As we explore the landscape of Tolkien’s Middle Earth, we are presented with interesting location after interesting location. Some are more notable and memorable than others, but why is that? How can we reverse engineer the tricks that he and other fantasy authors employ, so that we can create better places for our adventurers to visit? Join me as I take a look at how to create compelling locations for your D&D games.
Location, Location, Location…
All the great cities, whether real or fictional, are where they are for a reason. And don’t forget, they didn’t start out as a city! Cities grow over time once the seed has been sowed. A hamlet becomes a village, a village a town, and a town eventually becomes a city. The deciding factor for growth can often be broken down to a single reason – footfall.
Roads spring up organically based on the trails people leave on their way from point A to point Z. There is only so far they can walk or ride. This can lead to the construction of small hamlets, which usually have an inn as their focal point. Once you consider the fact that people are needed to run said inn, you can easily see how a small settlement can grow — before you know it, this little hamlet will have slowly become a market town. This process can be accelerated if there are two or more roads that pass through the settlement, creating supply hubs for other settlements close by, alongside additional storage and warehousing. You might also find fledgling settlements next to rivers and bodies of water, usually close to good sources of fish.
So far we have discussed the practical reasons of why small hamlets crop up, but there can be plenty of other motives for a D&D location, and the venue doesn’t even have to be a city. It could have religious significance, be used for arcane ceremonial purposes, or be a source of great magic. The choices really are endless — but as you can see, the setting will always have a reason for where it is located, and whatever that reason is will shape it.
Kings, Queens, And The Ruling Elite.
Nothing says importance like a city that’s home to a King. These cities will be grandiose and majestic and have much of the legal and practical infrastructure for ruling a Kingdom on hand. The architecture will likely be grand and the higher-ups will have expansive housing overlooking the peasants below. As for the rest of the city? Expect corruption beneath the surface, with parts of the city off-limits to the law, and instead ruled by the criminal underworld.
The ruling elite may not be a King, Queen, or other such benevolent rulers. It could be a forest encampment inhabited by bandits led by a ruthless and heartless thug, hellbent on killing all who travel the lands surrounding. Maybe the location is deep within the mountains; an ominous cave where only the strong dare go, perhaps to kill a dragon.
By adding a ruler or other such important character, beast, or legend, you give the location credibility and importance. It becomes an integral part of the story. Its reason for being there is justified, and — if planned well — your location will start to feel significantly more real.
Landmarks are another important element of a solid location, and are often what your party will use to navigate the area. They may also serve as stopping points giving you the opportunity to run an encounter. Think about how the location will serve you and your adventurers — is it a clearing surrounded by trees? Or some castle ruins? What advantage does the location give them? Remember to consider the disadvantages as well — is this a popular place? Is it off the beaten track? How does it dominate the skyline, and what vantage point does it bring?
Make the place feel right. If there are orcs or trolls, leave behind hints for the party but don’t give away too much; let them uncover things naturally and at their own pace. Use all of the tools you have to push the story you are trying to tell. Most importantly, whatever happens must make sense. Don’t force something that doesn’t fit. If the location is built on top of a burial mound and at night the spirits of soldiers long dead roam the landscape, give them clues and allow the group freedom to solve the puzzle and explore!
When I say architecture, I don’t just mean the building. It applies to the makeup of the location. You are crafting this location so make it look amazing. Sketch out your ideas. Write down the feelings that a person should feel; happy, sad, alone, scared, safe. What tone do you want this location to set? Think of the colors they would see. Is it bright or covered in shadows? If there are buildings, how old are they, are they close together or spread apart? Is the location in good repair, or abandoned and falling apart? Knowing the make-up of the area will help you in your storytelling and campaign planning.
The final thing I want to talk about is back story. I’ve touched on several elements that you should include already but there are plenty more to think of. Remember, there is a reason for this location. It could be geographical or have special meaning. It may be new or old — aa resting spot or a place for a good ambush. But what about the history?
Your party will not be the first to have visited this place — it has its own story to tell. It could be something that you keep for your records. Perhaps there are clues as to why and what happens there. You should know everything you can about the location. Write short stories and go back as far as you have to and as many times as you need.
I hope this gives you some helpful tips on creating notable locations. Most of all you and your party should have fun. Do what you feel is right and be creative with your reasons for what has transpired. Don’t force it, but do explore the different angles. The more notes you have, the more real this place can become — which is especially needed if your party decides to really start exploring.
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