A picture that paints a thousand words can save a GM a lot of time and energy. Traditionally, a GM uses a few carefully chosen words to stimulate a mental image. But over the course of a campaign, mental images can easily become confused, and it can be difficult for everyone to keep track of who, what, when, why and where. In Part I of this essay, I talked about how to give the “who” category its due. Today, I’m going to focus on the “where.”
Describing terrain and locations is even more difficult than describing a person. In part, thats because we’re wired to recognize, categorize and memorize facial features in great detail. Forests? Mountains? Not so much. Much of the time, a GM can get away with a simple description: “You find yourself in a clearing, surrounded by tall evergreens, a carpet of pine needles at your feet.”
But if you want to make a lasting impression without a thousand potentially boring words, images can do the trick.
The easiest source for images, as I’ve noted previously, is Google’s image search. Type the words “forest path” into image search and you’ll instantly have your choice of pictures to choose from. You can print them, or display them from a laptop. You can use them in campaign write-ups or wikis. If you have some skill with Photoshop or Gimp, you can alter them to suit your needs or tastes.
Of course, you can also take your own photos. I live near a fantastic series of nature trail that wind their way around a lake/swamp area. I’ve used the location for several short films as well as for a Dark Heresy campaign I’ve been preparing. The experience of being in the location helps inspire you as the GM and makes your supporting descriptions more vivid for everyone involved. It can also help you create more memorable encounters, as you consider how difficult fighting a troll would be in two feet of swamp water surrounded by tree stumps. -4 to hit for all of you!
Another way to help set a scene is to create landscape images in dedicated programs such as Vue or Bryce. Both programs take a little work to learn, but the results can be stunning. With both programs, you can create a landscape to suite your tastes, set it under a sky of your choice, import 3d objects such as castles or towers. Objects like that can be built, bought, or in some cases downloaded for free. High-end versions of Vue are widely used in motion pictures, filling in gaps and details in backgrounds. The current version of Bryce is 6 which costs $100, but version 5.5 is free. The cost for Vue 7 ranges from $50 up to $2100.