[5E] Urban Intrigue Campaign - Gating the Sandbox

Fenris-77

Explorer
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.
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
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’.
 

TwoSix

Lover of things you hate
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.
 

aco175

Adventurer
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.
 

Shiroiken

Adventurer
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.

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).

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!
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
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.
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
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’.
 
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77IM

Explorer!!!
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.
 

77IM

Explorer!!!
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.?
 

Dausuul

Legend
The difficulty I have always found with these sorts of gates is that PCs have a lot of ways to bypass them, and the typical gatekeeper is not remotely equipped to cope. Between illusions, teleportation magic, mind control, extreme stealth skills, and brute force, PCs can generally get where they want to be.

The pat answer to this problem is "Enforce the logical consequences of defying the law"--but if you do that, you quickly end up with a game where the PCs are outlaws on the lam, waging all-out war against the legitimate authorities. Either they succeed in defying the law, in which case you end up in the same place as before, or they wipe out in a spectacular TPK, and the campaign ends.

All of which is to say: Player buy-in is key. You need players who are willing to have their characters follow the rules (or at least be selective about breaking them).
 

Yaarel

Adventurer
For my urban campaign, nonlethal combat is key.

Defeating opponents without murder, reduces a serious crime to misdemeanor, or even simply a nuisance that the guards dont want to bother themselves with.



For this reason, the ‘bloodied’ condition becomes highly useful. It is the moment when an altercation becomes a fight. Someone is going to have a black eye.

I reserve all the ‘unfair’ ways of ending combat to only become possible during the bloodied condition: such as stun and intimidate to force surrender. Before bloodied, the target simply has the wherewithall to avoid these kinds of attacks from landing.

In any case, zero hit points and the ‘dying’ condition, marks the moment when the opponent is open to a lethal attack for the first time, such as a stab into the gut or a mindwreck. At this point, rather than kill, the attacker can choose to ‘subdue’ the opponent, such as knocking the opponent out, disarming the opponent, or forcing manacles on the opponent.

Keeping fights ‘civil’ goes a long way to cooperating with the security personnel. And even becoming deputies for the guards can be a way to work within the security concerns.



In some urban cultures, a duel to the death for the sake of personal honor or family honor can be an acceptable form of violence. However, such duels are moreorless sacred events, with solemn codes of conduct. Intentionally provoking a duel against an obviously less skilled combatant, might have someone more skilled step in to represent the person as a champion.
 
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Teulisch

Visitor
urchins. yes, its the background applied to npc children... stealth, slight of hand, and double movement speed between areas in the city. they have knive (for the cutpurse), and work together. so one will be a distraction (the help action!) to give another advantage on slight of hand to pick your pocket. a third one carries the goods, when possible (limiting risk of capture).

so... a group of a half-dozen poor children, ages 8 to 12, are in the street. one is the lookout (perception+wis), one is the distraction (may even beg for coins), another sneaks up to steal. another is carrying the loot, and staying stealthy with a clear escape path. if confronted, they will run in different directions, past known obstacles to slow pursuit. if you manage to grab one, congratulations you have a screaming kicking child who is calling you a kidnapper. if you hurt any of them, thats worse you evil monster. its a fight you cannot win. but if you can win a few persuasion checks, these urchins are valuable friends to have (and at the low cost of food for starving children). they probably work indirectly for the theives guild in exchange for food and shelter.

hidden alleyways exist, and contain empty houses full of squatters, and the occasional ruin. the street level may be boarded up, but the upper floors have planks between the open windows... and a maze of passages that can have traps, hidden ambushes, dangers (loose roof tiles, large rats, and worse), and so on. but there are also open spaces between houses where people use all the land they can to grow food. two or three crops of garden vegetables in the narrow space between the buildings, grown by the people who live there.

have a park, full of trees. perhaps run down and overgrown, in a section of the town thats fallen into disrepair. allowed to fall into disrepair, because its on the river and has a hidden dock for smuggling perhaps.


Teleport Circles! these are very important, and can allow a city on the ocean to ALSO be a city in the mountains with mines, AND a city at a desert oasis AND a forest town. if its a permanent connection, then have several portals between those cities that were added over decades as trade increased. so if its raining here, sunny there, snowing there...
 
When writing ZEITGEIST: The Gears of Revolution, there are many urban adventures, but the 'gating' was more information based. You didn't know you had a reason to go certain places until you accomplished preliminary investigations.

You can look up and see the spooky mountain in the middle of the city from the get-go, but you don't know what you need to do up there until you follow a few leads and learn that a seer wants to go up there to get a clear look at the stars, over the haze of smog from the city's new industry, which in turn gives you information you can use to track down the main villain. Likewise, you could walk into the main villain's house at any point, but you don't know he's the villain, and even if you're suspicious he has secret allies, so just killing him doesn't count as a win, because you won't have rooted out his whole network. You need evidence to put him away and stop the whole scheme.
 

Beleriphon

Totally Awesome Pirate Brain
Status because of wealth, celebrity, and power ... is modern.
Depends on your version of celebrity and power. Celebrity is still about famous people being famous, and wealth buy you a lot. Maybe not a noble title, but if can sure buy your kids a ticket to a bunch of none noble titles and positions.

The Knights Templar had plenty of status, no small part of it was because of money, and the fact that were a darned effective fighting force. I'm fairly certain that if the Grand Master of the Knights Templar rolled on up to your castle and asked for an audience with the local lord, he probably go it.

In much the same way if Geoffrey Chaucer was about, you probably invited the guy to your parties. Keeping in mind that Chaucer wasn't a nobleman by birth or grant, however he was from a wealth family that allowed him to enter into a number of positions within in the English royal courts at the time. So a famous poet has a status that some nobles would envy, its not everybody that is granted a gallon of wine per day for life.
 
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Yaarel

Adventurer
Depends on your version of celebrity and power. Celebrity

In premodern cultures, it is more important to be *related* to a noble and have a title, than to actually have money. The Knights Templar had plenty of status, no small part of it was because of money, and the fact that were a darned effective fighting force. I'm fairly certain that if the Grand Master of the Knights Templar rolled on up to your castle and asked for an audience with the local lord, he probably go it.

In much the same way if Geoffrey Chaucer was about, you probably invited the guy to your parties. Keeping in mind that Chaucer wasn't a nobleman by birth or grant, however he was from a wealth family that allowed him to enter into a number of positions within in the English royal courts at the time. So a famous poet has a status that some nobles would envy, its not everybody that is granted a gallon of wine per day for life.
The Knights Templar are an imperial religious order − and very much about certain ruling families. These aristocratic families were also bankers.



There are commoners who have access to the aristocrats: servants, entertainers, and merchants. But the aristocrats are highly conscious of their ‘low birth’ and ‘low status’. They try to prevent the boundaries from getting blurry.

Sometimes, a commoner can be formally adopted into a noble family. Or the commoner might marry into a noble family by an arranged marriage. A commoner might be ‘knighted’, but this might not be hereditary. In all of these cases, what matters is who belongs to which family.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
Okay bear with me here, because this is going somewhere.

D&D is NOT a good system for this kind of game. Some of the reasons for this are listed above, but to reiterate, almost all of the abilities in D&D are provided to bypass, overwhelm, or convert challenges to the players' benefit. This means that the system, as a whole, is focused on the PCs defeating a challenge. The result of this is that the resolution system generates binary results and, outside of combat, non-granular results. It's not well suited to social intrigue, politics, negotiations, etc., that all will feature prominently in the style of game you're proposing. D&D does direct challenges well to okay-ish, and is very bad at the kind of murky, maybe games that go with a gritty crime game.

So, the short answer to this is try a different system. Blades in the Dark pretty much nails everything you list in the OP -- it was built around those concepts to do only those concepts, and it excels at them. Or FATE, which can do a good job of that kind of game as well. But, I'm going to guess that this isn't an option, so let's steal a few things from Blades that might work okay in D&D.

Foremost -- Factions. Build up a number of factions in the city, but leave them as thumbnail sketches only -- a distinguishing trait, a goal (maybe), a stomping ground. Treat everything in the city as a faction -- the noble houses, the guard, the military, the watch, the thieves' guilds, the merchant guilds, the urchins, the beggars, the creepy old ladies in that one house. Treat all of these them same. Assign them a tier (I'd go with the I, II, III, IV tiers already in 5e) to represent their relative power. Then, when you start the game, go ahead and have your players tell you why one of those factions likes them and why one of those factions doesn't like them. This immediately creates tension in the system and lets you start pushing and pulling the PCs to interact with the various factions. Whenever the PCs interact with a faction, have that interaction change the opinion of the faction. You can track the favor of a faction using the factions rules (clunky) or as if they're a NPC and the PCs are trying to influence their opinions (so, friendly, neutral, unfriendly, hostile, that stuff). If you keep a sheet listing the faction names and a quick mark for favor, you can prep quickly and dynamically as play goes.

Remember those tiers you assigned? Use those to set the DCs and CRs for that faction. A Tier I faction is low tier CRs and low DCs as a base -- DC 10 should be what you use for anything in Tier I. Tier II is DCs 10-15. III 15-20. IV is 20+. Same with the CRs of any combatants -- the higher the Tier, the tougher the mooks, leaders, and personalities. This way the city will "gate" itself in play as access to or competition with a faction will be heavily influenced by the tier of the faction.

I would avoid trying to map out a plot for a city game. Too many variables. Let the plot develop naturally, picking up ques from the play as the party angers some factions and pleases others. Remember to 'hold on lightly' to your plans, in case the players throw you a loop.

You will still find that the system will not do a good job of supporting the kind of play you may want, but you can maybe bash it into shape. I'd strongly suggest reading up on using skill challenges in 5e (especially the dynamic fiction nature of skill challenges) as this can be a good tool to reduce how the system treats complex social interaction or complex infiltration/theft challenges.
 

Riley37

Visitor
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.
Or you forge an invitation; though that probably requires borrowing a valid invitation, to copy its layout and style, and to copy the signature on the valid original.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
Or you forge an invitation; though that probably requires borrowing a valid invitation, to copy its layout and style, and to copy the signature on the valid original.
This is exactly how I want the players to think, yes. Forging the invitation carries a significant set of possible consequences, and would also require, potentially, disguises and other skulduggery. That sounds like a strong role playing opportunity to me. When you're talking about society events it's more complicated than just forging an invitation. People in 'society' tend to know each other, and the hosts know who they invited and didn't, so odd people out will need to find a way to not get asked awkward questions.
[MENTION=16814]Ovinomancer[/MENTION] - I realize that D&D isn't optimized for this style of play. However, I do think it will support it just fine with some tweaking.

Results doesn't have to be binary. Pretty much anything can be run based on X number of successes, like 5E chase mechanics. That can work as straight roles or opposed roles. Also, there are situations where several smaller goals might need to be accomplished before a major one, and there are a bunch of ways to avoid those being save or lose propositions. For example, PCs might need to make X number of successful PER checks over the course of a party to sway opinion, that doesn't mean they only get X chances.

Your comments about factions is pretty much what I was thinking, although I was planning to start based a little more on background than you as far as PC affiliation. As for the gating, we're also thinking along similar lines, as are we about plotting. Linear plots are a fools errand in most campaigns, and doubly so in this kind. I'll have important info and events that I can slot in as necessary depending on how the PCs decide to approach things. I wasn't planning on using the faction rules from the DMG either, although I am using some of the concepts from those rules. Since I plan on using a reputation stat anyway, I'll use that where in some cases a positive reputation in one place will lead to a negative reputation with competing interests.

There was a reason I didn't lead with factions and reputation in the OP. I have a whole system I'm banging out to manage (well, measure) influence and favours set next to reputation. I'm not finished ironing the kinks out, which is why I led with a more general question. The goal is provide players with a concrete way to measure success and progress when it comes to influence and reputation. Measurable success allows for concrete planning and goals, and that takes some of the fuzz out of third pillar play. That's the idea anyway.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
This is exactly how I want the players to think, yes. Forging the invitation carries a significant set of possible consequences, and would also require, potentially, disguises and other skulduggery. That sounds like a strong role playing opportunity to me. When you're talking about society events it's more complicated than just forging an invitation. People in 'society' tend to know each other, and the hosts know who they invited and didn't, so odd people out will need to find a way to not get asked awkward questions.
[MENTION=16814]Ovinomancer[/MENTION] - I realize that D&D isn't optimized for this style of play. However, I do think it will support it just fine with some tweaking.
Yes, and good luck. 5e has no rules for what you're asking for (and rules tgat actively fight it) but you can always houserules around it. Or try to. My initial suggestion is to look for a ruleset that already does what you want, but I understand the appeal of sticking with the familiar.
Results doesn't have to be binary. Pretty much anything can be run based on X number of successes, like 5E chase mechanics. That can work as straight roles or opposed roles. Also, there are situations where several smaller goals might need to be accomplished before a major one, and there are a bunch of ways to avoid those being save or lose propositions. For example, PCs might need to make X number of successful PER checks over the course of a party to sway opinion, that doesn't mean they only get X chances.
I was talking about 5e as core, where binary results are the norm, even with the above about success at cost or failing forward. This is why I mentioned skill challenges, which is not tech inside 5e but can be added with little fuss. The trick to this is to be flexible about narrative positioning as the challenge continues, which also cuts against normal heavy DM control of narrative the 5e bakes in.

Your comments about factions is pretty much what I was thinking, although I was planning to start based a little more on background than you as far as PC affiliation. As for the gating, we're also thinking along similar lines, as are we about plotting. Linear plots are a fools errand in most campaigns, and doubly so in this kind. I'll have important info and events that I can slot in as necessary depending on how the PCs decide to approach things. I wasn't planning on using the faction rules from the DMG either, although I am using some of the concepts from those rules. Since I plan on using a reputation stat anyway, I'll use that where in some cases a positive reputation in one place will lead to a negative reputation with competing interests.

There was a reason I didn't lead with factions and reputation in the OP. I have a whole system I'm banging out to manage (well, measure) influence and favours set next to reputation. I'm not finished ironing the kinks out, which is why I led with a more general question. The goal is provide players with a concrete way to measure success and progress when it comes to influence and reputation. Measurable success allows for concrete planning and goals, and that takes some of the fuzz out of third pillar play. That's the idea anyway.
I think we often get wrapped up in our mechanical solution schemes and lose sight of what the point is. As a design principle, the tighter the mechanics the less room to play results -- things become more rigid and locked within the framework. Also, there's the problem that too much detail means that you as DM wil stay having to play Spreadsheets: The City. I recommend you step back and decide what you want to be the focus of play absent mechanics and then look to see what you can steal that does that with the minimum fuss. If you're still working on your facton mechanics, odds are they're already too complex. Blades has an excellent and simple (single sheet) method of tracking faction relations. And, it's a focus of play, so it not hard to track as the players want to uodate it.

As for information flow, this is easy. Tell them. The source of this confusion is the legacy of thinking that DMs should hidde information from players by default, which means that DMs will all how they can let players know things. This shows over the obvious -- just tell them. Long experience shows that players having information doesn't mean you can't surprise them, or that they won't screw it up by the numbers. Be open about faction relations, but maybe not the reasons. I mean, you often will hear rumors someone doesn't like you, so just assume the PCs, who aren't always on-screen, have sources that give them the lay of the land.
 

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