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It's all about the real estate

Duke Bushido

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As they say:  "Location, Location, Location!"


Mark has a thread going that reminded me of several other threads throughout the history of my time here-- and in particular during out attempt to kit-bash a shared fictional location for a series of Champions adventures--


At any rate, this is an unofficial survey (no; it's not a poll: there are no boxes to tick or circles to-- >gad<  "bubble in."  Ugh.


There seem to be three different approaches to superhero settings, and I'd just like to get a little feedback from those folks who have favorites:


In the largest groups (which is, for this thread, good enough), they can be described as "Marvel," with Spiderman and his buddies battling it out in very real Manhattan in very real New York and whoever was in the West Coast Avengers doing their various fist-driven good in whatever I-feel-certain-was-a-real-location city they were having their brawls in.


On the other side of the coin, we have DC, with Batman in Gotham, Superman in Metropolis, The Flash in Central City, somebody in Keystone, someone else in Something-or-other Beach--   without even the slightest hint as to where these places may be, other than "USA," and generations of fans have been delighted, with this arrangement not really detracting from the enjoyment.  (I have been told that starting at some point in the 80s, a few "real cities" have slipped in here and there, but let's just keep this simple.  I only mention it because someone, rather than giving their favorite and maybe a bit of why it's their preference, will instead point out "but in recent years, a few "real cities" have slipped in here and there, and that's just not what this is about.  ;)  )



Right 'round the edge of the coin, where the shiny metal wears thin and exposes the common work-a-day metals that provide all the mass and structure, we have what, for lack of a better term, I am going to call "RPG."  No: that's not to bias anything one way or the other; I selected that name because it's where I see it the most.  In fact, it was one of the major discussions for Hepzibah, Colorado a while back.  RPG is going to be the category name for the very fictional city that must be set in a very real place.  That is, it either replaces an existing real city, or it is shoehorned into some open (or, these days, less-developed) land that has no major Metropolis, and ties directly into local rivers, mountain ranges, sewer services, and phone lines as if it had always been there.



So I'm just a bit curious:


What you do folks tend to prefer and, if it's not too much imposition, why do you prefer it?  You can write a dissertation; you can write a few lines.  This is not meant to be a judgmental in the least, and it is not to say or attempt to prove _anything_.  In fact:


First rule of this thread:


The guys that went before you?  The guys that went after you?   They aren't wrong!  They _can't_ be wrong, since the question is _not_ "which is better" but is in fact "which do you prefer."  I mean, I suppose they could be _lying_ about what they prefer, which would make them wrong, sort of.....    Still: it's just a fact-finding thing.  Think of it as an on-topic game, if you prefer, and spill!   Tell us what makes your game feel good to you and your players!    🌇




Just to break the ice, and to demonstrate that I've got nothing I'm trying to prove or snipe at, I'll go first:


I prefer fictional cities in vague locations.  Why?  Well, I don't know a lot about comic books, but even before I could read, i remember that Superman and Batman both lived in fictional cities.  As I got older, I started to think that all superheroes lived in fictional cities (say what you want about the Marvel Movies of today, and of the....  four?  Five, now that the movies exist?   famous Marvel characters that even non-comic readers can name (I was like thirty when I realized that Plastic Man was not in the Fantastic Four). DC comics characters are way more a part of pop culture, at least, they were certainly far more ingrained into the generation in which I grew up.  I could name twenty or more DC characters _easily_.  I didn't know Jack Spratt about any of them, but I knew who they were and what they looked like.


And I knew that comic book people lived in fictional cities without specifically being placed on the map.  I knew that "Central City" and "Keystone" were in the midwest somewhere, but never did now where or even how far apart the were supposed to be.



And honestly, it made sense to me-- at least, if followed in a certain groove:  the characters lived in fictitious cities, and travelled to other fictitious cities, and purchased their goods at fictitious stores and drove fictitious automobiles to fictitious locations where they would get pay phone calls from fictitious phone numbers......


But more than that, even:


Dungeons and Dragons, The Fantasy Trip, Traveller, Metamorphosis Alpha (gag)-- they all took place in fictitious locations.  All of them.  Seriously: How many people here know someone who has been to the Spinward Marches?  Yeah.  Thought so.  ;)   :lol:  How about the Temple of Elemental Evil?  Really?  Two of you?  Ah; no.  I see the problem:  that wasn't a Euphemism for Congress.  I mean the actual Temple of Elemental Evil.  


Every city, every port, every town were all fictitious  (except for Metamorphosis Alpha, if only because it had none of those things).


So when Jim (my first GM) convinced us to put our little black Traveller books down and try this superhero game, we didn't even blink that the city had a fictitious name  (okay, truth time:  The city had _no_ name.  We absolutely could not come to any sort of agreement about what to name it.  Falling back to memories of different adventure scenarios from magazines and published modules, all of which mentioned various ways their offerings could be shoehorned into your campaign city, I offered the suggestion "How about Campaign City?"   After a wave of groans and laughter, everyone weighed it out seriously, and thought "It's as good as anything else and better than _everything_ Davien has suggested."    So where is it?  It's on the Great Lakes.  Which one?  Lake Campaign.  And so on, etc.)


The first time we had to trail a car, we were following a guy in a white work van.  "What kind of van, Jim?"


"uhm...  It's a Herrington.  It's a domestic brand; Herrington Coach and Truck is renowned pick-up trucks, vans, and heavy-duty cargo trucks.  They have a reasonable price point on the light trucks, so it's not uncommon to see them as fleet vehicles for companies or municipalities that need a fleet of trucks.  They are also popular work trucks for contractors.  You could sit on the sidewalk and watch ten white Herrington vans go by in less than an hour."


a later sesion, during a stakeout:  "You see the car pulling into the alley below and in front of you.  As you creep to the edge of the building for a better look, you can tell it's a smaller car, and when the driver's door flings open, there's no doubt it's a two-seater.  As the headlights finally shut off, you see it's a sports car, and a damned nice one."


"What is it?"


"It's a Topaz; a Spanish import engineered for just sticking to the curves.  A mid-engine set-up with the motor semi-exposed through the engine cover.  Those things do _not_ come cheap.  it's a Topaz XLR-8 (yeah: Jim thought he was funny); the top of the line for their mid-engine models:  luxurious leather and brass interior with the honest-to-God racing engine (yeah: Jim didn't know a lot about cars, either)."  He turns and looks at one of the players.  "You're actually just a little bit jealous.  You understand that there's a pretty good chance this thing would keep pace with your SuperCycle.  (his Batmobile-that's-a-motorcycle)."



Now about this time, I was reading a comic book (Jim had dozens of them just laying about all the time), and I recall the characters in their secret IDs going into a burger joint.  I can't recall the name of it, but I accepted without really appreciating that it was a fictional place, even though everyone behind the counter was dressed in what was _clearly_ reverse-colored Burger King uniforms of the day (hideous either way around, they were).


"Hey, Jim."




"Howcum comic books use all these fictional stores and shops and brand names?"


"I never thought about it.  I guess they're just hedging a bit; they don't want to take a chance on getting sued."


That made a lot of sense, really.  At least it did at that time.  I mean-- in 1980 I was twenty; I didn't know a lot, but I knew lawsuits were the up-and-coming career.  "So...  Howcum you do it?"


"Well, I don't want to get sued either!" he quipped wide-eyed and dumbfounded, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.



I am not going to tell you how many years it took me to get that, so let's just say that the presentation and my lack of actual attentiveness to his answer meant that it made good sense at the time, and I wouldn't think about it until _I_ was the GM four or five years later.     😊



I still do it, though:  I mean, Campaign City is a living, breathing place: so many years and so many GMs and players have poured so much into it that I wouldn't start it over if i knew I'd live another hundred years.  And when I need a place for a reason, I will pop in a fictional one.  Need parts for a radio?  Circuit Hut has you covered.  Want a chain of mediocre burger joints?  Cheezy's is always open.  Want an upscale burger joint?  Try Albion's.  Need to repair your damaged get-away car?  Go see Toby Bender at Bender's Fender.


And it's not just that-- we've got streets, avenues, parks, colleges, etc-- and it all has.. well, "real places" in this fictional setting.  Not tied to any real piece of land in the US, but definitely _fixed_ in Campaign City.


So why do I continue to do it?  I could just as easily start a new campaign in New York or San Rafael or in any real place.  Why not?


Simply enough, I don't _know_ those places.  Why am I going to invest a bunch of effort into building an adventure or story into a setting that I would have to research _meticulously_ simply because the odds are pretty good than any random player is going sit down and go "well that's completely wrong."  There is also the chance that I will go to a real place, and if Los Angeles, Atlanta, Pheonix, New York City, and a few other places are any example, I _will_ be horribly, horribly disappointed.  There is no chance I am going to visit a fictional place, except at the table with my friends.


Most importantly of all, at least to me, is that the player characters can have _real_ (you know what I mean) impact in a fictional city.  What's the use of my pretending that the local superheroes have inspired residents to obey social distancing and wear masks to prevent the spread of Covid here in Vidalia, Ga, if all I have to do is run down to the gas station to see people with their masks around their adam's apples or over their foreheads, standing in tight huddles, sharing a cigarette, and licking each other's eyeballs?


What good is a story where the Heroes put out the wildfires if I can turn on the news and see that a thousand more acres have burned since lunch?  For me, that's not just counter to the feeling we're working for, but actively depressing.


So why isn't it tied hard and fast to a set of co-ordinates in the real world?


Several reasons, not the least of which is that Chicago is the most likely place, and let's face it:  Chicago, like New Jersey, isn't really fit for human habitation.  (  ;)   )


Jeez.  Some of you folks can't take a joke.....


Seriously, though:


It's because over the years, we have needed things-- we have needed a bit of foothills, or a river with a fork in just the right place, or a road with particular characteristics.  Or a city of a certain size or character, or an island (or six), which were dropped painlessly into the setting as it grew.  Why redraw the entire continental topography to have this work when we can just Superman it and say "it's located at the place where these things exist."  I won't bore you with a couple of hundred examples of things that were dropped in that way; just understand that they are present now, in places where they just wouldn't-- _couldn't_ be, should I pin Campaign City to a specific point on earth.


I also don't have to worry about co-GMs: we all know the setting equally well, and we are all comfortable tweaking it here and there as we need to, and we keep rocking on.  As I said hundreds of times before: I don't really know a lot about comic books, but what were doing fits right in with what I do know, and we're all having fun.


The whole "exactly how many miles to Los Angeles" or "how many miles to New York" thing?  It has _never_ come up.  Mostly, I suspect, because _no one_ has ever wanted to role play the entire trip from one pace to another, and no one has ever wanted to to a speedster run one Phase at a time the entire way.



So that's me.



Like I said: 


We're not going to be arguing (or, more accurately:  please accept before posting that this thread is _not_ for arguing, for proving, or for disproving that one method is better than another.  It is simply something I have become curious about, and thought that maybe some other folks might be, too.



Who's next?







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For the longest-running shared universe that I had experience with (way back in the early '80s and up through the early '90s), it was a mix of real and fictional places.  The baseline was real locations, but fictional restaurants, hotels, small towns out in the middle of nowhere, etc., were devised (usually off-the-cuff) and dropped in with regularity.  At the start we were high-schoolers and a few slightly older folks, and this predated easy access to the internet, the existence of things like Google Maps, etc., so a) players were much less likely to have detailed knowledge about any particular area to begin with, and b) it was just a game, so why spend hours doing detailed research on the real geography of a place none of us had ever been to?  We all understood that this was fiction, and while the occasional joke was made if something seemed particularly incongruous, no one seriously tried to pick things apart.


At the very, very start of the first campaign (better described as a vaguely linked series of games that gradually coalesced into a coherent setting), the original GM who introduced us to Champions ended up basing things in a totally different part of the state, which none of us were particularly familiar with.  We could point to it on a map, and from there have an idea of its relation to the rest of the country and world, but in those early sessions most of the action was local anyway, and so while it was ostensibly a real place, in practice it was essentially the same as a "Metropolis" or "Campaign City".  The second GM to start up a campaign in that same game universe based his in our actual real-life area.  He could refer to and use local landmarks as set dressing, and could make use of shorthand references that were meaningful to us ("The gang is based in blah-blah-neighborhood" -> yup, that's a real-life dangerous place!).  Still, though, it didn't serve to constrain the fiction - it was just a rather loose backdrop to the larger-than-life superheroics that were the real focus.


Of course, eventually there were different worlds out in the galaxy, alternate dimensions, and all that comic-book cosmic goodness, which were obviously all invented for the games, but I think that's beyond the scope of the question here.  The day-to-day setting was an outline of the real world, but we colored outside the lines freely.

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My preference to run Champions campaigns is real-world locations (with the exception of once running a campaign set in CU's Millennium City).  I have used fictional countries (the Malachite Islands and the small country of Montenbourg), but for the most part the cities, towns, etc. can all be found on Google Maps.  And currently, that's one of the reasons I've used real-world locations - I can pull them up on Google Maps and lay out how things look.  I like the players to be able to use things in the environment, and it works better when I (and they) can actually see them from the Street View.


I don't typically use real-world people, except on isolated occasions.  My real-world city has a fictional mayor, chief of police, etc.  I do tend to use about a 50/50 mix of real-world and fictional companies.  Since I'm not publishing my game adventures, I don't really worry about getting sued if I don't present some person or company in the best light.


That said, if putting something together to be made available to others, I'd suggest Duke's "RPG" scenario - a fictional city that's based on a real place.  Basically, someplace with all the serial numbers filed off and the names changed to protect the innocent (and guilty).  "So, this game is set in NeoChicago, which is in no legal way representative of the actual Chicago, because we don't want some Windy City wahoos to get their panties in a bunch and come kick us in the jimmies..."  Then, you can still use things like Google Maps if you want but ignore/change the things you don't want.

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Most of the games I've played in have gone Marvel style; a few have gone DC style.  


I was designing a location that went DC style in a big way.  Edge City, in the fictional state of Jefferson.  It has frontage to the Mississippi River, but is about an hour away from the Pacific Ocean.  Don't think about it too hard.  No, you can't use that as quick transit from the midwest to the west coast. 


(It was halfway between a campaign city and a story; a 1950's hero, Captain Justice, investigating a warehouse in Edge City, got sent forward in time by his nemesis, Albert "Skullface" Schwartz.  Schwartz was in an industrial chemical accident that rendered the skin, muscle, hair, and all other flesh on his head -- and only on his head -- transparent.  Skullface is a pretty typical mad scientist type who wears a realistic looking rubber mask; when he wants to Presence Attack someone he whips the mask off in one action.  Anyway, no one believed Skullface when he told him he hadn't killed Captain Justice, just sent him forward in time, so he was being held on death row for murder.  50 years later,  Captain Justice reappears in Edge City in the same warehouse.  Cue Captain America-style "WTF" moment.  He meets up with two modern superheroes, Stephen "Red Jack" MacBride and Kelly "Blue" Summers.  Skullface having been in prison for the last 50 years, he has mellowed out a lot, and really has been worried all this time that he actually had killed Captain Justice.)

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What really makes a gaming location come alive for me are the NPCs. I like to know who are the factions, the power players, the helps and hindrances and just plain entertaining folks that PCs can run into. What plot opportunities will they provide? What secrets do they keep waiting to be unearthed? What are their personalities that make RPing with them fun and memorable? As long as I have a basic map layout for the site, I can embellish or improvise the details of where players go and how they get there, but I want fun encounters for them (or me as a player) along the way.


Per that dimension I tend to prefer fictional real estate if it has such details built in, because then it's usually designed around the roles of the NPCs and their implications for the PCs. OTOH for a modern-day supers game I like as much of the real world as possible surrounding the campaign setting, for the sense of familiarity and grounding.

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I will add that, as to Duke's worry about having to research the heck out of a real-world place -- in over two decades of running games in real-world locations that I've either never been to (New York City) or only visited once or twice (Chicago and Boston), I've yet to have a player say "that's completely wrong."  That doesn't mean that I haven't gotten things completely wrong - I'm sure I have - it's just that the players realize that this is a pseudo-real-world location.


That said, I do tend to research some things (occasionally to an excessive degree), but that usually happens when I come upon a real-world thing that is just too cool *not* to use, and want to make sure I get it right.


I'll point out a case where having a real-world location was a bonus.  Early in the Boston campaign, I introduced a new supervillain group - the A Team, whose members' villain names all started with "A" (Armadillo, Ankylosaur, Airstrike, Achilles, etc.)  They proceeded to commit a series of crimes across Boston, leaving (intentionally vague) clues each time as to their next target.  In each case, I printed out the Google Maps overhead view of the area of each crime.  It wasn't until the final showdown that the players realized that in each case, some of the streets came together in an "A" shape.  While not a major thing, it was a rather fun reveal.

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I prefer real world cities with the caveat that it is a real world city which is set in a different world. Don't expect campaign world Miami to be exactly the same as real world Miami in history, street layout, or anything else. The broad sweeping outlines, major monuments, etc., yes. The PhotoMat being right next to the Pizza Hut on Wilson Blvd, no.


I actually enjoy doing research. Learning neat things about a city (out of the game) then occasionally getting to use that knowledge for something (in game) is a rare opportunity.


I don't gripe if someone wants to do things differently but that's my preference.


(I was delayed for three hours mid-post by necessary errands. I'm sure I had something else pithy to say but I can't remember what it might have been. :) )

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Despite growing up Marvel for the most part, I prefer the DC methods. Some talk about how Marvel is more realistic, but I find the NYC focus of 90% of the superheroes living there a bit unrealistic in turn as well as being dismissive of other regions of the country (or world)


So there's that factor...which is only one reason I moved towards DC/RPG style


Another is, it's actually kind of fun! Brainstorming a city can be a blast, creating both it's current set up and the superhero side of things. Also makes it more open to the players too. Your superhero's secret identity is a former professional football player who is still popular in the city? I guess it has a professional team.. boom.  Making a fictional city that's 85% complete means I have 15% to slip in easily what the players like or hope for. 


And, then there's also the degree of escapism it gives me. I like escapism a lot, and a fictional city can allow me to tune out thoughts like "Oh yeah, this is the city whose mayor was caught in a racist rant" or "This city is with the huge homeless problem" .. now obviously, MY city by that name  can have a different mayor or more housing... but with a city with a different name I don't even have to worry so much about tearing that stuff out (Which, of course, in doing so, makes me dwell on them more.. anxiety/depression is fun that way).  Not to say I only deal in utopias, but I tend to run games leaning towards optimistic/idealistic.. . with the player characters having the power to make things better.


That said, I've had some amazing GMs who have totally made real cities their own, and build on their warts and all in wonderful ways so more power to those who use Vegas, Boston, etc.





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In my youth I did play in a short but delightful campaign set in my native Montreal. For those unfamiliar with the city, it's a nearly unique blend of Old World charm and New World vibrancy. I tend to think of it as a cross between Paris and Manhattan. ;) It remains very prominent in commerce, science, transportation, education, entertainment and culture, and international affairs. It's internationally famous for modern urban design; yet with many preserved structures and whole neighborhoods from up to 300 years ago, Montreal is also fertile ground for plots mysterious or mystical. One of its more intriguing features is its "world without weather," a system of 20 miles of tunnels and walkways connecting hotels, restaurants, retailers, universities, subway stations, and more, under the heart of the city.

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I've done both but tend to prefer fictional takes on real cities.

My current Teen Champions game (and my more generic Champions games of the past) happens in Horizon City, which is neither Portland nor Seattle but may as well be.  I like being able to mooch off of the pop-culture "feel" of a city without having to actually deal with things like "Is the Big landmark on the waterfront or downtown?"  In Horizon it is wherever I need it to be the first time it shows up.  I was a big fan of San Angelo for this basic reason.  It is not an actual California city but has a lot of overlap with several.

My last World of Darkness game (Changeling 20th anniversary) was set in rural Nebraska.  I created a new county nestled between two real ones and stole the demographics and several historical tidbits of several nearby communities to populate it.

On the other hand there is a part of me that has always wanted to run an Urban Fantasy game set in Duluth MN.  Big enough to have most of the urban amenities but small enough that whatever the PCs are up to is probably a big deal. Lots of rust belt international heavy shipping mixed with beautiful countryside and a lively tourist trade.  Then there are the harsh MN winters and the deep, cold murky depths of Lake Superior.

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5 hours ago, Jhamin said:

I've done both but tend to prefer fictional takes on real cities.

My current Teen Champions game (and my more generic Champions games of the past) happens in Horizon City, which is neither Portland nor Seattle but may as well be.  I like being able to mooch off of the pop-culture "feel" of a city without having to actually deal with things like "Is the Big landmark on the waterfront or downtown?"  In Horizon it is wherever I need it to be the first time it shows up.  I was a big fan of San Angelo for this basic reason.  It is not an actual California city but has a lot of overlap with several.

My last World of Darkness game (Changeling 20th anniversary) was set in rural Nebraska.  I created a new county nestled between two real ones and stole the demographics and several historical tidbits of several nearby communities to populate it.

On the other hand there is a part of me that has always wanted to run an Urban Fantasy game set in Duluth MN.  Big enough to have most of the urban amenities but small enough that whatever the PCs are up to is probably a big deal. Lots of rust belt international heavy shipping mixed with beautiful countryside and a lively tourist trade.  Then there are the harsh MN winters and the deep, cold murky depths of Lake Superior.


Ah, that's that big lake they call Gitche Gumee?

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Well what I have played was mostly Superhero Campaigns in  real cities, but I notice that most Champions Publications are RPG Fake cities.  Millenium City, Vibora Bay, San Angelo and Hudson city. These are places I have not played a single game in. The one problem though, is that while comic books can get away without maps, it I belive is really harmful to not have a detailed map of a city, which makes only the current Hudson City feel "real enough". Without a map, to me it's just smoke.

I do like inventing fictional cities, but still  generally play in Real world locations.  One of the best campaigns I was in was bob Simpson's  campaign, which was set in St. Louis, a city I had not spent much time in, mostly passing through by train (when I was very little), and by car (when I was older), but where he had grown up, and so he toured a bunch of California players through the  intricacies of St. Louis, as well as tromping through the history of that campaign that had been run out of a Fantasy and Science Fiction book store while Bob still lived in St. Louis, before he took a job in Silicon Valley. I guess because most Champions players in the San Francisco Bay Area were generally Marvel readers, rather than DC, it followed the convention of mostly real world cities.

The exception to playing in real world locations was our heroic level campaigns, that were mercenary operations inside of the fictitious Central American Country of Costa Diego, run by Mr. D.I. himself, L. Douglas Garrett, and when not playing in those we would kind of blue  sky background and historical details of the country,  like the names of the Capital,  the major river, and bits of its colonial past, but try to make it feel as authentic as we could.

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  • 1 month later...

Our group has come to prefer real-world cities, if the genre allows.  This came about back in the early 1990s when 1st edition Shadowrun's first book was cast in a post-goblinization Seattle, where we are.  We found it enormously convenient when everyone already knows the geography, both physical and social, for a campaign in an urban setting, and we're all willing to graft small-departure alterations onto it to fit the game.  Since then, I think every approximately modern-type campaign we've run has adopted our home region as its locale. 


When I ran a one-off fantasy game two summers back for my (college age) daughter and friends, I went to another site in my history, vaguely fictionalized to match genre, and that was the American Sector of West Berlin back in the 1960s (post-Wall), a big European city which also has a very large in-city forest conveniently providing that terrain type without going far.  No mountains, but between city, a bit of suburb, forest, and a couple of big lakes, it wasn't restricting the options of either GM or players.  Also a huge help is that I could draw on (admittedly distorted) versions of people from my own past -- and use their real names so I didn't have to remember who I'd cast where, since the players used those folks' names when in-town interactions were needed -- as the significant non-villain PCs.  The players didn't know the terrain, but I did, and that was good enough.  That campaign was never going to run for long, so I didn't need a save-the-world plot arc, even though I did have an underlying unity to the evils the PCs had to contend against.

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