This tutorial won’t tell you what to do step-by-step: you know what environment you need for your story better than I. However, the intention here is to offer advice and planning tools so that your dream city (whatever shape it takes) will be both realistic and contribute to the larger context of your story. It uses my mission “State Secrets” as an example – with lots of images from start to finish on planning my city.
There’s the potential to “explore strange, new worlds and seek out new life and new civilizations” – even if it’s an urban environment. Not only are there are a lot of objects but they also have specific ways of being arranged. We’ve all played those star cluster “cities” where four buildings are bunched together in the middle of a field. Chances are we also groaned because that doesn’t look like a city.
Back in December, I wanted to do urban mission. However, I hadn’t seen this done in-game (with the exception of the Qo’nos exterior). This was before the Romulan Featured series.
1) Find Some Space
So, the first step is finding a map with clearings in it. You can even filter your exterior ground maps by typing “clearing” and you can see large swathes of them. However, you and I both realize that leaving it “as-is” or visually recognizable, won’t distinguish your city from the ones in the star clusters.
2) Your City is a Character
The environment or “setting” of a mission is a character. It doesn’t have dialogue but the setting of a mission can have a profound impact on the story. Indeed, where a mission takes place can tell a lot.
There are two considerations for this: one practical and one story-driven. The first is what factions are at work here? Who built the city? There are distinct buildings for many of the factions in-game and knowing what you want to achieve is easier than building it and deciding later you want it to be a different faction. The second consideration has to do with the ambiance: from the lighting to what types of things are going on in your city. For example, my mission “State Secrets” has Cardassians violently memorializing a genocide that took place on their world. They’re angry. So – my map would look different from one on Betazed. Is it idyllic like Paris is shown in TNG or is it a dystopian setting, like the Romulan Mining Colony?
3) Level the Playing Field
Urban environments rarely use grassy paths – the expectation is that there will be stone or concrete or steel walkways. The devs fortunately included the “Building Block Platform” – this is a wide, horizontal object that acts like paving an entire area. There are a number of styles: from orange, sand-stone (Cardassian-style) to metals and even concrete-textured ones. Each of these can help define what look you’re going for and compliment the buildings you’ll eventually place.
4) Cover and Alignment – That’s Your Assignment
The biggest feature of an urban setting are the massive buildings and their position in relationship toward each other. Streets don’t have to be straight and buildings don’t have to be pressed against the street edge like a child pressed against the glass of the gorilla exhibit at the zoo. However, most cities have to confront how people move around in them: vary street sizes for large boulevards that could fit shuttles to small causeways and back alleys. These can tell stories of their own: we associate back alleys with mystery and secrets – from shady deals to spies. They also give a sense of claustrophobia.
5) Details (and how to use fewer objects more effectively)
You don’t have to create an entire city down to the last Jumja stick. However, pay attention to where characters will travel in the story. In “State Secrets”, I originally intended for the characters to wander the city and spent far too much time bogged into details. I then realized that I was only using the city to tell a story and I didn’t have a gameplay reason to explore: I wasn’t sending them through back alleys and courtyards – I wanted to use the city as a setpiece to contribute to my narrative. Let the setting work for you. Put details along the paths characters travel on – with many tucked just out of view. In “State Secrets”, I added wandering Cardassians, power generators, flags, and used building blocks to create second story promenades. Many of these create vertical depth (rather than just a horizontal sprawl). Have setpieces take prominence in your story but don’t forget to add some distant details to make the city feel alive.
6) Insert Gameplay
Now that you have a setting fully-realized, you now have a greater feel for what areas work best in your greater story. You have a greater understanding of what direction players might travel and what they’ll be interested in seeing. Do you met an Obsidian Order agent in an open-air cafe? Do you find a bomb in a back-alley trash heap? It’s up to you but now that you have a richly detailed setting you can have firmer ideas about where sections take palce (and, inversely, can go back and make areas used in the mission more interesting and focused).