In nearly every genre, urban-focused games tend to be a bit different from the norm. There’s a feeling of being at the center of a vibrant, bustling place, and a sense that the party has near-limitless options for what to do next.
For more about urban campaigns in general, check out the Urban Campaigns page on our wiki, or the Urban Adventures thread in our forums. With this post, I’d like to briefly outline a campaign model that describes one way to tackle an urban RPG: the octopus.
What’s the octopus, in GMing terms? It’s a recognizable, limited number of fairly linear options radiating out from a core.
Let’s break that down a bit.
For the core, picture a circle. Inside that circle are the thematic elements that define the campaign, including NPCs, locations and central plot threads.
As an example of a core, let’s consider the city of Chicago in a cyberpunk game. You’ve decided to focus on the city’s corruption (a thematic element), the PCs have their home base in Chicago (a location), their nemesis, a soulless megacorp, has their headquarters downtown (another location), you’ve created a handful of memorable ally and adversary NPCs and there’s a central plot — overthrowing the corporation.
The options are the octopus’s tentacles, radiating out from the core. There don’t have to be eight options, but there should be a limited and recognizable number of them.
Why? Because having several options preserves the feeling of a wide-open, limitless environment — while avoiding option paralysis, which commonly goes hand in hand with option-heavy play.
Just as the tentacles radiate out from the core, the players should be able to see all of their options from the center of things. This is markedly different from the standard “A leads to B leads to C…” model used in many campaigns.
By default, the options are fairly linear. This keeps a nice balance between “holy crap, we have a lot to choose from” — the play experience at the center, before selecting an option — and “sweet, now we’re making progress,” the play experience while pursuing an option.
It’s worth mentioning that while I think this conceptual model is simple and sound, I’ve never tried it. It’s also not the only way to run an urban campaign — not by a long shot! But it should emphasize the best elements of urban games, while also avoiding some of the most common pitfalls.
And I can say for certain that if I’d used this model the last time I tried to run an urban game, things would have gone a lot better! I nailed some things, at least: The party had a solid hub (which I think they liked), and there were some clear allies and adversaries. But outside of the core, things got messy.
Instead of capturing the wide-open feel, I made things so jumbled that the party never really came around to the most interesting stuff that I’d prepped for the game. Instead, I should have put teasers leading to the cool stuff in the core, and turned each element into its own recognizable option-tentacle.
What do you think of this model?