Environmental Storytelling

Image: still from the film Solaris (1974). Kris is trying to figure out what happened on the research station.

In this post I wanted to talk about using objects and locations in RPGs to tell a history or fiction. I believe we already use environmental storytelling in our games, however I wanted to delve deeper—understand how we can consciously apply this concept to our settings.

Motivation

The OSR play culture is particularly interested in exploring fantastical locations. Lots of focus is put into creating these spaces that the referee describes to the players. In turn, the players are expected to interact in these spaces as much as possible. Players usually explore ruins or derelicts of some kind, so the objects within them will always have a history.

If you are playing a mystery game, environmental storytelling will be a crucial tool for constructing crime scenes and hooks for your players to follow. Similarly, player actions will also leave evidence. Using environmental storytelling is another showing character impact on the world.

The concept of environmental storytelling has been greatly explored in video games and fiction filmmaking with mise-en-scene. There it has been used to create immersive and rich worlds. I wanted to see how it can be adapted to the roleplaying medium based on its strengths and weaknesses. My goal was to outline a method of inserting environmental storytelling into tabletop play.

The Method

Breaking the World Apart

Envision the fictional world as a tree. Going from foundational roots to the branches:

  • Worldbuilding contains the high level concepts of your setting and its general timeline. It will inform everything listed below.
  • Locations each serve a purpose in this world based on your setting’s aspects. Existence, quality and accessibility of places can tell players foundational principles of the world they explore.
  • Vignettes are scenes and events that happened in a location. Vignettes can also be structured like a tree, smaller events branching out from major ones.
  • Clues are the objects players interact with and learn about vignettes. I call them clues because the player has to use deductive reasoning, making them an active participant in figuring out the location.

Factions and characters are those who take action and advance events of your setting. They have a back and forth relationship with the rest of the world, since they affect it and it affects them. This is why I put them aside of the whole structure.

Putting It Back Together

To start, write a couple of sentences describing your world. Then identify events that can be turned into vignettes and locations. Create several clues for each vignette. Have some clues point to a couple of vignettes. Scatter several clues across locations.

Each clue can be used for a different purpose. By combining them you create a rich vignette.

  • Players can gain insight into the overall worldbuilding. They give answers and ask even more questions about the setting.
  • Clues may also give direction for a player’s actions. Footprints are a popular example of a clue that gives literal direction. It can also be more abstract, like showing the players how to perform a certain ritual.
  • Clues can relate theme to the players. Theme can change the tone, feeling, or context of a vignette. They are used to tie the rest of the clues together.

Clues are intended to be interactive. Instead of being just set dressing, clues are discovered through exploring the environment. Add a hidden detail to some of your clues. You may divide your clues into landmark, hidden and detail categories.

Published Examples

Dead Planet by Tuesday Knight Games uses environmental storytelling to a great degree in its introduction derelict crawl The Screaming on the Alexis.

Broken pieces of cargo crate surround this horrible effigy. These pieces are scattered outward as if a force blew the crate apart from the inside. There are 6 dead crew members kneeling around the relic with their hands and foreheads touching it.

The three clues (the effigy, broken crate, 6 crew members) work together to create a vignette. There are actually two vignettes here (the explosion and the worship) overlapping each other, creating further depth in this environment.

The Halls of Arden Vul by Richard Barton is a megadungeon dense with history. One of the very first rooms in the book reads like this:

Two corpses lie face down on the path towards the double-doors, one is a human cleric and the other a human fighter. Both corpses are recent and show signs of severe poisoning - multiple sting/injection marks and necrotic, blackened skin. The pair is still dressed in their armor, but weapons and other valuables are gone.

Arden Vul presents us with a miniature crime scene. We learn the cause of death and possible motives. The scene serves as an obvious omen of danger.

I also like the way Gus L. describes The Caverns of Thracia by Jennell Jaquays. An example of using environmental storytelling on a larger scale.

For example, the most easily accessible rooms on the first level of the Caverns are largely abandoned, but they are filled with disgusting (and annoying to players - requiring care to avoid falling) bat guano in huge piles. This isn’t just a minor, largely harmless obstacle, but a hint regarding the presence of giant bats deeper in the level, giant bats that present a serious danger as they lair in the unfinished natural cavern areas of the level above a precarious rope bridge that they will swoop down onto and buffet characters off. Similarly a recurring theme in Thracia is that both powerful guardian creatures and magical statuary have gemstone eyes or gems otherwise embedded in their head. These gems form one of the more consistent sources of treasure in the Caverns, but they are almost all connected to a serious risk. The monsters are obviously dangerous, but the gem studded statutes are also almost universally protected. Some have curses or similar effects, and others are or summon animated protectors. These stone guardians are some of the most dangerous enemies in the Caverns, and figuring out how to defeat them, use them against other foes, or trick them is a tempting, consistent, but escalating challenge throughout the adventure.


What else can environmental storytelling can be used for? How would you do it in your game? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Further Reading

Convergent Storytelling - Weird Elf Games: the essentials of environmental storytelling.

Situational Design - Hex Culture: a way of interconnecting your worldbuilding.

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