The setting is typically established in three different ways, correlating with three different levels of narrative:
- Beginning of the story;
- First in the act; and,
- Beginning of the scene.
Beginning of Story
Once the story first begins, it’s important to establish the overall setting with the players so they can grasp the tone for the characters. An opening narrative about the decaying fields during a widespread famine could impress upon the players that the people they will encounter are mostly desperate, poor, and unhappy. Depending on the information shared, it also might impart other information, such as the technology level of the inhabitants or pin the story within an era.
The opening narrative should not just be about one specific location, it should give the players an understanding of the region known to their protagonists. If the story will take place within the boundaries of a country with diverse biomes, consider describing the biomes in relation to the characters’ knowledge. For example, you could say, “Your characters hail from the southern swamp lands of Darrenvale – ‘big bayou country’ which borders the Sea of Saints – a tranquil body of water in which some Darrenvallian settlements make their livelihood. Your characters may have seen the Gargoyle Mountain range in the north (and if they haven’t seen them, they’ve certainly heard legends of the rock monsters among the peaks). Beyond the range lies the Sands of For-el Tal – a vast ancient desert and home to the Arcanauts – wizards who explore the magic planes. And while Arcanautical news does make it way to Darrenvale, travel and association between the two societies is considered ‘limited’ at best.”
Ultimately, when describing the setting at the beginning of the story, you are establishing the tone for the story.
First in Act
The first time the protagonists get to a new type of setting within an act, it is important to pause and describe to the players what the characters are experiencing, what they see and feel – on the grand scale. How large the setting is and what seems typical about it as a whole. Once the protagonists start to have scenes within the setting, this description of tone should serve as the default image in their heads.
For example, you could say, “You make your way over the final monstrous hill, and for the first time you can see it. There in the distance, among the sandy dunes, like bleached white bones topped with green fur, the spires that make up the capital city of Meag-el Tamber dance in the midday haze. From here the city seems pristine, a dome of translucent blue surrounds it, protecting the Arcanauts from dehydration and extreme heat. The lush greenery that trims the tops of buildings is a stark contrast to the barren desert surrounding it. What’s more is a paved road lies halfway between you and the capital -the road which would undoubtedly hasten travel, could be reached before sunset.”
Generally, when describing the setting the first time it shows up in an act, you are establishing the tone for the upcoming scenes within that setting.
Beginning of the Scene
At the beginning of each scene, you shouldn’t need to describe the region so much as the immediate surroundings and spacial measurements – heights, areas, and the like.
For example, you could say, “The guide, Choromal, leads you down a side-alley. Unlike the pristine, well-lit streets, this alley is dark and bags of refuse clog the sides. It is wide enough to walk double-file except when walking around refuse. The alley seems to span for roughly a city block’s walk – where light appears ahead in the busy street. But between you and the end of the alley, you can see that there are dark recesses or cross paths ahead. ‘Yes, visitors, follow. This way,’ Choromal commands as he wades deeper into the alley. ‘This way to what you seek.'”
Usually, when describing a setting at the beginning of a scene, you are establishing scope of the surroundings for the scene. This may include tone but should only do so if it deviates from the tone set when the setting was described as it first appeared in the act.