Monday 3 April 2017

Hints & Tips - Tips on Generating Sci-Fi Locations

On the first Monday of every month, read a new hint or tip from Jonathan Hicks, as featured on and available on Kindle as 'The Book of Roleplaying Hints, Tips and Ideas'.

We've all experienced the thrill of space exploration through science fiction movies, books and other media. We've seen some amazing things, from imagination and from deep- space pictures. How can you inject some of that wondrousness into your own Sci-Fi locations?

Flying through space and having adventures is fun, but there's another angle to the experience and that's discovering new things that really stick in your mind.

Take the following two examples, and see which description stands out more:

(a) The starship landing pad is made of slabs of metal, overlooked by several domed hangars and a small tower-topped control tower.

(b) The starship landing pad is a huge circular affair with a great roof that opens like flower petals when ships approach. The surrounding hangars are domed, covered in blue-grey vines. The control tower hovers above the hangars, continually moving on its jets to watch over the area. Great cliffs surround the location, and green waterfalls cascade into the crystal clear waters that surround the site. Lizards hop from tree to tree.

Example (a) could be any landing pad on any world, whereas example (b) is defined by the technology, the foliage and the terrain, adding not only an identity but an atmosphere.

Make It Big

Why make a location normal when you can make it huge? The greatest way to inspire a player is make something large. If the PCs are going to meet a contact on a world, then don't have them meet in a small copse of trees next to a stream - that sounds too much like Earth. If they are to meet in such a place, then make it big! The trees are three hundred feet high, fifty feet thick. The leaves are the size of men. The ground is covered in huge four-foot fern-like growths, red in colour. The clouds roll overhead at great speed.

Simply taking what would be a normal location and making it larger than life increases the spectacle of it all.

Make It Better

Why have a car when you can have a jet-powered hover vehicle? Why live in a building when you can live in a pre- fabricated geo-dome? Why fly your spaceship to a satellite when you can fly it to an orbital sat-habitat, two miles long and housing a hundred thousand people?

Increase the concept of the visuals of the location you are trying to describe. To do this, just take an everyday object - such as a car, a toaster or an elevator - and add a bit of pizzazz. A car can be an air vehicle, zapping between the towers of a future city; a toaster can be a small hand-held unit that you just wave over bread and, hey presto - toast! An elevator can be an anti-gravity tube - just step in it and float to the next floor. Adding these details into a location can add a dimension of difference to increase the atmosphere.

Make It Different

Let's say the PCs have crash-landed their shuttle on a jungle world. It could be easy to simply say that they're in a moist tropical environment, like the jungles of Earth, and that would most likely describe the location well. At least, well enough if the PCs actually were on Earth! If they're on another planet you want to add some details so that they feel they're interacting with something fantastic. For example, let's take two places: natural and man-made:

To get across the idea of a different natural locale, you could add details such as:

The trees have translucent leaves, and the sap is visibly coursing through them.
They grow so high they bend under their own weight, so the top of tree touches the ground and takes root, creating strange half-hoops.
The hills are almost uniformly high, with the strongest trees growing straight up on top of them.
The ground is covered in dead leaves and foliage, a grey- blue mass of wet grime.
There is very little sound except for the soft hum of the wind, and a weird hooting call that echoes through the trees.
Lizard-like creatures with six limbs and bright pearlescent feathers on their backs leap from branch to branch and chitter noisily.
Long smears of cloud stretch from horizon to horizon.
The ringed sister planet hangs in the pink sky.

Why talk of a simple jungle when your players can have a go at visualising that?

As for the man-made setting, you could go something like this:

The building is nestled into the side of the mountain as if it grows from it, the sheer face of he rock blemished by the ugly, six-tiered, ninety-floor construct.
Its face is glass and steel so the rest of the landscape is reflected in its surface.
The waterfall that cascades from the top of the cliff pours down half the building to the wide river below, the only access to the place is across a single, raisable suspension bridge.
On each tier sits observation domes for the security personnel, and on the third tier is an extended platform for incoming starships.
Vehicles swoop and hover about the whole scene like angry bees. Cars swarm across the bridge continuously.
Great floodlights illuminate the building, so from far off it appears as a blinking crystal in the mountains.

Take something normal and place it in a location where it shouldn't be, surrounded by things that shouldn't exist. This creates a great visual for your players and also helps define the alien, otherworldly quality of the place. Science fiction deals with things that can be considered archetypes, such as wheel-shaped space stations and dome-covered moonbases. And all these things are good but can become stagnant with continuous use. Add some flair, take some risks; it doesn't matter if the place you create is a bit strange and that the things you describe shouldn't work or even exist in the natural order of things. That's what makes a great science fiction setting.