The Architect DM: Environment and Interaction

It’s been a few weeks since my last Architect DM post, but don’t worry the series will continue and there seems to be a lot of information to cover! In my last post I talked about function and playability of a location in a more general and meta sense, but what I originally started that post to discuss was the specifics of how the environment is experienced. One of the most crucial considerations when it comes to design in Architecture is the human experience of the environment, after all the buildings are designed by humans for our own use and appreciation. Often when a building is described as making people uncomfortable (something all too common in most downtown cities) it is because the Architect did not give proper attention to the scale and attitude of the building where it meets the ground.

Fantastic Places for Fantastic Races

When you create environments and buildings for your tabletop RPG, the concept of “human scale” can be one of your greatest tools. It’s one thing to say that the stone ruins were built by giants and are of a larger scale, but it’s something entirely different when a player stands in the threshold of a half-open doorway that is sized for something 60′ tall to walk through. You are taking something that is literally derived from the scale of a human – a doorway, and mutating it to a different scale. This allows your players, and their characters, to directly relate to the environment and truly experience it as if they were there. Many works relating to the Cthulhu mythos reference cyclopean construction, which means the building is constructed out of incredibly large stone blocks, this term becomes very creepy when you can tie it back to a brick building that we would construct and illustrate exactly how large the ruins and those who created them must be.

The same effect can be done very easily in reverse, if you describe halfling or gnome buildings as being sized for the scale of the race. Most character’s will need to duck through doorways and will constantly hit their heads on the ceiling rafters of the buildings which they fully expect, but when they can’t find a chair that they will even remotely fit into and are forced to stand (uncomfortably) they will have an even greater sense of the unique environment around them. Or they can sit on the floor and see the world from closer to the builder’s perspectives.

Interaction is Immersion

One of the best ways I have found to immerse your players in the game’s environment is to allow them, and openly encourage them, to interact with the environment. If you typically have trouble thinking of ways for this to happen, then start by making a list of the inherent assumptions that you and the players have about any RPG location. Often the way for the players to interact with the environment is through subversion of these assumptions. One of the first basic assumptions I would put on that list is “walls are obstructions/obstacles” – this can be subverted in any number of ways,  but the easiest I think of is by changing the material of some of your walls. An old brick wall in most fantasy buildings could be toppled with some effort, and any player that busts their way through a brick wall to save their companions is going to feel pretty awesome (and in our party’s case will most likely have to exclaim “OH YEAH!!!” as they do it). If you’re still working on your list, then you can probably guess that the next item for me would be floors and ceilings, adding skylights or crumbling floors can be a great way of letting (or forcing) players to interact with their environment.

One of my favorite moments of my 4th Edition D&D campaign came when I decided to use rows of large columns in an encounter and I randomly decided to have one of them broken and leaning against the others. As I designed it I thought of how awesome it would be for one of my ranger players to run up this thing and take a sniping position atop the columns, and sure enough that’s exactly what happened and I couldn’t have been happier with the result. Moments like these are why I attempt to add more interaction into my RPG environments and encourage others to do the same. Most players might get an exhilarating feeling when their character is standing on the edge of a cliff, but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t get double that feeling when their character is hanging onto a clump of tree roots several feet down that cliff. Putting the character truly into the environment can get you a much better impact than simply having them walk by it.

The Ongoing Series (save ends)

As the Architect DM series continues, I plan on discussing a large scope of ideas that I wanted to preview a few of right here. One of the biggest things I’d like to talk about soon is map making, or more accurately map design and what I do when I’m designing nations, regions, continents, and worlds. As requested by Andy on my very first post I will be looking at several typical fantasy buildings and what they should look like, but more importantly WHY they look like that. As Lord Vreeg requested I will go through various architectural advancements and technologies and the order that they would typically show up in (based on previous advancements). I also hope to talk about various real world architectural elements in addition to many fantasy and sci-fi elements and how all of them can be used to improve your games!

Part 1: Building Foundations
Part 2: Function & Playability


  1. Hey, I got mentioned in the post!

    That’s a really good set of advice. What I like particularly is the idea of immersion, and using the environment for that. This isn’t exactly the same thing, but I’ve been playing Indigo Prophecy a bit lately. One of the most engrossing things about it is how the game has you perform mundane tasks while wandering around. You might have your character open a cupboard, take out a box of cereal, and eat some. There’s music that can be switched on and off, on in-game radios and record players. It all sticks you into the game. Similarly, encouraging players to explore the environment by describing details–that’s a really immersive tactic. Especially if the environment is fantastic.