Welcome back! I’m the Level One Wonk, and this week I’m being totally down to Earth. Fact is, we live on a pretty interesting planet, and if you’re running a game that concerns itself with the past, present, or future of humans as we know them, you may be running a game using actual places. Depending on your disposition, using the real world as a basis for your games can either be way easier than worldbuilding, or way more difficult. Everything in the real world is “written” for you, which can be a boon to those of us not predisposed to improv…but on the other hand, the idea of doing research to run a game rubs a lot of people the wrong way. However, no matter the preference, anyone can run a fun game in the real world, or something like it.
Using the Geography
In any game, you should define the span of geography you’re working with. This is one reason bottom-up worldbuilding works well; if you need more map, just write more map! For the real world, you should have a start point, and an understanding of what’s important. If you’re running an urban fantasy or cyberpunk game in, say, Chicago, understanding at a minimum the neighborhoods and some major streets of the city is fairly important. A post-apocalyptic Chicago, on the other hand, is going to have different touchpoints. Similarly, if you aren’t running in a city or other very distinct area, you should have a plan for how geography comes into play.
Using real maps in a role-playing game is an exercise that, if not planned well, may have little or no payoff. I lived in the suburbs of Detroit for three months, and yet I can still say confidently that if one of the members of my gaming group ran a game in the suburbs of Detroit, I would not be able to pick out what was real and what they made up (within reason; there were no dragons near my apartment). If you’re going to use the geography, make sure it’s for you and not for the players to pick up on (you can absolutely put things in for the players to pick up on, it’s just not going to require anything as precise as an actual map). I ran a post-apocalyptic game a few years ago which had a first act consisting of a trek from Carrollton, Ohio, to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I used Google Earth to find the start point and give the players different forks in the road and intersections where they could pick a direction. I also used the map to pepper their route with encounters, and the real life forests, fields, and hills to determine what they could see and how close they could get before being seen themselves. This worked really well in GURPS, the system I was using, because I had all the tools at my disposal to make this work mechanically. You don’t necessarily need as detailed a system as GURPS, but you do need a way to take any information from the map you want to use and translate it into game terms.
Maps are the real reason to use actual geography; the exact details of a place are not necessary to give the game the right feel. However, having an existing map can not only make your prep easier but also give you new ideas. This goes for any campaign map, but is doubly important to say in reference to the real world: as long as you aren’t messing up a major detail (say, forgetting that Toronto is on a lake), you’ll be fine.
Changing the Geography
The game Cyberpunk 2020 takes place in Night City, a fictional city somewhere between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Night City’s chronology is covered extensively in the setting materials within the core book; it explains how the city appeared so quickly and why it’s more quintessentially Cyberpunk than San Francisco (core setting of the game Cyberspace) or Seattle (core setting of Shadowrun). You are of course more than welcome to add similar places to your world, but you need to do the same basic homework that Mike Pondsmith did when creating Night City.
You need to explain why your new place exists. In a pseudo-historical campaign, this means you’re digging into the alternate history of the setting. In a present day or future campaign, you’re either going alt-history or you’re explaining why the place is going to be created sometime in the future. Night City fell into the latter category, built after the game’s publication date by an in-game industrialist and futurist. Admittedly, understanding why a location exists is important in virtually every campaign, but only when the campaign is set in the otherwise real world will something strange really raise eyebrows. There are of course times you just shouldn’t do this; plopping a 20 million person city in the middle of Nebraska for your detective story is going to really strain suspension of disbelief.
On the other hand, if it wouldn’t normally show up in an atlas, put it wherever the hell you want. Writing whole-cloth a New England port town or swanky Long Island suburb is fine, as would be a sleepy town in aforementioned Nebraska or a coal mining community in West Virginia. You’re going off of touchstones your players understand, and unless they’re real places, they don’t necessarily need a real place to contain them.
Cities, Landmarks, and other things your players may call you on
Some places do very much need a real place to contain them. This goes beyond how you write a game around a real world or real world-ish location, and into why. Clearly if you’re looking for a certain part of the US or any other country, you’re going for a certain feel which will permeate into your descriptions, NPCs, and ultimately your plot. Because it’s your game and you can write pretty much whatever you want, understanding why you’re trying for a given place will help you figure out not only what to write, but also what you need to research. If you’re envisioning a spy game filled with intrigue happening around Washington DC, you’ll need at least a map of the city proper and some idea of where the significant buildings and monuments are relative to one another. If you’re running a game of post-apocalyptic survival in Alaska, I’d frankly just read up on wilderness survival, hypothermia, and then watch a relevant nature documentary for good measure. The point of either of these things is to get an idea of what makes your players get the idea that their characters are in the right place.
You may get players who call you on things. This is where you should know in advance if you’re going to know more about the location than your players are. If you’re running a Raymond Chandler-esque detective story in Los Angeles and one of your players just moved from there…well. In all seriousness I would avoid using locations that any of your players have lived in, because your attempt to create a general feel will not match up to their lived experience.
There is one gigantic exception to this. If your group are all from the same city, that city is a great canvas for a game. Take all of your favorite spots and turn them into plot points. Have people you all mutually know show up. Build scenes out of ridiculous out-of-character conversations about goings-on in the city. Those touchstones are immediately evocative, and if your players take them and run with them, all the better. Famous places can also evoke an understanding of place, but nothing like those you can generate from years of shared experience.
Gaming on Earth is both easier and harder than creating a whole new world. Instead of creativity, you need attention to detail. Instead of getting confused by your descriptions, your players will tell you that you got that alleyway wrong, it’s between Beacon and Commonwealth, duh. For some genres, though, you are inextricably linked to the real world. Whether using a real city or a made up one, a place everyone knows or just the general idea of one, real world locations require all the consistency of made up ones, with the added need to slot into an actual world your players actually live on. Keep things consistent, though, and you’ll have access to maps and resources far beyond most fictional settings. And don’t ever let the real world get in the way of your plot; once the map is down it’s time to disprove that truth is always stranger than fiction.