ESCAPING THE DUNGEON? DO I NEED TO ROLL SOMETHING?
Well. Feedback (from one of my players and from a commenter on this blog - thanks!) had me chewing on player agency in dungeon-crawls, as well as the ways that my recent experiments with streamlined dungeon design did (or didn't...) promote said agency. I started wondering whether something already put-together like Into the Dark (aff) would be better (I don't have it, but it's a really interesting-looking trimmed-down Forged in the Dark game for dungeon-crawling, basically) And then my players made it clear that they are ok with dungeons but they really favor something more varied anyway.
So, this probably marks the end for now of that series of dungeon thought-experiments, though it's been helpful; if nothing else, dungeon geomorphs stand out to me as quite workable "one page dungeons" just waiting to be stocked, which can (in the better cases) be quite robust enough for some short play with flexible links to the next episode. Anyway. Thank you, gentle reader, for bearing with me on that zig-zag. :-)
Meanwhile gaming continues. Since Into the Dark had me looking over at Blades in the Dark again, the "something more varied" that wound up pleasing my players (and me!) was an urban heist/mystery game of oath-bound secret agent vigilantes in a gritty, corrupt fantasy metropolis. For rules, I made my own hack that combined many of the heist-RPG principles from Blades in the Dark with the sheer mechanical simplicity of On Mighty Thews (aff), which I've talked about recently on this blog. So it's sort of another attempt at a light-weight Blades, but coming from an angle that I haven't seen before. If it continues to come together well, you may hear more about it.
Our first go at it tonight worked very well, I'm happy to say; in less than 2.5 hours, we assigned pre-gen characters, generated multiple factions from scratch with connections to the crew, then ran a mission. Somebody had just blown up the crew's safehouse (and most of the surrounding neighborhood), and clues at the blast-site pointed to a local nobleman owner of an alchemical factory, with no clear reason for animosity vs the players' crew. So the heist goal was to break into his tower, secure his confidential logbook, and figure out who paid him to blow the PCs' hideout to bits. The job went well, with half the crew climbing a tower to infiltrate the top floor to get at a wall safe and the others arranging a rather bold diversion - guest appearance downstairs at a fancy dress ball hosted by the man who'd just tried to blow them up!
You will not be shocked, I suspect, to read that violence eventually ensued. The baddie did not end the session still alive (nor did Giovanni, his 8-foot-tall Dueling Golem bodyguard). The players got the villain's logbook from his wall safe and then all made it out alive, but one of the PC agents took enough Stress to take a permanent point of Trauma. To be fair, that player also rolled a "1" three times in a row on a 1d8, which (I believe) has a 0.2% mathematical probability of happening. Yowsers.
Now the crew knows that it was the Dark Potioners that paid Lord Roethe to (try to) blow them up. Why - and what to do about it - must wait until next session.
GENERATING SOME FACTIONS
I told the players that they were operating in a kind of early modern Alexandria-meets-Venice (though inclusion of alchemical golems etc. pretty pushed 'early modern' to mean something more like 19th century steampunk, once in play...). To generate factions quickly for tonight's game with minimal prep, I whipped up a 6x6 table loosely inspired by Technoir transmissions, with 6 places our new city might often feature across the top, and 6 adjectives often associated with things in the city below. These were:
Waterborne (involving the canals and harbors...)
Too-learned (cultured and academic, or maybe things-man-was-not-meant-to-know...)
Mercantile (money...makes the city go 'round...)
Alchemical (ya know...)
Occupying (involving the foreign army that conquered the city a while ago)
Precursor (involving the undefined non-human beings who built the city's first layers long ago)
Cross-referencing these can create 36 different factions. At the start of the game, we cross-referenced (picking 1 and rolling the other) and identified 4 factions that I asked the players to define. The city had:
+ House Aurelian, fighting other Houses for control of the canals. The crew's Heavy knows some of their muscle.
+ The Dark Potioners, once an honorable potions guild, now turned poisoners. The crew's cat-burglar/potions guy used to work with them before they turned vile.
+ Some of the city's Occupiers are smuggling some unknown substance into the city and staging it in the leper colonies. What is being smuggled - and why the city's own rulers aren't bringing it in openly - remain mysteries, but the crew learned about it when their sharpshooter killed off the Captain of the Guard last month (!)
+ An Ancestor Star Cult worshipping the city's first Precursor Builders is active in the shadows of the city...they raised a member of the crew (the blademaster) but he left in rather violent terms as a young man when things got ugly in their theology and social relationships.
This was a fun exercise to generate some content for urban improv-heavy play.