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Locations: Finding the lay of the LAND



In my last article [2], I used the acronym AIMS to describe how I create NPC’s. I’ll talk here about how I use another acronym – LAND – to create locations. As with AIMS, I use LAND to help me come up with an actionable piece of usable game content quickly. LAND provides an easy way for me to accomplish this with just four fields: Location Type, Areas, Natives, and Disposition.


First, it should be noted that LAND can be used on any scale. You can use it to create a single room in a castle, or an entire continent. Let’s say that right now you have a cool idea for the general nature or feel of a continent. Use LAND to design it, and then any specific countries inside that continent are just new layers of LAND within it. One of those countries has a cool city you want to explore more? Work up its LAND so that you have a starting point. Now there’s a castle inside that city? Use LAND to create it as well, and then, just for fun, use LAND to make a single room within that castle. Once you’ve seen it and used it a couple times you’ll see how scalable LAND is.

Looking back, I missed an opportunity to include a section on scale in the AIMS article, because I use AIMS for sketching out organizations and guilds, etc. as well as individuals.

Prep and Detail

The VAST majority of the games I run these days are for Dungeon World, in which loads of prep is not required (or desired). For that game I use LAND to keep notes and give me just a little detail so that I can keep a location consistent from one session to the next. For other games, I use LAND as a starting point. It’s a building block, like AIMS, that I’ll use to build encounters and adventures (and I’ll talk about that in my next article).

LAND by itself doesn’t provide an exhaustive gazetteer for your fantasy world, it’s just a tool to help organize some basic information about a location. You’ll populate the location with more and more specific detail as you develop it for play. It doesn’t provide you with a map, but it DOES provide you with the information that’s going to help you make that map.

Location Type

LAND starts with Location Type. This is a general description for the location you’re working with.

I define the location type with an adjective and a noun at the very least, but you can also use a more complex form if you need it: [Noun] of the [Adjective] [Noun] for example, or [Adjective] [Adjective] [Noun].

Whatever form you choose, it’s meant to get you into the correct mindset for what you’re creating. For example, Crumbling Cave generates a different mental picture than Crumbling Palace, and Crumbling Palace creates a different mental picture than Sorcerous Palace. Maybe you want to describe it as a Crumbling Sorcerous Palace. Now think about Camp of the Northern King versus Camp of the Fallen King. I’ll be using Camp of the Fallen King as an ongoing example.

You can see how just a few well-chosen words can generate different ideas, so you’ll want to choose the best words to convey your idea with maximum benefit. But also keep in mind that you may be the only person who sees the LAND of the location, so do it however you feel helps you the most.


Areas are other locations related to this one that you want to call out specifically. I talked about scale earlier and this is where that comes into play. If you’ve designed a continent and have some ideas for a country or city inside that continent, you can list it here. This is a note to yourself that you want to build another LAND later that will encompass a connected location. You can also tag the Areas you list here as Internal (INT) or External (EXT). Maybe you built a smaller location but in doing so got a great idea for a larger location that this is only a part of. List that location, and mark it with EXT.

Think about your established fiction, or the fiction you want to create. If you want a swamp on this continent because you have some ideas about an adventure you want to run there, go ahead and list it. You don’t even have to name it right now. Just call it swamp or name it with a location type as described above. Haunted Swamp (INT) tells you that you may want Ghosts and Specters to reside there, but Twisted Swamp (INT) makes me think that the flora and fauna may have been twisted by magic.

Let’s flip it and think about a location on a smaller scale. Sweltering Keep is a single building that resides inside a city perhaps, or maybe off by itself somewhere. It may have very few Areas that you want to call out, but go ahead and list any that jump into your mind. Sweat Pit (INT), Branding Room (INT) and Scalding Shower (INT) may be Areas inside this Keep. Thinking about the fiction, I think I’d like to put this Keep on top of lava flow somewhere. So I’m also going to add Lava Reach (EXT) as an Area.

This list of Areas need neither be exhaustive, nor is it set in stone. If you come up with a new Area later, make it happen! If you’ve decided a swamp doesn’t really work for you, get rid of it. If you wrote it as a Haunted Swamp but now you need it to be Twisted… POOF… it’s Twisted! Don’t get bogged down with decisions or ideas about something until it impacts the game. If your characters have already visited this location as a Haunted Swamp, then you can’t change it unless something happens in the fiction that causes the change. But until it DOES impact the game, it’s just an idea you’ve put to paper.

Just as the “Secrets” field in my AIMS article helps create ideas for other NPC’s that have a connection to the particular NPC I’m writing, I use Areas to create a web of linked content. I don’t need to decide right now what every point on that web is though. I can develop it together with my players, or sit down for a weekend and detail out several splashes of awesomesauce at once.

For my Camp of the Fallen King, I think the areas I need to call out are probably the King’s Pavilion (INT), Mess Tent (INT), Tent City (INT), Smithy (INT) and Improvised Watch Towers (INT). I also want the location to provide some natural defenses. I think putting it on a plateau will provide long views of the surrounding area so that it would be difficult to sneak up on the camp, so I’ll add Sundered Plateau (EXT). I may expand all (or none) of them in the future, and may add to or delete from this list.

Cleaning it up

I mentioned tags for internal and external areas earlier, but in practice I only tag an area if it’s external. When I create an internal area, I just list it. It just makes it cleaner to only tag one of the subsets. So from now on, any time I present Areas, I’ll only tag it if it’s an external location – with (EXT).


Natives represents the NPC’s that might exist here, as well as any creatures or monsters that are native to the area. The NPC’s can be listed as generic (Guards) or specific individuals that you created with AIMS (Gary the Guard), and creatures and monsters are things that live their natively (wolves and goblins maybe), were placed there (golems perhaps) or have made their way there by other means (elementals, skeletons, etc.). Your list doesn’t need to include everything that may exist there, nor do you have to use everything that you’ve put on your list.

Also, don’t let your inner editor talk you into only listing the natives that are classically associated with an area. If your fiction says that the desert will be peopled with intelligent zombies riding horse-sized fire ants instead of nomad clans, then that’s exactly what lives there. Maybe those ARE the nomad clans!

Obvious examples for a forest may be Druids, Trappers and Wolf Packs. Try to think of some exotic examples of forest natives.

For our Camp of the Fallen King I’m thinking Knights, Smiths, Cooks, maybe Mercenaries and a named Wizard and / or Cleric may be native. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, nor is it set in stone. If a Cleric doesn’t work with your fiction then it doesn’t need to be included.

As with the Location Type and Areas though, think a little bit about the mindset of having certain natives in an area. If your cave has oozes in it instead of goblins, think about why that might be. Maybe it has both!


The disposition of the location is simply how the locations areas and natives MIGHT act towards the PC’s, and can come in several flavors, but I typically only use three: Friendly, Neutral and Hostile. I can see where a case can be made for Chaotic as well.

Disposition helps you place the location in your fiction. Speaking again about mindset, think about the difference between a friendly Sorcerous Palace and a hostile Sorcerous Palace. The PC’s would be able to move freely in the friendly version, with maybe some vendors willing to sell them their wares at a “friends only” rate. But the PC’s would probably have to use a lot of stealth and risk several combat encounters in the hostile locale, and those vendors are going to call the Guard Patrol if they see them. What about neutral? A neutral location is just that; neutral. The natives may have certain (and differing) agendas, but the place as a whole does not lean one way or the other.

Disposition can be used as a variable as well. Maybe a location that was once friendly is now hostile, or vice versa. The Sorcerer in the palace was an enemy until you proved that you have common goals against King, and now the Palace is friendly! Also, hostile doesn’t need to mean belligerent (but it can), it only needs to mean unfriendly.

A Friendly Crumbling Cave may have Areas that help your PC’s while hindering the Goblins that are there. Why? Because the characters know this cavern like the backs of their hands and can bypass the goblins without being spotted. But the goblins are new here and are trying to use it as a shortcut to the town, and don’t know it’s ins and outs, so they may stumble off that cliff.

What if the same cave is hostile? The goblins have a warren here and have built traps to keep intruders out (maybe… it’s whatever makes sense in your fiction).

The Friendly Camp of the Fallen King is VASTLY different than its neutral or hostile counterpart. For use in my ongoing example I’m going to say that the camp’s disposition is Hostile.

A side note about Disposition

Disposition is something that I stumbled upon recently in another article [3] here on Gnome Stew. It caused me to rework my LAND system, because I originally used “Notes” for N and “Denizens” for D. I found that unsatisfying though because LAND is just a system of notes. That’s like using a notebook and heading a page with “Notes:”. That’s the purpose of the notebook! Likewise, “notes” is the purpose of LAND, so finding Disposition helped my thinking process quite a bit, and in my opinion made LAND a stronger device!


I’ve included three examples, each built on a different scale and each with a different Disposition. As you read through them, think about the implications to your fiction if you change the Natives in a location, or change its Disposition. Think too about the adjectives I’ve used, and how different ones would change things up. Also notice that sometimes I’ll give an exact name, while sometimes I’ll give a generic description. Again, LAND is just a way of taking notes and is as detailed or general as you need it to be.



Hopps Spot (Tavern)


Kinikut Valley


In about six minutes (it was six minutes, twenty-one seconds… I timed it) I used LAND to sketch a small region (Kinikut Valley), one if it’s towns (Freecity) and a tavern in that town (Hopps Spot) and in so doing built a network of organizations, towns, NPC’s, history and possible adventures which I can detail right now, or wait until I need to. It was completely off the cuff with no outer context. No, it’s not perfect. But think about the results you might get when you already have some context to work with!

Building Blocks

I stated earlier that both AIMS and LAND are building blocks. They are both blocks that help shape each other, and with a little imagination you can see how fields from AIMS and fields from LAND will interact with and alter each other.

Also, both of these blocks work together to build the foundation for encounters. I break encounters down into three parts: Who, Where and What. AIMS is the who, LAND is the where, and I’ll put it all together in my next article “WHAT it’s all about: Building Encounters”.


In the next article I’m going to use an NPC I created in the AIMS article (The Stranded Adventurer) and the ongoing example I created here (Hostile Camp of the Fallen King) to build an encounter. I’ve listed them both below.

You’ll notice that the Adventurer is slightly different than the one I presented in the AIMS article, and the Camp of the Fallen King differs a little as well from how I created it in the ongoing example here. This is intentional. I created both separately – out of context – but as I mentioned above fields from AIMS interact with fields from LAND. Any of them can be influenced by (or influence) the others, and that’s why you’ll see a difference.

Stranded Adventurer – Darrian Fleetwood

Camp of the Fallen King

For those of you who are keeping track, that’s only eight data fields I’ve filled with information: Four in AIMS and four in LAND. How many questions can you ask about your world based on the information I’ve included in just these eight data fields? I’ll ask and answer a bunch of them in my next article!

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Locations: Finding the lay of the LAND"

#1 Comment By themensch On January 30, 2017 @ 9:56 am

I love frameworks like these that help sum up details for my games in concise, succinct bullet points, thanks!

#2 Comment By Brian Holland On January 30, 2017 @ 4:34 pm

Thanks for the kind word themensch!

#3 Comment By Blackjack On January 30, 2017 @ 3:27 pm

I use a process similar to LAND in designing my scenarios– once I’ve decided what the broad strokes of the adventure are. Your focus on LAND (and AIMS) first implies you take a bottom-up approach to adventure building. I.e., start with NPC and location designs, and figure out an adventure (or set of adventures) from that. I take a more top-down approach most of the time, starting with an idea of the story I want to tell and then devising locations and NPCs to flesh it out it, as I believe most GMs do.

#4 Comment By Brian Holland On January 30, 2017 @ 4:53 pm

Thanks Blackjack. Both AIMS and LAND are pretty broad strokes. Both are just ways to get my ideas onto paper.

Actually, I do use top down, but I’m working on a larger project that these articles will be a part of, and I’m laying them (AIMS and LAND) out as “Building Blocks”, but they may actually be better described as the “Mortar”. I find it easier to talk about the smaller components first, and then when I get to my next article (Encounters: WHAT it’s all about) the concept of fluidity between the different aspects is easier to understand because you already understand what those aspects are. I guess in that sense, the articles are the building blocks, but their concepts are actually the mortar.

I started with NPC’s in the AIMS article, then locations in LAND while talking about how they can shape each other. Encounters in WHAT will delve deeper into that because I use all three in a fluid process to make a fun encounter. The WHAT article will also touch a little more on context, which was only mentioned in LAND. It can been a fun exercise to build a bunch of random things from scratch, but a good context, in the form of a pre-existing setting or a home brewed setting, is the foundation on which it all rests (building blocks and foundation!). A fourth (yet unnamed) article will lay out how I design a custom campaign from scratch so that I have context – a foundation – to build upon.

#5 Comment By Blackjack On February 1, 2017 @ 3:30 pm

I figured your full approach is more top-down than bottom-up and that you were simply laying out the basic pieces for now, but I didn’t want to assume. I look forward to seeing your framework for how you fit these pieces together.

#6 Comment By John Fredericks On January 30, 2017 @ 3:53 pm

The LAND approach is great! Great job. I also find that when I sketch a map, things pop into my mind that I might not have considered otherwise.

Keep writing for us!

#7 Comment By Brian Holland On January 30, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

Thanks John. Yeah I like to sketch maps for inspiration too, and sometimes even just looking a maps makes you think of interesting things. I have a book somewhere called “Backpacking guide to Africa” and sometimes I’ll just flip to a map and get ideas from it. Sometimes I sketch out a map, and then build LAND notes based on what I’m seeing, and sometimes (most of the time) I’ll start with LAND, and then start putting things on a map.

I definitely plan to keep writing. I have one more article in this series for sure, and possibly a fourth if I can get it onto paper.

#8 Comment By Selhan On February 1, 2017 @ 11:47 am

I really like the idea, only thing I would change is leave D for Denizens and use N for Notions – as in what notions is the location supposed to evoke. This encompasses Hostility/Friendliness, but also allows for things like sadness, awe, antiquity and so on, which I find also really useful to note down and keep in mind in subsequent development.

#9 Comment By Brian Holland On February 1, 2017 @ 1:25 pm

Selhan I like that a lot! Yes, it can encompass disposition, but it can also include impressions. It’s basically “notes”, but notes feels like a listing. Notions feels more like mental impressions.

Also, something I was losing with “Natives and Disposition” was “moves”, or what the area might do. I tried to fake it with disposition, but that wasn’t great. I feel moves can be incorporated into notions: falling rocks, slippery steps, etc. Thanks for your input!!!

#10 Pingback By Sporadic Saturday Sweetness: 2017-02-06 ← Ravenous Role Playing On February 6, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

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#11 Comment By NikMak On March 12, 2017 @ 5:38 am

Been a bit slow to reply to this one (RL gets busy some times!) – but I just wanted add my ‘well done’ to the list – a handy mnemonic (I guess that should be gnomeonic huh?) to keep in mind 🙂

#12 Comment By Nojo On July 20, 2017 @ 12:39 pm

Has the follow-up followed-up yet? Looking forward to the encounter post.

#13 Comment By Brian Holland On July 20, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

I haven’t written the follow up Nojo. I tried a few different times and couldn’t get it to read the way I wanted it to, so I abandoned it (sorry). But if you’re truly interested in it I may give it another crack. I’ve been busy working on a Dungeon World zine called Session Zero (stalled on issue 4 because of a car accident) and some other misc. projects.