In my first article for this month’s Blog Carnival, I asked the question ‘Location, Location, Location: How Do You Choose A Location?‘ and identified ten or eleven influences on the decision, and an approximate hierarchy within them, but was unable to offer even a guideline beyond those observations in answer to the question.
Today, the subject is one that’s even more difficult and wide-ranging: How do you choose or modify a location’s specifics to match its description to the needs of the plot?
There are three aspects of the location specification that can be modified to meet whatever secondary needs you have:
- Surrounding environment;
- Location specifics; and/or
- Choice of language.
A procedural approach
It’s possible to outline a procedural approach to the task, which would look something like this:
- Identify the most important unresolved story need.
- Can this story need be satisfied through location specifics?
- If yes, amend the description accordingly. Proceed to step 9.
- If no, can the location specifics support some other solution?
- If the answer to that question is yes, amend the description to do so, and proceed to step 9.
- If no, does the story need rule out any aspect of the location specifics?
- If yes, note the restriction to the location description and proceed to step 9.
- If no, consider the story need irrelevant to the location specification and set it aside.
- If there are any important unresolved story needs, return to step 1.
…but I don’t find that approach to be all that helpful. There are too many conditional questions. It’s a bit clearer as a flowchart, as shown to the right, but even that leaves a lot to be desired.
Instead, let’s focus in on the critical steps: 1+2+3, 4+5, and 6+7.
Story Needs that can be satisfied through location specifics
Since this is the central subject of the entire article, it is a little premature to go into too much detail; by the time I finished, the meaning of the other critical steps would be long forgotten. That, however, doesn’t stop me from offering a very general overview.
Locations are chosen to meet certain story requirements, as described in the article referenced above. But there are all sorts of nuances that can be added to the mix by tweaking the details. The general location may be just an environment. It may be a populated settlement – how large? It may be a specific settlement – where in that general location? It may be a type of building, a sheriff’s office or a hotel, for example – where, how large, what’s it look like, what are its surroundings? It may be a “specific” building, for example the Royal College Of Surgeons in Zanzibar (to invent a place off the top of my head) – same questions. Even if it’s a world famous landmark, like the Sydney Opera House, or Easter Island, environment – weather, visitors, activity, and mood can all have an impact on the perception of the location, as can the tone and language used to describe it. Or a location can be a specific room, or a vehicle interior.
The more story that can be conveyed by the location description, the less you have to do elsewhere; and the more strongly any story elements that are conveyed by the other instruments of play – dialogue, descriptions of people, etc – can be reinforced. The right location can “sell” the rest of the scene. In The Poetry Of Place: Describing locations & scenes in RPGs I detailed the tools and techniques of doing so. Today’s subject is about choosing the raw ingredients to be subjected to this treatment.
Location as a solution support
Even when the details of a location can’t directly meet a story need, the right choices of details can make it easier (or even possible) to employ the other elements of the scene description to achieve a solution, or can make it more difficult to do so. Once a story need is identified, and you’ve determined that location alone is not enough, the next question has to be whether or not location details can at least contribute to solving that story need.
Location as an inhibitor
And, when that doesn’t appear to be the case, you have to ask whether or not the setting of the scene is getting in the way of a solution to that story need, and if so, what can be done about that. Only if the answer is “it isn’t getting in the way” or “nothing can be done about it” can you conclude that location isn’t going to help meet that need.
How far should this be carried?
There are limits to how far you can go, and those need to be recognized. In a work of fiction, you can normally get away with a page of description at most, less is better; in a roleplaying game, the pages are generally larger, but the same limit in terms of word-count is about the same; it works out to about half a page, absolute maximum. What’s more, no paragraph should be more than about 5 lines and each subsequent paragraph has to justify its existence against ever-stiffer requirements. Experience has taught me that anything more simply becomes noise, or early details get lost when players concentrate on the newer information.
One of the biggest benefits of a more poetic approach to descriptions is the compression that results. Each statement, each line, serves double or even triple purposes, enabling a page or more of description to be delivered more quickly and succinctly.
If you can’t satisfy every desirable end because of these limits, there is clearly a need for careful prioritization. Here, once again, the procedural approach described earlier falls down; “the most important story need” is not sufficient definition, not by a long shot.
This inadequacy exists because “the most important story need” might be solvable using something other than location specifics, while some other slightly lesser need might be solvable only with location details, or far more easily with the location. There are two factors to take into account, therefore – the importance of the story need, and the degree to which that need can be solved by something other than the location of the scene. To complicate matters still further, these are not entirely independent factors, as later steps in the procedure make clear. You could try to map out a procedure to take account of these but it quickly becomes so unwieldy in articulation and implementation that it is even more worthless than the rough procedure outlined.
I don’t have any hard and fast rules that I employ with any regularity. There are so many combinations and permutations of the arrangement of story needs and the means employed to satisfy them that no one process will come even close to being universal. Instead, there are a couple of things that I try to keep in mind:
- The #1 priority for each delivery method;
- The overall purpose of the scene;
- Any additional story needs that absolutely have to be met;
- The principle of consistency;
- The perpetual question, “Do I really need this?”; and
- The reason for this location choice in the first place.
I will generally try the most obvious approach, and if that does the job, I move on to the next scene. Only if there’s a problem, an additional story need that isn’t being met, will I toss that away and try to find some other configuration of narrative, description, tone, participants, dialogue, and action that might be more effective.
Satisfying Specific Types Of Story Need through Location options
There are at least nine different story needs that can be satisfied through configuration of the location and its description.
- Intellectual, and
Each of these needs has a different way of impacting on the location. You’ll have noticed that I haven’t defined any of them. That’s because I’m now going to look at each in detail.
There are a whole bucket-load of Tactical considerations that can influence a location, and often several can be accommodated. This is also the list that I apply (though not necessarily in this order) when I have to modify a general environment to get a specific location for a random wilderness encounter; in general, the more intelligent the creature encountered, and the more familiar they are with the region, the higher up this list my attention will be. The less relevance those two factors have, the more attention I will give to the bottom end of the list.
- Target Objective (non-random encounters only) – when the scene contains a participant’s objective or target, that’s an overriding tactical consideration.
- Defense Enhancement – a location that enhances the defenses of the participant with the choice of location.
- Attack Enhancement – a location that enhances the attack capabilities of the participant with the choice of location.
- Mobility Enhancement – a location that enhances the mobility options of the participant with the choice of location, especially if those mobility options are uncommon, like flight or swinging.
- Defense Minimization – a location that subdues or negates the defenses of the participant without the choice of location, especially if this does not affect the participant with the choice as severely or at all.
- Attack Minimization – a location that subdues or negates the most probable attack modes of the participant without the choice of location, especially if this does not affect the participant with the choice as severely or at all.
- Mobility Restriction – a location that reduces the mobility of the participant without the choice of location.
- Conflict Option – a location that offers the participant with the choice of location the ability to either force or avoid confrontation as they see fit;
- Intelligence – a location that reveals the participant without the choice of location without exposing the participant with the choice of location.
- Retreat/Escape Options – a location that offers options of retreat or escape to the participant with the choice of location that the participant without the choice probably cannot utilize.
- Direct Defense – a location that provides natural cover to both sides is always preferable to one that does not, provided that the mobility and attacks of the participant with the choice are not compromised.
- Location as a weapon – some locations are naturally hostile, and function as a weapon against one or both participants.
- Flexibility Minimization – some locations do nothing but compromise the range of attack/defense/mobility options available to one or both participants.
- Undesirability – a location can be undesirable because one or more of the above operate against the participant with the choice of location, but offer other advantages that compensate.
- Inevitability – sometimes the location is simply where one participant catches up with the other. It might not be a choice that either side would have made if they had the option.
An example of a tactical enhancement to a location description is placing an encounter with undead in an unhallowed graveyard; in my campaigns, this gives them all sorts of benefits and advantages. In contrast, placing hallowed ground in or near an encounter with undead offers the participants the option of retreating to somewhere where they have the advantage.
The more control the participant with the choice has over the location of the encounter, and the more time they have to invest in exercising that control, the more benefits they will stack in their favor. This is something that I always bear in mind when designing a villain’s lair.
Modifying the weather, and the descriptive language, enables the location to establish the tone of a scene. Not only is this more compelling than simply stating what the tone is, it supports other elements of the scene that is to take place by providing a tonal context. Enhancing the location details can add to this effect – mentioning ‘stone gargoyles’ on window ledges adds to the gothic character of a location, provided that those are consistent with the other details. You don’t find many modern skyscrapers adorned with them, for example.
One more example before I move on: A modern skyscraper’s exterior is mostly glass. That means that you have three choices in descriptive language when entering one, and all convey a different tone. You can talk about what is reflected in the glass; you can talk about what you can see through the glass; or you can talk about a cold, immaculate, pristine, exterior facade. The first can introduce tones from the gothic (storm clouds and lightning) to the warm and comforting (a family playground); the second can expose lush greenery, martial efficiency, paranoia, an ant’s nest, a beehive of activity, a sense of panic within. The building is still defined only as a “modern skyscraper”, with no supplementary details, but tone is being set by the environment in which the skyscraper is located – which means that you can use the actual architectural details – shape, size, connections to other buildings – to convey something else to the players, ie to achieve or support some other story objective.
You can use the location to evoke particular emotional reactions in the players, or in the characters that they control, once again by a combination of content and descriptive language. The entire gamut of human emotion is open to you, if you are ingenious enough to invoke it. A school playground is just a place until you dress it with the sounds of children playing. A building site is just an arrangement of girders until it’s shadow falls on a nearby building like a sinister giant spider. An empty sporting ground invokes a sense of competition and a sense of teamwork and camaraderie at the same time; populate it with 10,000 screaming fans (or 100,000) and a close game in progress and you hint at passions and primal emotions. A park is just grass and trees – but throw in someone walking a dog, and someone else flying a kite, and you start evincing a sense of freedom and carefree existence, as well (perhaps) as a tinge of 50s nostalgia for those who were around then. A couple walking a baby in a stroller completes the wholesome scene. Now throw in some sort of a threat that they haven’t noticed yet, and it’s not just the people who are threatened; the emotional content is that the values – freedom, casual contentment, etc – are also threatened, and the players will react to that emotional content.
Harder to achieve is the delivery of essential information through location detail, but it can be done. A billboard. A corporate logo being replaced by crane. A newsstand shouting the headlines. A news ticker. A media scrum. Proximity of two organizations (Lost & Found Rings, Inc., is located in The Saruman Tower!). Association: if strange things have been happening to the weather and the PCs have tracked the possible source to a particular location, a strange antenna pointed skywards provides information through the confluence of “strange” things. Even negative locations can provide information, as when the police go to the address of Elwood’s license in the Blues Brothers – it’s information about Elwood’s personality.
All these are so much better in a game than omniscient narration that I always look for any opportunity to incorporate into the location description any information that the scene is to convey – unless that leaves the scene itself an anticlimax, of course.
Harder still, but even more rewarding, is the conveying of context via the location. This too, is possible however, depending on what the context is in reference to.
Consider a hotel of very specific style. If someone chooses to stay there when they have the choice, it establishes a connection between the location and that someone, which can place the individual’s personality, mindset, ambitions, and actions into a context.
We are all products of our environment to at least some extent. How normal would Friday have been if she didn’t grow up in the Addams’ Mansion, surrounded by the other members of the Addams Family? Even if they react against that early environment by going in the exact opposite direction, the description of that environment is still providing context to the personality etc of the person.
In fact, there are times when it is not only possible to convey context by location, it is the most efficient and interesting way to do so. It follows that if the scene is to provide context, considering the possibility of doing so by location is a very high priority.
Some locations are more expressive of the personality of the designer/constructor. Consider that hotel of specific style again. Someone had to think that it style was appealing, or at least a good idea even if they personally didn’t like it.
A villain’s lair should speak volumes about the villain. A good way to make the villain distinctive is through the decoration of his lair. If he has hundreds of species of bat stuffed and mounted on the walls, is he a Vampire? A Batman freak? Or simply fascinated by the species? Or perhaps he’s really interested in sound, or hearing, or sonar. Or maybe the room’s purpose is just to spook uninvited visitors. Even though you don’t know what it is, you can tell right away that the villain has bags of character.
This isn’t the only thing that can be expressed through location detail. Awe and Wonder are two of the most common expressions that a location can invoke. Grandeur and Might are right up there, too.
I have heard the expression used from time (in reference to both RPGs and Comics) that they have an unlimited special effects and sets budget – but have to be more careful how they use it as a consequence. It’s not really true when it comes to RPGs, as the section “How Far Should This Be Carried” explains; if you consider words to be the currency of an RPG, you are closer to the mark. You can have any special effect or set that you want – so long as you can explain it within the budget. That makes Awe, Wonder, Grandeur, and Might easy to do, but that the sort of very fine detail that distinguishes a period movie, for example something set in the Elizabethan period, can be a challenge. So, when there’s something that you need to express for a scene or adventure, locations can definitely carry their share of the burden.
Possibly hardest and most profound of them all, it is nevertheless possible to express a philosophy in architecture, which is one of those manipulable quantities in a location description. It’s a little easier when the philosophy in question is something that has been established in the real world, because you can research the real-world expression of that philosophy. It’s both harder and easier when you’re moving beyond the bounds of terrestrial reality; harder because you can’t lean as heavily on others, and because you may have to represent skills like architectural design that you don’t possess; easier because you have a great deal more freedom, and while there is no-one to tell you that you’ve got it all wrong, you can tell when you’ve hit the nail on the head.
For more on this subject, I refer the reader to my article, Creating the World Of Tomorrow: Postscript – The Design Ethos Of Tomorrow, in which I discuss the changing design styles of the twentieth century and they way they were reflected in everything from architecture to furniture design to the design of teapots. While this article concerns itself with extrapolation into the look-and-feel of the future, its a solid launchpad for the techniques of incorporating a particular philosophy into an environmental description. You can get more help by checking out any DVD extras that talk about set design, especially for Fantasy & Sci-Fi TV shows and movies (including police procedurals that use special effects in a fancy way like Numb3rs and the CSI franchise.
Continuing to ascend the ladder of difficulty, we come to the communication of intellect, or ideas, by means of location details. There are two ways of achieving this, depending on the nature of the ideas to be communicated.
The first subcategory concerns ideas that the players will recognize even if their characters won’t. Inserting a Fascist Realm into a D&D campaign for example. It is easy to simply insert a swastika flying above the castle battlements – perhaps too easy, because that might get them wondering about time travelers and other distractions from the main point that you’re trying to make. The right way to go about this is to extrapolate the fundamental principles of Fascism into the technology and society of the era to determine how life, behavior, technology, and design would be influenced. I would start by hitting Wikipedia for some research, trying to identify and enunciate the basic tenets of this pseudo-fascism, and then trying to interpret them within the scene. The architecture, the clothing, the behavior, the insignia and flags, etc.
The results are likely to be less recognizable than the simple swastika idea, but will seem less tacked-on, feel more original, and be far more realistic; and will sell the concept far more effectively when the big reveal actually happens, probably as a result of the leader spouting a few unmistakably characteristic phrases.
The second subcategory is the communication of ideas with which the players will be unfamiliar because they are original or aren’t part of the real world. The key to communicating original ideas to the players by means of the location is to consider the consequences and ramifications of the idea to be conveyed. What does it make possible that would otherwise be impossible? What does it make impossible? What does it make desirable, and what does it make undesirable? The general principles closely resemble those of philosophical exposition through location, described in the preceding section; but instead of a system of thought, you are attempting to communicate an aspect of the physical ‘reality’ in which the location ‘exists’.
Take my Shards Of Divinity campaign, for example. In the past, a couple of unnatural buildings (and one flying city) were created. Now, magic is failing; some of those buildings are on the verge of collapse, and have been repaired in relatively ramshackle fashion (due to the urgency of the repairs when they became necessary, and the lack of practical skills on the part of those who dwell within).
And, one step beyond the dissemination of ideas comes the dissemination of facts in exactly the same way.
Consider my Fumanor campaign, in which an excessive concentration of magic can yield what is known as a “wild magic” zone, within which all magic will twist in unexpected and unpredictable ways. Any building crafted to incorporate Epic Magic (and there are some) are therefore surrounded by Wild Magic zones – unless the mage is especially skilled and knowledgeable, and can build a suppression effect into these spells, ramping up the difficulty enormously. Too many spells cast in s specific location risks creating a dead magic zone, in which all magic fails. Each location therefore has a capacity for magic; exceed it, and your fancy magical building will collapse – and magic will cease working in the vicinity – and there is no known way of knowing how close you are to the limit. One spell too many, and the fairy castle comes crashing down.
Identifying a consequence and then applying it to the location description may not educate the players in the idea, but it will lay the groundwork for the idea to appear as an explanation for what they have seen at a later point. The result is an internal consistency that adds massively to the realism of the world.
Communication through Location
It can be difficult to communicate something to the players or to their characters through the choice of location details, but there are many-fold rewards for doing so. Verisimilitude, suspension of disbelief, depth, nuance, subtlety, and concision are just a few. Additional requirements can serve as a starting point for inspiration. But you have a practical limit and not an unlimited budget; so expend your capital wisely to get the greatest ‘bang’ for your ‘buck’.