Geography of Games

Posted by on Jan 19, 2012 in Musing, RPGs | 7 Comments

Chicago, Illinois (© Will Hindmarch)

Each roleplaying game is a city.

This is what I’ve been thinking about as I’ve been turning over definitions of roleplaying games and story games in my head, these past few days. RPGs and cities are two of my favorite things to read about and explore. I love them for their emergent beauty and their complex identities. They are things made up of multitudes.

An RPG, like a city, has many inhabitants who may love the place for disparate reasons, see it different ways, live very different lives amid the same avenues and structures. We may not travel the city in the same way, we may be visitors or residents, we may support different teams or be regulars at different pubs—we may even think the other is not getting the proper local experience. Yet we are neighbors.

Each game has its own character and history and internal geography. We can say that your hometown and my hometown both have grids or boulevards or grand plazas and that helps us understand each other but it doesn’t attempt to wrap up the whole city, to contain it, bottle it up, or define it. We can say that one city has a lot of beautiful bridges and another has cultivated a dazzling skyline and appreciate both for their own charms without damning the other by comparison. We can prize one city’s grand plaza without reaching the conclusion that cities lacking identical plazas are “broken.”

Cities may have common climates, similar architecture, interwoven histories, while at the same time being too complex and too full of myriad tales, intersecting stories, moving individuals and unmeasured networks to be easily appreciated through summary. The planner who lays out the park can’t know how many couples will propose marriage inside it and how many will break up on its benches. Your London is a city of first loves, awkward kisses, and blurry first dates. Mine is a honeymoon spot, that place where I saw the big dog trapped at the bottom of tube escalators, where I ate a sandwich in the rain outside the Tate.

We don’t actually attend places, we inhabit places and times together. Our experiences—happy or sad, precious or common—may be statistically uncommon but no less genuine. I’ve been robbed in San Francisco and that does not make it a city of thieves and nor does that get me my stuff back.

Roleplaying games are likewise vast and experiential and emergent and poorly rendered through categorical descriptors. We talk about cities by sharing details, by offering advice, by giving directions that may not be the only ways to reach favorite spots. We can report on population density or elevation or annual rainfall and get one sense of a city but that is not the same as meeting people from that place and that is not the same as going there.

Successfully defining the word city (Oxford American tells me it means “a large town” or “an incorporated municipal center”) does so little to tell us what cities are actually like. If I say “Picture a city” and you picture Istanbul and I picture Tokyo we are both right. One is not more representative of the form than the other.

We can bullshit about populations and histories and skylines, we can defend our favorite city over beers, we can insist that New York is more quintessentially this and London is more iconically that, but none of those things takes us to the place and introduces us to the people and feeds us the food. Our citizenship can be long-standing and loyal, our dedication true, but none of that establishes our expertise over the form. Understanding the electrical grid of Miami doesn’t improve the plumbing in Cairo.

It seems to me that so many arguments about RPGs devolve into geographical trivia mistaken for indicators of quality. You say Chicago is a certain distance from Atlanta and I think it’s probably not that far. We could curse each other’s names over it yet, if we were together in person, chatting over drinks, I imagine we’d say something like, “Well, whatever, the point is, there’s this great bar I love in Little Five Points called the Porter, and if you get the chance, you should go there.”

Atlanta doesn’t become more Atlanta-like or “better” than Boston if we establish exactly how far either is from Tulsa. The yardage between burgs doesn’t tell us that much about the cities themselves. It doesn’t help us understand what a city is.

The metaphor’s imperfect. Of course it’s imperfect.

How far away is Apocalypse World or Night’s Black Agents? Depends where you’re standing.

Is your new game walkable? What do I care—I like cars, I like trains, and I’ve got time.

What’s the tallest building in Eclipse Phase? How high is Burning Wheel above sea level? Is that new Marvel RPG on the Gulf Stream? Did you know Mutants & Masterminds has more parks per capita than Technoir but that Technoir’s got citywide wifi? You know, D&D stands on the site of an ancient fort where many bloody battles were won.

Go to the places. See the sites. Come back and share your perspective, your photos, your stories. Love the cities you love. The cities stay cities, no matter what we say in this pub.


  1. Andy Collins
    January 19, 2012

    Great post, Will. Our treasured memories of RPGs are rarely about the words printed in the rulebooks, much like our memories of cities typically revolve around the street grid.

    OK, maybe you remember the roundabouts in Christchurch, but that’s probably because you cracked a “Hey kids, Big Ben…Parliament!” joke to your passenger and now every time you use the same line the two of you think about your awesome trip to New Zealand.

    It’s about the emergent stories you shared with the people who were along for the same ride.

  2. Alan Kellogg
    January 19, 2012

    So what city is D&D?

    Chicago. Gary grew up there before his family moved to Lake Geneva, and his memories of the Windy City flavor Greyhawk. Now Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar had its impact, but Chicago is the foundation.

    Vampire: The Masquerade is more New York City.

  3. Will Hindmarch
    January 19, 2012

    Thanks, Andy. Well said.

    That’s a rabbit hole, right there, Alan! 🙂

  4. Brand Robins
    January 19, 2012

    This is an excellent article, and reminds me both of the many and diverse cities and games that I have loved.

    It also makes me think of how differently I think of cities as a citizen, as a tourist, and as (for a short time) an urban planning student. Trying to live in a city, trying to visit a city, trying to maintain a city, and trying to build a city are all different.

    When I lived in LA I hated the traffic, loved the food, reveled in the mobility, was disappointed by the lack of center. When I worked with City programs in LA I always wanted to cry and kick and scream over the inhumanity of the system. When I studied LA I was always captivated by the way it defied the structural expectations of other cities. When I visit LA now I just love the weather, the sun, the beach and the fact that I don’t have to fight with it anymore.

    It’s a similar thing with games. When I play a game, when I run a game, when I lonely fun around a game, when I design a game… just like with LA, each of those things happens around the construct I call “XX game” — but each of them has a very different moment of experience.

    P.S. Los Angeles is broken. Love it, but it is.

  5. Shane
    January 20, 2012

    Will I love how this looks and feels like a “to each her own” / “de gustibus” essay, but the metaphor actually improves my ability to compare and evaluate different games.

    (Mostly by reminding me to be careful in deciding what is and isn’t comparable, and to be super-careful in teasing actual implications out from the noise).

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  7. Tavis
    January 29, 2012

    Alan, Lankhmar had such an impact because it’s Chicago too; later stories get overlaid with San Francisco, but I bet research would reveal that Leiber was first corresponding with Fischer when he was in the Windy City, and my time living amongst its smoke-ghost vistas felt just like D&D to me.

    Great essay Will. Note that because we learn to play from mentors, actual cities tell lots of the history of RPGs too. Back before the internet this was even more true; the original tragedy of TSR is in large part a conflict between the values of Lake Geneva/Chicago and those of Minneapolis/St. Paul, at a time when long-distance calls between the two were hard for a fledgling company to afford.


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