There are two basic ways you can approach World Building, the Macro Approach and the Micro Approach. This article will explain the basic premise of the two approaches, talk about how I approach, them depending on the project I’m working on, as well as talk about which approach might be best for you.
To help explain them I’d like to use the town of Vanderville as an example:
Vanderville is a city in the country Osmein. Fifty years ago there was a civil war in Osmein and Vanderville was on the losing side. The civil war was primarily fought for theological reasons but in Vanderville they were more concerned that the capital wasn’t sending security forces to stop bandits from attacking their trade routes. They joined the rebelling theological army because they promised them security. They all converted to the rebel faction’s religion but without much conviction.
When the war came to their town the protection promised to them by the rebels never came. The town was swiftly conquered and their farms were burned. Eventually the rebelling theological faction lost. The people of Vanderville had to rebuild and they received no help from the government. In fact they were treated with scorn. The people of Vanderville converted back to their previous religion, to satisfy the government, but they were now seen as faithless by the majority of the country. Vanderville still holds a grudge against the other people of Osmein, specifically the government, because of how they have been treated since the war ended.
With the Macro Approach you take a larger view of your world. You would start by creating a larger framework to situate your story or stories, in. For example, setting up your magic system, the history of the world, and the different cultures, and the various nation states. Once you have those larger details you work on the smaller details.
With our example of Vanderville, before you wrote the story, you would create the world where the story was situated. You would create the religion, their beliefs and practices, why there was a theological split. You would be able to trace the beginnings of the conflict back to its root, all of this before you would start writing your story.
This approach requires a lot of work before you even begin writing your story. In fact you might end up writing several stories to fill in the details before you get to the story you originally wanted to tell. That was something I personally encountered when taking the Macro Approach. The last time I tried the Macro Approach I wrote a back story for a side character. What was to be a few page synopsis turned into a full blown novel idea.
The upside is that you will have a lush and vibrant world ready for your characters to explore. When you do begin to write the story you will spend a lot more time focusing on story elements than on background details. A prime example of this is Tolkien. He took this approach, creating an engaging world a long time before writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion wasn’t intended to be released as a book, that was just background material for the world he created for his stories.
With the Micro Approach you start with a small detail and work your way outward, creating the context as you go. Using our example above, you might want to start your character in a town that had a grudge against the government of Osmein. Then you would have needed to figure out what that grudge is. In this case it’s because the government wasn’t helping them rebuild after a civil war. You may then decide they were on the losing side of that civil war. Why did they rebel? They rebelled because Osmein wasn’t doing anything to protect them from bandits and the rebelling faction offered them protection.
This approach is a bit more disorganized. You come up with information about your world as your characters encounter it. It often lends itself to those people who like to free write. Although at times you’ll have to stop writing your story and work on world details. Also if you’re not careful and you don’t keep organized notes, you might come to a point where you are reinventing details you created elsewhere and worse, you could be contradicting yourself without realizing it.
On the plus side the Micro Approach lets you jump right into creating your story. You don’t have to spend countless hours creating details, many you may no use; you can just focus on the elements that will matter.
I’ve tried both approaches. They both work and in truth they often overlap and most people will use them in some combination; however one approach will usually be more dominate than the other.
Conceptually I really like the Macro Approach. The idea of getting all the larger pieces of a world in place before working on individual details has its appeal. It can be important to have a fleshed out world for a hero to adventure in; there is history behind every conflict, regardless if it’s passive or active history. History that is actively detailed opposed to informing the action while not being obvious.
As I mentioned, the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is a good example of this. Tolkien spent countless hours creating the world before he wrote the books we now love. In fact it’s that same Macro Approach I used to try using every time I wanted to write a story but it never ended very well. More often than not I would get stuck on one aspect of the world and found myself unable to move beyond that road block. It just didn’t fit with my natural workflow, no matter how much I tried to force it.
Once I moved past the idea that I needed to know everything about my world before I could work within it, I became much more productive. My exact approach changes depending on what kind of project I’m working on. When I’m working on the setting for my LARP event, Shattered Kingdoms, I mostly take a Micro Approach. I didn’t start with a fully realized world. I use two things to build up the world, the storylines and the relics. I create the backgrounds for each relic, adding historical events, gods or legendary figures. In the following years I drew upon the few details of the relics or from the storylines from the previous years. The longer the event continues the more filled out the world becomes. For this project I keep a wiki that lists all of the different details so I won’t forget them or contradict them.
When it comes to creating a campaign setting for a table top game I have to approach it differently, mainly because I come up with setting ideas before adventure ideas. I write out my concept and create a good framework for important details. The main things I typical work on are creating a general world history, writing a bit about the major races, how magic works and any other unique quarks that are important to set the world apart from other worlds. I then switch from the Macro Approach to the Micro Approach.
I create a story for the adventurers to play through and along the way I fill in the more detailed information. For example individual cities, the on the ground workings of religions, cultural tensions and other world aspects the characters might encounter on their journeys.
When it comes to writing stories I approach it with a heavy emphasis on the Micro Approach. I will focus on a story element or a character concept and then create a world around them. When I tried the Macro Approach I often never finished a project. I found I would work on a detail and decide that element needed its own story. I’d start writing that story, filling in details and then find another aspect of the story that needed its own story. While not necessarily a bad thing, more ideas aren’t bad, the problem was it caused me to get bogged down in a quagmire of content that never got satisfactorily finished.
Everyone will approach writing differently. Like myself, you might also approach different kinds of projects with different kinds of approaches. The main goal is to optimize your own work flow. For some that might be taking the Macro Approach and filling out a worlds worth of details, so when you get to writing your story you will have all the information you need to have your characters interact with the world
Maybe your workflow is more erratic and the Micro Approach appeals to you. While it will allow you to dig right in and story writing your story, you will mostly likely have to stop several times, and if you’re smart, you’ll write down notes about the world as you create them.
The chances are you will combine the two methods, using what workflow works best for you. There is a certain amount of trial and error. Take the time to try both approaches, maybe even on the same project, to see which one helps you make progress you feel good about. If you put in enough practice, keeping these two approaches in mind, you will eventually find the right balance.