Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mean Streets: RPG Cities

I'm posting some of my favorite archive pieces for the next few weeks as I prep for Origins. I'll be running Games on Demand sessions at least Thursday and Saturday night, so please stop by to say hi if you're at the convention. I wrote this post on cities almost exactly four years ago. In the time since, I've written a few other pieces thinking about cities and rpgs.
Outside of that I'm leaving the post intact hoping it will spark some ideas.

I've finally finished my reviews of Flying Buffalo’s Citybook series (spoiler: Citybook VI: Up Town's my favorite.). Going through reminded me how much good play material I’d gotten from those books. In the end that's my scale for a product's success- how well it informs or assists actual play at the table. In the case of the Citybooks, the best led to great adventures. Those entries shared several characteristics: interesting NPCs; a small twist; a basic premise shifted in a novel way; and several suggestions for different directions to take the material. With that in mind I have a few more thoughts on the series as a whole and on urban sourcebooks.

I’ve had a love/hate relationship with generic RPG sourcebooks, especially for fantasy games. In the early days companies put out waves of alternate, additional, or variant products. Most of these boiled down to house rules, homemade monsters, and overly complicated new systems for niche areas (i.e. The Compleat Alchemist). Even when they presented world and setting material, it lack flavor or filled out with random tables. I ended up burned by too many early Judges Guild products. As a result I ended up avoiding many good product lines, for example Mayfair’s Role Aids line.

Instead I bought materials from particular settings and worked to adapt those (the Gazetteers, Warhammer Fantasy, MERP, Shadow World, Hârn). And by adapt I mean steal and rework anything interesting. Those books had distinct character, but at the cost of requiring serious conversion. I suspect my continual move away from detailed system mechanics over the years has come at least in part from my not caring about the details in those books. They got in the way- I wanted the premises, cultures, plots, puzzles, and characters from them. Most of the time that didn’t require knowing the stat blocks; monsters I could make up. I didn’t need the crunch of their write ups.

I believe anything can be adapted- I based a fantasy campaign on Masks of Nyarlathotep and ran The Enemy Within using GURPS. Some materials, obviously, offer more hurdles than others. Different settings and systems have vastly different assumptions. Consider the ultra-low magic and brutality of combat in Hârn. I loved some that setting's details, especially the various fighting chapters of the war gods Agrik and Larani. I crammed that into a corner of my campaign world where I was already using ideas from the high mythic of Runequest and Glorantha. I’m still trying to patch and bandage that particular combination. Sometimes the assumptions arise from the presentation. Anything from ICE (for Rolemaster or MERP) tended to crazy overpower when you examined the stats. Magic items, high sorcery, and cosmic-level demons rules the supplements. For RM so much ended up represented abstractly, with numbers everywhere. There are no interesting traps or locks- they’re defined only in terms of numbers to disarm, difficulty to spot, and effects dealt. I love RM for the neat maps and cool treasure, but so much of it is useless, except for the rare setting that brings something new to the table (Gethæna: Underearth Emer).

Ironically the strength of these items lies in their specificity. Those constraints give rise to more interesting concepts IMHO than most totally generic supplements offer. That may be why I appreciate the Citybooks so much. They have limits in theme and scope which makes the entries interesting. They also give the ideas enough space to grow, making them more generally adaptable. That’s one of the huge flaws in Citybook VII- valuing quantity over quality and depth. I haven’t yet written up my reviews of the generic products Eureka and Masks, but they share some of those problems. Other generic books take a broader, almost meta-approach. I don’t need to know the population of a city broken down into hundreds of categories. I don’t need to know all of the shops. I do want a map of the city, but I don’t want/need to know what every business is. I want to be able to paint a rich picture of the place with the minimum of brushstrokes and effort.

I want to be the Bob Ross of gamemastering.

While I like Citybook I, I really love the later volumes with strong themes. Most of these strike the right balance between focusing the material and offering ideas open enough for most games. I think more Citybooks could be produced. Certainly we’ve seen many new urban sourcebooks over the years (for example products on this list Incomplete Cities: Sourcebooks for City Building). Maybe it could be done without the “Citybook” name- perhaps as web or Kickstarter project. I still think there’s a need for strong generic projects that don’t feel generic. I’ve gotten so much excellent use out of the CB materials, I’d love to see more.

My suggestions for additional volumes:

Citybook VIII: Hub of Industry: Sourcebook focusing on the manufacturing and industrial parts of the city, bordering on steampunk in its execution (workhouses, mudlarks, the Vats, the Plant, robotics factory). These kinds of themes have grown since the CB series came out. You could consider waste disposal systems, mad scientist supplies, social welfare in the city, perhaps the Calculational Engine underground.

Citybook IX: Ivory Towers: This would contain establishments dedicated to teaching and training of all kinds. You’d begin with entries dedicated to different kinds of classic academies (Universities, Schoolhouses, Magic Colleges, Religious Schools). Next you’d have narrower and more specialized kinds of training (Thiefly Schools, Duelist Training, Hidden necromancy, Underground Medical Training, etc.). Finally you’d cover all of the secondary establishments serving those schools (Professional Plagiarists, Magical Cram Tutors, Secret Libraries, Youth Hostels, and so on). These kinds of academies are a staple of fantasy fiction, from Harry Potter to The Name of the Wind to Rats and Gargoyles.

Citybook X: Distant Places: This would be a more broadly conceptual sourcebook. Each section of the book would focus on unique establishments for different regions (desert cities, arctic cities, mountain cities, jungle cities, flying cities, etc). You would pick a couple as the most common and then have a catch-all section. Perhaps the last grouping could include high magic cities, those filled with wonder. Or you could have one covering cities catering to adventurers, the "dungeon entrance" city. These lie outside of major ruins and serve those who plumb the depths (Pavis, Parlainth, Lesserton & Mor). These would have unique establishments to aid explorers (trap smiths, map makers, item diviners, artifact counterfeiters).

Citybook XI: Otherlands: Sourcebook split into sections, each covering establishments from the cities of different races: Orcs/Goblins, Elves, Dwarves, Haflings, misc. This might be too narrow an approach- or at least it wouldn’t be useful to all GMs. It would require the editor to be really careful. Entries would have to straddle the line between being specific to that culture and also adaptable elsewhere.

For the most part, the Citybook series works for me. I want ideas and plots I can easily use and reuse across a variety of games. On the other hand, I also understand gamers who need to have all of the details and mechanics laid out. The citybooks have maps for nearly every establishment, offering specifics of the layout. But honestly in the two decades+ I’ve been using these books I have never referred to or used the maps. Never.

One question has been nagging at me while I’ve done this review series: could you do Citybook-style material for another genre? On the one hand, it ought to be possible. You ought to be able to create the same kinds of businesses for a Supers, Horror, Modern, or Sci-Fi game. More easily you could do that for narrower genres like Wild West, Steampunk, or Cyberpunk. On the other hand, my gut tells me that wouldn’t work. You need hooks into the actual premises of the specific game. Delta Green is very different from Buffy the Vampire Slayer despite both being horror. Ashen Stars and Diaspora are vastly different sci-fi beasts. Urban entries for one probably wouldn’t work for the other. There’s also the question of how characters interact with the urban backdrop in the different settings.

I don’t know and I need to think about what other genre Citybooks would look like. The excellent Damnation City offers a possible approach. Though it is pretty deeply steeped in Vampire, it has useful material and entries not unlike those of the CB at the back. Creating Citybooks for a particular line or setting would be easier- for example, I’d love a CB-style urban sourcebook for Changeling the Lost

Citybook VII: King's River Bridge

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