Where We Lay Our Scene
"There is no world without Verona walls / But purgatory, torture, hell itself."
-- Romeo and Juliet (Act III, Scene III)
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The main setting of a World of Darkness chronicle imparts a lot of the flavor of the game, while at the same time reflecting the Storyteller's style and boundaries. It is very important to consider characters, and also important to consider stories, but it can be helpful to look at the stage on which the characters interact. With choice descriptions of homes, streets, alleys, and skylines, the Storyteller can paint a World of Darkness that moves all around the characters, until the players feel like they could reach out and touch it. Taking the time to consider what (and not just who) lives where will help to distinguish the milieu from other games, and the moods of different places will reinforce the feel of your chronicle.
One of the first choices about location will have to do with where you expect most of the action to take place. Choosing a known city like Los Angeles, New York, or the like will mean that your players will have certain ideas in their heads about them. These ideas have been implanted largely (and visually) by television and movies, and sometimes by personal experience. Major tourist locations will likely be known and certain themes might be expected. Some Storytellers have used the cities in which they live only to discover that the players, who live in the same area, cannot suspend their disbelief when it comes to the streets they see every day. You will have to gauge your players and players should do their best to understand that game settings are not going to adhere to reality.
Storytellers end up creating something new out of used parts when they construct games based on known cities. The names and backdrop might be the same, but the decisions the Storyteller makes will influence what the place looks and feels like from the start. The Los Angeles I create will be different from the one tourists tend to see, and different from one that another Storyteller will weave. Knowing about the city's history and major locations in real life can help to inspire stories and distinguishing touches, but such facts should not act as a noose around the Storyteller's neck.
Even Hollywood knows that one place can be substituted for others, and that facts should be used as ornament rather than dogma. If you listen to the commentary to major television shows, they will sometimes mention filming in a city that looks close enough to the intended city but is in fact not close at all. CSI Vegas is mostly shot at various locations in California; we've got deserts and palm trees, so why not? Second unit photographers set up defining shots that show us Las Vegas and once that's established, we can accept the shots of things that could be in Vegas.
On the other hand, setting up a newly made-up location has its own rich possibilities. It can be a heady experience to start your own town and decide everything about it, and it can make you consider many things you might not need to think about when you're using a city that already has over a hundred years of growth. For some Storytellers, such work is its own reward. Damnation City can be a great aid for the aspiring city-builder, since it breaks down common city features, from streets to districts. It's even got tips and tricks for map building. But when all is said and done, a Storyteller's imprint will be deeply embedded in a fictional setting - because they'll have to create so much on their own and make it believable enough to convince players.
If all of this sounds like too much detail, consider that Rome wasn't built in a day, and it's likely no city is going to be completely drawn and labeled for a game. All settings begin with the strongest and most important details and expand as time goes by. Take Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for instance (and before you get done wincing, hear me out). Joss Whedon used a map of Santa Barbara County for Sunnydale and wanted to parody a lot of the calm, quaint towns you see in horror films. The first season of the show only has so many defining locations, like the high school, Buffy's house, and cemeteries. As the seasons progressed and the stories required it, the town acquired its own college in the University of California system, an airport, and a military base. But with enough time, fans knew recurring locations very well and were able to accept locations that hadn't been mentioned before.
One way to approach the task, then, is to ask yourself if you want a setting for a particular chronicle and particular kinds of stories. If so, then you can shape the place with those things in mind and determining specific sites in the city becomes easier. Sunnydale revolves around Buffy and the disturbances caused or aided by the Hellmouth. The high school served for stories that blended teen angst with monsters and campy horror. Buffy moved to college and from there to the town itself; by that point, the high school and college didn't matter much. Setting Buffy's stories and style in a much more grim and serious setting wouldn't work as well.
Creating a city where any kind of story could take place seems to be a more difficult option, particularly if you're building it from the ground up. Not only will you have to determine what is located where, but you will also have to consider the effects of all different kinds of supernatural influences. I wish I had the time to consider such an undertaking, but I haven't had that kind of time for a number of years now. It makes sense that Damnation City's approach will help with the basics: the city has these districts, they grew in this configuration, and these are the major buildings that would be on tourist maps. Since the book focuses on Vampire: the Requiem on one hand, and building a gritty urban landscape on the other, however, it doesn't seem to say much about throwing the different supernatural types together.
It seems to me that some basic questions will help generate ideas. Choose a type of supernatural creature first.
- Where have they been during their time in the city? Was there a neighborhood (or neighborhoods) where they had a strong hold? Did they have great influence during a particular era?
- How and where have they faced major screw-ups? Maybe it was a major mystical turf war or a summoned evil, but supernaturals tend to make some pretty big mistakes. These might have led to changes not just in supernatural history but also the history of the city.
- What sorts of locations are they interested in, and where are they now? Knowing the answer to the first will help you answer the second.
- How have they interacted with another particular type of supernatural? They might not be fighting over the same resources with some other kind of mystical being, but then again, they might.
Keep flexiblity in mind when deciding where supernatural types are stationed. It can be fun to consult travel books for famous sites and to ascribe supernatural values to all of them. The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago was built in 1893; surely some faction meets there in the dead of night, right? Perhaps, but then, that is a rather public location. Maybe a secluded park or a desolate industrial site would be better for a group with rough trade in mind. And it doesn't look too suspicious if people board a subway and meet others there.
It also seems beneficial for Storytellers of all kinds to vary their use of real-life and fictional locations. It is very tempting in the age of Google Earth to use maps of real cities down the addresses at street level. (Or at least, it has been tempting to me and my love of maps.) While it can be fun to use recognizable locales, it can also be constraining. A Storyteller needs room to breathe and make things her own, without being called out for putting a hospital where one doesn't exist. Even when you are using a known city, you should make it clear that your city will differ. Because, quite simply, it will, if not by design then inevitably by mistake. For every familiar scene you use, insert a place of your own making without belaboring where it is. That will keep some malleability in your setting.
You Belong To The City
"'Cause you belong to the city
You belong to the night
Livin' in a river of darkness
Beneath the neon lights"
-- Glenn Frey, You Belong to the City
You can set a World of Darkness story virtually anywhere, with some considerations for the ways stories change based on location. In the same way that most movies do not take place in one room, most World of Darkness stories will not focus on a very small, sparsely populated place for long. While secluded places can make for strong interludes, eventually a group of player characters is going to want or need something from outside. This might be influenced by the kind of game you are running. For instance, mortal player characters could unravel a mystery in a small town that would be solved by werewolves in a much shorter period of time.
A remote and rustic setting, with few people and a lot of natural surroundings, is likely to focus on its remoteness from society. The dangers of the natural (and unnatural) world will be closer and there will be less civilization - like police and hospitals - to interact with the characters. There can be a focus on the vastness of nature, like getting lost in the woods, or a sense of claustrophobia, as when you can't escape. Supernatural elements are likely rare and can easily be very influential when there isn't much around to fight back.
Small towns are great for featuring corruption on a more intimate level. Family secrets take on more weight and while local authorities might be corrupt, it's not generally going to be public knowledge. (And if it is, run, because then the whole town is in on it.) Less populated areas can be used for charming scenery that gives way to foreboding or provides cover for the player characters' own illicit activities. When we think of small towns and cities, we might think of places that are more homogenous and uniform in terms of race, wealth, and the like. This may or may not hold true in your town, and there might be some good reasons for the odd numbers.
Cities focus on the proximity of people, in one way or another. Maybe there are just too many of them, crowding onto the streets and getting into each other's business. This is one reason why city stories often involve crime; too many rats crowded together get violent, after all. Or perhaps the focus is on the alienation of the city, since you can live in a building with many others and not know their names. This lends itself to secrets and secretive activity, skeletons in the closet of ordinary people and corruption hidden behind the smiles of politicians. With skyscrapers comes the desire for power and with upper class neighborhoods comes the lust for wealth. Nearly anything can be found if you look hard enough in a city, including human trafficking and brilliant artwork, and too many things can be bought and sold.
World of Darkness games, and a number of World of Darkness products, focus on cities for a number of reasons. The sheer diversity allows for a nearly endless supply of mortals and a sizeable supply of supernaturals. If we use the old ratio of one vampire per 100,000 mortals, then you need at least a million people to hide and feed a population of ten vampires well. But more importantly, it seems reasonable that you'd find that many vampires in a place with so much blood. It also makes sense that many different types of stories are being played out on such a large stage. If you want to tell a personal story, you zoom in on a house. If you want to tell a more political story, you zoom in on an office in a skyscraper. Either way, the city provides what you need.
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