Make Maps | Leave Gaps – 3 Ways to Balance World Detail In Game

I was thinking recently about the RPG design philosophy ‘Make Maps, Leave Gaps.’ Basically, this sentiment translates to ‘have some details, but leave space for inspiration/player interest to create the environment.’ Which, for me, has me wondering what level of granular detail is appropriate (or even desirable) for a world building project. This is especially true as I continue to write about my setting (originally posted here on Tribality) The City of Salt in Wounds.

On the one hand, I don’t want Salt in Wounds (or any world I build) to feel like homework; where you need to really study to get all the names right in order to have any fun. But, even if I do pour exhaustive detail into the setting I don’t think most people *play* rpgs that way… they get the gist, kind of remember some details to hang an adventure on and then just go with it.

So far, I think the all the details I’ve provided have been fun + interesting (and, more importantly, hopefully *gameable*). But now, having written about the setting for over a year, I need to ensure that in continuing to flesh this thing out I keep my posts interesting, relevant, and engaging info.

Here’s some advice I’m thinking about about balancing details

1. Use 1 Page ‘Cheat Sheets’

A single typewritten page is probably a good amount of information for what can be held in the head at any given time. Note,  there should probably be *different* ones for both GMs and Player Characters, as what is commonly believed about the world and what is actually true can be massively contradictory.

2. Maps with Variable level of Detail

Maybe the city (and the area surrounding it) are super detailed, you can see exactly how many hours march it is from the gates to the ruined siege tower, said to be claimed by a militant monastic order of kobolds. Alternately, the forest several days south is simply a huge ‘blob’ of trees; lots of things, mcguffins, dungeons, a sleeping umbral dragon, emergent factions, and even plot points could be hiding there and/or could be easily inserted according to the needs of the game.

3. Have an Encyclopedic Resource Available for Those Who Need It

Some GMs and players are relatively comfortable with improving, and filling in details on the fly (especially assuming they have a solid foundation of basic knowledge/the basic premise to build off of). However, some want to know dates and names and specifics, so -if you have the time- build an extensive back catalog of detail. Don’t be beholden to it (and certainly don’t let it get in the way of the game’s fun) but it can be a great resource. More to the point, even if this is rarely used as direct reference to answer questions, this can be a huge source of inspiration allowing enterprising GMs and players to find things that inspire them. You can read about me creating my encyclopedic resource for the city of Salt in Wounds here.

But that’s just my thoughts, as a GM how do you balance creating detail and leaving space for inspiration/at-the-table improvisation? As a player, what level of detail about a setting excites and interests you vs what level makes you roll your eyes and want to get back to just -you know- playing the game?

Sound off in the comments.


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Action horror writer and freelance game designer J.M. Perkins pays his bills by working procurement for a biotech company and by making things up. He's got over 20 short stories, some game books, and a novel in print. His website is he writes a fantasy tabletop setting built around the perpetual butchery of the Tarrasque called The City of Salt in Wounds, and you can buy his gaming book about surviving and thriving as the class everybody expects to die horribly The Adequate Commoner.