World Building Wednesday #2 Finding the Balance

Once you’ve started down the long road of world building, how do you keep from getting lost?  Finding the balance between your million ideas and the million times that in questions those ideas will produce, and actually accomplishing something…that’s really difficult.  I think a lot of us fall in love with the worlds we create and we want to share that love with others, be it with our fiction readers or our tabletop players.  This is where staying focused is both a major challenge and an indispensable skill.  

What’s the first thing that you tell your reader?  You’ve got this amazing world with a rich history that’s going to inform every aspect of the story you’re about to tell.  So you’ve got to explain that all first, right?  Absolutely not.  The last thing your reader wants is a massive information dump.  Heck, I don’t even like when movies do a text crawl introduction at the start.  “Just get to it.  Tell me what I need to know when I need to know it.”  Instead of dumping a ton of information in a paragraph upon paragraph, page upon page dissertation, quickly introduce us to a protagonist and begin to explore the world through their eyes.

If your world building is for fiction writing, then reveal that world to the reader through the experiences of the characters.  Yes, sometimes through their words, but try not to rely too much on that.  Show, don’t tell.  Is your world very old?  Don’t say it’s very old.  Don’t even have a character say it’s very old.  Have a scene where characters find ancient ruins, and have them be under a city that’s known to be a thousand years old, or perhaps they’re found in the shifting sands of a desert and there is a myth that this desert was once a lush jungle.  Perhaps there is a comet that crosses the sky every two thousand years and there is a celestial temple where there are recordings of a dozen comet crossings.  Let us see that the world is old, but don’t tell us.  With Space Opera and the like, this can be easier.  We’re already primed for things to be on a cosmic scale, but by showing ruins on desolate worlds that show signs of once having life, or space stations with the damage of a hundred thousand years of micrometeorite impacts, we get the sense that something is old without explicitly hearing a character say, “boy, this is old.”  

When it comes to showing your world to players in a tabletop RPG, we can go back to the first part of this series and think big & small.  Once your players have the basic idea (it’s a high magic world where insect-like Vanim rule giant pyramid cities and Humans must fight with the aquatic Molic for life crystals that power their magic, and only through magic can they hope to be free) then you want to think really, really small.  Where do your player characters live?  The village of Adz, built in the branches of mangroves on the edge of the Black Swamp.  What is their immediate concern?  The Molic have been encroaching on the hunting grounds of Adz and there is rumor the Vanim plan to raid for slaves within the week.  What is the inciting incident?  Alvor’s son disappeared while out hunting cha-spawn.  His companions found his life crystal, but it had been sapped of all its power.  See, you’ve shown your characters some of your world, but you haven’t overwhelmed them.  A big threat (the Vanim), a smaller threat (the Molic), and a call to action (Alvor’s son is missing).  You’ve got an environment (the town & the swamp).  And you have an important part of your setting to interact with (the life crystal).  You can literally cover all of this in a couple minutes after character creation and you’re off to the races.  There’s no need for your players to read some ten page document that lays out the complicated backstory for your setting.  As the kids say, “ain’t nobody got time for that.” 

What I’m getting at is that staying focused on the world building that is going to be useful for the story you’re telling is a good way to keep from getting lost in the woods and falling down a rabbit-hole of frivolous details.  Don’t get me wrong.  That stuff is great fun and I already know you’re going to do it.  You’re going to spend an hour thinking about how bronze was first turned into weapons, who the Moon Elves worship and why they all shave their heads, and what it means that there is so much organic matter in the asteroid belt around that blue star.  It’s fun to day dream about all those little details.  But don’t let them keep you from what’s important, and what’s important is what matters to your characters in the story they’re currently living.  If Thorngo the Ork is fighting his cousin for control of the Ninth Tower of Ren, then nobody needs to know about those Moon Elves.  Maybe they’ll be important to someone later, but for now, just jot down that funny thought you had about them and get back on to what’s important now.

If you’d like, go on over and read the first few parts of an ongoing story, Echoes of Yesterday, where I’ve used some of the above techniques.  

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