Call of Chicago: What We’re Looking For When We’re Looking At Cities

Reduced_cityBy now Looking Glass: Mumbai has dropped, in the Ken Writes About Stuff series. We’re right on top of things here. We’re so on top of things that it might still be called Secrets of Mumbai, even though it doesn’t really give away any secrets. I like Looking Glass as a series title for city writeups; it evokes our GUMSHOE logo and our “make the interesting stuff loom larger” design sensibility all at once. We’ll see if it sticks. Maybe you good people have a better series title — feel free to leave suggestions in comments. Just remember that it needs to cover the whole GUMSHOE line, so it can’t be a pure Lovecraftian title: no Shadows Over Mumbai or Doom that Came to Mumbai. But I’m sure whatever you suggest, it will be great.

After all, the format came together based largely on your response to the Kabul piece in last month’s issue, filtered as always through my “seriously, everyone who has an RPG has Google and Wikipedia” attitude. There’s still a little stuff you could look up in one click, but ideally most of a Looking Glass PDF is undiscovered trifles, weird history, tourism of the bizarre, stuff you have to trawl through local newspapers and crime books to find. Or at least stuff you’d have to have like nine or a dozen Chrome tabs open at once to find.

Anyhow, here’s the format future Looking Glass city writeups will follow. They won’t all be by me; ideally, they’ll be by gamers and writers personally familiar with the cities they examine, writers who don’t have to open any Chrome tabs at all to find out what they’re a little freaked out by in Marrakesh or Singapore. GUMSHOE gamers and designers are a gratifyingly cosmopolitan bunch — we’re doing our best to make the GUMSHOE games they play equally so.

Looking Glass: City Name (and Date, if it’s not Now)

Introductory quote, if you have one handy.

— Source of Quote

The introduction should present the very basic facts about the city (“the capital of India’s Maharashtra state”) and a one-paragraph history, unless something else besides history should command this spot.

Always remember that the GM already has Wikipedia. This is not an encyclopedia entry, it’s an instant fake-familiarity machine. Don’t rehash basic references; find hidden gems and foreground them. The whole PDF should be about 4,500-6,000 words in length. Pack information into each line. Don’t be afraid to allude to something and move on; remember, the GM has Google, too.


City: One Look

This is a brief factual look at the city tuned for immediate play.

Population: In millions or hundred-thousands, not bogus exactitude. 8 million; 2.4 million; 600,000. Always relate population to something in America (about the size of Cleveland; the size of Chicago and New York combined; etc.). The population figure refers to the main city; if the suburbs are relevant in a game sense, list their population second.

Languages: Main languages of the city; any specific city dialect.

Currency: If it’s not good old 21st-century dollars or pounds, that is. Provide a rough correspondence in $US for non-US/UK cities. For historical cities, provide both contemporary $US (if relevant) and purchasing power multiplier for contemporary $US. For example, in the 1930s, £1 = $5 then or about $80 now.

Best Hotel: This isn’t necessarily the most expensive, but the flashiest and most characteristic. It’s the one James Bond would stay in, assuming some other hotel didn’t make a product placement deal. Give basic data and something gameable about it. See the High Society ability focus in Double Tap for an example. Provide the per-night cost of a high-roller suite.

Bad Neighborhood: If cultists or vampires or Esoterror organ-smugglers are killing folks, where are they least likely to be noticed? Many cities are over-supplied with bad neighborhoods; pick the most famous or characteristic if you have no other data to go on.

Special Rules Effects

What does being in the city do to Difficulties? E.g., is buying guns here easier or harder than normal?

Does the city have a famous weather effect (London “pea soup” fog, or Murmansk’s bitter cold) you can gameify?

Are chases Cramped, Normal, or Open here? When are they likeliest to be Cramped?

Etc. Think of something the city might do to a die roll or spend opportunity.


Lay of the Land

For these sections, see “Prepping a City” in Night’s Black Agents, pp. 169-173 and the example “Low and Slow” treatment of Marseille on pp. 175-179.

The “Lay of the Land” introduces basic social and economic geography of the city.


How do people get into the city? Not just train stations, ports, and airports, but symbolic and dramatic gateways like the Statue of Liberty.

This section also covers “places outsiders go” – not just tourist destinations, necessarily, but major attractions and “stage doors” like archives, pilgrimage sites, or government facilities.

Markets and Masses

Where do people go to buy things? Where’s the main shopping district, where would you go to score drugs, where might heist movies happen?

Also, where are the “meat markets,” the crowds of locals? Sports centers and interests go here.

Three Backdrops

Backdrops are what you set your stories against. They might be the main setting, a scenic or thematic element, or just somewhere to stage a fight scene.

Backdrop One

Backdrops don’t have to be big shiny tourist attractions, although they can be.

Backdrop Two

They can be interesting neighborhoods worth further exploration that don’t fit into the main flow of the writeup.

Backdrop Three

They can even be festivals or other civic occasions: Mardi Gras in New Orleans would be a backdrop, if it wasn’t a Gateway.


Awesome Thing

If the city has some one thing either obviously of interest to GMs, or so famously characteristic that even self-absorbed players will want to experience it vicariously, it can get a sidebar. This sidebar is also a good place to put a likely story element that’s too big for “Seeds and Hooks” but not big enough for “Factions.”



What are the basic conflicts in the city? If there was a riot in the city, who would be rioting and who would be cheering on the riot cops?

Mention any recent or significant riots, coup attempts, terrorist attacks, protest marches, or other flareups here.


This section introduces the likely main players in GUMSHOE games set in the city. This first sub-section covers local law enforcement and any sufficiently colorful or interesting national law enforcement, security, or intelligence outfit with jurisdiction here.

Organized Crime

Every city has organized crime. Provide as many details as you can: names of bosses or gangs, what sort of criminal activity goes on, etc.

Goals and Stories

Interesting specifics, especially those interrelating this faction to the others. Also, provide a good general goal for NPCs of this faction to shoot for.

Three More Factions Just Like That One: The Terrorists, The Spies, The This, The That, Etc.

Each city will have a different nest of factions. “The Terrorists” and “The Spies” are common; so might be political parties or machines, major industries or mega-corporations (“The Tech Sector”), or the religious establishment. In a city designed for one specific game or campaign, the Faction sub-sections may be more specific: “The Hastur Cult” “The University” “The Praetorian Guard” etc. (For such an example, see Marseille in Night’s Black Agents.)

Goals and Stories

Each other faction will have this section, too.

(City) Stories

Nice generic discussion of the sort of stories that might happen here.


Thrilling Elements: (City)

Provide ten or a dozen bullet-pointed thrilling elements to introduce into a thriller chase scene (see Night’s Black Agents, p. 54) in that city.


Seeds and Hooks

Tidbits of lore and history that turned up during your research, or that couldn’t fit into a section above and wasn’t big enough to warrant its own sidebar. Famous serial killers, UFO sightings, local mysteries or weird behaviors, strange events from history; these are all good examples. Any of them might be the kernel of a good villainous plot, or the intriguing backstory to an otherwise conventional adventure.

  • Seeds are full-on story kernels, with bad guys and a scheme and maybe a good-guy or victim NPC.
  • Hooks are neat, evocative details that draw stories to mind automatically, or that could fit into a pre-existing plot line or conspiracy. You might want to provide three or four possible explanations for hooks.
  • Both hooks and seeds are bullet pointed.

(City) Mythos

Specific mentions of the city or of the area in the works of Lovecraft, his antecedents or successors, or other Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

  • Then some bullet-pointed Cthulhu Mythos story seeds or hooks in or around the city.
  • At least one of these hooks or seeds should deal with the city in the 1930s in some way, to allow a near-seamless Trail of Cthulhu tie-in. Even if the rest of the PDF covers the city before the 1930s.
  • Try to have a little bit of sensitivity, especially in non-Western cities. Yes, Lovecraft says all human religions are scrims for the Great Old Ones. Yes, that includes Christianity and Judaism, too. Still, it’s kind of uncool to say “this foreign god that millions of real people really worship is actually Yog-Sothoth.” It’s lame beyond belief to make that the entire point of a hook.
  • Dead gods are okay. Go to town on Thor or Huitzilopochtli, and don’t worry about the nine people in Michigan who claim to still worship them.
  • Similarly, in that 1930s bullet point, don’t automatically make the natives the evil cultists and the colonial power the “good” NPC. Don’t automatically do the other thing, either, but since Lovecraft did the first and not the second, that’s the reflex that will be strongest.

Sources and Resources

List a few really good movies set in your city, especially movies that “make the city a character.”

List any good books on the city, ideally books you took information from.

There might even be a really good website on the city. This is more likely to be useful if it’s a historical website like for 1920s Shanghai.

If you didn’t take any information from the Lonely Planet tour guide to this city, go back and take some from it. Then cite it here. Or, the Rough Guide is good, too.

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