Friday, June 17, 2005

Small Town Games

There is a possibility in gaming that is often overlooked and yet in my opinion is fraught with potential. In many, if not all, game settings there is a tendency to deal with large cities and with urban areas,From the Forgotten Realms Waterdeep to Cyberpunk's Night City. But I think that it's possible to run interesting and evocative games set in small towns and it might be a pleasant change of pace to do so.

Below are a few of the conventions and conceits of playing a game set in a small town.

Everybody knows everybody
In a small town game, it is damn near literally possible for the GM to create every single NPC that lives in the town. Or at least make nice list of them all. Why is this a good thing? Well. It give the players a real sense of community. It enables role playing that goes past monster killing, and it's a useful tool for screwing with the players. Consider:

1) NPC's who will help or harm you based simply on knowing your parents.

2) Try breaking out of jail (or the dungeon or whatever...) when you know that the one and only guard is a cousin's husband. Can't exactly kill him can you.

3) Try dealing with the local friendly sheriff when he turns up on your doorstep 10 minutes after you've done something very naughty. He knew to go right to your house because everybody around these parts knows you're the biggest troublemaker in the county.

4) Dealing with the inevitable Hatfield/McCoy style feud that springs up occasionally. Always good when the PC's are connected to both sides and thus caught directly in the middle of a war of loyalties.

5) The area has a real,varied,and inevitably distorted Oral History. Looking at records or files will never tell you enough of the story in a small town chronicle. If you want to know the real story behind somebody or something then you generally have to go and talk to some local geezer and extract it from him or her... At their own ponderous pace.

6) A whispering campaign moves at roughly the speed of light through a small town. Never mind that the rumor may be total crap. It's a good story. And what the hell else is there to do around here? If a rumor last long enough. It becomes accepted truth no matter what anybody says or does. Your PC's might go to church only to find that the preacher is talking indirectly about you and your supposed "sins".

Nobody knows anybody as well as they think.
People always have a seamy side that they keep well hidden. Consider the bank president who is a pillar of the community who likes to dress up like Barbara Streisand, get tied up and well spanked every weekend. There is usually at least one woman who is extremely careless with her nudity and her window shades. There are preachers who drink, there are couples who fight, there are closet homosexuals, There are crypto-racists, There are child beaters and molesters in every town. Hey, you never know. The fella down the street who works in the city might be killing prostitutes and burying them under his house. Everybody has secrets... Especially in a place where everybody knows you. The flip side to this coin is of course that you might think you know all you need to know about somebody and be tragically wrong... For instance, consider the town floozy who's the subject of much juicy gossip and sexual speculation... But who is kind, caring, and a good mother for her son.

The Point of Noticeability( A.K.A. The "Gladys Kravitz Rule".)
It is a lot easier to do big crazy things in a big crazy city where all you have to do is not be there when the cops arrives in order to get away with things. In the city, people don't really want to get involved and will pretend they didn't really see anything anyway. Under the right circumstances, you can manage a firefight in broad daylight and still not get caught.

That ain't going to happen in a small town. PC's will always have to deal with the Point of Noticeability. Sooner or later people in town are going to notice weird or large goings on and they will talk. They may not know exactly what's happening but it won't stop them from speculating... And the Speculating may be more damaging than the actual truth... And easier to believe... Or prove.

Getting away with murder? Hah! Forget that shit. Always assume there are witnesses unless great care has been taken to do things hidden and even then it might not work... They might get spotted by other people who have their own reason for not being seen. Consider the look on the faces of the PC's when they grease somebody and drive the body out to the countryside only to find the field they've chosen is the trysting place of a pair of young lovers.

Think your going to manage to get away with something that somebody witnessed? Fat chance. People in small towns will come out of the woodwork to denounce you if they think you did it... Much less actually SAW you. Invariably it will be somebody with an active conscience or a personal tie to your victim. That stuff is statistically improbable in the big city but not in the small town.

Course, just because there are witnesses doesn't mean they don't have their own reason for keeping quiet. Consider the above example about the field... Suppose instead of young lovers, the witnesses are actually prominent married people... As in married to *other* people... Hard to explain to a cop? Try in front of a court of law. But they still know... And there's no telling what may happen. Blackmail is an ugly thing.

In other words... Assume witnesses and plan accordingly. Every PC group should have to deal with their very own Gladys Kravitz across the street.

"Here there be Dragons..."
One of the great things about a small town game is that it is possible not only to come up with the majority of N.P.C.'s but also you come up with a full map of the town and it's environs. This is a feat that can be really daunting when dealing with a larger urban area. A couple of rules to keep in mind when building your small town:

A) Small towns are small for a reason.. Often this is because of geographical features(Mountains, large bodies of water,deserts,Forests, etc...) that preclude the possibility of a larger city or because of extremely limited resources to support a town.(like water or arable land for instance)

B) Sit down and write out a list of all the things that a small town absolutely has to have to survive... Then halve it. Make people leave town regularly to go to larger places for things or, make them themselves or do without.

C) Even small towns have abandoned places whether it be crumbling homes, spooky churches or closed army bases

D) Even small towns have places where it's not safe for a person to walk alone especially if they happen to be of the wrong skin color,ethnic persuasion or religion...

E) Even small towns have places where the rich folk live and places where the poor folk live.

F) Figure a space ratio of 5 to 1 for farmland and outlying area to actual town

G) Every small town has a Main Drag of some sort. This is the one or two major streets where 80% of the businesses are located. In my home town, it used to be thing to do to troll up and down main street on the weekends... God only knows why.

H) Every small town has a festival of some sort at some point in the year. It could be the annual Macaroon festival or Swap Days or some such. School kids get into a lather over these things and there is normally an opportunity for some kind of traveling carnival.

Another good thing about small towns is that to a degree the GM has great control over the environment. Don't want the P.C.'s to leave town for while? It's easy to do when one washed out bridge, or a foot of snow can close everything. For a near perfect example of this, check out Stephen King's "Storm of the Century".

Ongoing Drama
In a small town every body has there own lives and these things bump along as they will. The next step in creating a town is creating the backdrop of ordinary lives that the P.C.'s have to deal with. These things can be mere spice to an ongoing chronicle or they can become the axis around which the story begins to turn:

1) Feuds ( this of course brings the aforementioned Hatfields and McCoys to mind as well as Romeo and Juliet. Naturally this doesn't have to mean blood in the streets but it might mean a weekly scrap or two in the local tavern, hard feelings, rumors,slashed tires and poisoned lawns, and yes, occasional bloodshed.)

2) Secret Crushes (which are usually not a secret to anybody who is paying any attention to the person who has the crush. Does the Secret Admirer get their heart desire or do they discover some horrifying secret about their would-be beloved P.C.? Only time will tell.

3) Love triangles (bizarre and interesting among P.C.'s, they also happen among the N.P.C. population.... Suppose a good friend asks you to ask someone out for them, only to become interested in the girl yourself?

4) Infidelities (Jerry Springer aside; this is still sort of one of the major taboo's of small town life and one of the most damaging things that can figure into a persons life. Meaningless sex? True Love found after a good,bad,or indifferent marriage? It all still carries a sordid air in a small town.)

5) Restless kids (In any small town you are going to have kids that have a rough time in their teens. Some have asshole parents, some are looking for trouble, some are just looking for harmless kicks before they get too old to enjoy them. Some might need to leave the small town before they truly find some balance or settle down. Which ones will straighten and fly right and which one's will die in a drunken car crash on prom night... You be the judge

6) Differences/racial tension

Does your town have regular difficulties with Class warfare? Is there open racism or crypto-racism? Are the local religions at one another's throats? Also, In every town there are usually a few persons of some odd religion, ethnic type or coloration that basically live alone among strangers. What sorts of things do these people have to put up with. Maybe you have a P.C. who belongs to the only Pakistani family in a deep southern town.

7) Rattlesnake mean people

In every town, you've got at least one guy who's got an extra Y chromosome and feels he has to prove it every Friday once he's drunk the bulk of his paycheck. In every town there is at least one pruny old bitch who calls the cops on children straying into her yard. In every town there is at least one freak who likes to poison popcorn balls, and put razor blades into apples every Halloween. In every town there is at least one asshole kid willing to kick the stomach of an obviously pregnant dog.

In Texas, you at least have the option of the "He Needed Killing." murder defense... But probably not here. So you may have to get creative to make these people see the error of their ways.


Any time you've got a situation where you've got entrenched power structures you're going to have corruption. All you gotta do is decide where and how bad. Is the local pastor skimming the baskets and molesting the choir girls? Is the local sheriff in the pocket of the old money family who own half the town? Is the mayor embezzling? Is the bank manager? Is the city council bought and paid for?

The thing to remember is that these people are going to work hard to protect their little piece of the pie. They are not going to take kindly to anybody muscling their action or trying to expose their schemes to the harsh light of day.

The Supernatural Element:
Most Games are predicated on some sort of supernatural activity of some sort. Whether it be cultists and their rituals,monsters, psionic powers or Gray alien interference or whatever. There is only rule to follow when inserting the Supernatural into a small-town game. The Supernatural needs to keep a low profile. Many times supernaturals seek out small fly-speck out of the way towns in order to stay out from under needless scrutiny. This is of course not to say that each and every one of your neighbors is some kind of monster or freak.(although that might make an interesting game in and of itself.) The rule to remember is that exposure in a small town is 10 times worse than it might be in a big city. If you expose the bad guy for what he is he might also be able to expose you. How would your neighbors react to the knowledge that you have truck with the supernatural, or worse, ARE some kind supernatural oddity. Odds are fairly good that they'll break out the torches and pitchforks and camp out on your doorstep.

Be very careful. The key to making a small town game work is balancing supernatural problems with mundane problems. In the olden days of gaming if you wanted to give your players trouble you just kept throwing bigger and better monsters at them. In these enlightened times much more horrific effect can be achieved with crop blight. Soon neighbor is pitted against neighbor and all hell breaks loose.

Just Visiting
Most of these suggestion have been written with the idea that the players are natives to the area and are used to it's peculiarities but in closing it might be good to take a look at how outsiders coming into a small town might have to adjust their big city ways in order to survive.

1) it's a good idea to have an idea as to the nature of how the townsfolk deal with outsiders. Are they a standoffish lot like the Iowa townspeople in Music Man or are they friendly folk... Maybe too friendly, like say, Stepford Community friendly.

2) In every community there are those who will buck the trend in dealing with outsiders. In standoffish communities there are people who will be very nice to outsiders either because they haven't become so insular in their attitudes or have pissed off the community themselves and are looking for a new friend. In friendly communities there will always be at least one crank who won't talk to new people and will spit on their shoes if he gets the chance. One has wonder what this guys story is. One also has to wonder why he's so unhappy to see you even though he's never met you.

3) Visitors might realize that the entire community is hiding a terrible secret from the outside world and from outside folk too. Oh sure, everybody in town knows that there is a horrible monster is lurking in the city sewers but they never talk about it. The Players might not figure out what's going on until it's far too late. (Note to Jonathan Harker: If you happen to mention to your fellow travelers that you are going to Castle Dracula, and they start crossing themselves,praying and pressing Crucifixes into your hands... BUT REFUSE TO EXPLAIN WHY. You might just want to alter your travel plans.)

4) Conversely, Your players might wander into a small town and be the only ones to notice something terrible. This could be some threat that nobody else has twigged to yet and which the townsfolk refuse to believe in or it could be some oddity in the town that the townsfolk totally ignore and find it odd that the out-of-towners are even bringing it up. ("Well, of course the Summer Squash festival ends in a human sacrifice... What are you, stupid?")

Want some more inspiration? Try out some of this stuff:

"Something Wicked This Way Comes" (Ray Bradbury): The book is a classic but the movie is also pretty good and creepy. Shows supernatural types preying on the frailties of small town folk.

Damn near anything by Steven King: this guy has the utter knack about writing about small towns and small town people. These titles are of especial interest; "Needful Things", "It", "Salem's Lot", "Tommyknockers", "Storm of the Century", "The Gunslinger", "Christine" ( a note: for the most part, skip the movies. Most of them don't translate well. "The Shining","Christine","Salem's Lot" and "Storm of the Century" are the only exceptions in my book.)

"Twin Peaks" (and all related titles): Creepy and weird, this series has got it all. An FBI man with a Zen methodology, People with freakishly dark sides, visions,psychosexual vampires, Indian spiritual realms, vengeful ferrets, and the toothsome , if deceased, Sheryl Lee. If you are blessed with a video store that has the entire run of the series as well as the movie "Fire walk with Me", I highly recommend it.

Damn near anything by H.P. Lovecraft: It should be noted that I don't much care for Lovecraft because I don't care for his writing style at all. But his vision transcends his limited ability to frame it. And he writes a lot about creepy fucked up shit happening in out-of-the-way, fly-speck new England towns. "Dunwich Horror" is one of my faves. Both movie versions ("Children of the Damned") are pretty O.K.

"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" : Only seen the movie of this but if the book is half as good then this is a winner. A good old fashioned ghost story set in the biggest small town in the south. Savanna Georgia.

"The Lottery" (Shirley Jackson) Only a short story but pretty horrifying. Showcases how people in small towns can get pretty strange without being necessarily supernatural.

Sono Finito.


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