#117: Saving The Cyberpunk City!
It's actually just called "The City" but that's a confusing headline.
I. Dear Reader
We continue our series, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Cities”, where we look at urban settings in TTRPGs. To learn more, read the introduction post. Previously, we looked at Doskvol, Spire, Endon, Infinigrad.
Today, we begin the second quartet of posts in this series with The City from a|state 2nd edition, a cyberpunk-y forged in the dark system from Handiwork Games. In a|state, you play troublemakers trying to build a better future for your little corner of a vast and sprawling megacity. For this article, I looked specifically at pages 162-270 which cover the setting of the game.
The first chapter of worldbuilding that we get is titled "Guide to the City" and split into four sub-sections.
One is about the natural world in the City, and consists of one page each on weather, plants, and animals in the city.
Then, we have a section about navigating, which describes transit options by water, train, air, and road.
Then, a section about day-to-day life, which talks about time, religion, food, intoxicants, violence, and disease.
The last section is about civic institutions and we get information about law, government, education, technology, and communications
An important thing to note is how each heading comes with a "how to use this" call-out. These boxes have advice for GMs about how to incorporate these aspects into the game as well as specific questions to ask the players to invite them to decide specifics about life in their little corner of The City.
Worldbuilding via large chunks of text seem to be the de facto standard of setting books despite the universal of experience of reading a setting book and going, "but what the hell do I do with this?". So I’m very glad they took the time to do this.
The next chapter lays out 26 locations in the city, each in the form of a two-page spread. Each of these locations contains some brief flavour text, keywords to give you some high-level themes, numerical ratings or stats for each location, a general description, how the location is governed, a fun section of "things that everybody knows" (which are potentially completely untrue), how transport to and around the location works, some key landmarks (around 2-3), a couple of plot hooks, some key NPCs (around 1-2).
This is obviously a lot of information on each of these locations. And at 26, there are a lot of locations. You don't have to read every one of them but you have to pick one to house the players' base. And that probably means skimming most of them at least.
Generally, starting each location with flavour text didn't work for me at all. I found myself skipping them because I really needed a basic descriptor just to situate myself before reading. I think putting the keywords first (or even better, turning it into a tiny blurb) would've made it easier for me to understand each location. For example, the keywords for the location of Bankside are "stench, fisheries, violent". I found that they made for a stronger understanding of the district than the paragraph of flavour text that preceded them.
The next chapter is also a big one. It lays out 22 factions in a similar format to the factions in Blades in the Dark. Each faction comes with a one-line overview, the locations where it has a presence, its key leaders, what kind of governance or formal structure it has, what everyone knows (again, probably untrue), allies among other factions, enemies, on-going problems or plans, and some potential plot hooks to dangle in front of the players.
Factions come in specific flavours: trusts (the megacorps), governing bodies, law enforcement, religions, criminal organisations, and lastly, worker groups like guilds and unions.
These factions are generally excellent. Like the locations, they come springloaded with dangling plot hooks which is their big selling point.
There is an interesting injection of weirdness in the setting that I haven’t discussed: the mysterious “shift” that transformed the world, weird monsters in the canals, and so on. It didn’t feel particularly relevant to this piece so I skipped it. But it’s useful to note that this is a dial you can turn up and down depending on what you want out of your game.
I talked about how cities like Doskvol and Spire are grim but a|state is the first one where this grim texture feels depressingly recognizable. While a|state is a game about causing trouble and rebelling, it is rebellion with a cause. You’re trying to make life better for your little community. So while Spire would give you a horrible little guy around every corner, a|state gives you a city overflowing with civic problems.
To make these problems feel textured and realistic, the book spends a lot of time telling you about the (lack of) civic infrastructure of The City. There is a challenge here. Infrastructure like food, water, and telephones are important to the people of the setting but they're not mechanically important to the PCs. But I think this is why the book focuses so much on transport. Transit (via planes, trains, automobiles, they're all there) is this perfect intersection of civic infrastructure and adventure games. Characters always need to go places after all.
As a sprawling mega-dystopia, The City feels inescapable. I mean, in some sense, it literally is. The book has a 100 pages of setting material but it still accounts for maybe less than half of The City as per the map. I guess the point is that there is literally nothing else. There’s just you, your fellow troublemakers, and everybody else making a life for themselves. So now that you’re stuck here, what are you going to do? It’s a question that hits home.
PS. Next week will hopefully be, if I can read it in time, Eversink from Swords of the Serpentine.
II. Media of the Week
Matt Colville has a fun video about what makes a good villain. It’s solid advice for running D&D-style games!
The Gauntlet podcast looks at the Dune, The Between, Fading Suns and what makes storygames a pleasure to play.
Dan Muñoz makes a beautiful, moving video about his experience at Big Bad Con 2022.
III. Links of the Week
A review of the After the War, a horror game by Genesis of Legend Publishing: “It weaves a rich story of an interstellar society picking up the pieces a decade after a mind-altering virus known as “The Song” nearly enslaved all sentient beings in the known universe.”
On his blog, mindstorm, Ty Pitre strikes again with great insight, revealing how the challenge of being a leader of a large group of people should be… leading a large group of people. Or as he puts it, “the encounter is coming from inside the house”. Good stuff.
Lowell Francis reviews Crescendo of Violence, a neon-noir RPG. I really appreciate how well this review lays out the good alongside the less-good.
Jeff Stormer of Party of One is looking to promote BIPOC folks who are running crowdfunding campaigns as a part of ZineMonth/ZineQuest.
Burn After Running talks about “reincorporation” which is a super interesting technique for game masters that I need to get better at,
Workers of Noble Knight Games, one of the largest distributors of tabletop games, are unionizing. They’ve asked for customers of the business to come out in support of them.
IV. Small Ads
All links in the newsletter are completely based on my own interest. But to help support my work, this section contains sponsored links and advertisements. If you’d like your products to appear here, read the submission form.
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