Hrunburg Gang Life: Situation or Set Piece?

Hrunburg began life, and one day may continue, as a setting for a game that I started working on back in the Forge Days. The City That Thieves is its name and it has gone through a few permutations. When this group of players wanted some D&D 5E. they asked me to create it more as a criminal piece than a standard dungeon crawl. That seemed reasonable enough so I grabbed Hrunburg and its odd bits and set about making the prevailing order one related to small gangs who become larger noble houses through dueling and criminal enterprise.

In short, the characters wanted to D&D but wanted something more complex(?) or evolved(?) than simply walking into the dungeon and fighting monsters. I had no problem agreeing to this idea as the system can support such wanderings. It is still within the established paradigm of violent action, but with the complexity of gang and mob politics. And it still provided physical constraint, while adding social constraints as well. Even in a city run by gangs, mobs, and criminal noble houses, there must be some constraint.

One of the things I have noted is that the communication for this game has been excellent. I have adjusted the basic rules to make things run more smoothly; in reality I just trimmed a sharp edge here, sanded down an edge there. And I have allowed character evolution to go forwards, backwards, and sideways as players find the character space that fits them more comfortably. As a system D&D allows someone to go forward and even multi-class and become very powerful.  But there is no provision for lateral movement (1) or even complete overhaul (2). The former I saw as something that happened in older variations of the game and the latter, I have seen in RPGA style play and in the Adventurer’s League, both of which might even be categorized as completely different games given their constraints. In all of this, the back and forth with the players has been satisfying.

  1. Lateral movement or maybe Schadenfreude play. The idea that dangerous moments and magic items will make changes. I admit, the belt of gender swapping was always a bit sexist. But the idea that a character can change in ways that the player has no control over is engaging. It makes putting on that belt or hat or sticking your hand in the opaque opening that much more exciting. Current zeitgeist would find such non-consent as losing an arm or eye to be unfair and outside the scope of the game. I don’t agree with this, but I am also not going to mutilate a character solely to prove that having your character mutilated is a rousing good time.
  2. I have been more lenient with the idea of changing a character on the fly and outside of level gains as the player and I get feedback on how the character plays. This sub-class or feat or weapon or spell is not working. Let’s examine this and make a change if needed. Thus far this has been successful, and it grew out of that great communication. I also suspect it came from my recent The Pool experiences where the character changed after every session. And the changes have not made the characters more powerful, just more comfortable to play.

In terms of character development, they have leveled up to 5th level now. Their gang has expanded its reach and they are on their way to becoming a dueling house. But the evil Dead Countess has struck and required the other houses and gangs to band together to stop her, which the group just did. A very satisfying death by blistering hot stone furnace.

What’s The Situation?

Based somewhat on this conversation, I have though a great deal about situation and set pieces and how this game is more the latter than the former.

  1. I have established some degree of situation by plumbing some of the back story from characters and salting it with a few of my own flavors. The city has its own rhythms and moves and changes every session.
  2. There are constraints on actions and movements, but not a ton of bounce.  Or not a ton of immediate bounce. Play has settled into Character Ambition + living city = set piece encounter. We have surprised one another, and the vectors change a little based on character actions. But if we had the diagram with arrows and boxes, I admit I am not sure how it would look at this point. Any kind of bounce is more reflective, happening long after the set piece as opposed to an immediate vector change like you might see in other kinds of play. But maybe that is okay.
  3. There has been some change. The characters are different than they were at the beginning, and this has allowed the game to continue holding our interest.

Overall, the game has been satisfying; worth sticking with for play and social reasons. Whether it is teaching very much, I cannot be sure of that but I do appreciate that it is stable enough to allow me some introspection on it.

14 responses to “Hrunburg Gang Life: Situation or Set Piece?”

  1. Situation vs. The Burn Down

    When my current D&D game ends, I really want to spend some time away from D&D.  However, I also know myself and if a critical mass of people come to me and say "Hey, we'd like to play some D&D," I'd be hard pressed not to oblige.  To that end I've been thinking about how to do more dynamic situation driven D&D play instead of the set-piece encounter maze thing I'm doing now.

    The thing I can't get around is what I've been calling The Burn Down which is particularly prevelant in 5e. What 5e calls a "Medium" difficult encounter does not mean there's even odds on who might lose. It means that it's expected to consume a certain number of party resouces (spells, abilities and HP, mostly) and that you can expect about five such encounters before the party needs to long rest.  It's not about challenging opposition at all, it's about pacing.

    In the encounter maze scenario I bring at least a tiny amount of tension by having an unknown number of encounters with an unknown difficulty in unknown locations.  So once you're out of a certain safety margins worth of resources you start wondering if you should stop or if you can take "just one more".  The game is MOST fun when the players take just one more too many because things are suddenly actually tense and not merely flavorful action scenes with everyone doing their signature schticks.

    But in a more dynamic situation you don't know when violence is going to break out, with whom or over what. Also FIVE such incidents inside a day seems highly unlikely. So how do you create meaningful opposiiton in the face of The Burn Down?

    I'm curious if this has been an issue in your game, and how (if at all) you are addressing it?

    • I’ve tried to address this in

      I've tried to address this in D&D5E by limiting hit points and especially healing spells (no Healing Word in my games ever again). Any encounter could potentially be disastrous, that way. Have you tried anything like this, and how did it go for you?

    • This has been an issue since the 3rd edition came along. For good or ill, characters became more powerful from the jump, and this has lead to frustration over the years. Characters are more versatile now, have better healing options, and are more capable depending on the skills allowed. The game has moved away from lethality as a feature.

      I have a few things I do.

      Use terrain. Make the fights both interesting and more challenging.

      I take monsters and give them legendary saves or legendary actions. And max hit points.

      I limit Long Rests. You cannot take two Long Rests in a row. You cannot take two short rests in a row. (Which may already be the rule).

      The most dangerous (and potentially hard to run) enemy is another party.

      But the key is just to play to win. I know that sounds like it violates the unwritten rules, but the game has changed. Its about killing monsters, whatever else it is about, the conflict is built into the themes. So don’t go easy on them. It just takes a little practice here and there to get the right amount of violence that scares each group of players.

    • @Manu – yes making healing more difficult is another solution. I do it by limiting healing potions and wands. But limiting certain available spells works as well. 

  2. Bouncy Set-Pieces

    Sean, I’m interested in your point abut bounce. Where are you finding 5e to be less than bouncy? Is this because the range of ways an encounter can end, broadly, the enemy are all dead, they're mostly dead but some ran away, or more rarely the player characters ran away or are dead, doesn't leave much to carry forward into new situations, especially absent a constrained resource economy as Jesse talks about above? Or is it that the mechanics don't prompt interesting events during an encounter which feed through into futurre situations? Or both, or something else?

    • A number of factors come into play, and I think your mention of mechanics is one of those factors. The game does not offer much in the way of situational tools, being limited to hyperbolic advice that might be decade old. Tools for individual scenes exist, but even these are weak. It is difficult to find a balance in encounters in terms of forcing the characters to ask themselves questions about what are they doing or are they able to keep on. There is not a lot of nuance within it. I can see why so many of us favor a dungeon with these rules, because the situation creates its own constraints. In the wide open spaces of a more sophisticated situation, the mechanics are basically non-existant. And social consequences are possible, I use them in the game. But social consequences tend to be not immediate, and come later. So character choices create a ripple, more than a bounce. If that makes sense, and the ripple might reflect back later on or they might not, no matter what has been put in place. I do not think its wrong to say the game mechanics are to blame, but blame is not accurate. I am sure this muffling of consequences was by design. They set out to mitigate negative results and they have done so, but this has a clear effect on the game. To be more succinct, there is not a clear path for bounce around individual scenes as they are barely related to one another.

    • Ok, I admit to being confused by this conversation – I either don’t understand Bounce properly, or I don’t follow Sean’s experience in the game. Let me describe Bounce in my own words, and Ron or someone with a better grasp of it can correct me if I’m off-base. My understanding is that Bounce happens when a procedure or procedures in a game produces a new Now (where things in the fiction have clearly changed significantly, in a way that affects the choices available and/or their desirability, etc.), and does so with a certain degree of unpredictability. Sean, is that how you understand Bounce? If so, then are you saying that there’s something about D&D5e that reduces Bounce, or makes it harder for you to prep for a Situation, or something else? If so, can you identify what that is?

    • Yes that is what I am saying. There is no significant change to the situation. Yes a bunch of opponents are dead, but that is it. As I mentioned, I think it is a lack of mechanics or bettter, a function of the system that insulates against significant consequences. The best analogy I can make is that each set piece is a game of Chess or Stratego or Checkers and the only signigicant change based on the results would be someone can call "I got winner" for the next game. Or to get ironically media specific, its the movie Running Man, where a collection of would-be villains who are supposedly very powerful are mowed down by the protagoist. And in the end the protagonist wins and gets all the rewards. But it is all carefully orchestrated even if inside the "movie" it feels organic. 

    • To be fair, as Jesse noted, in the context of a constrained environment, with multiple encounters that the players / characters are motivated to engage with, and some sort of time pressure, then the use of resources (spell slots, hit points, potions, other limited use powers) in each encounter and the opportunity to take short / long rests does have an impact on the evolving situation. The showdown with the big bad Demonic Gnoll is going to be a bit different if the characters are out of healing spells and at 1/2 hit points but can't rest because the summoning sacrifice is happening now. But, again as Jesse pointed out, this bounce only emerges in fairly specific circumstances. It hasn't really been a feature in the 3ish hour one-shots I've been playing in and running recently, and it sounds like it doesn't occur in Sean's game, possibly because the space and time constraints aren't in place if I'm understanding him about the fictional situations.

    • I'm still confused… so Sean you mentioned there's no significant change; "a bunch of opponents are dead, but that's it." Well in most contexts opponents being dead is quite significant! If it isn't significant in the game you're describing, then isn't it because of the specific fictional situation as opposed to something to do with the game rules? Or is there something about the game rules that makes it difficult for you to prep a meaningful setup? If so, can you identify what those rules are?So I put an AP post about a D&D 5e game I ran where we had plenty of Bounce, if interested please check it out; it's called A Session of D&D or a Few Sessions or something like that. While I don't think the 5e rules helped create the developing Situation I describe there, I didn't find that they hindered it. So this is a potentially interesting difference in our experiences. 

    • Manu, the issue is the last little piece of the definition:"and does so with a certain degree of unpredictability. "Yes, defeating 5 goblins is different than getting killed by 5 goblins.  But neither outcome is especially unexpected.  Imagine that same encouter, but the dice dictate that the players open up a pizza restaurant with the goblins instead–that would be one hell of a bounce. 

    • Hi James!

      Yes, defeating 5 goblins is different than getting killed by 5 goblins.  But neither outcome is especially unexpected.

      The point as I understand it is that you can't (no one can) perfectly predict the outcome of the conflict, and the result at the end results in an irrevocable change in the situation. In 5e, getting killed by or killing goblins certainly qualifies as Bounce, if my understanding is correct. Now whether a fight with goblins is interesting or satisfying to you is another question entirely, and my guess is for that we'd need to look at the entirety of the Situation, what you want out of the game, and so on. 

    • I'm calling it, or possibly so. Maybe it's you collectively, maybe it's me. 

      Here goes: Ross, and only Ross, do you think Sean has replied sufficiently to your questions? If no, OK, carry on I guess. Or maybe go to private conversation if you prefer. If yes, then let's close this one out and anyone who wants to go to close combat about it can do that in some venue they prefer.

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