I don’t think I’ve spoken much about how I define them, so I’ll take a run at it now. This will lean fairly heavily on D&D 3.x, since most of my references used are from this system. The material from these books can probably be adapted fairly easily, though.
I had originally planned to write about the processes I use to come up with ideas and develop them, but this post became more about the sources of details I might use to define locations. I’ll come back to the other topic another time, probably soon.
Level and Awesomeness
I tend to conflate level and awesomeness, deliberately. Much of my game and setting design is predicated on low level things being generally ‘normal’, at least in terms of those who live with them, and the world becoming increasingly more fantastic as levels increase. Heroes regularly see things normal people can hardly imagine, and this increases with character level — the hero might encounter ogres fairly often, while the peasants might have only heard stories, and the might heroes have fought giants who throw the hills themselves at them.
This is in some ways a common trope of myth and folklore. The heroes generally see ‘normal things’ around home and more amazing things elsewhere, where normal people don’t go. This could be exaggeration, it could be the consequences of different drugs (“what happens in Fey Guss stays in Fey Guss”), but I’m choosing to treat it straight — things get weird, wonderful, and dangerous as you get farther away from home, and the farther you go the more heroic you need to be to survive it.
As has been indicated by several bloggers already in this carnival, high level is not a prerequisite for fantastic locations. Otherwise mundane locations can be made fantastic by guiding the characters’ or players’ perceptions and memories of the location, by giving PCs the opportunity to use the location in ways that make it awesome, and so on. These are very useful tools, and things I honestly had not consciously considered when suggesting this carnival topic. In fact, even more than ‘useful tools’, I think them to be important elements to consider.
In no way do I want to suggest that ‘low-level’ does not mean that a place cannot be fantastic. However, I think that ‘low-level’ has, in some ways, less room to vary from normalcy, and this can limit how fantastic a place may be. At low-level you are likely deal with ‘normal people’ who do ‘normal stuff’, and are likely to not have the character resources needed to survive a very unusual situation.
High-level characters, on the other hand, likely do have some mechanism for dealing with larger and larger amounts of weirdness. The peasant who has to sneak into the mouth of a live volcano might be overcome by the heat and fumes. The mighty hero might just hold his breath when the smoke comes, squint a little and ignore the ashes in his eyes, and hey, he’s suffered hotter situations while wearing full plate before. Environmental conditions and other hazards can still be a threat and make for an impressive story when he returns to civilization, but he can deal with greater amounts of difference from normalcy than a normal person.
I should mention that I have played (and run, even more sadly in my mind) high-level scenarios that were… boring. If I ever have a major dragon fight in a plain cavern again, somebody slap me.
Sliding Scale of Awesome
If low-level locations and situations tend to have limited amounts of awesome, and high-level locations and situations have high amounts of awesome, this suggests that various elements of the location and situation could be turned up or down to suit. For instance, the Ghost Hills have different regions with varying amounts of hazard (and reward). Things go from “I can’t rest at night” (because this is a scary place and I’m on watch) to “I can’t get my wind back after a fight” (due to the necrotic taint on the land) to “it hurts just to be here” (increasing negative energy dominance).
Similarly, “hot” can mean “my clothes are sticking to me because of sweat” right through “I didn’t know your horse could catch fire like that”… or hotter.
Sources of Location Effects
I realized after writing this that unless you have the books I describe below, the next step is not so obvious. Just as well I slept on the article before posting.
Manual of the Planes (third edition, not first edition as I thought I remembered) introduces ‘Planar Traits’, characteristics that define the nature of a plane mechanically. These traits are much like tags on a blog, where they indicate that a plane does or does not have the trait (some have two grades — positive and negative energy domination, alignment domination), which in turn identifies certain rules that are in effect on that plane. This is convenient, but somewhat lacking.
The two books I describe below each expand on these traits, in ways that make the planar traits range from ‘a little more than normal’ to ‘end of the world’ (for instance, at the extremes the Time trait can mean ‘nothing ever happens here, time is frozen’ to ‘everything happens at exactly the same time’) or identify specific manifestations of the planar trait. They fill in the blanks between “Prime Plane standard” and “everything is on fire” with gradations and manifestations that can be suitable for the Prime Plane.
Not everywhere, of course; most places will still be pretty normal. Where another plane might generally have a particular trait at a higher level, only special places are likely to exhibit a trait (usually at a lower level, but not necessarily). Uncommon and different from normal, we’re on the track to meeting the criteria I identified a few days ago.
For instance, in a temple dedicated to a god of law, you might find that things tend to organize themselves in an orderly fashion without much effort. If you drop a stack of papers on a desk they arrange themselves (or just automatically land) in a tidy stack, edges aligned. In the armory weapons are neatly stacked unless someone deliberately causes them to be otherwise, and in a temple to the god of war they might also even clean and sharpen (or otherwise maintain) themselves when stored. A great dragon’s lair might exhibit elements of the fire trait — whether caused by the dragon’s long-term presence, or the dragon chose the lair because of it, either way you’ll want to cool off when you visit.
I lean pretty heavily on the following books.
Classic Play Book of the Planes from Mongoose Publishing
As far as I’m concerned, this replaces Manual of the Planes. This book takes the six or seven pages of planar traits presented in Manual of the Planes, which are basically binary (present or not) and expands them to 22 pages of graduated traits. For instance, where Manual of the Planes has ‘normal’, ‘fire dominant’, and ‘water dominant’, Book of the Planes has a 21-step gradient including
|-10||The entire plane is liquid. Non-sentient solids liquefy within 1d10 rounds unless in the possession of a creature.|
|-8||Water Dominated: Planes at this level are mostly liquid. Visitors who cannot breathe water or reach a pocket of air will likely drown. Those made of fire take 1d10 points of damage each round.|
|-5||Water Aspected: Natural portals to the Plane of Water occur everywhere at this level. Only a few tiny islands break above the surface of a vast, plane-girdling ocean.|
|-1||Slight biased toward water. Large rivers and seas are common.|
|0||Balanced: This plane is equally balanced between Fire and Water.|
|1||Slightly biased twoard Fire. Flames burn for 25% longer here.|
|5||Fire Aspected: Natural portals to the Plane of Fire occur everwhere at this level. Water becomes a rare and treasured substance.|
|8||Fire Dominated: Individuals take 3d10 points of fire damage every round they are on a Fire-dominant plane. Those that are made of water take double damage each round.|
|10||The plane is a conflagration hot enough to burn anything, even abstract concepts. Travellers take 10d10 points of damage each round.|
There are descriptions for the other intermediate values not shown, but I didn’t want to copy the entire table.
They also get into quirks for each trait, so while the trait intensity offers greater resolution and variety in results, it is not the sole determinant of the trait effect.
They also get into planar manipulation (planar infusions and the like, plane crafting, and so on), which I don’t remember seeing in Manual of the Planes at all.
Portals and Planes from Fantasy Flight
I find this to be a very good companion piece for Book of the Planes. It complements the book and provides specific material to expand on the concepts. For instance, there are a couple of dozen pages on portals (as might be expected given the title) that not only covers the mechanical considerations but how they might fit into and affect the campaign and people within it. It has almost 20 pages more about transitional planes, along with a few examples.
The biggest part for me is the three dozen or so pages on planar traits. Unlike Manual of the Planes, where most planar traits are more or less binary, and Book of the Planes where they are highly graduated but only summarily described, here most traits have basically five intensities (six if you include “about the same as normal”) and specific ways they manifest. For instance, the Chaos trait might manifest itself as one or more of
- Arcane Instability (5% magical error chance per degree of trait — wild magic).
- Chaos Ascendant (creatures of the (Chaos) subtype gain bonuses to Strength and Constitution, and potentially gain fast healing).
- Chaos Lands (terrain changes at irregular intervals).
- Law’s Bane (creatures of the (Law) subtype gain penalties to Strength and d20-based checks).
The intensity of each manifestation does not need to be the same. In fact, one way to apply these manifestations with Book of the Planes might be to double the Chaos intensity (from 0..10, so 0..20) and choose that many levels of manifestation. A mildly Chaotic place might have only two points of manifestation, so ‘Light Arcane Instability’ (10% chance of miscast spells) or Faint Chaos Ascendant (+2 Con bonus for creatures with the (Chaos) subtype) and Faint Chaos Lands (terrain changes every 1d6 days — and I probably wouldn’t have it change much).
Similarly, they suggest how various terrain types might be affected by planar traits.
|Chaos||A forest of ever-moving trees, forcing the PCs to dodge them as they travel.|
|Cold||Trees encased in ice so thick that it forms a solid canopy of snow.|
|Evil||A forest of trees formed from damned souls. They screech and moan pitiably.|
|Good||A gleaming, emerald forest inhabited by elves, angels, and peaceful fey.|
|Heat||A stand of ever-burning trees that choke the air with their smoke and ash. [Hmm… I think the Burning Wood in my campaign predates my getting this book, but this does sound familiar. I expect to update this location sometime this month.]|
|Law||Row after row of perfectly arranged, exactly identical trees.|
|Life||A “forest” that is actually a patch of hair on some mammoth, dormant creature.|
|Necropotence||A forest infested with undead trees. Use the treant’s stats, but trees cannot move.|
|Technology||A maze of antennas, solar collectors, and other devices used by an underground city.|
|Weather||A stand of trees with holes worn into them by the wind. When the winds blow strong enough, the trees whistle.|
Of course, they also discuss some ideas of how these concepts can be mixed — a forest in a land dominated by Law and Earth might have trees formed of crystal or metal, arranged according to some kind pattern (which might not be evident on examination; ‘lawful’ does not need to mean ‘simple’.
This one also seems to be out of print, I see no sign of it at Fantasy Flight Games.
I have wanted, for quite a while, to create a document synthesizing these two books into a single reference, but have not managed to find the time yet. It is on my List, though.