Designing Dresden 1 – Choosing a City

For some context, I’m Rob Donoghue, and I’m writing the RPG along with Fred. For our sanity, we split up certain tasks, and as I was recompiling some notes, I started writing some of the design process for my own sake, and Fred pointed out that it was the sort of thing that might be worth sharing. As such, I’ll be posting about elements of the design process as we continue to work on the game.

I suppose it’s best to begin at the beginning. When we started designing the Dresden Files RPG, setting was a key question. The novels take place in Chicago, so it will be necessary to provide some setting information on the windy city, but the books also pretty much dominate that city, which means two things. First, if you want to run a game in Chicago, the novels will already do you pretty well. Second, if you want to run your own game without taking Harry and friends into account, you’re going to want another city.

With that in mind, we decided we’d pick another city and give it a proper writeup, both as an alternative setting and as a guideline for GMs looking to magic up a city that they’re already familiar with.

It’s to that latter end that I’m writing this now. When I finish, I’ll distill it into bullet points of wisdom for the game, but there’s some utility in making the process a little transparent.

So that comes to the question: what city to use? As the resident research monkey, this one ended up in my lap.


First off, we wanted an American city. We’re just not going to be able to write a European or Canadian game. My sole regret is that that knocked Quebec City off the list, but that would probably have been too problematic anyway.

We also wanted a real city. Inserting a Gotham or Metropolis (or San Dimas, which is apparently real: Who knew?) into the map would be a break from the source material.

Lastly, it’s important to remember that the city is a character in the game, as much as anyone else. We’re pulling from detective fiction here, and certain cities are better suited for certain types of story, either because of the nature of the city or because of the stories that have already been told there.

So for the first list, we start in the west and work east.

On the coast, there are really five candidates: Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. San Jose and Oakland kind of unfairly got the boot as a result of living in the shadow of San Francisco, but so it goes.

Working inland, we stop off and grab Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and Austin. There are probably other candidates in Texas, but honestly, if we’re doing Texas, it’ll be Austin: it’s the high culture freak city of Texas.

We skip most of the midwest – we don’t want anything near Chicago. The south… well, let’s cherry pick New Orleans and Atlanta. I’ll also grab Tampa as a placeholder for “some city in Florida”.

That leaves the mid atlantic and New England, which is a virtual smorgasbord. Richmond, DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Trenton, NYC, Hartford, Boston and Burlington.

Probably passed up some decent contenders getting here, but it’s already a pretty big list:


  • Atlanta
  • Austin
  • Baltimore
  • Boston
  • Burlington
  • DC
  • Hartford
  • Las Vegas
  • Los Angeles
  • New Orleans
  • NYC
  • Philadelphia
  • Pittsburgh
  • Portland
  • Richmond
  • San Diego
  • San Francisco
  • Seattle
  • Tampa
  • Trenton

Ok, time to break out the axe.

Seattle gets the boot immediately – it’s the Shadowrun city, and I don’t really want to deal with that.

San Diego also gets tossed after a little thought, because it’s a little to close to the big city version of Sunnydale, and while that could be a lot of fun, it’s not what we’re looking to do.

Trenton gets a “I’m not really sure why that’s therein the first place” removal.

Burlington is only there because I grew up there, and while I think it would rock, that’s kind of a fringe position, so it’s gone.

Pittsburgh has a lot going for it, but it’s already spectacularly well represented in gaming, albeit under a pseudonym, so I can pass.

New York City – Man, it may be the greatest city in the world, and it has never really been done justice by any game because it’s just too big. If I were a New Yorker, I might view this as an interesting challenge, but I don’t carry New York in my heart, so it’s just a recipe for disaster, so it is, begrudgingly, off the list.

Boston’s a pretty awesome option. Full of history and crime, it’s probably the most european city in the US, which seems ideal for modern magical crime. Unfortunately, the nice folks at White Wolf seem to have thought the same thing, and have made it the hub of the latest incarnation of Mage. There’s enough overlap there that I want to dodge that.

Austin and Portland get tossed out together. They’re both great, colorful towns, and if this were an Urban Fantasy game more of the Emma Bull sort of flavor, they’d probably be the top contenders, but when I think about both, i don’t really think about any kind of dark undertone. I think about music festivals and the coolest damn hotel in the country.

L.A. gets the boot for some of the same reasons NYC does, but also because LA has it’s own kind of stories, and while they’re good stories, they’d end up overshadowing the ones we want for Dresden.

Unfortunately, that same reasoning also rules out DC. I love DC, but if it’s the center of a game, it better be hopping with federal agencies and shadowy conspiracies, otherwise you’re just letting it go to waste.

Ditto Las Vegas.

New Orleans is almost too obvious, and honestly, I’m not sure you can use it without getting vampire all over yourself, and that smell just won’t go away. Also, since the Hurricane, it’s in such transition that anything we write would get outdated almost instantly.

Salt Lake City is under the shadow of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and while it’s been proven that you can put Mormonism at the heart of a really rocking game, it’d be playing with fire, and I don’t think I could do it justice.

Hartford? See Trenton.

Atlanta or Richmond….that’s tempting. A historied southern city can bring almost as much to the table as boston could. But here’s the thing: it would really have to be southern. Done right that would be magnificent, but I need to accept that I’m a yankee boy at heart, and I just wouldn’t be able to do it justice.

Florida has a similar problem, though it’s not the south – it’s Florida. There’s been so much really good crime fiction out of florida with strong themes of corruption that I ended up tossing it for a lot of the same reasons as LA.

And then there were 3: Baltimore, San Francisco and Philadelphia.

San Francisco deserves some respect in this. You have Silicon Valley on hand for the contrast of tech and magic, and if you need crime, you have Oakland right on hand These kinds of contrasts and themes are powerful stuff.

On the other hand, Baltimore and Philadelphia both have that rich, layered history that comes of being an old east coast city. Baltimore also ends up winning that particular tussle because it’s also a very dark city. It’s a crime-ridden hellhole in parts, and that’s perfect for what we’re looking at.

So Charm City or the City by the Bay? Ultimately, the decision came down to 2 things:

1) Baltimore is the home of Poe. Boo Yah.
2) Baltimore is within driving distance, which will make research much easier.

As such, it’s Baltimore for the win!

Next up: Hitting the Books

(and I note, we actually are further along than this, but it’ll be a little bit before the log catches up)