For many of us, gaming is about escapism, and a big part of that is often about escaping to worlds and places unknown or far, far away. But there’s also value in turning the place you live into another world all its own and keeping your game, in at least one sense, local.
There’s no place like home, even when your game appears to be anywhere but – familiar terrain is automatically evocative, and doubly so when filtered through a more alien lens. It gives us, at minimum, a novel enjoyment of the same old same old, and at most a new appreciation for the local mundane.
Countless sci-fi and some fantasy works describe what at first seems like a wholly new setting, only to slowly reveal that it was Earth all along, masked by some global event or the sheer passage of eons of time. Tabletop RPGs have followed suit, revisiting cities like Chicago or Berlin through a more supernatural or alien lens.
Or just by blowing it up, if you’re Shadowrun.
Video gamers living in the DC-Baltimore area talked about the effect of playing Fallout 3 with familiar subway stations, skylines and landmarks (and of course, Bethesda’s own offices) wrecked by the nuclear apocalypse. The tiny pieces of the city where they lived and worked suddenly became sources of dark humor and pensive melancholy. The same effect can be harnessed for tabletop gaming, although it requires a bit more subtlety given the lack of visual cues to trigger that sense of eerie familiarity.
Using a local landscape – like the city you all game in, if you’re lucky like that – as backdrop for a game can lead to anything from kitsch humor to creepy chills depending on how you decide to play it. Since your players are often in on a joke that their characters are not, checking up on all the best and worst uses of dramatic irony is a fantastic place to start.
It’s important that the reveal is often done through a number of clues that are tangential at best to the core story and characters. After all, the characters don’t care that what they’re walking through used to be downtown St. Louis, to them it’s just “New Archtown” and always has been since the world ended.
Specifically because the players know, or will come to know, the world behind the world they’re playing in, trying to leverage facets of that world as key plot points often falls flat. The ‘reveal’ will often ring as too simple or too obvious to your players, and asking them to then RP their characters being in the dark may be more tedious than rewarding. By and large, it’s best to keep these familiar elements as a backdrop and a source of emotional impact to the players as they go through the game rather than trying to make them essential to the story itself.
If you’re playing in a game set both in the current time and a familiar place (which typically means supernaturals, superheroes, or Lovecraftian horror), keep an eye on the oddball stories that hit local news. Any town (often the smaller the better) will get at least a story a month that seems ludicrous or even surreal. Look for ways to tie them to the characters’ clandestine actions, either as an after effect of decisions they made in the game, the cover story the agency is using to mask their mayhem, or as setup for what the Big Bad is really up to behind the scenes.
If you’re keeping the locale local but shifting the timeframe to historical, far-flung future, post-apocalyptic or alternate universe, modern news stories likely won’t have any bearing (although having humorous ones show up in archives in a post-apocalyptic game can be good for a quick laugh).
Instead, link to the location by landmarks. If your players are familiar with the area, the landmarks they’ll associate with the location often aren’t the ones out-of-towners come to see. Think smaller and more personal. Seeing the Golden Gate bridge in shambles is evocative, but walking through the empty, dusty aisles of your favorite local bookstore often packs a much stronger punch. Favorite haunts are much better landmarks than national treasures any day, both for humor and for heartache.
Since you’re not working in a visual medium, it’s also valuable to think about the landmarks that evoke an area that aren’t physical constructions. A futuristic North Carolina could feature actual armies under banners of differing barbecue styles, so long removed that they don’t even remember why they named their new fort Lexington. A supernatural Maryland where Old Bay is secretly a mystic compound that serves to safeguard the masses against the evil lizards of the district. Naturally, food springs to mind first, but any popular hometown tradition or local quirk can be extrapolated into a much more vital and tangible element of the setting for humor or horror’s sake.
If you keep it small, keep it in the background, and focus on the game for what it is, these little hints of familiar turf will be just the right spice to make a game feel a little closer to home in more ways than one.
Note to self: Never write an article when hungry…