Three Tips for a Better World (Creation)

globeI’ve recently announced my participation in a very exciting project, creating the world for a ‘virtual tabletop’ game called Mark of War. It’s early days yet, so we’ve only just started scratching the surface and now seems an appropriate time to write a little about world creation, be it for games, novels, roleplaying or whatever you like.

World creation can be a surprisingly contentious subject, and many designers and authors will disagree with what I’ve written here. All I can say is that over the many years since I first started scribbling ideas for fantasy worlds and sci-fi universes I have found the following to be true and you might too.

And this is my blog, so I’m right.

"Come in, have a cuppa. We're just making a blood sacrifice in a bid to understand the deeper mysteries of the universe. How's your mum doing?."

“Come in, have a cuppa. We’re just making a blood sacrifice in a bid to understand the deeper mysteries of the universe. How’s your mum doing?”

1. Let it Grow

I’m a firm believer in having a world that exists just enough to tell the story you are telling and a little left over for fun. While there is a particular delight in creating a world – its peoples, languages, environments and everything else – for the purpose of a book, roleplaying campaign or game that creation begins and ends with what would make a good story.

In itself there’s not much wrong with creating your world wholesale from the outset, drawing maps and calling things the Forest of Azkaradanistha and all that, except for the fact that many writers and developers then feel the need to cram all of that world creation into their story, often at the expense of more useful things like characters and plot. A lot of fantasy in particular, but also sci-fi, is little more than a travelogue, of characters going to strange and interesting set-piece places that the author has invented, but without any actual purpose.

I take the opposite view that the characters and story come first and the world contains everything it needs for that story to happen. If the characters need to go to another place for a good reason – to meet someone, pick up something, insert macguffin of choice – then fill your boots and make it as cool and evocative and out there as you like. However, if the place and the journey exists purely for the characters to visit, without really challenging them or changing the plot or showcasing something fundamental about the setting that the reader needs to understand, then it is just travelogue.

The same isn’t just true of geographic locations, it can apply to metaphysical qualities or technology, philosophies, events in history, even people the characters meet. Unless the laws of magic, the worship of Holy D’shivara, the painting on the wall of the Grand Opera House have something relevant to the plot, why spend time working out what they are? You’re creating a world that the reader has to envisage, and details can help, but don’t get bogged down in those details.I find the easiest way to avoid this is by not having your head crammed full of cool stuff you want to show off no matter what. It’s my contention that too much up-front world creation is the cause of most of the exposition the exists in the genre. When editing, ask yourself if that lengthy description on the economics of Plainstown* really adds anything to the understanding of the characters and plot, and their place within the setting rather than just the setting itself. If not, feel free to pare it down or get rid of it entirely.

*Economics is an underused motivator for many heroes, but unless your world has something drastically different from the usual supply-and-demand model, why get into the nitty-gritty? If precious metals and gems are not your value items, what are? That’s when storytelling spurs world creation.

Some of the most enduring fictional realms were not created in a god-like moment of Genesis but evolved as a patchwork of tales or games, with perhaps a theme and core imagery to build upon but the details explored only as and when they were required. The Cthulhu ‘mythos’, the city of Lankhmar and surrounding lands, Forgotten Realms, Hyperborea, the Culture, Warhammer, the Star Wars universe (expanded or otherwise), all of these creations accreted and accumulated on a solid foundation, allowing for exploration, imagination and speculation.

If you don’t know it’s there yet, there’s no temptation to talk about it. In short, if you draw the map as you go along you can leave out the boring bits.


2. Less is More

Which moves me nicely onto the idea that when world creation becomes an end in its own right, it tends to become closed off. Every detail is worked out to the Nth degree, from the name of the cobblers on the street corner by the palace square to the intricate god-summoning rituals of the obscure mountain tribe that is really cool and will get worked into the damned story somehow.

Basically, if you make up stuff you go along, in the white heat of writing, the chances are that you will convey a tantalising glimpse into the world, enough for the reader to understand what is going on, but leaving them wanting more. Throwing in a line about the Forgotten City of Gostrama without even knowing what it is adds to the idea that the world in a big place, just like ours, and no person can ever know everything about it. Throwing in an entire myth about the Forgotten City of Gostrama, especially if its not related by the characters, is just filling up space that could be used more constructively.

A setting that contains grey areas, Here Be Dragons and all, of location, people and events, is more intriguing than one in which everything is laid out as truth like an encyclopaedia. The world becomes a thing that can be debated and interacted with in itself, by those within it and readers alike, aside from discussion of the characters and plots taking place across it.  Some questions you can answer later, some you might never answer. For every loose end that you tie up, fray a couple more. Something said cannot be unsaid, but something mumbled slightly incoherently can be argued back and forth for years.

It’s also worthwhile making sure that you are very wary about absolute, closed statements. If you do, make it in dialogue, because while characters can turn out to be wrong, narrators can’t. These definitive facts will come back and bite you on the bum at some point, because one day you will forget them but the readers/ gamers won’t!

Fan: So in book three Milandrius said that no enchantment has ever worked inside the Citadel of the Legacy, but in book nine Orfessio’s ring of truth still works when he arrives there with Meslai.

Author: Er, um… Milandrius was an idiot?

A dwarf. On a bear. Do I need to say anything else?

A dwarf. On a bear. Do I need to say anything else?

3. A Little Whimsy Goes a Long Way

The ‘by-the-seat-of-your-pants’ style of world creation also means that the coolest ideas can usually find a place because you’ve been opening all the doors and windows as you go along, not closing them, and that next room can contain whatever you want.

Another way of putting it, I suppose, is that worlds created for their own sake can have a tendency to be awfully worthy.  They lack a sense of whimsy. They can become a burden, to be endured while one tries to navigate the rules and guidelines laid down for how things work, rather than being a springboard for glorious ideas and adventures. 

This is not an excuse for bad writing – inventing a superspell or time portal or lazerbeam to get you out of a poorly thought-through plot obstacle is lazy no matter how the setting came into being  – it is a remit, a mandate, to ensure that the world is as exciting and creative as you can make it.

The big advantage is that one idea leads to another, snowballing into something wondrous. Coming up with cool ideas takes a really long time, and it never ends. Don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked yet, you’ll have a better (more entertaining )answer later.

If you think that your world is going to include all of your best ideas before you start writing book one, I have a bridge for sale.


A prototype map for Mark of War. It will evolve before we are done, to reflect our ideas, not dictate them.

 (Bonus) Take Plenty of Notes

Speaks for itself…

And to drag this back to Mark of War for a moment, it’s interesting that even in the small pieces I’ve written so far there’s been a lot of development. The need to create characters and geography has led to narratives arising, and in return those narratives demand that the world works in certain ways.

It also means that we’ve only just started on Mark of War. It’s bare bones and broad brush, and that’s the way it’ll work best for now. Let’s see what gets players excited and ensure there’s more of that and less of the things they aren’t so crazy about.

I hope you like what I’ve written so far – check it out on the Armies and World pages of the website – and back the Kickstarter if you would like to have the opportunity to explore further with me.

Published in: on August 20, 2014 at 4:32 pm  Comments (4)  

N-n-n-nine Worlds, Nine Worlds

Thank you, Paul Hardcastle, for digging me out of a title hole.

nerdbong.comLeaving that aside, last weekend was pleasantly spent with Kez and little Sammy at an airport hotel near Heathrow, and not because of delayed flights. It was the Nine Worlds Geekfest. Those with long memories and some patience will remember that I wrote three whole blog posts on last year’s inaugural event. Be thankful that this year one post will suffice – not because I couldn’t give an almost hour-by-hour account of our activities (including nappy changes for the little one…) but because I’ve decided to take a slightly different angle this time.

Last year we tried to pack in as many panels as possible, mainly on the Skeptics track of events, and this led to a hectic weekend. With Sammy in tow, a more laissez-faire approach was required because at any given time we couldn’t be sure attending a panel would be possible.


Security at the hotel was a little overzealous for my tastes.

The consequence of this was an equally enjoyable event that turned out to be more about socialising than panels and signings. It highlighted to me what events are all about – community and meeting other people. It’s even truer at other events where I’m there in an ‘official’ capacity in some fashion – signing or on a panel – meeting people that share my passion and hobbies is a huge boost and inspiration.

And it’s always a mix of the old and the new, the expected and unexpected. There were some people that I wanted to seek out and spend some time with, there were others that I already knew but wasn’t sure were attending, and there were those that I met for the first time. It’s always good to hang out with fellow authors and catch up at these events, whether it was Adrian Tchaikovsky trying to hypnotise Sammy with mystical hand gestures, having breakfast with Anne Lyle and others and talking about Blakes 7, or learning first hand from Den Patrick that saying ‘Fiddlesticks’ can bring a baby out in fits of giggles. It’s always lovely talking to Ian Whates, and we caught up with Jonathan Green and heard how plans were progressing for Fighting Fantasy Fest in a few weeks’ time.

Similarly, I had a good chat with Matt Sylvester about his upcoming projects, including the progress of Raus Untoten II. Once again I met Dave Bradley (of SFX magazine) at the bar and competing social commitments required us to part company – we’ve been ships in the night at the last few cons I’ve attended but one day we’ll have a conversation that lasts more than the time it takes to get a served.

That just looks like a couple of paragraphs of name-dropping, but I promise there is a point to it, beyond trying to pretend that I am a networking god.

These are people that exchange tweets and emails, but I might see only once or twice a year. Sometimes we talk about books and writing, sometimes we want to talk about anything but those things (more often the former). Stuff comes up in conversation, bits of news or snippets of advice or war stories, which you wouldn’t necessarily go out of your way to find out or come across except in that more relaxed atmosphere.

Spacesam. Not quite arriving from Krypton, but pretty super all the same.

SpaceSam. Not quite arriving from Krypton, but pretty super all the same.

As someone that writes mainly for Black Library but also has a few ‘original’ works published (please go and buy Empire of the Blood, I promise you’ll enjoy it…) I sometimes feel that I am standing with a foot in two worlds. Black Library mostly involves itself with its own events and is a microcosm in itself in which I feel very comfortable and established, and the publishing team and other authors are good friends with each other.

The wider world of publishing, and conventions in particular, I find more daunting. For the uninitiated there can seem to be a labyrinth of groups and cliques and circles depending on people’s publishers, their agents, who goes to what conventions. Most of this is purely subjective, of course, but things have got easier since my first outings into the wider genre. It’s nice that over the last few years the number of familiar faces has kept growing, as that list shows, and that helps when you’re not exactly a powerhouse at initiating conversations with strangers.

There are also the people that you get to know over the weekend, either just in passing or more socially. A conversation over another breakfast (on a different day, not a Hobbit-style second breakfast), for instance, meeting wannabe sky-pirate Liesel Schwarz and talking about her teen rebellion in South Africa and the excitement of getting a review in the Independent (two things I have not experienced; one of which I would like to). Of all the people I might have thought I’d meet, I must confess that Phil Lowles was nowhere near the list. Phil was one of the assistant games developers in the tranche Games Workshop hired after I’d moved on to become a ‘full’ games developer. He’s professionally involved with web design now, but obviously the geek-gene never goes away and he’s organising A Game of Thrones events, including Titancon in Belfast next month. It’s likely I would never have caught up with Phil if we hadn’t run into each other in the hotel foyer.

And then after the weekend reality returns.

For many people that means going back tot he 9-5 of work, but for me, for a writer, it also means stepping back out of the community and returning to the solitary tap-tap-tap at the keyboard. The culture shock kicks in both ways – dealing with people, getting up to speed, and then getting back home and finding that all the people have gone away. It’s not quite post-holiday blues, but it takes a day or two to recover from that sort of (to me) intense activity.

Anyway, random bits (to call them highlights would be unfair to many wonderful people not mentioned):

Check out Gengki Gear and their fantastic geekwear. We are assured that coloured baby vests will be coming soon… However, because I am very strange and can’t wear a T-shirt that I’ve seen someone else wearing (sort of) please avoid wearing this one to any event I am attending:


Writers, always keep an eye on Fox Spirit books. They’ve pretty much got a rolling submissions window for anything from flash fiction to short stories, and Adele (‘Aunty Foxy’) is one of the nicest people you’ll ever get a chance to work with.

Some fantastic cosplay outfits. Everyone gets 5 ‘Awesome Cosplay’ tokens to hand out to people they think deserve them, and any cosplayer that gets 15 could trade them for an ‘Awesome Cosplay’ badge.

Sammy spent Saturday in his UFO, and children that took part got a goodie bag as a prize, so we were trying to give away all the tokens he earnt. Even so, we ended up with 21 tokens… It’s hard to ignore the conclusion that if you want to attract attention, be a baby in a flying saucer (being super cute helps too!). But anyway, the tokens (which I hear are used at other events too) are a great icebreaker (as is a baby in a UFO it turns out) and really made the cosplayers part of the whole event.

If that sounds like your kind of fun, tickets for the 2015 event are already available at bargain price on the Nine Worlds website. Hopefully Kez, Sammy and I will see you there!

We couldn't find Sammy for most of Sunday, but Batbaby turned up, which was cool.

We couldn’t find Sammy for most of Sunday, but Batbaby turned up, which was cool.


Published in: on August 13, 2014 at 2:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

More Dark Angels

A-Hunt-in-the-DarkSo, as if it wasn’t enough that Master of Sanctity is now available, I only gone and done another Dark Angels story. With the tale in MoS moving on to focus on Asmoidai and Sapphon, our daring Ravenwing commander has moved out of the limelight a little, so this short is for Sammael fans and covers the most famous and important battle in his life.

It’s available to download now at Black Library:


Published in: on June 16, 2014 at 2:03 pm  Comments (3)  

This Blog is Mostly Filler

That’s right, it’s been so long since I wrote a proper blog post I now have to write a blog post about how long it has been seen I wrote a proper blog post.

I had Special K and a slice of toast for breakfast.

Back when I left Games Workshop and went freelance, I talked to Marc Gascoigne, chief editor of Angry Robot books now but back then recently-made former chief editor of Black Library – about going it alone in the big, harsh world of publishing. He told me to start a blog so that I would stay in the habit of writing often, and keeping in touch with my potential audience. He said that even if I just blog about what I had for breakfast, I should try to put something up regularly, or at least quite frequently.

Of course, at the moment I have more than enough projects to keep me busy writing everyday, from Black Library work, some speculative fiction of my own and some games design fun, which means that the blog has been the poor cousin of late.

When I started I wasn’t of a mind to write anything too personal; this would be a semi-professional blog not an online journal. It seemed a good idea to start with some writing advice, essentially putting my random thoughts in some kind of order for a blog post helped me focus on the other writing I was doing. This has fallen by the wayside of late, but not from any want of mine to knock it on the head. Just busy.

Also, I am hoping to relaunch my whole online presence sometime in the next few months, including a brand new website, all cross-platform with my various social media personas, links to back catalogue and all that jazz, and that means I have perhaps neglected the trusty old wordpress page.

So, here are a couple of bit of writing advice that I always give people, brought to mind by some conversations at the Horus Heresy Weekender.

* Work out your ending first, even if you don’t like doing a lot of planning. If you don’t know what you are heading towards, how do you know if you’re going in the right direction?

* Preparation sounds boring but it makes the exciting bit of writing all the easier and quicker.

* FINISH SOMETHING. You cannot edit unwritten words.

Thank you. I’ll be back with more insightful messages in the future. Follow me on Twitter or like my Facebook page where you can have far more frequent snippets of my brain.


All right, all right, it’s a bleedin’ bear for gawd’s sake. Can we move on?


Published in: on May 20, 2014 at 9:35 am  Comments (3)  

From the shadows…

Something is emerging.

Have a look at this teaser for one of my more secretive projects of late. Check out those gribbly nasties.

Corax’s past starts to catch up with him. Remember to place your reminder for this Limited Edition release.

Published in: on April 25, 2014 at 4:15 pm  Comments (3)  

Hugo Award Nomination

I suspect most folks interested in this sort of thing have already read and/ or written just about enough concerning the Hugo Awards ceremony nonsense and ill-favoured nominees. Rest easy, people, this is something completely different. This is a simple congratulations message. No politics here, move along.

cover - speculative-fiction-2012I would like to say a big thank you and a hearty congratulations to Justin Landon (of Staffer’s Book Review) and Jared Shurin (from the Pornokitsch website), both editors at Jurassic London, for making to the Hugo shortlist for Best Related Work with their essay collection Speculative Fiction 2012. The congratulations are self-explanatory I hope, and the thanks is due to the inclusion of one of my blog posts in this impressive collection.

I don’t know if that means I can claim to be a Hugo Award nominee now, but I suspect not. To assuage my jealousy here is a photo of a cup I was awarded in the Cub Scouts when I was eight years old.

Being 'Super Cub' granted me special powers of tent-erecting and bob-a-jobbing.

Being ‘Super Cub’ granted me special powers of tent-erecting and bob-a-jobbing.


Published in: on April 24, 2014 at 1:10 pm  Comments (3)  
Tags: ,

Foolish Interview Begins

Starting to day is a multi-part interview with the Fools Daily podcast, in which I talk about leaving Games Workshop, writing, dealing with criticism, superfans and many other diverse and interesting topics. Go and have a listen, they are nice bitesize episodes.

Also, check out the back episode list, lots of great gaming news and views, as well as an interview with Rick Priestley, creator of Warhammer and many other things beside.

Follow them on Twitter for the latest updates

Published in: on April 22, 2014 at 9:33 am  Leave a Comment  

BSFG – a Report

So, BSFG doesn’t stand for Big Silly Fluff Guppy (and not to be confused with Bangladesh Sports Federation of Georgia), but the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. This venerable organisation has been running since the early Seventies and has an impressive list of previous speakers, so it was with honour and some trepidation that I appeared at their latest gathering last Friday (after receiving an invitation, obviously). I gave a talk about the ins and outs of writing tie-in fiction; the creative and commercial pros and cons involved thereof in comparison to penning original genre fiction.

It seems to have gone down well, and I would like to thank everybody that came along and listened, and to also say thank you for the comments and conversation afterwards. In particular my gratitude goes to Dave Corby for arranging it all and taking me for a nice steak beforehand, and to Vernon and Pat for ensuring everything was arranged and went smoothly on my arrival.

Special mention goes to Roger as another pleasant dinner companion, and credit to his Encyclopedic Brain of SF. Some intriguing book recommendations I hope to follow-up soon. If I get a chance to come back to the BSFG another time, I hope I am a sequel that Roger likes.

The BSFG are also involved in the Novacon event, which for 2014 takes place in Nottingham, 14-16th November. I think that there may have been clashes with the Black Library Weekender in previous years, but this year there isn’t and I hope to have a look at what’s happening – it would be churlish not to pop in considering it’s just a short drive into the city…

Again, thanks to everybody that turned up, members and guests alike, it was my pleasure to spend an evening in your company.

Published in: on April 14, 2014 at 1:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Brum and Brummer: upcoming event

This Friday, 11th April 2014, I have been invited to the Birmingham Science Fiction Group. I will be giving a talk looking at the ups and downs of writing tie-in compared with ‘original’ genre fiction, and holding a Q&A. I’m quite excited by this, I’ve done panels, workshops and interviews but never a talk. I may resort to using glove puppets.

Published in: on April 7, 2014 at 3:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Black Library – Raven’s Flight Enhanced Audio Edition

The Black Library – Raven’s Flight Enhanced Audio Edition.

Published in: on March 21, 2014 at 3:02 pm  Comments (1)  

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