Game Hack: Writing Toronto for Urban Shadows
I run a lot of games set in Toronto. It's my city. I love it. I hate it. I live in it. I've been here for a lucky 13 years, probably more now, and it's always one of my favourite places to run games. Toronto is unique in so many ways, and yet feels the same as any other metropolitan city at first glance. Whether it's because it's tucked away in Canada, or because all Torontonians believe themselves at the centre of the Canadian universe, or both, it isn't clear. But what is clear is that Toronto provides an excellent location in any urban game.
Running a game set in Toronto, like any game set in a place you're not from, will require you to do some research. Like many major cities, Toronto is home to dozens of neighbourhoods. Each has its own unique vibe, purpose, and subculture. Hell, someone even drew the neighbourhoods of Toronto and assigned magical creatures to them. Whether it's post-apocalyptic Toronto or urban fantasy Toronto or Victorian Toronto, I've used this city for everything. From Urban Shadows to Don't Rest Your Head to Deliria to Grimm to Apocalypse World. This city's got you. Except, well, medieval fantasy. We don't got that.
While I love using Toronto for any game I can, I mostly love using it for Urban Shadows. Urban Shadows does a glorious job of really making your city feel real. The Dark Streets expansion book knocks it out of the park for using really interesting cities and having those cities do special or particular things. For me, when I'm running my Toronto based games for someone else who isn't from here and doesn't understand, there are some certain things I drive home to make the in game city feel like my city.
Here's how to Toronto up your Urban Shadows game!
Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. With more than half the city's population being made up by an immigration population, Toronto is bursting with culture that makes most conservatives cringe. Many of our neighbourhoods are small samples of other parts of the world, from Little Italy to Little Korea to our two China Towns and Greek town. We have every type of food you could want at the tip of your fingers. We have cultural celebrations almost every weekend in some part of the city. We have demonstrations everywhere for something happening in another country. We are diverse.
When I get on a streetcar, a part of our public transit called the Toronto Transit Commission or TTC, I am often the only white person. A smattering of languages can be heard on the air anywhere you go. It's perfectly normal to walk into a restaurant and hear several conversations happening, none of which I can understand. People here switch language mid conversation like it's nothing. Almost all of us have one thing in common though: we came here to escape something.
Diversity in Toronto is a big fucking deal. It's part of our identity in a very real way. We're fiercely protective of inclusion and having people here that Harper wouldn't lump in with his "old stock Canadian" ideals. This doesn't mean Toronto isn't racist. It means we pretend we're not. Passive attitudes are still common, with micro-aggressions still a part of our culture. Black people here are still carded and it's still a law that exist. There's still rampant poverty amongst our immigrant populations. It's still here.
But Toronto is also known for fighting back. Multiple articles come out constantly on someone being racist on a streetcar or on the subway and people fighting back or attacking that person. It isn't passively accepted. It doesn't make it better, but it's worth noting that there is a rampant culture of people fighting for diversity. Black Lives Matter is here, and they're awesome.
In Game: Over 50% of your NPCs should be people who aren't white and aren't from around here. Take time to look up name lists from other countries. Also, give a lot of your diverse npcs traditionally English sounding names. It's common here for people to have an English name and then another name from their own culture. Or they're second generation and named their children more English sounding names. This doesn't mean all names should be English sounding, a hell of a lot shouldn't, but it means the name Ellen won't tell you what ethnicity someone has.
Living in the City
Everyone who lives in Toronto has something unique about them. Style is personal here. Many people come to Toronto to escape from oppressive smaller town Ontario or Canada because of their gender, sexuality, artistic motivations, or because Toronto is considerably less racist than a lot of Canada. A small, tiny amount of people were born and raised in Toronto. But most people have moved to the city from somewhere else, and many of these are from another country.
The TTC, our transit system, is a mysterious creature. There are two subway lines. And multiple bus and streetcar routes. The ap to find out when the next one is coming is called Rocket Man. Streetcars will say they'll be there in 4 minutes. Then jump to 11. Then 20. And then you turn to walk away and cross the street and then notice the streetcar whizzing by you. Fucker. Subway delays can be hours. And hours. The subway is a popular place for the city's transients and those in need of aid. People ask for change. People will invade your personal space. People will say horrible things. Not always. But enough that you worry about it.
Uber is where it's at. But many people still take public transit. Traffic is a hot mess coming in and going out of the city during rush hour. The middle class who lives in all the surrounding suburbs known as the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) drive this every day to work in the business heart of the city at King and Bay. They club at King and Bathurst. They shop at the Eaton Centre or the Yorkdale Mall. The young professionals live in Liberty Village and are possibly vampires. It's not clear.
Netflix is just as popular here, but people in Toronto love to go out into the city. We have lots of events happening constantly. There's always a food festival (Taste of the Danforth) or a marathon (Scotiabank) or a sporting event (Blue Jays) or a concert (Drake) or movies being shown (Carlton Theatre) or plays (Shakespeare in the Park) or film festivals (TIFF) or art shows (Nuit Blanche). We have the Royal Ontario Museum, the Toronto Zoo, Ripley's Aquarium, the Ontario Science Centre, and the Art Gallery of Ontario. We have Dundas Square, the little cousin of Time's Square. We have cultural events (Caribana) and queer events (Pride) and pet events (Woofstock). There is always something to do and often something free.
Any kind of food you want is here and Torontonians love food. People are constantly going out for food, for coffee, for fancy microbrews and local brewery beers. We spend a lot of time eating and doing so with our social groups. The city is always alive, even in the dead of fucking February when temperatures can reach -30. Nothing stops people in Toronto from going out and having fun. Literally nothing.
Our weather is one of the great mysteries. In Summer, temperatures veer up into the mid to high 30's (celsius). It's humid as fuck from the lake and everything sticks to you. You bake. A blissful few weeks of fall sets in and the many trees and parks show off lovely colours before it turns stupidly cold. It used to snow a lot in December. Now it's just mostly bitter and cold with no snow until January and February. It gets grey for about six months from November until April. The snow hits in January. The ice remains in February when it's slippery every where and people constantly hurt themselves. The air is so cold it hurts your face and sometimes it hurts to breathe. With windchill it can get to -40 here. It. Is. Cold.
Any given day in Toronto can have four different weather systems. People have learned to never know what weather will happen, best to prepare for at least three. A day can include rain, hail, blistering heat, and then a cool lovely evening. We wear shorts as soon as it's 10 or higher because fuck have we missed the sun. We wear goose down coats and rain boots. Winter isn't about class, it's about surviving this shit. There's something about enduring winter that brings Canadians together.
The world begins and ends in Toronto. Once you've been here long enough, you adopt this attitude too. You drink your Tim Horton's coffee, you eat your awesome Ethiopian food, you hang out with your friends at any of the many bars and pubs, and you TTC home. You go picnicking in parks. You go see a lot of bands. And you go to cultural events because they're awesome and they matter. When Rob Ford said people didn't go to art events, 3 million people showed up to an art event.
Oh, and we make Trump jokes. While we take the situation of our neighbours seriously, and many Canadians are terrified, we also don't live there. So we make jokes about how horrible and awful Trump is. Toronto itself is a pretty liberal, left leaning city surrounded by conservative suburbs. It smells like pot here everywhere you go. We have raccoons fucking everywhere and they are not afraid of you. Ever.
In Game: Art and culture events are big deals, as are the places you eat and hang out. Make sure to do a bit of searching to find cool ethnic restaurants, high end clubs, microbreweries, and sports games. Normal Torontonians do these things. They go to these events. Set things that are happening at real locations and real events. Have vampires in the city during Fringe Festival when drunk people run around looking at art. Have hunters staking out Chinese New Year.
And Now, The Weather - The weather guides us. If it starts pouring, everyone uses the TTC or they take shelter until it passes. Or they use the underground path. When it storms, we go out drinking and wait it out. When it snows, we play in the snow or freeze. The shifting weather of Toronto can lead to desperate moments trying to escape its high winds, hail, freezing rain, snow, lightning storms, hard rain, or intensely hot days. Use the weather to paint scenes, but also impress upon the PCs a sudden need for cover or to find relief from heat or cold. Toronto floods, freezes, gets snowed in, and gets overheated. All the time.
Somebody That You Know - One of the most uncanny things about Toronto is the ability to run into someone in a place neither of you frequent or live. Whether it's at an event, randomly on the street, or on a streetcar, the most random of people you know often shows up. In real life, this means you see your friends in the weirdest places. In game, this means people you owe show up at the worst times. I often use this as a harder move, as someone showing up who will further complicate things. When you take territory into consideration, this also makes things interesting and I love to use it more than I really should.
At The Opera Tonight - Toronto's social world moves in and out of events. If someone's demanding to meet someone, always host it at a cultural event or at somewhere overcrowded or super isolated. Toronto lives and dies by its landscapes. Include running into someone dangerous on the Path or being isolated with them on a subway car. Have someone powerful invite them to a play or lecture at the Sony Centre. Whenever you can, raise the stakes by setting the game somewhere humans are likely to notice or get hurt. It's a crowded city that loves events, and since unnaturals follow the flow of humanity, they'll be there too.
Cultural Mixing Pot - In Toronto, we're an actual mixing pot. Your supernaturals are from everywhere, which means they aren't bound to traditional Western myth. People come to Toronto from everywhere. They bring with them their monsters, too. And those monsters will have their own values and traditions that will push against Western values or challenge them. Make sure your supernaturals aren't just a bunch of white people, bring in stuff that your players and you may not be familiar with until you do some research. And yes. Do research. And don't be gross with how you add multicultural supernaturals to your game. Be sensitive and respectful. But also make it awesome.
When a fail hits the table and I want to make the scene more interesting, I use any of the moves above. I call for a meeting somewhere that's awesome but in another's territory. I make someone show up they don't want to see who's from another culture or ethnicity and is badass but has different expectations. And I nail the city with something weather related to force characters to unusual spots, to make them seek shelter, or to drive them together. Or to throw a monkey wrench into their plans.
Toronto is a beautiful, stunning, diverse place that has its fair share of problems but offers a rich landscape to work with. It has ghost stories everywhere, weird islands you can visit, a major airport, forgotten and closed down subway stations, midnight flags games in the financial district, and a tonne of pride. It's the ideal place for a bunch of supernaturals to emerge from the shadows from every part of the world and stake a claim in the world's most diverse city.