DISPLAY THE CITY, FROM SKYSCRAPERS TO SLUMS
Your city isn’t a wasteland of nightclubs and office buildings; your storyUrban Shadows
shouldn’t be either. Look for opportunities to showcase the insanely wealthy and the desperately impoverished, the highest highs and the lowest lows. And don’t forget the supernatural elements either. Werewolf bars, vampiric blood banks, wizard movie theaters, ghostly cemeteries. All of them are opportunities to present new facets of the city, new political elements and groups that are plotting and scheming for their piece of the pie.
Push the characters out of their natural environments as well. Give Father Davis a reason to leave his low-income parish and journey uptown for information; find a justification to demand that Volund head out to the docks to complete a deal before time runs out. At every opportunity, narrate the city in grim and vivid detail and remind the players that there’s no way to take it all in, no way to say, “Yes, I’ve seen the whole fucking city and there’s nothing left to see.”
The above was taken from Urban Shadows, a Political Urban Fantasy Powered by The Apocalypse engine from Apocalypse Word and in reading through the chapter on the MC, their version of the Gamemater, I just love the idea of finding ways to expand and flesh out on the city, give it angles and elements that add to the story and keep the players on their toes, as there is always more out there.
Cow Tools is a perfect example of this from the Far Side comics. It was an item thrown in the background of one scene in a TV show as set dressing and now people are pouring over it trying to figure out exactly what it is and what it does. This is the world version of that, in so much that you only need to give the players a hint of something and they will start fleshing the idea out into a great story element you can use.
Of course, don’t forget to change elements from time to time. After having vampire hunter Blade finding and destroying their hangouts, the vampires had to change tactics. They started putting infra-red markings out instead of normal ones to mark safe spots for the vampires, in an effort to make things harder on Blade. It shows the city as an evolving thing, something which you don’t get to see a lot, especially in video games as events tend to happen at “the speed of plot”.
There are a number of books that can help you build ideas to go with. The Vornheim City Kit inspired a lot of other books, like Augmented Reality, The Holistic City Kit For Cyberpunk Games where they focus less on designing a city and more it would give you interesting bits and pieces you can add to your city. Think of yourself like a set designer in a movie or TV show, having to find or create interesting items to make your scene look like the inside of a starship or the catacombs under a city or wherever your scene is taking place. Even something you only see for a few seconds can add to the reality of the scene in the minds of the players.
Block by Bloody Block and Damnation City are two World of Darkness books that talk about integration of the city with the stories you are telling. In Night’s Black Agents, an RPG when you are play as Vampire Hunters in an organization like the CIA, has two methods in detail they go into with examples ‘Find an element of the city and figure why the vampires would be there or figure out the vampires plan and look until you find a part of the city that meshes well with it’. That design allows you to either pick a city for some great element, which in the movie business is a set piece. The term comes from when movies would use a lot of generic locations but would need to build this specific set for its big moments, which you can see a visual essay on some here. It’s now seen in movies as the ‘big events’ that are essential to the movie. Sounds like key points in a game, doesn’t it? You don’t even have to worry about a budget, so go as insane as you want.
However, when looking at these large elements, do not forget the smaller things, those everyday moments. Warren Spector talks about how common game design is ‘mile wide, inch deep’ with sprawling cities and worlds but so little you can actually act with in the world. He prefers ‘inch wide, mile deep’ as you can see in his works since he focuses on closed off areas but builds it so that there’s so much for the player to do in it. This article does a lot of examination on the idea of Warren Spector’s dream of a game taking place in one city block: “My ultimate dream is for someone to be foolish enough to give me the money to make what I call the One Block Role-Playing Game, where we simulate one building, one city block perfectly. ” Just look at the work that has been used with this philosophy in Deus Ex games in this video.
Using Warren Spector’s ideas can help develop a way to turn a city into a challenging environment in ways you may not have considered. This article is his commandments of game design and I believe they should work in any game even Tabletop RPGs. For example, Problems not Puzzles: It’s an obstacle course, not a jigsaw puzzle. Game situations should make logical sense and solutions should never depend on reading the designer’s mind.
Game Maker’s Tool Kit is a Youtube series that talks about different elements of game design and has done a few videos on Puzzles and Problems, I like this video and then later built on in this video and by knowing the core elements of how to challenge people, you can then build it in more advanced ways. This may sound strange to talk about problem creation for a city, but the idea for a roleplaying game is we want to be able to give our players a slew of challenges and have them have to figure out how they want to approach them. The terrain is important both for traversal through the city, but can also become a challenge in a puzzle you throw your players into. This article in Gamasutra is about Payday 2 level design to build stealth to it, because you can throw the challenges in anywhere you want in and out of the city.
This brings up the idea of the people that occupy the city. A core element of great stories is conflict, which comes into play when a character’s desires are challenged by another character’s. Either they want opposing goals or maybe they want to achieve it a different way or the person is just an obstacle to achieving their goal. Figuring ways to have conflict get generated can be hard, but stories are about people at the core. Focus on elements of the human condition, connect with people on the emotional level with your NPCs and they will buy in. You don’t even need to make everything be huge complicated personas and stories, I personally like this story told by Gamemaster about how they found Soap Opera Digest a great addition to their games:
Long lost twins turn into long lost triplets… forbidden affairs of every possible combination… false priests… fake marriages… nefarious plots to cheat orphans out of inheritances… and enough back-stabbing underhanded stock characters to raise the eyebrows of even the most jaded PCs.Confessions of a DM
To add to the core elements of the plot lines, take a tip from The Angry GM in this article (part 1 of 8 on NPCs) where he mentions don’t play the scene, play the NPC. Put yourself in the role of the NPC they are dealing with and they have their goals they are trying to achieve, and this way it can help add a lot more realism to the scenes than if you approach them as a distant GM.
Role-play everything. Don’t run scenes, run characters. And run them with the assumption that you have to win. If you run enough scenes like that in your world, eventually, the players will realize the world is about people. And they will start to care. And all it takes is just imagining yourself as a player and the NPC is your character and you have to win. Oh sure, when you’re being the villain, you’re going to lose. You’re going to lose a lot.
Doing that forces you to think about the NPCs as characters with motivations and then to behave in ways consistent with those motivations. And when an NPC has motivations that are clear and consistent in their actions and choices, that makes them seem like they are alive. And that makes your game about people. And then the players will start to get invested.What Even Is an NPC
I always find myself looking at a city with the idea of that quote from The Naked City: “There are eight million stories in the Naked City; this has been one of them.” The idea being that you could easily just grab any one person and get a story from following them around. Is that not essentially the idea of SimCity and Sims games? That every character out there is living a life, doing things, all we need to do is be able to follow them to see it.