Impractical Applications (Variations on a Perfect Location)

When I was doing this week’s perfect locations riffs, one of my primary inspirations was a rather odd spot I worked with about five years back. Odd, partly because I used the changes to it as a mood-enhancer twice, both with different versions of the place, and because one of those was for a piece of writing that I don’t think more than one of my players (if that) has ever seen. Looking back on how I tweaked it, though, was a useful source of mental examples.

The site itself was one large plaza, paved, surrounded by buildings save for specific entry points. I might have been subconsciously basing it on somewhere in San Diego, but if I was I haven’t the foggiest idea where. When I first ran the place, though, it was hosting a very large party. It was dark out—I seem to have this thing about dark skies and big parties—but the place was thoroughly lit, with everything from paper lanterns to trained fireflies. People—or rather, entities, as getting on for half of the attendees were some form of god or spirit—were everywhere, making it harder to really get a sense of the size of the place or to get a bit of privacy. So—dark, colorful things that provided their own light, lots and lots and lots of colors, sounds and smells, a great deal of talking and cheer.

The first time I contrasted it was in game. It was the following day, and the group was going to see a friend of theirs who had been falsely accused of theft during the party itself and was being held in a building nearby. By this time, the plaza had been cleaned up, all the decorations and temporary structures completely removed. The people, of course, were long gone. The sun was out, giving the white pavement an almost sterile effect, and there were—they needed—no secondary lights. The idea was to get across an image of bleakness, of silence, of absence.

The second time I used it wasn’t in game at all. It was the following summer, I was looking for work, and one of the positions I’d been looking into wanted a writing sample. Lacking anything I could really use, I instead hastily dashed off a vignette involving a conversation between Lysha and Shizuyo, in the immediate wake of the party. As with the first alternate version of the site, I made it sunny out (no, this didn’t create any time paradoxes), but unlike the first version, this one wasn’t sterile. The guests had gone, yes, and most of the hosts likewise, but the mess was still there, crepe paper and sagging lanterns, scraps of food and who knew what all else, strewn across the pavement like detritus from a battlefield. Aside from my two conversationalists, the only living things there were there to clean up, and they did so slowly, at a distance, sluggishly sweeping the refuse away. After all, it wasn’t harsh I was going for this time. It was worn out.


  1. Bill says:

    Nice post. I think a lot of games could benefit from setting the stage with more thoughtfulness than ‘you’re in a forest, so there’s a lot of trees about’. For that matter, dramatic themes are missing from many games, as well. If the big bad is a vampire that’s stolen someone’s beloved, encounters should be of a forlorn nature, sometimes desperate, but occasionally break the ice with a funny or comforting encounter. On the other hand, if the big bad is a storm giant that demands a portion of livestock, the encounters may be more brash, tricky, or require the heroes themselves to sacrifice along their way.

    I wonder how far in advance you plan a game, since weaving these themes takes enormous forethought and effort. You should write a post about developing over-arching plot and how that can help in creating a campaign!

  2. Ravyn says:

    It varies. What usually happens with me is that I’ll have a vague idea what a place/event (or more often, an overall area) themes like, and sometimes I’ll have a few of the images drafted out ahead of time, but as often as not the actual descriptions come together at the last minute. That way, if the players decide that hiding from the city’s automaton guards in the nearest building is the way to go, if they decide to try to cut off the person they’re tracking rather than, well, track her, or if they just go into territory I didn’t think they’d reach yet and I need to hurry up and come up with the personal quarters of the guy who was presiding over the city when its magical defenses accidentally triggered the suicide of every living being within it, I can do it without begging a fifteen minute break for my artistic vision to coalesce.

    Playing by chat helps, too–more functional time for me to prep or my subconscious to work on “NOW what?” while they’re typing.

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