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Dark Roads and Golden Hells: Writing Good Planar Locations

Dark Roads and Golden Hells: Writing Good Planar Locations

The patronage project Dark Roads and Golden Hells is plane-hopping along!

Dan and Wolf asked me to put together a few words about writing a good planar location (I don’t mean “Good” necessarily, but the advice applies), and I thought that you all might appreciate some sage advice from a master planesmaster.

Unfortunately, Zeb and Monte can’t be here, so you’re stuck with me.

Engaging Creatively

When we engage in the creative process, we are combining ideas, places, people, and things, though not necessarily all at once. Still, this is a good start for imagining a planar location. Descartes, among many others, said (approximately) that there is nothing that we can imagine that we have not experienced; it’s impossible to imagine something outside of our experience. Creativity is, in essence, a mash-up of the stuff kicking around in our heads. It’s just a question of how to pull stuff out of there that’s cool…

I could say something about how it helps to have a background in philosophy, be well read in the classics, be able to drop an allusion or two to a deep mythology, but really, that’s kind of window dressing to the main event.

The way I do it is to come up with a couple of ideas. I usually start by asking, “What’s something someone on the planes would want? What would give them (or their side) more power? What would help them achieve their goals?” It’s worth considering the question from the various hard axes of alignment: Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil. What does a Lawful creature want? More law, of course. A regimen of activity that helps promote more orderly behavior. Something that makes Law attractive. Sometimes this means a zero-sum game with Chaos, and so Law might be building plots that will make Chaos look bad. Other times, Law might be pushing solely on the self-promotion side. It’s a sure bet that they’ve got multiple schemes going at multiple times; if you want to get nutty, you can start thinking back on the well-laid plans of villains and heroes in our popular entertainment, and then consider that each of those plans is part of the master plan Law is pursuing, each laid out like well-ticked marks in a ledger somewhere… but I digress.

I need to note that digression is an important part of the creative process. At the same time, knowing when not to digress is also a valuable skill.

Of Gods and Insects

So we should consider what those axes of alignment want. Then we should consider how their agents will interpret those goals. We should probably consider how far down on the agency tree we want to go: divinities, avatars, proxies, servants, mortal servants, mortals, allies, and so forth. Each of those agents will have a certain power level available to them for constructing such a location. If the location is an artifact of the planes, rather than created by anything we know now, we need to figure out how it got there and who might have had an interest in putting it there. It might be something like Devil’s Tower, a piece of rock eroded and extruded from the plane’s material. Or it might have been created by an agent of long-dead powers, in which case we’re back to our original creative process.

When we’ve determined the power level available to our creators, we can determine how far-reaching the location is, and what its likely features will be. Mortals will create on a mortal scale (though one should never underestimate what mortals are capable of creating—look at some of the wonders of the world, and then imagine someone is inspired by the planes themselves). Gods will create on a divine scale, and their works will be subsequently mightier, with parts that unreachable and inconceivable by human intellect. Consider how insects might enter your house; consider what structures insects build outside of your house. This is the minimum scale of distance between the human and the divine.

It’s not enough to come up with a good idea. We need to make sure we have adventure hooks for the area. Without hooks, there’s no impetus for people to come here; there is no reason the place wouldn’t be abandoned. Remember, too, that planar locations frequently run on belief, and so we need someplace that attracts people to it so that they can create legends of it. Why would people want to come visit this area? What would draw people to it? What might keep people coming back?

Fermenting Evil

So let’s run some core ideas. We’ve already seen a pile of hells and punishments for evil souls, but surely there must be some outrageous and heinous actions mortals perform that make even fiends step back for a moment and consider. What if the fiends wanted to create a concentrated essence of evil? How do we make something like that interesting? Well, it so happens that I’ve been doing some Asian-inspired work for Paizo lately, so I’ve been thinking about Asian stuff. In particular, kimchi.

If you’re not familiar with kimchi, here’s a short, Westernized version of the process: take cabbage, brine, radishes, cucumbers, and sometimes fish, put these into a jar to marinate, and then bury the jar in the ground. The longer it’s there, the stronger the taste as the ingredients ferment and bleed together. I should also mention that the smell is particularly intense when opened, and the longer it ferments, the more powerful the smell and taste. Sometimes, kimchi jars explode.

So what if we combine those ideas?

Well, to get at the core idea of your place, you need to be able to deliver a one- or two-sentence description of the place that sums it up. It’s like a true name for your location. For instance: “The Pit of Nar-Vanoth is a fermentation experiment, a festering midden of misery steeped in the worst cast-offs of mortal souls. Here the powers of evil combine and concentrate awful mortal souls in canopic jars, burying them together in the soil of this gods-forsaken spit of land to ripen and age for millennia. It is a place so foul that its stench is too rich for most fiends. The slime that accumulates here fetches staggering prices in power and prestige in the Courts of Hell.”

That’s your hook line. It makes people want to know more about it. From here we can introduce our other details, like who built it and why. We describe its architecture, which should ideally mirror the function of the place—we are in the planes, after all. We describe the inhabitants and what they do here. In the midst of all this, we scatter our adventure hooks. One of the cool things about coming up with all the backstory is that other details start to suggest themselves.

For instance, in the Pit of Nar-Vanoth, who tends these jars? If the concentration of evil is so great that it is too rich for fiends, perhaps mortals have taken over the place, wearing special protective clothing to shield themselves from the effects of jars that have burst over the eons. The mortals store the jars in great warehouses, shipping them all over the planes to their customers. What happens if someone tries to steal these jars? What if a player character (or an ally) is captured and hidden in one of these containers? What happens to those who enter the pit unshielded?

Writing a good location isn’t easy. More questions will come up than you can answer in your allotted space. But believe it or not, that’s a good thing. If you can answer all your questions in fewer than 300 words, maybe your location needs a little more kick to it.

4 thoughts on “Dark Roads and Golden Hells: Writing Good Planar Locations”

  1. Wow, great article and great sample location. I like that you took something like kimchi and related it to the planes.

    Would love to get some info on designing celestial locations of interest, I think that is always a challenge for GMs.

  2. Excellent advise and awesome concept. I love learning something from an article, and catching a glimpse at someone else’s creative process.

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