Indie RPG Newsletter: Cities in RPGs

hawkeyefan

Legend
Cities in RPGs 1- Doskvol

I subscribe to the Indie RPG Newsletter. It’s a good weekly read, with links to other interesting articles, podcasts, and so on.

The author, Thomas Manuel, has decided to do a series that focuses on cities in RPGs. The first (determined by votes from his readers) is about the city of Doskvol, the setting of Blades in the Dark.

I figured I’d post it here to get peoples’ thoughts, and also to discuss useful ways to use cities in games, and good methods/processes for doing so.

So… what kinds of material do folks find useful for urban-based RPGs? Does anyone have best practices to share?
 
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pointofyou

Adventurer
I have found it helpful to have a broad map of whatever city I'm using at a neighborhood level. Ideally there'd be things like what things are in what neighborhoods or at least some place names. If there are groups of any sort at work or play in the city it is useful to know where they are based and what their goals and current activities are. It is occasionally good to know why a city is as the PCs find it but detailed histories are rarely important.
 

pemerton

Legend
I figured I’d post it here to get peoples’ thoughts, and also to discuss useful ways to use cities in games, and good methods/processes for doing so.

So… what kinds of material do folks find useful for urban-based RPGs? Does anyone have best practices to share?
At the moment I'm getting familiar with Torchbearer's town phase rules. These are driven by town events (rolled on a table at the start of the town phase) and "lifestyle cost" - roughly, each action performed in town phase adds one to the Resources test to pay bills when leaving town.

In this system, an adventure in town still requires paying bills and leaving town phase. I expect to see how this works in the next session I run, as the PCs have learned that the Elven Ranger they aim to rescue is in a house in town.

Torchbearer defaults to location-based adventures with maps, so for this anticipated adventure I've mapped out the house in question.

The last town adventure I GMed was in Burning Wheel. Burning Wheel doesn't rely on maps in the same way, and doesn't have a town phase/adventure phase contrast. So I used various sorts of checks to manage the action in town: Catacombs-wise to navigate through the undercity; raw Speed vs Speed to race against another character to see who gets to the common destination first; Circles tests to manage meeting up with alllies/enemies; etc.
 

So… what kinds of material do folks find useful for urban-based RPGs? Does anyone have best practices to share?

I run a lot of urban fantasy, in part because I like being able to research a real-world city or neighborhood, and use either current or period maps, including blueprints and similar layouts for famous buildings. But for older (real-world) city info and maps I often wind up digging through old GURPS books (GURPS Aztecs, Rome, etc.). Those are a treasure trove.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Our Exalted and Vampire games were both based in singular cities. In a lot of ways they are both social crawls in the same way Blades in the Dark can be, but more focused on individual characters and their relationships to one another than factions. In both cases we kind of developed in terms of broad strokes. Individual locations and individual characters are painted in vibrant detail, but the layout is kept largely undefined or elided in the case of our Amsterdam by Night Vampire Chronicle.

Here's what we have defined for the city state that is central to our Exalted game:

Tovharka said:
On the pass between Kamthahar and Ember

Total population:
130,000 (50,000 in Elon'har, 70,000 in Kell)

On the Western edge of the canyon is Elon'har, lovingly known as Old Town. This drab, dusty, windy part of the city dates from the first age, yet whoever lived here, whatever deeds they lived by are long forgotten and lost. Cut into the stone of the canyon by sorcery no longer achievable in these days, the dwellings reach deep into the canyon walls, and further still deep under the earth. Some say the furthest reaches there are doorways to lands of the dead. Few live here, mostly those who protect the valley or research the histories of their ancestors.

On the Eastern edge of the canyon is Kell, also known as the City of Mirrors. A fashion mode of many ages ago, the rulers who raised this place from nothing chose to amplify the size of their halls with great mirrors. Homes and businesses too will create great back walls of mirrors to give the impression of a larger entrances. Here is where the wealth of the population lives and raises their families. As well this is the center of commerce as it holds open markets for all manner of peoples from across creation.

Elonhar_-_the_Old_Town.jpg
Kell_-_the_City_of_Mirrors.jpg


Tovharkha is the City of Ritual. Instead of religion, Tovharkha has the Entretamain. These are people who are responsible for the continued existence of this place in the face of a powerfully supernatural world. So close to chaos and elements of the South and East, Tovharkha is rife with events and creatures which conspire to tear it apart and reduce it to mere memory. Thus the city has developed finely honed practitioners of the arts who perform plays, songs, operas, comedies, and so on which honor the Events.
 
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Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I will add that I absolutely adore playing games set in a central location with lots of interconnected factions and/or NPCs (especially when there are strong connections to the player characters). Running/playing Blades in the Dark, Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts and the like were a revelation to me on this front. The ability to really learn and master an environment, build long lasting relationships and strive towards long term ambitions while navigating a web of dynamic and changing circumstances/relationships really gets me invested in both play and the setting.
 

Quick tangent: For those who've played Blades in the Dark, I'm curious whether you think the overall Forged in the Dark approach pretty much requires a setting that's similarly bounded or contained? Most FitD games seem to stick to a pretty specific location (even Band of Blades, which allows some mobility, isn't exactly open-ended), but then Scum and Villainy only limits you to a sector, which is an awful big sandbox.
 

My earliest urban game was a Runequest campaign using the classic Chaosium boxed sets Pavis and The Big Rubble. Those were an eye-opener (at the time). Each had a seperate keyed location book, player book and adventures book, and created a vibrant, dangerous playground. However, RQ used the resolution paradigms of the day, so while the freebooting and looting was fine, broader questions involving factions, groups, influence and politics - which were detailed beautifully in the literature - were close to impossible to actually play with.

I ran a long Cthulhu campaign around Arkham, Kingsport, Dunwich and Innsmouth. The consistency of the places, seemingly mundane, allowed a slower pace, a more creeping sense of doom, of horrors that could lurk behind any doorway. We had a real good time with it, despite it being totally traditional map and key stuff.

Other than that, I ran a HeroWars game set in Whitewall in Sartar, and that was able to handle far more sophisticated questions of politics and influence, as the system let's you assign scores to anything and everything and can handle both task and conflict resolution. So I didn't find myself needing maps, but instead a cast of clan elders and temple officials, backstreet urchins, wool merchants, Lunar scouts, chaos infiltrators and neighbouring clansmen for the players to plot with and bribe and coerce and impress and expose. I liked it a lot, although the group still tended to drift too readily towards the certainties of combat at that time. I think it would be a different game now - to run and to play - especially if I took Apocalypse World's advice on triangles and crosshairs.
 

pemerton

Legend
My earliest urban game was a Runequest campaign using the classic Chaosium boxed sets Pavis and The Big Rubble. Those were an eye-opener (at the time). Each had a seperate keyed location book, player book and adventures book, and created a vibrant, dangerous playground. However, RQ used the resolution paradigms of the day, so while the freebooting and looting was fine, broader questions involving factions, groups, influence and politics - which were detailed beautifully in the literature - were close to impossible to actually play with.
This reminds me of urban games I GMed in the late 80s and 90s, using AD&D and RM as the resolution systems. Much of the resolution becomes "GM decides" because of the lack of appropriate techniques.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I have found it helpful to have a broad map of whatever city I'm using at a neighborhood level. Ideally there'd be things like what things are in what neighborhoods or at least some place names. If there are groups of any sort at work or play in the city it is useful to know where they are based and what their goals and current activities are. It is occasionally good to know why a city is as the PCs find it but detailed histories are rarely important.

Yeah, the article talks about this and how Blades in the Dark handles it.

From the Article:
  • One spread each for the 12 districts in Duskvol. Each district gets a little intro paragraph that the GM can essentially read to the players, 4 landmarks, 3 notable NPCs, some visual details, and numerical ratings for wealth, security, criminal influence, occult influence. This is a very pared down description - tightly defined and expertly laid out. It’s written to be referenced, not read like a novel.

From the Blades book:


1664834324035.png



Just really gameable stuff. Very similar write ups for all the factions. Easy to reference and put into play.
 

pointofyou

Adventurer
Yeah, the article talks about this and how Blades in the Dark handles it.

From the Article:
  • One spread each for the 12 districts in Duskvol. Each district gets a little intro paragraph that the GM can essentially read to the players, 4 landmarks, 3 notable NPCs, some visual details, and numerical ratings for wealth, security, criminal influence, occult influence. This is a very pared down description - tightly defined and expertly laid out. It’s written to be referenced, not read like a novel.

From the Blades book:


View attachment 263165


Just really gameable stuff. Very similar write ups for all the factions. Easy to reference and put into play.
The article makes it pretty clear that Duskvol has the information to play Blades in the Dark there. It would be nice if more D&D settings had the information to play D&D there. They usually have a lot of information I don't want and just a little of the information I do.
 

Fenris-77

Small God of the Dozens
Supporter
A small thing that I've found useful is to have the first NPC from a given faction that the PCs mèet act as the 'face' of that faction. By that I mean things like attitudes, behaviour and the like. I find it helps the players understand larger factions more quickly. The face doesnt have to be the most important NPC or anything, just serve as an introduction.
 

If I could do it again, what I'd tell myself is that half a dozen interesting places in a town or city are more than enough. As a player you want some kind of building to use as a base, a shop or two, a couple of places you interact with reasonably safely (temples, museums, libraries, clubs or bars, etc) and a couple of places of danger, risk and mystery. The rest is just scenery.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Quick tangent: For those who've played Blades in the Dark, I'm curious whether you think the overall Forged in the Dark approach pretty much requires a setting that's similarly bounded or contained? Most FitD games seem to stick to a pretty specific location (even Band of Blades, which allows some mobility, isn't exactly open-ended), but then Scum and Villainy only limits you to a sector, which is an awful big sandbox.

I don't know if it does, but I can say that when I ran the playtest for Galaxies in Peril, a superheroes hack of FitD, I created my own setting that very much worked in that way. I wanted to keep the pressure in place and it gave us a central premise to play around with.

I've seen other games that don't have that "no getting out of town" element that Doskvol has, which works so well with Blades. I think if you make that change, you need to have other means of putting pressure on, or else be less concerned with that pressure.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
I will add that I absolutely adore playing games set in a central location with lots of interconnected factions and/or NPCs (especially when there are strong connections to the player characters). Running/playing Blades in the Dark, Apocalypse World, Monsterhearts and the like were a revelation to me on this front. The ability to really learn and master an environment, build long lasting relationships and strive towards long term ambitions while navigating a web of dynamic and changing circumstances/relationships really gets me invested in both play and the setting.

Yeah, I've found it to be really engaging in a lot of ways. The persistent setting just helps engage folks and also helps to display the impact of the characters' actions and/or the passage of time. Much more dynamic, in that sense.

If I could do it again, what I'd tell myself is that half a dozen interesting places in a town or city are more than enough. As a player you want some kind of building to use as a base, a shop or two, a couple of places you interact with reasonably safely (temples, museums, libraries, clubs or bars, etc) and a couple of places of danger, risk and mystery. The rest is just scenery.

Yeah, I think a lot of settings make the mistake of feeling the need to detail every single building and so on, instead of just a handful of places of interest. Anything else that is needed can be easily added. It gives the players the opportunity to have some input, too, which is always good.
 

I don't know if it does, but I can say that when I ran the playtest for Galaxies in Peril, a superheroes hack of FitD, I created my own setting that very much worked in that way. I wanted to keep the pressure in place and it gave us a central premise to play around with.

I've seen other games that don't have that "no getting out of town" element that Doskvol has, which works so well with Blades. I think if you make that change, you need to have other means of putting pressure on, or else be less concerned with that pressure.
Galaxies of Peril was exactly the kind of thing I was wondering about, as far as FitD and location-restrictions go. Can I ask how you handled it?
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Galaxies of Peril was exactly the kind of thing I was wondering about, as far as FitD and location-restrictions go. Can I ask how you handled it?

Sure... I came up with a fictional island nation in the south Pacific. I'm not sure how familiar you may be with Marvel comics, but I had Madripoor in mind. It's a kind of haven for villainy of all sorts in the Marvel U. Wolverine hung out there a lot in the late 80s.

I made the nation a bit more of an archipelago rather than an individual island. Then I came up with a bunch of factions, mostly villainous but some that were less so, and kind of came up with the "status quo" of the place.

Then I introduced a new faction that arrived on the scene. They used a giant force field to surround the island and block it from the outside world (pretty strong trope in superhero stories). They tried to take over.

The players made characters and chose to be Rebels (which was an existing team type per GiP; if they went less heroic we may have had to come up with "Mercenaries" or "Hencmen" team types). So they were all present at the time the shield came down. They banded together on one of the islands and acted to secure that island and make it safe for people. I came up with a kind of claim map that was based more on essential human needs... electricity, water, and the like.

It kept them very focused on the immediate circumstances and made it so that they didn't have any kind of chance to get away. It maintained the kind of pressure I think makes the system work so well.
 

It kept them very focused on the immediate circumstances and made it so that they didn't have any kind of chance to get away. It maintained the kind of pressure I think makes the system work so well.

Thanks for laying this out. It sounds like a great framework, and a lot more manageable than the default approach in Galaxies in Peril.

I was asking in part because I'm about to start a Star Wars campaign using Scum and Villainy, and I'm trying to figure out what to potentially tweak to keep things focused and functioning in FitD, while still capturing the planet-hopping and ship-based stuff that's such a part of that setting.

But I'm also writing an FitD game set in the 1980's, and looking at whether to limit it to a specific city—such as NYC—or to leave that vague, and say the GM/group can pick whatever large city is closest to them. It sounds like city specificity was not a pro or a con for your Galaxies in Peril campaign, but not everyone's interesting in putting that much work in, and want details that are ready to run. At the same time, I've heard from people who are a little intimidated by Duskwall's specificity, for example, and I definitely bounce off of Band of Blades because of how simultaneously specific and generic its setting is. I guess I'm not quite sure where the line is for FitD to run properly.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Thanks for laying this out. It sounds like a great framework, and a lot more manageable than the default approach in Galaxies in Peril.

It worked for the idea I wanted. As I said, I made the setting a series of small islands close together. The city was spread across each of them. I divided it up into districts (mostly by island, but there were two larger islands that had more than one district on them). I made each district distinct in its own way; the nature of the place, the factions that tended to be there, the situation at the start of play. The district the players chose was a poor one, with a lack of basic needs, so that became the focus of our play. They knew this when selecting that district; if they'd wanted to focus on something else, they would have chosen another district as their home district.

This is all very similar to how Blades does things with Doskvol. Given that I was using playtest material, and the setting information was minimal, I felt it was better to create a setting that would fit with the rules system as I was familiar with it.

Having run one short campaign of it, and with the full book now out, I think I'd be comfortable running a more traditionally set superhero campaign. Though at the same time, I think my players really dug the setting we created. When we play again, that'll be the first big decision to make.

I was asking in part because I'm about to start a Star Wars campaign using Scum and Villainy, and I'm trying to figure out what to potentially tweak to keep things focused and functioning in FitD, while still capturing the planet-hopping and ship-based stuff that's such a part of that setting.

I'm much less familiar with Scum & Villainy than I am with Blades, so keep that in mind, but I think I know how I'd handle it.

Here's the thing with Star Wars... the setting isn't really that big. It seems like it because of our understanding of space and lightyears and parsecs and all that. But really, the majority of action takes place on a handful of planets. The planets themselves have like one defining feature and typically one primary location.

There's no reason you can't just treat the different systems like you would the districts of Doskvol. Take the systems you want to use in play... either existing ones like Hoth and Tatooine, or new ones you've created... and make entries for them like those that Blades has for the districts of Doskvol. List or create some interesting locations, some notable NPCs, general flavor and vibe, and then maybe some district stats. It may make sense to change from the default ones in Blades (Wealth, Safety & Security, Criminal Influence, and Occult Influence) to something more specific to Star Wars (maybe Rebel Influence and Imperial Influence would suit for a couple of them, depending on when you're setting it).

Instead of having an actual map, I'd just arrange the systems as a kind of flow chart, and use that to help track travel and all that.

But I'm also writing an FitD game set in the 1980's, and looking at whether to limit it to a specific city—such as NYC—or to leave that vague, and say the GM/group can pick whatever large city is closest to them. It sounds like city specificity was not a pro or a con for your Galaxies in Peril campaign, but not everyone's interesting in putting that much work in, and want details that are ready to run. At the same time, I've heard from people who are a little intimidated by Duskwall's specificity, for example, and I definitely bounce off of Band of Blades because of how simultaneously specific and generic its setting is. I guess I'm not quite sure where the line is for FitD to run properly.

I don't think it's city specificity that matters so much as it is having an idea in mind for what you want play to be about, and then designing or choosing a city that suits that theme. Look at Doskvol... depending on what kind of crew you want to be and what kinds of scores you want to see in play, different districts make sense. The setting was designed to deliver the different themes... crime, social class disparity, ghosts and the supernatural... those are all reinforced by the different districts and related factions and institutions.

So I think it depends on what you want your 1980s game to be about. Is it a crime game? Something else? Whatever it is, you'll want to make sure that it can be delivered by your combination of city and year. I mean, 1980s New York had the highest crime rate than it had since like the Gangs of New York days of the mid-1800s, so if it's a crime game, then I think you likely have picked a good year and city for it.

The other question is how to address travel... there's no electric ghost wall preventing people from leaving. But there's also no reason you can't tweak the rules to do something like tweak "Reduce Heat" to "Lay Low" or "Get Outta Dodge" and have that mean the character is not available for the next score. This way it matches the setting, but also has meaning in play.

If you have any more to share about this game and don't mind doing so, I'd like to hear about it.
 

hawkeyefan

Legend
Here’s part 2 up today:

Cities in RPGs 2- Spire

This one focuses on the eponymous city from “Spire: The City Must Fall” RPG, which is in my opinion an under appreciated gem. The game focuses on underclass drow revolutionaries in a city ruled by high elves.

That this series has kicked off with my favorite two RPGs of recent years probably says something about my personal tastes. Both have some elements in common… one city as the setting for play, systems of oppression, social dynamics, moral ambiguity… but it is interesting in how the two books go about what they do.

As mentioned in the article, Spire is a book written to be read. Normally, I’d view that as potentially problematic… I think it’s best for an RPG book to be written and designed with utility in mind. Ao that is a bit of a problem with Spire… but there are a few things that mitigate it.

First, the mechanics of the game are presented in a very clear way, easily referenced at the table. The rules are also simple enough not to need a lot of reference. A handful of pages contains all you need to reference the mechanics of play.

Second, the setting has a very “non-canonical” approach. There are numerous ideas presented for all manner of things, some even conflicting. The expectation is that the GM and players can pick whatever makes sense for their group. There’s no need to know everything presented in the book… it’s written for folks to pick and choose what they want.

Finally, the quality of the writing. Every page has multiple ideas that could be used for scenarios in play that could last many sessions. The way the ideas are presented and the sheer amount… it’s all meant to inspire play. There’s no need to know all of it, just pick what you like and go with that.

I think as the article suggests, and as I did in my campaign, the best thing to do is to select a district as the primary focus of play, and then use ideas related to that. We chose Red Row, a crime riddled ghetto, so we had criminal factions and those devoted to law, so I made sure to be familiar with that kind of stuff.

The city itself is a kind of surreal, quasi-industrial place, with just tons of occult elements present. The major background feature is the struggle of the underclass against the ruling class. You can lean into any or all of these elements to different degrees, per taste and need.

So very different in presentation compared to Doskvol, despite many similarities in the setting and theme.
 

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