Perfect Locations: Marring Perfection

(Do I even need to tell you what prompted this post?)

When last seen, the broken walls of the old buildings had shimmered in the starlight, haunted by the soft strings and fluting of the lone musician; now the musician is gone, and in the sunlight the walls are merely ruined stone. The carnival last night was filled with entities of all species and levels of divinity, carousing and dancing and sipping their drinks, fireflies and paper lanterns filling the plaza with light; now the sun beats down on a deserted patio scattered with limp castaway strips of tissue, garish remnants of its earlier glory. Where once was a dead land, trees reaching up like gnarled claws to pull the distant clouds down into their sea of dead grass, now green has spread like a wave over the meadows, and the flowers are all the brighter for the gentle rain that soaks every petal.

This is the greatest strength of having chosen the perfect version of a location: the potential for contrast. Establish a place in its perfect form, and people become accustomed to it. Small details change, and it doesn’t seem quite right. Significant details are removed or modified, and the entire tone goes with them, made all the more obvious for the importance that the use of the perfect version has given them.

One of the things I’ve found most useful when trying to set up the contrast between the perfect version of a location and whatever impacting change I plan on using later is knowing how to vary it up. If you only change one or two of the details, keeping the rest of the location equivalent to its perfect version, then it still feels like a variation of the same place; it’s just that it stopped raining. Or it’s later in the day and the water is only sparkling rather than doing the molten gold impression it does just after dawn. Or there’s a slightly less rambunctious set of students on the playground. You’re still using details that get the overall theme together, but the ones you use now aren’t pushing for quite the same, or quite as strong, effect. If the location shows up a lot, changing one detail at a time and resetting those that were changed before, people will take an average, as it were, allowing you to reinforce the perfect location while neither actually pushing it nor letting the location get too stagnant.

And then, when you want the strongest impact, you upend it entirely. The air of wonder and mystery depended on darkness? Dump the noonday sun on it. The slow drizzles to which the place was prone, with water slowly trickling from every fern, gave it a melancholy air? Freeze it with a layer of snow, and take away the cloud cover. One of the most important minor characters had made the place her own? She’s not here now, and (depending on the situation) might not be coming back.

Nurture the perfect location with small variations, and then shatter it with rapid change. The contrast will strike your audience more deeply than any chain of simple adjectives.


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  1. Fantastic Locations: January 26, 2012 Roundup | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.
  2. RPG Blog Carnival: Fantastic Locations, Final Roundup | Keith Davies — In My Campaign - Keith's thoughts on RPG design and play.

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