Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Noun is a Person Place or Thing

I love the Discworld novels. They're fantastic, and I enjoy the heck out of them, but like many fans I am partial to a particular subset of them. In my case, I'm a huge fan of the City Watch books. Nothing else comes close (except perhaps the Moist von Lipwig stuff, which I'm willing to acknowledge as a fair second). Now, there are many reasons I love these books, but there's a particular element about them which I think is very relevant to setting design.

See, I should also note that I'm a big fan of cities. I have purchased city books for games I will never play because I'm always fascinated to see how people present cities and urban adventures. I am, by and large, disappointed. The bulk of city products tend to be a handful of really interesting pages about the shape of the city, then piles and piles of pages that turn the city into some sort of above-ground dungeon.

Now, thankfully, this is less common with more modern products (and as noted, the recently released Neverwinter Campaign setting is not half bad) but what's gotten me thinking is the difference in how Ankh-Morpork (the city of the City Watch novels) is presented. Certainly, there are a handful of places (The Unseen University, the Watch House, the Opera House, the river Ankh, Guildhouses and so on) but the city is primarily defined by trends and people.

Now, people are kind of an obvious part of things, albeit one that is often undeserved in setting design. It is possible to design a setting that is almost entirely characters, but it's trickier to do it in a way that preserves player agency. That is, there is a strong tendency for a character-based setting to become about the NPCs rather than the PCs. This is where the Forgotten Realm soften go wrong, and it's where Amber often (but not always) went right by firmly tying the characters to the setting NPCs.

Trends are a little more interesting, because they apply to people and to places equally. They're the answer to broad, semi-specific question - where would a high class scribe work? How do people on the street respond to a mugging? Things like that. I can answer those questiosn about Ankh-Morpork because they're the parts that get detailed in the books much more than the specific drilldown of street addresses.

The thing is, most good city books have this information, but they tend to present it in a very different manner. They provide raw data from which a savvy reader might be able to extract trends, but only rarely do they make that leap of abstraction themselves.

Now, I'm a firm believer that one of the most useful things a published setting can do is let the GM answer when a player wonders "What's here?" It's a good, often relevant question, and I've seen a few products that have sustained the level of detail to actually be able to answer it explicitly (The Birthright campaign setting for one, the old Thieves of Tharbad city book for MERP for another) without being ENTIRELY overwhelming, but it's a lot of work.

The alternative would seem to be to arm the GM with the understanding to know the answer, or to create an answer that is consistent with the greater whole. But how do you convey that without a series of bestselling novels? The answer, I think, demands experimentation.

(Oh, and we will be getting back to prep in 4e, but let's just say that one is a many-headed beast)


  1. I'm a big Games Workshop fan, and the Enemy Within series for Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1e has a couple of fantastic books that explore the cities they are set in.

    The one that sticks out for me is The Power Behind the Throne. This is set in the middle of a festival in the city of Middenheim, and uses the festival itself to explore the various factions and motivations at play in the city.

    The random events detailed to add colour to the festival show a simmering undercurrent of racial tension as well as unease with the people in positions of power. They also go a good way to show what the every day events in the city are like; the characters can buy tickets to see games of snotball or wrestling matches.

    The thrust of the adventure is about untangling the web of alliances between the heads of the various powerful factions in the city. The book details the NPCs, their motivations, their secrets and what they like to do, then leaves the PCs free to explore as they like.

    The detail of the city is kept relatively loose; the landmarks are described in detail, and a rough map of the city is provided, but beyond that a potted history of each of the districts allows the GM to fill out what kind of sights the PCs see in each of the districts as they go along.

  2. Interestingly, I recently ran a game where the concept became "Lets Build a City." It didn't start out that way, but in short order I found with a group that wanted to make this small western town their home, and then wanted to make it better. So I ran with it

    This naturally lead into some interesting adventures, but more interesting was that randomly along the way on other adventures they would run into people and say "You should move to Windsor, and here let us pay your expenses." They got a real doctor, a Gambling/dance Hall, a junk shop, the start of a university and some other stuff for the actual town. Moreover they developed bonds with them, because they brought NPCs that they had good interations with. Interestingly it became a town full of people in very short order who were fleshed out in a way NPCs almost never seem to get fleshed out. I even went so far as to running a "Local" adventure where players made a local in the town and delt with some trouble while the PCs were elsewhere. Loads of fun.

    It set the stage for some wonderful moments like the PCs showing up at the town meeting to weigh in on new laws and the like, and added this really interesting dynamic to the game.

    I don't think I could have planned it though :)

  3. The old Chaosium Thieve's World box set did a pretty good job of escaping the tendency for a city to be an above ground dungeon with different kinds of wandering monsters called city residents. Of course it had plenty of encounter charts and random building generation mechanics as well. However, it did focus on the characters and the factions, peoples and history. Of course, it is a cheat, because, of course, they had about half a dozen Thieve's World books as well as the author's bible out to produce the background. But it would almost seem you need to have that fusion of background, infrastructure (maps, timeline, "encounters") and fiction/character development to give the essence of a city for an RPG. That is a tall order, and not everyone is going to want to buy a product that is half short stories, and it is hard to get George RR Martin (or some compelling voice) to write half your product. Worth doing, though.

  4. I think you put your finger on it at the end there. I want to be able to answer "what is here?", but I also want to be able to answer it immediately, without disrupting flow at the table. To that end, an explicit list of things at addresses actually hinders me, because I won't/can't absorb it, and will spend time worrying that what I've said is there is wrong.

    However, something that lets me get a feel of the city, and have an idea of what sort of thing should be there is much more useful. It may not give me the same answer as someone else playing with the same book, but that's OK. And in any case, our cities will feel more or less the same.

  5. Castle Whiterock's Cillamar was pretty cool to run, it was full of factions and adventure hooks and districts and not dungeons as such. But if you want to know "where would this person run?" or "what's down this street?" or "what's the local temple like if the paladin goes there to pray?" the gazetteer would let you answer that.

    I love the Discworld novels. They're fantastic, and I enjoy the heck out of them, but like many fans I am partial to a particular subset of them.

    Wee Free Men forever!

  6. Out of curiosity, have you looked at Vornheim? It purports to be a very different kind of city book. It uses a combination of broad sketches and random tables to build the city on the fly. I haven't managed to get my hands on it yet, but I've heard some extremely positive reviews.


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