Tabletop for Two: Episode Ten
This episode covers ideas and strategies for making your settings, environments, and locations feel exciting and vibrant!
In the episode, Jonathan and I discuss the different types of locations you might want to include in your game, including ideas for different atmospheres and how to tap into them easily.
Watch the Episode
Below, you’ll find our show notes and the topics we cover during our discussion.
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Part One: Why Are Locations Important in ttRPGs?
We wanted to start with this question so we’re clear about what locations are adding to the tabletop experience.
Settings are important because they, well, setting the stage! Setting is the playground for your cool characters to do stuff in, and the best environments offer lots of stuff to do. That could be interesting, vibrant people with cultural quirks, or fantastic and strange/scary beasts to fight or befriend, or places to discover or survive. Ultimately all of these work together to convey something important to your party about the place, the setting the adventure takes place in.
For me (Beth), creating an immersive setting and finding ways to make the space around the PC feel like a character itself, is one of my favorite parts of writing for D&D, and it’s one of my goals in any adventure I publish. I want the player to feel absolutely immersed in the environment.
Part Two: Types of Places, Locations, Settings, Environments, Etc.
First, to clarify, these aren’t technical distinctions that you’ll find in a literature textbook or anything like that, but we did want to spend a few minutes outlining the different types of places you might be crafting in your games.
Locations: City, Town, Kingdom
I like to plan narrative arcs based on locations, and that usually involves setting up a political structure and some kind of social organization which will vary depending on the size of the place where we’re going, the power structure and its alignment with the PC and the villain (or other opposing force), and my goals for the region’s place in the overarching narrative of the campaign.
Settings: Dark Fantasy, Medieval, Faerie Realm
Setting is almost more about mood—how does this particular space feel?
One of the pieces of advice that is common among D&D writers and, I would hazard, GMs as well is that we should avoid telling the PC how they feel. “You see a giant spider, and a twinge of fear ripples down your spine.” Instead, we want to think about how we can describe that spider in such a way that it inspires a feeling of fear in the PC. (Trust your player to do the work!)
But let’s take a step back to before we’ve placed the spider there. While prepping the setting where the spider is going to be, my question as the storyteller is how I can make the setting one that inspires that same sense of foreboding, one where any number of creatures hide in the shadows, and it’s almost a relief that it’s only a giant spider when it emerges from its web and gnashes its pincers at the PC?
We’ve also found that different characters lend themselves to different environments. My PC Briseras loved the spooky setting of Steymhorod—she thrived there. And then a bubbly character like Persephonie, even when she’s somewhere scary and oppressive, she’s still going to have fun and bring light while she’s there. Iellieth’s narratives tend toward seriousness; the stakes remain readily apparent. And in this example, I’m talking about my PCs who are also characters in the Age of Azuria epic fantasy series, but these tendencies for their characters remain whether we’re playing with them at the table or I’m writing scenes for them in the novels.
Environments: Desert, Forest, Tavern
I think it’s important to recognize that environments aren’t limited to natural environments. A friendly tavern is just as much an environment as a haunted forest or elegant ball.
For these spaces, I wonder if we lean over-much into trying to make them feel unique instead of letting the trope do its work for us and accessing stories and locations already in the player’s imagination?
We suggest leaning into the expectations of a space and then adding unique details to help set it apart and surprise your player.
Part Three: Methods for making them feel real and incorporating their stories
This can be ambient music, like from Syrinscape or a videogame soundtrack, or it can be more mood-based, where the immersion is in the emotion of the place and less in what one would hear while there.
The Little Details
For these, I think of the clothes the character might wear to fit in (or stand out), which is going to say a lot about class and class divisions in this space.
Perhaps there’s a particular creature or creature type native to the region that you want to emphasize, or a unique flora or fauna. We talk about encounter prep in a previous episode, which you can check out here!
Food and drink—at the table and in-game—can be really special here too.
A few questions to think about for social cues in a region:
- Is this a highly religious area?
- What might clue the PC in to the beliefs of the people of this region?
- What’s the guard presence like?
- How at-ease do the shopkeepers seem?
- How easy is it to get a room?
- What’s inflation like, or what goods are available?
Jonathan and I hope you enjoy this episode of Tabletop for Two!
What are your favorite questions or considerations when prepping settings? Where do you get your inspiration? Let us know in the comments below!
If you like what you’re reading, please consider supporting the blog by purchasing our adventures and supplements in our shop or on DMsGuild or sponsoring us on Patreon. We’d also love for you to follow us on Twitter and Instagram and/or for you to share the blog with your friends. We appreciate you so much! Thank you for reading. – Beth and Jonathan