Fantastic locations & the fantastic things that happen there
This month’s RPG Blog Carnival, hosted by Keith J. Davies, covers the topic ‘Fantastic Locations’ and as I tend to run games set in one way or another in a version of the real world – my current games notwithstanding – I was left wondering if I would be able to participate. After a little thought, however, I realized that there are two things which contribute to a fantastic location. The first is of course the memorable quality which makes it stand out from other places – the crumbling temple, the secret library in a mountain castle, the rain-slick top of a dirigible in flight… By their nature, they offer things which more than set them apart from run-of the-mill locations. The second is what actually happens there, and this – despite how otherwise normal the site might be – can transform almost any location into a fantastic one that your players talk about for ages. Although it could easily be argued that this is really just the first element recast in a more active role – I do find it helpful to keep thinking of them separately. Regardless, both ideas serve to enhance locations which are by themselves extraordinary, or those which are not.
To produce a truly fantastic location in an RPG, you must be able to not only capture the mind’s eye of each player, but spark creative imaginings in response to your setting of the scene. It is not enough to simply tell them what they see, and it is a classic blunder to tell them how it affects them…you need to lay kindling, and provide that spark, but let them fan the spark into flame. In the private kingdoms of our own imagination, a little well-placed suggestion illuminates miles of glittering magic.
I am currently telling tales set in the post-apocalyptic fantasy setting for the Desolation RPG. The mixture of high fantasy and apocalyptic imagery conspire to allow for some truly inspiring settings where nothing is what it seems, and little is what it used to be. The requirement for generating a sense of wonder is high as my players’ characters explore lands turned upside down and inside out by the end of their world, and serve as the eyes and senses for the players themselves who are making their first journeys Scondera. Nothing is familiar, everything is fantastic, and exploring it is a primary goal of the campaign.
With so much to discover, I can’t possibly describe it all, and if I were to try no one would be able to do anything but listen. Hardly the goal we seek, is it?
The solution I chose was to focus on a balance of major and minor things, some addressed specifically to the players, and others addressed specifically to the characters they portray, with some filling in the spaces in between. For example, we determined early on in campaign design that prior to the Night of Fire when the world as the characters knew it came to an end, the world had three moons. We also established the home territories for each character and provided some practical linkages for a ‘baseline of imagination’ for what those territories and the people in them may have been like. Rather than paint scenes whole, from these basic ideas I could instead focus my attention on warping and despoiling what they knew without building it first and reducing the risk of having the scenes that I set seem mundane, or like they had always been that way.
The basic guide I try to follow works like this:
- Create a mood (fatigue)
Based on that mood follow a sequence which will root the characters in the scene
- Emphasize a simple cause (rough terrain, scattered rocks and twisted roots)
- Build a sense of need (rest and hunger)
- Elicit actions from setting elements to resolve the need (hunt, look for a campsite)
- highlight an unusual detail of a specific item and link it with a baseline item
Example: first overland travel experience
The players knew that the world had three moons and if they were where they thought they were, they could expect to find rolling grasslands as they progressed southward.
As you head south, getting your first real look at the night-time sky since escaping from captivity, the moonlight seems dimmer than you remember, and it casts fewer shadows. Overhead, the fat disc of the nearest moon is split off-center by a gaping wound – a crack through to its core. Of the other two moons there is no sign, but a coldly glittering ring that bisects the night, highlighting how few of the stars you know are still in the sky.
The players were able to fill in the rest, and as they travelled, I grounded the scenes in a sense of change and loss by off-handedly referencing absent constellations, expanses of celestial darkness, and the cracked face of the remaining moon. During the day, the thinly glittering ring remained visible to remind them how alien things had become.
The rolling grassland you expected to find has considerably more roll than you remember and as you head south you note the thick green smudge of a forest on the horizon. Perhaps you are farther south than you thought. Around you, sharp-edged rocks and other shattered bits of stone lie on or embedded in the turf as though scattered about by the whims of a child. A quick look over your shoulder at the decapitated mountain you are leaving, and the absent mountain range which you all know should be to the north, leaves no question as to the source of this spray of stone debris.
For the rest of the trip, they were plagued by stones and the sense that they could almost figure out where they were if anything were familiar. Eventually, with hints of rabbit runs and other more mundane items like small creeks and the nearness of a seemingly normal forest, the group fell into the typical behavior of survivors in the wilderness. They chose a clear area, set a watch, ate some rations, and tried to catch some of the game at which I had been hinting. That let me sink in another hook of how the mundane is not so mundane as I revealed that the bulk of animals in this otherwise typical forest have become carnivorous and extremely territorial. Horned and venomous rabbits, fanged deer that attack in packs, and familiar Dirk Wasps now grown to prodigious size ended up having the party consider going back toward the prison from which they had just escaped. When they started checking the grass for surprises, I knew that the method was starting to work.
Although there is nothing particularly special about grassland – even a post-apocalyptic one, I think that normal, natural places can become fantastic in the right context, and it is the consistent and continual layering of subtle and not-so-subtle details which can bring that element out for the players to revel in, and more importantly, remember. In the course of the campaign they will walk across the crushed monuments of gods and titans, drink fire, and wage war with the risen dead on spider-silk-delicate stone bridges from a time no one remembers, but even so – I suspect they will remember that first walk under a broken moon across rolling hills that they, with just a little help from me, created in their own minds.
Even in the most fantastic location, maybe especially when the fantastic surrounds the players in every scene, what transpires is often the more memorable aspect of what players take away from the game. What appears fantastic to the player may be normal to the character, and what the character does may also be less fascinating to that character than to the person who gives it life, so even in a vista of unspeakable wonder there is a little bit of reserve as the player processes that such views are a part of their character’s real world, wonder and all. Events, however, have a way of getting to all of us, and some events have a way of getting to even the most jaded characters and players alike, if you can find the dry tinder they have locked away and set it ablaze. Keeping the event from eclipsing the wonder of the scene is the trick, and is the way to having the players cite that time they bested the villain on the lip of Diamond Falls, rather than just talking about who did what to whom. Setting the imagination alight to illuminate, project, and ultimately capture the whole scene that you are suggesting to the players is a skill well worth developing, as when you get it right, the scene lives on in the retelling forever, to become real again as your crew of players revel again and again in what you have created and they have given depth and immortality.
Before George Lucas decided to do what he did to Star Wars with Episodes 1 through 3, fans of my generation were often given to imagining the great duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker among the pits of molten slag and fire where failed master and failed student clashed in an epic exploration of both sides of the coin of pride. We shall speak no more of the films, and confine ourselves to our far more grand imaginings.
Arguably, the idea of the location is epic enough, but setting such a monumental scene in the midst of fire, smoke, and the chaotic self-destruction of molten rock – a scene the greatness of which could transform a McDonald’s parking lot into a glorious battlefield remembered forever while simultaneously weakening the scene almost to parody – works to enhance it in ways most of us do not need to put into words as the rightness of it is so primal it clicks into place as an intrinsic part of the duel itself. As the scenery tears itself apart in agony, form vanishing into formlessness to reform later in unrecognizable ways, so too do the duelists destroy each other, and themselves.
Such things take the fantastic and the mundane, and elevate them to the status of legend, and it is toward such eventful vistas that our campaigns should move… but how do we get there?
One way, not foolproof by any means, but a better start than most I find, is to pay attention- real attention – to the themes which shape the characters and resonate in your campaign as a result of their actions and despite your best efforts to take things somewhere else. With real attention paid with as much involvement in detail as we expect immersion in character from the players, the real story will emerge and with it, the power to tap into the imagination linking player to character and back again.
An effort to run the glorious Call of Cthulhu campaign, Masks of Nyarlathotep that I undertook in university, ended in the London chapter. For the players, this is a campaign they have been seeking a return to for over twenty years now, but for me… it ended, or the arc of it concerning those characters at any rate, ended beautifully in a way that mirrored how it began.
As most know, the campaign begins with the loss of a friend, Jackson Elias, and I had spent some time establishing that worthy as a real character in earlier sessions, so I could kill him more poignantly when I began Masks. Interestingly, that death was not the real start of the campaign. What really started things moving was a dance between one of the characters and one of the NPCs.
That dance, at a ball in a fine mansion just outside of town filled with light, laughter, and the warmth of bootleg liquor, created a hint of romance, and a drive of passion so strong it led that character to unite the others and set them on a quest to take them around the world come Hell or high water. Socialite flirted with dangerous man, but both knew that something greater was happening that night, and both knew that if he should return from the task she wished him to undertake, they would never again part.
Ultimately, each person united on that quest wound up dead on a cold British road felled by forces beyond their ken, and horrors so vast their minds could not encompass them… all but the one – our love struck adventurer. He ended up mad but alive, in an asylum outside London repurposed from an ancient and luxurious manner house from a more elegant age, while all about him swirled the screams of lunatics transported from one sort of madness to another by the chemical concoctions of the white-coated hosts – until once again the dance called to him. As he had entered her world unannounced and ill-prepared for the richness therein so too did she come to invade his new world. Where he came only to leave again, she came to take him away, and from that point on, they were never separated… in my imagination, at least.
The final scene, a snow-shrouded asylum of screams and suffering serving as reverse image to the snow decked mansion of glittering light and music in which the tale had begun brought the story full-circle, gave it life, and promised us more.
Neither element, not the reunion of lovers nor the setting, could give us this promise by itself, although each is memorable and fantastic in its own way. Of the two, it is the reunion which stands out, threatening to diminish the importance of the location, whose nature and qualities I had taken great pains to create, but it is precisely that effort which allowed for the synergy which took place in play. The two, separate ideas at first, fused together to create something more than they were alone, and in the retelling, it is not the reunion that is spoken of, it is the rescue of our hero from the asylum that is remembered, and to me – that is fantastic.
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