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The Big Bad City

by Paul Mitchener
Dec 24,2004


Methods of Campaign and Adventure Design 5

By Paul Mitchener

The Big Bad City

Now, as promised, I want to focus on something less game-mechanics oriented. The topic will be the design of urban settings in campaigns, illustrated as usual by an example.

Before designing a city, a GM should decide how much detail is needed. If a city is just somewhere the characters are staying for the night, and the GM has no adventure plans for the location, writing more than a paragraph or two about the place may well be a waste of time. Conversely, if almost the entire campaign is set in one city, almost no amount of detail can be too great.

In this column, I will focus on an intermediate case, where the city is detailed enough for several adventures or repeat visits, or possibly for an entire short-term campaign. My example is a version of New York City from 1930 which I used in a short (3 session) Call of Cthulhu campaign. I used some historical facts as an inspiration, but did not worry too much about accuracy.

General Description

The first step is to decide upon a city's size, general atmosphere, people, architectural styles, and so on. This is also the time to decide whether to actually map the city or not. Personally, I have usually found that coming up with a complete map of a city to be more effort than it is worth, and even a possible hindrance when it comes to adding extra details. On the other hand, a sketch of the positions of various neighbourhoods in the city can be handy.

In my New York City example, it was possible to use a guide book to obtain real world information and maps with comparatively little effort. Of course, Prohibition was still in effect in 1930, meaning I could have fun later on with mafia-style bootlegging and speakeasies as I saw fit.

Who is in charge?

It is often relevant when designing locations to work out who is in charge, both in appearance, and in reality. Powerful NPCs other than the city's direct rulers can also be considered at this point.

In my New York City example, it was of course quite easy to work out who was really in charge in 1930. However, I decided that it was unlikely that the Mayor of New York, for example, would be involved in the investigation of Cthulhu mythos phenomena.

The question to answer was who was really in charge in terms of the Cthulhu mythos. I decided that the answer was Serpent People. Each of these Serpent People had the sorcerous ability to be able to assume the physical form of a human or other creature whose tongue they consumed. A dead Serpent Person would assume its natural form.

The few active Serpent People in New York City were manipulating things from behind the scenes in order to summon a Great Old One.

Major Locations

Any city should have some special locations detailed, including major administrative buildings and locations relevant to adventure seeds being planted in the city. NPCs specifically associated to those locations can also be created. In my New York City, three particular locations of relevance were:

The Empire State Building

Construction of the Empire State Building began in March 1930, and was completed early in the next year. The Empire State Building was constructed by General Motors as a result of a competition between the company's founder, John Jakob Raskob, and Walter Chrysler, head of the Chrysler Corporation, to see who could build the world's tallest building.

In my campaign, the planned height of the Empire State Building had occult significance. To be specific, it was possible to conduct a ceremony to summon a Great Old One in the area of New York City provided the ceremony is conducted at a suitable altitude.

With this campaign idea in mind, it was a small leap of imagination to see how Serpent People disguised as humans manipulated Raskob and Chrysler into their competition.

Ellis Island

Ellis island was a major arrival and registration point for immigrants to the USA between 1892 and 1924. Ellis Island was still manned with a minimal staff until 1954.

In my campaign, the minimal staff remaining on Ellis Island were Serpent People. Some of the immigrants, who were unlikely to be missed, were victims of the Serpent People, and provided them with new disguises in the way I mentioned above.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Unlike the other two locations in New York City, I did not do anything fantastic with the Metropolitan Museum. I did, however, decide that it did house some Cthulhu mythos-related exhibits, and could provide a way to contact someone who at least knows something about the occult.


In any city, thought should be given to what visiting PCs are likely to want to do when relaxing. This typically, in a fantasy city, means one or more inns, although it is certainly possible, and frequently desirable, to be more creative.

A guide book to a real city can make this part of the design process remarkably easy. In the campaign I am discussing here, for instance, all I did was select a couple of hotels and theatres that I thought would have still been around in 1930. I also invented two speakeasies. The first speakeasy was glitzy, lurid, expensive, and had its own band. The second was basically somebody's basement.

Other NPCs

The last and arguably most important part of designing a city involves coming up with NPCs. Any secret organisations that have not already come up in the design process should be inserted at this stage, along with a description of one or two members.

In my New York City campaign, three groups of NPCs (apart from the Serpent People) seemed relevant.


A criminal organisation, but with its fingers in several pies. The Mafia could be useful for uncovering odd pieces of information. And coming up with gangster NPCs is fun.

Police Contacts

NPCs in the police force are useful, both as potential contacts, and as potentially annoying investigators of unusual things the PCs are involved in.

Cthulhu Mythos Experts

Since I wanted to start the PCs in the game as complete novices when it came to the supernatural, I thought it would be useful to come up with a couple of NPCs who at least knew a little bit more. As well as one NPC who knew a lot more, but sadly happened to be allied to the Serpent People.

Wrapping Up

In contrast two my first three columns, I am not suggesting a particular design procedure here, but rather a list of points to think about. In the next column, I want to look at how nations and cultures might be designed in fantasy campaigns, but I might change my mind if any good ideas come up in the forums.

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