My frequent collaborator, +Adam Muszkiewicz, and I have been emailing back and forth about Golden Ur-Hadad, The First City of Men. My first impulse in that discussion has been to try to draw maps (and boundaries) around the First City, while his has been to make it inclusive of... well... anything and everything. It's led to some interesting discussion, and it's been very productive for me. One of the more interesting things that's come out of it (for me) has been a reconception of what exactly is the basis of a campaign location. In this post, I'm going to discuss a somewhat different way to talk about the development of campaigns and the locales where they unfold.
Let me start by saying that good campaigns, like good stories, are not about where you are, but about whom you are with. In most RPGs a tavern is just a tavern, for example. The things that make a particular tavern unique or interesting has a lot more to do with who owns it and frequents it than where on a map it is. For example, if we want a tavern that's the proverbial "den of scum and villainy," the first thing to do is think about where to put it. However, where it is does not matter. It could be anywhere. It's not a den of scum and villainy because of where it is, but because of who you find when you enter it. It is what it is because of who is there and what those people do.
So, the cantina at Mos Eisley is not interesting because of where it is. It looks to be a pretty nondescript area. Once you enter, though, there's the band, the bartender, the various NPCs (both named and unnamed), and--very importantly--the relationships they establish (or already have) with the PCs. The guy whose "friend doesn't like you" is an interesting character because of his interaction with you, and the brawl that ensues as a result of that. The interaction itself revealed the presence of the Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi. The fact that Greedo was there (and did not shoot first) is why Han Solo became a fugitive, and he got caught up in the rebellion because of who he met there (e.g., Luke, Leia, etc.).
Do you see where I'm going with this? With interesting people in your neighborhoods, you don't need to think so hard about the places. They are certain kinds of people, with motivations, tastes, affiliations, etc. Those facts of character tell us a lot about what the particular places they inhabit will be like. Mos Eisley is not a den of scum and villainy because of its location (an out-of-the-way agricultural planet) but because of who is there. The cantina is a rough place because of who frequents it. The droids are important to Luke because of the Jawas. Luke becomes important to Obi-Wan because of the Sand People.
This goes back to an earlier set of posts I did about Factions and Domain Play. In retrospect, though, I'd like to amend my thinking. Domains matter because of Factions. Factions matter because of characters. Story emerges from the interactions of characters in light of their essential natures, their affiliation with factions, and only later does domain/location even become a concern.
So what do I do with this? I begin writing a setting by ensuring that there are interesting people there, and then let the rest of it unfold as it will. Sure, it's fine to have a sense of place, but putting place first is a mistake. Putting the people first is a better way to go.