Now I have a couple of Districts, it’s time to turn them into the first chapter of my game.
I’m going to consider the City Centre. It comprises six locations:
- Snake-headed statue
2. Zeppelin Mooring
3. Solar Collector
4. Artillery Battery
5. The Senate
Of course, I wouldn’t itemise it like that to the players–I’d say something like
“You’re in the airfield at the centre of the Capital of your glorious Republic. Zeppelins small and large alight and depart in complicated patterns, carrying travellers from far away on business and pleasure. Sunlight glints off the artillery batteries which are dotted over the city and protect against aerial attack. The plaza is overlooked by the Senate building, including its curious monument of a snake-headed statue, and the Solar Chamber used for state executions and suicides.”
How much exposition you use is up to you–perhaps you’ll wait for the PCs to ask “what do I see?” Perhaps you’ll give a long diatribe on the history of the statue. That’s up to you. Whatever happens the different locations (with exception of the rooftops) are clearly indicated, there aren’t too many of them, and they’re all accessible to the PCs if they want to investigate. Of course if there’s a sudden change about to happen, that may divert attention away from the scene–which is another reason not to over-work the location.
I didn’t mention the rooftops. Why? Well, they’re commonplace, but also I don’t want to draw attention to them right now. Of course if I had a particularly paranoid character who tended to look up for danger I’d let them–I might even allow them onto the roof if they can make a case for action. That could change the entire course of the plot–which is a good thing! It would be dishonest to the players if I deliberately omitted something that was unusual and obvious, but I think omitting details like rooves, doors, and maybe trapdoors (if they’re hidden) is fair game. Make the players ask at least a few questions, but don’t be dishonest.
I digress. This isn’t meant to be a discourse on scene presentation. There are plenty of good RPGs that do that already. Back to the tools.
Now we have one District broken down into six mangageable Locations, it’s time to apply some numbers. These will determine the relevance of each location and what the PCs can do there. To recap, there are four axes:
- Catalyst: clues, plot hooks
- Domain: people and power groups
- Tension: events unfolding, emotions and conflict
- Portal: gateways to other areas
Without spending too much time thinking about each location, I rank the axes from four down to one (with four being highest priority). Four means something that definitely will be seen or experienced by the players if they go there; one means nothing to see.
I go for this one first. Immediately rank Catalyst 4 (there’s a clue here, if the players look). Portal is ranked 3 (the Rooftops connect to every other District in the city). Tension is 2 (if the PCs go here there’s a minor risk of peril from falling, etc). Domain is 1 (there’s no-one of consequence.
This all ties in with my Assassin plot: the shooter appears on the roof, kills someone, and makes an exit. I haven’t decided who that is yet (but of course with the proximity to the Senate they’re bound to be important).
I could have made Tension the highest ranked; this would be appropriate if the PCs were able to effect any change in the conflict. But since I chose low Tension, high Catalyst, they can’t–they’re not even aware of the shooter until the shot is made.
I ranked this one Domain 4. There’s someone powerful here. Possibly the Snake represents foreign soil, or something powerful is sleeping within. Next comes Catalyst at 3. There’s a plot here, if the PCs want to explore it. Since it’s not ranked 4 the PCs won’t automatically uncover it, but they may get some interesting clues. Tension is 2 (there’s a minor threat, possibly if the PCs are spotted snooping by the wrong people) and Portal is 1 (it’s in the middle of the plaza, so doesn’t go anywhere).
This one’s Domain 4 as well, because of the strong military presence. Tension is 3, on account of them being on alert for some reason; if the PCs get on the wrong side of them, they could be landed in jail or worse. Portal is 2 since the guns represent a transition between the City Centre and a military prison, although that’s unlikely to happen. There’s no clue here, so Catalyst is 1.
The Portal is 4–jump on a Zeppelin and you could go anywhere! Tension is high at 3, and I decide it’s for the same reason that the military are on edge–although the civillian ground crews have not been given the same reason as the military for heightened security. Domain is 2 (there are air crews everywhere, but unlikely to stop the PCs if they nose around). Catalyst is 1.
Portal is 4–this represents a transition from the outside into the secret political world. Something is going to happen that will transport the PCs from the world they know into one they don’t. The Domain is understandably high at 3 with all of those powerful people around. Tension is 2 (there are stirrings but probably only foreshadowing). Catalyst is 1.
The Solar Collector
Domain is 4 here. The Collector represents Law and Justice. Tension is 3–someone is about to be executed. Catalyst is 2, and Portal is 1 (again, it’s in the middle of nowhere).
|City Centre and Airfield||Catalyst||Tension||Domain||Portal|
|The Solar Collector||2||3||4||1|
Hilighting the 4 and 3 ranks gives some useful information. First, Domain is very strong in this area–displays of authority and law, more than one power group is directly involved with whatever plot happens.
Second, Portal is strong. This area stands on the threshold of several other important locations. It’s possible that the PCs will be drawn back to this location again and again, simply because they are passing through.
Third, Tension is not Mandatory. In other words, there’s definitely something going on but it doesn’t directly involve the PCs unless they stick their noses in.
Catalyst is poorly represented, but that’s OK–if this is the start of the campaign then a couple of clear leads will be nice to get things rolling without swamping the party in information.
That’s Nice, How Do I Use It?
1. Stick to your numbers and play them out
To paraphrase Vincent Baker, if you do it, you do it. You’ve decided on the rankings, now think of how those elements make themselves felt to the PCs. Things which will impose themselves on the scene without PC intervention are
- Various factions being present (with accompanying tension) and directly interacting with the PCs;
- The fact that the airfield connects to both politics and travel; even if the PCs aren’t travelling, you can bring a flavour of the exotic with travellers appearing before them;
- Someone or something is going to make their presence felt from the roof.
Things which will also be apparent if the PCs stick their noses in are:
- There’s a lot of tension, and the PCs could land themselves in trouble but only if they go looking for it
- There’s something about the statue, if they want to look
- The rooftops go somewhere, if they choose to go there.
Or to put it another way, PCs take a reactive role against rankings of 4, and a proactive role (if they choose) for rankings of 3.
2. Separate Flavour from Action
Hopefully the locations and their rankings will make it easy to separate action from fluff. It should be clear than a Tension 1 or 2 will be merely some general disquiet or complaints which will quickly cave to PC pressure; however at Tension 3 if the PCs exert pressure on the location it will push back with real consequences, and at Tension 4 the location will exert pressure on the PCs as soon as they enter.
3. Mark on the Map
These locations you’ve designed are now set. They are features that you can and should return to in later sessions. Hang on to the cards. If it helps, draw a rough map of how the districts connect and mark on your individual locations.
Those numbers that you gave–they can change, up or down. Some of them can go higher than 4. When a party comes back to the Senate, suddenly its Domain has gone way down (as it opens its doors to the adventuring hoi polloi) and the Catalyst has gone up. But that’s for another discussion.
From here I got the environment for my first session; I also got some ideas on what will actually happen. Here are a few:
- A convicted political prisoner has been transported to the City for public execution. (Who are they to merit such a massive show of force? Why are tensions so high? Why must the execution be conducted quickly?)
- Members of a political faction are meeting in the shadow of the Statue. (Why did they pick that spot? Who are they in relation to the establishment–enemies, spies, secret police? What information are they sharing?)
- A lone sniper oversees the plaza during the events. (Who does she kill?)
p>This tool started off as a way for the GM to dump their brain and focus down on the important stuff. Like Mind Mapping, Mandala Charts and other techniques, this tool should be great at starting ideas. But I always found Mind Maps to be bad at sustaining creative activity; they’re great for an hour of intense thought but when coming back to them I’ve had a tendency to repeat the ideas I’ve already had, rather than springboard off existing ones.
So, for this tool I want to close that gap. I want to be able to build and sustain the city as a place where stuff happens; at the same time I want to maximise visibility of the locations for the players. The next instalment will deal with sustaining the City creation.