Today, I’ll be talking about some thoughts I had while on my short hiatus this last week; my wife and I went to the Sequoia Forest in California and passed some things that made me intensely aware of how the world changes whether or not you’re around to interact with the change. Incorporating this into your games may be something to consider, for the sense of realism and immersion it can bring.
On the way to our hotel, we passed by a lake that had clearly had higher levels in the past – but long enough ago that the terrain between the high-water mark and the present water level had some relatively mature trees, pavement, and building occupying some of that space. It clearly wasn’t just the water loss of drought and climate change, but something longer-term; that change hadn’t erased the past, though, and so the present day was in a bowl sculpted out of the past.
This is something you can capture in your stories and games by looking over the setting and pinpointing places where geological changes and terrain changes have happened over time. The valley where the town has settled was scoured out by glaciers, and there’s a field of boulders and large rocks that get picked through for building materials. A drought has caused a lake to recede, such that the forest that used to come to the shore now has a meadow leading from the old trees to the new shoreline, with young trees beginning to colonize it. A pass through the mountains has clear signs of erosion as well as the jagged edges from where a massive earthquake split the mountain along the fault line.
By describing these terrain features and making it clear that things have changed over time, you can give the sense that time does pass, and that the world isn’t static or simply reactive to the characters. This can be important for a GM, as well, because events of the past can be used to establish upcoming threats. A valley once scoured by glaciers may be threatened by a supernatural climate shift that brings the glaciers advancing once again. The drought may end, bringing the shoreline back up and threatening to drown the village that has crept to the receded shoreline. The fault line may be ready to let loose again, possibly right as the characters are struggling to make it through the pass.
Even with these locations, however, you should be sure to give the characters time to become familiar with the scenery before springing the threat to it on them. A town threatened by rising waters is nothing but a set piece if no one has a reason to care about the fate of the town and the people who live there. The pass is just another hazardous locale until they’ve been through a few times and made friends with the people who live in the small huts and keep goats. Give them a reason to care, and they’ll pay more attention when the threats written into the landscape rear up and demand attention.
Perhaps best, these threats and events are the kind of thing that the characters likely can do nothing to stop; the lake’s waters will rise, the earthquake will happen, and the glaciers will come. The best they can do is find a way to protect what they care about and help people to safety if they intervene. There is no villain to be defeated to make everything right; there is only the force of nature, implacable and slow.
So do think about the landscape in your settings and what threats might lie hidden in it.