Saturday, 11 February 2012

How I Run Sandboxes in the City, Part III: Appendix N

Here is a list of fictional and non-fictional resources I look to for inspiration in designing a city-based game setting, and when fleshing it out.

  • Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. Before David Simon wrote The Wire, he wrote this masterpiece of nonfiction. Ostensibly the account of a year spent with the Baltimore Police Department's homicide squad, it is so much more than a 'true crime' book: it is almost a social novel, encompassing every area of Baltimore life, with a cast of hundreds and dozens of plots and subplots, very few of which get resolved. It's also stunningly well written, once you get used to its detached, objective tone. The perfect description of a modern, developed-world city seen from the belly up.
  • Ian McDonald's The Dervish House. Set over the course of a few days in Istanbul in 2027 AD, the city is as much a character as the people themselves in this novel: there are few books you'll read which more accurately capture the complex, random fabric of city life than this.
  • Uncaged: Faces of Sigil. 40 NPCs to use in a campaign set in Sigil. If the unimaginative folks at TSR could come up with Big List of 40 NPCs to start off a game with, then you can do it too.
  • Time Out city guides give a great sense of what a city is like - charting their history, geography and social characteristics, as well as providing lists and lists and lists of restaurants, clubs, bars, galleries, shops, etc. If you can take in the information through osmosis, you can then pull it out when you need something like it to appear in your game.
  • Detective/police procedural fiction often relies heavily on a strong sense of the city as a living, breathing place. They also have large casts of interesting characters, with tangled webs of interaction. Reading a lot of detective fiction gives you a genuine sense for how complex settings work, and how narrative (or, in our context, the game) emerges from the interactions between different elements within them. I highly recommend Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow (Copenhagen), the Inspector Rebus novels (Edinburgh) and Gorky Park (Moscow) in this respect.
  • Many people have read his feudal-Japan-set book, Shogun, but Noble House is James Clavell's real masterwork. Set in a week in Hong Kong, you get to see every facet of life in that great metropolis, from the bottom (maids and prostitutes) to the top (stock market traders, corporate executives). It's also impossible to put down, despite being 1200 pages long.
  • I should also include William Gibson's Bridge trilogy, which is in a way an imagined city par excellence (even if it's sort-of based in Oakland), and many of my notions of cyberpunk cityscapes in particular stem from it. 
  • And finally, of course, there is Perdido Street Station, which as a novel I don't particularly like, but as a setting I think is wonderful. Again, it's an imagined city par excellence, complete with subway map and sprawling suburbs: if you're going to come up with a fantasy city, this really ought to be one of your starting points when it comes to inspiration.


  1. I'm seconding Homicide right now.

    Another nice thing about it is that you get to find out how much of the stuff in The Wire was totally true.

  2. The Wire: best TV show I have ever seen. Just have to give a shout-out there.

  3. Brendan: If you like The Wire and haven't read Homicide, do so at once.

    At the end of the first chapter you'll be finding it hard to follow and wondering what all the fuss is about. Half way through you'll be finding it impossible to put down. By the end it will be one of your top 10 favourite books.

  4. How about Ellroy? Especially The Big Nowhere and White Jazz for the thick and tangle and weird of all the things happening and overlapping in city-time.

    Surprised not to see In Viriconium and Viriconium Knights there.

  5. Thanks for the Noble House recommendation! I read Shogun last year and loved it, and had been wondering if any of his other novels were anywhere near of the same standard. Funny that Shogun is by far the most famous.

  6. Welcome to Dungeon!: I love the Viriconium books, but I always thought they set out to do the opposite of what I mean: they postulate a cityscape that is totally unknowable and ungameable. Rather than having a Big List of NPCs, they have four recurring archetypes. And they reveal only glimpses of the geography, history and culture, so that you're never quite sure what's going on. That's deliberate and it's what makes them the masterpieces of fantasy literature that they are... But I don't think they're very useful to read if you want inspiration for a city sandbox game.

    Gavin: Don't get me wrong, I love Shogun. But I don't think I'm alone in saying that it ends far too abruptly. In the last 50 pages it's as if Cavell got bored and went, "Okay, and they all lived happily ever after, the end." Noble House takes it to another level in terms of plotting.

  7. Viriconium is good for me as a city sandbox thing not because of the NPCs per se, but because events emerge in an interesting way. And the names are good.

    And it's perfect.

    Though it would take some translation to turn Viriconium events into Cybercity events.

    There's always Nova Swing for that, however..

  8. not because of the NPCs per se, but because events emerge in an interesting way

    That's what I'm getting at. I feel like with a city to get the city-ness, that comes not from a fixed knowable cast of NPCs but from the something is always happening, every day

  9. Zak and Cole: The thing I'm trying to get at with this series of posts is almost that if you have a big list of NPCs all living in one city who actually interact with each other and the players in vaguely realistic ways, then by definition something will always be happening, every day. After a while the game is coming to the players as much as they are coming to the game.

  10. I feel like for a sandbox city unless your list of NPCs is prohibitively big, it's going to feel too clannish and more like an university or something than the city. which isn't to say you don't want some cast of known NPCs, but that the city-ness comes out of an event that's not part of their web and it's like "this thing happened, and NPCs involved with it almost seemed to form out of the ether"

    Does that make any sense?

  11. Sure - that's what I was describing in these posts, I think...

    But after a while you get critical mass, where because the players know lots of NPCs they find "stuff happening" simply as a result of that.

    I'm not sure if that makes sense - it's late.

  12. Try the book "Gangs of New York", which the movie was based on. 19th century gangs fighting with knives and half-bricks, venturing out on the rivers to make pirate raids on nearby towns, etc.

    The same author wrote similar books about the underworlds of San Francisco, New Orleans, and Chicago.