One of the things I’m enjoying about running a D&D 5e campaign is a return to setting creation. I talked a bit in an earlier post about the world I created for the campaign, and what a welcome change that was after years of pre-written material. As a busy GM I’m not knocking published material by any means; I’m not certain I could have run as much Pathfinder as I did without it. But to use Paizo as an example, their material is of such good quality that, except for adjustments I made to better suit my party and their specific narrative, I didn’t have to change the much of anything. So I was getting to check the box on the performer side of GMing, but I wasn’t getting to create much of anything.
Enter D&D 5e, and my creator itch is getting soundly scratched. Not only world creation, but locations in that world, and monsters, and magic items, and…let’s just say my group is in for some excitement in the weeks and months to come.
Today I wanted to focus a bit on encounter location creation, some of the steps I took (and take) when creating an adventure locale, and give a real example from my campaign. The example I’m going to use is an abandoned crossroads watchtower, something the group will come across as they explore the lands around the town they are currently in. I’ll be talking about this location over several posts, so I’m going to save the “big reveal” about what’s really there until after the group has explored the location. I know at least one of my players reads my blog so I don’t want to spoil anything (hi, Crystal et al!).
Location design can start in many different ways. Maybe you have a cool idea for a trap, and you build the location around that. Or you’ve designed a monster or NPC, and now you’re building its lair. In my case, I was doodling a map on some graph paper, just a tower at a crossroads, when I started to get ideas about what was going to live there. The ideas took further shape when I drew in a gallows on one corner of the crossroads. That little addition pretty much set the tone for what my players will encounter.
Try to figure out early on the defining feature of your encounter location. Usually that will be whatever inspired your location choice in the first place, but that may also evolve as you flesh-out the details. But there should ideally be one dramatic feature which sets the tone for the site. Is your location near magma? Maybe the cave is near deafening with the sound of ocean surf constantly crashing through the tunnels. Or your villain could lair in an abandoned knackery (slaughterhouse), and the smell is the first thing the characters notice. Pick one memorable detail to set the location in the players’ minds. In my case, one of the first things the characters will see is a lonely gallows set on a crossroad, drawing the eye even though there is a 50’ tall watchtower on another corner. Despite the wear and obvious age of the tower and outbuildings, the gallows seems oddly well-preserved in comparison…
As the examples above show, don’t be afraid to engage other senses besides sight. Yes, we want to tell our players what they’re seeing. But throw in details about notable sounds and smells, or describe the temperature. Though technically a visual description, give them an idea of texture as well. Is the wood worn and cracked, or new and freshly varnished? Is the stonework freshly fitted, or crumbling with age? Clean or dusty? Did the character get a face full of cobwebs when they walked in the door? If so, better get ready for possible vermin, hefty size or not. Don’t be afraid to use real world examples to help the players understand the environment you’ve created. In the case of the knackery example above, ask the players if they’ve ever smelled spoiled food, especially meat. Smell is one of our strongest sense memories, so if even one of them has you’ve just made that encounter a little more vivid for that player.
One note: Be careful in describing particularly gory scenes in your games. Not everyone has the same tolerance for gore, or descriptions of disease and so on. Be mindful, and check with your players ahead of time if you aren’t sure of their tolerances.
Next post, we’ll look at filling in the details around your initial idea to bring your new location to life. Meanwhile, feel free to share any tips or ideas you have in the comments.