What are your tricks for creating places?

edited November 2011 in Play Advice

I often draw a blank when I need to populate the physical landscape of a place in game.

Do you have any tricks you use, or aids, for creating places on the fly?


  • I think you hit the right word with "populate." Create the people first, and the place ought to come naturally.


    1) Steal from history. Steal from now. Steal from visions of the future.

    2) Think up a social issue, and then dream up a society for whom it would be especially more or less problematic. (In the latter case, that won't be true of everyone they interact with, so who gets the shaft?)

    3) Create a single character, then decide how the character represents their society of origin (possibly in terms of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis).
  • Travel a lot, physically or otherwise, and be curious about the places you go.
  • Enjoy sci-fi/fantasy books and movies for forty years. Works like a charm.
  • Posted By: Jason MorningstarTravel a lot, physically or otherwise, and be curious about the places you go.
    !000% this.

    The more I travel, the more I end up getting inspired by those locations for creating some interesting locations in-game. Specifically, I recall Montreal inspiring an awesome warehouse district in my Vampire game from years ago and a castle in Milan gave me a great twist on a location for a Hellfrost campaign I'm running now.
  • edited November 2011
    Heya Ry,

    I thing I like to do is what folks in the video came industry call environmental narrative.

    This article is really helpful. There is a longer pdf that is more academic on the subject here. Somewhere buried on my hard drive is a splat book I wrote up for this very thing.

    A lot of this depends on what you need in your game.

    Basically how I do it:
    Layer 1 physical landscape - includes description and hints at what lurk within the larger landscape
    Layer 2 history of the place - who inhabited it, clues to what happened here, how was the place used, how the place was shaped by Layer 1
    Layer 3 right now - who is here now, mood (from the previous layers and this current layer), what is happening right now, hints as to what will happen soon
    Layer 4 - this is the mark you and players leave on the world

    There is a fifth layers as well. This is what the next group of people (gaming group) do with your place. Ideally they build off your Layers 1-4.

    I can give a more concrete example if you would like if any of this is helpful.

  • Ara, please continue. :)

  • edited November 2011
    I like using architecture. In Grange, a village in the Lake District, the houses are built of slate, and would cut you if you got too near. In Guildford, there's a modern cathedral that looks like a parody of a real one.

    Also, try treating places as characters, with attributes that run through them. So Grange, above, is a forbidding village, where the buildings try to cut you and the people look at you funny. Guildford Cathedral is a false place, where the priests smile too much and the light shifts strangely.

    If you want a trick for creating places on the fly, try using a single attribute that runs through the whole location.
  • 1. Describe the first thing you notice about the place -- ground the place in the senses. Describe hard burning sunlight, the air smelling of fish, the roarhoots of a captive owlbear, the cadence of the auctioneer, the hard rain, slimy with pollution...

    2. Develop that thought, reincorporate it, humanize it. Are people sheltering from the sun or siesta-ing? Hustling about with umbrellas? Being chased off by the owlbear handlers?

    Seconding what Jason said about travel.
  • Ry,

    I do a write up of what I did this morning. My ladyfriend and I were running through a dungeon. I'll get it typed up here in a little bit. Gotta get some crops in the ground first :)

  • So, in Echo Bazaar, you've got four main qualities: Watchful, Dangerous, Persuasive, and Shadowy.

    There's four "starting" areas, one of which is the sort of place where a Watchful person might find opportunities, full of secrets and mysteries, one for Dangerous, full of monsters and bar brawls, etc, etc. There's advanced areas, which are the same basic principles, but the stakes and rewards are, of course, higher.

    And while I don't play the game any more I've always admired that principle of setting design. Ask yourself "What do the characters do?" and then ask yourself "Where would be a good place for them to do that?" And then ask that a couple more times.

    Like, if it's a fantasy game set in a single city and you want fighting to be a thing, throw in a gladiatorial arena, maybe a monster-infested sewers, a bad part of town full of cutthroats and criminals. If "Sail" is a skill in the system in question, throw in a river, have it lead out to sea, figure who works at the docks and what goes on out there. If romance is important, throw in a park or some gardens to stroll through, a temple where marriages can be sanctified, a palace where the Widowed Prince mourns his lost love, etc.
  • So I wanted the environment to tell a story but I didn't really know what the story should be nor was I attached to a particular outcome of the story.

    So, the opening:

    Layer 1 - High walled dead end canyon. The area surrounding is a series of mesas and canyon land. Semi-arid scrubland. Some paths are cut into the soft sandstone others are made of crushed pots and rocks.

    Layer 2 - Is messy. From the outside there is a purposefully carved archway in the dead end of the canyon wall. The stone is not native to the area. This tomb was built to be in a remote place.

    Layer 3 - Right now.... Snow covers the ground and crunches beneath your feet. There are tracks leading to and from the stone portal. In places the stone is stained red-purple. Twisted pine trees dot the landscape and the sun is setting early. A frozen stream gurgles next to you.

    Layer 4 - B has her character walk up to the archway. She adds her foot prints to the snow.


    Layer 1 - Same as outside. The tomb is carved into this layer. The rock is a striped sandstone alternating red and white.

    Layer 2 - This a smooth carved room. In the center is an offering pit. Daylight fills the room but beyond is bathed in darkness.

    Layer 3 - Right now... There are blankets scattered around. On of them is stained red-brown. Remants of a fire, bloodied cloth, and food stuff is scattered about. It smells of occupation. Down the corridor are faint raspy sounds.

    Layer 4 - Here B has her character poke around in the places disturbing the bedding and scavenging what materials she could. So anybody passing through here would see that this place has been piked over. Plus her muddy footprints.

    This process repeated for each place. This is more of a micro scale use. I do the same thing for the larger landscape around the area.

    Techniques -
    You could write out all the narratives in advance and then watch to see how the players fiddle with them in Layer 4. Sometimes I sketch it out in advance most of the time it develops in play.

    In play I am not attached to what it all means. B decided that the camp she stumbled across was old so that's what it became. She also figured someone was hurt. So I added that in. Later on she found another archway with runes carved on it. She failed her roll to read them but that lead us to adding to Layer 2. The runes were from an older civilization which then modifies Layer 2.

    There is a back and forth process as both the GM and player ask questions of each other to further clarify the narrative and from that a story develops.

    I am probably leaving a lot of things out so please ask any questions.

    I can give an example of something more zoomed out, like a region.

  • edited November 2011
    I'm not great at this, but I want to get better at it. I've tried lots of different things, mostly sticking to things I think are fun to do. I mean, I'm not a map wonk, so I don't really get into doing in-depth landscape/history prep for a location; I'm more comfortable sticking to a Hollywood Location Scout level of detail, where all I worry about is What makes this place look interesting? and What scene can we set here? So given that, here's some stuff I've enjoyed:

    - I try to put at least one memorable detail in a location, something that makes this office building or that warehouse or those twisty little passages different from other office buildings/warehouses/passages. More than one is fine, but not more than three unless I have a really exceptionally good reason for it: mostly, I don't want to be describing the scene for too long, because I want to get to the fun part where the players start doing things and I get to react to them.

    - If possible, I like to have at least one thing to say about what it's like to be in that location. It's cold, it's windy, it smells like flowers, the fluorescent lights buzz quietly, the mud sucks at your shoes...something that I think a character might react to or comment on, so interested players have an easy point of entry for describing how their character interacts with the environment. More than one is kind of wasteful -- if I think of two or more interesting things along those lines, I'll just bank the extras and use them somewhere else.

    - If I think there will be action in that location, I take some time during the week to daydream about cool ways to use that location in an action scene, and make a little list of things I might have the NPCs do: swing on the chandelier, throw bottles from behind the bar, knock over the tourists, etc.., in case any of the players were just waiting for a hint that they can start messing with the scenery.

    - When a location works -- I have fun describing it and the players seem to have an easy time interacting with it -- I make more careful notes than usual and try to go back to that location again later on. Reincorporation is always awesome.

    - If I can, making the location fit the type of scene we're about to do is fun. Sad scenes in depressing locations, angry scenes in loud/volatile places, conspiratorial scenes in dark/secretive rooms.

    - If I know a movie/TV or real-life reference that everyone at the table will get, I'll use it as shorthand to describe the layout of an area. (Anything to keep me from having to draw a fucking map, really.)

    - Sometimes I've gotten good results doing "establishing shots" of a location; like, the scene itself is going to take place in a museum lecture hall, but I'll start by describing the neighborhood around the museum and the trip from the parking structure up the main steps. If the players pick up on some part of that and run with it (they refer to things outside the lecture hall, they move the action into one of those adjoining spaces, or whatever), then it was a good move on my part.

    - If I get a sense that a player has a really strong idea of what a location looks like (her character's home, the diner where they all go for coffee, whatever), I back off on my own descriptions immediately. There's usually not a good reason for me to mess with their vision, so I take cues from the player instead. I might ask them to provide a detail or two ("Is this one of those places with a formica counter running down one side and red pleather booths along the other?"), but even that seems to be a bit intrusive. If they're fully engaged in what their characters are doing and don't seem to be having any trouble referring to the environment around their characters, then I don't need to do anything at all. The job has already been done: they've got everything they need.
  • In Other Worlds there's a system for describing places in the same terms as a supporting character, with abilities and flaws of its own. I find that this helps me to define what's really important about a place in a way that's also useful for play. The location's abilities can 'attack' the player characters (Wandering Robber Gangs, Lethal Death Traps), penalise them in certain kinds of conflicts (Crumbling Infrastructure, Pitch Black), or even be called on as additional bonuses (Site of Ancient Mystical Power, Perfect Ambush Site).

    If I've not prepared a location in advance I will often open up this process to a group brainstorm - this obviously eliminates any element of surprise to these abilities, but in my experience it also makes the location itself much more evocative.
  • Hi Ara,

    I love your checklist and your examples. What do you refer to when you draw a blank for one of those? Like, let's say a physical description leaps to mind, but then nothing hits you for a history that'll really add to it.

    That situation comes up for me a lot, and when it does, I turn to the game's setting. Knowing where monsters come from and what they tend to do and look like, and what trappings and practices distinguish different human cultures, allows me to bust stuff out without thinking about it too hard.

    I think I've had particular success at this in my own game because the environment is linked to the main happenings in the world. Dark magic corrupts nature, human rituals purify it, sun/moon/elements good, stars bad, etc. So I don't need to remember historical specifics from a long setting book, I just need to know a few principles governing various forces that are at work deforming the gameworld's environments.

    Ry, do you have such principles to work with? If not, would it be feasible to invent some?

  • Example. Regular text is me talking as GM. Italics are me thinking. The first step is reading and talking about Cthulhu and then playing a game with Cthulhu in it.

    What's happened here? I haven't done a full-fledged Cthulhu ritual in a while. So, there was one here. Something with potions-

    On the floor you see a dark stain, with a faint color to it.

    And fires...

    There are some other marks-

    And human sacrifice!

    burn marks. There's also a big flat stone-

    That had manacles!

    with these holes in it-

    For each hand and foot!

    four of them, roughly chipped out, like maybe something was drilled in and then yanked out.
  • edited November 2011
    Posted By: GrahamIf you want a trick for creating places on the fly, try using a single attribute that runs through the whole location.
    I like that. I tend to use places I know, the Surrey Quays shopping centre or Westminster Tube station but giving them a particular genus loci I think would make for a sharper sense of the scene. It's not just a shopping mall, it's a tawdry one, or joyous. Adding emotional content to the description gets all the players to the same place.
  • Right now I'm imagining a table like this:

    Graham's word     -     Layer 1   -   Layer 2   -   Layer 3   -    Layer 4 (blank)    

    A page of those that I could draw on at any time... that would be really helpful in my current game.

    Do you think we could make something like that?

    Graham, could you toss out a few more of those attributes?

    Jason, do you have a photojournal or something that we could look at for good ideas?

  • edited November 2011
    A thing we used to do (for random ideas for mini-dungeons, but you could use it for anything) was think up three more or less random descriptors or objects (say, 'damp', 'traps', 'cramped'). Then you roll some dice, one for each of the descriptors, and pick the two highest to define one predominant feature and one slightly less so (so you get, say, an extremelly damp place with traps in key places).

    Doing this seems to switch your brain from thinking about creating stuff to thinking about justifying stuff, which seems like its easier to do even though it's essentially the same thing.

    There are also a few little neat side bonuses to using a 'coloured randomizer' I noticed (a roll of damp 4 traps 3 is sometimes gets a different writeup from damp 6 traps 2 without you having to think what that means in advance), but those are perhaps a bit too unreliable to talk about.
  • Word: Damp
    Layer 1: Marshy grotto with overhanging trees
    Layer 2: Underwater entrance hidden by reeds
    Layer 3: Merrow lurking in the water, his spear looks like a broken tree branch poking out of the water.
    Layer 4: How waterproof are your boots?

  • Heya David,

    Well with the game right now we don't really have an established setting (it's being developed in play). I know what the geography is. It's a tweaked version of New Mexico so the cultural (includes all the cultures!!!) and natural (plants, animals, etc...) landscape follows as a consequence of that.

    When I don't have a history in mind:
    I refer to my prep (big overall layers that are imprinted on the landscape)
    I ask the players questions or they ask me questions
    It develops from a failed roll, like the carved runes in the example above. So failed rolls add to our landscape errr.. layers.

    *One thing to note is characters have these layers too. So they change as they interact with the environment as well.

    So the overall burial place could be framed like this:
    Cold, remote, lifeless (Graham's stuff here)
    Layer 1 - Canyon lands, scrublands, etc..
    Layer 2 - Is the tomb complex built for burial and guarding the dead. This layer gets edited as we need to during play to bring it to life. We add to it during play.
    Layer 3 - so on....

    Both on layer 2 and 3 roll on a random table is a perfectly valid player move.

    @Ry That table looks neat. I will try that out. One of the things I like about this is that the environmental clues evolve into something like Bangs. But usually don't evolve in a way that I expect.

    Hopefully I am communicating myself clearly here, if not throw heavy objects at me until I make sense :)

  • Ry - totally. I like that example.
  • RyRy
    edited November 2011

    I like the idea of the table being... like a color wheel. So the top is "Red" and the bottom is "Violet."

    What I mean is, the different lines are like gradations, so the

    • Cold
    • Quiet
    • Damp
    • Eerie

    are close to each other and

    • Lively
    • Loud
    • Angry
    • Hot

    are next to each other, so that you can look "fuzzily" at it and get different "related" results.

  • Trick I use and originates from the game Everway http://rpggeek.com/rpgitem/44873/everway-visionary-roleplaying

    The Game uses cards with pictures and questions, called visionary cards.
    The pictures are of places, people and objects on one side and on the other a list of questions.
    I don't use the cards now instead I create collages.
    I look through Google and other such sites collecting appealing images and sorting them by headers like land type, people, interior, and then create collages from these headers.
    I pop these into a folder to ponder over and make the connections.
    Also in the game if I'm looking for inspiration I can open the folder to spark up the imagination. If I need a random location I role a dice and pick a picture.
    I haven,t found a quick way to store my pondering's and connections and rely on my pictorial memory.
    Seems to work most times
  • I'm still wondering how fast could it be to use Apples to Apples cards to create anything in a game (except for plot twists, you'll need a set of tweaked whymsy cards for that) The idea is to pick randomly 1 to 4 cards and justify that description. In my experience. rolling dice to get random words from a list is slow enough to disrupt the flow of the game, at least for the guy who has to roll the dice and check up the result on the lists.

    Another way to do this could help players keep coherence on the story: split the adjective cards among the players, so once you need a description for any element introduced in the fiction, players can choose from their hand, instead of adding adjectives at random and looking then for a way to justify some nonsensical combinations.
  • Posted By: WarriorMonkAnother way to do this could help players keep coherence on the story: split the adjective cards among the players, so once you need a description for any element introduced in the fiction, players can choose from their hand, instead of adding adjectives at random and looking then for a way to justify some nonsensical combinations.
    Sounds like Sign in Stranger!


    Here's the one I would really like to hear about:
    Posted By: akooserOne of the things I like about this is that the environmental clues evolve into something like Bangs. But usually don't evolve in a way that I expect.
    Can you explain this in a little more detail, or maybe give us a good example from a recent game that's fresh in your memory?

    I like how you're coming up with descriptions but also finding ways to make the world-building process interactive (whether the players realize that's happening or not). (Hey, do they?)
  • Hey Paul,

    I hoped I used the right word there.

    The default mode of the game is exploration (for both players, not really the Forge sense of the word) which is probably some sort of messed up version of a kicker/bang. So we are cruising along with the opening scene with the tracks in the snow and frozen blood splatters. B gets her character to the threshold of tomb complex and I ask Walton (really a young woman) why are you here. B took the environmental cues and explained to me that Walton is looking for her sister who was kidnapped by odd creatures. B then describes the scene in the bedroom with blood spatters. B tells me Walton's sister is mostly likely wounded and dying. That's how we got at the Bang through environmental cues.

    I am very explicit about what failed rolls mean for knowledge, discovery type stuff. This allows the other players to help author the world and at the same time this brings about changes in the character. In the case of the runes:
    B said I want Walton to read the runes
    Me: Ok, roll for it
    B crapped I failed the roll, I guess I can't read them
    Me: You can't read them but do you recognize them?
    B said Yes I do.
    Me: So they must be old? Maybe beyond the living memory of the people in your village?
    B: Yeah that sounds good

    We are building the world up as we play but also building the rule system as we play. I kind of suck (read: not well practiced) at putting neat mechanics together to get at what I want out of a game. So what you are seeing is the start of something that is being built from a previous attempt that I didn't like.

  • Don't have much to add but wanted to say...

    ...threads like this are why I really enjoy Story Games!

  • edited November 2011
    Tables of evocative words for two different areas:

    DungeonWords: http://www.risusmonkey.com/2011/02/dungeonwords.html

  • So, when I make places, particularly fantastic places, I want two things happening:

    I want something crazy and beautiful and fantastical being tossed at the players but I also want something in the description that allows folks to relate.

    "The city is made of corral, as if reefs were somehow cultivated into crooked buildings off of a giant turtle's back. The buildings stick out at odd angles, like cigarettes out of an over-stuffed ashtray."

    So, a balance between craziness and easy-to-relate-to down-to-earth details.
  • 1. For wilderness areas, skipping around in Wikipedia's Landforms category is interesting for inspiration. Any little tidbit you know about the forces that shape the earth makes it possible for you to take a couple of elements and put a spin on them - rainfall patterns, erosion, etc.

    2. For random bits of color, I made this "color wheel". There's no wizardry or procedure to it; just pick an item from two or three rings and mash them together. The "aspects of nature" and "areas of human activity" rings help me remember things I haven't described in a while (even in a city there are animals aplenty), while the "emotion" and "defined by" rings are good for putting a spin on things. (A community somehow defined by warfare and animals, or by resistance to geology gives some interesting starting points. Religious architecture somehow defined by a total embrace of growth.)

    3. I try to keep the layout as simple - or at least as permissible - as possible. I find geometrically complicated environments bring up immersion-breaking sidebar discussions. "Wait, why can't I see the balcony from near the fountain?" "The top of the archway blocks it; the balcony is within the courtyard." etc. These problems are for first-person shooters.

    4. I have this idea that something for the players to do in each important location would help them be memorable, on the principle that role-playing games are about interaction. I'm not talking about littering the gaming experience with pointless tangents, but giving players an easy way to emote how they're interacting with the scenery - a jostling crowd, a view, a lit hookah - helps players bring their characters into the scene.
  • I sleep.

    I tend to run Urban adventures and often my dreams will provide me with inspiration. Had a dream about a Tsumani flooding a beachside town but the water freezing at the shoreline = City held safe by magical barrier keeping a Wall of Ocean water at bay.

    The weird blend of typical and sureal in dreams works very nicely into urban fantasy settings.

    But this is just one method I use.
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