Massive Attack – Dissolved Girl [Lyrics]
///A tattoo made out of geometric forms and symbols, Triangles. Squares. Connected by Lines., drawn in light-red on sun-bathed skin, decorating the whole of the arm from shoulder to elbow, looking almost like scars, almost but not quite.///
There are times when the city the characters inhabit should be a strange, mystifying, haunting place. Not immediately dangerous, not scary, but… Strange.
They might have lived there their whole life, but one night they will find themselves in an area that’s alien to them. They are looking for someone. Or chasing someone. Or fleeing from someone. And they turn around a corner, and then another one. Or maybe they step out at a bus-stop they never used before. And they look around and… They feel that they don’t quite belong.
A sense of disorientation within the familiar should emerge. They know that they’re in the right place, yet… Still. Something isn’t quite right.
The buildings seem slightly off. The streets are strangely empty and the few pedestrians who still walk them avoid eye-contact, keeping to themselves. There is something about this district that lets the PCs question some established preconceptions.
The City (and I will try to talk about the city as a quasi-NPC later…) should be large enough to hide something weird. Something strange. Or just something quirky. Something to be built up into a sub-plot later down the line, to spark the players creativity and curiosity.
This is influenced by something that happened to me almost 15 years ago. I was pretty tired after a night out, and kind of slept through my bus-stop. When some kind passenger finally woke me, as they couldn’t remember me ever taking that bus so far, I half-panicked asked the driver where I could get out to catch the next best bus back. I got out at the station he indicated, but had to wait for 30 minutes for the next bus back, as it was after midnight on a work-day.
And I wandered around a bit. It was autumn, and while not particularly cold, I preferred to move around. When I turned a corner, I didn’t believe my eyes: A WW2 bunker. Almost squarely inside city limits. Not 3km away from my home, not 2km away from my school. Standing there. Rotting away, stacked with “danger” signs. I explored a bit and nearly had a heart attack when a cop tapped me on the shoulder a few minutes in. I was listening to my walkman and hadn’t heard him approach. They were looking for someone and harshly reprimanded me to at least not go exploring a dangerous structure at night.
The next day, I wanted to go there again, but couldn’t find it. Because I was so tired and panicked the night before, I misremembered the stop I got out at, and the area looked utterly different during the day. A few days later I asked my history teacher, and he gave me the address. Still, for a few days I actually had one of those “Did that really happen…?” thoughts going through my head.
Godsmack – Serenity [Lyrics]
///Twins in matching black tops and burgundy skirts. Beautiful. Striking. Their hairstyle the only difference, yet it is enough to set them apart. Their smiles, when focused, melt the coldest heart.///
It’s all too easy to concentrate on the weird creatures, insidious antagonists and otherworldly affairs. But it’s crucial to remember the personal side of it all. Even with a cosmic war being fought between two power-blocks inside the shadows of the world, there should be those moments where this all takes a harsh back-seat and the PCs innermost thoughts come to the fore-front. It doesn’t even have to be something as drastic as a Quiet in Mage.
While modern RPG wisdom seems to strongly favor “skipping to the meaty bits”, I always like to give something that’s basically “downtime” its own place and focus. It helps to build the mood you and your group are going for.
Troupe Style really shines here. Look at the PCs you are working with. Think of a personal, intimate moment for each of them. Then scribble down some NPCs for each of those moments and assigns behaviour, mood and goals to each of them. As succinctly as possible. Then build towards one of those moments as naturally as possible. (Alternatively, you could just reserve a session for a “A day in the life of…” session)
Then give each of the non-focused players one of those NPCs to play and… Yeah. Play it out. Try to not to create rules-using moments and/or fudge the rules for a seamless experience. Don’t force anything. Let the situation develop. Don’t shy away from incorporating plot-hooks, -seeds, -advancements or -resolutions into those moments, either, if they fit the bill!
Whatever fears or problems a character is experiencing, try to focus on them in a slow, dedicated session. For each player. The more comfortable the players are with each other, the looser the scenes can be and the deeper into characterization this can go. But you’ll be surprised how much you can learn about a characters motivations and goals even from “game-night buddies only” gamers if you give it a strict enough framework for them to fall back to.
For me, games like Mage and Vampire (and even Shadowrun, to be honest…) always shined when the PCs got enough chances to interact with more than just the setting’s premise. Just think about it: Sometimes you sit at a Starbucks, scribbling some notes into your laptop or notebook, drinking some coffee, listening to the store’s or your own music and watching strangers, perhaps flirting, perhaps even striking a conversation. And those moments are often very… Personal. Very intimate. And they often help you to deal with some thoughts. Or just help to relax and focus and regain strength and purpose. Let the PCs experience those moments too, don’t just gloss over them. Don’t brush them away to get on with the action.
The inspiration for this come, entwined, from two sources. A theoretical and a practical one. The theoretical one was that one Babylon 5 Episode where a space battle was being fought outside the station, but the episode focused on smaller stories inside the station. Just characters interacting with each other. … It was one of the more emotionally powerful episodes.
And it led me to once do something similar during a Rogue Trader game three or four years ago. During a warp-storm, the PCs were each confined to their areas of the ship. And so I focused on each of them in turn, letting the other player’s be the “local” NPCs. The Rogue Trader had his ship-crew, the Enginseer had his engine-deck crew, the Navigator her entourage, the Void Master had the ship’s Armsmen with her. The session lasted about six hours, and we had more than one hour per PCs. And in this hour, they actually developed and advanced relationships with their underlings which lasted until the campaign’s end. It made the rest of the campaign so much better, as many NPCs evolved from “background figure” status to actors with their own emotional weight for the PCs. It really helped with immersion and involvement.
If it can work in a 40k RPG, it will work in the Urban Fantasy/Horror game you’re running. ;)