It’s survival in the city; When you live from day to day City streets don’t have much pity; When you’re down, that’s where you’ll stay
Joe Walsh, “In the City”
I’m a Brooklyn boy, I may take some gettin’ use to
Jay-Z featuring Santigold, “Brooklyn (Go Hard)”
Some of my favorite settings in fiction (and RPGs), regardless of form, are major metropolitan cities. Given the number of real-world examples, listing them all would be an exercise in futility. But I think urban settings truly come into their own when, in addition to being a location, they are characters unto themselves.
I’m probably developing a bit of a taste for adventure in the big city owing to two factors – my eldest has just started college in New York City and our Pendragon game, while lots of fun, is definitely not a fountain of urban adventures.
Consider the different portrayals of New York City; the New Yorks of The Thomas Crown Affair and You’ve Got Mail is a cultured place. A place of bookshops, gatherings, museums, and cafes. Contrast those New Yorks with urban hellholes of Daredevil (comic, film, or television series), Taxi Driver, and The Warriors. The New York in those films is one of the most threatening places you could imagine, with danger and vice around every corner. While I’m a New Yorker originally (a Brooklyn boy along the Brighton Line), I’ve now lived about half of my life in the suburbs of Boston. While nowhere near a city the size of New York, I find Boston punches above its weight, and there is some great fiction set there – Boston comes to life in films ranging from Ted to The Departed, and the fiction of Dennis Lehane oozes the character of Boston, from the 1910s to the modern-day.
Genres outside the modern-day have given us some amazing urban settings. To give a few examples, consider Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar, Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, Star Trek’s Deep Space Nine, and Star Wars’ Nar Shadda.
Urban environments have had their place in RPGs since nearly the beginning. The earliest I can think of is Judges Guild City State of the Invincible Overlord. In its earliest incarnations, the city-state was a seedy, dangerous place – a place to launch adventures from and a place to adventure.
Numerous other urban cities appeared for various RPGs. Paris, Waterdeep, and Greyhawk all come to mind. But I think something special happened in the early 1990s with White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade. Many of the early products were assumed to take place in Chicago, and the gothic-punk incarnation of the city took on a life of its own. Places to hunt, to interact with rivals, to hold court. Other cities received similar treatments. The sequel game, Vampire: The Requiem, had a supplement entitled Damnation City, which was filled with information about developing the city for your game.
While I’m sure there are many others worth citing, two RPG products that caught my attention over the past two years have been Pelgrane’s Cthulhu City and Son of Oak’s City of Mist. Cthulhu City covers Greater Arkham, a 1930s metropolis that covers Arkham, Dunwich, Kingsport, Innsmouth, and other Lovecraftian locations. It is a place that shouldn’t exist, that the investigators never manage to leave, filled with cults and intrigue.
In my own campaigns, I’ve had mixed results trying to inject the city as a character. In a brief Werewolf: The Forsaken game we played, we had great fun outlining the urban territory of the werewolves in New York City. A while back, we had a D&D game set in Eberron, and we had great fun using Sharn, the City of Towers, as a base and site of many adventures.
Most recently, I ran a Call of Cthulhu game based out of 1910s Boston. It served as both a base of operations and the site of many investigations. I did find myself greatly enjoying Boston of the era – the threat of anarchists, the Watch and Ward Society banning books (a good place to be if you’re trying to shut down cultists), and Deep Ones from Innsmouth keeping tabs on Boston Harbor.
What sort of urban environments have appealed to you, in gaming or in fiction?
~ Daniel Stack
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