense, complex stories to be told about those dark times.
  5. Back in Europe, there’s the rise of working-class protest movements, like the Chartists and the trade unions. It’s a rich well of drama and unlikely heroes.
  6. Getting wackier, I’d like to see worlds where some of the really weird Victorian science is true. It could be tricky to do without creating something unpleasant, but ideas like phrenology could create very different worlds if carried to their logical conclusion.
  7. Life at sea. International voyages took a very long time. Many of the people taking them were going to create new lives abroad. People stuck together for a voyage like that, on a steampunk ship, could create great drama as cabin fever kicks in.

Which of those would you be excited to read about? What unusual Victorian possibilities have I missed? Have you already found stories like these out there? Leave a comment, maybe it’ll inspire me to write something new.

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And don’t forget, the latest Epiphany Club novella, Sieges and Silverwear, is out now:

In the face of war and betrayal, adventurer Dirk Dynamo is still looking for the clues that will take him to the lost Great Library of Alexandria. Arriving at an isolated German castle, he finds his life threatened not just by the enemies prowling its corridors but by an army laying siege outside the walls. Surrounded by traitors, monsters and falling artillery shells, can Dirk escape with his life and with the artefacts he needs, or will he be one more casualty of a nation being born in iron and blood?

The fourth story in the Epiphany Club series, Sieges and Silverware sees Dirk face the consequences of events in Paris and the betrayal he suffered there. No longer just looking for treasure, he must also find a way to mend a broken heart.

Sieges and Silverware is available now through Amazon and Smashwords.


Not Every Fiction Should Be Immersive

Not the real me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

The Private Lives of Elder Things – Powerful Hints of Powerful Horrors

elder-thingsHorrors creeping in around the edges of modern life. A sense that something terrible and abnormal is reaching out toward us. The eldritch amid the mundane.

No, I’m not talking about party political conference season. I’m talking about The Private Lives of Elder Things, a cracking collection of Cthulhu mythos short stories by Adrian Tchaikovsky, Keris McDonald, and Adam Gauntlett.

Making Sense of the Incomprehensible

I don’t read a lot Cthulhu fiction. I hold my hands up now and confess that I’ve never read a word by H. P. Lovecraft himself. But I’m friends with two of the authors of this collection, I like their writing, and there was free wine at their book launch. So not only did I buy a signed copy, but I started reading it.

The less horrifying side of this - the authors.
The less horrifying side of this – the authors.

Weeks later, I told Keris that I was reading her book and hadn’t read much Cthulhu. She seemed surprised and asked what I thought of it. After all, the stories are built on references to existing Cthulhu creatures. Without that prior reading, a lot of the references were going to be lost on me.

The answer is that I’m really enjoying these stories. I can tell as I read them that they’re referring to things I don’t recognise or understand. For me, that doesn’t leave me frustratingly lost. Instead, it creates the feeling of being embedded in a larger, richer world. I’m intrigued by those hints at things beyond the stories in my hands. They add to my immersion because they’ve been done well and so hint at a wider in-story world, rather than being nudge wink references that pull me out of the text.

And of course, the feeling of incomprehension is part of the allure of the mythos.

Superheroes and the Supernatural

I get the same experience reading the better superhero comics from DC and Marvel. References to events and characters in their wider continuities can create a sense of depth and richness. As long as those add to the story, rather than being what holds it up, they create depth whether I understand the references or not. Take this page from Gillen and McKelvie’s Young Avengers:



Do I need to know about the current story arcs of Thor and Captain America to understand the significance of them ignoring events outside? No. Is a deep understanding of their personalities vital to the story? No. Does it add something? Yes.

Of course, when poorly handled, these references become meaningless and frustrating, and that happens a lot in comics. A reliance on continuity rather than its use as flavour makes many comics inaccessible to new readers and boring to the less continuity-minded like me. Some people love it, but I think you can over-salt this meal.

Fortunately, that doesn’t happen in The Private Lives of Elder Things. These are creepy stories set in the modern world that hint at something more. They’re thoroughly enjoyable.


You can get The Private Lives… through Amazon. And while you’re there, why not check out the latest issue of 9Tales Told in the Dark, featuring my own take on horror, “Cold Flesh”.

Brainstorming with Other People’s Brains

sea-680169_1280Sometimes four heads are better than one. So to help me with world building for a future writing project, I’ve roped in some of my friends. Not just by asking them questions, but by giving them a chance to explore and add to my world.

To do this, I’ve started running an occasional roleplay campaign in the world I’m building. I’m using Fate, which is designed to let players add to the world, rather than having everything defined by the games master. And I have to say, it’s working nicely. I brought in a particularly imaginative group, who’ve started adding rich detail to the world I’m creating. Because they aren’t working from the same inspirations I am, they’ve taken parts of the setting in new directions, making them less obviously reflections of the history and mythology I’m stealing from. The result is something more interesting and original.

One thing I hadn’t expected, but that’s very helpful, is that they’re pointing out which parts of the world are most interesting. Obviously, this is just a small sample, but it helps me to see what readers will be intrigued by, and what needs fleshing out more.

I  think this is going to add a lot to my world. I know it’s not a new technique – plenty of fantasy novels draw on the authors’ roleplay games – but it’s definitely a fun one, and a great way of reaching past the limits of my own imagination.

Updraft by Fran Wilde and World Building

Updraft_comp2-200x300Updraft by Fran Wilde is a decent story embedded in a fascinating piece of world building. Born into a city of living bone towers connected by human flight, Kirit dreams of becoming a trader. To do that she must take the wing test, earning the right to fly alone. But between the threats of unseen monsters and the guardian Singers, becoming a trader is going to be tough.

As a story, Updraft is a perfectly decent mix of coming of age adventure and political intrigue. But the world building is where it truly excels. This is a city of bones and wings, of spidersilk and skymouths, of distant clouds and laws so immediate you can feel them rattling against your wrist. Its social structure feels a little simple, but there’s an originality to it that I’ve seen in few other books. For that alone, it’s worth reading.

On Goodreads, I was surprised to see lots of people arguing about whether this world made sense. Internal consistency is important in speculative fiction, but people often accept outlandish starting points in fantasy, not looking for the scientific explanations of sci-fi. I suspect reactions to this book were different because nothing is labeled as magic. There’s no spellcraft, no system to say that the rules of the universe are different here than in our own world. Those rules have to be different for the geography of the city and the way people fly to make sense, but without addressing that, I think some readers may have felt a subconscious absence. So they went looking for justifications that aren’t a part of this sort of fantasy.

Sometimes you have to start by accepting something extraordinary and see where it leads. That’s what Updraft  is about, both as a story and as a piece of world building.It’s an approach I’m happy to go with.

Penguins in the Minefield – Fitting Animals into Stories

“This land has learnt kill humans. Now it will be ours. Forward for the Penguin Empire!” – “135 – Cap Virgenes – Manchot de Magellan – Janvier 2010” by Martin St-Amant (S23678) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons –


The Falklands War wasn’t good for many people, but it turned out to be excellent for the penguins.

I recently read A Damn Close Run Thing, Russell Phillips’ short history of the Falklands War. During the conflict, Argentine troops seeded minefields across the islands. Clearing mines is hard, dangerous and expensive, so most of these areas remain impassable to human beings, whose weight can trigger a devastating anti-personnel explosion.

Penguins are a lot lighter. Light enough not to trigger mines.

So now there are parts of the Falklands where people can’t go, and the penguins have reclaimed them. These undisturbed nesting grounds have proved a huge boost to the local penguin population. The Falklands War was brutal and arguably pretty dumb, but at least it had an up side.

Apart from Russ’s book, I mean. It’s a good book.

By coincidence, I’ve also been reading about medieval warhorses. I say by coincidence, but I’m freelancing for a military history website, so it’s no coincidence I’ve got a heap of books about old wars on the go.

Horses have featured in war since around 1800 BC, when some Asian nomad tied a wheeled platform to his pony and forced the poor beast to drag him into battle. They’ve featured in fantasy stories at least since Homer described another dumb, brutal conflict.

Because seriously, if you’re fighting for honour you’re probably an arsehole,* if you’re fighting for a woman then you should let her make up her own mind, and if her face is comparable with a dry dock then maybe you don’t have the best taste.

Despite featuring so regularly, horses are usually just props in fantasy stories – a way to get from A to B, or to run someone down. I’m as guilty as the next author in this – what I know about horses could fill that one article I was paid to write last week. But like the penguins, horses have their own desires, fears, longings, and quirks of personality. Acknowledging that could add some depth to stories from time to time.

After all of this thinking about animals, and how we neglect them in history and fantasy, I got to pondering something completely unrelated. Just some casual world building for a fantasy project I want to start next year. As I was mulling over how to make a nation distinctive, and how to make its economy work, I got kind of stuck. I want it to be evocative of late medieval to renaissance England, but more covered in trees. England in that era was very reliant on wool for export – could my imagined farmers keep sheep in the forests and still have a functioning economy? I had doubts.

Then it struck me. I’d done it again. I’d forgotten that animals can be treated as more than just dumb props.

If I got stuck for how to fit in the characters I wanted in a fantasy setting, I’d probably change the rules of the world. Why not for animals? If my fantasy can have alchemists, wizards and heroic arseholes** then why not add a fantastical animal too? Something that’s wool bearing and lives in the woods. Or provides some other product to fix this broken forest economy.

There is a point to all this. Aside from how amazing penguins are – you knew that already, right? That point is not to forget the poor animals. From now on I’ll try to think about how the human parts of my stories affect them. Are my characters messing up the local ecosystem, or inadvertently saving it by making it safe for penguins? Have I remembered that war is horrible for horses, and how this will affect them? Am I including the animal equivalent of elves and goblins?

And throughout writing this, one other animal has been playing on my mind. Elmo the kitten is nibbling at my feet. I should go pay him attention.



* Many of my characters are arseholes. There is something perversely appealing about honour.

** One of this story’s lead characters is pig-headedly patriotic as well as obsessed with honour. He’s all the things I don’t admire in reality, but find fun to write.

Relating Real and Imaginary Places

Imaginary people fight for a real castle at a live roleplay event.
Imaginary people fight for a real castle at a live roleplay event.

The relationship between real and imaginary places is complicated. I didn’t appreciate this until after writing my recent post on using real places in fantasy stories, but there are many different ways for the two to relate. Here are a few I thought of, on a loose spectrum:

  • Real place features in fiction, like London in 28 Days Later.
  • Fictional place in the real world becomes a real place within a fiction, like when locations from the Disney Pirates of the Caribbean ride appeared in the film.
  • Real place inspires a very similar fictional place, like when Guy Gavriel Kay based Sarantium on Byzantium.
  • Real place inspires a less similar fictional place, like when 19th century Chicago became the inspiration for the moving city in my story ‘Urban Drift‘.
  • Fiction exists within an entirely fictional world – reality need not apply.
  • Fiction is enacted in a real place, like immersive theatre productions.
  • Fictional place features temporarily in reality with the aid of people’s imaginations, like the campsite that becomes the town of Anvil for Profound Decisions’ live roleplay events.
  • Fictional place features permanently in reality, like the fairytale palace at Disneyland.

What I found interesting pondering the options was that in some cases reality intrudes into fiction, and sometimes it’s the other way around. Fiction isn’t just something we escape into. Even in this one simple regard, the relationship is complicated, the two reflecting and shaping each other.

What have I missed, either great examples or different relationships between real and imaginary places? Which sorts do you like to create or visit? Share your thoughts in the comments, and if you’d like to escape to some of my imaginary places then you can get my short story collection Riding the Mainspring for free by signing up to my mailing list.