As time has gone by, I've become less and less enamored with the idea that any given setting should be overly “realistic.” Most of the by Night series do a decent job of giving an overview of the actual city, even if it is a shallow one. The general consensus tends to be that a writer has to be a native of any given city, or have equivalent in-depth knowledge of a place, to write about it--all in the name of realism. As a Storyteller who has only lived in a few places in my life, this idea obviously inherently limits me to only setting games in the city nearest me.
|Historical map of Genoa, where I'm setting my next game.|
But, ignoring that, I’m not sure realism has much place in a game. I mean, obviously, if you have a particular concept or theme for your city, then picking a real world city that syncs up with that is a virtue. For example, if you want to play up the “Sect Cold War” between the Camarilla and Sabbat, then a city like El Paso/Ciudad Juarez is a wonderful location. But if you can’t find one that is exactly what you want, a Storyteller should feel free to completely alter it, or even create their own fictional city, based on interest and passion. If the players balk at this, the twin excuses of “I’m the Storyteller” and “It’s the World of Darkness, not the real world” should be more than sufficient to justify any bizarre thing you want to come up with.
Even with that though, I don’t think most “realistic” cities are all that useful in a game. The main reason why is, well, the damn players--who, lets be honest, have been the ruin of many Storytellers dream Chronicles. When dealing with players, you have to deal with the fact that you have a group of individuals whose interest in the Chronicle, and it’s component setting, locations, NPC’s, and a host of other details, varies greatly. Not just between player and players, but also between sessions for the same player. I’m personally rather pleased when they can remember their own names, the names of their coterie mates, the current NPC they’re trying to track down, and the NPC who tasked them with the mission in the first place. Expecting them to notice, care about, and remember the subtle changes a city goes through as one moves through it is just a step too far. As such, excess work to really play up the nuances and details of a city, whether it is a real place or not, seems like a waste.
And in fact, more than a waste, since the end result is the city ends up feeling like a vague and indistinct place to most players with only a tiny handful of locations being even remotely memorable or distinctive. I mean, the Storyteller might have a nice streetmap they purchased or printed out, but other than the occasional times they jab at it with their fingers, most players will have only vaguest idea of where they are at any given time, and care about it less. As such, a Chronicle set in Philadelphia will “feel” the same as one set in Montreal, or Buffalo, or even Marseilles (to cite major locations in a game I played in years ago).
So, given all this, I've decided in my recent games to dump the concept of “realism” and embrace what I like to call the Star Wars School of Setting Design. It might be better to embrace the tropes and call it Single Biome Planet or even Patchwork Map. The virtue of this idea is that it is incredibly obvious to the audience that THIS planet is Tatooine and THIS one is the Death Star. Likewise, knowing that Hoth is a totally different place than Dagobah or Cloud City, all of which are completely different than the Forest Moon of Endor. It’s crude, it’s heavy handed, but it works in making each of these locations distinct and memorable.
So, nowadays, when I try to create a new setting for a Chronicle, I try to embrace this, by making each section of the city to be as distinct and unique as possible. The docks are always covered in fog and full of surly longshoremen. The university is covered in ivy and full of earnest young people with an affection for Zima (a personal trope of mine--because, yes, Zima still exists in the World of Darkness!). The barrens are full of rotting and rusty warehouses and shuttered factories, while the suburbs are a mind-numbing wasteland of strip malls, 7-11’s, and generic housing, seemingly replicated by a lazy computer program.
Obviously, the exact areas will vary based on the city I've chosen, it’s geography, and the general theme and mood of the Chronicle. But, in general, I’m not interested in the “in-between” areas as much as the stark and iconic places that will as immediately as possible get the players “in the mood” of a specific locale. I pick these areas generally based on either the “neighborhood” maps of a city (which as any local will tell you are at best questionable compared to reality), the police precinct or district maps, or through the simple expediency of taking a marker to a map and carving it up as I see fit.
Generally I’ll try to come up with “iconic” ideas for each of these areas, but if I can’t I don’t worry about it too much. I have no problem with leaving large chunks of the map blank so I can fill them in as needed later. Of the ones I do bother to detail, I tend to treat them similarly to how i do NPC’s. Here’s what I try to focus on:
* Map--I like having a vague idea of what the given area is like, even it it’s just a rough hand drawn thing. Are there are a lot of alleyways? Wide boulevards? Numerous parks? Basically, what is physically there.
* Overview--a brief text overview of what this place is, details about the atmosphere, what’s going on there, etc.
* Major locations--if an area is worth detailing at all, it better have more than one place the players will frequent. So, this is where I list what is here that might interest a typical group of players--clubs, bars, NPC (or PC) havens, libraries, weapon dealers, Elysiums, gang “headquarters,” etc. When first creating a section of the city, I try to have at least 3-5 of these. If I only have 1 or 2, then I just detail THOSE places, without worrying about the general area around them. One of these locations should be the “anchor” of the place, the one that defines it more than anything and which the players will navigate by. Generally this will be a Kindred focused location like a club or Elysium, but could also be a really noticeable landmark. While in the area, I’ll use it to describe where the players are--”you go to the meeting at the warehouse, it’s about 3 blocks away from Club Paradox,” or “you’re driving in Oakridge, about a block from the Park, when you hear a piercing howl break the silence.”
* NPC’s--who lives here and what are they up to, both Kindred and Kine. This is generally pretty easy to figure out based on my NPC notes, but I might to create further significant NPC’s based on locations and atmosphere.
* Notes--this is my catch all category. Ideas and notes that don’t belong anywhere else go here. Two things I always try to think of is what Stories are happening here (for those that do not involve the players, but they may hear about, particularly through the Harpies) or could happen based on the PC’s, and “encounters.” The idea of random encounters is pretty out of vogue nowadays, particularly with such “narrative” games as Vampire, but I generally run it like an old school game. As such, having a convenient list of people and things that may or may not interact with the characters is extremely helpful in making a place feel distinct and making a setting feel “alive.” After all, you’re going to run into different people in the Docks area than you are at the University, and not everything is based on the “Story”--sometimes things just happen. It also creates uncertainty, as a character should never be sure if that “random drunk” really is just a recently laid off dock-worker or is secretly a plant. Of course, like in the best old school games, these are “encounters” not “fights.”
Anyway, I find that if you get a couple of these areas together, you can have a pretty distinct and living city, that the players eventually get to know pretty well.
So, how do you make your cities?