Wednesday, January 25, 2012
Location, Location, Location.
With all the talk about the new edition, I haven't done much talking about the topic that matters to me the most. Designing and running D&D adventures. I love telling stories, and I love sharing the creation process with my players as they get to change the course of the story. I love being able to being together disparate aspects of the story into a coherent picture as the story unfolds.
Monte Cook today expressed his feelings that D&D is a lot like episodic television, and he is correct. Each adventure is an episode with common threads in a common setting that reveals part of an overall story. It will be unique and different to the adventures around it, but will still be part of the same story.
Today I want to talk about one of the elements of D&D based storytelling that all too often gets overlooked or oversimplified. The location those adventures and encounters take place in. I will be going ahead with the concept that people will use a map during gameplay, especially for encounters. I have already expressed how using a map doesn't mean tactic or mini based play, just a better and more consistent method of communicating the location to the players.
One of the things I remember about the 1E modules I read, and I read a lot of them, was the description of the locations. Most of them had a key concept and most of the adventure was designed around that. Then 2E came out and the adventures being published tended to become very setting focused, and you rarely got the same impact from the locations as they were diluted by the overall setting they tried to encapsulate. 3E had a mix, with some of the better locations coming from 3rd party publishers. 4E really hasn't impacted me much because it was the first edition that allowed you pure creativity, so I have focused more on writing than running published adventures. But the couple I have looked at seem to be similar to 3E in style, though better in presentation.
When I write I try to give each adventure a strong location, and ensure that every encounter adds to the flavor of that location. Coming up with a good location isn't too difficult, but making it more than description can be. In my current campaign, which is still in the Heroic Tier, the heroes have explored an abandoned dwarf city in preparation for recolonization, trudged through the city's overgrown and occupied aqueduct system, explored a chitine lair made of huge spheres hanging over a gravel pit and connected by webs, entered a slavers camp hidden in the hills and other locations of that ilk. All of these are locations I am proud of, they were simple but good enough to give a style to the story I was telling with the adventure. Some of my favorite locations are written down, but the players aren't there yet so I don't want to say too much.
The important point is the location is more than just the setting for the adventure, it should be something that is explored with every encounter the characters have while on the adventure. Try not to fall into the 2E trap of making your location feel unimportant because you keep referring to other places to define it, and try to avoid the all to common mistake of defining a location, and then designing encounters that could fit in anywhere and don't feel like part of the location you are trying to establish. Your players will remember your adventure for far longer if they can attach it to a detailed location, rather than a string of chambers. I know this from what I remember out of my 30 years of playing D&D.
One thing I recommend for most locations is make them special. Be fanciful and make them grand. One thing D&D has suffered from throughout it's history is keeping things small because of wanting to keep it all on a single map. Or making things large and then filling them with so many encounters that it gets very repetitive. One of the best things about the adventures I have read for 4E is locations are made as big or small as suits them, and then the encounter locations are mapped out in more detail, leaving the rest to the DM. You may have an island 10 miles across with only a half a dozen encounters on it, whereas I remember a small island in 1E that had over 40 encounters that were all quite similar. The island was great, it just felt too crowded to maintain the fantasy.
Don't be scared to make locations that extraordinary. If you want to put a city on top of a cloud, or have an adventure inside the body of a dead dragon lord, or want to go the other way and have a whole adventure inside a roadside inn, do it. Just try to make the whole story part of the location.
This is a much more complicated and controversial topic. Every edition of D&D has suffered from bad encounter location design, though 3E was better than earlier editions, and 4E tried to improve again. I want to state flat out that having 30 dungeon rooms on a map isn't designing good encounter locations, though it might be a good adventure location. Good encounter locations will contribute to the encounter or encounters that happen there, while feeling like part of the adventure location and telling part of the story.
This is why I have stated that I feel encounter maps are needed even if you don't put a grid on it and use miniatures. The information on a map will give your players ideas you never though of, and give them a lot more creative input than they will have from asking a lot of "Can I" questions. I will be moving forward assuming miniatures are used, because they really do add to the DM's ability to convey the uniqueness of any location.
But what makes a good encounter location? There is no definite answer to this, but I can express what I have found.
Firstly make the size appropriate, and by that I don't mean ensuring you don't put a dragon in a 20' x 20' room. You can convey mood very well by playing with the available space the adventurers have. A tight situation, where the players have to move around each other and get in each others way, will change not only the way an encounter is described but also the way it is played and the story it tells. An expansive room, where everything is far apart will tell a different story and convey a different mood. As a general rule I have found a 60' x 60' encounter map is a good starting point, and then I go bigger or smaller depending on the encounter that happens there. If I want to make it a multi-room encounter map I tend to make it larger to make up for the walls and corridors. Also try to think in three dimensions; adding a tower, a ledge, a pit or anything that gives three dimensions the adventurers can move in will add a huge amount to the encounter.
One of the strengths about thinking in three dimensions is the ability to control movement of both the adventurers and their enemies. If there are stairs up to an upper level, then moving up or down them can add a lot to a combat. Meanwhile your thief will be climbing over the ledge and using their skills to manipulate the combat in more ways than they ever could in a flat square room.
One last thing. You can make the location special by having it contribute powers to the fight. I recently ran a fight in a forge where anyone near one of the openings to the furnace could make an attack by pouring molten metal over people below. When an enemy did this the adventurers took note, and by the end of the fight they had turned the tables and were using it themselves. Locations can add as much or as little as you want them to.
I don't want this article to be about map design, I will cover that later. But when designing a location for an encounter, thinking about size, mood, features and movement will contribute more to the storytelling of any encounter than any amount of descriptive text.
Coming Soon: My Mapping Methods
My guide to designing and presenting maps, which is focused on well designed but simply presented.