This month’s RPG Blog Carnival is being sponsored by Keith Davies and revolves around the idea in the title: Fantastic Locations.

Creating compelling locations for your games isn’t much different, in many ways from set location scouting for a movie: you want to find something that will grab the attention of the players and imbed the action into their minds. Even better is if the location pushes the action, as well.

At the “strategic level”, I like to start plotting an adventure by deciding where it will take place. For modern espionage, I like to follow the James Bond school of location scouting — pick a few major locations for the action to occur. For instance, in Die Another Day, the action sequences take place in North Korea, Cuba, London, and Iceland. For a Star Wars game, you might choose Coruscant, Tatoonie, and an asteroid field on the Rim. In periods where the transportation is slower, you might want to just fix on a certain general location: Tombstne, Arizona in a western, London and maybe it’s environs in a Victorian setting.

Once I’ve got the general place, for modern games I look for interesting buildings, scenic locales, something that will “look neat” and fit a predetermined action sequence or allow the place to set the action for me.

Cases in point: In a modern espionage campaign, say the heroes have to raid a high-rise office park — how do they get in? Do they rappel from the roof, climb the outside of the building? (There is a hotel in modern Shanghai I desperately wanted to use because it was a spectacular set piece for this sort of thing…some day…) For a sequence in my recent Hollow Earth Expedition campaign, I envisioned a multi-level restaurant with lots of staircases, intervening balconies, hanging lights, etc — perfect for the climb all over the damned set style of chop-socky fighting I wanted for the sequence. There were koi pnds to knock villains into, flaming kebab spikes to impale them on, lights to swing from level to level…everything was there to be used as cover or a weapon. (Think the big gong in Temple of Doom…why was it there if not to hide from Tommy gun fire? Or any Jackie Chan flick — the location is central to the stunts and fights going on.)

The description doesn’t have to be that extensive to set the atmosphere. You’re in an abandoned steel plant…it’s nearly dark and the catwalks and ladders between the levels throw shadows everywhere. Abandoned equipment lies dust covered and cobwebbed — shovels near the coal bins, tools here and there…. If there’s something you want the characters to notice, highlight it: …footprints in the dust lead you under the massive cauldrons that would drop molten metal. Chains rattle slightly from the rain that is coming through broken window panes in the roof, as you avoid a stand of metal poles that were used for whatever purpose (and maybe they notice one missing?)

Here’s a few examples from different eras of settings that have worked for me:

The working Victorian steel mill — nothing like molten slag, moving equipment, and the hazards of fire to get the players’ blood boiling. Dodge the kids and workers while chasing the villain over and around dangerous gear.

“Ridleyville” — when you need atmosphere at night, make the street slick from rain or recent rain and throw in a little neon to throw distracting shadows. A venting steam pipe or grate doesn’t hurt… You can even had Ridleyville inside a spacecraft (see Nostromo from Alien.) I’ve used this a lot for my 1930s Shanghai. The smell of crap from the nightstools doesn’t hurt, either.

A foggy hill in the woods, near a running stream (preferably winter time to throw breath, etc.) and the villans hidden in the mist. I’ve used this for my China campaign in Hollow Earth Expedition (fighting warrior monks) and in a Battlestar Galactica game where they could hear the toasters but not see them.

Craggy snow-bound mountains with loads of moguls and trees to have a ski/snowmobile chase through. And of course that big chunk of snow a few hundred feet up the slope is coming your way eventually…

The dimly lit pumping station wit lots of metal grate catwalks and steps to give you “spooky” lighting. This works for sci-fi, modern day, horror… I used this for a Supernatural game in which the heroes were hunting a werewolf. Fighting in tight spaces, with lots of metal guard rails to bang off of, water on the floor, the hum of the pumps to disguise movement, not to mention big spanners for weapons, fire extinguishers, etc…

Cliffs are always good. Cliffs are scary. Cliffs with waterfalls or snow, or loose earth are even better. A really good use of a cliff as a weapon? For Your Eyes Only. Kick that henchmans car that is holding on the edge by a tire or two into the ocean below. He was a bad guy, anyway.

Airplanes are great set pieces. They are a tactical nightmare when loaded with innocents. You have very little room to move, and there’s the danger of breeching the hull (which with a handgun or rifle really isn’t going to do much unless you clip a control line or bounce one into the engine. Some have big droppable gates at the back end so you can get tossed into thin air.

Boats are even better — most have a few decks and loads of stuff to destroy or use in a fight. Yachts are nicely lit but you’re still a bit cramped belowdecks. The engine rooms are a wealth of injury-inducing stuff. Cargo vessels are badly lit with tight companionways, big cargo holds full of stuff to climb on, fight around. Military vessels…well, you get the picture.

For things like car chases, the terrain can be very important. Try have a high speed chase on the crowded, very twisty roads int he Dolomites of northern Italy: hell, they couldn’t even transport an Aston-Martin Virage safely to the set of Quantum of Solace. When in doubt, drop a big Indiana Jones style cliff in…even when you’re driving along the flatest chunk on Egypt as in Raiders of the Lost Ark. If they’re having fun, the audience won’t care.

Cars in a chase can be your locale. Think the tanker from The Road Warrior — there’s a lot of action going on just on the rig itself. Or any western involving a stagecoach — runaway or otherwise.

When picking your settings, look for something to spice them up. You don’t need a monster or clever trap to make a cave complex dangerous (but it helps) — spelunkers can tell you they’re damned hazardous all on their own. The point is to have fun with it, and make sure the method of the character’s salvation is part and parcel of the danger they are in.