LESSON The Forest and the Trees: When to World Build with Detail

Discussion in 'CREATING WORLDS & SETTINGS' started by Revision, Mar 16, 2012.

  1. The Forest and the Trees: When to World Build with Detail

    When building a world, it is often far too easy to get bogged down in detail. When this happens, the project can seem insurmountable. Yes, there is a lot of detail work when it comes to world building. There are also times when being vague can be an asset, though, and it is good to know when to paint parts of your world with a broad brush and when to do fine detail work.

    The truth of the matter is this: you could build a world for your entire life and never have it complete. Even entire teams of people working together will never be able to detail every moment of that world's history. It's just an impossible task. So let that bit of knowledge free you.

    In this group, we have a casual world builder section and a dedicated world builder section. The amount of detail you use will determine where your world falls. Casual world builders often don't flesh things out nearly as much, or play things by ear. I do this a great deal. Dedicated world builders will be the ones making maps, charts, drawing flags, etc. I do this from time to time, too, especially for a setting I plan to use more than once. It makes sense to do casual world building for a one shot RP or a short story and to become more dedicated if you are going to run longer RP series, write a novel, or do anything where that world may have to stand up to scrutiny.

    So, when should you add detail? Generally, the more important something is to your plot, the more you should focus on it. Is the forbidden forest going to play a major part? How about a particular NPC or a ship? Sometimes, though, it is not so simple to figure out what you want to detail.

    There are some things you may want to leave intentionally vague. If you build a good enough basic world, you should be able to leave a few gaps in history, a few hidden areas, or a few important NPCs either vague or unwritten. This will give your plot and world the flexibility to adapt slightly for the characters in it without breaking a rigid structure or letting things get out of hand. This works best when you have a good idea of how the rest of the world works, so you can easily slot things in later. Essentially, you are leaving room for modules and upgrades to the world. Just make sure that the world as a whole is well organized.

    So, this the the part most of you are probably interested in: Just what levels of detail are there and how can they be utilized effectively?


    Low detail: Low detail is generally paired with large areas that your character just has no reason to be in or know much about. This can also be used to give yourself parts of your world to develop if needed for a plot later. Low detail is great for things like the ocean floor, polar ice caps, or inaccessible caves. It is also good for deserts and forests that are going to be relatively uniform throughout. Once you pick out general geological, geographic and ecosystem details, you can normally leave these areas alone for the most part.

    Broad Brush: A bit more in depth than low detail, this technique is used to create areas that characters are more likely to encounter or pass through but not linger in. The neighboring forest to the kingdom, the treacherous mountains, and the beach are good examples of this. Go a bit more in depth with describing what lives there and making a few generic NPCs. Give characters crude maps or at least draw some for yourself. Don't go too in depth. There's room for that soon.

    Medium Detail: Use this for inhabited areas that your characters are likely to pass through, such as farmlands, villages, or kingdoms. You should not use this level of details for base cities or major plotline locations; they need more detail than this can provide. However, if a character is going to spend a couple days in a place or pass by it often, you should utilize medium detail. Make several generic and a few special NPCs. Draw maps that show the important locations within the towns or lands. You can even use this for forests, deserts, etc. provided your character is going to have reason to spend a bit more time there than they would in a broad brush scenario. One tactic is to make a handful of generic villages and alter them slightly to use if characters go in search of a village or people to inquire of. Include vague politics, religions, and resources.

    Fine Detail: Fine detail is best for smaller areas. You can really focus in and describe where everything is in a major city or a forest clearing. Include detailed maps, generic and important NPCs, political, cultural, and religious impacts, preferred regional foods, dialects, and resources. Try to make these places rich with detail. These are to be the places that are either important to your plot or home bases for your characters. You never know when one of the lower detailed areas will need to be elevated to this status, so be ready to do so.

    Ultra Fine Detail: This is something best left to specific buildings, rooms, or other small areas. You are likely never going to use this level of detail in the RP itself; it is tedious to read and takes away from the flow of the roleplay. However, it is good to have these details on hand in case someone needs something in the room or does a search check. Don't detail every room in your setting! Keep some more general, but use this for important things like the Lich's Castle or the Sun Temple. You can even ask for player help if they want to build their own houses. This level of detail is NOT a required thing, but can be very fun, especially if you love architecture, silviculture, or shiny things. You may want to even reserve this level of detail to areas containing plot devices such as bookshelves, secret labs, or the villain's bedroom.


    As mentioned before, you want to have a sound world structure to base this upon. That means decent maps, a good understanding of how the world got to be as it is including geology and history, and a basic idea of how people barter, worship, speak, and get along. A good basic world should be able to stand up to not having everything painstakingly detailed. If you get the basics down, you should be able to easily build upon that solid foundation and create worlds of varied detail that will convey their own amazing beauty to those playing within them.