Narrating a Setting

As the Narrator, one of your main duties is to explain to the Lead(s) what the protagonist(s) sense and their surroundings. Not only does this help the players become immersed in the story, it may very well provide clues to how a player should (or should not) move forward.

Players know nothing about their character’s surroundings until you tell them what they are experiencing. You will have to answer questions like: what is this place? What is the terrain, the smell, the temperature? Any precipitation? How dark is it? Humidity? Is there pressure or wind or noise? How spacious is this location? How is the visibility – are there lots of large objects that obstruct the view? Maybe fog, smoke, or haze? How many exits or distinct pathways are there? Do gravitational fields or any other physics work differently in this location?

That can be a lot to keep track of but you won’t typically need to define all of those traits. Several can be assumed with a simple description of the location: grassy field on a hot summer day, executive office of a skyscraper after hours, unlit hallway of an abandoned morgue, etc.

There are times, however, when having more details is better, when it would be beneficial to have a map or bio of your location. This is typically true if the protagonists are going to be spending a couple scenes or acts in a setting or if the setting is fairly contrasted from previous settings.

Establishing a Scene

The setting is typically established in three different ways, correlating with three different levels of narrative:

  1. Beginning of the story;
  2. First in the act; and,
  3. 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.

Using Maps

Maps can be helpful tools and are especially crucial for Narrators. There are times where it could enhance the Lead’s experiences and times when it could zap out all the suspense and intrigue. Here are some tricks to help determine when you should use maps during the story and to what extent.

Narrator’s should always have maps – whether they show them to the players or not. Maps help narrators visualize spatial information as well as aid the imagination when players ask questions about their surroundings. The more detailed a map, the easier it is to answer the ever-curious adventurer.

The best times to show maps to the Lead(s) is when the map doesn’t offer any secret information but adds to to the tone or enhances an understanding of what the protagonists can plainly see. For instance, a map of a city would give the player a sense of size and feel that the character would already have ascertained from first seeing the city.

In contrast, it would disservice the players to reveal the map of the antagonist’s lair – complete with traps and secret passages. Doing so would spoil the fun for them as they wouldn’t get to have that “exploring the unknown” feeling.

In lieu of showing the players a map for a secret lair, you could instead reveal pieces of the map, room-by-room (with each room on an index card or by drawing the rooms as they explore them). Or, you could allow the players to draw their own a map based on your description as they explore. Doing so can be trickier as it relies on communication between you and the cartographer, but doing so not only enables them to envision their own perception of the location but increases their sense of immersion.

Dimensions and Planes

Often, protagonist(s) exist in a dimension that is similar to our own – where physics (including time and entropy) works the same. Sometimes, they exist in a dimension that is similar but with slightly altered physics to account for the supernatural or magic. Either way, in a CQ StoryHammer game, this default dimension for protagonists is referred to as “Reality.” Most stories will take place in the dimension of Reality while some others might feature some other dimension or plane of existence that the protagonists must either traverse to, access for powers, or prevent from bridging with Reality. And still other stories might contain multiple dimensions and planes of existence.

As a Narrator, there are three tiers of information to consider when introducing the players to new dimensions or planes:

  • How much information does the player need to know?
  • How much information does the protagonist know about this alternate dimension?
  • How different is this new dimension from the one the protagonist just left?

If the protagonist is someone who has been to this new dimension before, then divulge what the protagonist knows about the new dimension. Or if the protagonist might not have been there but knows something about it from scientific study, local lore, or even childhood fables, feel free to tell the protagonist just that. “Based on the stories your character heard growing up, she believes that this might be the dream plane.”

If the protagonist hasn’t been to this new dimension before then it’s best to divulge only what the character is experiencing – especially the immediate differences from the dimension they had just left. But don’t give them any more information than what they sense and experience. For instance, if you have a fancy name for the dimension, don’t divulge it. Let the players come up with their own nickname naturally. You can divulge your actual name if players come across a scholar on the matter.

Classifications of Cosmic Expanses

  • Dimension

    A cosmic space defined by a set a physics which contains all of existence.

  • Plane

    A filtered layer within the dimension that excludes or includes content and physics.

  • Realm

    Alternate versions of reality in event only, all physics are the same.

  • Theoretical Domain

    An instance of the dimension that follows different physics or logic, typically used for explaining magic or other supernatural phenomenon.