Making active locations

I’d like to create a list of techniques used to make active locations. This is explicitly about design or prep, not about improvisation. How do you build a place that actually feels like one and not just like a convenient backdrop for the characters? (I don’t have a lot of experience with this. I’m inspired by past discussions of modules and Adam Koebel talking about Mothership).

Stuff I’d say belongs on the list:

Movement tied to encounter tables.




Law levels. Like the ones in Traveller for example. Interestingly, I feel that Dog Eat Dog does something similar: “the Record—a history of the island, as defined in a series of Rules. These Rules are the unspoken assumptions that govern interactions between the Occupation and the Natives.”

"If the PCs do nothing"-style timeline/front/clock. If the PCs do nothing, (1) the key is stolen from the watchtower, (2) used to activate the orrery and (3) all children under 9 turn to glass across the city.

NPCs with set agendas and daily routines.


Detailed maps including tangible obstacles. The City of Hex is probably the most extreme example of this.

Faction mechanics. From Dream Askew’s Setting Elements (someone plays and makes moves for the “Society Intact” or the “Outlying Gangs”) to a kind of separate play with (sub)systems like this voting mechanic for the factions in Traveller’s Nomads of the World Ocean:



These are good techniques. I think the ancestor of it all though is the random encounter (though It’s core purpose isn’t versimlatude or setting building as much a risk creatiion) and more the improvements to the encounter table that happen when you add clues and location based events. They way I prefer to do this is with a second table of clues (distant noises, dropping, interest temporary things discovered etc.) as another result for a random encounter check. Additional location events (“The bears return from a stroll”) or location clocks (“The porridge cools one level”) can provide additional living detail added to the same encounter mechanism. There are also the 'what are they doing when encountered" tables of course.

Finally, I think the ‘chaos index’ that sees use in Slumbering Ursine Dunes has potential for between session change to locations that gove a good feel of player action transforming locations.


I love this post on Patrick Stuart’s blog about stored kinetic energy in setpiece battles. Think through how the “set” of any given encounter can change on a dime. Classic examples are rigging that can be sliced, chandeliers that can fall, barrels of explosives that can explode, forge or hearthfires that can spread out-of-control, etc.

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I think “clocks” are an interesting addition to the basic random encounter table. With a “clock”, each time you roll the same encounter, you’re advancing toward a culminating event (and there might be multiple events leading up to that culmination).

The “sign, then encounter” model is kind of like a “clock” with just two ticks.


Natural cycles also help to make a place feel alive. The more basic is the day & night cycle with stuff like undead only appearing in random encounters tables at night, stuff that the PCs can learn and anticipate, like that critter that only come out during the fireflies mating season. You can link a lot of behaviors to the different phases of natural cycles. This is what I was trying to craft in Paper Biome but my design was flawed and too complicated (or too ambitious).

There is also the concept of dungeon restocking. Like exterminating a monster that fill a specific role will mess up the dungeon ecology and modify the random encounter tables.


Absolutely, a clock for key events is useful. I wouldn’t put them directly on a random encounter table because of the lower probability of occurrence (same result on 2 die rolls to advance - the encounter check and then roll on table). Instead I’d append them directly to a random encounter/exploration/overloaded encounter die. If something is important enough to get a clock I want it to have a good chance of happening and in my experience dungeon turn go at a rate of about 8-15 per play hour, an average session too short to regularly advance a clock that needs multiple results very far.

Likewise I don’t usually make clues (2 on my exploration die) automatically result is a later encounter linked to the clie, they’re just indicators of possiblities usually. Not that linking tham is bad.