Scope, Scale, and Epic Level in Roleplaying Games

What’s the scope of the game world you’re designing? What’s the scale? How about the epic level? Have you thought about these things yet?

Scope, Scale, and Epic Level

Scope is the size of the area your game world encompasses. Is it a small world? Is it a planet the size of the earth? Is it a single kingdom? Is it the potential infinity of space?

Scale is the size of the material and plots you’re working with. World-spanning organizations? Expansive governments? Small bands of brigands?

Epic Level is the size of the plots you expect people to work with. Save the world? Personal tragedy? Local conspiracies?

Why should you think about these things ahead of time? And what do they have to do with each other anyway? Personally I think that one of these things should be as large as possible, one should be variable, and the other should be comparatively small — but you’re going to have to read on to find out which is which, and why.

The Scope of Your World

First of all, how big is your world? The larger your world area, the more you can fit into it. The greater your scope, the greater your potential for game expansion.

Personally I recommend as large a potential scope as possible. In Plot Density, we talked about using vague and nebulous boundaries to your advantage. This means that the boundaries of your game world are ill-defined. Such a boundary could be a frontier beyond which no one has explored, or the infinity of space in a science fiction game.

The Benefits of Ill-Defined Boundaries

What does this give you? Several things, actually. It gives the game master (GM) a wild card to slip up his sleeve in case of emergency. It means that something surprising can always enter into the game to shake things up if the GM is having trouble keeping up with the players.

It means that GMs can supplement your game with their own imagination. In a world that has undefined areas, GMs can more easily slip their own ideas in without worry that you’ll contradict them in further supplements.

It also means that gaming groups can potentially play your game forever; as long as you keep pushing your boundaries, there’s always something new for player characters (PCs) to explore.

In the interests of letting GMs in on some of the fun, pick a few areas of your game world that you aren’t going to define — ever — beyond rumor and hearsay. Explain explicitly which areas these are. That way, if GMs want to insert their own material into your world, they have a place to do it.

But Why “Potential” Scope?

Above I said that I particularly liked game worlds with a large potential scope. Why potential? Because there are reasons why you might want to keep the well-defined area of your game world small. Maybe that’s just the kind of world you like. Maybe you want to present your game world in a relatively short book and allow the GM to fill in the rest on his own. Maybe you just want to keep your world small and manageable for now! You can do all that, however, and still have those ill-defined boundaries we talked about above, allowing individual GMs (or later books) to define more areas of the game world.

Ill-defined boundaries and large scopes give you plenty of material to play with. They allow your game world to expand to suit your (or your GMs’) needs. They also help to keep you from feeling like you have to pack that small world area full of more and more stuff, until it starts to look a little ridiculous.

The Scale of Your World

Some game designers like to play with large-scale components. Every group is world-spanning and can be found on pretty much every continent (and when they can’t, it’s for a specific reason). Because of this, plots span countries and continents. Everything impacts on everything else. Everything is indelibly intertwined.

The Bad Side of World-Spanning Game Components

While this sounds really neat, it can quickly grow very much out of hand. Consistency and continuity become a nightmare; when every plot and group impacts every other plot and group in the game, how can you possibly work out the ramifications of each thing that you put into the game? When all of these groups are intertwined, how can you possibly hunt down every past reference to a group’s activities and make sure that no one contradicts previous material?

In addition, a large scale pretty much necessitates a high epic level. If you want to play with personal plots, beware using a consistently high scale. It will tend to push people into thinking on a high epic level. This will undermine your desire for a personal feel to things. GMs and players will gravitate toward the larger plots in your game world, because the scale of the game will encourage a broad, outward-looking approach to things. If you want those large things to be occasional highlights rather than constant companions, then try working on a smaller scale.

Think Small(er)

In order to design on a smaller scale, think on a smaller scale. To use the modern world for example’s sake, confine organizations to working on a state-wide scale instead of a country-wide scale. Or create organizations that have a couple of offices in different places, but don’t have a presence all over the world.

When you write about locations, write about cities or towns instead of countries. Write about individuals instead of monolithic groups. Write about the everyday people you’ll run into in a group rather than the high-powered CEOs and rulers. Organize plots and plot hooks around these lower-powered people and smaller regions. You don’t have to leave larger-scale things out entirely; just use them with care.

Where the Problems Come In

Obviously this advice does depend on the type of game you want. If you want a game where plots and groups are endlessly large, byzantine, and inextricably intertwined, then go for it.

Just be aware of the limitations of the medium. Keep a careful eye on continuity. This approach might work best for a world that isn’t going to have endless supplements published for it. One of the biggest problems you’ll have with a large scale is that, after awhile, it’ll become very difficult to find writers who are familiar enough with your world to keep your continuity intact. (Or writers who are willing to slog through the seven or eight books they have to read before writing for you.)

Your world will also seem much more intimidating to GMs. Some of them will give up on the idea of running a game in your world entirely. Others will disallow anything that isn’t in the main books simply because they can’t take the time (or spend the money) to read ten others in order to come up to speed on interconnected developments.

The Epic Level of Your World

The epic level concerns the size of your plots. To a certain extent this is related to the scale of your world, but it can also be somewhat independent. I believe that the epic level of a world should be variable. Unless you’re creating a world for a heroic, epic, larger-than-life game, you probably want to have small- or medium-sized plots. A small plot might involve saving your friend from his problems. A medium plot might involve saving your village (or your country, depending on the scale of the world) from its problems.

A high epic level, on the other hand, involves prophecies, save-the-world plots, major heroes, evil villains, and so on. It can still be handled somewhat personally, but it will naturally draw the eye to the bigger picture of the world. Plots of a high epic level will often trample on smaller plots–many PCs would ignore their lover’s plight in order to save the world since if the world is destroyed their lover will die anyway.

Varying the Epic Level

Varying the epic level can provide a necessary element of emotional variety in a game. Brief plots of medium epic level in a low epic game can raise the excitement level for a little while. Plots of a low level following those of a medium level can give people a bit of a rest, so the excitement doesn’t get tiring. It also helps to keep the excitement exciting; if characters get used to plots of higher epic level, smaller plots tend to seem boring in comparison.

Variation keeps the plot level from getting monotonous. It helps to make things fresh and new. The touching emotions of a personal plot can be all the more touching in comparison to the exciting plot that just concluded. The excitement of a rare high epic level plot can provoke much more adrenaline than if it simply follows another plot of high epic level.

Plots of the highest epic level make good occasional climactic plots, particularly toward the end of a campaign. Players often enjoy a periodic wild, intense ride, so it’s good to give it to them now and then. Seed a few high-epic plots in your world, but not too many, lest you make people think that they should be popping up in game every week. Plots of a high epic level are attractive. Put too many in, and everything else is likely to get crowded out and ignored.

As with scale, epic level is a part of the feel of your world, and it’s up to you what overall epic level you go for. Make sure that the epic level of the plots you provide supports the overall feel you’d like the game to have. And be sure to provide variation for GMs to make use of.

To a certain extent your scope, scale, and epic level are all dependent on the feel you want your world to have. Before you pick that feel, however, make sure you know the effects your choices will have on your game world. And regardless of those choices, try to vary things at least a little; variety does a lot of good things for the feel and long-term playability of a game!

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