When Magic Comes to Town: City Creation in DFRPG, Part One

First off, it was very, very difficult for me, as a child of the 80s, to avoid making a Starship reference when it comes to building cities.

Anyway, I’ve talked about setting the power level for a DFRPG campaign. The next big step in getting a campaign going is city creation.

As with most things involved in setting up a DFRPG campaign, the recommendation in the book is that you do this step as a group, and I cannot endorse this enough. Now, I’ve had mixed luck with co-operative setting building, but the troubles I’ve run into tend to be caused by a lack of shared understanding of some of the basic assumptions of the world. Here, in the Dresdenverse, a number of those basic assumptions are clearly spelled out in the source material. This is not to say you can’t change them; only that it gives you a larger plot of common ground when you start getting people brainstorming about the setting.

It’s a little misleading to think of city creation as just building the setting. The way things are set up in the book, this process creates not just the setting, but a number of the overarching themes of the game, and shapes the types of stories that you’re going to be playing through and the kinds of characters you’re going to build. In fact, step three of their instructions is to create characters, which you do before putting the final touches on the city. This guarantees that the characters fit into the city, and that the city contains things that the characters care about.

Now, I outlined the steps to city creation at a pretty low-level back here. This time, I’m going to look at things at a higher level, but with more discussion of the four steps. Before that, though, I want to point out that the books have a fully-Dresdenified version of Baltimore, a long chapter on real-world and fictional weirdness in Chicago, some suggestions about what they call The Vancouver Method for just making stuff up, and suggestions for how to build your city on the fly. So, there are a ton of options if building cities in the way they outline is not to your taste.

The four high-level steps are:

  1. Choose a city, themes, and threats.
  2. Fill in locations and faces.
  3. Make the player characters.
  4. Turn themes and threats into Aspects.

I’m only going to do the first step this time, because it alone is a pretty big topic. I’ll continue with the rest of the steps in future posts.

Step 1: Choose a city, themes, and threats.

This step could easily be the easiest one of the bunch. Or, it could be the hardest. It’s simple to say, “Let’s Dresdenify my home town!” Even if you live somewhere kind of boring, like I do, you’d be amazed at what a gameable setting you can throw together with a little brainstorming and discussion. It can be harder to pick a city that no one is really familiar with – that may entail a lot of research, though the book is careful to point out that you should stop doing research when it stops being fun. Even if that point is before you start.

The really difficult part comes in when you realize that you’re spoiled for choice. See, they make a point in the book of saying that, while the default assumption is that you’re going to play in a city, that’s not the only setting that can be built this way. Some of the ideas I’ve been toying with in my head to suggest when my group gets together to build our campaign:

  • Winnipeg. Yeah, we’ve already done it, but we could do it again – better. With more time and a better understanding of the game, I think the results would be even cooler than they already are. We could keep the best stuff, and add to it.
  • A fiefdom in the Nevernever. They mention this idea in the book, and it would be cool to set up a “free faerie city” idea, where the fantasy quotient is higher than in a mundane city – even a Dresdenified one. Anyone remember the Grimjack comics?
  • A few small towns in a larger geographic area. Driving down through the midwest of the US every summer, I’m struck by how the higher population density throws so many little towns into such a small area, and how many of them have colleges. The area around where I grew up here in Manitoba are similar, but with more distance between the places. You could treat the whole area as one city, with the various towns and rural areas being the neighbourhoods. It would allow you to bring a lot more of the feral supernatural stuff.
  • A warden squad. Make the characters responsible for much larger geographic area, like an entire state or province. Again, you’d need to change the resolution level: neighbourhoods become cities and counties, for example. Now, this idea seems to restrict characters to just Wizards, but it doesn’t have to. I figure that most Wizards, like Harry, have some contacts with other character types, which would let you mix in pretty much any character the players want.
  • Mystical archaeologists. Now, the whole world becomes the setting, with the neighbourhoods being different ancient civilizations: Roman, Aztec, Celtic, Greek, Fey, whatever. Or maybe the neighbourhoods become time periods. You cold, of course, just set the neighbourhoods as different geographic regions or archaeological digs, but that’s not nearly as interesting, I think.
  • A traveling company. Here, I’m inspired by something like Carnivale, or the latest season of Heroes. The idea of a traveling carnival with a supernatural element can also have echoes of Something Wicked This Way Comes. But it doesn’t have to be a carnival or circus; the road company of a musical or even a Copperfield-style magic show could work very well. Also, I’m currently reading Iron Sunrise by Charles Stross, and can see the potential of setting it aboard a ship on an extended cruise. Again, the definition of the neighbourhoods grows and changes to fit the framework.

Now, I think it’s pretty obvious from the preceding ideas how the setting you choose will influence the entire campaign, from character choice to the kinds of stories you tell. Some of them imply very specific types of relationships between the characters – they’re all wardens, or they’re all crew members on a cruise ship, or whatever.

Once you’ve got the basic setting picked, the book recommends you start research. Find out more about the place you’ve chosen, so that you’ve got some good ideas to bring to the table for the next part of the process. Read up on the history, the interesting places, visit some tourist sites (even if only online), or check out other source material. Talk to each other about what you’re finding out, and make a list of cool ideas that come to you.

When you’ve got some basic knowledge, you come up with the themes and threats. The book defines themes as problems that have been around for a long time, while threats are problems that are new. For example, in Magical Winnipeg, one theme is the fact that the city is a melting pot of so very many different ethnicities, all dealing with the elements and environment of the Canadian prairie. A threat is the upsurge in violent street crime driven by the dangerous were-hyenas of the Mad Cowz.

In my mind, what you’re looking for in a theme is dynamic tension. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take a look at someplace like Washington, DC. What I know about the city is purely from reading and watching the news and TV shows, so I freely admit that I’m an outsider and may be behind on the development. Doesn’t matter. It’s just an example.

Washington has a special place in the psyche of the US, as the seat of government and site of numerous important monuments, museums, archives, etc. But it also has a large crime problem and crushing urban poverty. It has some of the richest, most powerful people in America living right alongside some of the poorest, most disenfranchised people. This contrast is something that can work very well as a theme, because it sets up tension between the haves and the have-nots in your story that spawns all sorts of adventure ideas, complications, and opportunities for heroism.

Themes are pervasive. They don’t go away, and are generally beyond the ability of the players to resolve, unless that becomes a primary focus of your campaign or you’re working at a much higher level of power than standard. But in that case, your themes should ratchet up, too, becoming great epic issues: the pull between mortality and immortality, for example. Themes are questions and issues that your characters struggle with, that force them to make choices and take action and thereby define themselves.

Threats, on the other hand, are issues that your characters can come to grips with and overcome. Maybe not all at once, but over the course of a few adventures. Taking on a were-hyena street gang, for example – it may take several adventures to roll up the gang’s hierarchy, but it can be done. Threats are where the conflict comes into the game; they are the primary sources of adventure fodder, though they are heavily informed by the themes.

Now, this is where you need to start thinking about the supernatural elements you’re going to add to the game. Some of the choices you make here will be constrained by the choices you made in setting the power level for the campaign: if you’re running a Feet in the Water game, you probably don’t want a whole bunch of the supernatural right out in the open, unless the campaign is going to focus on the issue of how relatively mundane folks deal with the overwhelming nature of the paranormal. On the other hand, if you’re playing a Submerged game, you want a lot of the magical stuff to be up front, or else your characters are going to walk all over the rest of the people in the world.

But that said, really the amount of supernatural stuff you want to add is going to be a matter of aesthetics. What are you trying to accomplish? What do you want the feel of the game to be? Those things will guide the choices. What I find useful is looking for just the coolest bits of weirdness to layer on, and letting the rest grow organically from there. For example, Winnipeg (like most cities) has a real wealth of ghost stories – the old Masonic Temple, the Hotel Fort Garry, and the Vaughn Street Jail are all said to be haunted, not mention dozens of other less interesting buildings around town. Rather than write up each individual haunting, I tied them together with the Council of Ghosts, based in the Vaughan Street Jail, that deals with policing the restless spirits of the city. That covers a big chunk of the supernatural in a general and interesting way, but leaves me free to create the kinds of ghosts and ghost stories that the game needs.

Where I’m going with this is here: start layering in the supernatural right from the start, but remember that for modern fantasy to work well, you need a solid mundane world to support it. Don’t turn every event in the history of your city or every place of interest into something linked to the supernatural. Use it as seasoning, and let the game shape how it grows and influences the rest of the world.

But more on that next time, when I talk about locations and faces.

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16 Responses to When Magic Comes to Town: City Creation in DFRPG, Part One

  1. Rel Fexive says:

    I’ve been considering using New York for my city, which is hampered by my total lack of knowledge about it, what with it being far away and the internet being very big. I started to put together a wiki for NYC (using Wikipedia and some of the pages it links to) but I’ve intimidated myself with my plan to have an entry (even if it only covers name, ethnicity, ‘function’, ‘wealth’ and points of interest) for every neighbourhood of every borough, as well as locations of police precincts, hospitals, prisons, courthouses, landmarks, etc etc etc. As a result I’ve not gotten very far with it.

    All I really need to be going on with is a feel of the ‘areas’ in the city (defined as “larger than individual neighbourhoods, smaller than the boroughs”) so I know where to place homes, offices, bad areas, deserted warehouses, dodgy dockyards, hotels both sleazy and rich, clubs, bars, restaurants, and fight scene appropriate landmarks 😉 and I don’t really have even that. I just need to find the right resource, I guess.

    Oh, and good work with the info as always 🙂

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  3. SoulCatcher78 says:

    @Rel Flexive:

    You might want to consider using some of the materials for other games (New York by Night for example) as a jumping off point. If you and you’re players really don’t have any personal knowledge of a city then it’s not a bad thing at all (as you’re making it up as you go anyway so there are no inconsistencies).

    @Rick:

    If you are going to play different power levels in the same area (troupe play or something similar) would it make sense to use different themes for each power level (something is vaguely wrong for feet wet, I see dead people for chest deep, and why do the dead people want me to protect them for submerged) or just have them bundled together so that different power levels perceive them differently? The more powerful you are the deeper you get into the themes and the more dangerous the players (both PC and NPC). The city creation we are working on the DF forums (Seoul) seems like it would be a good fit for this.

    In Storm Front, Harry seemed jumpy about everything (from Wardens,the police, and criminals) but as the case files progress he has come to terms with his place in the power structure of the city and acts more along those lines (working with the Wardens, not as worried about the mortal authorities, doesn’t like but can work with Marcone to get the job done).

  4. Rel Fexive says:

    @SoulCatcher78:

    I have looked around, but the biggest problem with the WoD books (‘By Night’ and ‘Rage Across’) is that there is practically nothing in them about the city by itself – everything is in terms of “this place relates to supernatural thing X” with no context of the actual area with respect to the whole. Plus, those books are a) the WoD version of the city, and b) over 10 years out of date. The best RPG book for NYC is the Cthulhu one, but that’s 1920s. Brilliant for a 1920s game, not so good for modern day. As far as I can tell there are no other sourcebooks covering NYC.

    My problem is I’d want it as accurate as I can get it because I’m that OCD about it 😉

  5. Rick Neal says:

    @Rel Fexive:

    You want to hit the travel section of the library or bookstore, and get a guidebook for the city. You’d be surprised at what kinds of things you can find there. For New York, I can specifically recommend Forgotten New York by Kevin Walsh. It was the basis for my NYC-based Unknown Armies game. Whenever I run a game set in a city I don’t know, my first step is to get at least a Fodor’s guide, so that I have some idea of what’s there, as well as some pictures and maps for inspiration.

    @SoulCatcher78:

    Personally, I’d go with a single set of themes, but develop different levels of threat for the various power levels to deal with, so that the city maintains a cohesive, recognizable feel for all the different levels. Themes are things that don’t really go away, so are generally appropriate for all the power levels. Take a look at the themes in the Nevermore preview chapter for examples.

  6. Rel Fexive says:

    Thanks Rick, I’ll take a look around for those, see what they’re like.

  7. Ryan says:

    @Rel Fexive: Also, for themes/aspects, you can use those same aspects with even the same movers-and-shakers but change up how the PCs interact with them.

    For example, say you had a city aspect “Gateway to the West” (I’m thinking of a St. Louis game). At a very low power level, you could say that the PCs are dealing with very peripheral issues, such as a string of murders committed by someone using authentic 1800s arrows or a haunting aboard one of the casino boats.

    As you hit higher levels of power, you might deal more directly with the movers-and-shakers (coming into direct contact with the Native American shapeshifters who reject the damage done to their ancestral land; realizing that the gateway arch was built expressly to tap into some place in the Nevernever, ala Ghostbusters and the Gozer-gate) or become a mover-and-shaker yourself. This is just something I’m tossing around for my own game, and I might be a little off, but this is how I have been thinking about the different power levels and how they interact with the city aspects/themes.

  8. Ryan says:

    Whoops. That was meant for SoulCatcher, not Rel Fexive. Stupid early morning work confusion…

  9. Rel Fexive says:

    Hey, I’ll take the advice anyway 😉

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  11. Kirk says:

    I am trying to understand the spellcasting system. I have a player that wants soulfire at -6 and mark of power at -1. It is a -7 refresh game. Is this even allowed? Please help!!!

  12. Rick Neal says:

    If it’s a -7 Refresh game, then no, it’s not possible. That would leave him with no Fate Points which, by the rules, makes him an NPC. You need at least one Fate Point to be a PC; it’s the Fate Point that represents your free will.

    Now as to costing, Soulfire costs -5 if you don’t take Thaumaturgy or Evocation. Add in the -1 for Marked by Power, and you can come in at -6, which is under the Refresh threshold. With a -7 limit, there is no way to get Soulfire along with either Thaumaturgy or Evocation, let alone both, and still remain a PC.

  13. Celtic Bug says:

    To those looking at cities that are far, far away: Google maps and similar are wonderful things. Especially the bigger cities in the West, because then you have Street View, which is a wonderfully immersive thing. I guided my players to a random building on the map where they needed to investigate something. While I was trying to make up the layout of the building, one of my players brought up the Street View on his computer (which was handily plugged into his big screen TV) and “walked” around. My guys then spent the next five minutes debating the inherent darker side of the “Importateur – Potato Distributors LTD. -” which was in extremely old paint on the side of the building.

    We actually have some landmarks memorized, and I use them to guide my player’s pedestrian expeditions. Also, you may find pleasant surprises. For instance, I was trying to find a way to introduce some backstory for an NPC who is a retired pirate and I happened upon a huge sign on the side of a very real building entitled “Pirates, Corsaires et Flibustiers”, a Pirate-themed exhibition at the art gallery of a museum right on the edge of territory that I had already decided belonged to my retired pirate. I love serendipity, and I will exploit its socks off. I encourage you to do the same.

  14. Marcelino says:

    How about the Southwest, I’m thinking of starting a game set in Albuquerque NM, where I live, there’s a lot of crazy stuff out here supernatural native american stuff, mexican stuff, it could be awesome

  15. Rick Neal says:

    The Southwest would be a very cool place to set a game. I’d recommend checking out this book for some nice weirdness:

    Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries of the Southwest

    Really, anything by David Hatcher Childress is a fun read for this kinda thing, and he’s got a whole series of Lost Cities & Ancient Mysteries for all over the world.

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