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There’s No Place Like Home…Until It Changes

I’ve been involved with many campaigns over the years that were location-based; that is most, if not all, of the campaign took place within a single location. The classic example is the superhero city; other examples from my campaigns include seaside resort towns, space stations, and pirate ports. I really enjoy running location-based games; over time, the location really gets fleshed out. I get to know the streets, the people, the civil servants, and the landmarks. It can be a lot of fun.

One pitfall that I commonly fall into is to make my location static, especially if I’m using a published location. With the information at my fingertips, I forget that things can change at the drop of a dime. The city, town, or spaceport looks the same five, ten, sometimes even longer years later. The same businesses and neighborhoods dot the landscape. That just doesn’t mimic reality. Two real life examples spring to mind.

My wife and I went to London for our honeymoon. Since she’s Jewish, I thought it would be fun to stroll through the Jewish East End. I had a guidebook with a well-mapped walking tour. Of particular interest was Bloom’s, a well-known kosher restaurant where we planned to have lunch. When we got there, the entire neighborhood had changed. It was tough to find the Jewish landmarks, and Bloom’s had been replaced by a Burger King. Confused, I checked the copyright on my book. It was 9 years out of date.

A couple of weeks ago, I’d emailed an old high school friend about a diner that was closing. It was one of our favorite high school hangouts. I started to think of our other old hangouts and realized that 90% of them were gone. After almost 20 years, our favorite cinemas, miniature golf course, ice cream parlor and elementary schools were gone (or remain as abandoned buildings). Even our local mall is almost unrecognizeable; most of the “chain” stores have moved out, giving the mall an almost flea market feel.

Remembering to change up pieces of your location can throw players for a loop and remind them that the location is a living, breathing place. I once ran a campaign in which one of the main locations was a little blues bar run by a city councilman. A year and a half into the campaign (I think it was two years game-time), the PCs walked in and suddenly saw someone else behind the bar. Turns out the city councilman had a sick mother in Florida, so he resigned and sold the bar. It was a subtle but emotional moment for the players.

In investigation games, changes can be used to muddle clues. Many people remember streets by landmarks rather than street names (heck, in this day and age, GPS’s do so much of the work that I doubt people will remember landmarks well). An NPC that hasn’t been in the location for five or ten years might give directions or other information that include businesses and landmarks that are no longer there. One good fire could gut an entire strip mall or row of townhomes, enabling something entirely new to be built from the ashes. An old factory might be turned into a public park. A fast food stand may become a sit-down restaurant.

Change can also be used retroactively. Going back to the blues bar, that campaign took place in a fictional Jersey shore town that sat on an island. Across the bay was another town that used to provide the only access to the island town via ferry. I’d decided that, about thirty years before the start of the campaign, a bridge was built to the island with a road that bypassed the harbor town. Business dried up and the harbor town was economically depressed in the present, with most of the remaining population working at the strip malls and big box stores popping up along the bypass. Whenever the PCs visited the harbor town, I would paint a picture of a run-down main street that still held hints of its former glory.

So what say you? How have you used change to bring life to your location-based settings?

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "There’s No Place Like Home…Until It Changes"

#1 Comment By Rob Lang On June 3, 2008 @ 6:02 am

This happened to me in my current campaign. The team are based in a city and most of the plotlines have started there. I thought of a couple of other places in the city, which would have been there all along – perhaps even making past missions much easier. I explained this to the players and they seemed content to treat it as if it had always been there. On mentioned that it was like playing Grand Theft Auto – as you go on in the game, more areas of the city open up.

I’ve also swapped NPCs in local businesses. It’s a bit jarring for the characters but I think it worked nicely. As a player, it’s nice to have a rappor with an NPC, for that NPC to change for someone else is part of life.

#2 Comment By Scott Martin On June 3, 2008 @ 9:24 am

I haven’t had many campaigns with long periods spent in one place– and I know that once I get out of historical planning, I also tend to treat things as static until affected by plot. I like the idea– it’s a simple way of reinforcing the realistic feel of the world without being dramatic.

#3 Comment By Grogtard On June 3, 2008 @ 3:47 pm

I’ve had a couple of campaigns last that long and sometimes with the same players. The players always enjoyed seeing the changes to places that occurred due to the actions of their previous characters.

#4 Comment By bakermannc On June 3, 2008 @ 4:58 pm

I also use a site based system but mine is a bit broader. I have built my own world and have started campaigns in different areas of the world in order to use the players to help me flesh it out. We have done a lot of wilderness campaigns due to group preference as well as mine. I “game” on my own in the sense that things are always happening in the world that does not involve the players directly or immediately.
An immediate example came when the group went to investigate rumors of trouble in a remote village. Let me say first that I run a D20 type of game, AD&D influenced.. The group was low mid level and would not take sublte and then not so subtle hints that they should gather info and report back to the local powers that be. Note my use of past tense for this party,(evil grin) this area has now incorporated their magic items and a greater influx of npc power has built up. What could have been handled by a smart 7th lvl party would now need a 9th to 11th level group to dislodge due to the passage of time.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On June 3, 2008 @ 7:22 pm

My current Mage game is set in Las Vegas, with the PCs headquartered in the Venetian hotel, and while I never sat down and thought, “I need to make changes to the setting to bring it to life,” it’s happened in the course of the game. The PCs have shaped the city with their actions, and that combined with all the crazy shit that’s happened (including a major incident in their hotel) has led to changes.

Like a lot of things about GMing, though, I can see a lot of value in being explicit about it during game prep. Thinking about changes that can be made to the PCs’ home base — especially minor ones — in addition to letting them come about organically sounds useful.

#6 Comment By Swordgleam On June 4, 2008 @ 5:28 pm

When I do game prep, most of the time I’m focused on immediate stuff – which baddies are where and what their stats are, etc. I forget about this sort of thing.

I think it would be great to have an article that’s something like an “extra prep checklist.” Things like this, that you should think about if you have spare time after finishing all of the essentials for next session.