From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Worldforge #2: Scope

In the first installation of Worldforge, we talked about setting up shop when dealing with issues of worldbuilding for fiction and games. That is to say we covered some of the basic principles that writers and game masters should be familiar with before they get started crafting a rich, believable realm. In the second, we’ll look at a vital consideration in the planning process: scope. It’s important to cover this pretty early on, of course, as knowing the scope of your setting can save a lot of time and energy.

Let’s look at a few examples of scope to get started.

Middle Earth
Tolkien’s majestic Middle Earth is an excellent example of wide scope. It has a deeply detailed history, full of rich cultures and ancient powers. Some societies are lost, others fading, and still more in ascension at the time of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins’ great adventures. Tolkien created maps and illustrations to help visualize his world, and family trees and timelines further crystallize his imagination. The realm has it’s own set of deific powers, ranging from an unknowable greater power to the weaker Maiar, such as Gandalf, who walked the land as flesh and bone.

The ‘Verse
Somewhere in the mid-range of scope lie the worlds of Joss Whedon’s Firefly/Serenity universe. Human beings fled “Earth That Was” and took to the stars in great arks to continue the species. While the physical scope of the ‘Verse is much larger that the single world that is Middle Earth, the details are minimal. We know that there is a core, densely populated and reasonably civilised, as well as a rim, where ranchers, miners and other folk eek out a life on dusty worlds where the terraforming may not have gone off just right. Each planet visited by Malcolm Reynolds and his crew is an entire world, of course, but the focus is placed on a small region, and we viewers only see enough to set the stage. Some settlements are made up of only a handful of folk. Some are controlled by the Alliance, and others by crime syndicates, local warlords and whatnot. Whedon provided no maps, and no real sense of scale, seeing these little details as unnecessary complications.

Evil Dead
That silly Sam Raimi and his cohorts created a tiny little realm composed entirely of a mountain cabin and the woods surrounding it. There are tones of a vast, ancient evil, and we know there’s a world out there, but the story occurs almost entirely in the cabin. Mind you, this is a cabin with a basement, but still. Everything important for the action comes from the immediate surroundings.

Of course there are a million other examples. The galaxy of Babylon 5 is populated throughout, rife with newborn races and ancient beings, most of whom live somewhere between space and time or in galaxies beyond the Milky Way. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea is an ocean world of island nations. There are uncounted great sources of inspiration.

Now that we have an idea of what we mean by the word “scope,” we can decide what our story requires.

Details are naturally important to any fiction. A story full of vagaries is unlikely to appeal to very many people at all. Part of our jobs as writers and game masters is to gather the right details and present them in context. The hard part? Choosing those little details that are both interesting and relevant.

Say, for example, that a character in your story tries to pay for a drink at the local watering hole with money from a far away country. The important thing may be the fight that starts up when the mouthy character insists his money is good. Less interesting is the long history of the distant nation where the coin was minted. It’s probably enough for the bartender to say, “We don’t take no Rhomboidian dollars here, son.”

Not that there’s anything at all wrong with having these details. As the smith of worlds, you may want to know the detailed history of Rhomboidia. That’s great. But be sure that said history is divulged only as required. If a character does a strange thing as a result of his Rhomboidian upbringing, or if the adventurers must travel to the capitol, Quadrilat, in order to accomplish an important goal, then it becomes important. Of course, at that point, it’s good that you dropped the country’s name in that earlier scene, but we don’t need any more than that until later.

Which brings us to a bit worthy of reiteration. There is a big difference between what you need to know and what your readers or players need to know. You may not feel comfortable with your creation until you know everything down to the texture of the drapes in your merchant’s manor. Or you’re the relaxed type, comfortable with throwing in the details only as your characters encounter them. There’s nothing wrong with that either. No matter your level of compulsion, remember not to slow your story down by overloading it with unnecessary details just because they’re there. Of course, there is a lot of room for style in that kind of decision, and you know better than I what you intend to accomplish.

With all that said, we can see why it’s important to know the scope of our setting. If your story takes place entirely in a medieval city, we don’t need to know much about the surrounding countryside, but we do need details about the people, places and events of the town itself.

To scale down, if all the events happen in a large inn, we may need great detail about the common room, the kitchens, the staff and the patrons. We may not even need the name of the town or country the characters are in.

To scale up, perhaps our story will take us from the inn, to several other locations in the city, and then out into the wider world in our quest for resolution. The scope can expand enormously at this point. We made need castles and villages and ancient ruins, all with characters and themes of their own.

Of course, the scope of our setting may or may not be proportional to the scope of the story itself. While a short story may span the stars, it doesn’t by nature require a huge amount of background information. Conversely, a lengthy role playing campaign that takes place entirely in an asteroid mining plant may require a setting as dense as the rock itself.

Either way, it’s good to know from the beginning what you’re in for. Of course, good story telling requires flexibility, and scope may be one of the many aspects of your creation that changes as you go. No worries there. It’s easy to add more detail or cut away cumbersome specifics as you go.

Like any other smith, manufacturers of fiction need to be precise in their designs, eliminating as much waste as possible without cutting corners. In the end, if it’s good for the story, it deserves development. If it’s a minor point, drop it in off-handedly. Otherwise, provide as much detail as required to give your tale the depth and excitement it deserves.

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