[5E] Urban Intrigue Campaign - Gating the Sandbox
Page 1 of 4 1234 LastLast
Results 1 to 10 of 38
  1. #1
    Member
    Myrmidon (Lvl 10)



    Join Date
    Apr 2019
    Posts
    435

    [5E] Urban Intrigue Campaign - Gating the Sandbox

    I'm in the midst of writing up an intrigue heavy urban campaign. If you've read the Gentlemen Bastards by Scott Lynch, that's sort of what I'm aiming for. Combat will feature, as will chases, as will heists and a bunch of additional social interaction stuff that's going to need a rules overlay, and which is not the focus of this post. What I wanted to talk about was gating an urban campaign environment.

    In a big dungeon crawl, the various areas of the dungeon that are keyed to PC level are usually gated somehow, and there's an inherent sense of progress when the party makes it to a new part of the dungeon. I'd like to accomplish this for a large urban environment that is designed to be a long term campaign setting, let's say 10 or 12 levels. For simplicity's sake lets use Waterdeep as our default exemplar.

    In most campaigns, the city as setting is pretty sandboxy. Players can go where they like, mostly, and talk to whom they like. I want the city to function more like a mega-dungeon. I want the players to have to work to access certain parts of the city, and more importantly, to access new and higher ranks of NPCs. I have some ideas about how to accomplish that, and I'll list them in a moment, but I thought I'd access the breadth and depth of experience here to brainstorm some additional ideas.

    Here's the current set of ideas I'm working with

    1. Papers Please. Adding some bureaucracy, specifically identity papers and the like as necessary to move around various parts of the city. Start with basic residency papers, and add one other elements to gain access to, for example, the Guild Quarter, or various Noble Enclaves. Not a hard gate, but it would add some complexity, plus a nice use for forgery.

    2. Actual Walls. Not my most original idea, but walling off various sections of the city helps keep things discrete, and helps delineate who's allowed to be where. Plus you can add internal guard posts to check papers, wagon contents and whatnot.

    3. Social Stratification. This one is the big enchilada. I'd like to use a Reputation stat and mechanic set to gate access to higher ranked individuals and events. Social access and influence is the currency of medieval and Renaissance society, and I'd like characters to make measurable progress and set definite goals about making this happen. You don't just walk into the Baron's Winter Ball, you either have the reputation to get invited on your own, or you manufacture circumstances to finagle an invitation from someone else who has the requisite reputation.

    That's what I'm working with so far...

    None of this is really intended to railroad the party. It's intended to give measurable goals and non-XP rewards to the social interaction pillar. I have a set of rules in mind to manage social interaction downtime, contact building and favor holding, and some rules to help run large social events as a series of encounters with an obvious teleos. That part is still a work in progress, but I'd like to know what other fanciness people have come up with to make long term urban campaigns work.
    XP 77IM gave XP for this post

  2. #2
    Member
    Grandmaster of Flowers (Lvl 18)



    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Posts
    3,592
    Social Stratification ≈ Background ≈ Status/Clique
    Social Competitiveness ≈ Persuasion/Intimidation
    Family and Clan are ultra important


    Power in the sense of class level and wealth are actually less important than we moderns might expect.
    Level and treasure probably counts for personal reputation, but not really for social ‘access’.

  3. #3
    Member
    Hydra (Lvl 25)



    Join Date
    Jan 2002
    Location
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    Posts
    6,324
    Wealth, celebrity, and power.

    I'd use the lifestyle expenses tiers as basic ranks, although you might need finer levels of gradations between different levels of the aristocracy.

    Wealth- Spending money on lifestyle expenses establishes a baseline reputation. Takes time to establish, at least 6 months for modest to comfortable ranks and years for wealthy and aristocratic rank. Having some sort of permanent rank (like a noble title, a military officer, or high ranking clergy) would establish a floor of reputation, even if they're temporarily living below their means. The duke's son living in the slums is still the duke's son, and his reputation won't take much of a hit once he returns to his normal life. Use this for a baseline for NPCs, or for PCs who have backgrounds as being established in the city. Probably too slow for PCs, which leads us to

    Celebrity- Make a name for yourself by doing something noticeable and important, and see a quick rise through the ranks. You'll be invited to the biggest parties just to be shown off by those in power. This decays quickly without spending the upkeep costs for your new rank. Win the arena tournament as the greatest fighter in the city, and then use the winnings to buy a fancy house in the wealthy district, and you're one of the nouveau riche. (If your setting allows you to buy noble title, this may be relevant here. Although new titles won't have the same cachet as old money.) Win the same tournament and stay in the old tenement building wearing your battered armor around the city, and that new prestige will barely last a month.

    Dropping money quickly (parties, lavish gifts) is another way to quickly earn status, although it's subject to the same quick decay if it isn't followed up with a lifestyle change. Scandals are simply negative celebrity, causing people to drop in rank, although they also quickly return to their baseline. The lord's daughter returns to good graces quickly, but the social climbing merchant can be destroyed by a well-placed lie. Earning the recognition and admiration of important people (the king gives you a medal of heroism for saving the city) is also a good way to earn your way into the higher ranks. It will generally last longer, but still decays without upkeep.

    You can't really stay in the upper ranks without spending money unless you have

    Power- Being powerful enough tends to put you in the upper ranks even if you don't bother to maintain your rank. The archmage can hide for years in a hovel in the slums, but will still be able to walk into any place in the city. Heroic presence (i.e. high levels) can usually get you access beyond even the rich and famous.
    XP 77IM gave XP for this post

  4. #4
    Member
    Superhero (Lvl 15)

    aco175's Avatar

    Join Date
    Dec 2004
    Location
    Massachusetts, USA
    Posts
    1,816
    If you want to use walls to block off parts of the city, you can have a East/West Berlin setting where two different groups control the halves and the people are in the middle. There can be a lot of politics and spying back and forth as the PCs rise in the ranks of the various guilds.

    I'm not sure on the rising in levels and ties to other NPCs. Sure there will be high level group and NPCs that they will meet. There are levels to any organization from meeting the mage, but needing to get past his apprentice and assistant. The other point is that 5e allows a group of low level monsters to challenge a higher level PC.

  5. #5
    Member
    Grandfather of Assassins (Lvl 19)



    Join Date
    Mar 2014
    Location
    Cincinnati
    Posts
    2,159
    Quote Originally Posted by Fenris-77 View Post
    1. Papers Please. Adding some bureaucracy, specifically identity papers and the like as necessary to move around various parts of the city. Start with basic residency papers, and add one other elements to gain access to, for example, the Guild Quarter, or various Noble Enclaves. Not a hard gate, but it would add some complexity, plus a nice use for forgery.
    This is a good starting point. A city probably has a foreign quarter that outsiders are primarily confined to, unless they have official business elsewhere. Start the players in the foreign district, and maybe get them an opportunity to get past a gate into a nearby district once or twice (a bribeable guard or buying some forged papers). Once you're ready, you can introduce one or two power players who can grant limited access to the rest of the city based on mission/adventure needs.

    Quote Originally Posted by Fenris-77 View Post
    2. Actual Walls. Not my most original idea, but walling off various sections of the city helps keep things discrete, and helps delineate who's allowed to be where. Plus you can add internal guard posts to check papers, wagon contents and whatnot.
    Most cities would have this, and it makes the first concept actually work. Without a physical barrier, papers wouldn't have much meaning unless you get caught (and can't fight or run your way out of it). Also, as foreigners, the city can tax the party each time they go through a gate (say 1 sp for most gates, but higher for entertainment, merchant, and noble districts).

    Quote Originally Posted by Fenris-77 View Post
    3. Social Stratification. This one is the big enchilada. I'd like to use a Reputation stat and mechanic set to gate access to higher ranked individuals and events. Social access and influence is the currency of medieval and Renaissance society, and I'd like characters to make measurable progress and set definite goals about making this happen. You don't just walk into the Baron's Winter Ball, you either have the reputation to get invited on your own, or you manufacture circumstances to finagle an invitation from someone else who has the requisite reputation.
    Here's where the Faction mechanic becomes worthwhile. You can use this mechanic to track the party's reputation with the various factions and groups, and as they get higher in rank, they have greater access.

    Good Luck!

  6. #6
    Member
    Myrmidon (Lvl 10)



    Join Date
    Apr 2019
    Posts
    435
    Broad strokes on the reputation thing. The DMG has an honour system that, once you peel back the honour part, works really well as a reputation system. Its essentially a 7th stat that works somewhat like CHA based skills, but only in sitiations where reputation is the key driver. I'm shamelessly cribbing from an article by AngryDM, so credit to him for the basic idea. The stat functions as overall reputation, and faction and group reputation, say with a guild, or the nobility, functions as a mod on the base stat but only for that group.

    Beyond that, down time and in-game activities build contacts which either can be traded for favours or rwtained for reputation mods. Its more complicated than that, but those are the broad stokes. So PCs need to build up Reputation to gain access where they need it based on the narrative of the game. That can be done straight or as a con, both work well.

    Faction reputation is influenced by background choice and I'm planning to balance out the usefulness of the backgrounds using the mods.

  7. #7
    Member
    Grandmaster of Flowers (Lvl 18)



    Join Date
    Dec 2007
    Posts
    3,592
    Quote Originally Posted by TwoSix View Post
    Wealth, celebrity, and power.
    Status because of wealth, celebrity, and power ... is modern.

    In premodern cultures, it is more important to be *related* to a noble and have a title, than to actually have money.

    Money has value − specifically to pay for armies to conquer and steal wealth from other communities. These ‘spoils of war’ were often spent lavishly to emphasize the victory.

    The next generation of these conquerors use this ill-begotten money to build useful infrastructure (transportation, buildings, functional bureaucracies, etcetera). The generations after this are *born* into power, and take the status quo for granted as if things have always been this way.

    In peace time, fear became respect, and respect became loyalty, and loyalty became love.

    It is weird to me how the same people who are essentially psychopaths who murder and loot others, become objects of patriotism and love. But that is how it works. Just look at Rome.

    Archeologists sometimes refer this phase of human society as a ‘predatory economy’.

    Once the ruling families have consolidated their status and jurisdictions, that becomes the new normal. The only time there is conflict, is when rival families have roughly equal claims to who is the most ‘noble’.
    Last edited by Yaarel; Tuesday, 18th June, 2019 at 04:02 AM.
    XP 77IM gave XP for this post

  8. #8
    Member
    Hydra (Lvl 25)



    Join Date
    Jan 2002
    Location
    Lawrenceville, NJ
    Posts
    6,324
    Quote Originally Posted by Yaarel View Post
    Status because of wealth, celebrity, and power ... is modern.
    Well, the OP mentioned Locke Lamora, which is pretty modern in its viewpoint.

  9. #9
    Member
    A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)



    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    Posts
    2,833
    I would absolutely use Lifestyle as a gate: Lifestyle is too often ignored in D&D, and it would be nice to give that expenditure a concrete value. Make sure to also play up the role-playing value of lavish clothes, food, lodging, your own private carriage, etc. I'd probably make Lifestyle a "floor." Like, if you have letters of introduction to get you into the Noble District, you need to also have an Aristocratic Lifestyle for the past 30 days, or else you look like an unwashed commoner. (Disguise kit might work, though it's risky.)

    Here are some more barriers:

    Water. Put a couple of rivers that are too wide to swim across. There are only a few bridges, and they're great places for...

    Tolls. If entering the Harbor District costs 10 gp per person, most 1st-level parties aren't going to put that up, just to see what's in there. Maybe for 100 gp you can buy a medallion that lets you enter the Market District whenever you want. Maybe that medallion can be looted as treasure, found on a corpse in...

    Sewer Tunnels. The Dungeon Comes To You! Entering these tunnels requires a key, or a secret entrance. More importantly, exiting also requires a key -- and exits in nicer parts of town may also be guarded. And those guards don't expect sewer workers to have weapons and armor...

    Weapon Privileges. Certain parts of the city may not allow you to traipse about wearing armor and carrying warhammers and longbows. Some might even restrict arcane foci. This is more of a "soft" deterrent, because players can still go there, they just need permission to carry all their stuff. Or maybe it is a hard barrier, enforced by...

    Arcane Wards. Magical enchantments can keep characters, or certain types of characters, out of certain areas. Waterdeep has an enchantment that keeps out dragons, for example. You could say that the Royal District only allows people with royal signets or royal servants' livery (thus the PCs need to find some of that, or find a way to counterfeit it, to enter -- or maybe Nystul's magic aura will do the trick). These wards might change how they function depending on...

    Time. Some areas might not exist all the time. An example might be a large black market that only operates on certain nights, or an underground fighting ring that moves every few days, or a masked cult that meets at a different noble manor every month. For these, the "key" is the information of when/where the thing will be -- you have to know a guy who knows a guy. Most such "temporary locations" are probably kind of small, but they needn't be. An example might be a neighborhood that is only accessible at high tide, and only if you take a certain path through the rocks and sandbars -- getting there at any other time requires taking an expensive ferry. An easy one might be the Night District, where nocturnal races live; during the day, all the buildings are boarded up tight, so you can go there but there's nothing to do (and maybe this isn't obvious the first time the PCs enter, so they have to ask around to figure this out). The Night District could be an example of an...

    Ethnic Neighborhood. Some D&D races might want to live primarily among their own kind. Humans aren't welcome and the city guard discourages human visitors. The PCs can go there, but they'll get the cold shoulder; so there's not really much exploring or adventuring to do. Maybe everyone there pretends they don't speak common. Eventually, the PCs might find a way to get on the people's good side, and become welcome visitors. Actually this may be required if the neighborhood exists within...

    Another Plane. Like a pocket dimension within the city itself -- Diagon Alley. You can only go in or out of the plane via a few coterminous places (an archway here, an old alley there), but instead of finding a small courtyard, there's an entire plane in there! This is obviously more "fantastical" than mundane barriers, but it could work for, e.g., the Wizards' District or the University District.
    XP Yaarel, Sadras, Riley37, bedir than gave XP for this post

  10. #10
    Member
    A 1e title so awesome it's not in the book (Lvl 21)



    Join Date
    Jun 2003
    Posts
    2,833
    Oh! I forgot a good one.

    No Map. Make the players map the place. They have to explore it. Talking to the locals might get them a good overview of the city, like district boundaries and major landmarks. But when the players realize that the local "general store" is selling everything for 50% markup, and they want to buy some fine leather goods at PHB prices, make them go on a quest to find that. Or, they need to find a particular person, to turn in a quest for a reward. Even better, have a local give them directions that don't make no sense until you follow them. "So take a left at the canal, and then cross the second bridge... or is it the third bridge? It's the one with the peach trees growing near it. That'll put you on West Peachtree Street, which, confusingly, is east of Peachtree Street, so don't get them mixed up. Then, after the Church of the Golden Sun, you'll want to take the left fork..." It's kind of like having a treasure map in the dungeon (treasure maps are excellent for megadungeons).

    Anyway, treat accurate maps as treasure, and make the players map things themselves otherwise. The mere fact that the players don't know what's where should slow them down somewhat. Like, if getting to the Harbor District requires going through the crime-ridden, maze-like Lower Slums, do the PCs really want to try just sprinting from one side to the other? Do they hire a guide for 100 gp? (Probably they could Intimidate him down to like 5 gp...) Or do they cautiously map the place out, learning which areas to avoid, which gangs are more friendly towards outsiders, etc.?
    XP Fenris-77 gave XP for this post

Similar Threads

  1. Modern Urban Sandbox
    By Lord Zack in forum *General Roleplaying Games Discussion
    Replies: 1
    Last Post: Thursday, 6th May, 2010, 05:43 AM
  2. L.A. Group Looking 4 DM for Urban/Political/Intrigue Campaign
    By Canaan in forum Gamers Seeking Gamers
    Replies: 5
    Last Post: Wednesday, 14th March, 2007, 08:20 AM

Posting Permissions

  • You may not post new threads
  • You may not post replies
  • You may not post attachments
  • You may not edit your posts
  •