This one’s back to writing for RPG Blog Carnival. I love the way it makes me think about aspects of the theme I wouldn’t have looked into.
One of the things that a lot of people forget about making locations, fantastic or otherwise, is that the locations themselves are in a constant state of flux. The time of day changes, the weather, the people or animals present, the various metaphysical forces, and the location changes with them, in look and feel—a stagnant location can look nifty, but after a while it feels more like a set than a place in its own right.
Before I think about how a location can change, though, I think about what I want people’s primary impression of it to be—a “perfect” version of the location that gets across the mood I want it to convey and the main associations I want to give to it. Usually, but not always, this will be the first form in which I present the location, so as to take full advantage of how its changes affect it. Sometimes, though, it simply won’t be at its perfect state yet when first introduced, and on rarer occasions I’ll have perfect conditions for two versions of the location (most often something like ruined and intact). It’s all about the impact.
To get a perfect version of a location, start by choosing the mood or theme to play to. The fewer words you can get it down to, the better, but don’t overdo it—sometimes it really does take a more complex underlying concept than simply loss or wonder, size or stillness. Three words, sometimes describing different aspects or themes rather than being directly related, tends to be my average.
Next, figure out what the location itself is, as both structure and environment. Materials and decoration, shapes and arrangement, texture and composition, and of course all the little things lying around—any of these can have an impact on the overall thematic effect.
Never neglect light! It’s one of the most pervasive features of any given location, and changing it, whether what you change is light levels or color spectrum, can make a world of difference. Think about the time of day you’re looking for: are we talking midday? Dawn or dusk? After dark? False dawn? Think about the weather, as well, and don’t get so wrapped up in the colors that what’s in the sky creates on the earth that you don’t look at the colors of the sky itself. Indoors, think about what your light sources are and what colors they create; as I recently learned from an incident in the kitchen, one bluish bulb in a ceiling structure full of yellow bulbs can change the light in the room entirely.
Some perfect versions of locations are defined not by what’s in them, but who’s in them. Sometimes, this is just occupants in general: the flood of humanity (or sentient beings in general) in a market, children on a playground, birds in a forest. At other times, the difference is in the presence of one or more specific individuals: the musician who haunts the ruined buildings at night, the librarians constantly moving amid the books and answering questions, the warrior who always seems to be around or under this one particular waterfall.
Keep a close eye on the factors that contribute the most to the mood; they’ll come in handy later when the location isn’t in its perfect state. Think like an artist!