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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.