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Let's Go to the Mall!
11:42pm EST - 11/09/2008
Sometimes, what creates the best game setting it taking something familiar and turning it on its ear. In this spirit, I present to you a game setting that I simply call "The Mall."
As the title suggests,the entire game takes place inside of a mall. Of course, there has to be a twist. In this case, the twist is that the game is a post-apocalyptic setting. People have lived inside of this mall for generations now. There is no outside to these people; their entire world exists within this decaying shopping complex.
The shopping complex itself, back in its prime, was gigantic, the size of a city. It hosted hotels, movie theaters, grocery stores, and virtually every kind of store that you can imagine. People would travel the world over to shop there, and it was a marvel of modern architecture.
Not that the people in the game know any of that. The concept of tourism is alien to them. The residents of the mall don't even have an idea as to what money is, save for a few clans that know that you could trade it for stuff. Paper for goods? Inconceivable. Just like how they don't understand the outside, they don't even know what caused them to live here.
Generations ago, people banded together in stores, trying to eke out an existence. These people eventually formed clans under the banner of the stores that they lived in. The stores provided the raw materials that would now provide them with what they need to survive. A clan is as much a statement of who you are as it is what you are. Your store defines your culture, how other people see you, and how you live.
Of course, there's always those who either reject clans or were cast out. Life for these people is tough. They have to find hidden, secret places to stay, with the understanding that you can only stay for one day before you must move on. While they are invaluable due to their knowledge of the layout of the mall, they are all too frequently captured to be conscripts in clan wars, slaves, or worse.
The mall itself is a paradox, not exactly making sense. Though cut off from the outside world for countless years, there's still running water from the faucets. Heat, cooling, and electricity come and go seemingly at random. They can run for days on end, then be off for a month. Those old enough to remember tell horror stories about when nothing worked for a full year – people froze to death during the winter, and died of heat during the summer.
The first floor is the common floor, where the bulk of the game takes place. There are escalators leading to upper levels, but people are prevented from traveling up them by escalator guards; powerful warriors in black and white who always seem to know what's going on and have never been defeated in combat. This doesn't stop people from trying, however, as people can clearly see that the upper floors are not only nicer, but that the people who live up there have a much better lifestyle than them.
In the center of the mall is a gigantic area known as the Amusement Park, which is both feared and revered. There, gladiatorial fights take place for the benefit of those on the upper levels. On one hand, these fights often lead to a painful death. On the other hand, for those that survive and entertain their audience, they can be vastly rewarded with canned food, jewelry, and other useful items. As well, fighting in the Amusement Park earns you status amongst your peers. When traveling near it, however, pray that they aren't short on entertainment, or you might find yourself fighting for your freedom.
Various open areas with access to skylights are used for the sole purpose of growing crops and other plants. These areas are often highly contested by by clans, though a few have managed to work out peace treaties of various sorts. Though they may be fought over, none would dare even think about harming the crops. To do so would be to invite the worst sort of death. These locations contain numerous sorts of crops, and the type available for trade changes from location to location. One famous neutral “field” sports a waterfall, rice, grain, and a most rare commodity, fruit trees. It's not famous for its trees, however – it's the fact that emissaries from the upper floors occasional come down to trade for the fruit.
Food courts are where merchants congregate for business. These bazaars usually happen once a week, with groups from various clans coming to trade whatever they have to offer. One exemption to this rule is the Court of the Queen of Ice. This marketplace is protected by the Queen's Guard, and always has something for trade. The Queen's personal court and chambers were once a well-known restaurant more known for dairy products than their other foods, but these days it's as opulent as you can get. Another court is trying to organize itself in the same fashion, but the self-appointed King is having difficulties.
Former pet stores find themselves with a unique position of security. Few know the arts of husbandry, and so taking over their breeding pens would only lead to eventual disaster. Their trade of meats is vital to the survival of many clans, so disrupting their business is a sure way to gain the animosity of others.
Equally, jewelers are in a similar position. The mall was large enough to sport many clusters of jewelry stores, though these days most of them are controlled by a single clan. People come to jewelers to have metal worked, to trade for baubles and trinkets, or anything else that the jewelers might have. Jewelers are a more stable supply of goods than food courts, but many view them as asking too much for what they offer. Though the arts of forging are still unknown to this world, their prowess of working preexisting metals grants them a special status. As such, they often are hired as diplomats and negotiators. Few willingly will attack jewelers; not only are jewelers well-armed, but all jewelers will aid in the defense of another jeweler, regardless of clan. When jeweler clans war, only the foolish attempt to take a side or otherwise interfere.
Death, naturally, is a commonality in the world. While some dispose of bodies through cannibalism, most still consider this to be a crime against nature. Instead, these people turn to the open elevator shafts, disposing of their dead through ceremonial dumpings. Sometimes, people are thrown into these shafts as punishment, when simple death or casting out from a clan isn't a harsh enough punishment. The underworld is a frightening thought, and if you linger near an elevator shaft long enough, you can hear... things down there. Some say that they're animals, others say that it's survivors of their punishment, and some insist that demons wander that subterranean darkness. Regardless, nobody wishes to go down and find out.
In stark contrast to the underworld are the skylights. Though rumors insist that many more can be seen in the upper-most floor, the few that can be seen on the first floor are wondrous things. Many are broken, allowing rain, snow, and sunlight be experienced directly. Some consider the bright lights in the sky, the blazing yellow orb and the ever-changing white light, to be gods of some sort. Every generation or two, somebody decides to try and see what's beyond the skylights, attempting to climb up to them and past them. Almost all don't make it, falling to their death far short of their goal. Rumors persist, however, that some people have, never to be seen again.
The core of this setting, of course, is survival, and a difficult task at that. Ranged weapons are all but nonexistent, simply consisting of thrown weapons. If there were guns, then long ago all the ammunition was expended. Many melee weapons are improvised or were once something else. People struggle just to survive day to day, with clan wars far too common, famine arising from having nothing to trade for food, and plagues sweeping through the mall.
Creating a character for this setting should follow whatever rule system you choose to use for it, but players should ask themselves various questions as they create them: What clan do I belong to, and how do others view this clan? Or am I obviously clanless, and if so, how do I tend to my survival? How have I fashioned my clothes? What kinds of items do I carry on myself?
However, within this are endless possibilities. Clanless gutter rats, scheming raiders, even noble knights and men of learning are possible with consideration and thought. To help give you an idea, here are some sample characters for your consideration.
- Joesph Becker: The Beckers are a clan of Jewlers well-known for being more fair and reasonable than most with their prices. Recently, however, their doors have closed for business. Suddenly, Joesph appeared, on a quest to reach a farm. He is a massive man, with his hair cut short and a hard expression on his face. He claims to be on a trial for leadership, but he's rather young to be leading a clan. His pants are animal hide, his shirt heavy white fabric of some sort. Over these, he wears a jeweler's apron, thick leather that offers a good level of protection. His weapon is a long gate hook that he swings with terrible force, and a heavy set of keys that he carries on a spiral bungie. He always thinks carefully before speaking, careful to always sound more intelligent and educated than he really is. His mind is set entirely on his quest with grim determination. He knows that should he fail, it means the extinction of the Beckers.
- Sir Lyle: Sir Lyle was formerly of Clan Gibbet, but has recently been cast out. He fell into an argument with Lord Adams, the head of the clan, over interpretation of their code. However, all is not lost to him; he was cast out with his weapons and armor, and the knowledge that if word of great acts of heroism were to return to his clan, he would be accepted back with open arms. He is a light-hearted man who is, paradoxically enough, easily frustrated and pushed to anger. Yet nothing will break his strict code of honor. He wears a hockey helmet, football padding, and various other random pieces of “armor.” On his arm, he carries a shield that once was part of a steel display case. His weapon is a battered but well cared for cricket bat. He roams the halls, looking for that elusive great act of heroism...
- Cassandra: Cassandra's grandmother was cast out from her clan before she gave birth. Since then, the family line has been wandering loners. Cassandra knows no other life than being clanless. She's gained a good reputation amongst both the clanless and various clans for her quick wit, friendly nature, and ability to perform various tasks. Despite this, her main motivation is survival; getting to another sanctuary, getting more food or anything else she needs, these are always paramount on her mind. When times get tough, she's been known to sell herself near Victoria's to those who can't afford professionals. Her pants are made out of the skins of stuffed animals, and her vest out of animal hides. She carries a hiking backpack full of various things she needs for her survival, and wields a shiv made from a piece of tile, which she insists is called a chib.
- The Stalker: Not even those poor souls forced to deal with him on a regular basis know his real name or his past. This clanless fellow, however, is universally feared. His skin is rubbed black with soot, as are his clothes. This does nothing to aid his already notorious reputation. He does nothing to hide the fact that he's an insane, cannibalistic killer. His skill with a ballpoint pen is simply frightening – as he wanders the halls at night, one can hear the incessant click-clicking. Seen taking on five opponents at once with the pen, few want to be anywhere near where he is.
For the game master, this setting presents a new set of challenges. One must think about how every-day items can be re purposed in new ways. As well, coming up with new clans can be a challenge. Wander around your mall to get a good look at various stores, kiosks, and even decorations in order to get ideas. Naturally, not every store in the mall is occupied, but there are plenty of ideas to be gleamed. Here's some examples of clans for your convenience.
- Nobles: This is an order of men and women who hold knowledge. They are some of the few who know about the fact that there's an outside world, but not even they know what caused them to live in the mall. Both revered and feared, they've learned a great deal, and are willing to trade knowledge in exchange for what they need. They are the doctors and scientists of the mall, capable of what others would consider miracles.
- Gao: This clan is one of the better dressed in the mall. Stemming from a well-known clothing chain, their weapons are often improvised from clothing racks and the like. What they lack in goods, they make up for within ferocity and zeal.
- The Order of the Gator: Another clan that stems from a clothing store. They are easily identified by the small alligator on their shirts. Unlike the Gao, they aren't nearly as warlike – early on, they raided nearby unoccupied stores for their goods, and used those for trade later. Instead of having to war for what they need, they have a habit of stockpiling for later use. They make frequent use of trusted clanless to run errands for them and to practice trade. They only raise the gate on their store when absolutely necessary, and even when they do venture from their store, they rarely move in anything but a large group.
- Victoria's: This has become a place where people go to receive any number of pleasures. Somewhere between a geisha and a prostitute, their services cater to both men and women. Massages, pleasant conversation, song and dance, and even sex can be bought here, though it does tend to be expensive. Of course, for a chance to forget about all your troubles, many people are more than willing to pay...
- Mart: This used to be a combination of a supermarket and a place where people could buy general goods. Naturally, this means that there's plenty of space for people and growth, as well as a wide variety of useful items. As such, they have a huge number to their clan. The downside is that there's always infighting, and they are frequently the target of rival clans – even corpses of members are a cornucopia of goods. Interestingly, this store is a multi-level, but the escalators are well guarded, preventing people from going up...
- Plex: When the power is on, these people are the ones to go to for a bit of distraction. Perhaps even more costly than Victoria's, the chance to see things that you'd never even dream of is alluring to even the most embittered and callus of people. The screens may be faded and worn, the projectors may not work so well any more, and the seats may have been ripped out for sleeping space, but the images and sounds are so very well worth it. It's unsurprising that one of the three Plexes have religions based on each movie.
- Kiosks: Though open and much harder to defend, there are those who turn to kiosks. While most people consider them crazy, they cling to these mobile homes, caring for them lovingly.
More than just these are available, of course. Take a look around your mall to get inspiration. The mall is huge, and capable of fitting quite a bit in there, so don't hesitate to add things.
Another tricky matter is, of course, your players. They're going to think about things that somebody in this setting wouldn't. Stress that the mall is all that these people have ever known, and remind players of that. Of course, if you care to, you can always explore what is outside, but getting out would be an adventure all of its own.<
As well, don't hesitate to reward and punish your players. Word of mouth travels fast, so people who destroy things will quickly gain a negative reputation of being wasteful and may earn attacks. Let them declare that they're going to break the glass to get into a store – surprise them when the bulletproof glass refuses to break and draws the unwanted attention of others.
On the other hand, encourage adaptation and re purposing. For example, vending machines are broken and long since emptied. However, if your players decide to use a two wheeled truck to block the door, then run with it! Have a group attack, only to find that they have to squeeze through, opening themselves up to attack or getting stuck. Have those bodies carry something useful to the players. Or you can give XP awards. Especially find awards for those who get into the spirit of things and role-play the setting well.
Occasionally remind players about their food stores. “And by your current count, you have three days of food” can be a great motivation to get players to act. Few people want to play out their characters starving to death, and it can be a good way to kick start an adventure.
Also remember that the ability to read is a dying skill. Perhaps employee training manuals are revered objects, with possibly one person trained every generation to read them. Perhaps others seek out a character that can read to translate something scrawled on a wall from ages past, only to discover that it says "The End is Here."
Adventures can take a plethora of styles. Here's some suggestions to get you started, but feel free and create your own.
- Down Below: A member of your clan committed a heinous crime and was tossed into the dark underworld alive. Only afterwards was it discovered that they had stolen the store keys. Without a way to lock the gates, the clan is in horrible danger. The party is sent down to brave the subterranean horrors and retrieve the keys. Going down is the easy part, though. Finding the thief and getting back out is another matter entirely.
- Rising Above: The people on the higher levels lead a much better lifestyle than the party, and they're tired of it. Though they don't dare try and fight past the escalator guards, there has to be a way up there. Maybe they can somehow bribe the guards, or maybe they can find another way to rise above the rest...
- Amusement: The gladiatorial amusement park in the center of the mall is not something that most people want to participate in. However, the goods and renown to be earned there can be more than worth it if you survive. Those that go there to fight, however, quickly learn that just winning fights won't earn you much from the people above. They want to be entertained. The more popular you are with those above means gaining even more, and perhaps even the oft-vaunted “private displays” for your hosts. Characters who not only fight well and entertain well in other matters might soon find themselves loved by the crowds... and hated by others.
- Becoming a Clan: The party is a group of clanless who are tired of the constant travel and dangers associated with their lives. They decide to take over an abandoned store to claim as their own. However, this isn't an easy task, as most unoccupied stores have been stripped clean of their most valuable supplies. The party must find ways to stock their store, build defenses, and recruit more members. They won't last long, however, without allies, because somebody is going to want what they have...
Perceptive readers will notice that not once throughout this writeup has the name of the mall, or the country it's located in, been mentioned. This isn't by chance. Firstly, the PCs will have no concept of country. Secondly, it doesn't matter. If you feel the absolute need to put it in a country, then put it wherever you feel is best. The place is a city all to itself, so it could easily fit in any major country. If you choose to explore the reasons for them living in there, or what's on the outside, you're on your own.
Though this is geared towards “familiar but not,” this basic concept can be adapted any number of different ways. For example, it can be easily modified to apply to a flotilla of boats, or perhaps a world ship that's suffered one too many failures in various systems.
All in all, have fun with it.