One of the most important tasks that a GM has in a tabletop game is coming up with the micro-scale setting. This is the sort of thing that adventure writers worry about most, but even if you’re just running a game for a few people and don’t want to use solely pre-written content for whatever reason, there are a few steps you can go through to make your content better.
The first step should always be to think back to purpose. For example, if the players stake out a warehouse, they may ask “Why is there a guard outside a certain door?”. It may be one of a few entrance doors to a secure location, and therefore that guard is taking the place of having guards scattered throughout the place he’s guarding. This isn’t to say that he’s necessarily the only guard (or that there are only guards at the doors), but it can imply the way a security system is designed. If there are no guards, perhaps the location either lacks anything that would lead it to be attacked/sabotaged/stolen from, or relies on another form of security, such as traps, magic, or surveillance. If you have the ability to design around the purpose of sites and characters, you’ll have an easier time developing great associative elements that mitigate some of the hard part of designing a session. For instance, if you look at a castle, there may be a secret rear entrance if the builders suspect that the location could be turned against them or if they expect it to fall under heavy assault and want to leave themselves a means of egress. A town in a place where stockpiling food is necessary will have larger granaries, and potentially take steps to secure them that a more fertile place may not need. A space station will have recycling and recirculation systems for obvious reasons, while a fabricated habitat for a hospitable environment potentially won’t.
The second step I like to use when designing goes beyond purpose and goes into the psychological element behind it: motive. I like to make this separate because it’s essentially a refining point to the purpose; a secret exit is different than a secret entrance. While either will be well-concealed, there may be attempts made to make it so that the path only really goes one way or another; it may be devastatingly steep to slow the progress of people using it, should it be meant to be an exit rather than an entrance. If a noble’s particularly cowardly, they may make the secret exit be from the keep so he can escape when needed, while a paranoid noble may choose to have it go to or from an outer fortified area because of the potential of enemies entering undetected in the night. A corporation that cares about its image may choose to deal with hostile operatives more discreetly inside their compounds, springing their ruthless traps behind closed doors, while one that openly acknowledges their ruthless nature may station guards with heavy weapons at their publicly accessible offices. Looking at motive requires a look at either a character or a faction, however, which can be hard to keep consistent if the game moves between scenes too quickly, so I design with purpose in mind first; it likely makes little difference to the players whether or not the granary is in the keep or the courtyard, and not having to get consistent with designs to that level matters only minimally to the setting and plot.
Finally, I look at mood. This is not, like motive, a quasi-optional step, as it helps a fair deal. A game with a darker mood will have madness, insanity, or cruelty drive the designs of the people; only a madman on the level of Nero would place traps in his throne room. The mood of the game determines how I go back and scatter my story elements; in a conspiracy-laden game I may make things hidden and secret, while in an action-packed game I’ll give the players straightforward solutions. In a happier setting they’ll have the opportunity to do things in a variety of ways and enjoy the benefits of a lot of resources and pretty lenient accounting, and in a more morbid setting they’ll constantly be beleaguered by a variety of petty problems and missing supplies. The mood is really how I generate not the physical characteristics and denizens of my setting, but rather how things unfold. Is the mad king criminally insane or a hidden genius? Will the sheriff’s daughter recover from the villain’s poisoning to exonerate the players? Do the players have a hope of receiving backup before the next Orc raid? These are things that I create from the mood of the game and setting. One could argue that the mood should impact the setting’s features more than this, but I find that being too intentionally grim or happy can result in a disconnect between realism and narrative; glossing over the unpleasant details is different than resolving them in a satisfying way, and adding in a ton of bad things just makes a setting feel miserable rather than giving it the edge of grim darkness that is a hallmark of gothic and romantic settings.
So, in short, the secret to designing a better setting is to look at things purposefully, then with an eye to the motives of the people who drive the setting’s development and who hold power in the universe the players are going to experience. Building upon the framework that provides, it’s then possible to season the game to your taste by determining the outcomes of events you’ve already set in motion.