"A tight, uncomfortable place? Like the back of a Volkswagen?" - How We Fit Fiction into a Real Setting
I love fiction, which I find funny because I don't like to lie. Still, the creative process for making something that is fantastic and unreal is fun for me; it's the draw of urban myths and cryptozoology like the Candyman, Katy Perry, or Bigfoot. The things that cannot REALLY exist, no matter how much you want them to, are the best. The same goes for places like Santa's workshop in the North Pole or Sesame Street on the East Coast of America. Right now, my focus is on settings. Realms of myth and legend, castles and dragons; the idea of planets with diamond rain or plasma snow fascinates me to seemingly no end. The fictional settings that most resonate with me, however, have a root in the real; where you are 98% sure that strange oddity isn't real, all the while that 2% is still there leaving you with a lingering doubt. With Project: Powerpunk, we went to capture that excitement of "what is not, but could be." Then we were met the greatest problem of this creation model.
"Where do my ideas fit?"
For example, your game master tells your group that you’re hunting a vampire in Paris, a city that is known for its landmarks, its people, its "character.” However, in an effort to put his own spin on Paris, the game master has decided to take some liberties and replace the Louvre with a "Texas Longhorn Steak Shack," the Eiffel Tower with "Mack's Truck Stop and Shrimp House,” and have all the Parisians speak with a thick American southern-twang, calling people "Ya'll" and "Hun.” Of course, this will evoke very different feelings from what you’d probably expect from the "City of Love.” Doubt will set in and the ability to connect with the setting will suffer. However, it’s not always so fun to run a local history lesson in the guise of a game either. While the Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile lists every major French military victory and the general that is credited with that victory, I don’t want to play a game to learn all of their names nor do I want to play through each day of the arc’s construction.
Marrying the fun part of fictional setting work with the solid foundation of a real location can yield something amazing and thus come the ideas of “interpretation” and “adaptation.” Returning to Paris, instead of bizarre setting concepts or pointless and boring information, your game master could take you down into the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier buried beneath the Arc and reveal how the Unknown Soldier is just an alias for an immortal who stalks battlefields preying on fallen soldiers. “Adapt” reality and “interpret” it within your fictional setting.
Before we accepted these concepts of adaptation and interpretation, we kept finding that our setting ideas and the changes we wanted to make were pigeonholed; forced forward the way one would shove something into a tight, uncomfortable place (and I don't mean the back of a Volkswagen). Given that we were not naive folk on the rebound after a bad breakup, we were not very receptive to this process. But when we started to adapt the real world and omit certain real life changes, make unique changes of our own to make it part of OUR story and OUR world, we grew more comfortable and we were finally able to make something that is specially made by us.
The setting of Project: Powerpunk is our own "scientifiction" adaptation of New York City; open to fantastic, almost magical, changes and futurist ideas. I loved the idea of New York for two reasons. First and foremost it is my home; I know NYC better than I know any other place. If we made the setting Paris or London, it would ring false and hollow. That being said, I’m not a playboy party machine so I don’t know the city as well as I want to either, but then again a lot of the allure and danger that I anticipated in going to certain clubs and hot spots have been dashed as they have since been closed down. This leads me to my second reason: the city I was prepping for is not the city I grew up into. I had family members through my childhood tell me of the dangers of this club, that alley, this drug, that party, or this neighborhood. There were tales of danger and excitement such as fleeing from a gang at one party only to end up facing other enemies at the club you hide out in or deciding to approach a new lady at a bar only to find out that she is actually looking for you to sell you out and cover her debt with someone else. There were dirty, grungy tales of a tough as nails city that shined bright for tourists and locals alike only to cast deeper shadows that would drag everyone down.
I know that it is for the best that the real New York City is no longer that romanticized wild metropolis anymore but there has always been a part of me that wants to rub elbows with today's nobody band, watch them do a show in the same neighborhood bars where I once thought I would drink, and after telling the lead singer that the last song of the set was kind of trash, get his fist to my face, break a bottle over his head (preferably his bottle too, you know, add insult to injury) and use the broken glass to fight off the rest of the band as I made my getaway. Then I would ingest some poison that I shouldn't and go to a blue-collar job the next morning so I can start the cycle again from the beginning the next evening. (Some months down the line, after watching them skyrocket to fame, I could have a spiteful chuckle to myself when that crap lead singer goes to jail after his bassist dies of an overdose at the biggest nightclub in the city.) I know that realistically I am better off not having done ANY of that but a part of me laments the path not traveled. Not simply because I chose not to fall to its allure, but because that avenue was closed off and the choice was taken away for me.
In Powerpunk, I have been able to put to the page the romanticized, dangerous playground of the "rubble kings," the "Gordon Gekkos," and the "Agent J’s" and that wouldn't have the same feel if I threw together a bunch of big buildings and called it "Metrotopiaville." With the basis still being New York City, that history and presence is preserved even as we added augmented reality advertisements and NYPD drones in Manhattan that are knocked from the sky by “Gargoyles,” customized drones belonging to gangs. In Queens, we have a medical research organization that has begun to release new analgesic drugs and promising medical breakthroughs in the field of “Ansenectum” (anti-aging) in the form of wrinkle removal salves and muscle rejuvenating diet programs as cyber-cowboys mount non-lethal weaponized motorcycles and patrol the borough protecting the people from law-breakers that the NYPD can’t “be bothered to” apprehend. All the while, an average blue-collar worker heads off from a mob-owned work site to a bar to down a drink before getting into an argument with the lead singer of today’s nobody band about a crappy last song only to get hit in the face then bash the lead singer over the head with a bottle and make his getaway home all to do it again tomorrow.
The foundation is real but what we present is not (at least not yet.)