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Keys to the City


Patrick Sweeney is the author of San Angelo: City of Heroes and co-author of Enemies of San Angelo for Gold Rush Games. He is also a co-author on the forthcoming Metropolis Sourcebook for the DC Universe game by West End Games.
Cities are a critical, but sometimes overlooked, element of superhero roleplaying games. After all, not many comic books are set in rural hamlets or suburban enclaves. Clark Kent may have started out in Smallville, but he had to go to Metropolis to become Superman.

This column offers superhero gamemasters in any game system or setting some advice on creating or using cities in their campaigns. It's not so much a how-to guide, however, as an exploration of some of the broad themes of city-building in the superhero genre.

The first key is to start at the beginning. Real cities don't just pop up overnight. Neither do the ones inhabited by superhumans - at least, not most of them.

A rich history can be the first step toward putting some sparkle into your city. Along with providing some good hooks for time travel adventures, a detailed history can help bring your city to life. Knowing the past of your city helps you define its present. You can also put the history to work in your city design to establish landmarks, create monuments and generate place names.

A heroic heritage can be an especially useful aspect of your history. Famous early lawmen, pulp era vigilantes, Golden Age mystery men and other heroes of yore establish a heroic legacy that can be passed on to the player characters. In addition to inspiring the PCs to heroic behavior, earlier generations of heroes create a sense of mythology about the city.

Nearly all great comic books have a sense of mythology, which provides our next key to a memorable superhero city. Establish some mysteries and uncertainties about the city. Perhaps a famous early hero vanished without a trace, or retired after a scandal that no one wants to talk about anymore. Or there may be gossip about a UFO being studied at the local Air Force base. And there are those persistent rumors about the city's foremost heroine secretly being the daughter of a megalomaniacal supervillain ...

Building puzzles and unfinished stories into the city doesn't just provide good plot hooks for the heroes to explore later, although that's certainly a useful byproduct. It also helps players feel their heroes are part of something grand - something bigger than they can understand. An unfolding mythology in which the heroes are the latest and, hopefully, greatest protagonists.

Details are the final key to a vibrant city for superhero gaming. Come up with as much detail as you can. Create call letters for the local TV and radio stations. Name the most popular restaurants. Design the logo of the city's pro baseball team and invent its mascot.

None of it will ever play a direct role in an adventure, most likely, but it will help you create a consistent city that feels like a place someone might actually live. Those kinds of details can be used to bring a city to life, making it not just a text description in a campaign handout but a place full of life, hope and energy. A place where ordinary people commute to work on Highway 90, watch the Griffons win the pennant on KASL and take their sweetie out for dinner at Giovanni's to pop the question.

In the end, the secret to tapping into the humanity of the heroes, which often gets forgotten amid all the energy blasting and superleaping, is to surround them with a human setting.

It's easy for players and, therefore, their heroes to become disconnected from the rest of the world when the world is mostly just a backdrop for superpowered brawls. But without that connection, what's the point of all that fighting? People play superhero RPGs, in the final analysis, to be heroes. The power and the glory can be fun, too, but unless they have something worth fighting to protect the campaign quickly loses its luster. A living, breathing city setting serves as a constant reminder of everything the heroes stand for, everything they are defending.

An exciting, colorful city doesn't just add spice to a superhero game. It adds meaning.

Patrick Sweeney

Editor, Tomas Skucas

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