Sense of Place

I’ve always loved dramatic narratives that unfold in a mundane context, because of the way the believable little details of a familiar place make it all seem so much more possible. The suburban development still under construction in E.T.; the motels, diners, and gas stations that populate the second season of Fargo; the Pacific Northwest as depicted in My Own Private Idaho. Many of the more memorable one-shots I’ve run were set in real-world locales, where specific aspects of an actual place and time give everything a certain verisimilitude. Among those were a session of Bootleggers that played out over the smuggling corridor between Quebec and Providence, RI during Prohibition, and a game of Spirit of ’77 set in Atlantic City during the age of disco.

In early December of 2018 I ran a session of PSI*RUN, Meguey Baker’s excellent game about renegade psychics, and—hoping to conjure that sense of drama juxtaposed against the mundane—employed a method I’ve used a couple of times now. PSI*RUN always starts with a crash, where the vehicle transporting the imprisoned, amnesiac PCs takes a spill from which the PCs can escape, thus beginning their adventure.

While everyone was thinking about their characters during setup, I opened Google Earth on my laptop and zoomed in to a random spot in Montana. I chose Montana because I grew up there, and I wanted some of that wide-open highway feel you get in the eastern part of the state. I quickly found a stretch of US-12 that fit the bill, and used that as a starting point. Sometimes, if I find a specific image or detail that captures the vibe of a place, I’ll show it to the players, but usually I describe what I see and let them build the scene in their minds. In this case, I had decided it was the middle of winter, so I kept the image to myself and described the snowy landscape and blizzard conditions as they climbed out of the burning wreckage of the prison van.

The first scene ended with one of the PCs taking over the consciousness of a passerby and driving everyone to the nearest small town in her commandeered Honda Civic. I followed US-12 south to Interstate 94, then east until I hit the next small town: Rosebud, Montana. I zoomed in for a closer look:

Rosebud, Montana.

The PC who had possessed the 19-year-old driver had all of her memories and knowledge, and decided that she lived in Rosebud, so the group sought shelter at her parents’ house. In Google Earth, I dropped the little orange person onto the map and spent a few seconds looking around from the street-level view until I found a likely home:

From there, the middle and final acts of the game played out, with me using the Google Earth street view to describe details and aspects of the physical environment that either added color to the proceedings or directly impacted their tactical decision-making as their pursuers closed in. It was a fun game, made all the more memorable by using real-world reference points.

During the Steam Winter Sale last week I picked up Far Cry 5, because I enjoy open-world exploration in video games and have become increasingly impressed by the ability of developers like Ubisoft to create rich environments. For triple-A titles like Far Cry, dozens of people work together to craft the assets and design the maps, refining every corner of vast virtual spaces down to the placement of an oil can on a workbench. Most impressive from this perspective to me so far have been the worlds of Assassin’s Creed: Origins and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. which attempt to recreate the worlds of ancient Egypt and Greece, respectively. There’s a lot for tabletop GMs to learn from the way those two games depict landscape and human settlements in particular, but that’s a subject for another post.

After playing Far Cry 5 for a while, I noticed the “arcade” option that allows you to play on maps created by other users, and spent a few hours dabbling with those, appreciating the enormous range of contributions from seasoned level designers to what I can only presume to be 11-year-old psychopaths (or average American boys, take your pick) who cover their maps with impaled corpses and lakes of blood. And then I made the mistake of opening the map editor myself.

I’m a die-hard worldbuilder. Since I first played D&D in 1978, I’ve left a wake of fantasy geographies, half-baked fictional pantheons, and unfinished treatises on imaginary cultures. I can’t resist the pull of a blank map. So when I opened up the Fary Cry 5 editor, I fell right into it. The game happens to be set in Montana, where I lived until the age of 10, so without even thinking I started to recreate Rosebud.

For someone who spent 22 years of his life trying to imagine what Weimar Berlin was like, it’s been a fascinating exercise. I’m always telling my students at the Center for Cartoon Studies that drawing from life is a way of understanding the world, and in this virtual space I’m engaged in the same activity—paying attention to the way a utility pole leans to one side, how many derelict automobiles a person can cram into a side yard, the shape of a mud puddle. I find these mundane details, juxtaposed by design and happenstance, endlessly fascinating.

In my experience, if you—as a writer, artist, or GM—can create a believable environment, any moment of incidental action or high drama that unfolds in that space has a greater resonance. Details arranged properly can make an imaginary place feel right in the experience of the reader, observer, or player, helping them to inhabit and remember that place, however briefly. In a 3D virtual space like Far Cry, a a lot of time and effort needs to go into creating those details, but in a tabletop RPG you can create the effect with a few well-chosen words. I’ll post more about how I try to do that in the future.

FREE STUFF: Here are some play sheets I made for the session of PSI*RUN described above. The pdf may look messed up if you open it in a web browser, but should look fine if you download it and open it manually.