Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tuned to the Urban: Thieves

Yesterday I said that while an assassin knows people, a thief knows money.  That is, who has it, how much they have, where it is, where its going and where it hasn't gone in a long time.  A thief ought to be able to wander through a town and in two or three days ascertain where the new industry is and where the old isn't.


To begin with, by the level of emotion.  Consider that word, 'bustling.'  It's from a Middle English word, bresten, which means to rush or break, as in a flood of water that in smashing its way through a valley.  A bustling city is where things are happening; money has appeared, there's plenty of money to be made and there are opportunities everywhere.  One pretty much only has to hold out their hat to have it suddenly fill with money, there's so much of it moving about.

Money flows like a river - you just have to peel your eyes and watch.  Loaded carts creaking or rattling over the streets, coming from somewhere, going to somewhere ... a thief can follow along just to see both ends of the chain.  It isn't necessary that the thief do it in order to steal something on the fly - that's small potatoes.  What we're talking about is knowing where the walking trade is good; knowing who's up for giving the party money to hurry up into the hills and find something.  Who in town with money is adventurous, who sees and opportunity and is just looking for stalwart fellows to gamble on.

Screw rumors.  Rumors are things know-nothings babble to each other over bartables because they work crummy labor jobs for little or know pay.  What the party needs is inside information.  We've just recently figured out where the orcs are - we don't know what they've managed to collect up in those holes, but by GOD don't tell anyone because we'll have the whole goddamned town up there!

(I did say that despite all the things I said about dungeon illogic, I intended to ignore that for gaming purposes ... not that anyone commenting on that post listened)

So how does the party find out?  Well, there's a few too many mules in this stall today.  And there's a stack of sacks and tackle nearby.  What's more, there seems to be some sort of meeting going on in the stable's office, where there are men with swords.  What are they doing there?

You've got to picture the whole town in your mind's eye.  You've got to invest it with hundreds, thousands of people who are doing just what the party means to do.  Some of them are loading wagons to drag stuff long distances.  Some of them are sitting around wondering whether or not to start a bar fight.  And some of them are loading up to go kill orcs in the hills.  It is a matter of carefully observing what's going on.

Not that thieves do, generally.  It is all, "do I see a fat purse."  Short-sighted thinking.  There's no statement like, "Who runs the butcher's guild in this town, and where do they live."  Or, "Who's selling the guards their weapons?"  Or, "Are the streets regularly paid?  Is the town running a deficit?"

If the answer to that last one is no, the streets haven't been paved in months, the town's obviously broke ... the next question ought to be why?  If there's money coming in, why isn't it going to the town?  Who's hoarding it?

Well, no one.  Maybe this is a depressed community and there just isn't any.  Or maybe there's a petty merchant that's slowly starving the town to death for his own purposes.  Or maybe the long term labor shortage caused by the king's activities has succored the town into a permanent recession for lack of labor.

These things are not explained to parties for two reasons.  1) It would never occur to a party that the DM would be able to answer questions like this; and 2) it would never occur to a DM that anyone would ask.  It's one reason, really.  DMs, living in a present-day world, think that the social construction of a town is like a modern suburb.  People work.  People are paid.  People buy stuff with their pay.  And that is all.

The idea that money is power, and would be used to influence others, is a kind of amorphous Hollywoodization of the very rich and socially distant ... certainly not something a young DM from Pretty Place Rise outside Denver has any experience with.  His conception of power from money is if you don't have it, you have to suck up to get it.  And that is the motif that most middle class suburban players grow to understand.  They never really see how it is with rural, isolated communities ... where the real power is held by who supplies the shit everyone needs to live.

(Winter's Bone was only a revelation as a film because it was preaching to the upper middle class white suburban audience, who can't conceive that people who are poor are still wildly disparate where it comes to who holds the money)

No matter how poor a region is, there is always a separation between people with money and people without.  And the people without are always reduced to servitude because of their pathetic need to eat and be sheltered and clothed.  The people with money never, ever really care, because their tiny bit of power enables them to be comfortable and despotic.

The bigger the base population, the more intricate become the webs of who is lording who's little bit of power over whom.  It takes a clever DM to conceive of those webs, and just as clever a character to ask the questions that will spur the DM to creativity.  If you ask a really silly question like, "who's rich," you're letting the DM off too easy.  Obviously, whoever owns the big houses.

"WHY are they rich?" is better.  "How did they get their money?" is better still.  But the real bonus comes when the players ask, "How is that rich person getting his money TODAY?  Specifically, this very minute?"

That's where the thief comes in, and that's where the DM has to stretch.  "There's a big shipment coming in," says the DM.  "It's fourteen wagons of raw wool.  There's been a run on the market and while Mr. Big runs all the shops in town, he's running out of stock because there hasn't been any raw wool.  He wants that wool bad, and he's got fifty guards on the shipment to make sure it arrives."

Hm.  What if it doesn't?  Or better still, who in town would really like it not to?

That, my gentle readers, is an adventure.


Anonymous said...

I love these last two posts, Alexis. You're giving me food for thought in my own game design efforts.

Specifically, there will be a specific mode of play focused on cityscapes and thievery. Your posts are helping develop the "bounds" within which this plays (I'm a fan of "bounded gameplay").

Butch said...

Would you include bards in the "tuned to the urban" category?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Now there's a good notion. I ought to know something about musicians now, eh? I'll think on it; maybe I can get something going tomorrow.

YagamiFire said...

You really do answer the questions I always ask that usually get blank stares from DMs. This is how worlds thieves make heists. God I hate when players ask "who has the biggest purse?" as if its some brilliant thief master plan.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well, I'll tell you what Yagami. I'll start a bed & breakfast, and for $375 dollars a day people can come from all over the world, sleep, eat and I'll just run D&D from nine 'til five.

Every day.

YagamiFire said...

Lemme check my finances...also what do you serve for breakfast.

I'm definitely going to try and get in on any future online game you run.

Ahmet said...

That would be 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., yes? :)

Alexis Smolensk said...

In a previous life I was a chef in several five-star restaurants. Anything except hollandaise. I hate like hell to make it.

Alexis Smolensk said...

'Fraid not. But it's going to be in a basement anyway ...

Arduin said...

So apparently I have to move to Canada and live at a DnDBnB, is that it? I see how it is.

Thanks for this post, it actually really helped dislodge a piece of mental detritus getting in the way of my processes.

Follow the money, find the adventure. Ideas are spinnin' now!

Alexis Smolensk said...

Well you just named the damn place didn't you, Arduin?

YagamiFire said...

It strikes me that if assassins are the masters of people and thieves are the masters of money then bards would be the masters of culture.

My second character ever was a bard. I am anxiously awaiting the next article.

A favorite quote regarding bards (from the Warlord CCG) - "He can recall epic songs in moments, is welcome far and near, and people gladly share with him gossip and legend. Only fools look upon him and see 'just' a bard."

Bards ahoy!

JB said...

Just amazing the level of investment you put into your world.

[that's meant both literally and as a compliment]

Alexis Smolensk said...

JB, I gotta tell you ... I put this level of investment into everything.

Giordanisti said...

Alexis, this is a quick crack at had at how I might codify the ideas you present here (which I love):

Find the Flow - thieves are closely attuned to where the money comes and where it is going in a settlement. A thief may declare that they are spending a certain number of days studying a town or city, living amongst its residents and generally getting around. They then roll 4d4 and subtract their level (minimum of 1). If the number rolled is greater than the days declared, the time is wasted, and the thief learns little new information. If the number rolled is less than or equal to the days declared, however, the thief may ask a number of questions about money and the people who have it in the city equal to the vibrancy level of the town (2d4, 2d6, 2d8, or 2d10, DM’s discretion) plus the thief’s wisdom modifier. These questions must be specific, such as “Who is the leader of the blacksmith’s guild?”, “What town has the best economic relationship with this town?”, “Who is the richest man in town?”, “Who sells the best weaponry?”, “Who is trying to hide their dealings from the public eye?”, or “What industry is just developing?”. These questions are asked and answered one at a time, and thus can build on one another.

What do you think? In the hands of an intelligent player, it might hold a bit too much power, but without playtesting I can't know.