Designing Dresden 4 – It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

How many neighborhoods are there in your city? Chew on that for a minute. It seems like a pretty innocuous question, but the answer is probably “more than you think”.

See, when I started, I figured, I would gather up a list of Baltimore’s neighborhoods, maybe winnow it down some to get a list of the interesting ones with an eye towards which ones would be well suited towards which scenes. So I started with a quick google of “Baltimore neighborhoods map” and found the official maps on the city of Baltimore’s homepage. Score! I’d just grab those and work down from there. Start with one of the 9 general areas (Central, N, S, E, W, NE, NW, SE, SE) and grab the neighborhood list and….

Man, that’s a lot of neighborhoods.


More than 250 of them. Even the more conservative list from Wikipedia still tops out just over 100, and I can’t even pretend to understand the logic of what makes one place matter and one place not. I am struck with a sinking feeling that I have bit off more than I can chew.

So, I start methodically going through the entries, and doing things like looking up real estate pitches and sales by neighborhood and district, and looking for crime statistics when I can. The Baltimore PD, as it turns out, has a fantastic mapping program to see what crimes have occurred where in what neighborhoods or by address. Flipping through the Baltimore Sun and smaller local papers, going through travel guides, reading books and watching TV, I start accumulating more information than I can really process. And that’s a problem. I had anticipated that the problem would be _finding_ the information, but the reality is once you start looking, there problem is narrowing it down to what information you need.

There’s only one thing to do, and that’s take the pile of research and simply set it aside. There was no way I was going to be able to distill this down to something that was manageable and useful, at lest not this way. It was time to start thinking in terms of what I really need out of the city. Now, I absolutely need a certain amount of flavor, but that’s a slightly different consideration, and is mostly going to depend upon reasonably evocative presentation. More importantly, it’s going to depend upon having something to write about, so it’s sort of the last step. The question is, in purely practical game-running terms, what do I need?

The answer that seems clearest is scenes. I need places to frame scenes that are properly evocative. If I’m going to have a setting in the first place, one of the things I’m going to want to do is have something more concrete to say than “in a nice part of town.” I want to have specific, named neighborhoods. The thing is, as I say that, it seems to make it a lot of work for very little return. What am I really getting out of saying “Guilford” rather than “A very nice residential neighborhood?” And heck, considering the scene will probably take place inside someplace like a home or office, that seems to make the question even more pointed.

Tough question, because in the short term, the answer is really “not much.” On a scene by scene basis, my players are going to be more interested in what’s going on in that scene, and they need me to be descriptive to frame the scene in the first place. If I stop and dwell on the nature and history of the neighborhood, there’s a good chance I’m detracting from the players enjoyment of the scene. This is especially true if I’ve hit on some nugget that I think is cool and I infodump on the players.

For those not familiar, an infodump is when a character or narrator dumps a bunch of information on the reader or viewer, usually to explain a situation so the subsequent scene makes sense (or just because the author decides she wants to educate). This is one of those unfortunate sometimes-necessities of fiction, and one that authors dread because it’s a chore for the reader. If the author is any good she try to find a way to make this something other than awful for everyone involved. Dresden fans might recognize that Bob is a vehicle for exactly this – because he’s got so much personality and character, the fact that the scenes with him are _full_ of information tends not to register as infodumps. Contrast that with cookie-cutter fantasy, where Grimfar The Wise walks in, spouts wisdom, and walks out. Night and day.

Anyway, the point of this little aside is “Don’t do that.” It really sucks for your players, honest.

So that seems like a pretty strong argument against bothering with neighborhoods in the first place. However, there remain a couple of really strong arguments favor of this sort of information: continuity, focus and inspiration.

Continuity is something that’s going to grow over play, and only starts to matter the second time the players are in a neighborhood. Without continuity, the fourth “really nice neighborhood” scene has no more pop than the first. With continuity, the fourth scene in Guilford has the potential of building upon all the scenes that have gone before. Players may remember people, places and resources, and when players have that information, they have the ability to bring it into play, which is just fantastic. This is, in many way, the opposite of the infodump – it’s organic, familiar growth of knowledge.

Focus is an important bit of sleight of hand. The fact is, cities are pretty big, and it would be possible to run entire campaigns without re-using any scenery. Given that, if the GM wants to find a way to make the city more manageable, she needs to abstract it a little so it will fit inside the player’s heads. The assignment of neighborhoods creates discrete, related patterns which the player can grow to recognize as their city. A finite set create productive limitations on the range of options, channelling these locations directly into places of play, rather than dwelling on the infinite possible list of places.

This spills into geography a bit. There is sometimes a desire to make city neighborhoods into something like countries in Risk. We imagine a map of the city, broken up into neighborhoods, with maybe a handful of pawns representing the characters and potent NPCs sliding from neighborhood to neighborhood. It’s easy to imagine and you get to make really pretty maps for it.

It’s also pretty much bullshit.

The reason I’m focusing here on abstraction of locations rather than abstractions of the whole is that people have an easier time thinking in lines and dots. Lines are how you get places, dots are places where you go. That internal map focuses on what’s important to them and doesn’t really give a crap about any kind of need for completeness. The personal map has empty spaces, some of them known, some of them unrecognized. As you try to help a person build a map of a place, you can either help them create the dots they’ll be interested in, or you can try to shoehorn them into thinking about the map.

Now, thinking about the map is useful and valid in lots of practical situations, but it is not what creates a living, breathing picture. Keeping neighborhoods discrete keeps the list of potential options manageable, while still maintaining variety. Their geography may fuel some interesting points, but it is secondary to the places themselves.*

Anyway, that feeds into inspiration. Once you have a finite set (focus) and recurring elements (continuity) then the neighborhoods can be inspirations for play. Not only do all those interesting things which you’re not infodumping on the players suggest plots, but previous events and people can inspire them. When the GM is looking for ideas, shuffling through the neighborhoods is a great way to get reminded of what’s out there, and what cool things to do.

All right, so we’ve now got a really good sense of what we do and don’t want. We don’t want extraneous data, be it a useless map, an infodump, or an arbitrary use of neighborhoods. We do want continuity, focus and inspiration.

Which is cool on paper, but how does it stack up next to this giant list of neighborhoods I’ve got? Well, that’s where we’ll start next.

* – Ok, to every cartographer I just offended, I am simplifying to be practical here. I love maps. Love love love em. A good map tells a story, usually many stories, and is a rich, robust source of information. Or at least that’s the case if you’re wired to look at them that way, and not everyone is. Worse, the kind of super-abstracted map that most RPG cities are made of more or less kills all the interesting stories that a map has to tell and frankly, no map deserves that. I’m hoping to talk a little bit about reading the map of your city when I get into landmarks, so there’s some love coming, but for the moment, for most groups, the city needs to be a collection of places rather than a map if it’s going to be part of play. If you’re sufficiently into maps that you’re sure I’m wrong, and your group is of a similar mindset, then man, go with the map!

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