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

Last time, I talked about deciding on your city and coming up with themes and threats for it. Now, before we get on to the next step, there’s a bit of an intermediary step that gets slotted in. You don’t have to do it right at this point, but it can be helpful for moving forward.

Step 1.5: High-Level View

Between deciding what the themes and threats of your setting are and starting to work at the ground-level with locations and faces, the book suggests filling in a little of the high-level view. This is where you can begin to make sure that you’ve got a place for the elements of the Dresdenverse that your characters are most interested in interacting with.

It’s pretty simple, really. First, you discuss what supernatural power groups have an interest in the city – the city itself mostly defines what the interested mundane groups are. If you’ve got a character with a tie to one or another of the power groups, now’s the time to give it a place in city politics. Once you know who’s interested in the city, you get to determine what their interest is. This part will probably draw very heavily on your themes and threats. When you’ve got a good picture of how things are set up in the city, come up with a brief (one or two sentences) statement to describe the supernatural status quo, and another one to describe the mundane status quo.

The next bit is pretty cool. Take the different power groups – both supernatural and mundane – that you’re going to have involved in your story, and map them on a simple plane. The x-axis is a continuum between “Who wants to maintain the status quo” and “Who wants to rock the boat.” The y-axis is a similar continuum between “Who’s in the know” and “Who’s in the dark.” So, for example, most of the mortals in a given city are going to be in the upper-left quadrant (maintain status quo and in the dark), while the Black Council would definitely be in the lower right quadrant (rock the boat and in the know).

Now you’ve got a representative map of the movers and shakers in your city, as well as a snap-shot of the mundane and supernatural situations. You’ve got a solid foundation for the next step.

Step 2: Fill in locations and faces.

Now we get to the ground-level development of your setting. The rules suggest starting with the locations, and brainstorming until you have a couple of locations per player, rather than just enumerating every neighbourhood in your city. Let’s face it, after all: not every place in a given city is going to be good fodder for a game. So, you want to make sure that you get places that are evocative, have their own story hooks, have some tie to the themes or threats of the setting, and tie to one or another of the movers and shakers you developed above. Each location doesn’t have to have all of the above, but should have at least one.

Really, in my opinion, what you want in a location is for it to serve double-duty. It should work as an interesting backdrop for adventures and it should spark adventure ideas itself. So, here in Winnipeg, we have the Manitoba Legislature, which is a cool building in its own right, and the building and grounds make for an interesting setting for at least part of an adventure. But factor in the elements of sacred geometry and the pagan symbolism built into the structure, and it starts suggesting cults to Hermaphrodite, or cabals of alchemists, or a masonic conspiracy, or any of a number of different story hooks. That makes for a good location.

Again, I’m going to strenuously advocate a collective approach, here. As GM, don’t come up with all the answers yourself. Get your players involved, both in the brainstorming and the fleshing out that follows. You’ll wind up with a better mix of places and ideas than if you had done it on your own. Just for an example, in creating Magical Winnipeg, it was my players who came up with the ideas for the Gimli einharjar, the White Court Pentecostal Churches, the Mad Cowz were-hyenas, and the Consecration of the Two Waters. I wouldn’t have thought of these things on my own, and they add a nice mix of elements to the setting that I used in the playtest.

Keep in mind that locations can be different things. A location might be a neighbourhood, or it might be a building, or a business, or a park, or any other place where the characters will go. It doesn’t even need to be contiguous: the Pentecostal Churches in Winnipeg are all essentially one place, with the same overlying elements, for all that they’re separated geographically. Gimli is some 50 miles or so from the city, but the presence of Odin’s back-up Valhalla there is enough to have an impact on the game. If you’re running a game with a broader base – say, a secret government project that travels worldwide fighting monsters – then your locations can even  be a little abstract, cleaving closer to the power groups than to the geographic areas. So, instead of having the North End of the city, with its gangs and dangers, you might have the Accounting Department, with their ruthless and unexpected audits and reviews.

I’m going to suggest a little something here that I think works well for this stage. Get visual references. Take some pictures, or search online for some, that capture the essence of what you want each location to be. These can be very helpful for fleshing out the locations, as well as evocative for use in play. This is especially useful if you’re playing in a city (or time period) that you’re unfamiliar with. If you’re playing in a Nevernever setting, well, finding references means looking at fantasy art rather than city photographs, but it’s still doable. It may be even more helpful.

Once you’ve got your locations picked, it’s time to flesh them out. One of the first things you’re going to have to do is tie at least some of them (but probably not all of them) into the supernatural world you’re building. You don’t want to go overboard on this, in my opinion, unless you’re setting the game in the Nevernever, or the eternal city of Shangri-La, or Agartha, or inside the Hollow Earth or something. You need to keep the supernatural aspects ignorable by the general populace – otherwise, you wind up with the question of how do mundane folks survive in this dangerous world?

That said, you need some supernatural connections. They’re probably secret, and may not be too heavy, but the connections should be there. So, a nightclub might be a meeting ground for vampires, or a park might contain a wyldfae court, or a certain bookstore and coffee shop might be a regular meeting place for the clued-in. Not everything needs to be magic,  but some things have to be. Otherwise, you’re not playing a modern fantasy game, are you?

Every group is going to have their own sweet spot for this, so talk with the players and find out what your group’s is.

You also need to pick a theme or a threat for each location. Just one or the other. The standards for themes and threats are the same from the previous step, but you only want one for each location, and it should be specific for that location. Now, aesthetically and structurally, it makes sense to tie these in to the overall themes and threats for the city, but you’ve got to make each one slightly different, too. So, if you’ve got a city theme of “Cultural melting pot of the Canadian Prairies,” and you want to riff on that, then you might give the threat of “Dangerous new African gangs,” to the North End location, and the theme “Feeding on the corpse of history,” to the Forks Market (which is a mall built on the site of an archaeological dig). Both deal with the waves of immigration hinted at in the city theme, but take it in different directions.

One really good piece of advice in the book is that, now that you have these locations fleshed out, it becomes tempting to force the players to them, but you shouldn’t do it. Don’t turn the adventures into a sight-seeing trip through your magical city. Stick to a couple of solid locations in each adventure, and make sure there are some that recur so that the characters become familiar with them. Watch what people pay attention to, and give them more of that. You may wind up never using some of the locations your group creates, and that’s okay. It still helped to flesh out the setting and people’s understanding of it. You may wind up needing to create new locations for adventures, and that’s okay, too. You can use the locations you built previously as a solid foundation to build on. Let the story go where the story needs to go, not just where you’ve already got the locations established.

Now, faces. Faces are what the book calls NPCs who represent or embody a given location, theme, or threat. You’ve already got a whole list of locations, themes, and threats; now you just rough out an NPC to go with each of them. Maybe more than one, if the theme is broad or conflicted enough – for example, you might want a cop and a criminal face for a theme like “The police are fighting a holding action against the influx of organized crime.”

I’m going to talk in more detail about creating the NPCs in the next installment, when we talk about creating characters. In fact, the book suggests that you may want to mix creating the faces of the setting with creating the PCs, and I think that’s a pretty good idea. Until then, though really what you want for each face is a high concept, a motivation, and relationships.

High concept is something that, again, I’m going to talk about in more detail next installment. But for now, the simple explanation is that it’s a single-sentence explanation of what the character is. So, for the cop/criminal thing I talked about a couple of paragraphs back, you might choose “Incorruptible Cop” for one and “Ambitious Drug Lord” for the other.

As for motivation, some of this is going to be linked to the location, theme, or threat that your face is representing. Some will be simple: money, power, love, duty, revenge, and so on. Some will be more complex: wanting to prove that you’re worthy of respect, seeking a truth that you know is hidden away, saving someone from themselves, etc.

Relationships are pretty simple. Look at the other characters (PC and NPC) in the game, and see if they have anything linking them. Or if they could have anything linking them. Or maybe you need to create a new character to represent that relationship – the missing son that the PI hopes to find one day, or the rival at the newspaper that drives the reporter to great heights. Whatever. Figure out if there are any links (here’s a hint: faces that share a theme or threat or location probably also have a relationship), and write them down.

I’ve pretty much glossed over the faces bit, I admit. But next time, I’ll circle back with some more information, when we tackle the third step: creating the player characters.

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