Sunday, April 29, 2018


Continuing upon the theme of the last post, the Steady Urban State, let's talk about players interacting with the town culture as described.

Within the coded storybook framework, where the DM creates the narrative in advance and then moves the players through that narrative, the town serves as a supply depot, for both equipment and easy exposition, or elaboration of the party's goals.  The party is organized to speak to specific persons in the town, who have specific information to give, before being shuttled out of town into an environment where the players are able to act upon their knowledge.

For this, the town needs to be nothing more than a series of stalls where the players stop temporarily to get their assignments.  They don't have to interact with a living, breathing town ... and this works for most games.  With the introduction of a sandbox game, however, we have problems: suddenly the occupants of the town have their own agendas.  They don't exist to assign anything to the players.  They exist because they exist ... and the players are forced into a minefield where anything they might do has the potential to conflict with that existence, which is bound to end very badly.

I've watched this play out many times.  Players don't know what to SAY to ordinary townspeople.  They don't know what to talk about, or even how to start conversations.  They don't understand what townspeople want, or how to make townspeople interested in the player's wishes or interests.

Just like in real life.

Put a typical D&D player into a town setting, where the town is not an engineered-knowledge dispenser for adventure giving, and the players will find themselves in a situation very like their own personal experience as a social leper.  For most D&D players, if they had a sense of how to interact with real people, who have real goals, they wouldn't be D&D players.  Making them play in a world where they need to produce full sentences that sound like they have a purpose is like rubbing a player's nose in their own inadequacy.

This is part of the reason why so many players deal with town and/or social situations by drawing a weapon and killing the nearest person.  It's a tactic that works great in a dungeon, but not very well in a town.  A dungeon is a compartmentalized environment.  If we kill these orcs in this room, there's a very good chance that the orcs in another room, fifty feet and a stairwell away, won't know what we've done, unless one of these about-to-be-dead orcs gets out yon door and manages to set off an alarm.

It is impossible, however, to start a fight in a town without someone knowing about it.  The walls are too thin, the lines of sight on even a back alley are too numerous, there's far too much motivation for even a common individual to rush down and inform the guards (it might be worth a coin or two) and, on the whole, no one in a town likes it when fighting happens.

Too, in a dungeon, there might be ten or twenty orcs in this room.  Or maybe a few hundred, if it is a big lair ... but the shape of the dungeon allows a certain queuing in a line, before the hall can clear enough for the back ranks to get at the party.  But a town has thousands of people ... any of whom might be willing to throw a roof tile down on a running party, even if they don't have the nerve to fight face to face.  The Greek general Pyrrhus died that way.  Stunned by a roof tile, he fell in the street and two common people dragged him into a doorway and cut his throat. Even for great generals, towns are dangerous.

So, if the party wins a round or two against the arriving guard, it just happens that more guards arrive and the dogpile begins.  I know that many DMs will engineer the situation so that a fleeing party will miraculously flee a town, or find an ally standing in a doorway calling out, "Hide in here!" ... but these are DM-interventions, designed to preserve the party from their own folly, or from having to face the real consequences of what a town is designed to do: destroy threats.

When the party pulls a weapon in a town, or tries to steal something, the party is the threat.

A lot of DMs recognize this; and they HATE the intervention tactic, as they feel it's not their job to wrest the party out of their own stupidity.  So the rule comes down: NO town adventures.  Ever.  Problem solved.

I've never made that rule, but at the same time I don't press the town adventure idea, either.  Unless the players are strong enough to take on the entire town, towns are just too dangerous ~ and players get that.  Getting the sense from me that I won't help them, that I'll just let the dogpile take them down, they will typically behave themselves ... excessively.  They'll buy some equipment.  They might get some advice from a particular shop owner; get something made; or something checked; but they won't start something.

Which is fair.  Players, being presented with the clear fact that the town won't hesitate to crush them underfoot if they don't toe the line, have no interest in testing that line by taking a step over it.  The consequences are too severe and the evident gain apparently out of reach.

Still, much of this is due to players not knowing enough about a town, or town life, or how things work, to circumnavigate the dogpile, as people obviously do in towns, even the most dangerous towns in the world.  And this is because we as game designers haven't fashioned towns and other urban spaces clearly enough to make such navigation possible.  That is what this series of posts is struggling to achieve: the reformulation of the town, both in our imaginations and in concrete, definable ways, so that adventure in towns is not only possible, but legitimately desirable.

Let's have another look at that Cracow video I linked yesterday:

It is so clean.  And while the historians who put this video together are well-aware that the streets would be much less pristine than presented, they are concerned with something other than verisimilitude.  But our imaginations are weakened by this sort of presentation.  Let me take a game example: the village of Hommlet:

Again, clean.  Yes, there's a lot of apparent detail, but remove the trees and shrubs and it can be seen that the depiction of Cracow and that of Hommlet are virtually the same.  As anyone who has ever wandered around in a small town knows, the maintenance of any like space is never this neat and tidy.  Vegetation is not neatly trimmed, as shown.  The building walls are never this straight and grid-aligned.  Shit piles up.  Houses are abandoned.  People never have such clear titles as "farmer" or "teamster."  Distractions happen.  People don't live together in peace, but ambivalence, tolerance and outright hostility.  There are people in a town who could be killed in the middle of the street and no one would care.

Hommlet's secret is that something evil is going on behind the veneer of the village ... but an adventure here need not be so overtly dramatic.  Clutter and hard feelings go a long way towards isolating one part of an urban place from another.  We've all run games where we've let the players climb into a sewer so they can have a fight in town ... but why not a simple basement?  Or in a slum court, too poor for the guards to bother about?  The guards exist to protect all that potential money from being plundered ... but they don't care what the lower classes do among themselves.  This is why crime thrives, and why it is particularly hard on other criminals ... because other criminals don't enjoy the protection that the rich do.

To circumvent the dogpile, the players need approach the problem of town adventures with two things in mind: a) how to isolate the fight away from the attention of people who care to stop it, or in a way that it won't be heard or noticed, or in a way that the participants themselves will all want it kept quiet; and b) the party needs to fight things that the authorities want fought and killed.  That's the idea of Hommlet.  No significant authority outside of Hommlet will mind if most of the people in Hommlet are killed, once the evil is brought to light.  No one would mind if the players found and killed a dire wolf being hidden by an owner feeding it the occasional drunk.  It's okay to clean out a nest of vampires.  People will reward you for doing it.

It is the responsibility of the DM to create the urban environment that makes this possible.  An environment with hidden holes and isolated stone houses; with gutted places destroyed by fire, where undead might be lingering; with natural insulation, making the sound of a quick sword duel practical; with clear rules that tell the players, and non-players, that if you break off the fight within four rounds, it doesn't matter who hears and sees, the participants will all be gone before the guards arrive.  The fight can then be continued again on another day, right?  Everyone knows this.  NO ONE fights for five rounds.  That would be stupid.

If we can make the environment clearer to the players; if the DM can make the environment conducive to play; if the players can then trust the DM; and if we can designate the spaces in the town in some way that the players can SEE what's going on, so that it isn't just a mass of meaningless houses and castles, as we usually see in a game map, there's room for real adventure.

Not just walking around talking to people about things.


Justin Kennedy said...

Good article. Great series of articles.

Really love the point about the players likely being socially, uh, leprous.

When I was young I was quiet and shy but not particularly leper-ish. In adulthood, I'm the very definition of an ambivert. As a DM I have completely overlooked this bit of psychology.

I view D&D as a safespace, if the reader (gentle or otherwise) will allow use of that silly word, and have contradictorily been quite short in dealing with social awkwardness at the table.

"I'm not here to hurt you, I'm your friend!" I scream most reassuringly at the waif-like/rotund, soft-bodied introvert in front of me.

You've given something to think about and atone for Alexis.

Appreciate it.

Fuzzy Skinner said...

"Unless the players are strong enough to take on the entire town..."

I think this can be a legitimate concern in a lot of d20 System games. It's true that a high-level mage in AD&D is a major threat, but by the time that a typical AD&D player has acquired that power, they've also likely gained the knowledge that towns can be extremely useful sources of information, goods, and political power - and with that, the discipline to not just start hurling fireballs at the nearest fruit cart.

But not only do PCs in 3e-derived games (especially Pathfinder or 5e) start off more powerful at 1st level, it's been my experience that only 50% or fewer DMs of these games start the party at 1st level. The typical starting level is 3rd or 5th, at which point even the non-magical classes have access to powers that are spells in everything but name. And while it might be fun to try taking on an entire town - once - I'd imagine that these DMs, not wanting to deal with this headache they created for themselves, will resort to the "intervention tactic" you describe.

The most obvious solution - using a system that doesn't give you four to six superheroes from the outset, and not caving to their demands for "MOAR options!" - is unthinkable to some. But it's an easy way to identify the people who are playing these games with the hope of experiencing "fantasy" in the sense of "power fantasy", rather than in genre terms.

Maliloki said...

In the systems that give the players more abilities, they also tend to give the enemies more things to play with as well.

Doing what Alexis says and making actual consiquences arise from player choices is the obvious thing and solves the issue regardless of system of choice.

I've had no trouble overwhelming any party in Pathfinder or 5e when the situation called for it without getting all that crazy.

Alexis Smolensk said...

I can't see any game that doesn't grant to the npcs what the characters have. In any case, a DM is free to ensure that they have.

Sterling said...

Gold. Thank you.