Thursday, August 25, 2016

Designing Evil: Transforming The Seedy Motel

You've heard about the motels in the worst part of town.  They may as well be in their own world, but they've been around for ages.  Everyone knows what happens in those rooms - drug use, prostitution, and worse - and it's not difficult to believe the rumors.  None of them seem quite right.  The paint might be dirty or the layout fifty years out of date, or they could be suspiciously plain and difficult to see from the road.  At any rate, efforts to spruce them up come off as tawdry and cheap.  Half the time, they appear empty.  You can't imagine why anyone would have a happy reason to stay there.

If there is one piece of advice I can give about developing "evil" settings, it's this: Don't treat them all like seedy motels.  Too often, we keep our descriptions of troublesome places brief, hollow, and ugly because the inhabitants are cruel or their way of life is despicable.  We hurry past them and try not to go back.  Perhaps we are subconsciously uncomfortable with the material.  Maybe we want to discourage player characters from wanting to stay there.  So we pass even more of a moral judgment on the area than we realize, and set ourselves back in a number of ways. 

Grown So Tired of the Same Old Thing

The first way we weaken the impact of troubled places is by making them too much alike, visually and story-wise.  When every lair looks like it belongs in Mordor, any sense of mystery is ruined.  If the environment is continually decaying and inhospitable, the players will wonder why anyone sticks around or lets it continue.  And if every creepy house hides a bloody abattoir, investigating will probably start to feel boring and repetitive.  This doesn't mean you can't have a game where the bad guys are stereotypical or that you're doing anything wrong.  The reverse will have similar effects. After all, if evil lands are full of nothing but shining white cities, that can become dull, too.

Mixing pleasant and unpleasant details in a setting adds nuance, a touch of realism, and a particular type of difficulty.  Simply put, the worst people and places do not always have to be color-coded for our convenience.  At times we need a GM to play with our expectations to gain a special kind of enjoyment.  And even if blurring the lines makes some interactions harder, that doesn't mean the players won't have fun.  Deciding what to do about a wicked kingdom that produces the most beautiful art in the world is a haunting choice to make.  It could also make for a truly memorable and epic campaign.  Regardless, a blend will make everything feel more real.

What's Missing?

So how do we make sure that our creations are not like a row of seedy motels?  First, we need to notice what is not there.  Absence is one of the persistent failures in the design of evil locations.  Sometimes a city seems too Disneyfied, even if it should have less safe areas and unscrupulous inhabitants.  Where are the dangerous stretches, or the places that sinners go to indulge their vices?  How might these areas appear to be benign?  Go ahead and create a variety of them and scatter them around.  Some dens will be bad news and look the part, along with the neighborhoods around them.  Other sites will be rumored to be unsafe but will be found in nice areas.  A few will be unsuspected of any wrongdoing but have horrific secrets in the midst of splendor.

The problem of absence might persist even when you ensure bad locations exist, however.  If we return to the example of the seedy motel, we'll see that it's designed for limited stays.  Most are outfitted with basic furnishings but living there for months or years would cause some struggles.  Similarly, some settings only seem to be made for people to do Bad StuffTM all the time, and don't have many considerations for operating in a larger sense. Even tyrannical nations engage in commerce, the production of goods, waste disposal, and other aspects of living.  It's part of your job to imagine how a bad place fits into the bigger picture and how people there get what they need.  If there is a significant shortage, then it pays to spend a few minutes considering how the locals make up for it.  

Why?  Because there should be multiple reasons for inhabitants to stay, even in the worst areas.  It's true that in awful conditions, people will linger because they have no reliable exit, or keep experiencing setbacks, or are in poor health.  They might be afraid of the unknown or attached to family and a sense of loyalty.  They could have enough power through guilds or gangs to keep them sated.  But a fetid swamp may offer freedom because no one else wants to live there.  There could be great natural beauty, fine local goods, or a guaranteed stipend for working in the mines.  There might be sweeping celebrations that make locals happy.  Not everyone is going to despise being in an unwholesome place, and not everyone is going to be content in a bastion of goodness. 

A few people will suffer, a few will leave, but others will find ways to make their situation bearable.  By filling in these details, both the setting and the characters become more believable and powerful.

What's Half-Done?

There could be more to fill out than you think.  Emptiness is another condition that corrupt locations often suffer from, and it can be quite subtle.  I'm not talking about sites that are deserted because of scary reputations or recent disasters.  There are bound to be places that have little to interact with because of how damaged they are.  There are also sites in wastelands or others stationed far from society.  Those are part of the larger picture.  But like the seedy motel that seems eternally vacant from the street, wicked scenes have a way of remaining less than fully developed.  There are many small ways that this comes across, in gaming books and at the table.

Sometimes unsavory places are given less coverage and depth during a session or in books.  It isn't a matter of saving time or trying to focus on more relevant aspects, either.  A city with a brighter feel or a more diverse reputation will more often have full histories, district-by-district details, and even block-by-block ideas about who lives there and what can be found.  If a city known for tyranny is painted in a few brief strokes, it could seem like its people do nothing but suffer and that it has little of value to do or see.  This might happen even with grim sites of great importance, power, and reach - especially if we aren't aware that we're holding back.  

The language used to describe an environment is also easy to ignore, but potent in its overall effect.  Relying heavily on terms related to scarcity, lack, silence, and so on can make populated zones seem abandoned.  Repeating the same basic information instead of adding new elements is another way to make a scene feel limited, with little for the player characters to do.  This is fine when it is part of a blended approach, but when evil locations are routinely described this way, the game loses a lot of opportunities.  Taking a moment to figure out what the bright and bustling spots are going to be like can leave the players with a more exciting and well-rounded impression.

Last but not least, words can be used to paint every bad place with the same coat of ugliness.  Focusing on descriptive terms that make every building seem bloated, dingy, or cramped will hamper attempts to make them unique.  Highlighting threatening qualities and ruling out other possibilities doesn't take much effort, but can come off as bland.  There are other ways to make players uncomfortable or to encourage their disapproval, if that's important to you.  Jarring sounds or smells, oddities that shouldn't be in the scene, and bad attitudes from NPCs can carry a lot of weight.  It could be more disturbing that a cut-throat merchant's private club is elegant, inviting, and safer than the outside world.

Transform The Seedy Motel

Variety and equality are the keys to improved setting design.  Examine what you've done so far and look for points where you can twist expectations and try something different.  Keep track of how you intersperse the appealing with the unappealing, and try not to get stuck in one mode for too long.  Perhaps most importantly, do as much work for the dark side of your game as you would for the light.  If you usually come up with notable locales, tempting plot hooks, and a few friendly faces for happier destinations, do the same for others.  If you have non-combat oriented maps for peaceful waystops, offer some general  maps for shadier ones.  If you plan to develop a whole book's worth of material on a neutral city with a storied reputation, consider doing the same for a city of a similar size with a malevolent streak a mile wide.

This does not mean you approve of what goes on everywhere.  This does not mean that the players will have to portray evil characters or live in the worst towns.  But it will open up the full gamut of stories and a rich experience for everyone.

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