Spirit of the City – the City as Character

interior11by Jason Fryer

“There are eight million stories in the naked city; this has been one of them…”

~ The Naked City (1948) 

Be it police procedural, horror, or spy thriller, characters are integral to the GUMSHOE campaign, influencing and expanding the narrative with their personal stories.  However, although ever-present, one vital character remains oft-forgotten – the City.  Time and again, the City devolves into little more than a hollow backdrop, indistinguishable from any other setting.  Yet, from New York’s concrete jungles to Tokyo’s urban sprawl, cities alter the story profoundly, shaping and defining not only the characters, but the story itself.  In Mutant City Blues and Trail of Cthulhu, the City’s influence is just as profound, if not more so.  As such, the GM should be mindful of the City’s unique personality and infuse its spirit into their campaign.  This consideration goes far deeper than Night’s Black Agents’ “Low-and-Slow” method, employing many of the City’s distinct aspects to that end. 

No city looks the same, differing topographically, economically, culturally, or any combination thereof.  Metropolises like San Francisco and Quebec City, known for intriguing geographical features, don’t adhere to standard urban development; adding unique complications and locales for the story.  Water features, such as London’s River Thames or Seattle’s Puget Sound, are equally important to consider, as they alter and restrict the cityscape.  Indeed, some supernatural entities can’t cross running water – a continual plot element in the vampire-thriller, The Strain.  Industries and economic growth (or lack thereof) define the City’s population size and composition, as well as its physical appearance.  Transportation hubs, such as highways and ports, further shape the City’s physicality and personality.  While specific landmarks are obvious symbols of a city’s identity, many are better known for their architectural qualities.  It’s no mistake, for example, that The Wire’s opening scene displays Baltimore’s signature row houses and marble steps. Adding these features into the narrative not only fleshes out the City, they offer countless story elements.     

Regrettably, urban blight affects numerous cities for various reasons ranging from economics to natural disasters.  As populations decline, once vibrant neighbourhoods descend into disrepair and squalor.  Residential areas become ghost towns of condemned houses and empty lots, while abandoned industrial zones crumble under their own weight.  Unchecked, nature has reclaimed entire sections of cities like Detroit and New Orleans, transforming them into lost worlds.  In Mutant City Blues, Detroit’s ‘feral’ areas provide groups like the Genetic Action Front the perfect haven away from prying eyes.  Tokyo’s sprawl of ‘ghost homes’ serve as hunting grounds for vampires (Night’s Black Agents)and Outer Dark Entities (The Esoterrorists).  Players venturing into these urban wastelands would face challenges unlike any encountered in the modernised city, as well as a complete change of pace.

Cities are divided by different boundaries, physical and intangible, creating neighbourhoods completely distinct and independent from one another.  Be they ward, district, or borough, these microcosms vary tremendously in financial and social strata, ethnicity, historical significance, urban/rural development, and even sexual orientation.  These Cities within the City not only expose players to exotic art, food, music, and history, but different languages, taboos, and beliefs that can leave them as virtual outsiders.  With their broad jurisdiction, members of the HCIU and Ordo Veritatis will visit the best – and worst – sections of their City.  In New Orleans, they’re as likely to encounter the French Quarter’s raucous nightlife as the Lower Ninth Ward’s silent desolation.  Each location should possess its own personality, unique in its design and fashion.  Players with specific cultural skills and knowledge can greatly assist an investigation, serving as interpreters and go-betweens.  Indeed, this social awareness could mean the difference between life and death in Night’s Black Agents exotic locales.

Similarly, many cities possess their own distinctive vernacular, including slang words, expressions, and nicknames.  This isn’t solely defined by physical location, as the campaign ‘world’ itself may affect language development.  For example, Heightened-specific slang would arise subsequent to Mutant City Blues’ Sudden Mutation Event (SME), adding to the cultural lexicon.  The GM can pepper conversations with these words and expressions, flavouring the local culture or adding historical context, such as by using 1920s slang in Trail of Cthulhu.  Furthermore, players knowledgeable in street language are at advantage during interrogations – not to mention gain street ‘cred’ when dealing with certain groups.  While certain word-use may be perfectly acceptable with one group, it could be highly offensive with another, creating further drama. 

Weather is another ever-present aspect of the City, some cities even renown for it.  Complementing the setting, the natural elements add texture and tone to the narrative.  Seattle’s grim weather, for example, reflected The Killing’s spiritual greyness, both of the story and the characters.  In contrast, Miami’s sunny and vibrant climate juxtaposed Dexter’s darkness and violence.  More importantly, weather interferes with crime scenes; contaminating and destroying evidence, hindering police efforts, and obscuring time of death. Additional tension can be added to the story by incorporating weather as a recurring plot element, such as an Esoterrorists’ central antagonist appearing only during San Francisco’s fog events.

GMs must consider the City’s otherworldly aspects, as well – be they mutant or monster.  Each GUMSHOE setting can alter the City’s development on many levels.  Ten years following the SME, the Heightened have invariably left their mark on Mutant City, claiming entire neighbourhoods as their own, much like gentrification.  Discrimination and prejudice may affect every level of society, from citizen to HCIU officer, with amendments to Article 18 and other mutant-specific legislation.  Similarly, different entities in the Night’s Black Agents Conspyramid may influence businesses, gangs, and political or civic groups, changing the City’s social dynamics and economy from within and without – which, in turn, changes its form and function.  Esoterrorists may have already weakened the Membrane in Vancouver’s Stanley Park, allowing the Outer Dark to bleed through, corrupting its idyllic nature.  Little touches like these can firmly establish the campaign’s mood and tone.

Finally, the City and the players themselves are inextricably linked together.  Local characters know their old neighbourhoods, having formed connections and contacts, and invested themselves over many years.  These relationships and experiences influence the narrative, even creating complications as their loyalties are tested or intimates threatened.  New arrivals need to earn the trust of their peers and the citizenry, feeling disconnected as they explore their new home turf.  GMS and players are encouraged to expand the City in mutual collaboration, creating NPCs and locales exclusive to their campaign.

Although unique and diverse, any city can be brought to life – even if the GM has never set foot there.  Television and film offer boundless inspiration, while the Internet and books provide information and insights into city-life across the globe.  The GM’s home region, no matter how small, contains unique locations, history, and culture to be used, if only they look closely enough.  Even fictional locations, such as Trail of Cthulhu’s Arkham and Innsmouth, can be incorporated in this manner.  That said, the GM should maintain a logical balance when utilising the City.  As exciting as solving an occult murder atop the Eiffel Tower might be, overusing well-known landmarks can prove counterproductive, even cliché.

The City as Character method can also be employed on a smaller, more intimate level.  Rather than utilising a small town, an Esoterrorists’ Station Duty campaign framework could be incorporated into a city’s neighbourhood or district.  Although surrounded by a thriving metropolis, the Ordo would be responsible for protecting a singular, tight-knit community.  This concentrated approach provides for focussed and distinctive storylines; an Esoterrorist cell operating in the Bronx would be far different from one in Paris’ 18th arrondissement.  The same method can expand a Trail of Cthulhu campaign, as well as Fear Itself.  The latter, in particular, by its nature would benefit from this intensive and personal approach.

Rather than globe-trotting, a Night’s Black Agent campaign could focus on a singular city, such as Istanbul or Hong Kong.  Players would oversee one or more safe houses, conducting their intelligence operations from this centralised locale.  The low-and-slow method combines perfectly with this style of city development. Player interactions with the Conspyramid’s street- and city-level powers would be more intimate and have direct and lasting consequences on the overall campaign.  One need only look at the sheer number of spy novels and movies set in Berlin to see the possibilities this style of play has to offer.

Like a living, breathing entity, Seven’s nameless City intrudes upon every moment, twisting the characters and their perceptions, as well as framing their investigation.  Strip away its influence and the story loses its emotional impact and narrative logic.  By infusing the city’s spirit into their game, the GM creates realistic and lush environments for the players, deepening their investiture in the story.  Not only will players become more engaged, the plot itself can be affected by certain developments.  The City itself becomes the players’ greatest ally and their most feared adversary.  Maybe their witness in Little Armenia doesn’t speak English.  Perhaps heavy snow hinders them crossing the city or pursuing a vital clue. Or, possibly, their main suspect is protected by mutant squatters in New York’s underground. No matter how subtle or profound this influence this may be, embracing the city’s spirit will produce a far more memorable and rewarding campaign.

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