The landscape is a product of nature's own processes and humanoid activities troughout centuries or millenia.
How can we capture this in our stories, and deliver vivid and semi authentic descriptions?
The landscape is a product of nature's own processes and humanoid activities troughout centuries or millenia. Traces of human activity may dominate the landscape, as in a farming district with fields and meadows, or they may be quite difficult for most people to perceive, for example in a remote forest which has long been spared from the woodsman's axe. However, traces can be found almost all over a world. The landscape is subject to constant change. New activities and new techniques are continually transforming it. You as a world creator have to put your finger down somewhere and say; This is the part i want to capture. To do this you should make a sketch of what has happened before and how did it become this way.
This is also the case where human beings(The creatures in your world) cease to utilize it. When farms become desolate the face of the countryside is changed.
Traditional exploitation of natural resources creates a rich and varied landscape, thus encreasing the number and variety of plant and animal species. However, new technology in your world, efficient forms of utilization
and increasing urbanization gives rise to uniform landscapes, thus reducing not only the number of species in your flora/fauna but also the characteristic multiplicity of experiences and impressions afforded by the living landscape.
The Abandoned farm
Far removed from contemporary customs and practices and far from the beaten track a grey cottage looms out of the forest, shaded by an aging Aspen inhabited by woodpeckers. But no one lives in the grey cottage any more. Its windows are black and empty, no paths runs from barn to stable, willow herbs blushing in the summer sunlight encircle the mounds of stone, and stinging nettles draw a veil of oblivion over the farmtools which is fighting its final battle - against the ravages of rust.
You are aware that you have a minute piece of history before you. You see buildings and structures that show every sign of having been conceived with this place in mind, and which have lived a long life just here. But now they are no longer alive. What you can see is a home which has exhausted its usefulness. However, if you look around you, you will realize that whoever they were who eked out a meagre existence farming here nevertheless left something behind. There is vast difference when a gamemaster actually considers the history of the places players visit and not. Too often it's just "You walk trough the forest". Mundane things the PC's encounter in their adventures, like abandoned barns, a path trough the forest, a cave where they set up camp does not have to be flat in description. No, I'm not talking about spicing the cave up with some monsters. But that we as GMs consider the history of a place, and thus we are able to describe it better, with some flavour.
No, no, no. Don't worry. We do NOT have to prepare anything to make this work in a session. Once your imagination is in on it, you will wing-it perfectly. Just try to think in terms of logic and imagery. And remember, don't pack your games with details like this. It will only bog your game down. Do it when the mood is right for it.
So I have made this a scroll if anyone wants to write up little landscape descriptions like the Example above. They will surely provide inspiration for active GM's. The criteria is that the landscape you describe is mundane. No monsters and fantastic locations, simple things with more than one dimension to it.
The thunder of falling water is audible for hundreds of yards, as the trail leads past a small waterfall. Beneath the fall, a large pool spreads out, its edges covered with thick growths of water plants. A few water birds quest among the growth, seeking for insects and frogs.
Downstream of the fall an ancient bridge crosses the water, its cracked stones covered with moss. The path leads to the bridge, but some suspicious soul has tied a stout rope across the water as well, forming a rope handrail for the decrepit structure.
The Old Tree
There is a range of mountains and a plateau in different shades of red, brown and purple. The sky is blue and white clouds hang in the distance. A lonely tree is rooted on a rock which juts out of the ground. The tree looks really old and dry. Some of the branches are broken and the trunk is twisted. There are almost faded soot marks along the cracks of the trunk suggesting that it was once hit by a lightning. Small stone statues are littered around the roots of the tree, covered in dry moss.
After a long days walk, fending off monsters, we all need a nice spot to layup and rest.
Each step requires purpose and strength of mind, tired, dusty and sodden, you traipse onwards. The track twists to the left in muddy misery, its seemingly sole intent to cause you languish. With the bend now turned, the ebb of life begins to reverse. Appearing around the corner, what was dirt brown and monotonous, is replaced by a lush, green centered, glade. The sun, having lost its fight to remain in the empyrean, concentrates its final energies on the surrounding foliage. Rays, soft shafts of fading orange light, glide through the gaps in the branches and leaves and nestle on the thick tall carpet of grass. Butterfly's, the size of a mans hand, flitter in the warming glow, dancing in and out of the shafts of light, fluttering from grass blade to tree trunk to flower. The murmurings of a brook and the sweet smell of nectar drift gently on the still, silent and clement air.
The land here is ugly, dry, flat pass-on-by country. The dusty flats stretch for miles, studded with curling grey weeds whose leaves are silvery with thirsty powder. As you trek, you pass by the signs of some forgotten exodus through this region- the road is scattered with the remnants of the abandoned detritus of a displaced life: scraps of weather-whitened cloth, ancient boots and the rusty remnants of knives, shattered wagon wheels. At one point, an ornate, carven chair, the wood roughened and silvered with weather and age, its nobly-embroidered seatback peeling away from the frame, sits alone alongside the road. Sometimes, there are bones.
At some distance away from the road, you see the dust-wallowing remnants of an ancient mansion, surrounded by dilapidated fences. The structure looks a yellow-beige color like bone, and seems to sag and bulge outward like a collapsing pumpkin. Darkness huddles in its interior, hiding whatever secrets may lie there. The skeletons of trees sparsely surround it, the tallest objects in the entirety of the sun-greyed landscape.
Truly this is an earthly hell. The plains surrounding you are a flat, cracked expanse of pure white earth from which every step boils thick, dry dust in enormous clouds. Mountains, unearthly and black, seem to intrude on the horizon as if out of another world. The sky is a stunningly-deep cobalt, and seems like an endless vault overhead, making your head hurt to comprehend it.
As night falls, great nebular clouds gather on the horizons. Crackling balls of blue lightning-fire fill the air and cling to the arms and the head, giving living things strange glowing halos and shifting flashing outlines. Bolts of lightning rend the distant peaks, and thunder booms across the dead white plains, but there is still no sign of rain.
Above The Tree-Line
You stand on the entrance to a natural amphitheater of rippled stones, ringed by knife-edged peaks. The morning light is breathtakingly clear, lancing in over the passes in golden-pink flashes. Frost fuzzes the dirt, and the low shrubs and grasses are greying with the cold. A footpath, leading to the stairway which will take you down to the valley floor, curves whitely around the upper slope of the bowl and into the distance.
But oddly, in the center of this stone bowl, there is a single bent pine, a knotty ancient with limbs heavy with red and green needles. Clots of shining amber sap, like the runnels of tears, cascade down the trunk and gather on the pile of dead needles around its base. How did this single eldertree come to grow here, in a stony bowl so far above the tree line?
A tiny little hovel like so many others that might be found beyond the walls of any great city, four walls of timber tilted at an angle by the unkind attentions of time and the elements. The thatch roof is old and ill-maintained, the roof damp and rotting where it is not missing altogether. Such is its state that the roof certainly will not survive the ice and snow of the approaching winter. Creepers and sickly yellow moss clutch at the chinking between the log walls. The awning of planks that has once shaded the front of the structure are now drooped across much of the façade, one of its support poles knocked down by some long past storm.
The desert has a wild and terrible beauty. Enormous rock formations tower over the glittering sand like wind eroded statues of monsters. An emerald lake glitter greenly under the crimson sky. The path has been blown away and covered in white sand sand long ago. The only hint suggesting it was once there are are dry and broken stones littered on the ground. Far away are the remnants of a stone fence, suggesting that this was once a fertile land of agriculture.
The Old Battlefield
The road has never been more than an overgrown mud track, little travelled and little cared for, petered out to nothing more than a flattened earthen line, barely distinguishable from the rest of the landscape.
The soil is dark and fecund and dark oaks stand like sentinels at the forest edge, their branches high and leafy, a mixture of greens and russet browns. A cold mist hug the ground leading towards the forest, a wild, scrubby heath of unkempt grasses and thorns with stagnant pools of water and lumpen, snow-covered mounds of earth. Here and there,is a rusted sword blade, spear point or arrowhead and the occasional bleached whiteness of bone.
Camp Spot Two
In a hollow depression in the earth with an icy pool at its base and a low cluster of rocks and bushes gathered around its ragged circumference rests an ancient waystone. It rears up atop a flowering mound of grass, its smooth grey surface carved and painted with strange symbols and spirals that no soul can read anymore. At the base of the waystone is the remnants of a bonfire, that side of the stone is still charred by the smoke.
The Forest Clearing
Chilled rain patter down through the naked branches of black elms and twisted maple. The ground beneath is coated in a stinking, matted slime of dead leaves that had fallen the autumn before and now lay rotting back into the dark soil. Spring will take a long time coming here. Occasionally a woodpecker hammers in the distance, or some loon or other bird would whoop. Cobwebs are nestled in low branches hung with rainwater like diamond chokers. A rusted iron bucket with a rotten rope is half buried in the dark soil, indicating that somewhere; Hidden by leafs, is an old well.
The Second Forest Clearing
The clearing is wide and open trees have been cleared for it and now the wood has been burnt on a stone slab set before a crude statue. The ground is marshy and stinging nestles with purple flowers grow in the black puddles of water. Frogs, black snakes and all sots of critters live slither and jump around in the bog. Big logs in the black mud makes a safe passage across the clearing and past the statue. The statue, composed of dry mud is fighting against the ravages of moisture and rain. Someone has poked it with a stick that is left buried in it's belly.
A festering pit of brown muck and putrid animal decay, this mud pit is the size of a small lake. Closer inspection reveals obvious shallows while darker spots indicate deeper depths. Flies buzz around a half-eaten duck while a carrion bird attempts to pull out the remains of a rabbit. An occasional gurgle and bubble from the mud pit indicates that there could be additional life forms dwelling within it. A small boat is marooned on the mud banks.
Standing at the edge of a cliff, salt air fills your nostrils and the wind chills your bones. Although an obvious dead end, the view is breathtaking. Wildflowers dot the cliff edge and small animals scrounge for possible edibles. Far below, the sea crashes onto the jagged rocks while seagulls soar through the blue sky.
Clusters of luscious peach and apple trees can be seen in this flourishing orchard. Healthily trimmed, the fruit grow comfortably within its required space despite the variety of bees and birds that partake of the ripe fruit. A young boy can be seen in the distance as he fills his pack while up in a tree.
Rice Paddy Field
The symmetric rows of rice shoots extending from the water gives the impression that this flooded land is carefully looked after. The water, though muddy, does not appear to be contaminated. Rising from tall stilts in the center of the field is a large platform with a box filled with agricultural tools.
Spoiled Fruit Orchard
As if ravaged upon by a disease, this fruit orchard has dropped most of its fruit. Covering the ground is a thick layer of rotten pears and decaying plums. Some trees are completely barren while others are simply devoid of life with cracked and worm-hole riddled trunks. One tree, with a single pear hanging from a bough, has a broken butterfly feeder at the base.
The Gloomy Forest
Somewhere beyond the forest the sun is sinking to the horizon. The forest is a misty twilight place of black shadows and dim vistas. The undergrowth is composed of poison ivy and thorny black bushes. In a clearing ruin walls covered in moss and weeds gloom in the dark like broken teeth.
In the higher levels of a valley, is a sheltered spot, the place is hidden from view by trees and out-croppings. It is a cairn of granite fragments. Built in the unmistakable form of a star with five blunt angles, it rises waist-high from the middle of a plot of intersifting loam and sand. About it grows a few plants of mountain phlox. On one side are the charred remnants of a tree that has been destroyed by lightning in recent years. On two other sides, forming a right angle, are high walls to which several junipers cling like coiling dragons with tenacious claws, embedded in the riven rock.
With an old, abandoned road leading from it off into the woods stands a well. This well has clearly been abandoned: its stone roof has cracked and fallen, the rope has all but rotted through, and a fallen tree has taken out one side of the well. The twilight sun turns the whole thing into a picturesque scene, as well as a sharp reminder of the effects of time.
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? Responses (16)
Soon, this will be ready for release.
Ok, I threw this out there. I hope it will be added to. We might get some great visuals collected here, they don't take long to write up either.
Great! I have a fetish for these type of geo-historical descriptions!!
Hmm, will have to add to this one.
I'll give it a shot.
I want to add things too.
Please do, the more the merrier!
Ohhh, I SO hope people will add to this scroll! My weakness (well one of them) is in making short, evocative descriptions. This sounds like the birth of a very useful collection.
Great idea, MJS!
Thanks for the HoH and your comment.
Great idea. I look forward to responses. A very useful collection to have on board.
This will shape up to be a lovely collection of flavor/ descriptive/ mood text over time.
As Winter is a Character shows, you can set up a mood through describing the same locations with any number of twists.
Come on lads, don't aim for the oscar or anything. Just add some, it's easy!
Erg, this is so addicting right now.
I think simple descriptions like this help make the mind-map for folks, and most definitely adds to the character of the landscape.
Love this because it is very descriptive, and adds to any world.
Love this as well as they become the "signposts" that players (and GMs) use to navigate the game world. Heck, this is how I navigate in real life!
A good reminder to occasionally spice up the areas that the PCs probably are not going to be killing things in. Good job.