Shared world


Is anybody here interested in doing a “shared world” collaboration aimed at IF?

I am not talking about shared in the MMO/multiplayer sense, I’m talking about collaborating on creating a “world” - places, general themes, recurring characters - and then using those in our individual (or, by all means, collaboratively written) IF works.

I remember reading the Thieve’s World anthologies (see’_World). In these, different authors made up a world together, so that places, characters and events from one short story reappeared in another story by another author. I don’t necessarily mean it should be a fantasy world, it could be any setting. I think it should be original work though, not adapting an existing world, if nothing else to stay clear of copyright issues.

I’m interested in seeing how - and if - this would work in IF. What are the previous examples of doing this?

One way of doing it would be just to toss ideas around and making up a world together, adding important characters and stuff in the mix, and letting everybody use these things in their own IF works. (Upshot: you don’t need to be able to code at all to be part of this!)

Another possibility might be to share more than just ideas, to actually collaborate on (e.g.) locations, maybe even characters or even… well puzzles/quests/subplots/story fragments, whatever your take is - in (e.g.) Inform7 extensions or whatever works for your system.

Does this make sense at all? I’m not at all sure it does, but I think it’s worth maybe running with the idea a little further than to just dismiss it straight away. Part of me feels like this is fundamentally at odds with how IF authors work, but on the other hand this seems like a perfectly standard procedure for RPG people. And if it works for (traditional, non-interactive) fiction and it works for role-playing games - why wouldn’t it work for IF?

I have plenty of questions and some ideas, but I want you think about this so I’ll shut up now.

So. Is anybody up for this?

Well, I loved Thieves World when I was a kid, and what you’re talking about isn’t too far removed from muds, which I also grew up playing, so it sounds good to me.

There are some practical obstacles though. The TW writers were all professional, and especially in the beginning of the series, highly experienced authors, and I daresay writing a short story is less work than writing short IF. So, keeping the project on track so it produces work is going to be one challenge.

Another issue I’m not so sure about is this: will a reader forgive a certain amount of inconsistency between stories in a shared world anthology, but less between the responses of two works of IF? Because you’re dealing with a simulation I feel like the reader will expect a more consistent experience from one game to the next.

I think sharing code is one good way to mitigate that, but if you don’t want to restrict authors to one authoring system (which seems like a good idea to me) you’ll need to create some kind of specification people can code to.

At the same time, it’d be a shame to rule out quite different interpretations and IF experiences of the source material. Maybe only time will tell if this is something to address or not.

I actually know of a similar concept that worked very well for a long time: Reality-on-the-Norm.

I think it worked so well because the first games established some very distinctive characters with distinctive personalities. Cardboard, yes, but interesting - and leaving room for added depth later, if necessary. The very first game established a tone. It didn’t carry throughout ALL the games, but without that a first distinctive tone, it wouldn’t have sparked so much interest.

Also, the style was kept graphically simplistic so everyone could join in, and the first few games were - inevitably - made by the same person(s) until it really caught on.

There was some inconsistency, but people really were OK with it. One of the most famous cases was the killing of a main character. That generated a LOT of discussion, but eventually people sort of wrote alternate timelines… or placed stories before the killing… and even tried to fit it in within a larger plotline. They also mocked the game which did it, which was indeed a game mostly fit for mocking.

Another cute example is that at a certain game, a new character appears. This character hardly talks at all, because the game’s writer was, frankly, bad at writing. Later authors used this new character - every character was fair game to all authors - and made him a very, very quiet person, whose thoughts you could never be sure of.

There were some sets of templates (as it was mostly a graphical adventure) shared around for everyone to use - characters, places, objects… but you could always use yours, if you wanted to.

I think this is a good idea, and the question is: will it catch on? The answer, as always, is: no way to know until its tried. But looking at RON, a successful venture (up until the time it got too much - nowadays people feel daunted that to really know RON you have to play 30+ games just to write a proper game, which is really not keeping in style with the original concept anymore where pretty mcuh everything went… I guess it just evolved beyond people’s control), I’d say it means some dedicated authors for the first couple of games, and the necessity of establishing just enough. Just enough locations to make a skeleton; and leave ample room for changes (the first RON game had a main street that was full of empty buildings that were later adapted into anything and everything). Just enough characterisation to make the characters stand out; and leave ample room to play with (character-types would be fine).

And naturally, the lighter the tone, the more participants there will be - at first. And then things would just develop. Characters would come together, good stuff would keep, bad stuff would be scratched (there’s at least one character in RON who just never really got used for anything, Thakbor). The game world and history would evolve of their own accord.

There has to be brand recognition between the individual games.

Narrative style among different authors is heterogeneous, so the thing which is usually the strongest reason one keeps buying the next book of a series doesn’t apply. Next in line would be character recognition. That’s something which should be settled in advance. All characters, even the important NPCs should be fixed. Individual authors may explore their properties to the grain, give them a twist here and there but not change them completely. In contrast, recognition based on locations is weak. Common rules are the weakest property to recognize IF, I think. It may however break the atmosphere if the rules between different games change too much.

Interesting idea. I am personally overstuffed with projects and regularly am forced to let things I’ve promised and am interested in, slide. But I’d love to see the results.

BTW this has been done before, just as a matter of history/interest. I remember a game called Shades of Grey (I think it was done with AGT) that people were collaborating on way back when I was last active on r.a.i-f. Possibly it has been done again since — I wasn’t paying as much attention later on.


I’m also curious how this would work in terms of continuity between games, and whether this has an impact on the type of games you’d write.

For example, stories with very different endings become a bit of a problem, it’s like they break the continuity themselves, and you end up with conflicting realities even from a single story. And I guess any major changes really would tend to either need to be placed in a timeline or would mean a forking off of reality.

Personally I don’t have a problem with inconsistencies at all, I’m fine with seeing people reinterpreting and changing things from one story to the next. But I guess some people would prefer to have a more robust world to deal with.

I’m more concerned that things just might get very silly, that it just becomes an exercise in throwing in references to other games so that they just don’t make sense at all if you’re not already familiar with the other games. I guess it’s all about finding the right level so that each story still is a story in its own right.

So, what do you say, you want to give it a shot? How would we do this?

Start with the world? The stories? The format?

Again taking RON (an example of a successfull foray into this very matter which somehow no-one is picking up on) as an example, continuity wouldn’t be a big issue. If a character were to be killed off, you could write a story set prior to their death. Or you could bring him back, using that as a storyline.

Surely the point of such a venture would be to allow for a game-world that could tell many stories of many genre. Detective, humour, satire, wacky, horror, slice of life. I know this seems unlikely, but if you create a playground for authors, their first impulse is NOT to come up with stupid ways to ruin other people’s fun. If those issues do come up (as in Davy Jones’ death in RON) and the group builds around it, even to make fun, it will create consistency.

Consistency, in these things, isn’t - can’t be - something you drum up from the start and hope everyone will stick to. The ball must roll - one game, then two, then three. Consistency will be emergent, if people don’t go overboard - and if they do, well, it can still be part of a consistent game world. Ron’s “Nihilism” episode didn’t stop the later episode “The Postman Always Rings Twice”, nor did anyone go “Oh my god, this has completely ruined the theme”, nor “How can we follow up on this?”. Instead they took the one single objective thing that happened in that game (a silo’s door became glued shut) and ran with it.


In reply to your last question, I’d avise to start with a game, providing a skeleton of the setting. Then another game, using different parts of the skeleton.

Shades of Grey was a single large game in which different sections were written by different authors, as I recall. Peter Pears’s RON reference seems indeed a better example of a direct antecedent. Advantages of the multi-game shared world: the idea automatically has legs, i.e. it’s a series; each work can have its own genre/tone (as PP mentioned) without too much clashing. Advantages of the single game shared world: less commitment required from each individual author; collaboration is foregrounded and less like an afterthought; it’s more likely for the shared world actually to be completed and released, IMO.

Remember that in shared-world anthologies there’s usually an editor or two who can help tie things together with their own stories, a general rule that one author can’t outright kill off or drastically change another author’s creation without consultation (it’s not like each author wrote their story in isolation, only discovering what everyone else wrote when the book was published), and typically some kind of genre. Like in Thieves World, ‘slice of life plus sword and sorcery’ might describe it – as odd as that sounds, it worked for what it was.

However, gaps might be more interesting left unfilled for other authors to take care of. Genre enforcement would be limiting. And I would be all for killing off someone else’s important characters with consultation, as you put it, of their original creator. I would advise against too much editorial power.

Again, I go to RON for inspiration. See their FAQ:

…for how the community dealt with:

Davy Jones’ death
The identity of the Bum

And the general pointers for newcomers. Not to hammer RON in, but I have to insist on a major point - it worked, and it learned from its mistakes. We would be wise to see what they DID learn.

I’d be very interested in collaborating in a shared world project, conditional of course on the world concept being one that interests me. This seems to be the critical matter: the setting and characters have to be such that would allow for a wide range of interesting stories that different authors would want to create. Thieves’ World and Reality-on-the-Norm have been mentioned already; here are two other examples of shared universe projects and how they work:

Cthulhu Mythos

There have many works of Lovecraftian horror over the last 90 years. The shared feature is a set of geographical locations (Arkham, Innsmouth etc.), a shared set of metaphysical premises (mechanical, unfeeling universe), and some common characters (a loose pantheon of cosmic horrors). The works share a similar tone reinforced by use of certain words (eldritch, squamous, rugose etc.). No specific body determines canonicity.

How it started: Lovecraft wrote a bunch of stories. His friends liked the setting and so wrote similar stories.

Comics: DC & Marvel

In both comic-worlds, most comics occur in the same universe (or multiverse!), with a shared roster of characters that are held in common. Writers often kill off characters and directly contradict earlier established facts. This is sometimes hand waved away, or attempts are made to fold things back into continuity. Over time there emerges a sort of official canon, but it’s very convoluted. The set up allows for works of greatly different tone cohabiting the same universe (so, Swamp Thing and Batman are technically in the same DC universe). Canonicity is essentially determined by editors.

How it started: the different companies had individual titles. Later, they retroactively made the titles occupy the same universe, so that they could have popular cross-over titles.

Where to go from here?

-Work out what kind of setting people are interested in. As far as I can tell, Thieves’ World emerged from the collaboration of relatively established fantasy and science fiction authors, who could be expected to be engaged by a fantasy setting; the point and click community that birthed RON were interested in zany humour (like a lot of the old Lucas Arts games); comic books tend towards stories about superheroes; certain kinds of intelligent folk find the Cthulhu mythos compelling. So what do writers of interactive fiction like?

  • The examples we’ve looked at are all genre fiction. In a certain sense because most straight literature has the same setting: the Real World.

  • A small cadre of interested people could put out the first shared-world anthology. (It could presented to the wider world as a showcase! Everyone loves showcases!). If it proves popular, then further anthologies could be made, and others could feel free to create stand-alone games.

So the question remains: what are people interested in?

Genre and setting suggestions:

  • Sci-fi setting in a virtual-reality future in which everyone has been uplifted onto machines. Any kind of story possible on different servers, with interesting cross-over potential.
  • Machiavellian setting based on the politics of Renaissance Italy. City states war while mercantile families vie for power. Would be a good straight setting, or backdrop for fantastical tales.
  • Some sort of postapocalyptic setting: my favourite are ecopocalyptic settings in which the Earth has mostly been reclaimed by the wilderness.
  • Weird small town, like Reality-on-the-Norm, Royston Vasey, or even Eerie, Indiana

Nice post JJ. It’s terrible, I like all of those suggestions :slight_smile:.

If I had to narrow it down I’d go transhumanism, Italianate, and ecopocalyptic, not necessarily in any order.

I’d also like to throw out a present day or near future alternate history/future geopolitical timeline, Children of Men like.

When I said editor I didn’t mean that they vet all the stories, but that there’s someone who’s role it is to provide some overall consistency with their own games. As I recall in Thieves World the editors finished their stories after the other authors finished theirs. It depends how much people care for releasing a single anthology as a whole, like volume one, volume two, and so on, compared with ‘the first set of games’, the second set, or even no set release date at all. I’m in favor of the first option.

I’m posting as an outsider, since I already have a world I’m setting several games in and I’m moving slowly enough on that, but: would it be helpful to set up some kind of world-wiki for the authors (not necessarily for the general public, since the spoiler-potential would be huge)? Seems like a well-tended little wiki would be very handy for keeping an up-to-date core for basic continuity.

That’s definitely a good suggestion for when things get going. Wiki’s can be handy when they’re well structured and have the content you want. If they’re not so much updated (like the IFWiki), they’re not as useful.

Alt-history is a good suggestion: we’re all familiar with the current day, and the world is frankly big enough for lots of different takes on what might happen as a result of some paradigm-shifting event. What could be that event? The singularity? Uplifting other species into sapience? Some unique twist on the superpowers theme? Alien contact? Biological warfare that does strange and unpredictable things to populace? Hmm…

This sounds great, some sort of genre fiction is probably the best way to do this.

I’ve been thinking about mashups lately - I read the Shadows over Baker Street anthology (Lovecraft + Sherlock Holmes) and one of my favourite computer games of all times is Arcanum (steampunk + fantasy).

Maybe that’s a way to find that “central idea in one sentence”?

“It’s about a small town where magic is possible”
“It’s a post-holocaust hot house world, with mutants”
“It’s like CSI, but with werewolves”
“Cthulhu by gaslight” (oh wait, that’s done already)

I’d really like if there was a central place involved - a city, a cruise ship, a space station, whatever. Twin Peaks, anyone?

The RON thing seems to do this really well, and I like the way they think about reusing actual characters for archetypes - “if you need a detective, this guy is a good choice”. It’s a bit like commedia dell’Arte, I guess.

I think that makes a lot of sense.

In Edwardian England?

Now I’m thinking Pride and Prejudice, where Darcy is really a werewolf and Elizabeth is an amateur sleuth investigating his accidental murders.

Urmm… but more on topic: do we want something that is (broadly speaking):

Set in the past, set in the present, set in the future or set on a incomparable plane of existence? (By ‘past’, I obviously include all fantasy works that deal in pseudo-medieval settings and so on).

I propose something set in the past, but with the possibility of a timeline that diverged from our established history at some point. That gives us a lot of freedom, while at the same time providing a lot of familiar hooks that might interest authors.

With a few exceptions I prefer fantasy with a lot of background from history anyway.

And OK, I admit it, I’ve been watching Downton Abbey too ;D.

Ooh yes Downton Abbey.

You know you’re a BBCoholic when you already had an opinion about Joanne Froggatt before it started.

This seems to be a good approach, because serious revisionists aside we will mostly have a shared view of the facts of history. Divergent time line seems to be a good idea. I know in the last decade there’s been an explosion of interest in Steampunk. It could be interesting if we took a similar tact but with a unique concept. So, following peterorme’s suggested format, here’s some more setting ideas:

  • Byron vs. the Forces of Darkness
    It’s 1816, the Year Without Summer. There’s famine and riots in the street; people are calling it the end of days. Little do they know that it really is the end times. Heroes in the mould of Byron and the Shelleys fight abyssal denizens and Promethean horrors, with vim, vigour and supreme verbosity.
  • Darwin on a Flying Bike
    It’s renaissance Italy, a time of intrigue, beauty and corruption. Most of all, it is a time of individual excellence. A new cadre of brilliant artists and inventors have raised the bar and mechanical wonders flourish in Florence, but will they be enough to save the city from machinations of popes and princes?
  • Weird Plague Pirate Island
    An island (Like Libertalia) is used for quarantining pirates and plague-ridden convicts. The plague mutates bizarrely, changing the infected irrevocably, giving odd powers. Expect sea battles, rival pirate gangs and weird stuff happening.