By any other name~

In the very early days of my gaming, I noticed a curious thing about the world maps with which my close friend was always fiddling: Port Blacksand. If you ‘zoomed out’ on any map far enough to see the coast, eventually you would come across a notation reading, ‘Port Blacksand.’  Had this been the same continent or world, this would not be all that unusual, but as games and genres changed, it was obvious that this was –at times- more of a Moorecockian expression of mystical geography and the overlap of planes.


Damn, I wanted to go there.


I still want to go there.


I want to see what all the fuss was about. What element of creativity kept that one location recurring on map after map? What unrealized dreams have been kept in limbo for the nearly thirty years between then and now? What perverse twist kept having it appear so far from where we were adventuring that we never, ever got there?


In my gaming, I have visited hundreds of imaginary towns, but this one… the one that got away… this one sticks in my memory like an itch I cannot scratch.


Recurring themes, particularly ones that recur more as a staple of a GM’s or writer’s palate are something to which I pay a lot of attention. In my own gaming, and in the fiction I truly enjoy reading, I find them to be an excellent form of short-hand to convey a clarity of description without the boxed-text feel of exposition… even if the group of players has never actually encountered the thing in question, somehow, in repetition, it takes on a certain character.


In the fiction of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. for example, the use of certain location names across the varied genres and styles of his writings, serves as a quick narrative device for long-term readers to ascertain what sort of place a planet, or town, or province might be in terms of its politics, economics, and/or cultural aspects. When I see a reference in one of his tales to New Augusta, I know what to expect from the denizens of that place. This is particularly useful when New Augusta (or wherever) has no particular impact on the events at hand. The reader’s attention to detail is rewarded by the inclusion of bonus detail that further focuses the universe being depicted, while not penalizing the first-time, or less-attentive reader.


It is necessary to continually reinvent these recurring items and themes, of course. There is a thin line between an archetype and a cliché and its location is in the eye of the beholder. For this reason, I feel this method works best when it is simply a layer of detail in the overall presentation of information and options, not something on which to specifically focus. In none of my friend’s adventure hooks or campaigns was Port Blacksand ever a feature. Regardless, there it was, somewhere tantalizingly out of reach on the regional maps that he would prepare. Over the years, I developed a sense of what that town would be like, and I felt drawn there as a player – without a word ever being spoken about the place in-character, or out. While the size, longitude and latitude, surrounding terrain, and neighboring settlements all changed from map to map, Port Blacksand retained a certain quality about it that let me know it was the same on a quintessential level, even though it was wearing new clothes and flitting coy glances at me from across the room as though we had never met.


In my own gaming, I tend to do this with restaurants and bars, almost as an homage to the elusive quality which goes in to creating the ideal atmosphere in a club or diner. Having the essence of certain places of which I have grown fond, become a part of the game worlds I create, and translating their essential quality into the fabric and conceit of the game at hand, is a part of the fun of world-building for me. Presenting these places in their new guises to my players, and seeing the light of recognition dawn in their eyes has become a reward in and of itself.


In what ways does this method manifest in your games? How do you use things like recurring motifs, naming conventions, regional accents, body language, styles of speaking, or any one of a hundred other little things to communicate broader detail to your players and help them connect, and want to explore the world you have built?


3 Responses to “By any other name~”
  1. Spiralbound says:

    So… are you going to ask your friend about Port Blacksand or what? If it’s that much of a mystery to you, then get the answer. Personally, I think that it was just a place name that he thought sounded cool and beyond perhaps the vaguest of ideas wasn’t developed in any of his settings. Eventually he kept putting it in his maps out of habit/tradition (“One day, I’ll run a game there…”)

  2. BF Wolfe says:

    Asking would take all the mystery out of it. 😉 Maybe we’ll have to run a campaign there when we are 90. 🙂 On a couple of my longer campaigns, I have planted ‘easter eggs’ (in the computer game sense) in the world with ever so subtle clues. Perhaps this was the same? He may have been annoyed that you noticed, but chose not to check it out. 😉

  3. Runeslinger says:

    Oh, he knows I wanted to go there. Events in real life and in the game just conspired to keep it always out of reach.

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