CIty Accelerator pt 8: Area Knowledge

I’ve always had trouble with Area Knowledge and Streetwise skills. What do they represent? What is the benefit of a successful roll? What’s the consequence of failure?

For GURPS I guess they’re supposed to work like this. In Storyteller games, goodness knows. Streetwise is a weird hybrid of savoir faire, larceny, situational awareness and familiarity with the locale. Ah, well. We know that the five-dots-fits-all of the WW games is just for show; no-one takes it seriously, do they?

The problem with all of these nebulous skills (like Contacts, Allies, Influence, Area Knowledge) is that they rarely require any stake, have no underlying mechanism, and rely on GM judgement calls. They’re a lottery; their value is subjective and reliant on GM-player relationship and are entirely at the mercy of the GM’s sense of fair play. 

I prefer Area Knowledge to be a consequence of a chosen lifepath (“Back when I was picking beans in Guatemala, we used to make fresh coffee, right off the trees I mean.”). It should be colour used to illustrate aquired skills, rather than skill in its own right. I’m going to discuss how to use the City Accelerator to generate interesting personal histories. But before that, let’s consider:

The View from the Outside

If you’re beginning a game outside a city and bringing the PCs to it, all you need to know is what Locations they can see from the outside. You don’t need to worry about grouping anything into Districts yet (although if you want to, go ahead).

What you need to consider is – what can they actually see? – what have they heard about? – what do they actually know is there?

If someone were looking at my city from the outside, they might see airships, a couple of prominent towers, a large wall surrounding the city with a gate, armed guards outside the city, a palace, gun emplacements, several canals passing into the city carrying commercial barges, and so on.

Of course, that’s what they can see. They can infer the presence of an airfield, and they can assume houses, taverns, sewers and so on. But one of the aims of this tool is to avoid the distracting ephemera that crops up with city design–so unless you plan to do something exciting with the sewer (and who doesn’t love a sewer) don’t bother writing a card for it. Let them assume.

Those are the features they can see. On the next tier are the places they’ve heard of, but (as first-time visitors) have never seen. If something is important enough to be in a guide book (“see the moon-pool at N’dregh, where the milk-fed boys dance and are devoured by captive sheep-dragons!”) then it might deserve a card. Again, no need to group that detail into a District.

I’ve Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe

Let’s say your game starts in a city that’s home to the PCs. They are not external observers; they’ve lived there, and know all the places that aren’t in the guide book.

The obvious problem is getting your players to agree on what the city looks like, which will vary based on their PCs’ respective experience growing up (or passing through).

Well, no problem. Firstly, PCs should have different perspectives, and secondly this tool is here to help. Start from the perspective of an outsider: what are the features and landmarks that everyone knows? Lay the cards out on the table so all your players can see. Draw a map if it helps everyone get a sense of scale and relative position. Let the players look through the stacks.

At the start of the game, or when the party are visiting a new city (or town, or other environment), do this:

  1. The GM lays down the cards for The View From Outside in front of the players. This includes everything they could see as an external observer, and all the landmarks inside they may have heard of. It does not need to include all the Districts (or even any of them).
  2. Each player mentions a place in the city that their PC knows. If it’s in a stack, great. If not, they write it down on a new card. That card goes in front of them.
  3. Go around the table three or four times until each player has that many cards in front of them.
  4. You’re relying on your players to be honest. If their PC has never been here before, they can knock on the table and pass.
  5. You’ll have a new stack of cards; at some point you’ll file them into the stacks of your city. For now you might want to mark them on the front with each PC’s name. Also for a final check, you could ask around the table if anyone else in the party also has experienced that Location.

There–that wasn’t hard, eh? Some parties are full of players who love to write screeds of background, and then expect you to build it into your game. Well, you should, if they’re going to that sort of trouble. However managing all of that creative work alone as a series of GM to player relationships is hard. Much better to get everyone to talk about it at the same time, and manage it GM to party. Also you get a nice little metagame where the thesps in the group get to do some character exposition.

Of course, some background is secret knowledge to be kept from the other players. I don’t know about you, but I don’t particularly want to conspire with one player against the rest of the group. That’s not how I roll. There’s a great bit of advice in the Burning Wheel Gold book on p.99:

“If you have a secret about your character, make a Belief about it. It seems counter-intuitive, but in order to make a secret work in this game, you have to tell everyone about it!”


p>And we’re not really asking them to give up secrets, per se. We’re asking them to be candid about the places they’ve been. If the other players infer something about that character as a result, well that’s great!

And the best part of this exercise–you’ve taken your player’s creative energies and embedded them into your world in a very tangiable fashion that the other players can touch. And they’ve done the work, not you. Hurrah!

There are plenty of variants on this exercise. At character generation, you could give each player a stack of 10 cards and ask them to write down 10 interesting locations their PC has seen. If you’re playing Burning Wheel, make it a rule that each player owes you 5 locations for every Lifepath stage their PC has.

This shouldn’t be hard. We’re not asking the players to come up with back plot involving people, events and outcomes, just all of the interesting, marvelous places they’ve seen. They can be broad like a mercenary who’s seen a dozen campaigns in as many countries, or deep like a mage who knows every book and brick in the Great Library that’s been her home for four decades.