Writing effective setting in adventures (part one)

26 11 2009

One thing that most writers (adventure or otherwise) find challenging about setting is understanding how it gives the story context

Overlooking the setting

Too many GMs spend a lot of time on plot and ensure they have great characters and expect to produce a fantastic adventure.  Setting is the most often overlooked aspect of adventure writing that is relatively easily teachable.

Certain parts of writing are difficult to impart – style and pace are the two that immediately spring to mind – but like plotting or creating believable characters, crafting great settings is something that can be learned.

Having said all of that, good setting does not mean a good adventure but it’s fair to say that bad setting can equal a bad adventure.

Stories in a vacuum

The adventure doesn’t just need things to happen – it needs somewhere for them to happen. Setting doesn’t just give the players a place to see things unfold, great setting adds to the experience.

It creates the mood and can draw the player into the story in a way that no other facet can.

Setting isn’t world building, but it’s a small step towards creating a believable world in which your characters and plot live.

Setting is not, however, just the broad brush-strokes of the world – it’s not just the background.

The link to great characters

We are all influenced by where we grew up, where we went to school, where we live.

The creation of accurate settings reflects who your characters are, where they came from and sometimes even where they are going.

Your characters may be a reflection of their environment. Or the setting may give the players an insight as to why their characters are developing the way they are.

Do your characters conform to their setting, or are they rebelling?

What are the aspects of setting?

Do you need to include scenery?

Scenery is a challenge for the fledgling adventure writer. Too much scenery and the players will feel like they’ve stumbled into a book of photographs.

Very pretty but it doesn’t go anywhere.

Yet too little and there is no context for the story.

Scenery has its place. If the scene opens with a man bursting into the room with a gun, the players don’t want ten minutes of the GM describing how beautiful the room is – they want to know what’s going to happen.

As a GM, you have to know the appropriate point to describe the scene.

You either have to delay the entrance with the pistol, or find another way of working it in.

Each scene deserves at least a few words of setting – even if it’s a familiar place. You can always reveal details bit by bit if it’s a setting frequented often.  Players probably won’t take in all of the details in one sitting anyway.

Because that’s exactly how it works in real life. You typically notice the big things first and then upon revisiting, you start to notice more and more of the details.

Eventually you would notice if something was moved or missing.

A good rule (to be stretched and bent as you see fit) is to give the description as early in the scene as possible, without it getting in the way of the story or encounter.

The second suggestion is to invest more time on scenery the first time you visit – and the more important the setting is throughout the adventure.

Place as a character

Sometimes the scenery or setting plays as big a part in the adventure as any character. In a whodunit, the murder scene is often integral to the plot.

On these occasions, as much effort should be lavished on the creation of the setting as that important NPC.

And like characterisation, you may not use all of the detail – but you had better be prepared. Hogwarts in the Harry Potter novels is a prime example.  So if you have a dungeon, what was it before it was a dungeon.  People just don’t build them.  They are typically functional building that fall into disrepair and then they become dungeons over many, many years.  The dungeon should have a flavour that reflects its original (or most recent) use. 

If you only reveal the salient points in a mystery story, you have telegraphed the plot to the player. Similarly, if you over elaborate, the player will lose interest.

Sometimes the place has an importance because of its effect on the characters – and on these occasions, it merits a greater description.

It’s a classic show and tell scenario.

You can tell the player about the character or you can show the interaction with the setting – which is always far more effective.

Your own backyard

There is a real tendency for adventure writers to fall into two opposite traps when describing a place that is familiar to them – either from real life or a fantasy setting they’ve used over and over again.

The first option is to explain every detail. Often the GM is proud of what they know or remember and they want to share this in every minute detail.

The second mistake is to assume that every player knows about New York, the Manhattan skyline or the Statue of Liberty – and so no description is given.  Or for that matter the Jedi academy on Coruscant.

In the first scenario, the player will think they’ve stumbled upon a game about writing a guidebook, not an adventure.

In the second, anyone who hasn’t visited these places (or watched the film) will feel left out.

It’s like a recipe book without a picture of what the end product is supposed to look like – you feel cheated in some way.

Include the detail that sets the scene and is relevant. Add nothing more but don’t scrimp on the ingredients either.

Change of scene

The greater the alteration of scene, the more important the description becomes – and the earlier the GM needs to reflect the change.

As an adventure writer, you know when you change scene where the action is taking place – it’s your story. But do the players?

To use a literary example, too many books transfer the action from a quiet room in the centre of Chicago to the wastes of Alaska and don’t let the player know until the second page of writing. As a reader this is most disconcerting (and the example I use is from a real novel).

If your characters experience a change of setting, you need to describe that change – even if it means holding up the plot for a minute or two.

Players that teleport, travel to another plane, enter a dark cave or simply visit a village with differing customs – they all need to be aware of what’s changed.  It sets them mentally to be prepared for other changes e.g. the NPCs may react differently to them.

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