Warning: This article contains mild spoilers for the D&D Campaign Descent Into Avernus.
How Setting Can Colour Your Roleplaying Sessions
Elturel. A shining city in the Forgotten Realms in the most literal sense. What sets Elturel apart from other cities is the magical ‘second sun’ that shines above it, visible for miles around, and unbearable to the undead. One simple device that automatically influences every plot that could take place within the city’s walls, or even just outside them. Where can you take the necromancer you just captured? How about a city where a portion of their magic is rendered null and void? You have an overarching, baked-in aura of safety and protection from evil that is going to automatically seep into players’ interactions with NPCs, consideration of what actions they will take within the city, and general perception and memory of a chunk of the fantasy world map.
Elturel. A defiled city in Avernus, the first level of hell. What sets Elturel apart from other cities are the chains suspending it above the River Styx and the magical orb of doom that crackles above the city, continually threatening its inhabitants with arcane oblivion. One simple device that casts dread across every square inch of a once holy city. Those clerics you were expecting to appeal to for aid against the demon or devil hordes? Corrupted. You have a pervading sense that everything is wrong now sewn through every element of the environment, and paranoia and a general concern for their continued wellbeing is likely to occupy your party’s minds. Once again, you have a very memorable setting - even a short conversation with an important NPC in the city could turn into an episode that players talk about for a long time.
So, is the corruption of the city a genius play by Wizards of the Coast? Is that the point of this article? Well, no, but it is a great tactic, turning something that was once holy into a hopelessly corrupted shadow of its former self. Seeing a map of the cracked, broken city of Elturel in the Descent Into Avernus campaign book and realising that the whole thing is hanging together by a thread, has an immediate impact for anyone who has visited Elturel before. But that reaction relies on exactly that - they have to have visited before, or the impact is lost.
The impressive thing is, and always has been, how simple it is to differentiate Elturel from the rest of the world just by one simple detail thrown into the way the city has been built. The second sun. It's one of those world-building elements that has an immediate impact on the plot. It colours players’ moods. It sends them a clear signal of how they should probably behave in the city, whether it’s to watch their backs or mind their manners. It does so with no special additional rules, and minimal effort.
We’ve seen it before in many different places. The tower of Barad-dûr in The Lord of the Rings is a foreboding landmark that looms over Mordor - a trope that pervades any number of fantasy settings - but where it sets itself aside from the others is the flame-wreathed eye atop it. If you can see the tower, it can probably see you. Again, we’re looking at a very simple fixture - an eye is a simple concept - but it colours every aspect of the plot once you reach a certain point. How much are you willing to give away to the big bad villain? Can you find a way not to be discovered, maybe dressing up like a goblin guard so you’re indistinguishable from the rest of the evil army that occupies the land? These things will be running through your mind for a long time before you tackle an obstacle like that, and it’s unlikely that you will take it lightly.
Similarly, the reapers in Mass Effect 3, despite effectively being mid-bosses rather than pieces of scenery, have an almost subliminal effect on players when their gargantuan forms loom over the horizon. As something of humanoid size… how would you ever beat something like that with just a gun? Even the craziest of murder hobos is unlikely to attempt to tackle the killer beastie head on when it’s as big as eight skyscrapers, so escape plans are going to get laid down very quickly, and the red lines for whether or not it’s OK to abandon a certain piece of terrain to the enemy are going to vanish just as fast.
How can you use settings in your games?
So, switching back to a DM perspective rather than a player perspective, and moving back into the game of D&D, what options do you have to write your stories in settings that immediately clue your players in to a certain theme or vibe? Do you have to literally hang something huge over their heads every time? Here are some ready made suggestions that are worth considering:-
1. The Feywild
Like a wood but also like A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or some crazy forest tripping on magic (but don’t mention the theater), taking your adventure into the Feywild should instantly lace your game with mystery and wonder. Everything is not quite as it seems. Aside from the opportunity to do some cheeky palette swapping (who doesn’t love bright blue leaves and a sky that fades from green to purple?), you can also play on the fairytale vibe - the adorable little pixies are actually the lawful evil tyrants, while the giant, gnarled and twisted pumpkin king is the land’s salvation, he just needs to be saved first. The weirdness of the setting immediately sets it aside from a trek through your standard fantasy forest, and creates an expectation in your players that they could fall foul of a whimsical trick at any moment - be it benevolent or malevolent.
2. The Ethereal Plane
Totally grey and devoid of almost everything that makes the living world vibrant and full of life, this is very much akin to sensory deprivation. The characters can’t interact with the material plane, but they can see it. Events might happen outside of their control, creating an urgent need for them to escape so that they can try to influence them or repair the harm they’ve caused. But the longer they stay there, the longer their emotions and senses are dampened by being disconnected from reality. Heading here might well signal to your players that their characters might not cope well with their surroundings, or instil an aura of despair. The characters are in purgatory and, once they get out, they are unlikely to want to go back (which then puts you in the perfect position to drop in a boss that can send people to the ethereal plane, so you threaten them with some real jeopardy).
3. The Nine Hells
Why not. It’s thematic thanks to the Descent Into Avernus adventure book, and it does give you a chance to change the way players approach your game solely based on what they see and perceive around them. An awareness of being in the Nine Hells, surrounded by demons and devils, is likely to signal that players should not trust anything, be incredibly careful about what they say, and also have them frantically searching for a way out. The longer they stay, the more they become corrupted (if you want to set it up that way), so they’re also aware that this is not a place that they can hope to survive in for long if they want to go back to their previous lives. This also brings an implicit promise that they are going to end up fighting (or fighting for, if they are unlucky) an avatar of unspeakable evil. Depending on your party, you might find that is a battle they’re very keen to jump into and win!
Of course, there are plenty of different ways that the setting you choose for your game can influence both the plot and your players’ mentalities. It’s well worth taking this into consideration when planning an adventure - it’s very easy to leave the setting to only be determined as an afterthought (“Oh heck, let’s just put them in Waterdeep”). Jumping into your player’s shoes for a moment and thinking about how their location can make things more memorable is always worth some time.