City Planning for Dummies: Stranger Than Fiction
GMs like to be in charge. We wouldn't go to the trouble of planning entire campaigns and running them for occasionally unappreciative players if we didn't. And there's nowhere our control-freak nature comes out more obviously than when we're planning the settings we use. In the previous article in this series, I talked about factors you might want to consider when choosing between fictional and established cities as settings for your game. Now, I pull the focus in a little tighter to discuss that second option, which I believe offers an excellent balance between the need for control and the equally pressing need to prepare for games in a limited amount of time.
GMs like to be in charge. We wouldn't go to the trouble of planning entire campaigns and running them for occasionally unappreciative players if we didn't. And there's nowhere our control-freak nature comes out more obviously than when we're planning the settings we use. In the previous article in this series, I talked about factors you might want to consider when choosing between fictional and established cities as settings for your game. Now, I pull the focus in a little tighter to discuss that second option, which I believe offers an excellent balance between the need for control and the equally pressing need to prepare for games in a limited amount of time. Since most of the campaigns I run take place in the modern day, my advice will be mostly geared toward games of that nature, but I'm sure you're all smart enough to adapt it to games set in other time periods as well.
When planning a campaign based in an established city, the first thing you need to do is fix that location in your mind. Above all else, this means getting a map. If your location has been detailed in a sourcebook for your game of choice (such as the various city sourcebooks that exist for the World of Darkness games and Shadowrun), cough up the cash, buy that book, and read it cover to cover. Do not, however, feel bound to include elements in your city you dislike just because they appeared in the sourcebook. It's your game, after all. In fact, it's probably a good idea to add some of your own special touches just in case your players have also read the book and think they know everything about your campaign.
If your city exists in the world as we know it (and whether it has its own sourcebook or not), search the Internet or go shopping and find a reliable, detailed map of your chosen city. (If you're having trouble finding maps, bookstores, discount stores, and especially gas stations are good places to start looking). Then study the map carefully, paying special attention to any landmarks or geographical features that may be marked there. You can even pinpoint locations that will be important during the campaign (such as the party's main base or the homes of NPCs) and mark them as well. Not only will this work wonders as far as giving you a concrete way to visualize the size and layout of your chosen city, it's relatively cheap and will amaze your players when they ask, "Where is my character's house?" only to see you whip out a neatly marked street map and indicate the place without a second thought. (The illusion of having done a terrifying amount of preparation for the campaign will also work for you here, whether you are really prepared for the session or not.)
In most cases, a good map should be more than enough to start you visualizing your city. But if you can manage it, there's no substitute for real, first-hand familiarity with your setting. There are two ways to obtain this. The easiest (and perhaps best) way to do this is to set your game in your hometown. Not only does this make it easy for you to picture the setting and describe it as your players wander through your game world, it means that you also already know a lot of interesting details, little-known facts, and other bits of local color with which to liberally salt and pepper your campaign. Once again, this gives the illusion of deep preparation, when all you really need to do is recall some interesting occurrences or unique landmarks from the place you call home and describe them thoroughly. If you can, take a day to walk or take public transportation around your city and simply try to take in and experience as much of it as you can (driving is a poor substitute for this, since you spend all your time soaking up generic highway scenery and don't really get a sense of the all-important local color except in passing). Incorporate any interesting things you see or experience into your game later on.
If setting your game in your hometown isn't feasible or just isn't your cup of tea, a day trip or other visit to your campaign's setting can also work wonders. Put a small notebook and a pen in your pocket as you walk around, and bring a camera. Then, whenever something catches your attention, snap a picture or jot down a note to aid your memory, and incorporate these sights and sounds into your game at will. Pay special attention to what your senses are telling you - how does this part of the city smell? As you walk down the street, what sounds do you here? Are the houses and businesses well-kept or dilapidated? What kind of people seem to frequent this area? If you can, try to spend as much (if not more) time in lesser-traveled or residential areas of the city as you do in the tourist district. For your game, you'll need to have a sense of how the city's residents live their day-to-day lives, and it's hard to get that if all you do is stick to the well-established tourist traps. (Painfully obvious disclaimer: If the city in question has a high crime rate, do not do anything dangerous or stupid in the pursuit of campaign research. Leave those adventures for your characters, please.)
This step is very important to developing the setting - so important, in fact, that I'd go so far as to say that you should almost always set your campaigns in cities with which you have at least a passing familiarity. Not only does this avoid some of the pitfalls I discussed in my previous article in this series, it gives your game a greater sense of realism and immediacy. Let me prove this point by contrasting two games I've played in. The first was a Mage game set in Atlanta, which the GM had never visited. This campaign's players suffered from constant confusion when it came to location, layout, and distance. The GM never gave us a map of the city, and as a result there were a number of game-disrupting arguments that resulted from the players' anger and frustration after the GM told us there was an hour between two locations that we had previously thought to be very close together. Ever-shifting distances between locations were only the beginning - I also know that I was never really able to visualize the setting very well (even though I have visited Atlanta). The second was a Hunter game set in Minneapolis, which is the GM's hometown. Even though the group did not have a concrete map until recently, the game was completely unmarked by the kind of time and distance arguments that plagued the Mage game. This is partially because the GM had such a good understanding of the city that he was able to convey a strong mental image of the city in his descriptions and answer questions quickly and clearly.
There are a number of other research steps you can take next, but none quite so important as the process of visualization. You might want to do some research into the history of your chosen city and apply that to your game. Get a sense of the people who founded the city and important dates or events in its history. Learn about landmarks, yearly events, major employers, and the past and present character of the city in general. Focus on the stranger, less academic side of history - ghost stories, local legends, colorful characters, and the like. Chances are there will be something strange or interesting in your city's history that can be incorporated into your game as a plot point. Also, do an Internet search for the name of your city, and you'll doubtless come up with dozens of links to local government, organizations, annual festivals, personal pages, and other sites that will keep you busy for hours.
The final step is my favorite: now that you've learned about your city as it is, you get to finish shaping and molding it as you'd like it to be. If your game is set in the past, all you have to do is read the city's history a little more closely and fill in any gaps with characters and plots you create. If you're playing a modern-day supernatural game, come up with a supernatural history that parallels the city's mundane history, and think about how the two might have influenced one another. (This is a great way to incorporate unsolved city mysteries or strange occurrences into your game - blame the vampires or whoever.) If your game is set in the future, think about the city as it is and try to extrapolate how it might be in ten, 50, or 100 year (updating its history or its map as you see fit). Now, if all has gone well, you should have at least the beginnings of an established city to call your own, ready to come alive when the players arrive.
Next time: Hitting The Streets - making the most of your planning and preparation during each session and helping your city come alive on the gaming table.