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The sheer scale of a modern urban environment is something that we all tend to take for granted. It’s so hard to grasp it, because we only ever see the very tip of a very large iceberg – with far more than nine-tenths of it removed from our sight.

In any city there are the major highways, designed to speed traffic from place to place. Of slightly lesser importance are the smaller highways and major arterial roads, designed to carry lots of traffic in slightly less efficiency. And one step down from those are the major thoroughfares that carry substantial traffic in peak periods and somewhat less at other times of the day. One of the major thoroughfares of Sydney just happens to be located right outside of my front window.

In peak periods, perhaps 100 vehicles pass by that window every three minutes or so. As I write this, it is late at night, and I doubt that more than 100 vehicles would pass in an hour. With those peak periods occupying perhaps 6 hours of the day, and those quiet times perhaps another 6, it is possible to estimate an overall traffic flow:

Peak: 100 x 60 / 3 = 2000 per hour. Minimum: about 100 per hour, Both conditions exist for the same fraction of a day, which makes life simple. The average per hour over the combined period is going to be half the sum of a representative hour from each extreme – so (2000 + 100) / 2 = 1050 per hour. It can also be assumed that the transition between the two will be gradual, and so it can be said that the average for the other periods is the same as the calculated average – 1050 per hour. The daily total is therefore going to be 24 x 1050 = 25,200. On this one road.

Touching Immensity

Think about that for a moment, And let the awareness that each and every one of those vehicles has its own driver, each of whom has their own reason to be there at that particular time and this particular place. They may be on their way to work, or to a sporting event, or a social occasion, or going shopping, or taking the kids to school; it doesn’t matter. Every one of those journeys has at least one purpose.

Those purposes are a small fragment of a larger story, the life story of the driver. In many of the vehicles, there will be a passenger; in some cases, several. Overall, the average is probably 2 occupants. In addition to the two stories we have already identified each, we also have the story of their relationship with each other.

That’s an average of 5 stories for each of those vehicles, each and every day. 126,000 stories a day.

No man is an island unto himself, the saying goes. Each of those stories will also involve at least one other person, usually many more. Co-workers and teachers and shopkeepers and library staff; in the case of ambulances and fire engines, patients and victims; in the case of police cars, suspects and criminals and victims. The number of daily human contacts would have to average twenty a day, I would think. And each of those also has their own story, and the story of their relationships with their families. Twenty interactions a day, plus the other stories of those these other people interact with, brings the total to something on the order of 60 x 126,000, or 7,560,000 stories, and that’s easily a minimum.

Depth Of Tale

Some of these stories will be short. A moment of passing recognition, a purchase, a word of greeting. Some will be more involved. With so many, there are also bound to be some overlaps, perhaps as much as 1/3 of the total. So let’s call it 5 million individual stories.

One one road, each and every day.

That road is hardly the most heavily-trafficked road in the city. In fact, it’s something like #20 on the list, after all those others that I mentioned earlier. But I doubt that even the most heavily-utilized roads would see more than twice that amount of traffic in a day.

That’s ten million stories.

Only by building it up, step by step in this fashion, can an ordinary human mind begin to nibble at the edges of an awareness of the true size and complexity of even a moderately-sized city like Sydney (on the global scale).

A never-ending human drama

Interactions between these stories would never stop. There is far more than one story for every second of the day (86,400 seconds). The average is closer to 116 stories per second. Even assuming that 95% of these take place in the daylight hours, that still gives about 6 stories whose narrative is advancing, every second of every day, minimum.

A city breathes with the life of its inhabitants.

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George’s Stories

Let’s take another tack. Let’s pick one individual – call him George – and list all the stories that he is involved in.

George works, so his job is one. He has co-workers whose lives he is involved in from time to time; call that two. He has a family; that’s three. He has a childhood; that’s four. He has a social life; that’s five. He buys things from time to time; that’s six. He has medical needs; that’s seven. He occasionally gets involved in his friends personal lives; that’s eight. He has ambitions, which he may or may not be working to achieve; that’s nine. And from time to time, the government, or its institutions, get involved in his life; that’s ten.

Most of these will be on his mind to some extent most if not all days, at least some of the time. His life is a soap opera, whether he realizes it or not.

Sam’s Stories

Why does this matter? And what’s the relevance to an RPG?

Picture this: in a simpler time, when cities were a twentieth the size they are today, a stranger rides into the city and approaches a local. It happens all the time in just about any fantasy RPG. Or perhaps we’re talking about a future, in which cities are five times their current scale, or more, and the person is flying in on his jet-pack. It doesn’t matter; the notion of interacting with a local – who we’ll call Sam – is universal.

“Tell me about yourself,” says the stranger, or perhaps it’s “tell me about the city” or “tell me about the government in these parts”. The exact form of the question doesn’t matter, because no matter what the starting point is, all ten or more of Sam’s stories interconnect and interrelate. Talk to him about any of them for long enough, and they will all receive at least a passing mention.

We have no reason to consider Sam to be anybody exceptional. And if he’s not exceptional, then he is a microcosm of the entire population to at least some extent. It follows that the astute listener can get a ‘feel’ for the entire city from talking to Sam for a while. Every subsequent encounter with someone else can fill in blanks and make patterns clearer, but really, Sam is representative of the city as a whole, by virtue of living there and being part of the shared experience of doing so.

Loaded Deck

There are lots of systems out there for generating cities. Mostly, they deal in architecture and political structures and the like. They may even deal in economics and social patterns. Unless you’re an expert at interpreting all these things, and more besides, though, they won’t tell you very much about what life is really like in the city.

Wouldn’t it be great to have a system in place for generating Sam’s part of the conversation, and, in the process, generating that feel for ‘ordinary life’ in the city? For taking those dull and dry factoids and bringing them to life?

I have devised just such a system. It requires nothing more than a deck of cards, the personality of the person being questioned, and the basic information and history of the city. This is as much about bringing those dry factoids to life as anything else.

The Technique

Step 1: Pick a suit. Extract all the cards of that suit from the deck. From that suit, remove the jack, queen, and king, leaving Ace (1) through 10. This group of cards will now be referred to as the Mini-Deck. The cards in the mini-deck correspond to the list of 10 stories that I offered a few paragraphs back. NB: if there is something unusual in the city with which the character could have encountered or have an opinion on, such as a significant minority race or slave market or whatever, consider them extra stories and put one or more picture cards back into this mini-deck to represent them.

Step 2: Shuffle the mini-deck and lay them out in a row or two if you’re short of space in front of you. This is the sequence of the conversation – but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Step 3: Remove one of the suits of opposite color to the mini-deck from the main deck and set them aside, face down. Add any cards removed from the mini-deck.

Layout1

The basic layout gives the order of subjects that the local will talk about.

Step 4: Shuffle the rest of the main deck and deal one card off the top onto each of the mini-deck cards. Add the rest of these to the face-down discards.

Step 5: Black cards are negative, personal little disasters in the character’s life, bad news; Red cards are things coming up roses for him, good news. The higher the face value, the bigger the disaster or success. Take a moment to look at the distribution; has there been a preponderance of good news or bad lately? Is the highest-value card good news or bad? One high-value card can balance out a number of opposing low-value cards. Get an overall feel for what life has been like for this individual lately, and from his personality, work out how he is likely to react to those circumstances – what sort of mood he will be in.

Step 6: The hard work’s done! Now for the role-play. When the PCs ask their question, there may be one, two, or more “stories” that relate to that question. Pick the one from amongst this highest shortlist that has the highest face-value card on top of it, breaking ties or almost-ties with respect to the personality and overall mood of the NPC. Move that two-card stack to the front of the queue – then interpret that card combination into an on-the-spot story of woe or celebration (as appropriate).

Layout2

This shows "subject #8" (friends, as unlikely as that may be for an opening question) moved to prime position in response to the question. To ensure readers could see what was going on, this does not show the “story status” cards from the main deck, even though they have been dealt at this point.

Layout3

This shows the subject cards with the “story status” cards dealt from the main deck in place. It’s clear that subject #6 (buying things) is an unmitigated disaster – perhaps he has just been the victim of fraud – and subject #4 (his childhood) isn’t much better, but the character is doing OK on subjects #5 (social life) and #3 (family). Subject #8 (friends) could be better, and there’s a minor problem in the area of subject #1 (his job), but aside from that things are not going too badly.

The character will stay on any given subject until an opportunity comes up to segue seamlessly to the next topic across – in the case of our example, from 8 to 6 to 9 to 3 to 10 and so on. The PC(s) can nudge the conversation back to an earlier subject, or just let the conversation drift along. Each time you think you have told the complete story of one of the subjects, cover it over with a face-down card.

layout4

The tales of woe have been told, for the most part, leaving the local about to take solace in the parts of his life that are working. These topics may have been touched on already in the conversation, and that is certainly the case for #3 (family) and #2 (Co-workers) because that’s the only way to get to Subject #4 (a topic that’s now exhausted).

Notes: You don’t have to follow the indicated order slavishly. Let the conversation flow naturally. Strong experiences, whether positive or negative, may be repeated even if the character has nothing new to say – that’s the nature of strong experiences.

Here’s the list of topics again, for reference, and in a slightly more generalized form:
 

  1. Job/Occupation/Work
  2. Co-workers
  3. Family
  4. Childhood/expectations
  5. Social Life
  6. Money & Possessions
  7. Medical status
  8. Friends
  9. Ambitions, Goals, & Career
  10. Government & Institutions

 
Remember that you can add to this list as you see fit. Using the discarded cards, there’s room for another 16 subjects of discussion! If desired, you can also remove items from the standard list – if you are unemployed and have never had a job of any kind (not even begging or stealing) then you might have nothing under “co-workers” for example, though I would consider this to be unusual enough that I would leave category #1 in place!

The “Human Face”

Within each topic, you have the capability of personalizing and interpreting the dry facts of the city design by describing how the facts of the matter influence the life of an ordinary person living and/or working within the city. This brings the city to life by putting a “human” face on it. Instead of dryly discussing a repressive tax code with collection agents and enforcers, you invent a story. If it’s a positive one, it might be about how he avoided a potential disaster. If a negative one, it might be about his run-ins with one of those collection agents. If a really positive one, he may have actually scored one for the little guy; if a really negative one, his business might be about to fold. Or perhaps he would complain about the consequences of that tax code, yielding an unfair advantage to select operators.

There are some additional benefits to this approach. First, in order to get a neutral picture of the city, the PCs will have to identify and extract any bias that the speaker might have due to personality, social standing, politics, or circumstances. The lows will probably not be quite as doom and gloom as they are painted, and the highs are likely to be that little bit more euphoric than warranted, because people have a natural tendency to exaggerate. In order to identify and extract that bias, the PCs will have to relate to the individual as a person, working out the quirks and nuances of his personality, and even then they might not get everything right. They will have to roleplay, because anything else gets them less information, potentially leaving out things that they need to know. And they will never be completely sure that they have a comprehensive and unbiased opinion. The uncertainties involved make the city, and its inhabitants, more real and less easily pigeonholed, less sterile.

When and When Not

This is not a technique that I pull out every time the PCs roll into a new town. It depends on how big and complex the population are, and how long I expect the PCs to be spending in the location, and whether or not local issues are likely to sidetrack them from the main plot that’s going on. But when the stars align and you need to breathe life into a settlement, this is the best way I’ve found to do it.

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