by Mike Shea on 11 July 2016
In typical published adventures, locations and the creatures within them are tied closely together. There is no Castle Ravenloft without Strahd and his strange menagerie of followers. There is no Velkenvelve without the dark elf slavers who run the subterranean den of evil. As DMs, we often tie our locations, stories, and monsters together into a single unit.
When I started thinking about Fantastic Locations, I asked this question. How come our locations, stories, and monsters are tied so closely together? In many cases our locations have nothing to do with the monsters that inhabit them. In Scourge of the Slave Lords, the slavers themselves reside in the ruins of an old temple. The keep in Village of Hommlet has centuries of history even if it simply houses evil bandits working for a cultist.
When we're considering our game's world, there's no reason we have tie locations, monsters, and stories together. In many cases, it's useful to keep them separated.
Separating locations from stories and monsters helps us focus our time on the location; its history, its structure, its fantastic qualities; without having to worry about who is there or what's going to happen. This makes good locations reusable even if our group heads off in a different direction. It keeps interesting locations independent from the power of the characters or the progress of the story. It helps ensure that locations are solid things that feel real to both us and our players without making them so rigid that they don't actually come across in our game.
Great locations are one of the things worth spending our time on, even if we're a lazy dungoen master. Our time won't be wasted on them. They will work regardless of how we and our players steer the game. Notebooks full of storylines and detailed histories aren't as useful as a notebook full of interesting places our PCs can visit and explore.
Detailed locations can become an interface between our players and the history of our world. Players want to see stuff. They want to do stuff. When they're exploring an ancient pillared ruin sunk deep into a fetid swamp, it's interesting that the statue's head they're hanging off of is the head of Emperor Araxis, the tyrannical serpentine emperor rumored to have bathed in the blood of children to keep himself young.
We might have a hundred thousand words of history banging around in our notebooks, our wikis, or our heads. We can break that history down into nice tweet-sized units and wrap these tiny bits of history around tons of objects all throughout our locations. Every pillar can be a carving of a famous figure or a terrible horror of history. Every wall can be a mosaic of a war from 300 years ago. Every tome can, in summary, tell the tale of the queen who slew her sister and stole the throne.
The lazier we GMs get, the more fuzzy our world becomes. We don't know what anything looks like until we and our players put our minds' eyes on it. This can be a problem if we or our players aren't very good at making things solid at the table. Our monster manuals help with this. You know what's solid? An iron golem, that's solid. Monsters are solid. Good loot from the Dungeon Master's Guide is solid. A lot of our rules are solid like 8d6 fireballs and +7 attack rolls with advantage.
Storylines aren't solid. Which monsters might appear in any particular game don't necessarily need to be solid. 13th Age taught us to be ready to come up with all sorts of different monsters depending on how the icon rolls go at the beginning of a game.
Locations can be solid too, if we build them right. Spending the time to build out a ruined castle half buried in the side of a mountain gives us something else that's solid. Maybe it has animated skeletons in it. Maybe it's infested with wererats. Maybe it's home to a fallen dwarf king or a group of cultists who worship Ogremoch. What matters is that it has towers and a throne room and a secret treasure vault and a network of forgotten sewers that lead into a labyrinth of caverns once ruled over by the dragon king Infernus. That stuff is solid.
There's an unwritten truth that many adventure writers know and believe. We don't just allow people to change adventures for their table, we hope for it. We BEG for it. I would love to hear how people twist Vault of the Dracolich to fit their own adventures, tearing out all of the monsters in there and replacing it with entirely new monsters, new stories, and new details for their own group. One of my proudest moments in this hobby of ours was opening up the back pages of the Dungeon Master's Guide and seeing the map to Vault of the Dracolich; a map Teos Abadia, Scott Fitzgerald Gray, and I designed and Mike Schley made real; offered up as a generic map for DMs to use however they see fit. We don't begrudgingly accept that people are going to twist adventures like The Innocent or the Drowned Tower to fit their gaming table. We want it. Rip it to shreds, pull out the parts that work for you, and discard the rest.
Published adventures like Hoard of the Dragon Queen, Rise of Tiamat, Princes of the Apocalypse, Out of the Abyss, and Curse of Strahd are packed with great locations for you to abstract from the rest of the adventure and drop into your own campaign wherever they work.
As we travel through this big world of ours, we can fill up our own portfolios of wonderful locales, place we can drag out at a moment's notice and suddenly make real. Maybe it's an old Mayan ruin we visited. Maybe it's the strange tunnels underneath Venice we read about. Maybe it's the mountain-side villages from Isle of Dread or the Amber Temple from Curse of Strahd. Some places are real, some we've found in our favorite old adventures. Regardless, they all go in our vault of fantastic locations.
The vault might be an actual list you keep or it might just be in your mind palace. These places, though, are places of power. We don't need full adventures to run our D&D games. We just need some awesome locations, some badass monsters, and the seeds of the stories that come from our group. The rest we leave to the magic of our table.