A couple of days ago I was cleaning out some boxes from the top of the bookshelf when I found an old Wizard magazine that somehow survived The Great Purge of Old Magazines of 2012. Before I threw it in the bin, I flipped through it. That took me down memory lane. There’s an article about Gotham City in that issue, map and all. The coolest part, though, was that the article was written from the point of view of a Gothamite. Henceforth, the only photo of Batman was a diffuse and distant shot, a little more than a shadow on top of a building. The Dark Knight himself was described with some contempt by the fictional writer as an urban legend, something between the Jersey Devil and extra-terrestrials: only crazy people, petty criminals, or the very gullible believed he existed at all.
I remembered why that particular issue was stashed separately from the bunch that met their maker when I moved to this apartment in ’12 decided I didn’t want to keep heaps of old magazines anymore. Way back in the day, I had used that article as the basis for a series of Vampire: The Masquerade and then Realms of Cthulhu adventures for some friends of mine who were just as crazy about comic books as I am.
At first, you might think the city might be used for super-hero shenanigans in Mutants & Masterminds or Necessary Evil, but Gotham City is a very good place for more grounded games such as Chronicles of Darkness or even gritty police stories using A Dirty World, Trail of Cthulhu, Mutant City Blues or — and especially — Chronicles of Darkness. Frank Miller once remarked that “Metropolis is New York by day; Gotham City is New York by night.” Being a hub for industries such as metallurgy, chemistry, textiles, art, and fashion, Gotham can easily be the stomping grounds of a substantial population of vampires, ghosts, mutants, and cultists.
With the Internet of today, researching the city is very easy. That’s why I tossed that old Wizard mag. You don’t need it. (Nevertheless, in case you’re wondering, the article is the “Gotham City Guide”, from Wizard no. 61 from 1996). Wikipedia has a beefy article on the city that’s particularly rich on its foundation, history, ambiance, and points of interest. It only lacks a good resolution map of the city, but for that I recommend this marvelous Smithsonian article.
In case I whetted your Game Master appetite, I’d like to give you a couple of advices based on my own successes and failures in presenting Gotham as a sandbox to my players.
Firstly, leave the city as it is, whatever your source material. Let’s say you’re going to use Vampire: The Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse 20th Anniversary editions. For setting, you might want to use the ravaged Gotham from the 1999 Cataclysm/Aftershock/No Man’s Land story arcs or the smaller area contrived for the 2011 Batman: Arkham City video game. Whatever state or size or source material you choose for your Gotham, avoid the temptation of making half of the Arkham Asylum population from the Malkavian clan or Killer Croc a Nosferatu. Let the city be its own self, a living organism, independent of the games you’re about to create run in it. The Iceberg Lounge isn’t a Cainite haven; Ace Chemicals isn’t owned by Black Spiral Dancers. Keep the tone of the game as the books recommend: Cainites, Garou, Hunters, and Changelings are rare and almost nobody knows about them (and, fergodsake, don’t make Bane a ghoul!).
Secondly, you should very much allow the Player-Characters to interact with all the Batman villains they want — occasionally. Avoid the temptation of making your game sessions endless series of guest appearances, cameos, and Easter eggs. Yes, it’s OK that your nerdy, comic book aficionado players know that the Penguin is the owner of the Iceberg Lounge and an arms dealer. But he’s part of the scenery, not a special guest star on tonight’s adventure. The “cool” about Gotham is its oppressive ambiance, endemic criminality, the stoic cynicism of its inhabitants, the corrupt police and politicians. Keep the name-dropping at a minimum. Yes, it’s cool that the Nosferatu are afraid of entering Killer Croc’s territory, but Croc should feature in name only; an ominous presence, a hint of danger, not the punching-bag villain-of-the-week. Instead of having the PCs pursue the Joker because he robbed the the city Prince, design a series of game sessions in which the PCs need to find an artifact stolen by a common thief in the middle of the pandemonium Joker caused when he poisoned the city’s water supply.
It’s cool, though, to use Batman villains every now and then, especially the less flamboyant ones, the ones that can be dropped onto your campaign as ready-made NPCs and who won’t eclipse the PCs. For example, Rupert Thorne is a racketeer; Deadshot is an assassin; Black Mask is a gangster. Use them when you need a racketeer, an assassin, or a gangster.
For lovecraftian horror RPGs such as Trail of Cthulhu or Call of Cthulhu (or my favorite, Realms of Cthulhu for Savage Worlds), Gotham City is a Las Vegas buffet: it was founded by satanists (Batman #452–454), there was an intense witch hunt period in the region in colonial times (Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne #2. Bonus for the tentacles), legend has it that a monstrous creature slumbers under the city for the last 40,000 years and whose mind is subtly behind every bad thing that happens here (Shadowpact #5). Some Batman villains have strong occult ties, such as Dr. Kirk Langstrom, a brilliant scientist who is cursed with something akin to lycanthropy (he turns into a giant humanoid bat instead of a giant humanoid wolf); Death Rattle is a cult leader who has the ability to speak to the dead (at least, he believes he does). And do I really need to mention Arkham Asylum, the psychiatric hospital blatantly inspired in the works of H.P. Lovecraft?
You can also have realistic, gritty police stories in Gotham. The comic book series Gotham Central is so ready for an RPG conversion that I feel like picking up Ed Brubaker’s scripts and making them game campaigns as is. Here too some of the less known Batman antagonists work best — characters such as the run-of-the-mill serial killer Victor Zsasz, the insane psychiatrist Dr. Hurt, or the criminal mastermind Julian Day, the Calendar Man, who makes the entire city apprehensive when a holiday approaches. Go read Gotham Central and fill your head with more game ideas you can shake a batarang at.
Last bit of advice: don’t use Batman. Why? Well, the single worst thing that can happen to a Dungeons & Dragons adventure is Drizzt Do’Urden or Elminster of Shadowdale making an appearance. Those guys steal the show. The protagonists of the story should be the Player-Characters, not some invincible super-hero. That doesn’t mean, though, you can’t use the legend of Batman. You definitely can. In a back ally late at night, the PCs overhear a drug dealer telling another he saw — with his own two eyes, he swears! — the Bat hopping from one building to another. Remember the opening scene from 1989 Batman by Tim Burton? That’s what I’m talking about. Except for the fact in the movie there’s actually a Batman. Ignore that part.
Oh, and let your players know upfront there’s not gonna be a Batman cameo to steal the show (nor a Green Lantern cameo, in case that very nerdy player reminds you Gotham was also at one time the base of operations for Alan Scott, the first Green Lantern). Make it clear that, although the game takes place in Gotham City, it’s their game, they’re the protagonists. Tell them the Bat is an urban legend conjured up by the police to scare lowlives. You can even have one PC at one point think he saw something when he’s left for dead at the docks, bleeding and barely conscious. Was he sure of what he saw? Is he really go and tell everybody he was saved by Batman and become laughing stock at the pub?
Gotham City might as well be one of the best settings that you’ll ever use. There’s enough source material out there for you to make the most cursory of homeworks and still come out on top, head full of game ideas. It’s an environment that’s at the same time eerily familiar and terrifyingly strange. A campaign setting begging to be used.