When my pulp co-GM and I started talking about this article, it had a very different shape.
The original intention was to list the cities that we considered iconic settings for pulp adventure, and explain in each case why it had been selected to receive that accolade.
As the article progressed, however, it became clear that the reasons why a city could be considered an iconic setting were not only universal amongst the cities we had selected, but also that they applied universally to any city, regardless of setting or genre.
What we had, in fact, arrived at was a blueprint for conferring iconic status on a settlement. And that is what we are going to share with you today.
A-list, B-list, C-List, and beyond
The ‘blueprint’ consists of a number of criteria, and to be iconic, a location has to tick each and every box without reservation. Of these, the hardest is the last one we are going to discuss (variety of adventure possibilities) – or, at least, there seem to be a great many cities in the world that meet every other requirement quite handily.
This permits an ordered system of rating locations as viable adventure settings: the A-list ticks all the boxes, the B-list misses the last item on the list, the C-list misses both that and one other, and so on.
As a general rule of thumb, we’ve found that you can use A-list settlements repeatedly, and even base whole campaigns from them; the monotone nature of what can be done with B-list locations restricts them to single adventures except when deliberately repeating a theme; C-list and D-list locations tend to be fairly generic except in unusual situations revolving around symbolism or associated landmarks, and can only be used for a single adventure before being sucked dry unless that symbolism is a theme of the campaign; and E-list locations are someplace that only gets mentioned in passing, or used as a generic location.
The Iconic Criteria
We’ll have some specific advice on using iconic locations a little later in the article, but first, let’s look at the criteria we have developed. Make no mistake, there are some very beautiful locations that don’t make the A-list grade, places that might be wonderful and exciting places to call home; we aren’t judging cities as anything more than a place to set adventures.
Specifically, a unique visual style. Central Park is known the world over. The Eiffel Tower is an unmistakable symbol of Paris. One glimpse of Big Ben and you know where you are. But none of those are color – those are all landmarks, which is a completely distinct criterion. If you throw up a photograph, the players might not know where it is that they are looking at, but they will be able to see instantly that it’s not quite the same as a photograph of a different iconic city. Sometimes, the skyline is enough; sometimes it’s cobbled streets, or an antique architectural style, or the narrowness and twisting nature of the alleyways, and sometimes it’s a combination. Some cities have this in spades, others have barely enough of it to separate them from any other city.
As a general rule of thumb, advancing modernity equates to homogeneity over a great many cities. The older the city, the more easily color will be found.
The color needs to have one essential quality – it needs to be quickly and easily communicated. That’s because you want your descriptive narrative to focus on other aspects of the urban landscape. An image is definitely worth a thousand words.
Having talked about landmarks already, there’s not a lot left to say on the subject, except to say that a particular city may be known far-and-wide for being ubiquitously associated with a particular industry, and that can also qualify as a landmark! Oxford with it’s university, Amsterdam with the diamond trade, Clyde for it’s ship-building.
No city is complete without the people, but you want them to have a point of uniqueness that you can touch on briefly but memorably, even if that means exaggerating that part of the city’s character. You need the people to be animated, or to have some instantly-recognizable visual feature. Italians talk with their hands, the French wear berets, Brits carry black umbrellas, and the unceasing level of activity in New York City is immediately obvious to anyone who’s been there – it’s not called “The City That Never Sleeps” for nothing!
This can be playing into a cliché, but the extent to which it applies to any named individual is up to the GM; we’re talking about the population in general and the cliché is necessarily part of the zeitgeist that characterizes the city in the minds of the players.
An iconic city needs to have a symbolic value or meaning, even if it’s not one that you can immediately put your finger on. No city in the world symbolizes politics like Washington DC, no city encapsulates capitalism like New York, Los Angeles is a suburban wrapper around Hollywood and the entertainment industry, Rome is the beating heart of the Christian Faith, and you can’t talk about Cairo without referencing ancient Egypt. While you don’t need to reference this symbolism explicitly in your city narrative, you need to harness it in the way you actually use the location within the adventure.
A city’s history is key to the symbolism of the city. Chicago with it’s mobs, Bastille Day in Paris, Boston and the tea party, are all excellent examples.
An iconic city needs to have its own ambiance, and that is both the most subtle quality and the hardest to convey; hence, that quality has to be the GMs primary objective, reflected in both his narrative and in the action that occurs within the city. Ambiance, to some extent, is a product of all the preceding characteristics, but more of it is generated by the tone and style of delivery and encounters.
Ambiance is also about the lifestyle of the city, for example all the ethnic enclaves in New York, each of which puts its own twist on the city overall.
Ambiance is often the result of some significant area within the city that projects it’s style over the greater whole, for example Paris with its artists and New Orleans with it’s Jazz and Voodoo.
Quite often, a trivial encounter or observed scene is the best delivery method of ambience, leaving the GM free to focus on specific information.
Bonus (dubious) Criteria: Cuisine
At one point, we included this as one of criteria, but while it’s a fact that many of the iconic locations on our list have a distinctive cuisine, there are others that don’t have such cache in the minds of the modern audience. To many people, Chinese is Chinese, and the distinction between Peking cuisine and that of Shanghai is not obvious. Similarly, any distinctiveness that distinguishes Calcutta from Delhi is lost to the public – I’m sure that there are such characteristic differences, but they aren’t necessarily immediately obvious.
What can be said is that if there is something unique about the cuisine or the way it is consumed – London Pubs, French Bistros, German Beer-halls – that’s part of the unique flavor of the city and helps to establish its iconic status.
The geography of a city should create an overall impression that is distinctive. All Paris seems to have the same building codes, with the Eiffel Tower and a couple of other monuments rising above them, creating an overall impression of a flat city. New York, of course, is the home of the biggest skyscrapers, one nestled right next to another with scarcely any room in between. San Francisco has its bay, and Venice? Say no more.
Climate can be either a function of the geography, an element of the ambiance, or a combination of both. San Francisco’s fogs are legendary, Seattle’s reputation for rainfall, Calcutta’s Monsoons, and Earthquakes in San Francisco and Tokyo.
Specific information is easily come by. All iconic cities will have Wikipedia pages, virtually all will have tourist information pages, they will almost certainly have appeared in fiction that can be mined for flavor-drenched narrative. The trick is always distilling this information down into what needs to be delivered, and translating it into a form that conveys and/or mirrors the ambience.
Variety in Adventures
More potential listees fall off the A-list because of this requirement than any other. You need to be able to run not just multiple adventures but multiple kinds of adventure in the city, and have these feel natural, as though they ‘fit’ the location.
That last is an important point. You can run multiple adventures, with quite different styles and tones, in any city; but few will naturally resonate with the ambience, and take advantage of the symbolism and landmarks, and feel like it belongs in that location.
The power of the home town
Of course, one location that will always be an iconic city is the place you come from. Not your home town, necessarily, but the city or town in which you live. Not only does proximity lend it cache and relevance, local knowledge elevates in importance whatever local landmarks that exist. Sydney would not be considered an iconic location in the pulp era – so many of the landmarks post-date the time period – but it’s an iconic location (one that we haven’t yet used) in the Adventurer’s Club campaign, simply because my Co-GM and I, and all our players, live here. We know where the interesting parts of the city are, can run multiple adventures built around those elements, can bring out their individual flavor – Circular Quay and its Ferries, The Rocks, Bondi Beach, the North Shore, Luna Park, the old City Center, Central Station, Mascot Airport, Flemington Markets, Villawood… the list goes on and on – and means little or nothing to anyone who hasn’t lived here.
Using Iconic Cities
An iconic city conjures a distinctive image or flavor in the minds of everyone who hears the name. You don’t need to state where the city is, most people will be able to add the country in which it is located of their own knowledge. Nevertheless, it’s important to highlight the uniqueness of the city in a flavor text introduction, to make sure that everyone is on the same page, and ‘tastes’ the flavor.
Once you have started down that road, you can’t stop, or you will be wasting that distinctive character. Every scene should reference some uniqueness, so that the totality of the adventure that takes place in the iconic setting captures the distinctiveness of the setting. A murder in Paris? The Eiffel Tower should be visible through the window – mentioned in passing, perhaps, but there. A chase in L.A.? It has to be down Sunset Boulevard and especially the Hollywood Strip. If you set an adventure in Chicago, you want the players thinking about the Mobs and Gang wars – even if your actual adventure uses these thoughts as nothing more than added color.
More importantly, the location should be important to the plot or scene. There should be a reason why this city is where the action is occurring. Don’t waste the iconic status; draw it out, infuse it into the plot, and take full advantage of it (even if it’s only misdirection).
The (incomplete) list of iconic Pulp Cities
This list makes no real effort to be complete – though it probably comes close. Every one of these should conjure an impression with nothing more than the name (they did for us – failure to do so makes it a B-lister at best). They are offered here as examples. Don’t just skim the list; pause after each entry and try to picture the city, or something about the city, in your mind. Some entries will be obvious; others may surprise. But each had left an indelible impression upon us that was relevant to the time period and the genre. If we needed an atlas to confirm where it was, it fell short of the mark in our minds. This is the 1920s and 1930s A-list.
We started in North America, then moved on to Central and South America, Africa, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, Asia, and finally Australasia and the Pacific. One or two entries may be considered cheats, but we decided to let them slide; but we were ruthless when it came to places which may NOW be considered iconic, but which were not as exceptional in the popular zeitgeist back then.
We also, quite deliberately, have not numbered the list entries or even counted how many of them there are. We felt that to do so would give the impression that one was being valued over another.
Have we missed any? Almost certainly – Tokyo was added as the article was going to publication. I’m sure it’s not the only omission. But I think we’ve got most of them:
- New York City
- Los Angeles
- San Francisco
- New Orleans
- Washington DC
- Beunos Aires
- Mombasa (Mike thinks this is B-list, Blair cites it as the jumping-off point for many of the great expeditions)
- Clyde – center of the British ship-building industry
- Dublin – the quintessentially Irish city
- Glasgow – the Scottish equivalent
- St Petersburg (Leningrad) – included for the Palaces and Basilica
- Hong Kong
There are, of course, also a number of Iconic Settings that aren’t actually cities, but that meet all our requirements. The Nile, ‘Darkest Africa’, Brazilian Rainforest, Tibet, Sicily, the Arctic and Antarctic Wastes, the Yukon, Siberia, etc.
Disagreements & The Modern Audience
Blair and I weren’t in total agreement when we formulated the list. I’ve hinted at that in the entry for Mombasa. We discussed Panama and Suez repeatedly. Houston came up more than once, as did some of the Mississippi cities. Anchorage was mentioned, and so was Bern. That’s all fine; there may be cities on the list that you don’t feel qualify, and maybe cities that you think should have been obvious inclusions have been left off. It’s not necessary for everyone’s list to match. Marseilles was on the list until the last second – but, while it may have possessed iconic status back then, it no longer quite captures the same resonance in the modern mind.
Inevitably, it is necessary to compromise the list for modern sensibilities. These are the cities whose impression has stood the test of time.
At the same time, there are cities which have become famous for subsequent events. There has been a lot of history since the 1930s! But no matter how iconic an impression a city might have in modern times, that cache had to exist back then as well. A great example is Vegas – you don’t even need to give the city its full name for it to be recognizable – but it was only in 1931 that gambling was legalized and residency for divorce purposes was reduced to six weeks. The big, lavish, grand hotels that characterize the modern Vegas didn’t arrive until a post-WWII boom – between 1940 and 1950, the population went from under 9,000 to more than 24,000, and growth slowed only slightly over the subsequent two decades. Gambling might be legal in pulp-era Vegas, but the city that has the cache then that Vegas has now is Atlantic City – and that doesn’t have enough resonance with a modern audience. So both were left off the list.
Iconic Cities in other genres
Let’s talk D&D for a minute. Most campaigns will have cities. Are these vanilla – all the same – or worse yet, flavorless, in your campaign?
In Mike’s Fumanor campaign, for example, the central city so far as the campaign was concerned wasn’t the political capital, it was a city that after the apocalypse stood as the gateway from the semi-civilized Kingdom to the no-longer-tamed wilderness. Back then, it was a walled town, a fortress, and it retained the name “Fort Sharpfang” from that time.
The other part of the name derives from the mountain on which the fort was built – a raised plateau with a jagged spire of jutting rock behind the plateau, when viewed from the only approach. When contact with Elves and Dwarves was re-established, the paths to both ran straight through Fort Sharpfang.
As civilization re-emerged, there was not enough room within the walls, so a city slowly built up at the foot of the plateau. During the Great Orcwar, this was the front line.
When peace was declared and the Orcs and Drow became citizens of the Kingdom, the populace became too large and diverse to be ruled as one Kingdom; it was divided into three in the One Faith / Shards Of Empire simultaneous sequel campaigns, and Fort Sharpfang became the capital of the Outer Kingdom, the crossroads and center for trade, as what was once but a small collection of Baronies in the Old Kingdom struggled to grow into an Empire – and found itself faced with Empire-level threats.
The walls themselves are iconic: thirty meters thick, formed of great blocks of stone weighing hundreds of tons each, with towers forming 30-meter high crenelations, and ensorcelled with a lost magic by someone unknown at a time unknown to be as strong as rock walls five times as thick, black and glass-like in appearance and translucent in the dawn sunlight. No-one remembers who built them or how.
The city’s function as a crossroads makes it a melting pot with people from all walks of life, and the Arcane Academy (founded by a former PC from the first campaign) is the leading institute for the study and practice of magic throughout the Three Kingdoms. The city bustles with trade, and you never know who will be encountered walking down the narrow cobbled streets next.
Fort Sharpfang meets all the criteria for an iconic city (unlike the actual capital, which is even better defended but remote and quite dreary).
Use the criteria we have set forth to make the cities of your game world iconic within the minds of the inhabitants of that world – and then use the techniques described to convey that status to the players. You make them both larger-than-life and bring them to life at the same time.