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No Good

Little Things

by Juhana Pettersson
Jan 07,2003


Little Things

- Juhana Pettersson

The Moscow subway is beautiful. The stations, of which there are over 150, are usually done in marble, floors, stairs and all. They are decorated with bas-reliefs, statues, murals and bas-reliefs. Even the placing of the ads eschews the flagrant attitude otherwise prevalent in modern Russia. You can get everywhere on the subway. The trip costs roughly 20 cents.

I have very strong impressions of the Moscow subway system because for the last week, I spent at least a couple of hours, and often more each day using it. I was visiting my brother who's studying in the Moscow film school VGIK, the oldest film school in the world. We were staying at his place, a dormitory apartment seven stops from the Red Square. It took an hour to get to the city center each morning and an hour to get back at night.

We experienced a lot of other things: Lenin, a Salvador Dali exhibition, an immense market for pirated media products, the show at the Old Circus. But if there is one thing that characterized this journey more than anything else, it was the subway system. The only real competition came from the trains, on which we spent a total of 28 hours (Helsinki - Moscow, Moscow - St. Petersburg, St. Petersburg - Helsinki).

Had our trip been a game, all of this would have probably been cut out. It is downtime. Handled like a conventional game, our trip would have been completely different. The stress would have been on the action, while in reality it was on the endless transportation.

Of course, game content consisting of the subway system doesn't seem very fulfilling, but often these downtime aspects are not stressed at all, but simply bypassed with a simple "Okay, after ten hours on the train, you are in St. Petersburg."

Paying attention to the flavor of the downtime is worthwhile. Although you don't have to give it a lot of screen time, a couple of notes every time the characters board the subway (or whatever) go a long way. In the same vein, the first time they do something, like try to register their visas in Russia, play it out, and after that you can simply refer to this precedent.


If my characters are in Moscow, and I want to stress the fact that Moscow is an immense metropolis, focusing on the subway system is a good way to do that. It's used by nine million people each day, and the flow of humanity seems endless. Making a note of this everytime the characters use it brings the general point home.

If I want to focus on the contrast between the Soviet past and the kleptrocratic present, I would keep pointing out the immense, decaying Soviet monuments and the immense, colorful but inhuman advertisements.

If I want to have a Kafkaesque Moscow, I play out in detail the adventures our heroes have with the bureaucracy, but if I want a game that plays fast, I never even mention the words "registration of visas".

If the characters are Finnish, and in Moscow for the first time on their own, the downtime plays different than it would if the characters were Finns who come there thrice a year and have relatives living in the city. If the characters are from Vitebsk, they see the place with different eyes than if they're from Philadelphia.

A Swedish man we met on the train who had lived and studied in St. Petersburg and was married to a Russian woman was completely unconcerned about the police. He'd been living in the country for years but the police never seriously hassled with him.

Many of the other foreigners in my brother's school are from Arab countries, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. The Russians are a rather racist lot, and anyone with darker skin is treated with suspicion, especially if he looks Chechen. This meant continuous hassle for the Arabs from the police. (Not that the Russians are in any way unique in this. Traveling in planes in the States isn't very comfortable for Arabs either, and even here in Helsinki, where the whole idea of a terrorist attack is ridiculous, they get their share of racist flack.)

For a resident, being stopped by the police and having to pay a bribe (typically 50 rubles, one dollar and fifty cents) is nothing to write home about, so in dealing with downtime, I could skip it, if I thought fosucing on it wasn't important in relation to the general themes of the game, or I could play out every single case, if I wanted to stress things like casual corruption and racism.

The cops in Moscow get paid so little, it's no wonder they have to turn to other means of income. Because graft is so commonplace and routine, it loses some of it's sinister aspect. My brother advised me that if I was stopped by the police, I should plead that I'm a student, because everybody knows that students are dirt poor and can't pay high bribes.

These are all small things, but very important in terms of flavor. I've played in a lot of games where the environment, the city, seems curiously two-dimensional and empty. When there's no detail and no flavor, the game starts to get abstract and it's harder and harder to care.

Hard travel

Travel in fantasy rpgs is easy. You just pack your horses and go. In the real world, by contrast, travel has been a resitricted business since the dawn of civilization. Even the ancient Egyptians had passports detailing their place of residence, name and occupation, and if they wanted to travel or move, they needed official permission to do so.

In the world of today, travel isn't necessarily easy, but at least it's usually complicated only by bureaucratic procedures and other set practices and not by the whimsy of despotical rulers in the style of the fantasy games.

After we had failed to get the proper stamps on our visas in Moscow, we continued to St. Petersburg, where we tried to book into a hotel. Turns out this was impossible. The laws regarding the registration were changed at the start of November, less than a week before our trip started. No stamps, no hotel room. We had already blown the deadline, and didn't have the necessary information to get the papers processed.

In short, we were strung high and dry.

In a fantasy world, the following scenario might unfold: In the mage-controlled city-state of Glantri, the government is deeply distrustful of foreigners. Because of this, all visitors must have an invitation issued by a citizen of Glantri to visit the country. Our heroes were led over the border in the course of a fantastical adventure, sponsored by the Glantrian berwizard Mala Vida.

Once in Glantri, our (low-level) heroes doublecross him. In retaliation, he informs the authorities that all invitations issued in his name are fake and that he has on a reliable source that a band of adventurers might be illegally in the country at that very moment.

Suddenly our characters are fucked. As long as they are in the country, they are in danger of being caught and sentenced for illegal entry. They can't get out because they would have to show their documents at the border. They can't even leave the city they're staying in, because it's fortified and the guards always ask for papers at the gates.

Another thing: In fantasy games especially, the characters always seem to have the preternatural ability to find themselves lodging, a restaurant, the blacksmith or a brothel. Consider:

- We'll go eat something. Let's go to the tavern.
- How are you going to find one?
- 'Cause it looks like one?
- After a bit of wandering around the city, you find no establishments that look like taverns.
- Let's ask somebody.
- You try to to ask for directions, but it seems nobody speaks Common here.

Things don't look the same world over in reality, and I would think that in a fantastical world, this would be even more true. Restaurants are easy. The real problems start with places like cinemas, gay bars, laundries. In Moscow, the good cinemas didn't have any movie posters outside, laundries might not advertise at all making them invisible in the street and a gay bar may try to maintain a low profile on purpose.

In the real world, things were never very difficult for us because we had Lonely Planet Moscow and my brother along, but the heroes of fantasy worlds usually lack these resources.

(On the other hand, one should never underestimate the power of gesticulation and broken language. I got what I wanted with the unlikely request of "Russki Britney Spears Dance Disco DVD.")

In a recent session of an Over the Edge game GM-ed by a friend, my character, a Hindi lawyer from Calcutta partied herself onto oblivion as a protest over another character's behavior. She woke up in a cyberpunk-style coffin hotel, with no memory of events past three in the night or so, with no money, no papers, no left shoe, a terrible hangover, puke all over and a creeping suspicion that the night might have included unprotected sex.

She could take care of herself, and eventually managed to walk to her hotel, but consider the possibilities for trouble if circumstances had been a little different: Perhaps she couldn't speak the local language. Perhaps it's winter. Perhaps the hotel doorman couldn't recognize her and wouldn't let her in.

The next session will probably feature my visit to the Indian embassy to see if I can get a new passport.

After all this incitement to make things difficult, a final admonition might be in order. All things in moderation, folks. Sometimes problems are just pointless.


What you need is travel guides.

In games set in the real world including a lot of travel, travel guides are great sourcebooks. Almost every problem we had in Moscow had been anticipated by Lonely Planet. The travel guide is great because it often says that this or that might be a problem, and if it is, do X. This means that you have a ready-made set of challenges and solutions. Of course, if the characters are smart, they by their own guide.

Travel guides also focus on the essential. If the characters are in Moscow, you rarely need to know much about history or the arts beyond the basics. Brezhnev and Pushkin will probably do, but when it comes to everyday matters, things are different. You have to know what Russian restaurants are like, what the subway is like, what the people are like. And the travel guide focuses on this, down to the condition of the Russian toilet and Russian attitudes towards homosexuals.

I've been meaning to get Lonely Planet Finland just to find out if there's something I've missed.

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