LIVING ON THE CORNER OF COLLATERAL AND DAMAGE
In my discussion of superhero cities, I left out a few interesting locations without individual sourcebooks. You can see my awesome list here- Superhero Cities. I went back find some I'd missed. Kerberos Club for example, has an amazing section on London in the setting. It nicely conveys tone and offers playable possibilities. It shows a Victorian-era London dramatically impacted by the relatively recent emergence of supers, magick and other high weirdness. I could easily see running a London-centered campaign based on this. Mutant City Blues, on the other hand, offers some historical background on the setting, and then sixteen pages of material for the urban locale of your choice. I like that- the corporations, people and places suggested there offer a concrete connection to the premise of the game. They reinforce the ideas and allow players and GMs access to those stories. But they’re also written broadly enough to fit into whichever city you opt to use. Finally, I was a little surprised when I went back to look at the Smallville rpg. I’d assumed that they would have significant material on Smallville or Metropolis, but the sketchy material only takes up a couple of pages. I wonder if the Smallville High School Yearbook has more stuff.
I pulled together that list of superhero cities because they represent my love/hate relationship with some gaming materials. I really like city sourcebooks. I enjoy reading them, particularly fantasy ones. Yet I found myself floundering through some of those supers city books. I tried to imagine how I might actually use some the material there- and how I’d used some of that in the past. Only some of the books had actually offered me inspiration and ideas for campaigns. That got me thinking broadly about settings and how they’re actually used by GMs- what makes them resonate, what makes them useful and how many GMs are actually running these things?
The super-city books which lost me—Bay City, Millennium City, Vibora Bay, Freedom City, Century Station—share a common feature. To put it bluntly, that’s actually a lack of feature. Each has a few minor details to differentiate them, but those don't offer a compelling premise or story. Some have disasters they’ve built on, but that’s more an excuse to clear away the old material than it is to set up a premise to be considered. Marvel’s Civil War stems from an event like that, creating a major shift in public opinion. I ran a supers campaign set in a city rebuilding from a metahuman clash. That served as the spine and controlling idea of the campaign: a distrust of heroes, blaming them at least in part for what happened, and a group goal of rebuilding faith among people in heroes who could make a difference. But the lack of theme in these books meant I ended up with no real interest in the setting. As a result all of the history, backgrounds, neighborhoods and like material isn’t worth exploring or reworking. It isn’t interesting or connected to a compelling idea. In the end only statted-out villains and NPCs from those books offer any useful material.
To be fair, some of these have another premise: that the city has a rich, dense and vast superhero history and population. But I’d say that isn’t all that compelling an idea for a supers city. It works in a comic like Astro City because that is the main focus: about the implications of having that many supers co-existing in a single place. We see the literal and figurative fallout from that history and those characters. I think that works less well at the game table for the simple reason that it steals the thunder from the PCs. As I’ve said before players have to feel they have room to become the big heroes in a campaign setting. Cities like these create obstacles and a constant reminder that others are out there doing the same thing, perhaps better. It isn’t that a city should be empty of other heroes, but in my experience they work better with low-key NPC heroes, occupied with particular crimes, or simply using the city as a base. Having too many supers in one city may also strain reasonability.
PROMISE OF THE PREMISE
Having said that, the obvious counter-example is Marvel’s New York City- the primary location for most of the Marvel Superhero RPGs across the ages. Marvel’s NYC works because it is Marvel. Placing it in that continuity offers a hook to the players that simply having a large number of supers in a city cannot. The same holds true for any of the DC Universe city settings. Most likely than not, players have some expectations and ideas about it that they can play to.
On the other hand, some of the books I mentioned earlier- Mutant City Blues, Kerberos Club- have solid and easily pitched setting concepts. Consider the city setting books on offer for Underground. Los Angeles is the default, but it is built as the basis for its “Decommissioned Supers in a Near Future Dystopia” setting. So the city presented there exemplifies that, and if I ran that game I’d probably work from that. But the other two cities sourcebooks also have catchy and distinct controlling ideas: Washington DC is the tightly controlled center of political control, corruption, and conspiracy and Luna is a former space penal colony turned tourist center. I could tell that to the players and generate a certain amount of excitement- as well as a sense of what kinds of campaigns might work there.
Of course the advantage all of these have is a general superhero setting with a distinct premise. I imagine a city sourcebook for games/settings like Red Star, This Favored Land, Grim War, or Progenitor would equally have a distinct controlling idea. That would ease GMs integration and use of that material within those specific campaigns. But of course, that equally makes it more difficult for GMs to use that elsewhere. That’s the great trade off. City sourcebooks for open superhero games often err by presenting a setting which any GM could drop into their game easily. As a result, you end up with a place without character. Often characterized by a kitchen sink approach, by putting in everything they end up with nothing.
Well, not nothing- I’m sounding particularly absolute there. Consider San Angelo, a popular sourcebook, which offers a city without an obvious controlling premise, but is well written enough that people really like it. But I think without some kind of strong and cool concept to shape the material, a city sourcebook might have a few interesting ideas but not feel coherent or compelling.
I suspect most superhero campaigns fit into one of two categories- urban or free range. Urban campaigns center on the city as the main source of adventures, stories and character interactions. The players may occasionally head out of the city to another location, but most of the game will be there. Free range campaigns have the adventures and stories taking place in many different places. These campaigns hand-wave away travel times (super-sonic aircraft, teleporters). Characters may have a base or a city where they “live” but the adventures primarily take place away from there. The base may also be “hidden” and apart from the world, like the JLA Satellite/Moonbase or The Authority’s Bleedship. In this case, characters may have lives in different cities or live at the base.
MY CAMPAIGN CITIES
Pittsburgh: This was the default city for a “Free Range” campaign where the players formed an FBI supers taskforce. I did some research on Pittsburgh, and I’d originally intended there to be a rust-belt theme, but I ended up with a more X-Files style campaign that took the players across the country.
Arkham Harbor: Obviously, beginning with the name, I wanted a kind of strange-sounding supernatural superhero campaign. I was trying to echo some of the themes from The Nocturnals, but with an East Coast bent. I developed NPCs and neighborhoods to echo that. They had a mysterious council of town Elders no one saw, Miskatonic University, and a superhero team who had previously protected the city but who had mysteriously vanished five years beforehand. Most of the crimes, even those more ‘science-y’ appearing, had a root supernatural or conspiratorial cause. (Haunted Small City)
New Orleans: Used for the “rebuilding” campaign I mentioned above. A number of the players asked for it in particular. I’d never been particularly interested in NOLA before, but I did research and tried to bring out some of the character of the city. Obviously I was able to blend some of the real-world ideas about reconstruction and response to the authorities with events in the game. I wish I’d done more with that, but I was pretty pleased with the arc as a whole. (City Recovering from Super Disaster)
Hub City: In the DC Universe, the new Question series in the late 1980’s presented Hub City as a place filled with corruption, apathy, and criminal institutions. When we decided to run a heavily Watchmen-inspired campaign (Saviors), we went with this location. To make it even easier we essentially renamed Chicago Hub City, so that we had locations and maps to work with. The goal was to create something of the gritty city suggested by Dark Champions, but with a minimum of the fantastic. Crimes would be about bad guys and corruption. That was the intent, but we ended up with a campaign with a broader more superhero vibe. Still the city itself stood out as a character and the players reacted to it as I’d hoped they would. (Metropolis Built on Corruption)
Chicago: In my most supers recent campaign, Chicago had been for many years a no-go location for superheroes. Supervillains had quietly controlled it from behind the scenes. That remained an open secret among supers- and any heroes who had gone there had met a grisly end. The campaign began with an event that rocked the metahuman world- killing heroes and villains alike. The group, a new superteam, headed to Chicago to take advantage of the situation and bring order to the streets. (Power Vacuum Left from Supervillain Control)
I also think my feelings about generic/specific city concepts apply as well to settings across games and genres. A setting premise needs to be cool, clear and actually executed in the material. If I don’t get it pretty quickly, I’m going to move on. If you asked me about D&D settings which sound interesting to me, I’m always going to point to Planescape, Al-Qadim, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and even Birthright over Eberron, Greyhawk, and Blackmoor. Forgotten Realms is a special case, a place which has established its continuity such that it is the Marvel Universe of FRP settings. But those others don’t grab me- they might have some flash and detail, but they feel undefined to me. Eberron is a case where every time I think I “get” what the setting is, I go and look at the material and it feels like a mish-mash. I’d say the same thing with Earthdawn and Fading Suns- two campaigns where I want to like the idea, and I think I have a sense of the unique premise, but then when I look at the books I don’t see what I imagined actually presented.
OK- so what do I want to see for a superhero sourcebook? Here’s where I’m going to seem like I’m reversing myself. I’d really like to see some generic superhero citybooks- not presenting a city as a whole, not building a history, but instead providing ideas, places and people which the GM could use for the game. I have a couple of models for this- primarily the awesome Villainy Amok sourcebook for Champions. That’s a toolkit for campaigns, and it would be great to see a flexible toolkit like that focused purely on urban games (ideas for patrols, domestic life, etc). Another model might be the awesome Flying Buffalo Citybook series for fantasy games. I wonder if that structure- a set of businesses, locations, events or people- could be done for supers campaigns? Each entry would be presented generically, with a couple of plot hooks and stories. Or, even more ambitiously, perhaps a superhero city could be built using The Kaiin Players Guide model. That sourcebook gives the players an overview of the city and lets them pick the rumors and incidents they’re interested in- which the GM can then riff from.
So if you've played in or run a superhero rpg, have you played in a campaign which used one of these published cities? If you ran using one, how much did the sourcebook help?