Developing unique settings for stories and games can be a daunting task. One of the biggest traps a creator can fall into when starting this journey is developing from a macro-level. This means that they start designing their world, dimension, galaxy, or universe as a whole and work their way down to specific locations and details. While this method does produce a highly detailed setting, it takes significant time and energy to complete which often leads to the project being shelved. Even when the project is completed successfully, the finished setting may become restricting because everything has been defined with little room left for expansion.
Rather than attempting to plan out the entire setting from the beginning, writers should start the process with general ideas about the overall environment. Create an outline with only the key information needed; the name of the world, the level of technology, and some of the sentient species that live there are good starting points. This will form the basis of the first campaigns and stories. Once this has been created, focus on the specific needs of what remains to be written. Remember to start small and only detail the things that are required. By limiting the scope in this way, you will be able to allow your world to grow and evolve organically.
An effective way to implement this method of worldbuilding is to use prompts to guide the process. By developing a list of basic questions about the area, people, and quests being created, you will have an easy rubric for determining what is necessary. For the purpose of this article, we'll assume that we are creating a space opera or science fantasy RPG setting. For the sake of brevity, we'll assume that the system provides species and other basic information.
- Where will the adventure take place?
- The planet Glotha in the Tremari system. The world is populated by primarily humans, but several alien races are commonly found around the spaceport. The initial adventure takes place in a small southern city called Metarthis.
- What is the plot for the first quest?
- The party is hired by a local merchant to investigate the disappearance of goods from his warehouse.
- What locations in the city will be necessary for this module?
- Merchant's office, the warehouse, spaceport, bar, police station.
- What specific locations will be explored?
- The party will be able to travel through the city to each of the locations mentioned. The spaceport will feature prominently in the investigation, as will the bar and the warehouse.
Based on the information above, we now know that we will need at least four maps (city, spaceport, bar, and warehouse) that will be used to assist the party. The city map should have the full layout of the city but only have the important locations marked. Each of these locations should have descriptions. A detailed map of the spaceport will be needed so the players can explore it. The spaceport doesn't need to be completely defined as it is unlikely for the group to go through the whole place but the important areas should be indicated and the rest of the general layout described. The bar and the warehouse should be created as battlemaps. Once those key places have been handled, you can use a similar process to determine the non-player characters required. At this point, you should have everything you need for the adventure.
"What if the players don't want to be native to Metarthis?" This is actually one of the reasons for keeping a focus on the adventure requirements. As the worldbuilder, you have the choice of providing all of the towns surrounding the city as well as other planets with their own cities, but now we're back to spending lots of time thinking about things that might not be necessary. The better option is to simply wait for this situation to arise and then ask the player about their character. You can then collaborate with your player to determine how much detail is needed about their home, which should be just some basics such as "it is an agricultural village that supplies the city". Once that discussion is complete, you have not only ensured that the player is more invested in your world, but you have already laid the groundwork for a new location without having to come up with it before meeting with your players.