Sunday, March 15, 2009

Urban Campaigns

I planned this post in a slightly different way and then thinking about it I realized how deeply one of my penchants affected my thinking about games. My players probably can identify several of the themes I tend to stick with. There's a running joke that one of my sessions isn't complete until I've described food in some way or another. In part that comes from my desire to integrate sensory details into my games and food's an easy way. It is also an easy trick for describing cultural details. Players will also know that I like cities-- cities as characters unto themselves, hopefully each one having a distinct flavor. I have fond memories of Neutral City, City of Ocean, Hub City, Crantyle, Eyvern, Crux, and the other cities I've adapted from other materials. I like characters and cities lend themselves to those-- allowing players to continually interact with those npcs.

I think it is a natural progression, but in some ways the urban campaign was revolutionary compared to the classic traveling, wilderness and dungeon adventures of old school DnD. Fritz Leiber's Lahnkmar is probably the most important fantasy city in terms of affecting later writers, but I came to Leiber much later. Instead I first read fantasy in an urban context in the Thieves World anthologies. At the time, they were revolutionary-- volumes in a shared setting written by some of the greatest names in fantasy at the time. Eventually, like any shared world set of books, they'd spin too far away from their original material (so much like Wild Cards in that respect). At the time I loved them. I also learned what a vivisectionist was from them.

Chaosium, the first game company that took seriously licensing existing materials and putting them into RPG form, did a big boxed set for Thieves World and the city of Sanctuary. There'd been other city modules before this (City State of the Invincible Overlord comes to mind) but they always seemed like hodge-podge attempts to shove everything together without any attention to theme. The Thieves World books had all the NPCs stat'd out, ideas for integrating the city into various kinds of campaigns, discussion of how cities worked, and maps...nice maps.

I love maps. The best gift I ever received for Christmas was an atlas that I think I still have around here somewhere. Something I'll come back to later.

Anyway, I started drawing city maps-- numbering boxes and naming things. A mechanical approach, but one that I assumed was the way to go. Essentially it was the same as drawing dungeon maps and putting encounters together. I still lacked a sense of logic and place-- Thieves World had it, but I hadn't quite made the jump to see how places could have a distinct flavor. Now mind you, this was 1981, so I was only 12. Within the next couple of years I'd find some other city books that would start to fill things in for me.

I remember buying Haven: Secrets of the Labyrinth from Gamelords, a book describing just a particular part of town, with its own flavor. I found it at Hobbyland, back when they used to be at Scottsdale Mall (1983). It described areas of the city and ideas for different characters-- very different from any of the DnD modules I'd read. Not a linear adventure, but instead a place to set games-- but all still very much in the spirit of classic games. It was also one of the first games I read that tried to describe things in generic terms so it could be adapted variously. I think around that time I found a copy of Umbar, Haven of the Corsairs, one of the earliest MERP modules up at Hall of Cards and Books up at North Village Mall. That was, again, vastly different from anything I'd seen. For those of you who don't remember, the earliest Middle Earth books from Iron Crown Enterprises were...crazy. They used first edition Rolemaster stats and had insanely overpowered characters and ideas far, far away from the original Tolkien source. Later they would rein things in, but if you can, you need to look at the original Ardor book and ask yourselves wtf they were thinking. In any case, Umbar had a distinct set of overlord characters-- each with their own agendas and a distinctly Mediterranean flavor which made it stand apart from any other city book. I used it for a time in a Stormbringer campaign I ran.

I've mentioned before the Kaiin book for the Dying Earth rpg-- a book I recommend for any GM thinking about running a fantastic urban setting. Here are a few other books I loved that affected how I went about running cities and city games:

Cities of Harn: Harn was among the richest of what we might call third generation rpg fantasy sourcebooks. It was intended to be a fully-fleshed out world of low-magic. Paul Dunivent first brought it to our attention because he loved the detail of it. I followed suit, mostly adapting over the Gods of Harn book (for better or worse). The Cities of Harn book was among the coolest things I'd seen. It had full-color maps of the cities, plus black and white versions you could use to color or number in encounters and such. It only thinly described the people and cultures of these places, resulting in all of them-- in effect-- being the same. In some ways it was like a really cool rpg city-source coloring book for game masters. Harn still has the best city maps and I like cutting them into pieces and pasting them back together.

Warhammer City (aka Middenheim, City of the White Wolf) and Power Behind the Throne: An interesting pair and one that really helped me develop ideas when I ran the Thonak Campaign. They fit neatly into a set of great sourcebook modules for the old Warhammer FRPG. That's a classic game and one of the first to use “career”/“profession” templates in an interesting way. The city was richly detailed and intended to emulate a classic high medieval city of old Germany. Again, great maps, interesting characters and neat potential plots. Probably the most intriguing thing that GW did was publishing the PBtT companion volume which presented a lengthy campaign to be set in the city-- complete with revels, timetables, multiple conflicting plot lines and potential tragedy for the Empire as a whole. I ended up basing the city of Rykel in my campaign on these books. Of course, once the players got into the city and began to become embroiled in the plots, one of the players (*kof* Barry *kof*) managed to get them exiled from the city. No plan by a GM ever survives contact with the players. The Empire nearly fell and great tragedy came about as a consequence. And I'd wasted $30 on modules I wouldn't get to use. I'd eventually destroy Rykel during the coming of the Unmaker as part of my continuing effort to revise, devastate or eliminate parts of my campaign too heavily based on outside sour materials. (Another explanation for why Atlantis had to be destroyed-- based as it was on the now well-known city of Waterdeep, one of the few decent TSR modules).

I've read a few other really good city books; usually if I see one readily available I'll pick it up. ICE ended up very hit and miss with their attempts. Their Shadow World setting produced a couple of gems-- but only for a few basic ideas (Eidolon and Haalkitaine for example). But those shared the same problems that plagued the city modules they did for MERP-- a focus on maps, layouts, lists of rooms, encounters rather than a greater discussion of the ethos of the city, how one would run a substantial campaign there, and what the city felt like. Some citybooks fail on different counts-- for example, the Freedom City book for Mutants and Masterminds. There the problem lies in the basic premise-- that detailing a city rich in superheroes gives useful material for the GM. Those kinds of things give little room for PCs-- great ideas, but you have to reduce the population of NPC supers to make it work. White Wolf's, of course, done many city books of the XXX by Night variety. The problem there is that they are so fixated on the particular supernatural culture of the city that they ignore what's importance about the place. Generally the structures they present could be easily picked up and dumped elsewhere-- the city serves only as a backdrop. The exception that proves the rule is something like London by Night for Victorian-Era Vampire. But it shares some of the problems of the Freedom City book-- little room for the PCs to enter.

The most consistently useful and interesting set of city sourcebooks, I've found, came from Flying Buffalo's Catalyst series. They produced volumes-- called Citybooks-- with ideas for businesses, characters and conspiracies which could be used across a variety of fantasy settings. Weirdly, while presented generically they made great effort to provide hooks and ideas which joined together the various places they presented. Each book focuses on a certain part of the city (Nightside, Up Town, Port of Call, etc). They're great fun to read and over the years I've borrowed heavily. Unfortunately they stopped producing them and the last volume of the seven they did was kind of a clunker. Someone needs to take up the mantle and do more things like that-- maybe someone has, but they're probably buried in the mounds of dross that exist on the rpg pdf sites-- too much crap there and I've been burned too often now to really experiment with purchases.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting city source for rpgs I've ever used is the City of Lies box set for the Legend of the Five Rings rpg. Alderac produced two city books for L5R-- this and Otosan Uchi. The later is interesting, especially in that it tries to provide a framework for the Scorpion Clan Coup historical event-- a reference for L5R geeks only-- but it ultimately fails as a city book. They also tried to emulate what made City of Lies great by doing boxes city sets for their Seventh Sea line-- but those were crappy to say the least.

City of Lies, however, is brilliant. In part it works because the author understood that most long-term L5R campaigns would be based around the Magistrate model. That is both a boon and a flaw for L5R. I have to digress to explain that. Legend of the Five Rings is a compacted, anachronistic fantasy samurai game with an amazingly interesting backstory and division of the realm by clans. Each clan has a several families, each with a different focus and essentially form an rpg class. Clans and families serve as the backbone of a player character's identity. But the Clans don't get along-- and anyone who doesn't want to be part of the power-structure is a ronin, which translates as scumbag adventurer. If you run a ronin game, you eliminate 99% of the most interesting stuff in the setting: social interactions, power plays, court life, and so on. If you don't, then you have a party of players from across the clans-- how do you get them to get along? What motivates them to work together? Why aren't they back home where they're supposed to be-- carrying out the wishes of their lords? The solution is to make the PCs Magistrates, beholden to the Emperor, and responsible for carrying out missions and investigations. So, strangely enough, the best model for the L5R campaign is actually a mystery and espionage one, if only to actually have a functioning party.

City of Lies assumes from the start that this is the kind of campaign you'll be running (which is pretty darn likely). Everything is built around this premise. The players' book is written as a collection of journal articles from various authors, including the PC group's predecessor(s) as the magistrates of the city. The city itself is hostile to the PCs-- both in the fact that it is managed by the secretive Scorpion Clan and that there's a hugely powerful criminal network in the city. Plus there are other factions involved in the struggles, buried secrets, Shadowlands taint and the small fact that your immediate predecessor was wrapped up in all this and managed to get himself murdered. The material there is brilliantly written, filled with ideas that could take years to excavate, richly detailed in the flavor of the setting, and only slightly brought down by terrible artwork. It is a great, great sourcebook-- but one that would be hard to adapt over to any other game. It doesn't even work anymore within the context of L5R since they've moved the meta-story forward by a hundred+ years. Still, if you want to see a brilliant artifact of rpg gaming, you should look at this.


  1. Oddly, I was just reading part of Avatar's reprinting of a series of articles by Alan Moore about writing. I'm not done with it, but what I scribbled down notes about last night was:

    + characterization
    = situation
    + time
    = plot

    He fleshes out the world first, then populates it. That creates potential, like a single illustration of a moment in time, or a great painting. An infinite number of stories suggest themselves, but none of them actuates until you add the passage of time.

    Anyway, this translates into gaming pretty plainly, and after reading your blog above makes me think about my own GMing troubles. If you know your setting well (be it something you've developed yourself or something established, like "classic Trek" or "feudal Japan", and if you have decent players with interesting characters, about 95% of your work is done. Knowledge of the setting allows you to react in setting/tone-appropriate ways to PC actions, and voila: fun!

  2. I'd characterize the "little room for PCs to enter" problem this way. Is the world easily destabilized by PC actions? If they're merely replaceable cogs, the players won't have fun.

    Dashiell Hammett characterized his protagonists as people who opened the stew lid and started stirring. The world without them was amoral and violent, but it has a logic and the pretense of fairness. The Hammett detective walks in and starts messing with things to see what happens. Alliances change, different people start shooting at each other. Normal people are appalled when this happens (Google "flitcraft"), and that includes most crooks, but his detectives live for this.

  3. Shari said something interesting the other day that I think applies, at least tangentially, to this. She mentioned that the City of Ocean campaign I ran stood out for her because it was the first time she really felt that she as a player could make this happen in the game. That her actions could affect things and change the course of the game.

    In that sense, I'm not talking about meta-level narrative control, but rather that complete sense that you make a difference. Some games deliberately undercut that power-- some White Wolf and the particularly nihilistic brand of Call of Cthulhu game. But at the same time, for the campaign to work there has to be some small victories.

    But it isn't just about beating the opposition. That stirring that the players do, their actions and interactions with the world should make a difference. They can change an NPC's feelings by talking to them, they can cut off resources to the opposition, they can build bridges between people and ideas-- and that these things don't necessarily serve the "plot" of the GM. Cities serve the purpose of putting lots of things to interact with within easy reach.

    For me the "Little Room" problem has revolved around two issues: why wouldn't they just call the other group-- why wouldn't those people be there? The classic Marvel problem of having too many people in NY. But it is also about making the PCs central to "the story" and to "their own story". And, as Gene points out, these settings are 'set'-- meaning that the status quo, supported by connections of other status quo...s (hmmm?) becomes incredibly difficult to stir.