Adventure Builder Workshop: Location

by Wimwick (Neil Ellis) on September 8, 2010

Movies and television are great for portraying fantastic locations. I can still recall the sense of wonder I first felt when I saw the Argonath while watching The Fellowship of the Ring. With equal wonder I recall the first time I saw Naboo and the massive waterfall that cascaded away from the city. These two scenes fill me with wonder and a sense of adventure. Of course movies and television have the advantage of being primarily visual mediums. As a DM we use words more than visuals, this doesn’t mean we are limited in what locations we portray to our players. We are merely limited by our imaginations.

This is the second in a series that focuses on the Adventure Builder Workshop held at GenCon this past August. The first in the series focused on the villain, today we turn our attention to locations.

I’m sure we’ve all heard the expression location, location, location before. While the expression is more rooted in business it holds no less of a presence when designing your adventures. This post will consider location as it pertains to the overall campaign and also individual encounters.

In creating memorable environments to play the game there are three primary sections that need to be considered:

  • Visual motif
  • Describing the scene
  • Cartography

Visual Motif

What does your world look like? What overall theme are you looking to replicate? Are you going with a traditional medieval look for your campaign or are you seeking to broaden your horizons and use other cultures? Wyatt Salazar’s Spirits of Eden Campaignborrows from Eastern traditions rather than traditional Western or medieval fantasy origins. Most of the core Wizards of the Coast campaigns have their roots in traditional fantasy. It’s important to know what the central theme is for your campaign. This allows your players to immerse themselves into the experience. If your game world is a constant hodge-podge of different themes that don’t make sense together or flow properly, your players may start taking themselves out of the game and asking the dreaded question “why?”

In other words they are confused about your design decisions and aren’t focused on the game itself. To combat this there are three rules to follow when designing your adventure: familiar, functional and fantastic.


The settings you describe to your players should be familiar. Players understand what a castle and a dungeon are. They can imagine what a medieval village might look like. Forests, plains, hills and mountains are all self explanatory. By starting with a familiar location you allow the players to instantly relate to the scene.


Your locations should have a purpose. If you are taking the players to a location, there should be a reason for doing so. The location needs to serve a function and the use of this word has two meanings in this case. First, from a meta-game perspective, something should happen at this location. Either combat or a skill challenge. The players should not be brought to the location simply because you think its a cool location and you wanted to describe it. Second, the location itself should be functional. If an encounter is occurring in a market, then all the trappings of a market should be present. If the location is a ruined castle, have a brief two sentence reason for why it’s a ruin. You know one of your players is going to ask to roll a History check to learn why. Have an answer ready and have it make sense. Remember also, that part of the function of a location is to help drive the story forward.


We are playing Dungeons & Dragons. Everything about your locations should be fantastic. Whether magic is common or not it will effect everything about the world, so make sure to dress things up appropriately. Think about Minas Tirith, the white city built into a mountain. The Mines of Moira is another great example of a fantasy location. Feel free to have the towers on a castle reach to the sky, for that castle to be built on an island surrounded by a lake of lava. So long as the reasons why make sense. In this case our castle is in the plane of fire. By making locations fantastic you add an element of challenge and danger that might not be present otherwise.

Describing The Scene

Movie and television have something that you as the DM don’t. Big budgets and a lot of time. As your group’s DM you spend countless hours each week writing the adventure, drawing the maps, and setting the encounters. You don’t have a large budget and you have other constraints on your time. So how do you relay the fantastic locations you’ve developed to your players?

Throughout this post I’ve referenced different elements of JRR Tolkien’s work for a reason. Not only are the movies based on his work full of great visuals that will inspire you, but every scene in the movies was based on the written word of Tolkien. He was a master storyteller. For this reason, read Tolkien and other fantasy authors. Pay close attention to how locations are described and then emulate this when your players arrive at the fantastic locations you have devised.


If you are like me you aren’t good at drawing maps. Maps can be challenge at the best of times, but if you aren’t artistically gifted you may find this aspect of being the DM very frustrating and unrewarding. Fear not, there is help!

When drawing your maps go for a slightly distressed look. Rather than drawing one long straight line, use several smaller lines that overlap. Don’t worry too much about having straight lines in all your dungeons. Most castles and dungeons don’t have perfectly straight walls. The exception to this might be a cavern crafted by Dwarven Master Artisans.

Another aspect to consider when creating your locations is adding a third dimension. This is easiest accomplished by drawing several maps beside each other.

One thing to avoid when you design your maps and locations are oddly shaped rooms. Seldom does the shape of the room make for an interesting encounter. The terrain, monsters and action make for an interesting encounter. If you aren’t sure about the shape of the room go back to the point on function and ask if the room is functional? Does the shape of the room make sense for the activities that occur inside it?

If you aren’t great at designing maps and lets be honest most of us aren’t, there are plenty of resources available to help you out. Listed below are a small sampling of those resources:

Other Resources

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1 Liam Gallagher September 8, 2010 at 10:37 am

Great article. When designing encounters and adventures I always try to keep in mind the three most important things a piece of real estate can have: location, location, location.

By making each combat take place in a setting that it interesting you can take the “random” our of “random encounters”. Rather than a fight with some nameless goblins on the side of the road, the fight becomes a method for the DM to describe the landscape that the party is making it’s way through.

If you’re looking for help with mapping I can point you in the righ tdirection. If you can’t learn a thing from their tutorials, or if you aren’t inspired by the examples of these people’s work, then there’s no hope for you.

2 Wyatt September 8, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Thanks for the mention!

I’m finding more and more these days that the visual motif really counts. I’ve been trying very hard to put to paper every important and colorful detail about how things look – how people dress, how they construct shelter, how they organize locations, what the surroundings are like, and for a setting like mine, that mostly eschews all of the normal races (or makes them extinct, in my case) how each species of person and creature looks is important too. You have to strike a balance between the details that matter and those that don’t though. Everyone might be colorful, but not everyone is important, so I save the most setting-defining details to be given with characters and locations that will really matter.

3 Wimwick September 8, 2010 at 9:00 pm

@ Liam
Great insights regarding random encounters. I know I’m not a fan of random encounters, I prefer encounters that drive the story forward. However, if the location in a random encounter can be used to accomplish this then maybe I can be won over.

@ Wyatt
No worries on the mention and I do agree you can’t provide detail about everything otherwise the important details will become lost in the mix.

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