I’m no author, but I sure like tabletop roleplaying games (like Dungeons and Dragons). I get a wicked kick out of them, especially playing the game as the gamemaster (referee, storyteller, dungeon master, etc…) because I get to take players on a walk through my world. In crafting worlds I generally approached them after the fashion of Tolkien, that is to say: exhaustive. I wanted to have all the information laid out. If you’re familiar with my writing this theme is harkened to a ton. I figured the more data I had the more likely my players and I would just be able to wander around unimpeded by gaps in my knowledge. My sense was that front loading all my work would do this well, the more crafted my world the more my players would love it.
Since starting this venture I’m growing less sure about that. As you may have intuited from some of my other blogs I’m starting to wonder not just how to build a vibrant interesting, living world but how best to do that for the story. If you play tabletop you know that once your murderous players start slaughtering their way through your campaign unhindered by the petty morals that shackle them in their day to day lives your world will come a-crumbling down and you’ll be left with improv comedy in no time. Novels or short stories are a little different in that the flow of the story is, by its nature, a little more controlled. Certainly television or movies are even more so though details are harder to hide from the watchful eyes of the internet on subreddits devoted to the material.
The more I make worlds for my players the more I sense that it should focus on meaning over material. My temptation is to drown my curious players with more information than they know what to do with rather than realize that these guys and gals are participating in the story as much as I am. Perhaps the best thing I can do, sometimes, is map out the most important things my players are liable to notice, set some in-world boundaries and let ‘em fly.
This is not to say Tolkien didn’t have a point. Every layer of his world is rich with detail and hidden depth. His languages are consistent so a discerning reader can tell a dwarven mine from an elven stronghold by name alone. This is to be admired and emulated but I think the goal of Tolkien was not so much to write a novel as to write a history and base his novel in it. I think he was enamored with myth and that drove his creativity. If you feel that desire to enrich your stories with that much detail than I tip my hat to you but for those of us that might struggle with creating that much depth I’d offload that expectation and ask the question: What does my narrative need? What does my setting need? Am I making too much?