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I am thinking about starting a campaign which is based on my and my players' hometown and direct environment. I can imagine a plethora of pitfalls that come with this as opposed to creating a purely fictional world. Mainly, I will have less control over what the environment looks like in terms of geographical positioning of towns and distances. I do plan to set the campaign in a post-apocalyptic style setting, so many of the familiar areas will be completely ruined / fubar.

I want to know if there are best practices to this approach. What are the do's and don'ts for playing a campaign set in a real-life environment that is very familiar to all players?

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I feel like this should be related to a question about games where players play themselves as PCs, but I can't find any :/ –  Cristol.GdM Apr 8 at 21:17
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They will not play themselves. –  Marc Dingena Apr 8 at 21:20
    
Yep, that's the point of related: giving info about a related topic for people who might look at that question in the future. –  Cristol.GdM Apr 8 at 21:32

4 Answers 4

up vote 8 down vote accepted

First of all, there's no right or wrong in here. The do's can be in some groups don'ts to a certain extent and vice versa. What I'm trying to say here is that what really decides what works and what doesn't is your group. These are merely things that I've used and they worked or didn't work for me. I'm hoping, still, that it may help you.

DO's

Use the familiarity to your advantage

I think that this is the main advantage of using such a familiar setting. You can use all those familiar alleys and streets, all those familiar restaurants and the like. The familiarity gives you the tools to describe better than you could otherwise. You just need to place an event in the famous Italian diner and they all know what you're talking about. Furthermore, if something is ain't as it used to be it will jump to their heads immediately, thus shortening the expositions that you'll need.

Have some of the people they know in there

There are those people that you know to imitate pretty damn well in your area. They can be great NPCs, as you already know them and this time you don't have to illuminate them. They'll automatically know who you're talking about, and little glitches won't damage the way they perceive the characters. It is advisable, though, to limit them to supporting roles.

Place major events in familiar places to all of you

Although I've said it in the first section, I do believe that it deserves a section of its own. Place a murder mystery in your favorite diner, with the owner as the victim and they're gonna do far more for him than for everyone else in a fictional world. They know who s/he is, and they have an emotional bond to her.

Have some of the sessions in iconic places in town

If most of a particular session is going to take place in a square, why not playing the game in that square? Although it may be a little bit noisier and the like, they get the feel of the place, and they can search in real life. Maybe even hide some of the clues in the square as handouts.

Don't

Don't change too much…

The more you change, the less familiar it becomes. While this is not bad by itself, it surely takes from our goal here, of gaming in a familiar place. We still want them to feel that their in their own place, or all of the magic of GMing and gaming in your own town is lost.

…but don't leave it the same

We still want it to be a little bit different, though, or our hands are tied and so our possibilities. This means that something has to change. How much is up to you and your group, but it should be clear how much has been changed and how much remained the same.

Don't give familiar real-life persons center stage

They will always feel one of two options: too real compared to the characters or almost not real. While the first takes from the feel of the story and from the player's ability to connect to their characters, the second takes from the suspension of disbelief. Keeping them to the background enables you to enjoy from all of the believability bonuses from using them while keeping the negative side effects to the minimum.

And an end

These are my 2 cents on the topic. Hoping any of this will help you…

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I'd expand this to include "know more than the players": go into places like tourist information bureaus or similar for information; get maps and pamphlets about places (also handy props and player aids); get books on local history and geography to read around the area and historical people/groups/societies; have a walk around the areas you're going to include, and areas around it. Knowing more about an area means when the player runs in a direction you'll have information available to cover their new locale. Peteris has included this as an answer, but tbh its just one facet to consider. –  Ardavion Apr 8 at 12:18
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When you pitch this to players highlight that its not a documentary, but rather a dramatic narrative and that they shouldn't expect it to be a 1:1 analog, but instead more like "based on a true story." –  Joshua Aslan Smith Apr 8 at 20:35
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Having run a 2 and a half year post-apoc game I cannot agree more with @JoshuaAslanSmith here. Adhering too closely to fact can become a straight jacket, and you risk spending more time obsessing about the precise location of a particular shop etc than you do over the fun story stuff. It's certainly an interesting basis for a campaign, but make sure to remember to keep things in perspective, especially during your prep. –  Phil Apr 8 at 21:22

In addition to Yosi's excellent post: playing in familiar (in real life) setting is unsafe. Players will be much more interrested in the setting, in the characters, in the game - they will invest more emotions to the game and risk more as players, even if the characters will be extremely careful. This is not a bug, this is a feature, and a feature which should make the game better for many players, but it is not everyone's cup of tea, so make sure that players really want this, at least if they are not experienced in narrativist playing.

What is especially dangerous is playing and describing people and things that might be dear to some of the players. Hurting such NPCs might hurt some players too, but not too much, any sane person would handle this. But if a player finds that his girlfriend's father works for mafia ingame, he might take it as an offense, as though you accused his would-be family in real life. Even if there is no such dirty secret against the familiar people, just to roleplay them in a way much different from how they know them is likely to spoil the experience, at least unless they find a good reason for it.

This is the main reason for restricting the familiar people to friendly roles of honest citizens. Unless you are sure players will handle it, exclude those they love (or hate) from important roles (in postapocalyptic scenario, they could all be dead - this doesn't). Also, including anyone the players (or any one of the players) know much better than you is risky.

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As a supplement to Yosi's answer, I can't accept this as the question's answer, but you deserve a +1 for your excellent input. –  Marc Dingena Apr 8 at 11:35

Beware of friends-of-friends and relatives

As you're "playing" for all the NPC's, you'd do well to avoid places, people and events that your players know much better than you do - otherwise you'll run into misunderstandings about "obvious" things, and it'll be very hard to do that convincingly.

For most things that'd be just an incovenience, but treatment of their friends and relatives is very sensitive subject, and you need to do that very carefully - if at all.

Use modern tools

Basing a campaign on real life gives you a lot of resources even if you're using unfamiliar locations. You can have a dynamic, detailed map of the world and locations simply by using a computer. Do you have an encounter in a parking lot in the neighboring town you've never visited? Open google streetview on a tablet and show everyone what's around there, how the parkinglot looks like, and what's immediately visible from that spot. The nearby businesses and locations also will give you inspiration about possible options - this allows you to 'wing-it' a campaign even if players go exploring in unexpected directions.

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Even though it might 'cheapen' my first real GM experience by not having to come up with a lot of fiction, I think using Google Maps and similar tools will really make it easy for me to address ad-hoc situation and help the players understand their whereabouts. Printing out a map and penciling in barricades and character positions will be a great visual aid while remaining very true to 'the real deal'. –  Marc Dingena Apr 8 at 13:12

Great answers all, but I feel a few words could be said in relation to the post-ap setting.

Use emotional artifacts common to the group

Artifacts can be anything. Perhaps the only vehicle to make it is your common friends beaten down station wagon you always gave him a hard time for. Perhaps the soup kitchen in the old hotel still features that weird statue the hotel had in the lobby. Artifacts like these anchor the player characters in the world and adds to the immersion.

Make exploring worth it

There are always places you haven't been to in your home town and there are always places with rumors about them. It could be that army base, an old factory or maybe the sealed off cellars of the municipal building. Let the rumors be true or add to them. Let your players see a whole new side of the city they thought they knew.

Have the enemies there mirror the enemies here

What group of people do you dislike or distrust in your home town? The popular kids at school? That gang of meth dealers on the outskirts? The police even? Let them or a group similar to them be the antagonists. For best effect, make them multi-faceted and give them some good traits so that it's not too easy to hate them.

Make sure there's always a safe haven

A home base where the PC:s can rest and stash stuff is worth a lot. Even if they need to leave town for a while and return to a city overrun by evil mutants they should always be able to get to their safe haven. This reinforces the town as being their home and gives them a solid connection you can use for various nefarious GM deeds.

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