How do you choose a location? Where do events transpire? What considerations should you take into account, and what is the process and the chain of logic that gives the best answers most rapidly? These are questions that Blair and I will have to tackle repeatedly tomorrow, as I write this, because our next pulp adventure has reached the point of being almost ready to improv; we need some places and descriptions, and then some names, some history, and perhaps a couple of pieces of canned dialogue and then we can move on to writing the adventure-after-next – and that’s exactly the order we plan on tackling these requirements.
The Application Of Logic
The usual starting point is to ask if there is anything about the scene’s content that mandates where it is to take place.
The Logic of Events
If the previous scene had the heroes discovering the Secret Lair™ of the villain, and this scene is a raid apon that villain’s base of operations, then it has to take place either at the villain’s lair or just outside it (depending on where we want to pick up the action).
If the scene involves dealing with the wounds inflicted by a battle, then logic dictates that events occur at the scene of the battle, nearby in a medical vehicle such as an ambulance, or at a hospital (or equivalent).
The Logic of Tactics
If the scene involves battling with a Demon, most PCs will seek the advantage of hallowed ground – so look for the nearest church or graveyard. Of course, the enemy will seek out ground on which they will have an advantage – is there such a thing as “unhallowed ground” (or some plot equivalent) and where is the nearest piece of that?
The Logic of Transit
If the scene takes place while characters are in transit, there are generally only three options: Departure, Arrival, or somewhere in between.
The Application of Persona
Basic logic of this sort will generally sort out two thirds of all required locations, or at least restrict them to a manageable subset of the entire range of options. It’s that last third, plus any cases where you still have a choice amongst members of a small set of options, that remain to be dealt with. Basic logic will only carry you so far, and then you are into the non-logical realms of style.
There are a number of factors and considerations that get incorporated into deciding the choice of locations for events when logic is not enough. These are usually not applied in any set sequence; sometimes there’s an elephant in the room that makes the impact of one or more considerations paramount over all others. At other times, these considerations serve to restrict the range of options available, or simply influence the decision, or be not obvious or applicable. Even though they are broadly grouped below, and (of necessity) presented in some sort of order, that’s simply a convenience for communication within this article; don’t take this order as a prioritization of any sort.
I have assembled the first group of considerations under the general heading of “Personalities” or “Persona”.
(Almost) All Events Have An Instigator
A fundamental consideration that should made be clear from the outset: it becomes much easier to make choices of locations if you can point to some one individual who has caused the event to occur at that particular time and place, some one person who has the choice of whether or not that is when it occurs. Of course, chance and opportunism and destiny can all play their part, but even then, some individual has to make the choice to take advantage of such factors when they present the option. Identifying who is responsible for the choice of location of the action within a scene simplifies every other decision regarding the location.
It’s a mistake to think of this only applying to straightforward confrontations, though they keep coming to mind as I write this text. For example, let’s say that the question is where the PCs are going to be, and what they are going to be doing, when they hear about some action that someone has performed (which required a decision to perform that action), or some decision that has been made. The making of the original decision, and its consequences, form one parameter of the location choice. The next parameter is the speed of communications, which dictates how quickly the news can travel. From there, the news has to reach some individual who makes the choice to disseminate the news, and the PCs have to make the conscious decision to engage with the purveyor of that news. So, viewed in context, three agencies can be considered to be the instigators of this simple sequence.
But, more practically, it is a question of opportunity, and the decision to take advantage of that opportunity, or the decision not to. The news in question exists, and there will be various opportunities available for people to hear it. If it’s the sort of news that sets tongues wagging, each person who hears it becomes a further distribution channel for the information. At some point, the set of locations in which the PCs would have the opportunity to hear the news will intersect with the set of locations that define their lives without this information – at which point the PC who becomes aware of the opportunity becomes the instigator. “You’re passing down the street when you notice a crowd gathered around a gossipmonger.” “Escorts blow a fanfare to draw attention to a Herald.” “The innkeeper asks if you’ve heard the news.” “The merchant wants to gossip.” “A town crier rings the bell he carries, announcing without words that he has news available for those who wish to buy it from him.” The circumstances create the opportunity, and the decision to take advantage of the opportunity belongs to the PC. If not taken up, another opportunity will eventually present itself. It’s easy to set up a prioritization list based on who is providing that opportunity, their mobility, and how they will hear the news.
All events within a game can be viewed as the interaction (however removed) between two characters, even if they don’t even know of each other’s existence, or are functioning through proxies. And that means that the choice of a location is dictated by one or both parties.
The Influence of Initiative
The Instigator of the action generally has the choice of where the action will occur, unless it is their choice to go to or confront the Target of the action within the scene – sometimes Mohammed must go to the Mountain, other times he can wait for it to show up.
Not as fundamental as advantage, that comes under the heading of Logic, previously; this requires some analysis of the personality of the instigator and a determination of how that personality will bear apon the choice of location.
The Influence of Timing
The more abruptly and forcefully the instigator is reacting to previous events, the more likely it is to take place either at a Decisive Location, or at somewhere close to the location of the previous scene.
The Influence of Inertia
People’s lives have an inertia. They can be prodded into a particular direction by any number of things, discussed separately below, but in the absence of any of those things, the inertia of past events on both Instigator and Respondent restrict the opportunity for the two paths to overlap to a few occasions. This is especially true early in a story or adventure, and less influential late in a story or adventure when conscious decisions play a much larger role. If neither side is bringing about the action of the scene through conscious and deliberate choice, then the location of the scene must be one of those intersections in the personal histories of the participants, so look for common ground in habits and activities.
The Influence of Comfort
People will naturally seek out places and circumstances that reassure them, even if their confidence boost is the only benefit that they accrue with this particular choice. So the instigator of a scene will tend to make choices with which they are comfortable unless they gain a clear benefit through their own discomfort or are forced into a less comfortable choice by some other factor.
That means that not only can thinking about what location choice would be most contributory to the comfort of the instigator offer a clear and compelling choice, or restrict the range of options, but that subsequently thinking about why the instigator would not choose such a location can serve as a touchstone to guide you through the many options open to you.
The Influence of Discomfort
Equally, characters will tend to avoid situations that make them uncomfortable unless they have strong reasons not to do so.
The Influence of Arrogance
It’s overconfidence if not warranted and arrogance if merited, but ego and hubris can play a definite role in the choice of location by the instigator. The stronger this element of their persona, the more likely they are deliberately override comfort factors, or even go to the opposite extreme of deliberately choosing a venue that places them at an apparent disadvantage. You should always think carefully about the level of arrogance in the instigator’s makeup.
The Influence of Circumstance
Sometimes there is no choice about where an event will occur even if this decisiveness is not founded on strict logic but on some other factor relating to the participants. This often relates to practicalities concerning what the instigator is doing immediately prior to or following the event.
Time is one circumstance that can have a profound influence, especially if one participant in the scene is feeling the pressure of time. This generally produces a situation in which the instigator has fewer choices open to them, and initiative shifts to whatever the respondent is doing in the absence or in ignorance of the scene that is about to transpire.
The Influence of Opportunity
I’ve already preempted a lot of my thunder under this subtopic with my earlier example. An instigator can simply be taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity that presents itself, which means that the inertial activities of the respondent dictate the location.
The Influence of Need
If there is something that the Instigator personally or professionally needs, or needs for the respondent to do, this need will often be a factor in determining the choice of location.
The Influence of Outcomes
Finally, the more of a planner and plotter the instigator is, the stronger the role that the desired outcome of events will play in determining the location of an event.
The compounding of Influences
Like many decisions in life, the totality of influence of personality on decisions is a compounding of many different smaller influences, some of them contradictory. The act of making a decision as to location when personality is a factor is actually roleplaying on the part of the GM; the more successfully he can put himself into the shoes of the instigator, the better will be his choice of location.
The Application of Genre
If only it were that easy! Every factor mentioned so far, from logic to personality, has to be filtered through the Application of Genre.
The Creation of Options
Specific genres can create options that simply don’t exist in other genres, or that can exist only by being reinterpreted.
Fairytale Castles can exist in cartoonish genres; can be given a more realistic rendering (with losing the fantasticality) in high-fantasy; and have to shed most of that extraordinariness in low-fantasy. They are less likely to be encountered in the pulp and secret agent genres, are still more infrequent in realistic genres, extremely infrequent in science fiction, and virtually unheard-of in western and oriental genres – though the latter have their own unique variations on the concept. Arguably, the superheroic and horror genres are the most generous, capable of encompassing locations from any other genre with varying levels of credibility that are more strongly related to internal consistency with the individual adventure than anything else.
Another example, left to the creativity of the readers as an exercise, is the Space Station (try it – you have the genre list in the preceding paragraph).
When considering locations, you always need to be aware of the additional creative options that the genre is offering. What’s more, there is no small validity to the arguement that giving preference to these options reinforces the presence of the genre and thereby benefits the game.
The Restriction of Options
As is made clear in the preceding section, for every door that opens, another closes – at least in most genres. Skyscraper office blocks and suburban shopping malls are rare in Westerns – I’m tempted to say they are unheard of.
The presence of a location that is contrary to the genre is almost a demand that it be given prominence. I may have argued in the past against the principle of Chekhov’s Gun, but this is one occasion when it absolutely applies. That in turn means that you should never introduce such a location without making it central to the plotline from the moment it first appears, even if it’s only an indirect influence at first.
The Shaping of Options
The rules of the genre may not rule a location out, or create the opportunity for a genre-specific location, but even in a more general context, they can shape the options that you have available. Warehouses may be commonly found in several genres, but in the Pulp genre they should have a particular ubiquity and a particular look and feel. It’s almost not going too far to describe them as the “gothic architecture” of the Genre. Almost.
The Application of Style
You also have to consider the stylistic overtones of the adventure/story that you’re working on, and how to use your location choices to reflect and reinforce that style. The next adventure in the Pulp Campaign, which I mentioned earlier in this article, has a very Film Noir feel to it, and that’s going to shape every other decision we can make. I’m even thinking about giving some of the primary NPCs soliloquies through the “fourth wall”, and trying to figure out a way for the PCs to respond in kind. Thankfully, it’s usually more straightforward than that.
The Application of Meaning
It is sometimes possible to add additional depth of meaning to a story with a choice of location. Stories that begin in a morgue or cemetery, or other location symbolic of endings, for example – though that’s perhaps a little heavy-handed. If you can’t communicate it any other way than being preachy, try using a location symbolic of what you want to say. (I had a great example to offer at this point, but it’s gone completely out of my head). Irony, Pathos, Melodrama – they can all be added, sometimes, to a scene by the choice of location.
The Application of Icons
Every city has them, though only a few are famous enough to be known to outsiders the world over. Iconic locations that represent the city in question. Big Ben, The Eifel Tower, Mount Fuji, The Statue Of Liberty, Mount Rushmore, The Sydney Opera House. Some national capitals seem to have more than their share – The White House, Washington Monument, Pentagon, Arch de Triumph, Buckingham Palace, 10 Downing Street.
Especially in a scene early in an adventure, or shortly after the characters first arrive, its a good idea to show or mention one of these iconic locations if you’re in a city that has one – it simply helps establish in the player’s minds that this is where they are. That means setting such a scene where the iconic structure is at least visible in the distance.
The Application Of The Mundane
On the other hand, when the events within the scene are supposed to be especially dramatic or surprising to the players, it can often be a good idea to make the setting somewhere ordinary or mundane – so that they aren’t too busy looking at the scenery to pay attention to the action.
If players are expecting something weird or supernatural, you can sometimes get extra mileage from a mundane locations – especially if you keep emphasizing how ‘ordinary’ everything is. Because after they get used to this, use of the terms ‘typical’ or ‘ordinary’ can really give players’ paranoia a workout.
The Application of Illustration
Sometimes a location will be chosen simply because you can, or have, found some particularly tasty eye candy that meets the general requirements. This is a perfectly valid justification.
The Application of Representation
Still another factor to take into consideration is whether or not you can represent it on a battlemap if that’s necessary. I intend to provide a future article for this Blog Carnival on ways to extend the functionality of battlemaps using props and other tricks and techniques which will expand your scope and reduce the significance of this factor somewhat, but it can still be a valid concern.
The Application of Inspiration
Never neglect the value of a location that inspires you. Your descriptions will be better, and the presence of the point of inspiration will even help with the writing of surrounding passages of text and interaction. Inspiration can persist for a surprisingly long time. And hopefully, it will also provide a factor of “cool” for your players to enjoy in the game.
The Application of Artistry
In some scenes, the location can do more than one job. Providing inspiration is an example, but is so significant that I’ve separated it out to stand alone, but there are other functions to consider – clues to future adventures, for example, or even clues to the solution to the current problem. Deeper meanings and in-jokes can be buried within locations. It just takes a little creativity.
Even more usefully, verisimilitude can be built into the choice of location. I have a theory that any given adventure needs a certain amount of plausibility as a base, plus extra to offset any lack realism about the action or the participants. That plausibility has to come from somewhere – some of it can derive from believable character reactions, some from dialogue, some from the application of an in-game physics, and some from the choice and description of the location.
That doesn’t mean that a location can’t be fantastic or amazing or awesome to behold; this simply means that the burden is transferred somewhere else. Extra realism in one location can counterbalance fantasticality in another. I always try to keep this balance in mind when choosing locations.
The Absence Of Application
Using these guidelines to what you require from your choice of location will deal with 99 cases out of 100, or more. But sometimes, even these are not enough, and you simply have no clue in what sort of location your scene should transpire.
When that happens, let your players decide – without even being asked. You should know what you want to have happen; simply let events develop from the previous scene until one of the PCs goes somewhere that presents an opportunity for that plot development to take place.
The only reason this is in last place is because there’s no capacity for prep, and that can mean inadequate descriptions or visualization and more work for the GM. So the odds are low that this will be the “Best” answer and even lower that it will be “Easiest”.