Critics commonly like to joke that sci-fi and fantasy authors have a poor sense of scale, and indeed it’s true that sometimes our reach can overextend our grasp. Any GM has doubtless fantasized about planting larger-than-life worlds into their games, whether those worlds take the form of sprawling megacities, kilometers-long starships, or space stations the size of moons. These are what I refer to as macroenvironments – settings so large that their scale truly dwarfs the mind and puts any attempt at accurately rendering them into the realm of impossibility.
The fact of the matter is, you can’t sit down and map out a macroenvironment the way you would map out a dungeon crawl. It can be daunting to even figure out a rough layout like you would for a zoomed-out village or town map. Dropping your players into an environment this large can be tough for both the GM themselves and also the players alike, but here’s some advice for creating verisimilitude in your macroenvirons so that your players never feel lost in the living, breathing worlds you’re trying to create.
The first thing you’re going to want to prioritize is breaking your macroenvironment down into basic districts or sectors. In some cases, figuring out the districts may seem self-evident. For example, on a starship or space station you’ll need hydroponics decks, engineering bays, a power source such as a plasma drive or a nuclear reactor, gunnery decks, and a nerve center such as a bridge or command post. Feel free to add as many of these as you like – the more bite-sized chunks you can break the macroenvironment into, the better.
Once you’ve divvied up the environment into districts, you’ll want to figure out those districts’ relationships to each other. You still don’t need to make an actual map, persay – it’s enough to figure out a rough flowchart as to which sections you can reach from where. For example, in our starship analogy, we can use the logics of how a starship would be designed to inform our placements. The ship’s main drives would be located at the ship’s center to protect them from enemy fire, whereas the gun decks would be at the very outermost layers of the ship for obvious reasons. The crew quarters would also probably be closer to the ship’s core to protect the slumbering astronauts from depressurizations or exterior hull breaches. In figuring this out, we’ve created a sandwich of layers – you can go from the engineering drives to the crew quarters and then from the crew quarters to the gunnery decks, but not straight from engineering to the guns or vice versa. This is important information should the ship come under attack by space pirates or hostile aliens.
Once you’ve figured out the rough relationships of all the districts to each other, I recommend you come up with a few nonplayer characters for each district to breathe life into them. Give each NPC a few sentences of backstory – stuff the players’ characters would know about the NPCs that you can “remind” the players of when they first encounter them. Think about how these NPCs’ jobs might bring them into alliance or conflict with both each other and the player characters.
To showcase how this macroenvironment system can be used, I’ll take an example from a campaign of Warhammer 40,00 Roleplay: Rogue Trader that I ran a few years ago. In the campaign, the players act as the titular Rogue Trader and his or her retinue, effectively acting as explorers in their spaceship.
In this case, Rogue Trader already has rules for starship creation, so breaking down the ship into subsections was easy enough because the lion’s share of the work was done for me when the players designed their ship. They elected to build a four-kilometer long light cruiser, and put points into making sure the bridge would be suitably equipped for space combat, as well as buffing up the life support systems to include shipboard emergency kits spaced at designated checkpoints throughout the vessel. They also spent points to upgrade the quality of their crew’s quarters, and expanded the size of said quarters so that they could fit in a standing army in alongside their basic crew, bringing the total population to 130,000 persons. The remaining space on the ship was dedicated to a grand cathedral, a teleportarium, and an arboretum – and lots of laser batteries.
Figuring out who the important NPCs should be simply boiled down to figuring out which roles on the ship weren’t being filled by player characters. The players themselves had taken on the roles of the ship’s Captain, her First Officer, and the Master of Sensors. I sat down to think about what other roles would be needed.
If there were technical issues with the ship, such as preparing structural damages, none of the PCs were really equipped or trained to direct those, so we needed a Chief Engineer – who could also serve as our technician for the teleportarium. Similarly, the standing army needed a General – someone to undertake the minutae of running the ship’s militia so that the Captain and First Officer wouldn’t get bogged down in bookkeeping. The cathedral would need a Chief Confessor, as well. Throw in a pair of Navigators to help chart interstellar flight paths along with a Pilot for helmsman duties and inter-atmospheric flight, and we had our supporting cast of NPCs figured out.
Now that we had our cast, we just had to figure out their backstories. Our Chief Engineer became Drivesmaster Malfyzantze Bolth, a cantankerous and stubborn tech-priest who rankled at having to work alongside the flesh-and-blood officers. Our Rogue Trader’s backstory was that her family had heavy ties to the Church Militant, so the ship’s Chief Confessor became her brother. The Navigators were a pair of siblings tithed to the Rogue Trader’s family, and one of the Player Characters actually ended up marrying one of the Navigators by the campaign’s end. These are just a few examples of how you can use NPCs to give faces to geographical regions of the ship.
These same techniques can be applied to anything from a large city to a space station to even an entire planet if need be. Breaking the world down into chunks and then giving each chunk a “face” is a good strategy for making the world more manageable for yourself and your players.