Something a little different today. I’d like to recommend a game for you all. A game that may well be the most useful tool I’ve ever come across for world building and for designing a setting for speculative fiction.
Full disclosure – I’ve been a keen participant in role playing games since my early teens (a long long time ago) and I’ve tried dozens of game systems and created scores of worlds and settings for my players. And I have never come across a game as good as this one for sparking the creative engine for world building. It would also, I believe, be an excellent and fun tool for any writer wanting to dig deeper into a fictional setting of their own devising and maybe develop new insights into the past, present and future of their world. I've no connection with the game or its creator other than having discovered it more or less at random recently.
The game is called Microscope and was written by Ben Robbins and is available inexpensively here.
The whole purpose of the game is collaborative creation, it’s not competitive, and unlike traditional RPGs it doesn’t focus on a specific group of characters. In Microscope the group work together to create interesting and compelling worlds and their histories. It can be played in two or three hours, or can go on much longer if desired, and all you need is the game book and some index cards.
Without giving too much away (the creator deserves customers!) the group as a whole decide on the type of setting they want to create and establish some basic ground rules about things they definitely want or definitely do not want in the setting. This is important as once the game begins each player has total creative authority on their turn. Each turn the player who takes the lead (and this rotates to other players each turn) defines the focus or theme of the turn. This may be as nebulous as “economic collapse” or as specific as “the history of Duke Orsino” and for the remainder of that turn every player must create something related to that theme. What they create could be a new period in the history of the world, a new event within an existing period, or a scene to be played out within an event that answers a key question.
Using the example of Duke Orsino above (who may not have existed until the player mentioned him), the players may decide to create something like : “Period: The rise of the Orsino dynasty”, or “Event: Duke Orsino’s army conquers rival city” or “Scene: Does the prince of the rival city surrender or fight to the end” – the latter being something that would be decided by the group as a whole playing characters in an improvised scene.
Once something’s on the table it can be used by any other player to expand upon or drill down into, or other players may add something entirely new before or after existing features.
I’ve played it a few times now and it always throws up twists, turns and unexpected depth from very simple beginnings. Last night with a very young player assisting me we played in an existing setting (a range of childrens books he really likes) and soon left behind the events of the books themselves to explore the childhood and training of the books’ main antagonist, the evil Wizard Malvel. We found out where he learned his magic, and the concerns that his tutors had. In a grim twist that surprised me we also found out that he hunted down his tutors after he graduated and got his revenge for their lack of faith in him.
As a gamer this is a great way of sparking imagination and passing time for its own fun sake. It could also be used by gamers to generate worlds to play in. And for writers… well as long as you don’t mind giving a shout out to your brainstorming team I can’t think of a better way of developing more fully rounded settings for your stories – and perhaps even launching new ideas for stories you hadn’t dreamed of.