One of the things that’s most distinctive between the Marvel and DC comics universes is that Marvel mostly uses real-world cities, particularly New York City, while DC tends to invent their own. Gotham is basically New York City in all ways that count. Metropolis is probably Chicago, since it’s usually not that far from Kansas. Star City is almost certainly Seattle and Central City is pretty much St. Louis. There’s some argument about exactly which city some of them are modeled on (with the argument that Metropolis is NYC in the day and Gotham is NYC at night), but, superficially, it’s unclear why not just use a fictionalized version of the real city to make it easy to map the events onto knowledge of the real world.

Meanwhile, I’ve always been much more of a Marvel reader, so when I was working on a licensed supers video game and we were talking to one of our licensing reps, I didn’t get why he was so adamant about suggesting things like making sure someone mentions Big Belly Burger if they’re going to be talking about food. I hadn’t actually been aware that DC had its own whole consistent, cross-comic infrastructure of invented businesses, other than the obvious ones like Lexcorp and Wayne Enterprises.

As I work on my own campaign set in the DC-verse, it’s suddenly apparent why all these things are such a good idea (and as true for the comics as for RPGs). Even a fictionalized version of New York City is going to be full of preconceptions. People that know a lot about the city will wonder why things were wrong, or resources were not used that would have helped with the current situation. Just think about every time a TV show or movie has been set in your home town and you’re completely baffled by how they’ve screwed up the geography. But Gotham isn’t anyone’s actual hometown. If Batman can get from the opera house to the stock market in a few panels of roof jumping, nobody can insist that it’s impossible since they’re nearly five miles apart, even as the bat flies. In Gotham, they may not be.

More important for a publishing company that can get sued for libel than for your own game, but still a consideration if you want to post your stuff online or eventually release it as a setting book: completely replacing places, companies, and people with analogues gives you a lot more freedom to use them however you need to for your work. McDonalds’ lawyers might have something to say about a storyline where a villain has been putting addictive substances in the special sauce, but O’Shaughnessy’s doesn’t have corporate representation. There’s still probably a legal curtain where it’s too obvious who or what you’re referencing, but it’s a lot easier to get away with than when you’re absolutely using real world names.

For your game, my suggestions include:

  • Figure out what the most notable things are about the city you’re converting, and convert those first. When your players are like, “we should go to X location,” it’s good to have already come up with an analogue than having to scramble and decide on the fly whether that’s different in your fictional city.
  • This is also a good time to take a page from the Fate Dresden Files game and give those location Faces, people that represent them. This can be a way into fictionalizing notable people for the real city that you want to use. Rather than just having a list of city notables, tie them into the locations that they own or influence. This gives them context and a potential location to find them if the players want to deal.
  • Think of how each location can have a plot hook into the kind of campaign you’re running. Your players are more likely to be interested in doing something with the information you’ve presented if there’s a rumor of something they can accomplish there.
  • Don’t be afraid to drastically change something to show how your city isn’t a 1:1 rename of the real world city. The goal is to keep the players from being totally complacent about geography and resources: this is your city, and things exist as they’re useful for your game, not because the players know it’s available in the real world. For example, DC seems to always add a docks area for smuggling crime, even for conversions of land-locked cities.

For example, the city of Terminus is definitely not Atlanta (it’s totally Atlanta):

The (Assault and) Battery

A few years back, the Terminus Warchanters were about to get a new baseball stadium in an inconvenient part of town, wrung from taxpayer expenses and designed to further destroy traffic at the north end of the city. A group of villains that were in town at the time decided to do something about it, and managed to completely disintegrate the nearly-finished structure. The Warchanters are still playing at the still-relatively-new Cash Field downtown. Not being able to get the money to do anything with the now-gaping-hole in the earth, but with several other buildings and parking garages near completion and still intact, the area became a fairly low-key entertainment venue around a large artificial pond. The uneasy origins and government embarrassment have, however, made it slightly dangerous rather than the theme park it was designed to be. It currently exists in an uneasy detente between upscale entertainment venue and criminal hangout, with just enough of a police presence to keep it from completely sliding into a haven of villainy.

The Big Chik ‘N’

National chicken restaurant brand Chik ‘N’ Go has its origin in one of the Terminus’ suburbs. The Catie family still privately owns the restaurant, which has a profoundly religious bent to its hours of operation and philanthropy. This has made the restaurant and its owning family the enemy of many progressives, particularly those that feel marginalized by its attitudes. Having bought out the franchise that erected the giant chicken-decorated building in northern Terminus, they use the easily-identifiable landmark as their flagship store. Many a rogue has tried to bring the place down, if only for the easily-scored notoriety, but somehow the family has enough savvy to fend off such attacks. Some worry they’re playing the long game, which includes planting addictive chemicals in their secret brining recipes.

CCN Center

The Cash family is Terminus old money, but managed to eclipse most of the other families with antebellum roots by investing heavily in media in the latter half of the 20th century, led by current family patriarch Cedric “Ced” Cash and his Hollywood-royalty bride Jen. Cash Communications is one of the dominant cable and internet providers in the region, and the family owns both the Terminus Broadcasting System and Cash Cable News cable channels. In the recent days of 24-hour-news, CCN has become the crown jewel of the family’s holdings, becoming the place most centrists get their news. Ced and Jen have several grown children that have various roles in the business, and his extremely elderly and wealthy mother still sometimes shows up to high society functions.

Crystal Plaza

Crystal Cola has been the dominant soft drink in the world for over a century, and it got its start right in Terminus. Currently the Sampson family profits most from the brand in their role as Terminus nobility, with their patriarch the international corporation’s CEO. They’d long had a museum to the history of the brand in the crime-ridden Underground Terminus, and a few years ago picked up digs and funded a much more elaborate tourist trap next to the Olympic park, the other end of the plaza anchored by a large aquarium that is a frequent villainous target for fish-based schemes (and the local rogues are tired of Aquaman being the most frequent JLA member associated with the city).

High’s Depot Stadium

One of the most popular big-box stores in the nation is headquartered in Terminus, and two of their founders, Aurelius High and August Null, have made their families rich off of the business and stayed local. The High family are noted philanthropists, supporting a diverse series of causes including various Jewish foundations and their own art museum. The Null family are more interested in extreme capitalism, and are known for their ownership of the Terminus Steelwings football team, which currently plays out of the stadium funded by the company he founded.

The Pentacle

Looming near the middle of town, this too-trendy artsy neighborhood has grown up around an ill-advised five-way arrangement of streets. In addition to the traffic implications, complicating drives from all over the area, the mystic consequences are also poorly understood. Once a haven for a particularly off-putting wizard “hero,” Zachary Carstairs, who allowed the culture to grow up around his below-ground sanctum, he eventually went mad with power and had to be put down by a surprising teamup of the local crimefighters and rogues. Since then, the mystical hasn’t really flourished in Terminus, and the area has become increasingly touristy, but the core of mystic alignment theoretically still buzzes in the area, waiting for someone else to make a bid.

The Snarl

Another nationally-famous traffic pattern, this junction of interstates and major surface streets has long contributed heavily to the infamously poor Terminus commute. There’s a running bounty of respect and cash that’s been accumulating for decades to go to the rogue who can manage to smash it so thoroughly that the city has to start from scratch and maybe replace it with something less horrifying. Don Moreland, who also had a mysterious hand in one of the avenues that runs through the Pentacle, is the DoT official responsible for the traffic pattern, and even in his advanced age wields influence to keep it from being replaced. They say that his family has a long and poorly understood stranglehold on the city’s infrastructure planning.

Stagcrest Neighborhood

Terminus’ most infamous party zone, this area features most of the bars and clubs most popular with the celebrity set, including globally-known performers that live full time in the city. Because the city’s celebrities have long been focused on hip hop (with a recent influx of film), the area is famous for violent shootings as performers escalate their “beefs.” Rogues know they’ve reached a certain level of notoriety when they’re invited to go clubbing with rappers who want to associate with them for the street cred, or film stars that want to up their bad boy/girl personas for the tabloids by being seen with a villain in public.

Wolfheart-Holbrook International Airport

One of the busiest in the world, Terminus’ airport is a centerpoint of all kinds of smuggling, with most savvy rogues figuring out a way to get some leverage on the operation. Lambda Airlines owns a whole terminal, and uses the city as their international hub. The Dean family currently profits most from the airline business, with their patriarch the brand’s CEO. While the MARTHA (Metro Area Rail Transit and Helicopter Authority) subways don’t reach as many places in the area as most would like, they do conveniently start at the airport, making it easy for travelers willing to brave the trains to get to most of Terminus. The odd addition of helicopter-transit to the agency’s remit is a historical legacy of a brief villainous fad to abuse private helicopters in the 70s, resulting in the city moving them to public control.