In cooking, mise en place means getting all your ingredients measured and utensils prepared, lined near your work area, and generally setting up so you won’t have to fumble around looking for something while your hands are covered with flour and egg.
It’s the same when you prepare to run a role-playing game: you want to have the information you’ll need at your fingertips, organized so you can find it quickly. In a lot of systems, this means having fifteen different sourcebooks tabbed and bookmarked, but not here. We’re using Fate Accelerated, which is a pleasantly short little book; while we’re also getting some additional material from the heftier Fate Core while we prepare, in play we won’t need to refer to it.
But our setting source material comes from works of fiction literature, and we certainly don’t want to have to flip through the books to find a good description of the locations or technology. This is why we have set up our lists of Faces and Places in Part 3; now we will add a few more lists to refer to when our players ask: “What’s in the victim’s pockets?”, “What does the data deck look like?” or “What is Farrad eating?”
In the process, I’m going to be borrowing the method described by Robin D. Laws in his book of advice for Game Masters, Robin’s Laws of Good Game Mastering (published by Steve Jackson Games). Laws suggests preparing lists of names, sample dialogue, and personality traits which the GM can just pick from when it’s time to create minor characters.
Step 5: Preparing to Improvise
or: What do you mean, I can’t play a white American?
In Part 2 of the series, I mentioned that gamer groups who have trouble thinking past “white American” characters will need to do a little more work. I’m serious, on countless occasions I’ve observed gamers who, told they could not play white Americans in a given setting, then tried to play white Englishmen, white Canadians, white Australians, or failing those, other white Europeans. If you really twist their arm, they may play a katana-wielding Asian character.
It pays for the GM to prepare against this by having lots of flavour bits to include in her setting, thus helping the players get in the right mood; and references to help her players choose a few character elements that will fit well in the Budayeen (name, physical description, connections, habits, occupation, orientation, beliefs, etc.)
A list of names is invaluable for those of us who are not quick to think of new and different monickers. We saw in previous instalments of this discussion that naming minor characters is particularly important in this sort of hard-boiled detective story unfolding on a local scale. We also saw that people in the Budayeen can come from almost anywhere, but mostly from the Islamic World.
I compiled a list of about 2700 male and female names of Arabic, Berber, Egyptian, Turkish, and Indonesian origin, grabbed from various online baby naming sites, and pasted them in a spreadsheet of Budayeen names. There you go, you’re welcome! Add a sprinkling of names from international sources as needed, and you can name anyone you have to create on the fly in order to answer your players’ questions. (Check out Seventh Sanctum‘s various name generators, such as this one based on American census data; Chris Pound’s Name Generation Page; and the ever-growing Abulafia for a plethora of random generators including names.)
And what about brand names? In cyberpunk fiction, it’s frequent to drop brand names to add to authenticity, often extrapolating on a real company’s future markets. For example, Effinger mentions Nikon cybernetic eyes and Telefunken holosets. New technology may receive made-up names; for example, Transpex is the name of a competitive game for two, usable only by people who have received a corymbic (brain) implant.
Just to be ready, we can create short lists of brand names that will match the feel we want to create, for example using current-day high-tech or bioresearch companies for cybernetics and augments, and digging generously among international names that are less familiar in the Western world. Other brands are created to emphasize changes in geopolitics, for example, Chhindwara is used as a either the origin or the brand name of a data deck (personal computer or terminal), and another is described as Annamese. Speaking of which, nations are often referred to by new (or obsolete) names to underline the changes in governments and boundaries.
For obvious reasons, I’d rather not make up new terrifying products for actual companies and post that for the world to misunderstand; but we can grab a Cyberpunk or Shadowrun game supplement and crib from their lists. Or check out Seventh Sanctum’s random corporation name generator! Here is a sample of output:
- Augmented Science Vista
- Bartlett Financial of Monaco
- Carson Genetic Gold Unlimited
- Digital Scientific Industrial
- Financial of Madrid
- Huber Matics
- Sherman Motors
- Skinner Instruments of Berne
- State Solar
We can expand the list method to all sorts of useful bits that will provide texture and atmosphere, for example:
What do people eat? Couscous, fruit (lemons, dates, grapes, oranges, etc.), lamb, almonds, beans, bread, fish…
What do people drink? Laqbi (date palm wine); strong coffee in small cups; black tea, milk tea or mint tea; tende (Chiriga’s personal stash only); watered-down cocktails or soda, for example Sharâb or Coca-Cola, for club dancers while on the job (paid for at inflated prices by patrons); gin and bingara with a twist of Rose lime (Marîd Audran’s signature drink), etc.
What kind of drugs are floating around? Sonneine (aka “sunnies”), a downer; triphetamine (“tri-phets”); “beauties” (butaqualide HCl); Paxium; RPM (l-ribopropylmethionine) and acetylated neocorticine, two psychedelics that cause brain damage; haschich; qat, etc.
Robin Laws suggests having lists of personality traits just like the lists of names, and using those when making up characters on the fly. I tend not to use lists for this, just create the characters from context; but as a rule of thumb I suggest two personality descriptors and a short physical description: for example, “Insecure, gullible tourist from Lower Lorraine; cis male, balding, light skin, medium height.”
Seventh Sanctum and Abulafia have us covered again, with the Quick Character Generator. and the Character Concept Generator, respectively. Seventh Sanctum sample output, from the categories “Modern — General” and “Science Fiction — General”:
- The noisy, outgoing murderer haunted by dark memories.
- The tough, paranoid corporate official who hates animals.
- The leader who hates children.
- The alienated archivist.
- The moralizing fence.
- The sickly cyborg needing a friend.
- The unathletic, sadistic, lonely clerk.
- The cruel linquistics expert.
- The shiftless medical technician.
- The unremarkable, hypocritical scientist who plans to exploit another world.
- The aloof reporter.
Abulafia sample concepts, from various categories:
- Strong Mercenary turned Scientist
- Persistent Journalist turned Martial Artist
- Wise Recruit turned Advocate
- Shrewd Trooper turned Soldier
- Orphaned Rescuer turned Hacker
- Shrewd Spiritualist turned Fixer
- an amber-eyed stranger
- a bigoted shepherd
- a self-possessed detective
- a free-spirited look-alike
Just like we want to be able to create faces on demand, we need to be ready to create more places. In fact, the players will probably claim some of these when it’s time to set up the actual campaign, some of those serving as safe spots and meeting points.
What kind of places might we encounter in the Budayeen? Souks, shops for tourists, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, food carts, bars, nightclubs, sex shows, gambling dens, apartment buildings, birthplace of famous dead people, illegal clinics, pawn shops, import-export business, etc.
What kind of places might we visit in the rest of the city? Banks, mosques, more shops, slums, residential areas, construction sites, police stations, office buildings, port, high-speed train station, airport, hotels, industrial zone, etc.
Remember that each of those will exist in different levels of affluence, from high-end and expensive to dingy and used only by the most desperate; for example, a gambling den may be a dice game on a street corner, a table in the back of a smoky cafe, a backroom behind a “legitimate” business, or an opulent casino catering to the rich and famous slumming it in the Budayeen.
In some of those places, action scenes will take place (chases, ambushes, fights, etc.) so we want to be able to paint a picture and use the scenery, creating lots of interesting Aspects or Consequences as needed. Let’s borrow from the Fortress of Shadow’ Fight Locations, a resource site for the Feng Shui RPG created by Dave Eber and currently maintained by Kevin J. Chase. For key locations, we can make a list of cool things that could happen there; see for example the nightclub, casino, abandoned tenements, brothel, etc. You’ll want to adapt the Hong Kong flavour to the Budayeen, naturally.
So for example, let’s think about a souk:
The place is a clutter of small shops and booths, some of them permanent and some only set up for market day. There are tents with the sides rolled up to expose the wares, tables made of planks or fiberglass panels set on trestles, ropes and poles from which hang items of clothing and carpets, all forming a maze. The noise, the colours, the press of bodies, and the smells are dizzying.
Everything can be found there: fruit and vegetables, freshly cooked foods, cheap jewellery, stolen goods, “recharged” batteries, maps for tourists, small second-hand electronics, interpreters and guides, dice games, street musicians, and dog fights. Wares are arranged in big floppy woven baskets, broken crates, open drums; live goats are tied to posts, chickens held in rickety cages, etc.
Cool Things That Could Happen:
- Pickpockets are everywhere — the player characters can either be the victims or the culprits…
- A tourist makes a scene, creating a perfect distraction — either for the PCs or the opposition.
- Free samples!
- It’s easy to change your appearance by grabbing a hat, sunglasses, jacket or burnous.
- Someone stumbles into the wrong tent and interrupts a secret meeting.
- Anything could be hidden here… Snakes, weapons, drugs, kidnapping victim, a bomb…
- Someone stashes the macguffin among many similar-looking objects, or inside something else (teapot, doll, vase) that gets sold.
- Chase scene parkour! It will most likely be on foot, but bicycles, Segways, skateboards, etc. are great too. Watch out for unexpected flights of stairs!
- The livestock breaks loose! Piles of merchandise go tumbling! The merchants are furious…
- Someone is watching from the nearby rooftops.
Inspirations: Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Mummy, Inception.
Islam is the primary religion in the fiction of the Budayeen, although there are a few Christians — mostly Copts, by the way. However, people in the Budayeen tend to be non-practising, lapsed, unorthodox, apostate, agnostic, or uninterested. It’s OK to leave religion generally undiscussed in your campaign; if you do decide to include some elements, though, here are some basics:
- The Islamic calendar starts in year 622 of the Christian era, when the emigration of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina (the Hijra) occurred. The Islamic year is composed of 12 lunar months (29 or 30 days), and adds up to 354 or 355 days. The first day of the month begins after sunset with the first sighting of the new crescent moon; days are counted from sunset to sunset. The gathering day of prayer is the sixth of the week, Yaum al-Jumu‘ah, and the day of rest or Sabbath is the seventh and last of the week, Yaum as-Sabt.
- The Five Pillars of Islam are the profession of faith (Shahada), ritual prayer five times a day (Salat), fasting (Sawm), giving alms (Zakat), and accomplishing the pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj).
- Pigs, dogs, and snakes are reviled; it is not permissible for observing Muslims to eat pork. Alcohol and drugs are also nominally forbidden, though they flow abundantly in the Budayeen.
- During the month of Ramadan, it is not permitted to eat, drink, smoke, or have sex between dawn and sunset; thus, the Budayeen is described in Effinger’s books as sleeping during the day and becoming very lively at night.
Here are a few sources for those who want to know more:
- Islam For Dummies, by Malcolm Clark
- BBC: Five Pillars of Islam
- Islamic Beliefs – A short summary of islamic beliefs and eschatology.
- Understanding Islam – Muslim customs & traditions.
Gender and Orientation
While Effinger’s books are not about sex, gender or sexual orientation, they are not shy about the topics. In this setting, people who can afford the surgery can have the body they want, including sexual reassignment. We encounter not only cis- and trans-gendered people but also “debs”, pre-operative individuals undergoing hormone therapy in anticipation of sexual reassignment and therefore manifesting both male and female secondary sexual characteristics. Gender is different from sexual orientation, and every option is available there too.
We encounter more trans women than trans men in the books, but this may be due to the brisk sex trade in the Budayeen and the fact that the majority of paying customers are cis men. (I’m just guessing, here.)
If the mention of various sexualities makes you uncomfortable, this may not be the best setting for you.