City Planning for Dummies: Location, Location, Location
One of the truest things ever to be said about being a GM is when it comes down to it, 75 percent or more of the job comes down to one's ability to improvise. But it's equally true in order to run a successful game, an often substantial amount of planning is required as well. In the end, a GM has to decide how comfortable they feel with BS'ing their way through a few sessions, and prepare accordingly.
One of the truest things ever to be said about being a GM is when it comes down to it, 75 percent or more of the job comes down to one's ability to improvise. But it's equally true in order to run a successful game, an often substantial amount of planning is required as well. In the end, a GM has to decide how comfortable they feel with BS'ing their way through a few sessions, and prepare accordingly. If you want to avoid ever being caught with your metaphorical pants down, then you'd better spend an awful lot of time trying to outthink your players before the game ever starts - but if you're okay with thinking on your feet, then you don't have to plan as much. Many beginning GMs prefer the former option and, erring on the side of caution, planning too much, until their preparations suck away all their time. (It's also worth noting the ability to improvise is by no means an intrinsic talent and can be learned by just about anyone, but perhaps this is a topic for a future article.)
To these paranoid GMs, whether experienced or inexperienced, I say: have hope. Planning for a campaign doesn't need to be as time-consuming as we sometimes make it out to be (nor is improvising as frightening if you go into it with at least a small amount of background). As a relatively experienced GM and planner of campaigns, I've found there's really only one thing you need to have planned well before the first session: the city, town, village, or general inhabited area in which your campaign will take place. It doesn't matter if it's as big as a continent or as small as a village of 100 people - if you can get to know it the way you know your hometown, everything else - NPCs, antagonists, even plot hooks and twists - will fall into place with very little effort on your part.
It goes without saying that there are far too many aspects of city (or, more properly, location) planning for RPGs to discuss completely in one short article. I hope to investigate many of them at one time or another by making this an ongoing series (similar to the excellent "Dungeon Contractor" series recently published on Gamegrene). For now, I'll focus on the obvious first step in the process: picking a place to serve as the setting of your campaign.
Certainly, a large part of choosing where to set your scene comes down to personal preferences and interests and is not worth discussing here. But there are certain divisions and differences in these settings that can make a campaign when observed and break it when ignored. Basically, you have a choice between two kinds of locations: established, (which encompasses real-world cities in modern or sci-fi games as well as already-created locations in fantasy games) and fictional (something you made up, which is neither found in the real world or any previously published game material). Each has its own set of pros and cons, and neither is really superior, if you ask me - it's simply a question of what will best serve your story and fit the playing and Gming styles of you and your group.
The advantages to a fully fictional setting are all but obvious. Many GMs are avowed control freaks, and what could be a better environment for them than a place they imagined and developed all by themselves, where they have absolute power to determine its history, geography, culture, population, and everything that goes with it? Though a high level of choice and involvement is tempting, this strength can be a weakness as well. If your chosen city never existed before you put pen to paper, it stands to reason you have nothing to fall back on except your own imagination if you find you don't know certain areas of it as well as the game requires. The dreaded "blank-page syndrome" that afflicts even the best of GMs can be debilitating in this case. If you create a city from scratch, it is essential to define it well and have at least a vague idea of what and who each neighborhood contains before your players venture into an unplanned area of the city (and believe me, they'll do this sooner than you think).
An established location, on the other hand, has benefits all its own. While fictional cities appeal to anal-retentive GMs, preexisting towns are an equal boon to lazy ones. Your imagination won't be nearly as taxed when your players suddenly decide to have a picnic in the ass-end of nowhere - all you have to do is flip open the appropriate sourcebook or visitor's guide, read a few paragraphs, and let them go from there. Using a real city can also make it much easier for you to plan challenges and back stories - you'll be amazed how many plot hooks can be found in the history of even the smallest and most isolated towns. The only downside to this road is that it's an easier system for players to compromise. When you make up your own city, all the players know about it is what you tell them. Use a pre-established one, and if any of your players have read the sourcebooks or lived in the city, you could soon find yourself at quite a disadvantage knowledge-wise. I learned this the hard way when I set a campaign in Los Angeles, a city I have never visited, without realizing that one of my players had lived there for most of her childhood. Every session she'd come up with at least three things I was doing wrong - "There's no subway in L.A.!" "That's not an entertainment district at all!" "What park? There's no park there!" I ended up changing locations soon afterwards, just to maintain the faï¿½ade that I am, in fact, smarter than my players.
After considering the pros and cons of both options in this case, it's up to each individual GM to choose the best kind of city to fit the situation. But thanks to my experience as a GM, I've come up with a good rule of thumb for picking a city type: Fictional cities work best in games set in the past (or something like it) or the future, whereas established cities work best in modern-day or near-future games. If you're playing D&D or something like it, there are typically not many pre-established locations smaller than countries or continents, it's often in your best interest to make the setting your own; if you're playing a far-future game like Trinity, the world has already changed so much anyway that established cities would be unrecognizable, so you might as well just start from scratch. In the modern day, however, all you have to do is use the city you live in (or another one you know relatively well) to create a great location for your campaign. I think you'd be foolish not to take advantage of that.