This month’s blog carnival was kicked off by Mike Bourke @ Campaign Mastery and I have to say it’s a doozy. Though “Location, Location, Location” may have originated in the real estate industry, it works amazingly well for fictional pursuits as well. Whether you’re designing a RPG campaign or writing a novel, you can’t go very far without a setting. (Apologies to R.E.M. for the bad riff on one of their song titles! I couldn’t resist. 🙂 )
Story relies on the trifecta of character, plot, and setting. Without one of the three, it’s like sitting on a three-legged stool missing a leg. You might stay upright for a moment, but it won’t last long. Even if you have the world’s best characters and plot, if you don’t have someplace to put them it’s kind of pointless.
I’m not saying that you need GRRM-level worldbuilding. Sometimes it can be as simple as a single statement. I’ve started plenty of games with “you start in a tavern” or “you find yourself at the front door of an old mansion” or even “you wake up in a dark room.” Generic locations work great to kick things off. Whether you have more than that as a GM or are designing on the fly as your PCs explore doesn’t really matter. Pick SOME PLACE.
Without that place, you’re leaving your characters largely in the dark. They may even be well motivated by the plot, but they don’t really have anywhere to go.
When you’re thinking about that place, I highly recommend you as GM or designer approach it from more than one angle. Sure, it’s easy to say “you stand in a 20 x 30 room with a waiting monster.” But what else is in there? Why was the room built? How long ago was it built? What was it originally intended for? What’s it used for now?
Other angles include your traditional sensory questions… Would a PC smell or hear something as they approach the room? How does that wall or door feel? What can they see in the room that they can make use of?
If you have the time to plan, use the time to define potential encounter areas to some degree. We don’t always need a big printed map, but a description of a location can really set the stage and give your players (and yourself) hooks for your imagination to help flesh out the place.
So what can you do simply to improve a location on the fly? Here are a few suggestions:
- Randomly determine which sense to focus on for some descriptive detail (Who or What the Heck is That? (Describing Things With Aplomb)).
- Randomly pick a descriptive word and use that to inspire your description. Lists such as the one at MomsWhoThink or The Tongue Untied or Super Easy Storytelling to shake something loose.
- Briefly ponder the time aspect for the location. When was it created? Who created it? Why was it created? What remains of that original purpose?
- If you rely on maps, have some generic area maps on hand to choose from. Check out products from DramaScape, Heroic Maps, and others for some examples.
There are plenty of simple (even cheap) ways to improve your descriptive skills and make locations much more interesting for your players. Pick one or two and see how far you get. You can never have too many tools in your GMing toolbox!
A big thank you goes out to Mike Bourke of Campaign Mastery for a great topic this month! Be sure to check out Campaign Mastery and the RPG Blog Carnival Archive for other great topics and articles to inspire you!