Beyond the Map - Capturing the Feel of a Superhero City

As I work on mapping out Port Henry for our Icons game, I'm finding myself reminded of a challenge I often have when setting the scene. How much detail is enough? What is too little? I myself tend to be a bit on the sparser side, something which has its advantage as it allows players to fill in blanks, but presents its own challenges, especially if different players have fundamentally different views of what something looks like.

At times like that I really wish I had some talent for drawing. I'm pretty handy at maps, especially when using digital tools like Campaign Cartographer. But my ability to produce a non-schematic/map-type drawing is limited to Risus-like stick figures. I'm not sure the diagram here is quite evocative enough to use as a visual aid tool during a game.

What I'm thinking about now is how to best give a feel for the environment of the city. As an example, I'm picturing the various incarnations of Gotham City, each of which has its own personality though for the most part they could all be visualized by the same map.

Take for example my favorite incarnation, that of 1989's Batman, as designed by Anton Furst:

This to me is the perfect urban environment for a superhero RPG. The city's character is oppressive, making the inhabitants feel small at the bottom of canyons of concrete. Bridges connect buildings over the streets, emphasizing the third dimension. Its a city that can be hiding secrets in alleys, underground tunnels, or up above you. This incarnation of Gotham City is also reflected by the Dini/Timm Batman animated series as well as the comic book of the early 1990s.

The later 1990s brought us the Schumacher films. While I found the films themselves mediocre (Batman Forever) to an icy abomination (Batman and Robin), they did bring an interesting look, one of a brighter neon, evoking an almost cyberpunk feel:

It's not my favorite look - not even close. But I can see this being the Gotham City one might want to evoke in a city of corrupt corporate scheme and high-stakes heists. And its an image I would want to keep my players clear of in most games I would run.

After the Cataclysm and No Man's Land events of the 1998-1999, Gotham City was rebuilt with more modern look.

Any of those incarnations of Gotham City are valid and could likely be represented by the same map. However, each has its own distinctive feel.

Image Credits
  • Risus Swordsman by S. John Ross,
  • Gotham City from Tim Burton's Batman, 1989.
  • Gotham City from Joel Schumacher's Batman Forever, 1995.
  • Gotham City from DC Comics post-Cataclysm (uncertain of exact source)

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