RPG Blog Carnival – September 2013: Location, Location, Location!

On Wil Hutton’s blog Aggregate Cognizance (http://rivetgeek.blogspot.co.uk/) I recently came across mention of something called the RPG Blog Carnival, intrigued I decided to have a look at it; the idea seems to be to get groups of bloggers to all write about a monthly topic to build a dialogue across many different blods, providing different viewpoints and ideas to the viewer. The way it works is that a blog discussing a monthly topic will post the RPG Carnival Logo and will link back to the ‘hosters’ post.
The topic for September 2013 is “Location, Location, Location!” which focuses on the in-game areas where the action occurs, the main post asks a number of questions regarding locations:
How do you choose a location?
I think that any choice of location has to be guided by three main priciples:
i) Is the location entertaining/desirable for the players?
ii) Does the location fit the internal logic of the game.
iii) Is there a need for the location?
The aim of any RPG ultimately should be to provide entertainment for players and the GM, when a location is being explicitly bought into focus in a game (ie. is the setting for a scene rather than just a brief bit of description) then I think it should be because there is a need for that location in the ongoing plotline of the game or because it will provide an entertaining interlude/encounter for the players. There are cerrtain types of location that players expect to be able to access in various different gaming genres and campaigns and, unless you are deliberately trying to make a contrast or break away from stereotypes then there’s no reason not to include these locations in your game, they provide an instantly recognisable hook for the players and also increase their enjoyment.
The most obvious example of this sort of location is probably the much-maligned tavern in a D&D-esque fantasy world; we all know the score in this location, there will be a gaggle of different fantasy races, most hard-bitten drinkers, gambling and being rowdy whilst being served foaming mugs of ale on strong wooden tables. This is a very easily recognisable scene and as such the players can slip into it without worrying so much about the setting and can just concentrate on portraying their characters reaction to it, however, because it is such a well known scene, any differences that the GM chooses to inject into the location will stand out even more, drawing the players attention to them; for example if the player party walked into a tavern and their were no torches lit and everyone is sat around silently with glum faces, they would be on their guard and know that something has probably occurred.
Any location has to have some sort of logic, now given that we are talking about fantasy worlds and games the definition of logic is stretched a bit, but it still needs to make some sort of sense within the rules you’ve established for your game world; it can be quite jarring when a location seems to have no connection to the landscape or setting around it, without some sort of rationale (that can be seen by the players) or intervening travel description it can make it seems as though the location has just been slapped into a setting without any real thought.
A final question I ask myself when considering putting a location into a game is whether it is really needed; after all if the players are just stopping off briefly at a tavern to feed and water before pressing on to the main part of the adventure then a brief description of their rest stop is all that is required (assuming that no additional plot or information is to be revealed at the tavern).
How do you represent a location?
I’ve never been a particular fan of loads of scenery and miniatures when it comes to laying out a location; although such things can look stunning and very visually impressive (my wife has a collection of Dwarven Forge scenery that is beautifully cast and painted) I find that such things get in the way of the action and the RPG feels more like a game when such props are used, if people enjoy using miniatures that’s fine for their games, but personally I find that focussing too much on the 5′ square gives a more tactical-miniatures game feel to a session rather than a smoothly flowing narrative which is what I strive for in my games.
The way that I tend to represent locations is by using index cards to represent each location, the cards can have facts or aspects of the location written on them, along with the name and a brief description, I then lay these out roughly on the table to show the relative positioning of the locations in the game to each other, drawing lines between them to show how they are linked up (and writing down any impediments to movement on the lines, a simplified example is shown below:
This style of location positioning is one that I adopted after playing the FATE RPG since it conveniently allows you to represent zones (as they are referred to in that system) and also display known information about the locations in an easily visible form, i’m a big fan of this since it allows the players to note aspects of interest in a location and to work them into the unfolding drama, for example, if a player sees that the cavern has an ‘uneven floor’ he may try to use it to trip an opponent and gain a momentary advantage in combat, or perhaps he hunkers low to the floor and uses the uneveness as cover or to hide his activities from prying eyes. Anything that gets the players more involved and invested in a location and the action going on there has to be a good thing for your game and the index card model fills this box for me without getting the players too hung up on exactly how wide the drinking hall is or how many squares long the corridor is; the index card method also allows you to zoom in or out, a single dungeon could have each room or corridor as a card if your game required it, conversely an entire house might only merit one index card depending on it’s narrative importance within the game session.
How do you modify a location?
In terms of modifying a location there are a few main reasons that i’d modify a location:
i) If the location is based on a real world location but requires altering to meet the needs of my game.
ii) If the location changes or is altered in some way in game.
iii) If the plot requires some sort of addition to the location.
If I am using a real world location then I will have taken some care when initially drafting out my session so that if it does require alteration to meet the needs of my game that I have done this before a session, these alterations can take numerous forms, whether the internal layout of the building requires altering or perhaps simply a matter of scale; a couple of times I have used maps of real world locations with many rooms and have then had several of the room collapsed to give it a ruined feeling and also to cut down on the amount of wandering about that the players have to do. I generally find that, if i’m using a map of a real world location that printing it out and then making some notes/alterations on it in pencil works well since you can change these and make additional notes during the session if you require it; since I use the index card mapping method mentioned above I also divide the location up into individual cards/zones (assuming that the location warrants multiple cards or zones) at this stage, drawing rectangles or shapes on the map and numbering/naming the zones.
When a location is altered in some way or the plot requires some sort of addition I generally handle it in game, this can cover everything from natural alterations like a rockfall, player action such as spilling a barrel of oil or setting something on fire or it could just be revealing another aspect of the scene that hadn’t been specified earlier; a player might ask “is there a wheeled trolley of some sort in this library?” and, if there isn’t a compelling reason not to include one, then i’ll probably add it since it encourages players to get involved and interact with the scenery more. Another strength of the index card method is that additional aspects of the scene can simply be noted down on the appropriate index cards as they are revealed; another design maxim that I have picked up recently from reading the excellent Dungeon World RPG is to “leave some blank space”, try not to describe 100% of a scene, focus mainly on a broad overview and then pick out a few interesting or relevant details, this gives you room to maneuvre or make additions/alterations when either the players or the plot demand it.
Improvising a location
This is sometimes necessary when the player party make an unexpected sidetrek or perhaps get caught up in a small throwaway bit of plot that really interests them; if this happens the advice I would give is to run with it, the players are showing you that they are interested in the bit of plot or aspect of your game that they are pursuing, rewarding them with a small scene is a great way to encourage them to get more immersed in the game and also gives them the feeling that they have some input in the game.
By using an index card and bearing in mind to only describe a location in overview with a few flecks of detail, you can easily (using your knowledge of where the player characters are) create a simple location for the players to explore and then feed off their questions and queries to expand it if necessary; if you are not so comfortable with coming up with things off the cuff you can always prepare a few cards containing generic locations in the time between games (perhaps with a small encounter or challenge written on the card) and then tote one of these out (perhaps tweaking it for the current terrain that the players are in) when the players go exploring.
For example: If the player characters are exploring a swamp and I pull out a ‘small village of isolated farmers’ location from my deck of random locations, it is easy enough for me to tweak this and say that the village is actually a reed built hamlet of bullywugs who farm fungus and mould from the damp earth at the edge of the swamp and whom have little contact with anyone outside the swamp; if the stats for the village elder had been noted on the back it is fairly easy to re-skin this and portray it as a bullywug tribal priest or something similar. 
Vehicles as locations
A category I feel that is sometimes overlooked in RPGs is the vehicle as a location; obviously small vehicles such as motorbikes and cars etc act solely as conveyances between different locations and aren’t locations in and of themselves, however what about larger vehicles such as spaceships or longboats (to give two examples) that, whilst useful as modes of travel, are also large enough to warrant being considered locations in their own right?
What I tend to do with these locations is, when the PCs are disembarking, if the vehicle is easily accessible I have this as a single zone/card and anyone entering this zone is considered to be aboard; should a more detailed exploration of the vehicle interior be required then additional zones can be added that branch off from the initial vehicle location (renaming the initial location ‘on deck’, ‘in the docking bay’ or something similar) allowing the PCs to explore in more detail; this is only generally necessary if something dramatic is occurring onboard, such as an attack by space pirates or something similar where the character’s ability to move through the vehicle is relevant to the plot, if not then I tend to just narrate them moving through the interior and accessing whichever chamber they wish without using detailed mapping.

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