Tips On Designing General Sci-Fi Locations

From Jonathan Hicks

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0197

Tips On Designing General Sci-Fi Locations

There are many strange places in the universe, many strange worlds and cities. The trick is making each of these locations work for your game and the reality of the world you are gaming in. The locations don’t have to be grounded in the realms of possibility, as after all, this is science fiction.

Following are some hints and tips on how to create such places. Although it is impossible to anticipate every environment and ecology, these tips should give you some idea of what to think about when designing a new place for the PCs to visit – or avoid. Locations, even terrestrial ones, are diverse and many, so being able to give comprehensive hints on how to create original and visually memorable places would be foolhardy – the best this article can offer is how to approach the design of the location, and hopefully act as a springboard for your own ideas.

Location design can be divided into four categories: rural, urban, space-based, and location name. These things dictate the lay of the land and what is to be found there–either cities or towns or natural occurrences–and its identity.

Rural Locations

Rural locations are open areas of natural growth. This can cover many types of terrain, such as forest, plains, mountains, or even endless water. It is important to remember that a single type of terrain is not indicative of the surface of the entire planet. Use our own world as a template – many different terrains cover our planet, from steaming jungles to arid deserts to vast expanses of water, as our seasonal climate is subject to change from pole to pole.

There is no need to represent a whole planet with ice fields, jungles, or desert unless you want to keep it simple.When we speak of sci-fi locations, we are usually talking of out-of-this world places that are reachable by the PCs in the game.

There are only so many places of varying identity that a GM can visit before repeating themselves, so ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What is the atmosphere like?
    • Breathable? If it is breathable then you’re most likely looking at a world with an atmosphere and ecology much like our own.
    • Toxic? If it is toxic then the world may be very different from Earth, with growths and terrain far from what we know. Great natural funnels could be belching sulphur into the air, with lakes of bubbling acidic liquid burning everything around. Natural vegetation could excrete a gas that is lethal to off-world visitors, or the microscopic bacteria could be unsuitable for human exposure (remember the Martians of H G Well’s ‘The War of the Worlds?). The visual style can be handled the same way as the breathable atmosphere, except the PCs will have to spend their time on the world with masks on, or in full spacesuits.
  2. What does the landscape look like on this particular part of the planet you have landed on?
    Atmosphere may give rise to terrain and vegetation similar to our own world with a few twists to improve the visual style. Perhaps there’s no grass but a moss-like growth that covers open land instead. The trees could grow like huge flowers, supple and bending in the sun, or they could be waist-height and cover the area like ferns. Sometimes, it pays to think of exaggerating the natural order of things (‘the trees are half a mile wide at the trunk and rise two miles into the air!’) or downsizing them (‘the highest hills are less than a hundred feet, and stretch off into the distance’).
  3. How similar is the landscape to our own?
    A twist on the look or style that human perception is used to can make normal things appear alien. Find a natural history book or something similar and check out some of the weird and wonderful places on our own planet. You may not have to look very far for something that seems far removed from what we know.

Even colour can make the difference. The sky may be tinged with a continual pink, with two moons hanging low and huge– even in the daytime. The leaves of the trees may be blue. Just picture everything a person would look at when viewing a natural landscape and twist it. Remember, you don’t have to have a reason as to why the world is the way it is. If it serves the plot and makes for a memorable location, then going into minute detail about the ecological history of the world is not necessary.

Here’s a little trick for quick descriptions. If you go from orbit to sky to land, you can build a picture of what the PCs see, standing on the surface of the planet. Starting with the orbit, they may see more than one moon there, or another planet, or even a massive space station hanging in the sky.

Moving down, the sky itself may be coloured red because of atmospheric aberrations, or long stringy blue clouds might be thinned by high winds or glow at night with their own phosphorescence. The ground can be as described above, with twisting trees and blue moss-like grass that clings to everything.

Urban Locations

Now that the rural landscape has been established, it’s time to decide what kind of cities exist there and how they thrive in relation to the landscape they have chosen as their home. The style of an urban area will depend on two of the things already established by the rural setting: atmosphere and terrain.

  1. What kind of constructs are they?
    Buildings will be designed and erected to suit the conditions of the place chosen for settlement, be it settlers who are indigenous to the world or colonists new to the planet. Think about the surroundings, the weather patterns, and the usefulness of local vegetation and/or minerals. In real terms, the size and type of the settlements will depend on the technology level and consumable resources about the site, but there is no reason to go into that kind of detail. Unless the PCs are planning to take up permanent residence on the world, there is little point in going into sociological and architectural detail.
  2. What kind of atmosphere is the settlement constructed in?
    Let’s say the atmosphere is toxic. Indigenous life forms will have no compunction building places that suit their biological needs as they are immune to the effects of the world. Colonists or visitors, however, may need to take drastic measures. Glass and steel domes that protect the inhabitants from the lethal atmosphere may encapsulate great cities with their own ecosystem installed and brought in from the home world to sustain them. Huge underground caverns cleansed of toxins could house a subterranean populace. If the atmosphere is of a heavy gas and low lying, the cities could be on huge stilts that stand above the poisonous clouds.
  3. What kind of weather must the buildings resist?
    If the weather is extreme, measures may be required to protect the denizens from lashing winds, violent rain, or even periodic meteor showers. They may have huge, armoured upper levels to resist heavy impacts. They may be bullet shaped so winds slip over them. Low domes with reflective surfaces may help resist heat whilst other weather might be kept out by constructing the city into the side of a mountain.
  4. What kinds of people live there?
    In this respect, it helps to think of species and technology level.
  • With regards to species, take the type of alien into consideration. If they are huge, ten-foot tall giants, then the buildings will be huge, with wide corridors and tall looming doors. Vice versa for smaller beings where visitors may have to crouch when entering homes.
  • Is the race warlike or peaceful? Warlike races may have buildings built for battle, with defensive emplacements, stark, brutal construction, and sterile corridors. Peaceful races may be more graceful, with flowing architecture and wide-open natural spaces.
  • How advanced are the people? A technologically backward race may live in mud huts, caves, or rudimentary castles. It may help to mix and match different cultures from our own world to visualise this – Aztec Ziggurats surrounded by Norman castle walls in which Viking-like long houses are built, the people travelling the land in huge zeppelins?Advanced races may have great silver cities with sprawling starship bays, anti-grav sleds flitting between the buildings and myriads of brightly coloured beings walking the streets. The best thing to do – choose a period in history and mix it with other culture styles from all over our world. Exaggerate size or flamboyancy and you have your own style, with elements the players can visualise so that it makes your job much easier.

Another good idea is to mix the architecture of different races as if many beings from all over the galaxy have settled here and bought their own lifestyle with them. Imagine the clash!

  • What is the terrain like?
    The actual formation of the land will also play a role in the design of the urban area. In mountainous areas the city might be low-lying in the valleys, or built into the mountain itself, with roadways between the peaks. On plains, the city may be similar to earth-bound sprawls, in jungles the cities may be covered in vines and growths or part of huge trees. On water planets, the cities may be standing on stilts above the crashing waves, or underwater where it’s cool.

Imagine how we survive in different places on our own planet and you have a starting point, with twists on the reality of it to suit your game. Not all cities need to be plain downtown/suburban creations. After all, it’s the physical design that will stick in the minds of the players. And having the layout of the place similar from one world to the next will make locations indistinguishable from each other, which may result in a lesser involvement in the game.

Space Locations

This is where things get interesting yet remain simple. There are so many choices to be made in the creation of a space-bound location that listing them here would be impossible. Instead, simply take what you have designed regarding the planet-bound location and transplant them into a vacuum.

Consider the following:

  1. What is the purpose of the location?
    Your main consideration, in general, is the size and shape of the place. Is it a huge sphere covered in sensor towers and hangars? Is it cylindrical with huge solar arrays generating power? Is it the classic doughnut shape spinning to create its own gravity? A station could be so huge that artificially created landscapes could exist within its walls, with gardens and fields and lakes to help the species the station belongs to relax.

Scientific stations might be bright and sterile with white corridors devoid of decoration illustrating the seriousness of the location’s purpose. Military stations might be bristling with defensive weapons and have berths for many warships, troops, and war machines littering the sparse, industrial-like construction. Picket vessels hang in permanent readiness challenging every vessel that approaches. Trade ports may be huge, able to berth dozens of starships at a time with thousands of beings utilising trade halls and entertainment venues.

The size of the place may well reflect the purpose, but that is not always the case. Simply judge why the location exists and go from there.

  • Is the location part of a natural occurrence?

    Perhaps the place has been constructed in a hollowed-out asteroid, or part of a shattered moon. It helps to combine the design with a natural space-based occurrence so that the players have a visual they can latch on to. Describing a space station is fine, even showing a picture can help, but a three-dimensional image, especially that of a moon or asteroid, gives the players a picture to latch on to and helps the suspension of disbelief.
  • What is in the vicinity of the location?

    I’m not talking about within a few hundred yards, or even kilometres. The nearest visual ‘landmark’ might be dozens of light years away in the form of a huge nebulae. Just imagine what the players might be able to see from the location, or as they approach it.

Is there a long string of multicoloured stellar dust glowing in the distance, or huge nebulae that fills the view ports? Is the world the station orbits blue, green, purple, or an airless barren rock? Is there an asteroid belt the PCs should be aware of? Are there many ships flying around or just one or two? Are there two suns, and what colour are they?

A great red giant could cast a scarlet glow over everything and everyone, turning a pleasant station into a vision of hell. Perhaps there has been a battle and the station is what is left of a huge warship with the wrecks of smaller vessels locked in the same orbit.

Naming Your Location

This part can be simple. Some people find it difficult to come up with new and interesting names that don’t sound too ridiculous. The planet Tirinius sounds plausible, but the planet Gillibillibangbong sounds plain stupid.Here’s a trick:Take a look around you and pick two items that are in the room, outside, or in the vicinity. Change the spelling of the two words (just jumble up the letters or drop one or two) and add them together.

For example, in my room here, I’ll take my stapler and my mouse, change the spelling of each, drop a couple of letters (‘stal’ and ‘omuse’) and add them together – Stalomuse. That could be a planet, a city, a space station, even the name of an entire alien race. I’ll use it for the planet’s name. Next, I need a city. I take paper and screen (which I change to ‘Rep’ and ‘scree’) and add them together to make ‘Repscree’. So, we have the city Repscree on the planet Stalomuse.

To make the words suit a species or a racial location, you could judge that all the places start with a vowel (‘Astalomuse’ and ‘Arepscree’), or always end with ‘th’ (‘Stalomuseth’ and ‘Repscreeth’). Or, somewhere in the name, there is always an apostrophe and a ‘Ka’ (‘Stalomuse’Ka’ or ‘Ka’Repscree’).

Add something to the word to make it identifiable to the ear, so when you say ‘the settlement bears the name of Gendo’Ka’, the pronunciation might tell the players something about where they are going and helps them picture it on their return.

Failing that, grab a Thesaurus. There are plenty of words and their synonyms in there that you can swap, snip, and jumble to create some very interesting place names. A whole galaxy’s worth, even!

[Comment from Johnn: a favorite trick of mine is to use an online anagram maker and jumble up words based on the theme of my adventure. The Anagram Times ]
Graphic of section divider

In conclusion, the thing to remember about creating a sci-fi location is the ‘twist’, giving a place a certain element of difference to make it stick in the players’ minds. You can base it on earth-bound cultures or terrains, or go far out there with weird and wonderful designs of your own.

It’s best to keep the notes you made and file them, referring to them when you create something new so that you don’t repeat or copy yourself. You don’t want the players to visit acid lakes on one world, and then do the same thing on another world a couple of weeks later.

Science fiction, especially that which deals with exploration and adventure of the galaxy, is a genre of discovery. Travelling across the universe to find that the architecture on most planets is the same as downtown isn’t very exciting, is it?

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Puzzles Tip

From Darren Blair

As much as puzzles/riddles/etc. can provide a non-combat way to challenge players and provide non-combat XP, the fact that some DMs allow players to just make intelligence checks to solve them kinda takes the zing out of them at times. Not only that, but it means that, as a DM, it could take any one of us hours just to think one up and scale it to where it can be done in the game. Meanwhile, the players eventually get bored with puzzles if they aren’t challenging enough.

To solve this, all it will take will be just a little cash (don’t buy too much at once!) and a little bit of your time. Any store that bills itself as a teacher supply store should have a section somewhere where puzzles are kept (both books, traditional put-together puzzles, and logic puzzles of all sorts). It may be small, but there should most likely be something. If nothing else, there’s always mail-order catalogs, websites, and second-hand stores to stroll through.

Imagine the look on your players’ faces when you tell them that they have to (in person, not in character) solve a Rubik’s Cube or other such item in order to complete the task. Not only will they have to think, but often the players should be forced to rely on group work in order to solve it. Frustration alone ought to keep them at it for hours, which is why a time limit is suggested.

When all is said and done, you can either keep it for yourself for later use (your own or against another party) or you can donate it to groups that give such items to hospitals and other organizations.

Graphic of section divider

Episode Previews And Reviews

From Alby Hwang

This might work better in more episodic campaigns where GMs have an idea of where things are going next.

Probably one of the best campaigns I’ve run so far revolved around the excellent “Operation Rimfire” campaign for the Mekton Zeta system. “Op Rim” used an episodic format in the style of Japanese Animation series. What I wound up doing was writing up short “previews” in the style of the “next time, on ________” blurbs you find at the end of episodic television.

For example, right before an adventure where the PCs had to defend a starbase from enemy attack, I had one player read a brief blurb about “A deadly attack on a station of innocent civilians” forcing our “noble heroes” to fight off their “dastardly foes.”

This does require some planning on the GM’s part as the GM should be thinking at least one adventure ahead for this to work well.

A fellow GM used a variant of this method in the style of the “Last time, on _______” blurbs they sometimes have at the beginning of television shows. This variant has the advantage of keeping the players up to date on what happened last time without the whole, “Okay, so where were we when we left off?” situation.

In either case, the player reading the blurb should get a small experience point reward for doing so. This isn’t really necessary if you have the right group though. After I started doing this, one of my players actually asked if he could have the chance to read the blurb next time. He was willing to give up the XP bonus just for the chance to try something “cool.” All in all, a successful experiment I plan to use again in the future.

Graphic of section divider

Equipment Comments And Tips

From Jones Tyler III

re: RPT#192 – Tips On Managing Mundane Equipment

Your article on equipment management makes many assumptions that do not hold true, at least in my campaign.

For example, for major ‘re-gearing’, I have my players work up lists out of game, when at all possible, so that I can peruse them and give them the OK or pull out items that are not easily found. The actual purchasing of equipment does not take time and I believe that the management of the gear probably takes the same time (compared to the example of a player needing to look up how much a piece of gear takes and then track how much of his ‘allotment’ is left).

As another example, ‘gear purchase’ is not always a ‘waste of game time’, unless your game focuses solely on combat. Gear purchase, in my campaigns, is a great way to introduce minor side-quests (“my uncle disappeared in that dungeon a generation ago and he held the one family heirloom that I really loved, a simple copper pendant”), provide for some fun (light) roleplaying or give a point of what I refer to as ‘Campaign Lessons’, wherein a bit of the campaign environs (not the campaign itself, but the setting) is explained.

This can include history (I like to beat a point in so the players remember it), something about the terrain, maybe a bit about an NPC group, or whatever. In my experiences, the purchasing of gear provides a great point to continue the campaign in a non-combative environs (mostly) 🙂

As to the actual management of gear that has already been purchased, it is clear that this is something that will take some amount of time, in so far as encumbrance is concerned. But, I think that this represents a definite deterrent for, let’s say a wizard, to throw a very low score into Strength. At the very least, ability score assignment does have a consequence. Encumbrance has a great consequence in some gaming systems, especially when it comes to D20 D&D. It is no longer just a ‘move slower’, but also has possible effects on attack rolls and the like.

But, I did enjoy the article, as it did give me food for thought (I liked the idea of having equipment list groups and will think on it more!).

As always, thanks for the great mag.

Graphic of section divider

From Michael F.

[Comment from Johnn: warning–for mature readers only.]

Here’s a link to the Crime Library, a great resource of murderers and criminals that’s categorized and give lots of interesting details:

Perfect background material for evil villains, NPCs, and creepy scenarios…

Graphic of section divider

3D Art Resource

From Cheryl J S Mitchell

You should tell your readers to look up:


It is a collection of 2d renderings of 3d art made with various programs. The art can be saved, and as long as you don’t claim it or use it commercially, you could use the weapon, character, and background pictures. They have pictures of everything from elves, nymphs, drow, and irda (warning, many with exposed body parts, but it is fantasy after all) to Stonehenge, waterfalls, and tanks, as well as many weapons. It may take a while to wade through, but I found it well worth the effort. Definitely for the over- 18/21 set.

Graphic of section divider

Slavery In Games Resource

From Dariel R. A. Quiogue

Hi Johnn! Just wanted to say that Ian Winterbottom’s tips on using slavery as a plot hook could make for some great adventures. I can speak from personal experience – I’ve used the device twice already and got some really motivated characters (and players) from it.

I’d like to recommend readers looking for ideas on incorporating slavery into their campaigns to check out Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom series of novels, and the Rafael Sabatini novel Captain Blood; better yet, watch the Captain Blood movie.

Captain Blood’s adventure starts with him being sent to a Caribbean island as a slave, from which he escapes on a stolen ship and into a career of piracy.

Graphic of section divider

Fantasy Sub-Genres

From Dwayne Trawick

re: Brief Word RPT#193 – 8 Tips For Improving Random Encounters

[Comment from Johnn: I thought you might find this list of fantasy sub-genres useful for categorizing your campaigns. Perhaps a good way to communicate what new players to your group are in for? 😉 ]

Hi Johnn! I don’t know of a website that describes the different kinds of fantasy but I have found quite a few sub genres and thought I’d share them. Not all of these are publicly accepted, I’ve made a few of them up.

  • Sword and Sorcery
    This is the classic stuff most normal authors scoff at and unfortunately see as the mainstream of fantasy. An example would be Conan the Barbarian.
  • Classic Fantasy
    Ripped, white-outed and slightly modified from the original Lord of the Rings, this is your standard stock, what many D&D players are likely to be most comfortable with. It’s all about elves and dwarves, and polytheism and fireballs.
  • Epic Fantasy
    This may very well be a sub-sub genre. Epic fantasy is your melodrama fantasy where the Chosen One fights the Shadow. Robert Jordan fits very well into this scheme. All the while, it will usually have some aspects of classic fantasy, but can be of any normal subgenre, I think.
  • Historical Fantasy
    In the mainstream, I think this is mainly a title which includes the fantastic recreation of history or human myth (i.e. King Arthur, etc.) but I also classify it as a fantasy that is so rooted into normal Earth culture that it might as well say something like: some names and events have been altered to protect the innocent and make it seem cooler. Therefore I also include George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire into it.
  • Celtic Myth Fantasy
    This is a sub-sub-genre in historical fantasy that seems to be hugely popular. Just check out your book store and you’ll find at least a dozen titles that are based on Celtic myth.
  • Farcical Fantasy
    This is your funny, sometimes goofy fantasy from the likes of Terry Pratchett. Not huge or taken very seriously by the mainstream, I think, but still has a fairly loyal following.
  • Dark Fantasy
    This is another subgrenre that may overlap. This is a little Robert Jordan with a dash of Stephen King. It normally has something of the classic fantasy feel, but with lots of scary stuff that goes bump in the night and wants blood.
  • Low Fantasy
    This is fantasy where the normal fantastic stuff has been leeched out a little. I don’t know of much like this, although Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire may fit this too, but it’s a fairly classical world where fireballs may have been as common as lighters in a drug store, but aren’t at the time of the telling. This is also a little of Tolkien too, kind of a “get back to the basics” as the master’s fantasy included very little of fireballs and meteor swarms and swords that kill gods and whatnot.
  • Modern Fantasy
    This is the stuff where the creepy, crawly things from normal fantasies creep up the sewers of New York City and wreak a little havoc in the modern world. I don’t read a lot of this stuff, but I think a lot of Stephen King’s works would sort of fall into this, as (from my limited knowledge of his work) there is a lot of supernatural, yet takes place in the modern world. It would just be shadowed with yet another sub-genre, dark fantasy.
  • Science Fantasy
    As yet, this really hasn’t taken off in the mainstream, except in those goofy video games where guys with swords wallop guys with guns. I think this will slowly mature though, and find a few, discreet, ingenious authors who can take this difficult to control and maintain genre into the heights.
  • Montage Fantasy
    This is like when you go to the Italian restaurant and you get to pick from 7 pastas, 5 sauces, and 12 different extras for your dinner bowl. Montage Fantasy is a big mix of at least two of the above. I would consider Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series to be part of this. It includes both supernatural in the real world, as well as an alien world, as well as a lot of dark fantasy.

Well. I hope this was in some way helpful.