Imaginary Cities (Darran Anderson)

So this year I’ve been trying (with only partial success) to publish a review of a CYOA book on the 5th of each month. “CYOA book” here may be a paper book or a Kindle ebook with links. This month, though, the CYOA book I originally planned to cover turned out to be enough of a non-starter that I didn’t want to post a whole review just griping about it.

imaginarycoverSo instead we have a non-mapped, non-CYOA print book, but one I think might be of some interest to the kinds of people who like IF.

Imaginary Cities is a collection of short chapters about city plans and city concepts. It discusses utopian and dystopian visions, cities imagined for other times and environments than our own, the cities we think other cultures would build and the cities that will suit the culture we hope one day to have. It pulls in the writing of architects and urban planners, historians and fantasists and philosophers. It is, among other things, a vibrant celebration of world-building:

Everything echoes. Inventing the ship and the shipwreck leads to the invention of lighthouses, judas-lights and pirate-plunderers, laws on flotsam and jetsam, the Sirens of Homeric myth, the immrams of Irish verse, Ahab and Prospero. (82)

Imaginary Cities is obviously inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, from which there is a quotation on the first page. I’ve also seen reviews comparing it to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn — both books combine a wealth of anecdotal material — but Sebald’s work has a flow and continuity that Imaginary Cities does not always emulate, and his anecdotes (take for instance the business of the the herrings that begin to glow after their death) are selected in service of his greater themes. Imaginary Cities is more of a compendium of curious facts, first collated from a wide range of sources and then organized topically, with quite a lot of the content dedicated to quotation. The result is almost overwhelmingly rich. Individual sentences suggest whole stories and courses of research:

Having adopted the ironic name Filarete (‘lover of virtue’) and designed the bronze doors of St Peter’s Basilica, the architect Antonio di Pietro Averlino fled Rome after trying to steal the desiccated head of John the Baptist. (99)

I enjoyed reading Imaginary Cities. And yet — maybe because so much of the content is about formal experimentation? because my memory for isolated detail is not as good as I’d like and I want to retain more from each page than I do? — I kept wondering if it might have been better in some form other than a book.

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Tabletop Storygames: The Quiet Year


The Quiet Year is a story game about one year in the life of a threatened community. The War with the Jackals (not explained) is just over. The Frost Shepherds (also not explained) will turn up in a year, though the inhabitants of the town don’t know that.

In the meantime, there are up to 52 turns (one for each week of the year), and a deck of cards is used as a randomizer to determine what sorts of things might happen during those weeks. Each turn, a player draws the next card, follows instructions from a chart about what that card means for the community, and then takes one of three actions: proposing a communal discussion about a particular issue; discovering something new in or around the community (which means drawing it on the map); or starting a project (also drawn on the map, but set to conclude several turns later). By the time play is over and the last card is drawn, the map is large and complex and bears signs of many events that have happened to the community.

Our story told of a group divided by religious disagreements, threats from outsiders, limited resources (especially iron, which we didn’t have much of until late in the story), and a certain amount of archaeological curiosity.

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Tabletop Storygames: Microscope

Tonight at the Seattle Storygames meetup I played Ben Robbins’ Microscope, which describes itself as “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories.”

Play begins with the participants agreeing on some very broadly-described beginning and endpoint to a history — the rise and fall of an empire, the glory and decline of a dynasty. Our group chose the history of a multi-deity religion from its inception (a sort of contract between gods and men) to its downfall (the point where the gods refused to interact that way any further).

The selected beginning and end are written on blank cards and set on the table. Players then proceed to add more cards to the timeline: named periods (which can be inserted anywhere between the beginning and the end), events (attached to a particular period), and scenes (involving a particular event, and intended to answer some narrative question about that event). The scenes are where the roleplaying actually occurs, starting from some premise and continuing until the narrative question is answered.

There are a few additional mechanics to provide some focus, and it’s possible to challenge a story choice that another player has made, though in practice we never did this.

In general, the mechanics were less concerned about creating and resolving conflicts (a theme found in both the story games I played at a previous meeting) and more about discovering and developing interesting concept threads in the world-building. Players are encouraged to move back and forth through the timeline, creating longterm repercussions for one another’s choices, or conversely setting up other parts of the story by designing prequels for them.

In practice, I felt like this design made for some very loose, uncertain play at the beginning. When the game is just starting out and the players are throwing in almost random events, there’s a sense that continuity is never going to be established. How are we ever going to link up The Great Pilgrimage with The Revision of the Dietary Laws? What matters and why? Do we all just have completely different ideas about who these characters are, or what? And because collaboration is restricted only to the contribution of periods/events/etc., you’re not allowed to propose an idea in full, by, say, laying out a whole imagined sect you have in mind. As in improv, you can only make offers and then let your collaborators pick up on them.

Later on, though, things started to come together in a fairly satisfying way, events plugging into one another and making a more complete fabric. (Sam Kabo Ashwell’s play report for the full session is here.)

Even so — and I don’t say this as a complaint, exactly — it felt to me in a lot of ways more like a collaborative world-building game than an interactive story-telling game. What we ended up with was a semi-coherent history with several major recurring themes or issues and some brightly-colored incidents. People had partitioned souls, and could use specific soul-aspects to do things. It was possible to bottle up some aspect of your soul in order to keep it under control. The Coracle Philosophers discovered the way to elevate the God of Swamps to Living status by accident during a council session, though fortunately their ritual coracle-skirts allowed them individually to paddle away and survive the deluge. The moosetaur guardians — but no, I’m verging on sacred secrets here.

In any case, it all makes a kind of performance art out of the act of invention itself. Which is cool. I think I need a few more playthroughs to really be at ease with this one, but the concept is definitely neat.

Balance of Powers on Kickstarter

Balance of Powers is a dark new alternate-history world from the team that wrote Perplex City. Follow the free-to-read story online, with eight chapters unfolding over eight weeks.

…Or better, sign up and receive bonus content in email, artifacts in your mailbox, or be invited to take part in live online events.

Balance of Powers is being launched on Kickstarter by Adrian Hon, Naomi Alderman, Andrea Phillips, and David Varela, a group that includes veterans of game and ARG design, live interactive events, and conventional fiction writing. The four of them were kind enough to answer a few of my questions about their new project — talking about pacing, storytelling as performance, and the narrative value of feelies.

Balance of Powers is set to unfold over eight weeks, one chapter a week. Can you talk a little about the function of time in your storytelling? How do you want the experience to differ from just sitting down and reading the story in one compressed session?

The action of the story itself takes place over much less than eight weeks – really more like eight days – so we’re absolutely not aiming to produce real-time storytelling. But there’s something deliciously Dickensian about enjoying a serialised story every week. It creates suspense. It allows time for the words to sink in and be analysed, either by the individual reader or between readers online. (We love a bit of speculation.)

The time between installments doesn’t just allow for reader speculation, either – it lets us peek at, and perhaps be influenced by, that speculation. The great thing about writing something online is that, unlike print materials, you can tweak at the last moment if you have a really fantastic idea. And it’ll allow us to drop in the other cool items – like our newspaper – between episodes, at a point in the story where they’ll have most impact.

The long timeline also gives people a chance to read at their own leisure without feeling that they’re being left behind. Having said that, we hope that the readers will be really looking forward to each week’s installment. TV execs talk about ‘appointment television.’ We want this to be ‘appointment reading’ because they’ll want to discuss and speculate about the story with their friends as soon as they’ve finished.

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The Night Circus

The Night Circus is a new game by Failbetter, the creators of Echo Bazaar, set in the fictional world of the forthcoming book of the same name by Erin Morgenstern. (I should say as a disclaimer, before I go any further, that I’m not a completely disinterested party — I’ve worked with Failbetter several times in the past, and hope to do so again in the future, and I also did some beta work on the game of The Night Circus.)

A few of my mementoes

Structurally, The Night Circus is quite a bit like Echo Bazaar, but tighter and easier to get into. If you’ve ever looked at EBZ and thought that it was more confusing or more of a commitment than you were ready for, Night Circus is doing some similar narrative experiments in a more streamlined fashion, with a shorter lead time and fewer optional extras. (There’s no store to buy objects from, for instance, and no map to move around — just a set of storylets to choose from at any given moment.) Brief text passages let you explore the environment of the circus and make choices about what you’re interested in pursuing. As you go, you accumulate mementoes — an inventory of physical and non-physical rewards from your exploration, some of which are required to open up new possibilities. Because it’s about exploring the mysteries of a setting and making serendipitous connections, it’s light on plot and strong on imagery, but there are some gradually accumulating ideas nonetheless.

The art is disciplined and evocative. Night Circus’ commitment to a black-and-white-with-red-touches scheme means the iconic art fits together well, even when the images are of quite different things.

There is a diary, to which you can save the text of events that are most important to you, and there’s the option of adding your own brief comment to something you’re recording. (Here’s mine, containing some of my favorite snippets from play so far, and here’s another from someone who comments more extensively than I do.) The diary is something EBZ does also, but (IMO) less effectively: Night Circus lets you add things to your diary even if you don’t simultaneously choose to tweet them to your friends, which means that you can make decisions about what you want to include in your personal narrative record without agonizing whether you’ve annoyed your twitter list enough for one day. I’m keenly interested in this technique: it encourages players to think about which events are important and memorable to them, and cooperate in constructing a narrative for themselves. I’d like even more to be able to go back and change the tagging on past events, I think, but that might be a bit heavy-handed for this particular piece.

Here’s the Thing

As a little coda to my Wunderkammer post: Here’s the Thing is a documentary series on people and their favorite stuff. Each episode, the documentarians photograph the most interesting objects they find around someone’s home, and then the owner provides a voiceover explaining what the thing is and what’s interesting about it. The episodes are available for streaming online, and they’re a rather cool practical demonstration of how much light you can shed on someone’s life and personality via a few representative things from that person’s living space. The most potent indicators are photographs, souvenirs, trophies, clothing, artworks, things earned or made or worn by the owner, as well as garbage, discards, things lost or forgotten.