Saturday, 23 January 2010

places to be

This month's RPG Carnival is about gaming and travel.  When on holiday, visiting different locations and doing something different is one of the main reasons you're there - or why travel?  Designing a location requires certain things in order to entertain your audience.. It's helpful to consider locations as landmarks - imagine the cover of your book or module as a starting point and think of that image then fill in the blanks - what would you hear, smell, feel?. 

Draw attention.
A strong first impression is essential, it's often useful to contrast with their base camp or where they've been previously in some significant way.  There are various options to explore..
  • Environment - Exotic helps, difference is essential. Whether the environment is isolated or part of a wider domain it helps to be distinctive.  Mordor is not Rohan is not Lothlorien.  More extreme cases may change an environment entirely (e.g. The Nautilus in 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea) in relation to the jump-off point.
  • Excitement - Use the Rule of Cool as your guide and draw on your own interests for inspiration.  If you like board games, chessboard traps, mansion-based murder mysteries and irascible prospecting mules are perfectly acceptable.  You do have other interests?
  • Goals - Why are they here?  Set any objectives you want to achieve early and sense check with the motives of your characters (and your audience).  If you're having to mallet them into compliance, you need to find out what they really want and if you want to, give it them.
  • Senses - Heighten differences by emphasising sensory effects and using sense memory.  If the action takes place in an office, it doesn't matter if it's Hawai'i or Harrogate.  Bright lights, loud sounds, strong smells, crowded streets or corridors, it all makes a difference.  If you want the audience to move, show them the way. Stimulate them to go towards somewhere, dial it down or repeat a bit to move them on.
  • Scale - Varying scale is also effective.  Small can be exciting, think Hansel & Gretel or Dog Soldiers and small houses in the woods.  Equally epic needs a setting equal to the task - pyramids, arcologies or moon-sized weapon platforms.  Variation in scale can be effective; The Prisoner moved between The Village and London on more than one occasion.
Bring me that horizon!
Navigating between (or within) locations can provide it's own benefits.  Being able to place yourself in relation to a landmark enables interaction (navigating Paris is easier along the Seine or near the Eiffel Tower).
  • Altitude - Makes a difference.  How many stories can you think of where high places are used to begin or end a story?  By getting a higher perspective, you introduce a place or a visual cue to aim for while deep locations tap into the underworld meta-myth that Joseph Campbell expounds.
  • The lay of the land - You can provide access or channel direction by a mountain pass, lost trails or riverboat journey.  The route taken can offer it's own excitement - the objective is to get there anyway.
Give options.
The choice of short-term vs. longer-term goals can give relief from the main objective that persuaded them to come here, particularly if achieving that goal is a long or arduous affair.  Three options at most, drowning in choice is nearly as bad as no choice at all.  Equally at least one choice needs to offer a reward of some kind, be it tangible or something more ephemeral.
  • Activities - Few people do nothing on a journey, even if what they do is row the boat.  Imagine a landmark as an activity (e.g. dungeons are explore and pillage, mountains are climbing) and reward characters who engage with that activity.
  • Foreshadow risk and reward - A choice needs to have two things.  A risk of a bad thing happening and a reward for doing something you want to encourage; these can be linked (e.g. getting a treasure chest out of a flooding sea cave) or independent of each other (e.g. crossing a bed of geysers to reach an abandoned monastery) according to your needs.
  • Build tensions between options and goals - If you are able to pick up everything at that location then no problem.  If you have to choose between one or another it gets interesting.  Good choices make the journey easier, bad ones make it more entertaining.
Create a memory
When you get there, choices are made, actions are taken and rewards are found.  Make sure those actions and choices are memorable and that they matter.  Everyone has experienced a trip that when they got there was pretty enough and that bored them silly. Don't be that tour guide.
  • Deliver on your promises - Foreshadowing promises an event will take place.  If you've left dragon foot prints there either needs to be a dragon, the skeleton of a dragon or a giggling kobold with big dragon-shaped snowshoes and flamethrower.  Why have Chekhov's Gun  if you're not going to fire?
  • Make an impression - This not only goes for you but also for your characters.  Making a difference to their environment is one of the more rewarding things you can give without worrying about game imbalance.  Equally, going there and coming back should have had an effect on the character other than a change in wealth or shortage of ammunition.  Rewards and consequences let the audience know they do not exist in a vacumn but in a living, breathing world.
Your story or adventure is a holiday from reality - so work along similar lines to encourage your audience to take interest and participate.

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