Purpose-Based Location Design

(Yet another for RPG Blog Carnival.)

Locations don’t come naturally to a lot of people. Sure, they might have one feature they want to play with, or a very vague idea of outline, but the rest is the geographical equivalent of a probabilistic haze. Honestly, that’s normal. We don’t have to know everything. But we can figure out what’s important—and what we’re going to have to actually come up with—by looking at the creator’s purpose of the location. What does it serve as the backdrop for?

Some locations are there specifically to be fought in. These might be as simple as the 20′ x 20′ room in which the orc guards the treasure chest, or as complicated as the drawing room with the glass door leading to the balcony in which the group has their audience with the man impersonating the one they came to see until they throw him out the door and commence with fighting on the rooftops in the rain, as empty of particular objects as the cave the people needing rescue have been cornered in or as stuffed with them as the toy room in which the characters need to prevent the royal children from being kidnapped. In this case, purely-visual elements are nice, but what really matters are tactical elements—how’s the footing? What can be used as a weapon? Is there any fighting style you want to encourage, and what about this location can promote it?

Some are backdrops for talking. On the one hand, I’ve seen people who say these really don’t need much by way of embellishment—what matters is the conversation. On the other hand, if how the characters interact with social convention is important, then what exactly is in the room can matter a lot more. What happens if there are more conversationalists than seats? Where, if applicable, do the servants come from or go? What sorts of activities do people do in this room that they might converse over? Is there anything that would prompt a particular conversational topic (whether it’s one you want to see happen, or one that would be terribly poor form but almost inevitable)? Is there anywhere from which the conversation might be observed, or even interrupted unexpectedly? How likely is this situation to break into a fight? The overall arrangement of things (the rooms in a house, for instance) might not matter quite so much as long as the distances and sequences stay relatively constant, but the particulars might matter.

Some places are for exploration. In cases like this, particularly if the characters are known for being observant or curious, everything matters—visual appearances, overall arrangement and configuration, structure, sequence, items in a room, level of wear and tear—if it’s something people might be interested in, you’ll want to know where it is, what it does if poked, and how likely it is to affect something else elsewhere. Exploration is all about the questions being asked and the cool factor in the backdrops.

Then there’s restoration. There’s a sense in which it’s rather like exploration—you have to figure out where and how the place is messed up, after all—but it adds the additional issue of knowing what exactly it would take to fix what is broken, since getting a part made two thousand years ago the secret to which is long since forgotten makes for a much different sequence of responses and events than, say, shoving a bunch of fallen trees off of a building and finding something to patch the damage to the roof and walls.

So, if you’re not sure what to do with a location, or even what location to use in a situation, think about what it’s for, and what sorts of traits from that purpose would make for the most interesting results. It might shake loose some ideas.

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