The Gassy Gnoll: What Makes a Location Fantastic (RPG Blog Carnival)

Once in a while a question crops up via a RPG Blog Carnival topic that makes me scratch my head and ponder for a bit. And yes, before you ask, most Gassy Gnolls are predominantly pondering people. We like to ponder just as much as we like to plunder, but nobody bothers to look past our gruff exteriors to get at the chewy philosophical center. Well, nobody but the dragon that ate my brother Bob and split his thigh bone open to suck the marrow and use it like a toothpick… [shudder]

What was I talking about again? Oh yeah… pondering post topics. This month it’s Keith J. Davies who’s come up with a great one… Fantastic Locations. It’s broad enough that many people are going to dive in and describe some amazing places off the bat. I’m going to take a slightly different angle on the topic. A quick word of warning though… I may wander a bit.

What makes a location fantastic? Is it the size of the place? The opulence? The decor? Davies describes it like this: “They might be relatively normal places with small differences that set them apart from most, they might be very strange places with only enough normalcy to give them context so they can be understood at all. There may also be posts about fantastic locations as a group, such as how to describe them, how to generate them (perhaps some tools to help when you’re stuck for ideas), or what characteristics are shared by fantastic locations.”

Merriam-Webster has a few definitions for “fantastic”:

  • Something based on fantasy.
  • Something that is simply not real.
  • Something “so extreme as to challenge belief,” perhaps exceeding large or great.
  • Something eccentric and marked by extravagant fantasy or extreme individuality.
  • Something that is excellent or superlative.

When I think that something is fantastic, it falls into one of three broad categories.

  • It may simply be that something wonderful has happened and I’m truly excited about it. (“You got a new job that you love? That’s fantastic!!”)
  • It might be that it’s something that’s I’m not thrilled about and I’m being sarcastic about it. (“Your job happens to be in the gaming industry and they’re paying you a billion dollars a year? That’s fantastic. [through gritted teeth]”)
  • Or it may be that it’s truly a flight of fantasy and difficult to believe. (“You get to work with Elrond, Gandalf, and Gollum on a project? That’s… fantastic!? [aside, call some mental health professionals, stat!]”)

Fantastic locations however require a bit more finesse and a lot more flexibility I think. When Bilbo Baggins goes to Rivendell for the first time and meets Elrond, I got the impression that the green trees and fields and the majestic halls seemed fantastic on a grand scale and I doubt he was looking at it from the perspective of a realtor saying “This is truly a fantastic location!” More of a “wow factor” there. The first time I attended a concert at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, Colorado, I was wowed in much the same way – stunned at the beauty and the acoustics all wrapped up together west of Denver.

Aeronautics - Wikipedia Commons

Aeronautics - Wikipedia Commons

Fantastic locations can also simply be attributed to minor conditions or events at a particular place. For instance, a spelunker may discover a previously hidden cavern covered wall to ceiling in nothing but raw, uncut gems. Imagine the sparkle of a room full of shiny rocks the first time a torch hits them. Or even a single large gem in the middle of a dark room… Something tells me that would be fantastic as well.

But here’s the thing. Beauty, and therefore the very subjective definition of “fantastic” when it is applied to a place, is in the eye(s) of the beholder. (Has anyone stopped to ask a beholder what they consider to be beautiful? Or is that too much like asking a Vogon to read some poetry?) I guess what I’m trying to say is that context is important.

While pondering, I realized that my personal goal as a GM isn’t to create fantastic locations. My goal as a GM is to set events in motion and see where the story and the PCs take things. A fantastic location might be a simple tavern where the barkeep brews the best beer in nine kingdoms. Or the shop of the most talented blacksmith in the world. Even a villain’s lair decorated in late Inquisition decor with an iron maiden and a rack waiting for the recently imprisoned PCs… But it’s not up to me to decide whether those places are fantastic – it’s up to the players.

I think the trick is giving just enough detail to the players so that they fill in the rest. And I’ve seen far too many times when the players have taken a scene in a completely unexpected direction that’s better than I could have imagined because they put their own spin on it. Those are the moments I always live for as a GM.

So I’d encourage GMs not to dwell on creating amazing vistas and astounding castles build of black onyx with furniture made from the finest crystal… Instead, pick a few details to feed your players about a place. Not too many because you want that shared storytelling to happen at your table. Play off the player questions and let your imagination (and theirs) fill in the blanks.

If you’re describing the first time the PCs arrive at a floating city via zeppelin in a Steampunk campaign, I might write down a few key things like:

  • Steel
  • Brass
  • Pipes, chimneys, and vents
  • Propellers
  • Maintenance and dock crew like ants
Wellner sail flying machine - Wikimedia Commons

Wellner sail flying machine - Wikimedia Commons

And then I’d play it into something like this: “When you wipe away the condensation from the glass, you see through a break in the clouds a shining beacon of progress. Even at this distance the sheer weight of the hundreds of bronze tubes, tanks, and propellers must be enormous – and yet the floating citadel of the Sky Pirates hangs effortlessly in the sky. As you get closer, you can see the Jolly Roger flying high and proud and what must be people scrambling near a landing platform awaiting your arrival…”

There’s enough there that the players should be able to key off some of the details to ask questions and lead you to discover more of this floating pirate citadel on cloud nine. But the preparation, just like for a good presentation at work, isn’t necessarily to write out every sentence and paragraph to read to your players… Those few details plus a bit of improvisation should give your creativity enough to work with to create a spectacular scene with just a few words sketched out on a piece of paper.

Remember too that spontaneity counts in this context as well. If you invent something on the fly and it turns out to be amazing, roll with it to see where it goes.
There’s a balance to be achieved between hours of prep work and the spark that happens at the table.

Every game has fantastic places, but the trick is to make them work in the context of your gaming table with your players. Share the creative duties and you’ll usually end up on a grander journey than you would have on your own…

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