Tuesday, February 8, 2011

An Inventory of RPG Cities

First Words
As some know, I'm fond of RPG Geek. I think it has a pleasant and moderately-sized community which, at least right now, gets along pretty well. RPGG offers a database of rpg items with the ability to browse, search and rate items. The UI could use improvement but I've found it to be a great resource for learning about games I might otherwise have missed. I've been able to work through my favorite genres to track new and old rpgs. Users can post forum comments, session reports, and reviews of course. The site uniquely offers Geeklists where users can put together commented lists of items, including series, other posts, designers, and of course game items themselves.

I think one of the more useful purposes for Geeklists is organizing and bringing together items or ideas which might not otherwise be searchable in the data structure. As examples, I'll point to three lists I produced: Systems with Deeper Martial Arts Treatments, Games with Community Building, and RPGS with Evocative Magic Systems. While tags can be a good way to find things, they rely on time and the community to build things up. I usually search for geeklists first when I'm hunting for something obscure on RPG Geek.

Cities of the Reddish Night
With that in mind I assembled four geeklists over the last several days- hoping to build a useful reference index, this time of cities as they appear in role-playing games. When I was growing up, I loved maps- I remember getting a copy of The Atlas of Fantasy early on. In particular I loved city maps and back when I was really collecting rpg books, those would usually be the first things I'd pick up. At risk of repeating what I say on the lists themselves, city settings remain my fallback for any campaign or session. I enjoy the sense of place a good city can create. They offer opportunities to develop NPCs, explore social aspects and still have fights and exploration. Players can invest in a city-- when it is their home threatened, the stakes get raised. Some players don't like static settings that force them to consider the consequences of their actions, but I see that as a plus.

So I went through and broke down my examination into four parts and four lists:

Inexorable Cities: City Sourcebooks for Fantasy RPGs
I went for the “in” bit in the title of each list to group them together. I'd already written a list called Invisible Cities some time back so I didn't want to duplicate the Calvino reference again. I also wanted to make sure the words 'cities' and 'city' as well as the genre keywords popped up in the name of the list to make it easier for searching later. In creating the lists I tried to restrict myself to books which focused on a particular city--where a significant portion of the book would be spent on that named city. That left off a number of regional sourcebooks like many of the Shadow World books, the Known World Gazetteers, and many of the MERP books. Certainly even larger lists could be put together of books which just cover regions or nations.

I wasn't too surprised to realize that the fantasy grouping would have the greatest number of city books. Cities in that genre have always been fascinating characters in their own right: Lankhmar, Tanelorn, Minas Tirith, Atlantis. I ended up with almost too many choices so I tried to put on my list only one or two from each settings. Sublists could easily be built of the cities for just Forgotten Realms, D&D, Middle Earth, Warhammer Fantasy, and so on. I figured if I had a few, other people might go through and think- wait, why isn't that one there? I'm also amazed at the number of versions of some of the classic cities: Sanctuary, Pavis, Greyhawk, City State of the Invincible Overlord-- which have been done and redone. I think one way to really examine changes in design and game focus over the last thirty years would be a close reading of those.

I saw many cities I'd never heard off- many of them forgettable, but the best had some kind of really interesting hook: unique location, a feature of design, a customizable rumor system, modular encounter systems and so on. Beyond that, if I got a sense of the character of the city just from the blurb and the product cover, then I consider that a success.

Iniquitous Cities: City Sourcebooks for Historical and Modern Settings
I'd originally planned to have anything before the 18th Century in with the fantasy books for some reason, but the size of possibilities quickly made that impractical. This list ended up being pretty easy to populate-- and I left quite a few off to be added later. As you can guess, White Wolf ended up in the lead on putting out modern city sourcebooks. Their Vampire: the Masquerade “By Night” series alone runs to about a dozen and a half entries. Then you have books for the other lines and the new World of Darkness city books and you end up with something you could build a significant list from. The World of Darkness material does point to an interesting issue: how much of books like these should deal with the location generically and how much with the particular game 'people' (Werewolf, Vampire, etc). Err too much on one side and it becomes less useful for GMs of that setting, err on the other and the books simply become listings of supernatural NPCs and how they control everything. The WoD books got better as they went along, but often I'd hit “Ugh” NPCs, characters clearly meant to be cool or interesting, but just unpleasant.

There are fewer historical city books than I would have guessed. A few pop up in the “By Night” series, and there's a handful of others, but generally historical books focus on regions over particular cities. I'd like to see a historical Venice, Tokyo/Kyoto, or Paris city book. The Constantinople book brought me back to the Avalanche Press “historical” d20 series, books with the most accurate history and most boobalicious covers.

Infinite Cities: City Sourcebooks for Sci-Fi, Near Future and Post-Apocalyptic Games
I had a more difficult time filling out my list here. I suspect a couple of factors affect that. First, I suspect sci-fi makes up a smaller proportion of rpgs than modern (including horror) or fantasy. Second, and more importantly, Interstellar rpgs don't usually have city books. Games like Traveller, Fading Suns, and Star Frontiers focus on planets and star systems instead of cities. Mobility helps explain this a little- a city serves as a kind of boundary. Once players can get anywhere on a planet quickly, the bounds shift. Additionally there's the GMs narrative need for simplicity. Most planets end up characterized by one or two key groups or elements. Stereotypes for the planet end up easier to handle than a more granular approach to defining a world. These two factors mean that a GM doesn't really want to overly define a place if the players will likely blast off from there after just one session. On the other hand, one might consider starbases or starports as taking the role of cities in these settings.

I put post-apocalyptic games together on this list out of convenience. Some of the classic apocalyptic games, Gamma World and All Flesh Must Be Eaten, don't actually have any real city books (so far as I saw). Aftermath and Twilight 2000, on the other hand, did have a number. These games are interesting to look at for what they say about the expectations of the time. Twilight 2K still has a following, more as an alternate history game now, rather than a near future one. I'd also note that it's interesting to see which cities get the most attention in Cyberpunk games; Seattle, Hong Kong, and Berlin for example.

Incomplete Cities: Sourcebooks for City Building

For the last list I tried to pull together all of the generic resources for running city games I could find. Or at least until I hit my self-imposed limit of 40 items...there's still quite a bit more out there. Several series, Flying Buffalo's Citybooks and The Game Mechanics City Quarters stand out. I like the approaches presented there: detailed and rich, but generic enough to be moved from game world to game world. Too often designers go for the most general version or else just a set of jumbled details-- rarely thinking that even these kinds of toolboxes need a compelling tale. By far most of the resources here focus on fantasy and medieval cities, but I found a few for other campaigns I want to track down: Damnation City and GURPS City-Stats.

Last Words
I think sometime in the future I'll try to do an online wiki game in which the players build a city. I'd like to see how that kind of collaboration might work.