There’s always something going on in the city. Cities are a bastion of innovation, creativity, and action. It’s in cities that we come to understand that everyone is the main character in their own story. The players should feel like there’s something happening around every corner. They should glimpse only a small percentage of the things happening in the city, and understand that the most interesting things happening have nothing to do with them.
Living in a city means living cheek-by-jowl with your neighbors. They can’t help but insinuate themselves into each others’ lives. And everyone has an agenda or an angle. The characters should perceive that every person they meet has something going on on the side. Every person knows something about someone else. Every person can offer the characters the opportunity of a lifetime, if they can do them a favor.
While it’s helpful to come to the table with some ideas of plot hooks, adversaries, locations, and supporting characters, let the story unfold on its own. Don’t make any assumptions about how the story ends, or even how it middles. As the Magistrate, be prepared to set the stakes, inject dramatic twists, and generally challenge characters in their efforts to meet their goals.
Living in a city is different from exploring a dungeon or wandering the wilderness. The mystery isn’t so much about what lies beyond the next corner, but more about how so-and-so might stab you in the back. At the same time, the city is its own source of wonder and delight. This city is at the center of this world, boasting a near endless variety of cultures and peoples. As Magistrate, you have license to add to the city’s geography, landscape, politics, denizens and other elements.
The city is crawling with fantastic creatures – cultured humanoids of all sizes, domesticated beasts, and vermin. People and beasts and creatures brought together in a city behave very differently than they do in the jungles and forests and wastelands. Moreover, the city is infused with magic and arcane technologies, likely of several different types. As the Magistrate, you have license to bring these elements to life, to craft visions of a city that fuses our modern understanding of urban environments with the best speculative fiction has to offer.
Every person the characters meet has more going on than meets the eye. They have schemes and dealings. They have connections and opportunities. The people the characters meet may be involved in the characters’ stories, but they’re not the main characters: this is not the most important thing in their world at the moment. They have someone else putting pressure on them. They have a meeting they need to get to. They have their wealth tied up in some bigger risk.
Living in a city sometimes means wondering if this is the right place for you. There are things that tie you to the city, but the city constantly reminds you that some of its denizens have far more power, wealth, and charisma. Make them think they won’t ever get ahead. Make them think they won’t ever make any progress. Make them think the things about the city they come to rely on can no longer be reliable.
Beliefs ground us. They give us a north star to guide us in life. In a world of uncertainty, where it seems like everyone is out to get you, beliefs offer a stable ledge. Until they don’t. Put the characters in a situation that will challenge their beliefs. In such situations, we sometimes cling to our beliefs in desperation. Other times, we find ourselves falling. But in those moments, we become stronger, and perhaps know ourselves a little better.
Heat is the currency representing bad things happening to the character. The more Heat they’re under, they more they are under the scrutiny of the city’s resident powers. Ask characters to mark Heat only when they’ve caused a serious disruption in public or with their faction. But use the guidance on their marked Heat for suggestions on how to introduce complications.
People show up at the most inopportune times. Nothing shakes up a situation more than a person appearing on the scene. And when that person has a connection with the characters, the more difficult the situation becomes. And sometimes, a person merely showing up changes an innocuous circumstance into a situation.
Factions are represented by aspects – generally benefits or advantages held by the faction – and complications – things that make it difficult for the faction to work toward its ends. A character’s attachment to their faction can be more important to them than their family. Their actions may not have direct and immediate consequences to them, but may impact their faction, an indirect outcome that can yet be far more devastating.
Factions provide a bit of safety in an otherwise unforgiving environment. Characters can turn to their factions for help. But a faction can turn on any of its members in a heartbeat, should the character no longer represent the faction’s best interests. Or perhaps the character is more valuable to the faction ejected and ostracized. Or perhaps there’s been a shift in power within the faction, and the characters’ allies are no longer in control.
Knowledge of the city can be more powerful than knowing magic. But the city serves no one but itself. Just when a character thinks they can be too clever, when they think their intimacy with the city will get them out of a jam is just when the city reveals it has other plans.
Secrets are powerful implements in the City of Whispers, but they can betray you as soon as aid you. In the game, secrets are represented by Insights about Ties. That is, the kind of thing you know about a specific person, like their romantic connections or criminal history. Giving someone a secret is a double-edged sword. It’s too valuable to give up but too effective not to use.
Operating in a city means constantly entertaining new opportunities. Street smarts is just staying out of trouble even when it looks too good to be true. But some offers, no matter how much they stink, offer rewards that might solve a problem, or even make them go away.
Unfamiliar neighborhoods present their own challenges. Generally, city-dwellers have enough street smarts and geographical knowledge to navigate even a new neighborhood comfortably. In the game, lack of a connection to the neighborhood can put the characters at a disadvantage. New neighborhoods also give you an opportunity to engage the players in further shaping the city, potentially adding new aspects.
Even well-known neighborhoods offer opportunities to reveal some previously unknown denizen, landmark, or resource. And with every mystery comes an opportunity–one that can help them reach their goals faster–or a challenge–one that inevitably stands in the way of their goal.
Perhaps they receive a commission from someone who shouldn’t be familiar with the character’s work. Perhaps they are contacted by a rival faction, or a faction with substantially more resources than their own. Perhaps the character’s estranged and long-lost family member emerges suddenly. And all these folks aren’t merely asking for help: they need that character and no one else.