Writing effective setting in adventures (part three)

29 11 2009

As I conclude this series on setting, I’ll next cover the  often-misunderstood tactic of the use of nature in setting.


The time of year may be incidental to your adventure, but even so, you may be able to use it to dramatic effect.  First you should consider the role of the seasons. Do they, in some way, link to the story? Is there a birth or death for example? Is a character in the autumn of they years?

Secondly, you can use atypical weather to denote something is either very good – or very wrong.

A sunny day in the middle of winter spells optimism.

A downpour in the height of summer casts an inevitable gloom.

The weather can be the portent of something to happen (or reflect what is happening).

You don’t need to handle the link too heavy-handed. The best links are natural and appear almost incidental.

The players will make the link subconsciously and that is in your favour.

Getting it right

Unless you know specific aspects of weather intimately, don’t guess at them. Do your research.

Unless you’ve experienced a hurricane or a blizzard, you don’t really know what it’s like.

It’s a bit like people who tell you they’ve got the flu.

They have a cold.

People who have ever truly had the flu know the difference. And it annoys them when people describe their sniffle as the flu.

Similarly, poorly described settings that involve snow will frustrate people who live in areas that get a lot of snowfall.

As will anyone who reads an attempt to get the weather right by guesswork.

Weather as an event

If the first two reasons for using nature and the weather as to either provide a backdrop or to act an a metaphor, the third option is arguably more important.

Sometimes the weather is either a major aspect of the adventure – the impending arrival of a tornado or the effects of an earthquake – or it is a factor in the story.

The blizzard in Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ is a prime example here as it keeps the characters isolated.

How do you use mood in setting?

From time to time the setting doesn’t add anything to the story in itself. You may think that adding any words to the setting gets in the way.

At this point, it is worth considering if the story has enough ‘mood’ to carry the tale, or if the appropriate setting can add to the mood.

It could be as simple as the darkness of night, the sound of distant thunder or the desolation of the wilderness.

An often-overlooked aspect of setting is the role that culture plays

You can’t have one…

Just like a horse and carriage, you can’t have setting without a nod to culture.

The culture doesn’t change the setting specifically – but it does dictate how the characters see and interact with the setting.

And it affects the way the players view the NPCs.

A boardroom full of men and women can be the setting.

As you read that sentence, you may interpret nothing strange.

If the story was set in the 1920s, the culture of the era dictates that either the women were visitors, or in subservient roles, or this was not a typical boardroom.

The setting hasn’t changed, but our interpretation of it has because of the prevailing culture.

Moreover, we will change our view of the characters in the room as a result.

What’s the best way to avoid clichés?

The boring standards

‘It was a dark and gloomy night.’

I’m sure it was, but a players deserve better than this.

It’s a phrase that sounds so bored it makes the player think the GM can’t be bothered. And if the GM can’t be bothered, why should the players?

The confused metaphor

‘It was a virgin field, pregnant with possibilities.’

My English teacher taught me that example, almost thirty years ago.

This isn’t just confused; it’s a mixed metaphor. Be aware that your description has to make sense.

‘The stench of body odour overwhelms you. It reminds you of…’

Unless it’s really important, does it matter what it reminds the players of? They got the idea already – body odour.

It’s unpleasant. It stinks.

The particular fragrance of body odour isn’t particularly necessary. Unless of course it is necessary. Otherwise, credit the players with some imagination.

Having said that, you could introduce the smell before we know it is body odour. That would be valid.

The overly obscure metaphor

Some GMs are aware of the boring options and are clever enough not to confuse the player, but they want to be inventive.

‘He stood on the deck of the ship like a goalkeeper waiting for a free-kick to be taken.’

Ten out of ten for originality, but zero out of ten for comprehension. What on earth does it mean?

Trying too hard to make the metaphor original also makes it unintelligible.  And in a fantasy setting, who’s heard of football?

Point of view and characters

What do the characters know?

The GM is in the head of the characters, and so they must see the setting through the same eyes.

Would the PC urban doctor know every type of tree in the woods? Would he know an antique clock from a reproduction?

Be aware of how you introduce the setting and which descriptions you use to allow the player to see the scenery.

You shouldn’t short-change the PCs to keep the description honest, but you have to be descriptive too.  If they don’t know the names of the trees, describe their colours, their shapes, their leaves etc.

By the same token, the PC doctor wouldn’t pay much attention to the trappings of an operating theatre.

Although a novice PC might wonder at the machinery or instruments, the doctor’s interest would be in the patient or the type of operation about to be performed.

What do your characters feel?

We often perceive setting based upon our own preconceptions and experiences. One man’s idyllic deserted beach is another man’s desolate wasteland.

As noted previously, the setting hasn’t changed – but the description has.

It’s also worth noting that our emotional state will affect how we view our surroundings.

Being nothing more complicated than happy will make us more positively disposed to our setting. It also affects what we notice.

The dreaded infodump – the pre-game literature

Often GMs will provide players with a small library prior to the game starting.  They call it ‘essential background reading.’

Worse still, they complain when the player’s don’t read it.  If you are one of those GMs, consider this:

If you are GMing an adventure for first level characters, how much would they really know of the world beyond the village they live in?  That comes as they progress.  They learn about the politics of the court, the common religions and the geography of the world as they interact with new people.




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