When running a campaign, or several stand-alone adventures that take place in and around a specific location, its often sensible to populate the players’ sandbox with details – not just the elements that make up the adventures themselves, but details that give the setting a life and character of its own, and more things for players to interact with. Growing this sense of participation and investment is key to getting players on board with your narrative.
It’s far easier to show this by means of a worked example, and, while doing so, we can demonstrate some of the emergent details that come about as a part of the process. Not all of these details are directly useful, but the conclusions we reach coming to them help us get a feel for the setting and provide interesting avenues for development.
What is it?
What purpose(s) will it serve?
Consider what the location represents, both in terms of its purpose, in-terms of the story, as well as to the players, and in general. Nowhere exists in a vacuum, and many locations are built for a reason.
What features or facilities will it need to accomplish them?
Fairly self-explanatory; a military outpost will need barracks, an armoury and so forth, while a research station will need workspaces. Once you know what the location was built for, you should be able to work out the necessary features, and flesh things out from there.
What makes it memorable/stand out?
Is there anything about the area the location is in that makes it unusual? Perhaps it has a freshwater spring, or a rock-face illuminated by phosphorescent moss. What does it look like? Is there a strange tone to the light, or is the main square fragrant with the scent of fresh spices and baked bread?
How does it fit into the setting
How do folk reach this location? Is it connected by the rail network, or is it off the beaten track? If it produces goods, or needs to import resources, how do they get there, and how regularly?
How does the location work/function?
What are the day-to-day operations that happen in the location? Is there a daily routine, or do things vary from one day to the next? Are there disruptions to the routines? What consequences does it have?
How will the players relate to the location?
Do they live here? Are they visiting? Where do they live, and in what kind of conditions? Do they have business here?
Who are the power-players?
Who is in charge, and who holds influence? Are they popular, tolerated or reviled? Why? Consider defining the power structures, and working out how they conduct themselves.
Are they held apart from the general population, or do they prefer to be one of the crowd?
Who are the normal people?
What’s the mood of the general populace? How do they live? Are they well-off, or living hand-to-mouth? What kind of lifestyle do they have? What do they do in their leisure time?
Who do they (the PCs) know?
Contacts, friends, and acquaintances will define the players’ interactions, so it’s good to work out who they know – design a couple of NPCs, and work out how what they can provide for the players.
Example Location: Hive Unity
What is it?
A Hive-City built on the borders of the Hivelands to serve as both a trading installation and embassy. A settlement spreads out from the base of the hive, and this serves as a melting pot for cultures passing through to do business.
The main components:
A skyport, for Hivelands airships
An embassy, and offices for diplomats
A rail terminal
A surrounding town, which may or may not be a wretched suburb of scum and villainy.
What makes it different?
Most Hivelands settlements are homogenous and regimented, while Unity is a melting pot for the Hivelands’ interactions with the rest of Crux. By virtue of its embassy, there’s the opportunity to meet all manner of foreign dignitaries, as well as the potential for all manner of incidents to occur.
In terms of the place in the setting, it’s a transport and trade hub, which means that it’s easy enough for plotlines to involve it, even if just passing through. An operation of this scale, in terms of both trade and diplomacy, will require substantial organisation, so there has to be people working to this end, along with people who seek to profit from exploiting the goings on..
The overall running of the Hive is taken by a pair of administrators, the Logistician and the Vigilant who deal with daytime and nocturnal matters respectively. Below them are a team of specialists who deal with particular areas of expertise
The main specialists in Hive Unity, and their areas they govern, are as follows:
The Sentry: The skyport, air traffic and signals
The Adjutant: The embassy, visiting dignitaries and matters of culture
The Quartermaster: The market ward, flow of goods and running of the trains and wagons
The Sapper: The Undercroft, keeping public order, maintainence and amenities, information gathering.
The general populace
As well as housing visitors, and traders, the Undercroft is also home to several criminal gangs, who are allowed some leeway to pursue their enterprises provided it’s kept within reasonable levels. In return, they act as an unofficial city watch within the Undercroft, dealing with problems quickly and discreetly. This sidesteps the necessity of calling out the Hive Garrison for every minor disturbance.
The soldiers of the Hive Garrison are usually present in a ceremonial capacity, on guard or on parade. Otherwise they are on standby to deal with any serious threats to Hive Unity. As befits their role, many are decorated veterans and are expected to set a brave and heroic example when in the public eye. This is to humanise Hiveland soldiers in the eyes of visitors, and to showcase their impressive regalia.
The Undercroft spreads out radially from the base of the Hive, repurposing and adapting the pre-fab buildings as they go, leading to a uniform state of wear and tear throughout the wards. It seems that even the Hivelanders’ urban squalor is efficient and functional.
The tried and tested construction methods also are evident in one of the more disconcerting aspects of the Undercroft: The wards are essentially identical in terms of layout. Some buildings may be used for different purposes, Over time, the Hivers of the Undercroft have started to adopt the quirks and convention of the Outsiders and are attempting to turn their houses into homes, with rather mixed results. It is for this reason that artists from the Hivaland enclaves passing through to the world outside are sought after by the Crofters for their expertise on matters aesthetic.
NB: Each ward is build on an identical, modular plan, so that amenities and resources can be distributed efficiently.
Hivelander iconography and craftsmanship is exemplary, but even this is a functional choice. It’s designed to inspire allies, give enemies pause, or to cultivate a mystique. The concept of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ is regarded as an almost paradoxical idea by the common Hivers. Although the strange contemplative pilgrims who leave their enclaves into the world outside would certainly be familiar with, and promote such an idea.
Emergent detail I
Addresses in the Undercroft are given a particular form, so that navigation can be easily achieved, which has the unique side-effect that most of the pedestrian traffic goes in one direction.
The form is as follows:
Ring (inner to outer),
Ward (from the gate, going clockwise)
This would be written as 1/4/2/16, for instance, operating in a similar manner to a post/zipcode.
The Hive Structure
Most of the tower of Hive Unity is taken up with the administrative and logistics offices alongside the grandiose diplomatic chambers. The usually spartan hive-interior is festooned with impressive iconography and metalwork, lending an almost Art Deco feel to the decor
The cosmopolitan attitude of the Undercroft is in stark contrast to the harsh professionalism present in the diplomatic chambers. It is uncertain whether this is down to the societal prejudices holding on since before their shardfall, but there is certainly something unusual lurking beneath that diplomatic vaneer. It’s not to say that they are unpleasant, more unnervingly aloof, their manners too perfect – some would go so far as to say “soulless”.
Many diplomats are also members of the Hivelands’ intelligence corps, and their training and ideological conditioning is evident when they’re acting in an official capacity, Of course, when they’re operating off the record, they’re no different from the next person, they wouldn’t be effective spies, otherwise…
Emergent detail II
The skyport, as well as providing mooring for airships, contains several arrays of cranes, ramps, winches and freight elevators to ferry cargo up and down the hive structure itself. Most are powered by steam engines, which can also be employed to shunt down the heavy freight brought in by rail.
The lifts are controlled by a series of threaded pillar, encircled by a triple bearing ring. Rotating the pillars raise and lower the platforms with remarkable efficiency, and are nearly silent. This particular mechanism is called a “ball screw”.
On that particular turn of phrase, I’ll take my leave, I think, before phrasing becomes a thing again.