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.

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.