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World Building in a World of Darkness: Cities

by: Mitch A Legacy Article from Sanguinus Curae

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If you've played role-playing or storytelling games for a long time, and been a gamemaster/storyteller for much of that time, you've done "worldbuilding." That's creating large-scale fictional settings in which to play games. Cities of vampires differ from kingdoms of knights though, so here are some suggestions on worldbuilding in the World of Darkness.

Some topics to consider are: Determine if it will be a real or fictional city. Decide how much a story (or stories) will be involved. Write as much detail as you need to support the chronicle, sticking to the genre.

This article assumes you're writing for Vampire: the Masquerade. Worldbuilding is an entirely different issue for Werewolf, Mage or any other horror game.

Welcome to Where?

Ask gamers this question: "Which would you rather play in, an existing city or a fictional one?" Of course you'll get a mix of answers. But ask them whether they're normally a player or a storyteller and you might find that their answers divide along these lines: players want an existing city and storytellers want a fictional one.

The reasons are fairly obvious: the players want something recognizable and the storyteller wants something new, something that's 100% her creation. Like choosing when to set the chronicle, many players will be put off by anything other than the norm. How many chronicles are set in 11th century Turkey, in comparison to how many are set in current year L.A.?

To some extent, you have to appeal to your audience, and I can tell you from experience that Vampire: the Masquerade players greatly prefer real, modern metropolises. So if you choose something different, be prepared to sell your idea to the players.

Chronicle or City?

The next step is to decide whether you're writing a chronicle or a city. If you're writing one chronicle with a beginning and an ending, you don't need to do nearly as much work as creating an entire city in which many chronicles could be played.

There is a gray-scale too. It could be a city with room for several chronicles but headed in a general direction, or a chronicle that involves so many of the city's characters that you need to design the whole setting.

There are lots of city books; see the next section. But to my knowledge, there are no good chronicle or storybooks from White Wolf. Ashes To Ashes, Blood Bond and the Diablerie books are best left unmentioned (probably why they only released a few and then stopped). So we have few examples of how to write a chronicle.

If you're writing only one chronicle, you can fudge a lot of details about the city. It's probably easiest to select a large city with the kind of appeal you're looking for. Design only the storyteller characters that the player characters will meet and you're ready to go. Obviously you still have to write the chronicle, but there's very little worldbuilding. Here's three ways to get started building a city.

Cities: The Company Way

If you're designing a city, you want to consider the published material. Unlike chronicles or storybooks, White Wolf has produced some excellent city books. The city books from White Wolf follow a pattern: create a concept, describe the physical city and its history, present dozens of characters and then show how they interact. It's a simple and effective way to design a city and is intended as a canvas on which to paint your own chronicle.

The first two Chicago By Night volumes are the pinnacle of the White Wolf cities. New Orleans By Night takes a city steeped in gothic appeal and adds some interesting characters. DC By Night is well written, with the potential stories hidden in the character descriptions. I'll just say the following city books are less useful: Milwaukee By Night, LA By Night, Berlin By Night and Dark Colony (New England).

Cities: The Web Way

Most online role-playing Vampire sites use unpublished cities like Atlanta, Charleston, Houston or Dallas. Like them, I recommend if you're going to design a city (not just a chronicle), pick something no one else has used. Be creative and challenge yourself. There are plenty of untouched cities.

Some Vampire: the Masquerade websites are fly-by-night so if you find a lot of broken images and little text, look elsewhere.

The sites that describe cities are great but are normally chronicles set in cities. They spend little time describing the city or the characters within. So sometimes you want to look at resource sites like Sanguinus Curae to get more ideas for worldbuilding.

Cities: Go Your Own Way

You could design your own city from the ground up, as mentioned above. Be careful choosing this approach. You'll have to find a logical place to put it, design maps, invent history, explain how it relates to other cities and much more. It's a daunting task!

There are many things you won't think of at first. What are the names of the newspapers? What is the racial make-up of the city? What's the major industry? Where are the nice neighborhoods and the bad ones? Which way do the people vote?

It will take you at least three months to get the basics down, only to have the characters jump in their car and drive somewhere you haven't designed yet. And with the Internet and TV, the characters should be able to look up any information on the city at a moment's notice. This isn't fantasy, it doesn't take them three weeks across goblin-infested wastelands to explore something. So be prepared to do a lot of work you wouldn't have to if you chose an existing city.

I chose a fictional city because I was designing a chronicle. There are no other major stories going on in the city during the period of the chronicle. The advantages seemed to outweigh the disadvantages of an existing city.

There are some distinct advantages of a fictional city. The characters must explore and this makes the setting more interesting and unique. The city does what the storyteller wants. In a sense, the city becomes a character and the storyteller can control it more. The tone and mood of the chronicle is woven into the fiber of the city.

A real city has disadvantages. First, the players can look up the city and correct you. You lose some control when you base a chronicle in a real city because the real city may influence the tone of the chronicle. Characters may take on the attitudes they expect to find there. If your city were L.A. at the time of the race riots, would your players let that influence their characters' actions? Maybe.

The payoff of a well-designed fictional city is the excitement it generates in your players. There's a certain wide-eyed wonder they have at walking in someone else's creation. Plus because they know you created it from whole cloth and this is a horror game, there's fear that evil is under every rock. How evil is your average real city like Seattle anyway?

The Devil is in the Details

Once you've chosen a real or fictional city, you have to write a lot. In fantasy games you can blur the details where you want. There, travel is controlled and dangerous. And there's no mass media to inform the characters. But Vampire players expect the city to be as realistic as possible.

Remember the genre! When you're building a character it's hard to forget it's a vampire. But when building a city it's easy to just build well, a city. It needs to be gothic-punk.

Here's a tip, answer this question: "London has fog. Chicago has rust and politics. New Orleans has the bayou and cemeteries. Seattle has rain. New York has architecture. My city has ______."

What makes your city gothic? What gives it flavor? Look to the physical environs to give your city a look and feel. People should connect your city with that element.

Example: I decided I wanted my city's bay to have a very deep-sea canyon. At the bottom of this submarine canyon is a fissure that warms the bay and emits slight amounts of volcanic ash into the water. This produces smoggy weather and gives the city a reputation for being dirty. Every once in a while the fissure opens slightly which makes the water evaporate. When this happens the city is utterly blanketed in dense fog. You can imagine how this phenomenon can be used in stories.

Every White Wolf product starts with theme, conflict, mood, motif and plot (TCMMP). You should too. No beating around the bush, it's a good idea you should not disregard. Write down one or two sentences (no more) for each of those. Be prepared to edit them. Write it as if your players will be reading it.

This is your sales pitch. Make it enticing or exciting. If you want complicated politics, describe the motif as "The Machiavellian plots of elder and neonate alike slither through the halls of Elysium." If you want a chronicle about diablerie, describe the conflict as "The corrupt power of the elders writhes around the corpse of a weakling Prince, yet none dare oppose it."

A suggestion for color is to write a few Prince's Laws. This can set the tone for the chronicle. If the Prince says to stay away from the hospitals, it would obviously raise questions in the player characters' minds.

Example: One of my Prince's Laws is, "Maintain your herds with grave respect for the First Tradition. Do not establish blood cults, as the Canaille authorities are on their guard and very suspicious of cults." The city's history is full of incidents with cults so I integrated it into Kindred politics.

You need a map. Don't start a chronicle without a good map. It might be useful to have a topographical map as well as a street map. Learn the geography and the layout of the city. Did you know Chicago, New Orleans and Washington DC all have something in common? They were all built on swamps.

Next get an idea what neighborhoods there are. You don't need to know the difference between the suburbs, but you should be able to find downtown, retail shopping, the airport and the like when pointing to the map. This also means describing travel to and from the city.

Along the way, learn or create places of note. These include famous buildings as well as Elysium. You may want to define some places that aren't very important to mortals but would be to your characters -- like insane asylums, blood banks, or rare book stores.

Example: Choosing Delaware, I had to make my own map of the city. I drew a crude map with a simple graphics program (MS Paint!), then typed numbers in each section or neighborhood. Then I wrote a document with entries like, "10. Gray Yankee: This area is rigidly controlled by the Tremere Chantry. Crime is minimal and most nightclubs are for middle-class yuppies. There is little foot traffic at any time of day or night. Logan Shaw, the Tremere elder, is known for being very cautious. With the aid of the Sheriff, he has made security somewhat higher here than the rest of the city. The Tremere have been making space for parking so that residents spend less time on the street. These steps discourage gangs from entering the area. All Kindred must request permission even to travel through their Domain and the Prince supports this."

This might be the most fun part of designing a city. You get to write an alternate history for a city involving supernatural forces! If you don't want to do this part, you may not be cut out for designing your own city. So steal ideas. Blatantly steal them.

Example: Do you know what really happened to the first colony in Roanoke Virginia? Nobody does. In 1591 the settlement was found empty without a sign of struggle. The whole place was just empty. Since my chronicle is near that area, I stole that. Tie this in with the city's history with cults and we're starting to get a look and feel for the city.

Try to work ancient forces into the supernatural history. This may mean Methuselahs, agents of the Wyrm, or whatever works with your TCMMP. Make them horrifying, dangerous and alien in their motivations.

You need to include important mortal events. Were there battles? Landslide elections? Disasters? Use these to enhance your TCMMP too. For example, Chicago By Night has two warring Methuselah's who were on opposing sides of the American Indian Wars.

And finally you could describe a couple of important mortals to flesh out the city. Of course the amount of detail you put into the mortals really depends on how much interaction the player characters will have with them.

Chicago By Night has almost 100 printed pages of backgrounds and statistics for its 70+ characters. Are you ready to write that much? If you're writing a city and not a chronicle, you may need to. This can be a fun job or a tedious one. Don't bite off more than you can chew! I chose to write detailed descriptions of about half as many characters (40) and the document is 20,000 words long.

Focus on the important characters. For some I just wrote a couple sentences, for others I wrote page after page of their history and motivations. If the character can't change the ending of the plot, don't write over 250 words.

Here's a helpful tip: for every character, write a personal secret or flaw. It wouldn't be a very dark world if people didn't have weaknesses. When you're at work or school, write down ideas for secrets and flaws, then later use that list to help define the characters.

Example: Deacon, a Brujah from Kansas City, can't get over the fact that he can't have sex. He still tries but always fails. For a man who defined himself by his masculinity, being impotent is hardly an upside to being immortal. Now imagine what the harpies in Elysium would do with that story.

For every character, also assign them a City Secrets score. This is something they came up with in Chicago By Night to define how much the character really knows about what's going on. It's probably more important than their Strength score.

Regarding statistics, it's up to you. I think most storytellers agree that's a matter of personal choice. If there will be a lot of combat in the chronicle, you'll have to design statistics, even generic ones. But you'll role-play most characters' abilities so stats for every one probably aren't necessary.

Odds are the issue of influence will come up. You need to decide what character controls (or has influence over) what business, social groups, politicians and other mortals. It's also helpful to know how the character controls the mortal or organization and whether the control is public knowledge. Whether it's a political or action-oriented chronicle, it's important to know what resources the storyteller characters have at their disposal.

Don't populate your city with only powerful characters that want to kick the player characters around. Add characters of all levels of power and some that could become allies. Throw in some alternate characters like hunters to give the chronicle a connection to the rest of the World of Darkness.

Example: Seth Kierk, Professional Cattle Mutilator: Responsible for countless cattle mutilations, crop circles and Bigfoot tracks, Seth Kierk is a bit of an anarch. A mortal with no idea that monsters really exist, Seth makes fun of the gullibility of the masses by staging the most believable and outrageous events he can. His ability to make fun of the supernatural would be invaluable to the Kindred.

This is another fun task and thankfully less arduous than writing dozens of characters. Group the characters into coteries (or packs or whatever). Give them a public purpose and a real purpose, then a brief description. Why or how do they meet? What inner conflicts are there? Are they achieving their goals? Are there other coteries they are in conflict with and how fierce is that rivalry?

Try to get a well-rounded group of coteries. Some possible coterie types are: gang, anarch, social, wartime, diplomatic, clan, criminal, entrepreneurial, intelligence, entertainment, questing or even diablerist!

Example: The Cabinet (Social): When you are ushered into the presence of the Prince, other than his own Brood, one of these influential Kindred are also normally present. They may be there on official business, but often they're there just to talk. This coterie has many names: the Shadow Primogen, the Councilors, FOP (Friends of the Prince) and the Untouchables. Anyone with interest in Prestation knows that the Cabinet's opinions matter a lot.

If you have the time, write the names of the coterie's members down on a piece of paper, then draw lines between them. On each line write one or two words (not sentences) of how the feel about each other. Try to avoid words such as "likes" or "dislikes." You want words like "idolizes" or "loathes." These coterie diagrams can be a lifesaver when the player characters meet the storyteller characters.

Do It Again, This Time With Feeling

Like all writing, worldbuilding benefits from putting it aside for a while and reading it at a later date. With fresh perspective you'll find inconsistencies and typos. Of course this isn't possible if you're designing the city from the ground up for a game next week!

At some point if you want the city to come alive, you have to go back over it. Trapped in the minutia of designing, it may be hard to step back and see the big picture. But it really helps if you can do this. Your players will have more fun if you have a consistent, colorful environment to role-play in.

In the World of Darkness, it's less important to worry about petty details like specific locations. Instead step back to look at the TCMMP. Do your characters fit these important values? Are the characters interesting enough?

Example: I designed the Prince three times and he still didn't fit. Eventually I chose to move the character I had designed to another role: a Primogen. Then I designed a new Prince. It was a tough decision, but it made no sense with the original character.

Ask some hard questions of yourself. What does it all mean? Have you designed a setting that evokes a certain feeling? What will make this chronicle stand out in the players' minds?

Darker Than Dungeons

A city in the World of Darkness is the most complex character you will ever design. There are a lot of differences between this world and high fantasy.

It's focused on characters not places. Anyone can describe another inn but designing a Tremere elder is more complicated.

It can't be done overnight. You can't just jot down "here there be dragons" and leave it at that. You've got a lot of work to do.

The genre is horror so it can't be all shiny, happy people. The characters need to be broken. The plots need to be wrong. The setting needs to strike a chord -- a moody, disconcerting chord that makes the horror personal.

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