Creating A Sci-Fi Setting With Depth: 5 Tips On Creating Sci-Fi Locations
From Jonathan Hicks
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #170
5 Tips On Creating Sci-Fi Locations
Wouldn’t it be great if you could run a sci-fi game set in your own worlds with your own locations and characters that the players can get to know, visualise, and interact with as naturally as the ones in the films you watch and the books you read? Following are some tips for creating interesting locations for your custom sci-fi campaigns.
1. Starting Point
First of all, you’ve got to create a place that is going to be instantly recognisable by the players. Some people say that long-winded description is dull, but I believe that the GM can use that description to initially describe new settings.
Planet log sheets are good but they lack depth. The look of the place can be imprinted on the players through an initial long description and then brief descriptions on return journeys are all that’ll be needed in later games.
We’ll use an example planet, which we’ll call Nebrassa, to illustrate my meaning. The examples will be in quotation marks. The genre is a generic one so it should fit into most sci-fi settings.
The initial location must be communicated to the players. Instead of giving them a standard description of the planet, narrate the approach to the world, taking in any other spatial matter around the system. Make it good. If you’re a GM then you’ve probably got a flair for the dramatic and can roll this kind of stuff off. For your initial description, write it down. Spend a little time writing up a narrative to read to the players as they approach the world.
You could start the first paragraph like this:
“The swirling hyperspace tunnel collapses, turning the stars from streaks into points of light. The planet of Nebrassa rolls into view. It is a muddy-brown world with thick cloud cover over the equator and wide reflective oceans. The nava computer tells you it is a swampy world, but you don’t need a databank to tell you that. All you have to do is look at the world. Two large grey moons orbit closely at either pole, with several smaller bodies further out.
A thin ring of dust encircles the planet, reflecting a rainbow of colours from its crystalline content. Your ship approaches for orbital insertion.”It’s at this point the players are allowed to interact with this, the first view of their planet. Extra notes about tiny details may be necessary just in case your players are exceptionally perceptive.
2. Going Down
The next part of the introduction is getting the players down to the surface. If you have filled out a planet log then take the atmosphere into consideration. Is the world wet and damp? Then when they hit the atmosphere they’ll be flying into thick cloud, maybe even a little lightning. Dry and warm? Then describe the land spiralling out before them, no cloud cover to obscure their vision. The details of the land become more defined as they approach the surface.”Nebrassa, its clouds seemingly still, starts to grow in the window.
As the ship starts to vibrate slightly during atmospheric entry you see that the clouds are actually heaving with activity. They roll and pulsate like something alive, the violent storms below them churning them up. Flashes of light streak through the moisture as lightning touches down on the surface. Then you’re enveloped by the cloud, thick oppressive cloud that forces you to fly by instrumentation alone. Bursting out from beneath that cloud is almost a relief.”
Give the planet character. Give it a sense of realism. Give it a quirk or a feature that defines its originality. Star Wars’ Tatooine was bright and sand-coloured and Coruscant was a sprawling urban surface with millions of glittering lights. Krypton, in the Superman movie, was bright and crystalline. Nebrassa appears to wear a belt of cloud whilst its poles are apparently clear. These kinds of details are what makes a planet different from the rest.
3. Surface Location
There will be a place on the surface where the players will first touch down, where the landing bays are, where the population resides. If the reason the players are there does not concern the main city (or cities) then fine, they can either hear about the city or do a fly-over, and then you can go into a separate description of the other location. For now, though, let’s concentrate on the one place.
Most cities are built the same: sprawling urban areas surrounding a central ‘hub’ that enables the residents to congregate and trade. This usually consists of buildings of varying heights depending on function and ownership. Look at the world around you. No matter where you go this is the general layout of a city.But this is Sci-Fi. Try to make your city a distinct place that dominates the view. If the planet is covered in small settlements then fine, concentrate on what these little places look like but give them something that no other place has.
In many cases, cities and towns are built to complement their surroundings, so the surface of the planet should be taken into consideration before anything else.
“The capital city of Nebrassa, Nebro, is a strange sight to behold. The misty belt of the planet creates huge banks of fog and incredibly sodden ground, making direct surface dwellings difficult. Therefore, Nebro has been built on huge legs. As your ship approaches, you see that the city is a collection of several platforms of varying heights, rising from the fog below on thick, durable stilts.
Each platform is covered in tall buildings that are rounded off at the top, some open like flower petals to serve as landing platforms. Walkways and speederlanes intersect each platform and wind around the buildings. All in all, you’d guess that the city is large enough to contain over two million citizens”.
Why was Bespin’s Cloud City in Star Wars such a wonderful city? Was it wonderful because it mined Tibanna gas and had Lando Calrissian as an administrator? Of course not. You don’t find out these details until after the characters touch down. Cloud City is wonderful because it floats among the clouds, because it is so huge and yet looks so delicate as it hovers in the sky. That is what amazes the characters when they first see it, which is what stays in their minds. That is what you have to create: a location that is remarkable and unforgettable.
When the players walk down the ramp of their ship they’ll want to see, hear and smell their surroundings. That first impression of the world they are going to explore is what will dominate their senses.First of all, what will the characters see? Make sure you have a visual worked out to describe to the players. Their first view of the new world will pretty much dictate how they view the rest of the planet or location they are in.
“The landing platform hangs over the city’s edge, allowing wisps of thick fog to creep over the edges. It is well worn and obviously used constantly–burn marks from retro thrusters and patches of grime denote frequent landings and take-offs. The streets and buildings at the edge of the platform are bustling with activity, with beings from all walks of life and dozens of different worlds going about their business. Thick pipes seem to protrude from every wall and several places in the ground, making it seem as though a network of tubes runs throughout the city.
It makes it appear strangely organic. Dull grey metal stands proud on every building – the place was obviously built for practicality and not to serve any architect’s whimsies.”Now come the sounds they will hear. Out of the way places with little to no activity will be sullen and quiet, with the odd whoosh of an aircar and humming generator. Heavily populated planets will contain multitudes of sound, from screaming ground vehicles to the murmur of crowds to the blare of sirens and the cacophony of trade halls.
“The city is strangely quiet as beings keep to themselves. The sounds of the place are muted as the fog creeps silently over the view. Every now and then a travel tube roars as a pod shoots down it or there’s a drone as a vehicle passes by. The main noise comes from the Air transports and starships criss-crossing the skies above–this far up in the city is where many of the landing pads are.”
With a new location come new sights, sounds, and smells. The smell of a location doesn’t play a huge part in its description (after all, it’s very difficult to imagine a smell) but nonetheless adds a little more depth.
“The strange odours forced up your nose are peculiar to say the least. Like a mixture of rotting vegetation and grease. As you head into the crowds this is replaced by purified air as huge atmosphere regulators keep most of the fog at bay. This smells almost metallic, with false chemicals added to make the majority of beings comfortable, like chlorine and white spirit mixed.”
After that, it’s up to you to add the little bits and bobs that will bring the setting to life. As stated before, take a look at the NPC creation tips at [ https://www.roleplayingtips.com ]. They’ll help you create personalities that will inhabit the setting you’ve created. It’s all well and good having the location laid out, but if there’s buildings, there’s life (usually).
5. Treat Locations As Characters
Each and every location is going to have similarities just as locations do on planet Earth. Cities, although they can be on opposite sides of the world, can have the same feel to them; the buildings, sounds and smells can all be familiar. In roleplaying, however, to make the place original you have to have something that the players can visualise that will make it memorable. Give it a personality.
Treat it as a character in its own right.For example, how do you make the next desert world different from the last?Well, the world may be the same but there are two things that can be different: the land and the sky. These are the things that will stand out the most to the players as you can’t rely on sounds and smells to convey the setting.The sky can be many colours and be filled with many things. In the desert world example, the sky is blue because of the lack of water, hence no cloud. It could be red from sandstorms.
It could be pink through atmospheric activity, or have continuous flashes in orbit due to meteor impacts. Not only that, there could be a broken moon hanging in orbit, visible from the ground. Or there may even be a huge ringed planet (a great example of this is in the film ‘Pitch Black’) that dominates the sky. Looking up and seeing something different is enough to give a location its originality.On the ground there could be many differences.
The desert could be long rolling dunes (as in the film ‘Dune’) or it could be rocky with sparse brushland. Great sand-blasted mountains could dominate the skyline.
How the locals have settled here can vary as well. Great geo-domes with self-contained atmospheres and humidity? Underground settlements to avoid the heat? Oasis-like surface settlements, with great tracts of green land artificially inserted into the barren location?
Think of three levels:
- Ground level
- Over ground
Settlements could be built beneath the surface, on the surface or higher, on stilts or on mountains, or hovering in the air. Adjusting this gives a sense of difference.
This all applies to all sorts of worlds. A forest world would be the same sort of thing, but you could have entire cities in the trees with huge artificial living spheres in orbit like moons. A water world could either be covered with moving city-ships, cities on stilts or undersea domes.
Remember the golden rule: no two places are alike. If the players touch down in a city that you haven’t made any decent notes for, the chances are your description is going to be lame and uninspiring. This will mean the players will be at a location that won’t stick in their minds. If you want your players to visit your creations, then don’t let that happen. The galaxy is alive if you say it is.
Brief Word From Johnn
New Contest: Wilderness Encounters & Conflicts
Up for grabs in this new contest:
- 2 Print Books: “NPC Essentials” By RPG Objects & Johnn Four
- 3 eBooks: “Swords of Our Fathers” by The Game Mechanics
Swords of Our Fathers
- 4 eBooks: “101 Arcane Spell Components” By Spider Bite Games & Philip J. Reed
Tribebook: Red Talons (1st Edition)
I was doing some planning for my new campaign last week and was trying to create some interesting wilderness encounters. I got stumped though and settled on a few wandering monster ideas. Furthermore, I was studying the Wilderness Survival Guide by TSR for AD&D and read a good tip:
“The [game] world should be a backdrop for the activity that takes place between the characters and the creatures that live in it–the location of a conflict, but not the source of the conflict itself.”
This is good advice. For example, a character drowning in a river of green blood might make a compelling scene in a novel or movie, but it can fall flat as an RPG moment. And purple trees that make music when it’s windy are certainly wondrous, but leave the players looking for something to do- -more needs to be added to such an encounter.
So, let’s drum up some wilderness encounter and conflict ideas and I’ll share them with you in a future Tips issue.
To enter this new contest, send me your wilderness encounter and conflict ideas. Multiple entries are allowed and each entry should be under 500 words. Winners will be randomly chosen so don’t worry about writing perfect English–it’s the ideas that count!
Contest ends Saturday, May 10th.
Send your wilderness encounters & conflicts contest entries to: [email protected]
Thanks To John C. Feltz
…for preparing and editing this Tips issue. John has volunteered to help me prepare and edit this weekly ezine, giving me more time to handle your valued emails, run more contests, do more site updates, and so on. Thank you very much John!
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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
The Five Step Countdown
From Joe Nehmer
There’s a technique I like to use that I call the “five step countdown” for the kind of situation where the PCs sit on their hands even though bad things will happen to the world if the PCs don’t get involved.
The premise to the technique is that at the start of the campaign, the villains are five steps away from their main goal. You can vary the number, of course. Each step is represented by some minor goal.
For example: A priest is trying to bring the evil deity to the PCs’ world. If the priest succeeds, the world is plunged into evil and darkness. We could say that perhaps a ritual is required to open the portal and bring the deity through.
In order to perform the ritual and fulfill his plan, the priest has to:
- Obtain some evil artifact needed for the ritual. Let’s say it’s a jewel. Oh wait, but the jewel is actually in two pieces, so…
- Find the second part of the jewel.
- Bind those two pieces back together.
- The artifact needs to be powered first before it can be used. The priest needs to suck the life out of an entire town into the jewel.
- Use the empowered jewel in the ceremony and voila, the evil god is here.
- Start the countdown.
Since the players are doing nothing, the priest succeeds with the first step because there’s nobody opposing him. Find a way for the players to discover that this happened, through NPCs, dreams, etc.
- Reveal more information.
Find a way for the players to learn about the jewels. You could even suggest a course of action, subtly if possible, that they should go after the other jewel.
- If they do nothing.
If the players still do nothing then the priest goes to the next step. Repeat with even stronger clues, and more boldly suggested courses of action. Suggest more than one course of action to give variety.
At each step, the situation should look more dire than the previous. However, at each step the players are given the opportunity to find out more information, reveal more of the plot, etc., that they should be able to plan a strategy to keep the villain from completing the final step.
When I use this technique, I usually find my players get involved and the plot turns into a “race against time”. YMMV.
Dealing with Lapses In Player Attention Span–Off Camera Roleplaying
From Jenny M.
I sent this information in response to a request in the editorial from Dungeon #96 for examples of how groups managed to deal with lapses in player attention due to lengthy gaps between sessions or players unable to attend a session. We got a brief nod in their letters page and I thought I’d share the full details with you.
To combat withdrawal symptoms when the time between sessions is long, we invented “Off Camera Roleplaying”. It’s a way of maintaining context, flow, character development, and even action in between sessions.
Here’s how it works:
- Use email.
Off-camera roleplaying starts when one player writes an email to another player. In the message, a description of the scene is laid out to give the other player a sense of the character?s context.
- Use first-person, in-character language.
The scene-setting is followed by comments or questions directed at the other character. These comments are usually rounded out with descriptions of the visible expressions and movement of the speaking character almost as if it were being read from a novel. The other player then replies to the first player with a description of her character’s visible reactions followed by her own first-person, in- character response.
- CC the DM.
The DM is always CC’d in every email message so that he will be aware of these character interactions. Players can send private questions to the DM to ask for clarification about what the character actually knows, to verify if a particular object or another person is nearby, etc.
- Use tokens.
For more complex roleplaying, there can be more than two players participating, the DM can be running one or more NPCs, and instances of skill checks or even combat actions can occur. To keep things running smoothly and fairly for all characters, we created formal rules for taking turns, using a “token”.
- Give each character a three letter acronym.
PCs have ones generally based on their character’s initials and/or a descriptive moniker. For example, “Andrinor Marchant, Fighter? would use AMF. NPCs might have acronyms based on their names or their professions. An innkeeper might be identified by INK while the chambermaid is CHM.
- The person starting the off-camera roleplaying has the token. At the end of her message she indicates who the comment is addressed to or who she feels should get the next opportunity to talk in a group environment by putting her acronym followed by an arrow pointing to the acronym of the next person. This gives the next person the token and grants him the explicit right to reply to the message. When the next person responds, they do the same thing, using their acronym and that of the person they’re passing the token to.
- Use a simple shorthand notation for passing tokens. The token passing string looks something like this. A message written by CMM would have:
CMM -> AMF
This means that CMM passed the token to AMF.
- If you’ve got nothing to say, just pass. In this example, AMF is passing the token:
CMM -> AMF (passes) -> INK
- Steal the token if you really need to.
Interruptions occur when someone who doesn’t explicitly have the token makes a reply anyway, thus effectively stealing the token. This usually happens when the stealing character has an intense need to respond immediately rather than waiting for someone else to comment first. Any character is allowed to steal the token exactly once in between the previous speaker and the speaker the token was sent to. The original speaker can also steal the token back in case she needs to immediately respond to the person who interrupted.
An attempt to steal the token may not necessarily be considered as actually having happened. Generally, if the interruption is sent too late, it will be ignored. However, if interruption was sent at almost the same time-?say no more than two or three minutes after-?sometimes the token holder will be willing to allow the interruption to stand anyway. In this case we discard his first response, and he responds to the interruption message instead.
When someone “steals the token” they indicate this as follows:
CMM -> (INK) -> AMF
This means that INK is stealing the token that was supposed to go from CMM to AMF.
- The sky’s the limit.
Other than these few rules, what can happen in off-camera roleplaying is pretty much wide open. Anything you could say or do in a face-to-face game session pretty much goes. We’ve even used them occasionally for handling situations when one PC needs or wants to do something solo.
Off-camera roleplaying is a lot of fun. It’s a great way to keep character development and player focus active during long breaks. It can also really help develop your skill with writing prose and dialog; all you amateur fantasy writers out there take note!
If readers are interested, I’ve saved the entire threads of a few of the more important, and thus interesting, conversations and activities we’ve had, and I’d be more than happy to make them available.
Thanks and good gaming!
Getting Players To Read Your Handouts
From Mark M.
Getting the players to read intricately detailed handouts, develop character backgrounds, or sometimes even roleplay can be difficult.
Reward ideas have been suggested in the past and what has worked well for me and mine is a reward of 1 percent of whatever amount of experience your character needs to reach the next level. For example, in D&D, if your 5th level fighter needed 12000 xp to reach level 5 and 17000 xp to reach level 6, that is a difference of 5000 xp. A reward would consist of 1% of 5000, or 50 xp.
These rewards are given out at the DM’s discretion, and can be for various reasons:
- Excellent roleplaying during a particular encounter.
- Preparing a full page of background for an NPC important to the PC.
- Designing an NPC, magic item, or plot hook for the DM’s use.
- Reminding the DM when he forgets things, especially when detrimental to your character’s existence. For example, the fact that your character was carrying a keg of oil when he was hit by that fireball.
- Anything that adds to the fun of the game.
The idea is to get the players into roleplaying and the development of the game world, as well as appreciating the work the DM does.
It should be noted that the other players can veto an experience award if they feel that the player does not deserve it. This happens very rarely, but it does prevent someone asking for a reward after every action.
While 50 xp does not seem like much, the points add up. And it need not be set at 1%. You could offer different rewards based on the action. For a full page of background, I suggest 2-3%, since this seems to take the most work. Using a percentage of what you need to make next level allows the DM to use this reward system regardless of what level the players are, from 1st to 20th.
Another idea is to give them a test. This can either be take-home or in-game, and is a great way of getting the players to read your handouts or web site. A take-home is easier so you might want to keep the reward lower for that type. Read through the background page you want your players to read, find 3 to 5 relevant items (plot hooks, NPCs, places) and write up a question for each item.
Have the players answer each question and for each acceptable answer they give (you be the judge) award them 1%. Don’t let the players cheat off of each other or else you will end up with one person doing all the work.
This test system is effective in that the characters of the people who really get into roleplaying will gain more experience, while those who don’t put forth the effort will notice during test time that they aren’t being rewarded. Maybe once their characters fall a level behind the others they will sit up and take notice.
Using Drug Names For Monster Names–A Word Of Caution
One of your readers sent in a tip suggesting using drug names for monster names, with an accompanying link. It’s a good idea, but there are a couple of precautions you need to be aware of:
- Don’t use well-known drug names, like Zertec, Prevacid, or Zoloft, or your players will be too busy sniggering at the monster names to fight them–a real mood killer! Use only obscure ones–and read the description. If a player has a medical condition that a drug might be used for, they may be on that drug and will recognize the name. They’ll be sniggering at the name while the other players are wondering what the joke is, and this will kill the mood just as fast.
- If any of your players are in the medical profession, don’t use drug names for monsters at all. Medical people are often familiar with the obscure drugs especially if it’s used in their specialty. Again, they’ll be sniggering at the name while the other players are yelling, “What’s so funny!?”
Here’s a couple of things you can do:
- Mix and match syllables: Prevaloft, Zercid, Zoltec.
- Change some of the letters: Brevagish, Wernek, Zolon.
- Spell them backwards: Dicaverp, Cetrez, Tfoloz.
- Add or subtract letters as needed to make them pronounceable. Tfoloz could become Toloz, Foloz, or Tafoloz.
Virtual Model Builder
This site features a do-it-yourself people builder. Its options are limited at the moment, and more may be available if you register, but you can create a good graphic of a male or female person for free with different body and facial features. Might be a good tool for NPCs. My Virtual Model