Three Starting Points for Designing Magical Locations

What fun is a fantasy world without inherently magical locations? They make it clear which genre you’re operating in, provide a little color, and because of the ability to use elements not present in mundane locations, can often create a more intense and targeted mood than their mundane counterparts. I usually begin with a combination of three elements: what the place was built for in-world, what I want it to do for the audience, and/or something I want it to require the characters (whether they’re mine or someone else’s) to do.
The place’s purpose is often the most straightforward of these, particularly if it’s deliberately built rather than naturally occurring. Yes, some magical locations are built entirely to impress, and just need to be pretty. Some are functional for their owners, like hospitals, libraries, schools of magic—you get the idea. And some are there simply to be (or because they already are) magic channels, and thus have shapes that reflect and support what the magic being channeled through them is supposed to do. Every now and then, someone tries to do all three at once. But it doesn’t have to be deliberate, either; more natural magical locations, usually created through a surfeit of some sort of energy or spillover from an inherently magical resident/visitor, as often as not mirror whatever source gave them their distinctive qualities. Either way, using purpose as a springboard often makes for an easy basic image.

Sometimes, though, the object of the game is the impact that a location has on the audience, be they players or readers. Most of the time, it’s to establish a mood, either specifically for the location or to reinforce the mood of that part of the narrative. So the place might be made to get across an air of mystery, of the exotic, of vastness, of wrongness—but whatever it is, it’s going to have an effect. (It might also be that the place is written just to show off the writer’s ability to make things beautiful—but hey, that’s an impact too.)

Then there’s building a place to make characters do something, keyed to… well, whatever the something is. It can be an overall theme, like “go through puzzles and hunt secret doors” or “fight lots of enemies”; it can be a bit more location-specific, like “use this one rope to swing over this one chasm”; it might even be a choice that’s influenced by what the area’s like. Unless you’ve got a really strong idea for something you want them to do, this one’s not likely to come near as easily as the others.

While some aspects might be easier than others, there’s no “best aspect”. Just start with the one you have the clearest picture of, then figure out the others based on the first.


  1. UZ says:

    I remember the old Adventurers comic had an edifice called the Temple of the Pushable Cube :)

    I’ve always been fond of bones, myself. The Sedlec Ossuary:

    is an interesting building in that regard, but I think it shows a different attitude towards death than we’re used to in fantasy, so it’s not necessarily a good example.

    However, if you’ve ever had a chance to play the PS2 game Summoner, it had an unusually well-realized level which took place inside the spinal columns of a giant snake skeleton. But see, rather than it just being a monster three-headed snake, it was the body of the old earth god, who had died of heartbreak while lying prostrate before the tomb of the person that he’d loved (and had accidentally suffocated by bringing her up out of the ocean).

    It was a bit of a complicated story, but the big, underground, tragic, stupid, suicidal snake bones made for a good setting. It also started to explain the internal theme of the game, which was that all of the gods had died or killed each other and the world was basically spinning along through the cosmos *without any help*, if you can believe that. Of course there was that demon thing, but, you know.

    Oddly enough, Summoner is really the only PS2 game I’d recommend as RPG reference material.

  2. Michael says:

    Very interesting topic :) I’ve had a few magical locations in my writing, and one thing I like to do with them is layer them — in all the fantasy worlds I’ve written, only a few people can perform or sense magic, so you have to think about the effect a magical location would have on a mundane person (even if one is not present in the scene). In my current novel, the first “level” of the spirit world appears as a forest; and when the narrator enters it, from the initial description there’s nothing to say she’s not in an actual mundane forest — except the unnatural silence. Pretty soon, things start to happen that make it clear there’s something more going on, but it’s not until she enters the second “level” that she can sense the place’s magical nature for herself. (There’s another character in the scene who *can* sense it from the outset, so the importance of all this is not in making her actually doubt what’s happening, but in unsettling her grasp on reality — after all, if she can’t tell whether she’s in a magical location or not now, how many other places she thinks are mundane might turn out to be magical?)

    By contrast, places located deeper inside the magical realm, such as the Gate of Souls, have no problem with being overtly magical — since anyone who gets that far must know where they’re going already — so they go over the top with “special effects”, impossible fountains, unnaturally reflective materials, lights with no visible source, and other stuff that I don’t know yet because I haven’t had to actually describe the place before now :) Should be fun to write, though.

    (By the way, the sentence beginning “Unless you’ve got a really” near the end appears to be incomplete…)

  3. Ravyn says:

    UZ: Oh, wow! *considers utilizing this elsewhere*

    I haven’t played that one; may have to look into it.

    Michael: Thanks for catching me. That paragraph had had an end; I think it might’ve been eaten when I transcribed and formatted the post.

    I like the trick you’ve pulled with the forest there; that’s really clever.

Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Magical Location Design: Establishing a Mood | Exchange of Realities
  2. Magical Location Design: To Every Place, a Purpose | Exchange of Realities
  3. Impractical Applications (And Another Lair) | Exchange of Realities

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