Monday, March 23, 2015

City Squares II: Stocking Haven

Today we’ll fill Haven with contacts from each layer, information for those contacts to dole out to the players, and the encounters the information leads to. In addition mechanics will be discussed, specifically the City Turn and how it is played in the urbancrawl.

From the Alexandrian: “Unlike a dungeoncrawl, the goal of an urbancrawl doesn’t default to treasure hunting. It defaults to finding something interesting.” The idea is that the information is the treasure, and the contacts are npc versions of treasure chests. Agency here is created in multiple ways: whether to look for a contact, where to find them, how to convince them to part with information, and what to do with that information. This part is even more interesting since the players can decide act on the information immediately, usually leading to an encounter. Or they could sit on it, prioritizing other goals first. It’s even possible they may just take the information to a different contact and sell it. Anything goes.

Information generation is pretty similar to dropping clues and secrets, meaning it’s been covered before and not at the top of the to do list. The thing to tackle here is how the players find contacts and how they interact with them, both structurally and in play. So I could tell the players, “Investigate the city, there might be interesting things happening.” I don’t see any player agency there, because I’m essentially telling them to investigate the city. As the DM I run the world (mwahaha), so why not just drop something in their lap? If I give the players a few hooks that don’t require immediate action, agency gets created since they have to decide what to pursue.

If this game structure were to be categorized as a formula, then step 1 of introducing players to my urbancrawl is drop some interesting hooks on them. Step 2, have each hook lead to a location with interesting NPCs (contacts). Step 3, the contacts dispense something interesting (information), and in step 4 that information leads to interesting adventure (encounters). Each step leads to the default finding something interesting.

In game play I would execute it like this: while the players are heading over to the tavern for some r&r they see the following: an acolyte preaching to annoyed passersby about the end of days, a long line of miners selling their mining tools to a dwarf at a merchant stall, sailors unloading barrels of goods obviously stained with blood, and a merchant arguing with a captain complaining about the state of the barrels. I can even drop in a few beggar children who will attempt to pickpocket the players once they engage with one of the other hooks. The next step if for each of these NPCs to lead the players to a different part of town.

For example, let’s say the party’s dragonborn paladin decides to go listen to the street preacher. He’ll get a speech about the end of days, needing to prepare his soul, and directions to the temple of the Order where he can do that. Maybe after some conversation the hook, uh, NPC will give the paladin an iron coin and directions to give it to the temple’s prior. If the heroes head there, they find the Prior just finishing a sermon on the evils of anarchy. On seeing the coin the Prior will explain that the coin is his way of identifying good souls that come to Haven. He’ll explain about his mission of saving souls to prevent the inflation of Infernal ranks (something the heroes have seen personally). Next he offers them his priestly services free one time only if they can do X for him to save someone’s soul. You see where I’m going with this. Hook → Contact → Information → Adventure. If the PCs succeed with the quest the prior will tell them his services are offered at a discount in exchange for the occasional favor. The heroes now have a contact they can hit up for info and an NPC hook generator.

We’ve got structure down and how to present it to the players without them dealing with abstracts. Let’s go to the character sheet now and show the players how those skills matter with abstract game mechanics! It’s a little odd to hide one game structure and have the players interface with the game in another, but it is the game we play.

When a player wants to dig gather information, they may use the Investigation skill or any Charisma skill check and gain advantage with appropriate tool use. So if a PC thinks walking into a gang bar and convincing the members there to give him info, I’ll give advantage when the player says he’s disguising himself as a captain from another chapter of the gang. I’ll take a tip from the Alexandrian, and when a PC needs to search through records I’ll ask for an appropriate knowledge check. Gaining access to those records still falls under gathering the information.

My group is going to be encountering Haven for the first time tonight, and consequentially they have no contacts in Haven. When they dock they’re brigantine in the harbor, I’ll give the description for Hiddenhold and make sure the PCs are aware that this is only one part of the city, and there are other parts to explore. Like I said earlier, they’ll see a bunch of hooks in their immediate vicinity. In the future, if they want to find contacts through investigation actions they’ll make a check, DC 10 for non-secret information (increasing it for secrets and scaling the DC for more important secrets). Then they hear a rumor leading to a contact. Failure means on to the next player, who gets to choose what to search for. I’ll let this go round until each player finds a maximum of one lead, then ask them where they want to go, assuming they haven’t jumped on the first lead they found. The leads will point the PCs in the direction of a contact, and frame the scene. My recipe for distributing leads isn’t a hard procedure though, just a plan of action. We’ll see if it needs tinkering after tonight’s quest. Until next time.

P.S. Just ran my first quest with this material and I learned a few things. What particularly struck me was when after describing the opening scene of Haven the blank stares I received. The PCs had just made it to port and had at least a day to kill until their hireling found a buyer for their cargo. I gave them one paragraph setting the scene and another couple of sentences giving them the hooks. Blank stares. I gave the hooks another read through, and saw no one knew what to do, so I took the initiative. Starting with the closest player to my left, I pointed at him and said, "What do you do?" That got the ball rolling. The players bounced around from NPC to NPC, having some fun with them and eventually making their way to mining the tavern for info. They approached and two of the three contacts I planted there. From that point they bounced around following leads from the criminal layer and ignoring the others. Then they had some fun getting away with petty crimes, while realizing I had successfully conveyed the lawless nature of the city.

There was an interesting confrontation when 3 of the PCs (they split the party) bumped into a gang of "tax" collectors - 10 thugs in all using the thug stat block plus one veteran, which is nothing to sneeze at for three 4th level characters. Their thinking was, "These guys aren't important so we can blow right through them," and so the sorcerer cast burning hands. Since there was a combat encounter going down with only half the players participating, I gave control of the thugs to the other players. Hilariously they didn't pull any punches and would have scored a player death if not for a lucky Stealth check. It was nice to see the PCs in charge of the bad guys taking it seriously, and interesting to see a little metagaming get nipped in the bud. I don't think we'll be seeing any more "This encounter isn't important, and we're 4th level heroes now. No ordinary men can mess with us."

One thing which didn't work out was that the party didn't understand the city was comprised of different districts. I thought I explained there were a few city districts and it would take time to travel from one to another. Surprisingly, they never asked how the districts connected to one another. This makes me think a general city map would be useful just so they can get an idea of the neighborhoods and where the different locations are situated. Or maybe I'll just show them the node map. Gonna think on it for now. That's all folks.


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