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An area I am close to revealing to my players was barren rock, until I realised adding a few kinds of plants and some crystal spires (which have very good reason to be there) took the location from dull to intriguing in the space of half an hour.

It occurs to me that adding plants and (possibly) structures is only two parts of a greater process of considerations that go into creating compelling environments. There are many more things to think about than just these.

I want my campaign’s environments to be visually interesting. I want them to have detail. I want them to feel real, and I want the players to get the impression that the area has history and secrets to discover (whether that means crumbled statues or a buried city full of gold). When a place has plot or threats, I want to be able to convey that.

How can I create this kind of terrain? Are there step-by-step guides, or at least some precepts I should keep in mind? What does the process look like?

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This isn't a science, it's an art. You'll get better with practice, and nobody's process will work for you except your own. That said, here's some of my precepts and guidelines.

Please keep in mind the order I'm presenting them has no bearing on importance or chronology: it's all a big jumble of sorta-thinking that I let bubble around in my head for a while, and I write things down as they seem cool.

Think realistically

In this answer I talk about physically layering an area to get a sense of history.

The real world is pretty awesome

I look at real-world examples of similar terrain and steal from them shamelessly. I can't replicate a real-world place in every regard --and I don't want to-- but if I can use just one or two details that aren't commonly rendered in boilerplate depictions of the terrain, I breath life into it.

I'll usually also find something really cool in the process.

Animals live there

I'm not talking about polar bears and hyenas and alligators; threats are usually included in a setting as a matter of course. I mean butterflies, geckoes, marmosets, ice worms. Anywhere there's anything, there's casual life. Anywhere there are people, there are feral animals: cats and pigs are common.

People live or lived there

Humans have colonized just about every part of the planet that isn't underwater, on fire, underground, or frozen solid, and we're making inroads on those (see: Venice, Netherlands, for fixing the "under water" thing hundreds of years ago).

In a fantasy world with races designed to enjoy places humans don't like as much (we're still not too thrilled about "underground"), every place has some kind of people. They may be savage, or barely eeking out a living, or they died out or left, but signs of them are there even if the people themselves aren't right now.

This means even the most remote and abandonded locations should have artificial terrain like ruins and burial mounds, and/or animals and plants that wouldn't be there otherwise. In more hospitable zones, who lives there? What impact to they have on the environment?

Don't forget plants!

Shrubs, trees, grass, fungus, all come in a ton of different shapes and sizes and colors. I look at pictures of the kind of area I'm building, look them up on the Internet, and pick one or two that are cool or thematic.

"Typical" is mythical

Nothing is normal. I add an element to my terrain that isn't typically found there. Sometimes the real world gives a good example of two terrains mushed together, and sometimes I just pick something cool I ran across but couldn't use in an earlier terrain design session.

All this fits together

Find connections between elements. Animals, people, geography, all intertwine. Look at real-life examples again if you need to.

Don't think realistically: go meta

I have to consider what my players need for the game: Cities connected by trade? The ruins of civilizations abandoned in remote regions? Terrain for highway robbers to stage ambushes?

This means that as I consider realistic options, I need to pick and choose so that my environment accomodates an enjoyable game. If I have a plot, I need to wrap the environment and the plot together.

Plot and environment

Sometimes plot arises from environment: If a city is in a strategic trade location, it'll be the target of political and military attacks.

Sometimes environment rises from plot: If I want the villain to live in a dark castle on the edge of a mountain cliff with a warren of caves beneath it,, I'd better provide a suitably cave-riddled mountain.

I also consider how my setting influences the kind of people my players will meet: fertile floodland farms in a tropical desert will have a very different culture than goatherd villages clinging to the edge of a storm-wracked mountain.

No, really, embed the plot into the world

What's happening now is always built on what came before, and it is either shaped by its location or it shapes its location --often both. My NPCs' motives can be writ large in their environment, and their plans will be shaped by it. As the creator of both, I have a unique opportunity to make sure the two fit together like a glove... or contrast and create conflict of their own.

Kill your darlings

Sometimes the things that are really cool just aren't right for that place. I'll rip them out ruthlessly and file them away for later.

Give myself time to think

Don't force it; I try to get at least a week to let it percolate in my brain so that ideas can work their way loose from the substrate. Often my first ideas aren't a good fit, and I notice connections or possibilities that I missed at first.

But not too long.

There are perfect locations and there are finished locations. I aim for the latter by not starting too far ahead or I'll second-guess everything and rip it apart and restart. Repeatedly.

Play to your strengths!

If you've got a Geology 101 course under your belt like I do, use it! I often start with geologic history and build on top of it.

If you loved Ancient Egypt as a kid, use it! Rich, fertile floodplains; backstabbing dynastic empires; the Library of Alexandria; lots of these things can be placed in other contexts to enrich them.

Be creative, and you'll find that your hobbies and interests can lend weight and depth to your worldbuilding.

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+1, although I still think it is more of a science than an art. ^_~ –  Sardathrion Mar 19 '13 at 13:15
@Sardathrion Then write that answer! I'd love to see it, as being all feels about this is definitely inefficient. –  BESW Mar 19 '13 at 13:17
+1 Great answer! –  evilscary Mar 19 '13 at 14:16
+1 but I would mention to add some lore/legends/rumors etc. These can add so much more especially to a non-standard/unique environment –  Ben-Jamin Apr 5 '13 at 17:08
I'll suggest getting the iPhone/iPad app called "1001 Wonders" which has high-res photographs of various fantastic places on Earth that wouldn't be out of place in a fantasy world –  Extrakun Apr 8 '13 at 9:39
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This is not an art, it is an science. BESW's superb answer does a really good job of detailing things, go read it and up vote it. His comment inspired me to write this. However, I disagree (a little) on the science vs art form.

We only have one example of an inhabitable planet (at the time to writing) and we have only a few examples of how life affects it. We do have many imaginary worlds that hang together well. some that do so by magic (sometimes literally), and some that are just terrible and make no-sense whatsoever. In my not so humble opinion, all the imaginary worlds that make sense are because of the details and their relevance to the story being told.

By details, I mean that the world must be internally consistent. If the rules of physics apply, they must do so whole scale. If you have a flat world, you cannot have sails being the first thing that is visible on the horizon -- let alone have a horizon! If the land is green and lush, it is going to rain a lot. Physics has rules and breaking them has consequences. Sure, "magic" fixes everything but that needs to be consistent too. Or maybe not, but then you might be left with a mess... So, learn science: geology, oceanography, biology, evolution, etc... You will benefit from it as a gamer and a human being.

By relevance to the story I mean Chekhov's gun, if you will. As a GM, you are here to tell a story with the help of the players -- controversial statement maybe? So, your world should enhance the themes that you (GM and players) wish to explore. The world should mirror those, either in contrast or reinforcing. It takes a master to have a film noire set in broad day light (Hitchcock, North by Northwest) whereas it is easy to have them set in a rainy night in New York. Both must mean something to your story. Again, here there are rules that can work for you.

So, the rules (more like guidelines really) would be:

  1. Internal consistency of the world. This comes from practice and knowledge of physical sciences.
  2. Relevance to the themes of the stories being told. This comes mainly from psychology, symbolism and yes, following the rules of genera as define in artworks -- books, films, etc...

That said, those are what make worlds interesting to me, your mileage might vary.

An example would be Middle Earth which was at its core a setting for the evolution of languages: this is firmly rooted in philology which as far as I know is a science.

As to practicalities, you can do a top to bottom or a bottom to top approach to designing a world.

The top to bottom would include creating the world, maybe with a map understanding tectonic movement and climate to give you your geography. Then history comes about with rise and falls alongside waterways. Again, you need to understand why the various civilisation on Earth rose and fell. You then shift focus to the last X years and continent of the your world, always drilling down till you have the tavern where there PCs meet. This should give you a logical and consistent world but can be distracting because the players might not see all of it.

The bottom to top starts with that tavern, and step by step moves outwards by asking why. So, why is the tavern there? Because Fred the Hero settled there. Why? He saved the city from a Fiery maiden. Why is the city there? What are Fiery Maiden? etc. Instead of having an overall picture from the start, the overall picture starts from a central piece. An advantage of this is that it is more game focused as you spend you time detailing things that are important now aka close. Far things (like how the climate works at the other end of the world) are left vague which can be a problem for internal consistency.

Definitions from the Oxford dictionary:

  • Science: The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
  • Art: The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.

Which one fits better to "world creation"? I tend to lean more on the science end (because I tend to use the scientific method while building imaginary worlds) but arguments could be made for either.

This is the final edit after comment. I agree that this answer does not give you any direct practical advise. BESW's superb answer does that very well and I would end up paraphrasing a lot of what he said were I to give a list of things to do. This answer points that knowing how things work (read: science) is a sure way to have a consistent imaginary world. Nothing more, nothing less. It was written because BESW asked me to write it and I think it adds to his answer. Six other people think so too. Good enough. ^_~

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+1, but I don't see compelling evidence that we are dealing with a science instead of an art. There's really no way to test non-falsifiable theoreticals about imaginary worlds that are slightly or drastically different, especially with magic involved. Calculated logic has a place here but it makes it no more a science than the calculated hand of a sculptor making sure their art doesn't become top heavy, look abysmally unrealistic or otherwise fail. While some science may be involved (knowledge of gravity, aesthetic principles, etc), it is largely a creative talent and not a scientific prowess. –  James Broyles Mar 19 '13 at 16:27
@JamesBroyles I don't see evidence in this answer, but having studied cognition I can make some connections that support the idea. We can objectively measure "interestingness" by recording people's micro-reactions, and can construct experiments that test null hypotheses about that. However, this answer seems to promise to reveal the system of science that we can use, but ends before it gets there. It's a a moment of interest to mention that there is a science, but a useful answer would give technique. It's a very long comment to BESW's answer as it stands. –  SevenSidedDie Mar 19 '13 at 17:25
I would be prone to classify the difference as being between heavily influenced by creativity or by logic. There's also a number of elements (sandbox games, realism versus what players want, etc) that may complicate the matter. @SevenSidedDie mentions psychology, for example. I'd be interested to see this answer mapped out more. There may be a science, I've yet to see how scientific and logical approaches make world-building less an art with many possible techniques and more a complete science. This seems important to explore for the question, though focusing on semantics may be a stretch. –  James Broyles Mar 19 '13 at 21:20
IMHO, this is THE superior answer, as consistency is the golden rule ... and any further methods of creation can be derived from it. As far as cultures are concerned, there is a bit of a random element to these (there goes the Art form); still, at the roots of every culture is an underlying motive - a metaphore derivend from the environment, the past and the humane reflection of these (as in Jungian symbolism). –  Johnny Mar 20 '13 at 21:53
Whilst this is helpful, this isn't actually what I'd consider a good answer to my question. It's definitely important to be consistent and to keep it relevant (and not have a pile of pixie dust on the table if it's never going to play any role), but this doesn't give me much to actually work with in the creative process. Contrast this to BESW's answer, which gives me a lot to actually put into practice. Your answer is appropriate constraints to bear in mind, but they won't move me forward in really creating a good environment. –  Jonathan Hobbs Mar 21 '13 at 8:31
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To distill this to its barest essence:

Read a few chapters of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Notice how real the world feels?

You can consider for yourself why, but everything is filled with history and purpose--that ruin has been there since this battle, etc.. You get the feeling that there was much more story behind the actual story that was told (and given Tolkien's copious notes, it seems that there was). You'll very likely have to create a lot of background that the players never notice in order to make what they do notice feel real.

As to particular strategies, I recommend taking a good fictional work that you believe has the feeling of depth you're after, and then try to figure out why it feels that way. This may not be enough alone, but since it is something you have figured out and enjoyed, it will likely come more naturally than formulaic answers (which if not embraced just end up feeling formulaic).

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For me - the creating a compelling environment comes in two stages:

1. The Hook: This is something (or more than one thing) that is immediately arresting about the environment which the PCs will perceive (usually see but sometimes via other senses) and that leads them to want to engage more with the environment.

2. The Depth: These are the details that make the players think that environment really is an interesting place once they start to investigate it having been pulled in by the hook(s).

General Principals: I would agree with what's already been written by @Sardathrion and @BESW (and it's a rare moment when I don't ;) ) about consistency with the game world/genre/physics/metaphysics. Don't throw in random interesting stuff that doesn't fit the place or you end up with a chaotic patchwork world that doesn't really feel real.

Methodology: How do you go about creating places like this? I'd go with a somewhat methological approach and ask yourself the following questions about a place:

  1. What are you first thoughts about how it looks?
  2. What plants live there now? How do they change the way the place looks/smells/sounds/reacts to the PCs?
  3. What plants have lived there in the past and how have they changed the place over the years?
  4. What animals live there now? How do they survive and how do the change the way that the place interacts with the PCs (either passively or actively)?
  5. What animals have lived there in the past? How have they changed the place over the years? If they're not there now then why not?
  6. Are there people there now? If so - how do they change the way the place interacts with the PCs?
  7. What people have lived there in the past? How have they changed the place over the years? If they're not there now then why not?
  8. What is the weather like? Has it had any permanent changes on the place?
  9. Are there any transient effects such as migrations of animals, sudden bloomings of flowers, gatherings of nomadic peoples, storm seasons etc?

Many points on the list will get a simple 'no - no effect' type response for many environments but by checking down each one you get something of a completist view for a location that adds both depth and possibilities for hooks.

Here's an example I've set up in this way:

The Gathering Stone: The was basically a giant rock outcropping in the middle of a area of open plains. The setting is early iron-age fantasy and the rock has substantial iron ore deposits. The local cultures are largely nomadic and the rock forms a central gathering spot for them for a yearly gathering of the tribes. In pre-history it had a small tribe in local residence who used it for shelter, expanding shallow caves somewhat with crude tools and leaving stylistic representations of their gods painted on the walls. They also, by chance, discovered the iron-ore and managed some crude smelting by means unknown (probably magically-produced fire) resulting in a few odds and ends of iron tools available for the finding if any properly investigates - they're crude but definitely point to the iron ore available here. The rock is devoid of any plants except for a few hardy mosses and lichen but does form a convenient roosting place for a number of local birds of prey who can routinely be seen circling in the local thermals before soaring out into the plains to hunt. Weather here is typical for the plains - mostly hot and dry with a brief rainy season. Winds are often quite high and have created some interestingly odd shapes towards the upper heights of the rock that look almost impossible to believe as natural formations.

The hooks here are initially a really big rock in the middle of otherwise (largely) featureless plains. For a slightly deeper hook there's the caves which obviously point to there being deeper 'secrets' here. From there PCs can investigate the paintings to give clues to ancient gods, poke around to find out more about the iron ore etc etc.

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+1 Thank you, this is very helpful. –  Jonathan Hobbs Apr 5 '13 at 13:27
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Here's a somewhat different take.

So, you want your environments to come to a memorable life?

Treat and create them as organic, living entities, NPCs themselves, and, as the old adage goes, show, don't tell. (Wait. Tell as well. We'll get to that later.)

Have your environment act upon the players, and act for a reason (a motive), and make it possible for your players to react to it and to interact with it. Use active language to describe it.

Example: The Carcass has been watching you, and wanting you to leave, ever since you arrived. You feel its many eyes - lurking spiders (and dry, dead ones), darting hares (and those tiny, gray rabbit skulls), circling wolves (and the bloodless one you found), gliding owls - upon you. It's disconcerting. So are its trees that keep blocking your way with their heavy, shadowy branches. They reach out for you, push you and the sunlight they're fighting back, shepherd you onto snaking, yet inviting trails that lead away from the center, your destination. No, the Carcass doesn't want you to reach its dead heart, the towering, black pines and gaping ravines whose cold, rotten, nauseating breath you feel even here, at the outskirts.

Give your environment a reputation, a past that your players should learn about even before they enter the environment. Better yet, give it at least two faces, at least the basics of a layered personality.

Example 1: "I know only one guy who saw the heart of the Carcass and returned," the innkeeper said. "He's a broken man. Even though it was fourteen years ago, he still shivers in his sleep, hounded by nightmares. Even his family left him, even though he went there to look for his lost son. His son, who has become one with those dead pines. But you don't stay around someone who sleepwalks with a dagger. Believe me, you don't want to find the heart of the Carcass. It will swallow you, and you'll become it. Don't go there." "But we must. Tell me, who is this man? We'd like to talk with him." "You're doing that right now. It's me."

Example 2: "Sure, sir, it is a creepy place. A deadly place," the boy said. "But it does us, farming folks a great service, I'm telling you. For it keeps to itself. And it keeps the bad things, the dark things away from us. They love it too much to leave it and come bother and hunt us. It gives us peace as well, for none of our neighbors would dare to live where we do, so they don't bother us either for the territory. It's peaceful here indeed, as peaceful as I've ever read about in them books. I think the Carcass is protecting us, sir, by its own will. It's like a big brother who sits beside your bed each night, to catch and fight and lock up the monsters sneaking around and under your bed."

Give your environment secrets, ones that either lead to other, new secrets or to revelations about things your PCs learned so far, revelations in whose light certain traits must be re-evaluated, for they gain new, possibly opposite meaning.

Example: It's a small clearing, off the beaten path. There's a standing stone in its center, watching you with cold, mossy eyes. Yes, it has a face. A very familiar face. Even though it seems hundreds, if not thousands of years old, you instantly recognize in it the face of the farm boy you talked to a week ago, before you entered these forbidding woods.

Stereotypes that, in case of an environment, you may very well want to "tell", not show. Because telling is way faster... if you do it with paintings, photos and movie clips.

Sure, this should be done when the party first glimpses what you want to visually tell them about.

This is the Internet. I'm sure you know where to find images and videos that depict those aspects of your terrian that are common with what others before you have seen and/or imagined. Here, this is what the "ordinary" part of the Carcass, my example here, looks like... aside from the things I, as a GM have revealed beforehand, and plan to reveal later through using and relying on the above points. It's moody, beautiful (though YMMV :)) and haunting - but not enough. It's a stereotype that you have to, and, considering the Q, want to deviate from, so that "your usual dark forest" becomes "the Carcass".

Of course, one image is rarely enough. Use 4-7 pieces. In my experience, that's about the right amount. More overburdens the players, less leaves them asking for more.

And that's about it. You may want to look up other answers about character building, of course, and adopt them as closely to environments as possible.

Also, do consider the answers you've already received here, they're great. Try and combine them with this here, see if it works for you and your party. I hope it does. :)

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Thank you. These answers won't be used in isolation from each other, rest assured - they're all very good. –  Jonathan Hobbs Apr 10 '13 at 8:41
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Key considerations may be history and diversity. Speaking from a biological point of view - the more unique features a landscape possesses, the greater the opportunities for life to conquer this space to generate a fascinating background for human (or rather humanoid) history. Add the spark of magic to light up the scenario with oddity and captivation.

If you start from scratch in generating outdoor environments maybe this "checklist" is of use:

  • think about the very raw geological features: earth and soil, topography, shapes and surfaces, mountains, hills and valleys. Possibly draw a sketch. Then: why? What is the cause of this landscape? What is the shaping force? Volcanoes, underwater rivers, the gods themselves? Here you may already get a layer of history. Write down some keywords and ideas.

  • afterwards fill the landscape with life; add plants and animals. Think about what kind of creatures may live or are bound to which geological feature. Why are they able to persist there? Because of their biology or is there even a supernatural cause? How does life interact? It is always interacting in some way (predator and prey, symbiosis, etc). Describing how a monkey is trying to shake of it's haunters by throwing a tasty coconut-sized fruit that only grows in this barren strip of land may add more to the player's imagination than just the next dozen hunters lurking to ambush the hero group.

  • add a layer of humanoid history: before creating obvious man made structures think about why humanoids should have made the effort to construct those. Even if they are not present but human-like creatures are there is always at least one thing: culture. And culture may just be as diverse as plant and animal life and certainly interacts with and depends on that layer - to which degree may be less obvious but worth a thought as well: are there just some small settlements within the environment that depend upon wood production or is it the fortress of the big evil company that doesn't give nothing about stinky nature but depends on imports from somewhere else? Is there potential for conflict here? How is culture transmitted to the next generation? Is there this weird babble that may fascinate a linguist, wall paintings or digital memory chips all over the place? Is there evidence of another culture before the present one? How did they possibly interact? Don't forget about the struggles of daily life as well: diseases, quarrels with the neighbour, ...

  • finally put some magic into all the other layers. The possibilities are endless but it may act as a shaping force as well as a force that is being influenced by nature and culture.

I used the word layers a lot here and I encourage you to think of it as something you can peel back and dive yet another level deeper to come up with more explanations and causes that explain the world as the player character's are going to see it (with some practice it may even be possible to do it while the game is running). Also: start from the biggest layer - this serves as a sketch to come back to and may already be enough if you don't want to spend to much time creating your surrounding.

Don't forget to address as many senses of the player's as possible: add noises and smells. Also make them feel that life is moving even if they are not around. Add tons of tiny things that are not relevant for the plot but add to the atmosphere.

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