Location is one of those things that is easy to lose track of when playing in a table top RPG. So easy in fact that I know there are lots of folks out there, players and gms, who often don't even really bother with it beyond the barest sense of the word. The problem is, and this is one of my glaring weaknesses as a GM, when you don't provide a sense of location you make it harder for everyone to create a consistent mental image of what is going on. Consistency is important too, because the more consistent that the image is across all your players, the stronger and more in tune with each other everyone will be. So, let's talk about that today.
Just Like In The Movies
This entire topic came to mind the other day for me when I started up yet another game of Dragon Age: Origins. If you haven't played the game, and enjoyed the Baldurs Gate and Neverwinter Night games from Bioware then you should give it a shot. There is a part very early in the game - right after the intro arc in fact - where you arrive at an old fortress where the King will be making a stand. As you walk across the bridge you see a huge sweeping landscape, very simple in how it is presented but impressive none-the-less. This feel, this view, is something that I thought was missing from table top games in general. Until I played in a housemate's L5R game.
In my housemate's L5R game the PCs are all attending Winter Court in an Ikoma Castle. The castle is sitting on cliffs near the ocean and is surrounded by a lake with a bridge allowing one to traverse from castle to the mainland. The castle is situated such that one side is protected by cliffs (going both up and down) and that while defensible it also has a view of the ocean. This may not sound all that crazy, but put it together with other things we know going in: fantasy universe & magic so sparsely populated. Now you have a view. There isn't much given to description, but already we have a very powerful view of this castle and how it sits. My character has a room in a high tower, and I know they have a good view from this. Furthermore, there are other long views to be had elsewhere. I know it's worked for others too because the amount people have interacted with the setting is significantly higher than it is in any of the other games I've been in with this group.
Less Is More
One of the other key things to take away from my example above is that with description less is almost always more. Yes, you can go into great specifics with your description for scenery and construction, and that can be very good. However, you are going to lose your players in it. Even the most interested person is going to lose track of things in all the details. Others, players who may be interested in the game but want to get to the "doing" of things instead of the "seeing" of things, will just start to zone out despite themselves as the GM continues on with a description.
This means you have to choose your words carefully. You're looking for maximum impact with as little to say as possible. Only mention key details that make it stand out. "The Castle has a more functional than aesthetic design; nestled in amongst the mountains with a commanding view over the valley it preseides over. A waterfall flows out from under one of the outter walls, feeding tthe lake and streams that give water to the village below," gives your players everything they likely need to picture the castle in their own head. Especially since there are some common images everyone is pulling from from the setting your game is in. Going into more detail when those details don't make the view stand out - i.e. height of the walls when they're not particularly large or small - just causes noise that makes more important things get lost. So try to keep it down on the word count. You'll get it with practice. Also, always remember that you can use pictures if you can find them. A picture is worth a thousand words, and doesn't lose people in the monotone of your voice.
Geographic Knowledge Is Necessary
The bad news for this is that you do need some sense of the geography of your land. You also need to think about how you want it to look. This is going to be hard for those of you who are like me and have almost zero sense when it comes to environmental aesthetics. Luckily, most boxed settings will give you some idea of how the land looks in an area if only via the map. Look for key terrain features like mountains, forests, bodies of water, and deserts and then use them. Some googling and treks around websites like deviant art for pictures of landscapes can also help. Wikipedia can also provide some information for things that would be high priorities for the inhabitants. For example, in pre-steam engine societies cities will be built on rivers as a means of easy travel when possible and to prosper off of trade. For another example, Desert cities are going to also be close to water sources due to the scarcity of them making for large areas of nothing scattered with dense pockets of population; more water-ful areas are more likely to have some scattering to the population density due to not needing water as much. Other things to consider aside from water are food sources, heat, cold, and any natural dangers in the area. For castles you also want to consider defensibiliy.
Sadly, I don't know much more for providing this sense in games. Like I said, it is an area where I am glaringly weak. I know you need to keep your descriptions short and to the point; just like in writing you want to let the audience/players do some of the heavy lifting for you. You also need to make your landscape and such make sense. Aside from that though, I'm open for as many tips as you guys can provide. What tricks do you use? Any favorite bits of source material?