I’ve never tried this as a GM, but back when I lived in Michigan I played in a game that was set in the city the whole group lived in, Ann Arbor.
It was a Mage: The Ascension chronicle run by my friend Matt, and it sits at #4 in my top 10 campaigns list.
Having the game set in our town was part of the reason that it rocked. As you might expect, it gave us an excellent frame of reference for in-game locations — but the unexpected benefit was even better.
After playing in Matt’s campaign, I never looked at certain places around town in the same way again.
For example, there was a huge Technocracy complex beneath Ann Arbor in-game, and I thought about it every time I saw one of the steam vents that dotted the university campus in real life.
Thinking about that made me smile, but it also creeped me out a bit (in a good way). That game took root in my mind in a way that few others ever have.
Part of that can be chalked up to my vivid imagination, but it also speaks volumes about how effective this simple technique can be.
There are lots of ways to put a twist on this technique, too. You could replace all of the modern locations with their medieval equivalents for a fantasy game, update everything for a sci-fi game — or blow half of the town up for a post-apocalyptic game.
Another great tip, and one I’ve had some good experiences with. Even if it’s mostly used as a backdrop, the real-worldness ups the believability of the game a slight bit. One of my favorite memories of a LARP I’ve been in involved the players (including me) going to a Chinese restaurant held by a triad in-game that was actually a real-life restaurant in town, and mid-game, going to the real-life restaurant that inspired the game version. Roughly 30 people all sitting around, eating may not seem that worthy of a specific memory, but it was a moment inspired by the game, and by friendship. It made the game feel more real, and makes me smile when I see all the people there in my mind’s eye.
We did this because originally, it was the only place everyone had roughly equal experience with, since we came from 3 different cities on the whole. Each would have been one of our choices, but we didn’t want to hurt other players with a lack of information. However, it made games more enjoyable because of the small things; the example above was just a small one, and one of many.
I just finished a Vampire the Masquerade game set in the town I live in, Akron, Ohio. We set it in the 1930’s, but everyone knew the areas and basic history of the town so they got into it a lot more. They staged coups and bought companies that were around and still are in the city. They also picked havens that they knew and built a lot of real life information into their characters.
I’ve also downloaded city maps from the city planning office and used them as the blueprints for fantasy cities. It is a different interpretation but one that gave me as a designer some different ideas on city planning.
Was in a werewolf game set in and around the hometown of detroit where we had went up against a vampire run corperation and ended up with some evidence that could bring the law down on them if it made a big enough stink in the media.
Before the next game both real world local papers stopped publishing due to strikes, a event which was mirrored into the game.
Will was a big fan of this; he ran several Vampire games set in Fresno (in a loose series). Sometimes it worked exactly as you mention– the creepy warehouse takes on a new life. You get to know the river more carefully when bad guys are fording it to attack…
I ran a 2 year long Vampire game in my home town of Buffalo NY. In fact we would sometime take field trips to see some of the areas in the game.
In fact we did character questions one night in the corner of a trendy Coffee bar downtown, on a dark winters night. It really gave you that Vampire feel.
To this day, I cannot see the Buffalo sky line and not think about the Vampires looking down at us from Bank Tower.
Actually, almost every game that I’ve played in that took place in any variation of the real world, was set in the city I live in.
I suspect that you’ll find most people do this, if only because people are very familiar with their own cities.
Actually having been there means that we have a solid sense of “place” that is almost impossible to achieve with nothing but a verbal description and a map. You can desribe a bar until you’re blue in the face, and you’ll never achieve the same effect as having actually been in there.
Real-world locations taking on new life is a great way to put this — I’m glad I’m not the only one who’s found that to be the case with games that make use of this technique. 😉