Updated: Nov 7, 2022
A gnome rogue fires her crossbow at a goblin, and the goblin goes down. Two more goblins charge at the gnome. A goliath cleric steps out, and cleaves through the goblins in one swing. Behind them all, an eladrin warlock casts magical spells at the goblins.
All well and good, but what's missing? Context, of course.
A gnome rogue pokes her head out from behind the collapsed pillar of the ruined temple, and fires her crossbow at a goblin. The goblin goes down, toppling off the dais onto the dusty floor. Two more goblins leap off the altar and charge at the gnome. A goliath cleric steps out from behind a column, and cleaves through the goblins in one swing. Behind them all, standing outside the ruined temple, an eladrin warlock casts magical spells at the goblins through the shattered stained glass windows.
When you're running a game of any RPG, where your scenes take place matters just as much as what is happening. In a battle, it's especially relevant - not only can your players use the terrain to their advantage (as can the monsters), but it provides a context for the story. Fight scenes in RPGs don't simply happen, just like they don't just happen in movies. Action informs the story; even a random encounter reinforces the narrative that the world of the game is harsh and brutal, and your heroes could face danger around every turn. Considering the locations for these conflicts is just as important.
However, location goes far beyond just where your fights take place. Any scene, any description, anything your characters experience, is all quite literally set against the backdrop you provide. I discussed this topic with my friend Jay, and he nailed it when he said: "Unless someone says otherwise, I assume all D&D stories take place in a flat, empty landscape."
As a DM, you have a mental image in your head - maybe it's of a dense forest, or a barren, windswept plain. But your players might be picturing a field of high grass, or a mountain range. Unless you tell them where they are, their brains will fill in the gaps with what they know. This means you could have two players at the same table with radically different ideas of what's going on... and your job is to minimize that as much as possible. Without your guidance, a scene in a fantasy city might make one player imagine Rivendell, and the other might imagine King's Landing. And those are two very different experiences.
In my current Suicide Squad-style game, I deliberately move the group to a new environment in every adventure. This is done for the same reason James Bond always jets off to new, exotic locations, and why every Star Wars movie introduces a planet with a new environment; New locations keep things interesting. Now, hopefully, whatever you're doing won't be boring regardless. Whether James Bond fights a villain in Morocco or the Swiss Alps, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter that much if the fight is done well. However, if you stick around the same location for too long, the novelty of it wears off. A perfect example is season 2 of The Walking Dead - a farm is a fine place for a few episodes, but familiarity breeds contempt.
If you're going to keep your characters in one location for a long time, you need to make it interesting, and it needs to serve the story. Let's go back to The Walking Dead as an example. The farm is a safe location, but only to a point; you can see zombies coming, but it's very difficult to fortify. In addition, there's just not very much there to interact with. There's a house, a barn, and a well of water... and that's pretty much everything. In the third season, however, they found the prison, which is not only more secure, but it's a much more interesting environment to stick around in. There are multiple levels and layers, there are different rooms that serve different functions, there are spooky hallways and ominous walls, and a cool bridge that goes between two buildings, where you can have all sorts of scenes with your imaginary ghost wife.
But as I mentioned earlier, if you keep your cast in the same setting for a long time, they may be frustrated. And this can actually be used to great benefit. Looking at season 2 of Lost (slight spoilers for a season that aired 17 years ago), our main characters spend the entire season in the hatch that they spent a good deal of season 1 trying to open. Once they're inside, the hatch is full of mysteries and secrets, making it a very compelling location. However, our heroes are also stuck with it - they are saddled with the responsibilities of what waits inside, and it begins to wear on many of them. Eventually Locke, the man who defended the hatch in the season premiere, reaches a breaking point at the end of the season; he isn't just tired of being there, but he fully wants nothing more to do with the hatch or anything it represents.
In one of my D&D campaigns, the players were stuck inside the ruins of an ancient city, filled with a shantytown civilization but apparently ruled by its historical leaders. The players were wanted criminals, and when they stepped outside they run the risk of being arrested. And they were told that there is no way to leave the city, because they weren't even in their own reality (but something more like a Demiplane of Dread).
All of this was designed (by me, the DM) to challenge them and test their limits. I want them to feel like they don't have any options, because I want them to make their own options. Now, as the frustration built, I did provide some bread crumbs to lead them to the plot - they weren't just wandering around a hostile city with no goals, even if that's how it felt to them at times. And within 5 or 6 sessions, they were at least heading towards the heart of the mystery and moving into the conclusion of the story. Because you don't want to sustain that frustration for too long before actually rewarding them with the resolution of the plot.
When you're crafting a location for your games, you have to think about the story it tells. When another of my groups played through Hoard of the Dragon Queen, one of my favorite parts of the game was when they arrived in the city of Elturel. In the book, there's not a lot of detail about "Elturel," except for one specific note:
Floating above the city, there is a star-like source of light that shines on the city at all times, making it seem as if the city is perpetually in daylight. This light is said to be a gift from the god Pelor, and it harms undead creatures.
That's not a lot to go on for a city, but you can start adding to it very easily. The book mentions that there are a lot of paladins in the city, so I made that clear as soon as the players arrived. But paladins aren't monks, so when the players went to a tavern, I filled it with paladins of different gods, all drinking together (and in my version of Elturel, paladins get a discount on drinks).
I also provided a few conflicting stories about the source of the light over the city. And these stories were actually used by an NPC to prove a point about faith, something that I'm still extremely proud of seven years later. None of that is in the book, but it made sense to me that something like that might have more than a few conflicting truths about it. It's also a city that's always day, and I reminded my players that, while their bodies may be tired, the light still shone brightly outside. Different players have different reactions, of course, but Jay's bard had the most visceral reaction, growing crabby and aggressive with the perpetual daylight messing with his sleep cycle.
In encounters, a fight can be doubly important. Despite what I said earlier about how James Bond can beat up bad guys anywhere, the location of a fight really does matter. Sure, there's the tactical stuff, like how your players (and your villains) can take advantage of high ground and cover and traps and magical zones and all of that. And sure, there's the meta stuff, about how any fight moves a story forward and the location can play a role in that. But really, the most important factor is this:
We remember action scenes that take place in cool locations.
As an example, here are images of just a few of the most iconic fight/action scenes in movie history:
Note the dramatic, unique backgrounds. Note that most of these backgrounds aren't even that hard to come up with, and they're even easier to describe in memorable ways. It may seem daunting to come up with memorable descriptions, but trust me, it's easier than it sounds. That Darth Vader fight, for example, might open with this:
"You see the Sith Lord's silhouette, barely visible in the low light of the carbon freezing chamber. He stands at the top of the illuminated stairs, waiting for you."
An airfield isn't that unique a location, and if your plot involves trans-continental travel, it's fairly easy to include the airfield. But that Indiana Jones fight is memorable for the slowly moving airplane, spinning in a circle and threatening all combatants with its whirring propellers. And heck, a cable car gondola is probably the least exciting mode of transportation of all time... but if you put two people fighting either inside of or on top of that car, suddenly you are blessed with the gift of a very tense, close-quarters combat, and the potential consequence of falling thousands of feet if you're not careful. As far as adding stakes to a fight, it's sheer brilliance.
If you’re looking for inspiration or ideas, look around on the internet. There are several forums and reddit threads purely of different pictures and paintings that could work for adventure locations. And look, I'd like to tell you that every fight scene needs to be carefully woven into the story, but sometimes you just need to add a fight to keep the interest of your audience. I'd like to tell you that every location needs to make perfect sense, but that can be suspended for the Rule of Cool. (Consider the fact that nearly every lightsaber fight in Star Wars takes place next to an open pit, and not one of those pits has ever been explained or made a lick of sense.)
The truth is, this topic is still something I struggle with, more than almost any other aspect of DMing. Especially during combat encounters, I often have a very challenging time building the environments and making sure they are simultaneously dynamic and easy to understand. After all, it's easy to come up with the idea of a series of elevated platforms, all constantly shifting, that your players have to jump around on while still fighting their enemies, but unless you can communicate that idea in a clear, concise way, none of it means anything.
Although there is one last trick you can use, the "break glass in case of emergency" technique:
When in doubt, just put the fight on top of a train.
As for the location of an adventure itself, I'd like to think I have a better handle on that, but there's always more to learn. I recently came up with a cool idea for an environment, and then found myself struggling to come up with a way to describe it. It turned out I needn't have worried; as soon as I got through the opening line of my description, the players were nodding their heads. They had their mental image. I finished my description, to help guide what they saw to be closer to mine, but the truth is, they don't need to know every single detail; just the ones that matter the most.
Once you've described that the cobblestone road looks broken and ill-repaired, move on to the next detail. If it matters that the grass is a specific shade (such as yellow due to a recent drought, or purple because of... I dunno, reasons), then let them know; otherwise just tell your players where the grass is and move on. And, hey, if the grass doesn't matter, leave it out. Focus in on the most important and most memorable details. When I described Elturel, I spent much more time on the light shining down on the city then I did on the city itself. They needed to know how large / busy the city was, and that there were a lot of paladins, but beyond that, the most important detail was the light in the sky.
Once the players can clearly see themselves in the environment you've created, you've effectively transported them there. And at the end of the day, that's your primary job as a Game Master: bringing everyone at your table into the world you've created.
Discussion Question: What are some of your favorite environments from an RPG? Do you have memories of cool locations your party found themselves in? Leave your answers in the comments below!