World Building Part 5 – Macro meets Micro

In the last few weeks, I have focused on fairly broad ideas in this series on world building, but now I want to get a little closer to actually designing your campaign setting.  There are two words that get thrown around a lot when it comes to campaign setting genesis: micro and macro.  Lots of people, famous people, have talked about world building from these two specific points of view.  Keith Baker, and Chris Dias, two big world builders, talked about building a setting on a macro level on the Tome Show.  Lots of other people have talked about building from a micro level on various podcasts and blogs.

Just so that we are on the same page, micro world building refers to starting small, and working up.  You start with some city, or dungeon, go from there.  Macro world building refers to the idea of starting with the big general concepts that make up your world.  You start with how the world was created, large scale maps, and big over-riding concepts that you want to dominate your world.

Now that we are all fresh on these terms, I want to advise going against both of these tips and actually combine both of these techniques into a happy middle ground.  My experience with world building has been that both of these methods can result in some unhappy results if you aren’t careful.

One of the big problems that a lot of world builders face is the issue of what I like to call genesis block.  There comes a point where you just get stalled in the process of building your campaign setting.  If you are aiming to get your campaign setting written, that can be devastating.  However, one of the best ways to avoid this form of writer’s block is to jump around and keep your creation process varied and open.

In my very recent experience with building my campaign world, I started with some very macro concepts, but quickly hit a giant brick wall when it came to dealing with some world-spanning issues; primarily these issues dealt with where technological power comes from in my Steampunk/Cyberpunk inspired setting.  But, instead of staying focused on those macro issues and how I was going to resolve and make sense of them, I switched to the more micro side of things, developing equipment, spells, new rules, and a small city.  After a while, these micro elements in my setting ended up providing me with some interesting revelations about how I wanted to continue with the macro issues that had blocked me before.

You might expect that this method wouldn’t work very well if you are actively playing an actual campaign in your growing sandbox.  I would actually argue that this method works the best when you are playing in your world as you make it, as long as your players are a bit open to editing.  I had to deal with this quite a bit in my adventure that took place earlier this year.  I met with my players and broke the news that the upcoming campaign would be taking place in my developing campaign world.  The players all agreed that the game sounded fun and character generation went from there, but it quickly came to my attention that as I developed the world and changed some of the macro things about it, players were going to need to shift their character backgrounds in order to adjust.  Make sure your players are OK with that kind of editing.  I ended up using player feedback and advice for changing the world, so some of this editing turned out to be very productive, but some of the changes that came from me were not so well accepted.

As an example of this, I preface my campaign setting by having a dwarf empire long in ruins and the gods declaring war on the plane itself.  One of my players, wielding a deva cleric, knew what she was getting into at the beginning, but as we played, the god war element began to tone down considerably in order to accommodate her character better (being the object of total hostility in the world can be a bit challenging for a new player… reminds me of a certain dark elf of note).  However, the dwarf player in my campaign was constantly getting hammered as I slowly gave him more information about how his background was changing given my recent campaign setting updates.

While this is going on, I should mention, I was constantly building new gear for my players, and developing very tiny chunks of the world for them to explore.  Building this way with your players can work, even when you are playing, just be sure that you don’t step on anybody’s hard written backgrounds without their permission.  But, building at the micro level for the players and then using their input in order to flesh out more of the macro level world themes can be very educating as you quickly learn what works and what doesn’t.  The dwarf player in the example above actually ended up helping a lot with the campaign setting after we came to an agreement regarding boundaries and creative opinions.

So, don’t worry about where you are going to start building your world.  Start micro, start macro, it doesn’t matter.  It takes a lot of time and effort to build a campaign setting, so don’t forget to jump back and forth between these two methods in order to really understand your own mindset and where you want that world should realistically go.