I spent this weekend building worlds with Mr. and Mrs. Andrew Knighton, Mr. and Mrs. Doctor Nick, and the raptor. We used the structure set out in the game Microscope, which I’ve mentioned before, and it was brilliant. You don’t get any real level of detail but you do get a fascinating and organic history with plenty of lightbulb moments and ideas you would never have come up with alone. Here’s how it works:
STEP 1: Decide what genre you want your world to be in, and a single-sentence description.
Example: ‘space opera – The Second Great and Bountiful Human Empire’. (Doctor Who reference for the geeks).
STEP 2: Work out your palette. This is a list of things that either definitely will or definitely won’t be included in the world. Don’t pick obvious things – try to make this interesting so you have some odd restrictions to work around. Everyone gets to pick one thing per round. If someone passes, the palette is set at the end of that round and you don’t have another round.
Example: psychic powers out, lack of resources in.
STEP 3: Work out your start and end points, and decide whether they’re light or dark (marked by an empty or filled circle). I’d recommend sticking with light endings where possible. It seems to make the game more fun. Don’t worry, you’ll get plenty of opportunity to add darkness along the way.
Example: Start – humans found the first colony (light), End – evil empire overthrown (light).
STEP 4: Time is divided into three different types – Ages (era of history, long periods with a general theme), Events (happen within Ages, are a particular instance), Scene (part of an event, which answers a specific question about that event by going into detail). Each type has to be either light or dark but they don’t have to be the same as the type they’re nested under.
Example: everwalker writes the Age of Cultural Renaissance; Mr. Knighton writes an Event within it where the slam-rock band Simian Zim destroys an ancient orbital memorial during their farewell concert; Doctor Nick writes a Scene that explains how they explode something in space – by requesting an entire planet’s atmosphere in their rider.
In Step 4, everyone writes down an Age and decides whether it’s light or dark. These Ages do not have to be written in chronological order. Nor can you ever tell someone that their idea doesn’t work, or would work better another way, unless the idea directly counteracts the palette. This is a game about building on ideas, not turning them down. As the raptor put it, it’s the ‘Yes, and…’ approach.
Example: Mr. Knighton writes the Age of Cultural Renaissance; Doctor Nick writes the Age of the 7th Intergalactic War and places that after Mr. Knighton’s; everwalker writes the Age of the Theocracy of the Eschatalogical Church and places it before Mr. Knighton’s.
STEP 5: Now you start the proper rounds. The above was mostly prep work. One person calls the theme for the round (each round, the person who decides the theme is the next player to the left). The theme can be anything – a concept, an individual, a city, whatever.
Examples: war, the Legend of Dazani (who/whatever that is), uplifted monkeys, the planet of Hive 9, etc.
STEP 6: Everyone takes it in turns to write an Age/Event/Scene card which relates in some way to that theme. The theme-caller gets two goes, one at the beginning and one at the end.
Example: in the theme of war, Mrs. Knighton writes an Event in which a last alliance of men and space whales halt the invasion of the evil empire.
STEP 7: When the round is over, the person to the right of the theme-caller decides what the Legacy of that round is. It can be anything at all, provided it relates to at least one of the cards that was written during that round. They can then add one more Age/Event/Scene which touches on any of the Legacies currently available (it doesn’t have to be their own).
Example: At the end of the war themed round, the raptor decides that space whales are the Legacy (based on Mrs. Knighton’s alliance Event). He adds an Event much earlier in the timeline where space whales are hunted for food by starving colonists.
STEP 8: Next round. The theme-caller is now the next player to the left. Repeat 5, 6 and 7 until you’re bored or confused.
We found that with 5+ players, one set of rounds was plenty before we both ran out of room on the table for more index cards, and started getting confused about what had already happened. With 4 players the game went a lot faster and we got two sets of rounds in.
It’s important to remember that an Age/Event/Scene can go anywhere at all within the timeline, including under the start and end points. For example, our start point was humans founding the first colony, and the first event under that was the Catholic Church funding the launch of the transport ship. It’s something which happened within that era. The game does strongly advise you to avoid time travel and immortality, otherwise this whole process tends to get tied in knots. Also, remember that an Age is many many years. Any named characters are highly unlikely to appear in more than one Age, although their descendants totally can.
Incidentally, as with all writing, word choice is important. ‘Theocracy’, for example, instantly gives a much more detailed view of what’s going on than ‘Empire’. By naming a planet ‘Hive 9’, the alien race was immediately identified as some kind of bug. Really think about the implications your word choices have. This is an excellent habit to get into for all writing, and Microscope is a very good way of highlighting why.
The really interesting thing is how an event added near the end of the game could completely subvert the whole of history as we’d previously imagined it. Space whales, for example, made regular appearances in our game and usually had the very raw end of the deal. It wasn’t until the final round that a card got placed near the beginning of the timeline explaining that they were in fact a slave race under the control of the evil empire, and rebelling against their masters to help the humans.
Also interesting to note is that this is not really a cooperative world building structure. Cooperation implies discussion, and that shouldn’t happen here. You can’t decline or influence someone’s input – you just have to roll with it. If someone builds a city, you can’t tell them no and you can’t put in something that contradicts it. You can, however, have it burn down later in the timeline. It isn’t competitive, it’s just accepting. And that’s how you get the weird bits of awesome, and the lightbulb moments that bring them all together.
Don’t go into it expecting to write the results, though. That puts a lot of pressure on the game, risks causing tension over the non-negotiable play aspect, and restricts your opportunities for coming up with random genius. Be content to come out the other side with a couple of hours of fun under your belt, maybe some inspiration, and – if Mr. Knighton has anything to do with it – a new appreciation for space monkey pirates.