Want to make your fantastic locations more memorable to the players?
When, at first, I played roleplaying games I wanted it to be like the movies - big, explosive, action-packed. But after saving planets and rescuing whole races in distress, blowing up super weapons and defeating new terrible threats, the galaxy into which my character had been born was growing stale. It was the same with many of the other players. The clatter of dice had lost its music.
One day a group of gamers (who shall remain nameless) sat down to do a game and the Gamesmaster really hadn’t anything ready to run, just a few plot ideas he had and a couple of notes, so he just looked at his players and asked ‘so, what are you going to do?’ The players were stunned; here they were, docked in a space station in the middle of nowhere with free reign to go where they wanted, and they didn’t know what to do. Without Gamesmaster guidance they were stuck.
Until one of the players said ‘do you remember that corporation boss whose daughter we rescued on that planet with those two asteroids as moons? Perhaps we could go and pay him a visit. He did say come back anytime’.
It’s decided. The players decide to head for the planet where the boss is. They know where it is - they’ve been there a few times. Or they could have gone and visited the tribesman whose people were saved from the renegade demolition crew. Or they could pop back to that bar they visited on the second moon of the last system, see what was going on. Call old NPC’s they had befriended to see how they were, get a job and call other NPC’s who owe them a favour who are skilled enough to help. Pay off old debts.
The players were able to travel the sector of space and decide where they would go. The sector was alive to them, it wasn’t a painted black and white setting laid out by a Gamesmaster and helped along by action and explosions. They could interact with it. An entire new perspective was born within the galaxy.
If this kind of roleplaying appeals to you then read on - this little piece may help, or at least point you in the right direction.
CREATING THE REALITY
Have you ever noticed how easy it is to run a game set on a planet known within an official licensed movie roleplaying setting? If you run a game on Tatooine from Star Wars, say, in Mos Espa, then the players are going to be able to feel comfortable and part of the setting because they know the place. They know that there is Pod Racing there, that they can get parts from Watto’s junkyard. If they go to Mos Eisley they can get a drink at the cantina from Wuher, that they can catch a ship to the other side of the galaxy, and if they’ve read the books or the source material then they can ask about for certain personalities that can aid them.
Wouldn’t it be great if you could run a game set on your own worlds, your own locations filled with your own characters that the players can get used to, visualise and interact with as naturally as the ones in the films and books.
First of all, you’ve got to create a place that is going to be instantly recognisable by the players. If you’re an artist, so much the better, but it’s just as easy to put the visualisation into the players mind by graphically describing the location. Some people say that long-winded description is dull, but I believe that the GM can use that description to initially describe setting. Planet log sheets are good but they lack depth. The look of the place can be imprinted on the players and then brief descriptions on return journeys are all that’ll be needed in later games.
We’ll use an example planet, which we’ll call Nebrassa to illustrate my meaning. The examples will be in italics.
Now, the initial location must be communicated to the players. Instead of giving them a standard description of the planet, narrate the approach to the world, taking in any other spatial matter around the system. Make it good - if you’re a GM then you’ve probably got a flair for the dramatic and can roll this kind of stuff off. For you’re initial description, write it down. Spend a little time writing up a narrative to read to the players as they approach the world. It can be split up to include any roleplaying or action scenes that may occur.
For example, let’s say that the players are approaching the world of Nebrassa where they are to meet a contact that will introduce them to a gunrunner. In orbit, the game dictates that they will be stopped by a navy warship, and, if they don’t react sharpish, may even be boarded.
So you could start the first paragraph like this:
The hyperspace tunnel collapses, turning the stars from streaks into points of light. The planet of Nebrassa rolls into view. It is a muddy-brown world, with thick cloud cover over the equator and wide reflective oceans. The navigation computer tells you it is a swampy world, but you don’t need a databank to tell you that. All you have to do is look at the world. Two large grey moons orbit closely at either pole, with several smaller bodies further out. A thin ring of dust encircles the planet, reflecting a rainbow of colours from it’s crystalline content. Your ship approaches for orbital insertion.
It’s at this point the players are allowed to interact with this, the first view of their planet. Extra notes about tiny details may be necessary just in case your players are exceptionally perceptive.
This is also where the players will get a feel for what kind of world they are over when the naval warship approaches. If the players are going to be coming here often it helps to make the initial NPC contact a memorable one. There are far too many instances where the players land, a custom officer says ‘one hundred credits, please’ and then walks off. That’s it. Quite unremarkable. Generalising characters are fine for background painting, but make sure you’ve got several stock characters for the odd Joe Public off the street the players may ask for directions or advice from. For more information, see the chapter ‘Creating Interesting NPCs’.
So, the players meet up with the customs frigate. If this is going to play a major part in the scenario then make sure the stats and personalities are laid out for the officer of the ship. It’s through this character the players may learn a little of the planet.
‘It’s very simple,’ says the customs officer, his bushy eyebrows constantly twitching, ‘you can carry light weapons but nothing heavy. There are fines for infractions, set terms for major ones. There’ll be zones on the surface marked red on your sensors - these are no-fly areas. If you stray into them you’ll get shot down or arrested with no appeal, got it?? Landing costs 100 credits plus 50 every day after. Ask the Portmaster for rules and regs. Now, your ship’s clean. Beat it’.
This little encounter, brief or long depending on what the players do, say or have in their hold, sets up what the planet will be like. The customs officer may have been polite, explaining the law of the world and handing out any data chips with maps and instructions. He could simply have boarded, searched, and sent them on their way. A world is usually governed by a simple attitude that is present in its denizens. If the world is oppressive then the inhabitants could be cynical and unfriendly. A world covered in clubs and nightspots might be friendly and warm, an industrial world would most likely be indifferent to the presence of the PC’s (‘we get hundreds like you through here every day’). Setting the feel of a world is not done through a simple description of the globe. It’s also done through the attitude of its inhabitants.
The next part of the introduction is getting the players down to the surface. If you have filled out a planet log then take the atmosphere into consideration. Is the world wet and damp? Then when they hit the atmosphere they’ll be flying into thick cloud, maybe even a little lightning. Dry and warm? Then describe the land spiralling out before them, no cloud cover to obscure their vision. The details of the land become more defined as they approach the surface.
Nebrassa, it’s clouds seemingly still, starts to grow in the window. As the ship starts to vibrate slightly during atmospheric entry you see that the clouds are actually heaving with activity. They roll and pulsate like something alive, the violent storms below them churning them up. Flashes of light streak through the moisture as lightning touches down on the surface. Then you’re enveloped by the cloud, thick oppressive cloud that forces you to fly by instrumentation alone. Bursting out from beneath that cloud is almost a relief.
Give the planet character. Give it a sense of realism. Give it a quirk or a feature that defines its originality. Nebrassa appears to wear a belt of cloud whilst its poles are apparently clear. This is what makes a planet different from the rest.
There will be a place on the surface where the players will first touch down, where the landing bays are, where the population resides. If the reason the players are there does not concern the main city (or cities) then fine - they can either hear about the city or do a fly-over, and then you can go into a separate description of the other location. For now, though, lets concentrate on the one place.
Most cities are built the same. Sprawling urban areas surrounding a central ‘hub’ that enables the residents to congregate and trade. This usually consists of buildings of varying heights depending on function and ownership. Look at the world around you. No matter where you go this is the general layout of a city.
You have to make your city a distinct place that dominates the view. If the planet is covered in small settlements then fine - concentrate on what these little places look like but give them something that no other place has. In many cases, cities and towns are built to complement their surroundings, so the surface of the planet must be taken into consideration before anything else.
The capital city of Nebrassa, Nebro, is a strange sight to behold. The misty belt of the planet creates huge banks of fog and incredibly sodden ground, making direct surface dwellings difficult. Therefore, Nebro has been built on huge legs. As your ship approaches, you see that the city is a collection of several platforms of varying heights, rising from the fog below on thick, durable stilts. Each platform is covered in tall buildings that are rounded off at the top, some open like flower petals to serve as landing platforms. Walkways and speederlanes intersect each platform and wind around the buildings. All in all, you’d guess that the city was large enough to contain over two million citizens.
Why was Star Wars’ Cloud City such a wonderful city? Was it wonderful because it mined Tibanna gas and had Lando Calrissian as an administrator? Of course not. You don’t find out these details until after the characters touch down. Cloud city is wonderful because it floats among the clouds, because it is so huge and yet looks so delicate as it hovers in the sky. That is what amazes the characters when they first see it, which is what stays in their minds. That is what you have to create - a location that is remarkable and unforgettable.
When the players walk down the ramp of their ship they’ll want to see, hear and smell their surroundings. That first impression of the world they are going to explore is what will dominate their senses.
First of all, what will the characters see? Landing on a desert planet is simple - sand and more sand, or sandy walls if they touch down in a landing pit. On more temperate worlds they’d see rolling greenery, maybe covered in patchy swampland or deep pools. Make sure you have a visual worked out to describe to the players. Their first view of the new world will pretty much dictate how they view the rest of the planet or location they are in.
The landing platform hangs over the city’s edge, allowing wisps of thick fog to creep over the edges. It is well worn and obviously used constantly - burn marks from retro thrusters and patches of grime denote frequent landings and take-offs. The streets and buildings at the edge of the platform are bustling with activity, with beings from all walks of life and dozens of different worlds go about their business. Thick pipes seem to protrude from every wall and several places in the ground, making it seem as though a network of tubes runs throughout the city. It makes it appear strangely organic. Dull grey metal stands proud on every building - the place was obviously built for practicality and not to serve any architect’s whimsies.
Now come the sounds they will hear. Out of the way places with little to no activity will be sullen and quiet, with the odd whoosh of a starship and humming generator. Heavily populated planets will contain multitudes of sound, from screaming vehicles to the murmur of crowds to the blare of sirens and the cacophony of trade halls.
The city is strangely quiet as beings keep themselves to themselves. The sounds of the place are muted as the fog creeps silently over the view. Every now and then a travel tube roars as a pod shoots down it or there’s a drone as a vehicle passes by. The main noise comes from the Aircars and starships criss-crossing the skies above - this far up in the city is where many of the landing pads are.
With a new location come new sights, sounds and lastly smells. The smell of location doesn’t play a huge part in its description (after all, it’s very difficult to imagine a smell) but nonetheless adds a little more depth.
The strange odours forced up your nose are peculiar to say the least. Like a mixture of rotting vegetation and grease. As you head into the crowds this is replaced by purified air as huge atmosphere regulators keep most of the fog at bay. This smells almost metallic, with false chemicals added to make the majority of beings comfortable, like chlorine and white spirit mixed.
After that, it’s up to you, the GM, to add the little bits and bobs that will bring the setting to life. As stated before, take a look at the NPC creation tips on this part of the site. They’ll help you create personalities that will inhabit the setting you’ve created. Its all well and good having the location laid out, but if there’s buildings there’s life (usually).
Remember the golden rule - no two places are alike. If the players touch down in a city that you haven’t made any decent notes for, the chances are your description is going to be lame and uninspiring. This will mean the players will be at a location that won’t stick in there minds.
If you want your players to visit your creations, then don’t let that happen. The galaxy is alive if you say it is.