DESIGN JOURNAL SIDE-TRACK: Notes on Urban RPG scenarios

Since it’s been a while since my last post in the design journal I thought I’d post some old unfinished notes I was composing on urban environments for games. While this isn’t directly related to my New Lands campaign I’ve been developing here I thought it might be kind of interesting to throw out as a companion to my last post where I began building a specific city for my campaign.

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The first lens of the city is the most personal: the lens of the inhabitant. Most cities (but not all) are built to have people live in them. People design cities, people build cities, people change cities:  cities and people always have relationships. These relationships may be mutual, commensal, parasitic, or all three at once, but the relationships are there nonetheless. The first lens of the city is the most personal: the lens of the inhabitant. Most cities (but not all) are built to have people live in them. People design cities, people build cities, people change cities:  cities and people always have relationships. These relationships may be mutual, commensal, parasitic, or all three at once, but the relationships are there nonetheless.

 

It may be tempting to define an urban environment’s population with a number. 1,000 people make a town; 8,000 a city, etc. But this is, at best, superficial. Simply being told “1 million people live in Megatropolis” doesn’t give the feeling of Megatropolis. Seeing the clogged android slums, where defunct machines attempt to rebuild themselves from trash, or seeing the Tower Gardens where the wealthy elite create and destroy city skylines; these are sights that let us understand Megatropolis. Better yet is experiencing Megatropolis. Talking with the humble automaton chef, running from the corrupt chief of police, planning with the repentant nobleman – these are the moments that define the imaginary city. One can know about a city, or see a city, but we relate to cities based on our experiences. One person has a great time as a tourist in New York, another has to work eighteen-hour shifts cleaning the streets to send money back home overseas. These are two different experiences, and both of them define the city.

 

What do you tell about a city? What do you show? What can you do in a city?

 

This interaction between do, show, and tell is more complex than it would seem at first glance. It is imperative that cities be interactive, otherwise they’re just a backdrop on a stage, but not every part of the city can be experienced by the players. Tell and show are important tools because they allow for flavor and details to be conveyed in moments of transition, and they allow players to build assumptions and feelings that can be supported or compromised through experience.

 

An old man in my hometown might tell me that Megatropolis is a beautiful city of chrome and steel, with fantastic technological wonders. When I arrive at Megatropolis I am surprised to find that it is rusty and degraded; with run-down subways, degraded skyscrapers, and the homeless line the streets. The Old Man experienced a very different Megatropolis, a Megatropolis from another time, but it was a real city. This conflict between tell and show creates opportunity for conflict and action.

 

What happened to Megatropolis?Is all of it so run down?Why do people still live here?

 

Knowing about old Megatropolis and seeing new Megatropolis gives players incentive to explore. People are at the heart of each step of the tell-show-do relationship. I am told about experiences from people, I see the city and the people in it, I experience the city by interacting with it.

 

Do is the goal here, but tell and show, when used effectively, can support and encourage doing. All three can be perpetuated by people, because every person in the city is doing,they can show and tell us what they’re doing when we cannot be doing ourselves.

When looking at the people of a city, consider what their experience of the city is. Figure out what they do in and with the city. This isn’t strictly occupational: a starship captain eats lunch at their favorite restaurant; an urchin carves graffiti into one of the city walls, taunting the guards; a wizard revisits his old school as a respected alum. Looking for the way people interact with the city is what makes the city live. Find what people want from the city, then consider how well the city meets these desires: how could the city change?

 

Who does the city serve?

 

QUESTIONS FROM THIS CHAPTER
* What do I know about this city based on what people have told me?
* What do I know about this city based on what I’ve seen?
* What are my experiences in this city?
* Who lives in this city? Who doesn’t live in this city?
* Do the inhabitants like the city? Do they change the city? Is the city equipped for its inhabitants?
*Are there tourists in this city? What is their experience like when compared to the experiences of the inhabitants?

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