Towerlands setting for 5e

People have been way less interested my dark and dismal City of Brass setting since the election, so I started building a new social sandbox setting, Towerlands for D&D 5e. It's a fantasy version of Brandenburg, Nordmark, Germany in 1150 AD.

(Below, the fantasy names come first, and the real-world equivalents are in [brackets].)

With some trepidation, I ran it last night for four players. Two had never played any RPG before. The other two were experienced with D&D 5e.

It went all right. Just all right. We played for about 3.5 hours.



Characters

The pre-gens are based on real people alive in 1150, who might have had a stake in [Brandenburg]. Everyone was of the noble class.

One of the pre-gens was a Sedwig [Hedwig], a 10-year-old noble girl (human rogue 1) who fancies herself a guild merchant, and she is the daughter of Alverus the Dragon [Albert the Bear], who used to be Duke of Hexony [Saxony] and who has been crusading against the elves for years.

Another pre-gen was a dwarven [Danish] wizard-monk named Absalam [Absalon of Zealand].

The last pre-gen was Valelf VII (Welf VII), a young Hexon crusader who had seen too much.

The fourth player brought his own character, Varis de Cognac, a tiefling rogue. I broke the bad news that there weren't tieflings in the setting, except when they were being burned at the stake as the evil devils that they are, and he agreed to make his character a half-elf (noble Polabian Slavs did intermarry with Saxons and Swabians).


Scenario

The scenario was that they're all minor nobles in Magicburn [Magdeburg], when everyone in town hears rumors of the death of Queen Pribazelf-Kenra [King Pribaslav-Henry], who rules in Branniburn [Brandenburg / Brenna]. That city has been traded back and forth between humans [Germans] and elves [Slavic Wends] a dozen times over the centuries, but the elves have held it for the past 170 years while the Hexons [Saxons] dealt with other problems.

Lots of nobles were racing to Branniburn to stake a claim on the city.

Before I told them about the rumor, I did a quick round of scenes to set up daily life. Why are you in the bustling new city of Magicburn? What are you doing? Where might we find you? That went pretty well.

Then I dropped the rumor, and they scrambled to find boat passage. There were only two "ships" in the city, both longships that can navigate the rivers. We role-played a bit as they found the (noble) owners of the ships and secured passage to Branniburn.

I asked the players if they wanted a "random" combat encounter for the boat trip, and they did. So two elven scouts saw them and moved to intercept their boats. Absalam used his Message spell to put spooky words into the mind of one of the scouts, making them believe their pagan gods were telling them to leave these people alone. He managed to frighten them away and avoid the combat encounter.

The last half of play was concerned with what happened when they got to the fort at Branniburn. Sedwig, being the young daughter of Alverus the Dragon (who has been brutally crusading against these elves for years), was seen by the elves as hostage material. But they talked their way into a temporary diplomatic situation and were taken to a hall inside the fort where they could talk to the city Magnate and be watched.

Everyone in town was acting as if the queen were not dead, so they wanted to get to the bottom of what was really going on. Varis wooed the Magnate, rolled a natural 20, and got her to all-but-admit that the queen was actually dead but that people weren't talking about it.

They got the queen's husband (king in title but without all the power) to come down and talk to them, and he just said the queen had been ill but she was not dead, but the PCs knew he was lying. There was a lot of trying to force him to admit it, but that was never going to happen through skill checks.

A History skill check let Absalam know that the king was probably waiting for the queen's nephew, Jasza [Jaxa of Köpenick, I swear, you can't make this shit up], to arrive with reinforcements. Branniburn is a huge power grab for everyone in the area.

They hatched a plan to sneak into the queen's chambers at night. There was a banquet in the hall to welcome the growing number of nobles showing up in Branniburn, and the two rogues slipped out and sneaked around the dark fort [gord]. They found two guards with pole-axes positioned in front of the queen's building. Varis got their attention while the viciously psychopathic 10-year-old Sedwig leaped onto one of the guard's back and slit his throat.

I let the other two PCs notice the commotion and join in. Valelf joined the combat. The two guards were downed quickly, but not before one of them shouted a warning. Archers from the ramparts started firing upon the group, to no avail. (Chain shirt and a decent Dex bonus gave Valelf a 16 AC.)

They ran into the queen's building, safe from arrows, and found the queen's body moldering in her bed. Only Absalam succeeded at his Constitution save completely, fending off the smell, but after some wretching, Valelf joined, too. Varis could not even make it up the stairs.

They decided to carry the queen's body out to the city once they determined that the corpse was enough-long-dead that the citizens would not accuse them of regicide.

We stopped there. I summed up that Alverus the Dragon (Sedwig's dad) arrived the next day, and that Jasza arrived a few hours later, both with small forces, but that Branneburn transferred to Hexon rule again--at least for now--after a long 170 years of elven occupation.

Comments

  • Sounds pretty cool!!!

  • Issues

    Absalam and Valelf were played by the two guys who'd never played an RPG. Valelf's player had no problems at all. He jumped right in, got into character, talked in character, and wrestled with tough choices.

    Absalam's player had a lot of trouble. He was constantly expressing concerns that he was playing the character "wrong," despite repeated assurances by me and other players that he was doing fine, and that there was no wrong way to play. I'd supplied a short paragraph of background information. It said that Absalam had left for wizard college when the king died, while his brother stayed home and fought along one of the princes vying for the throne. I asked the player what he thought his motivation for leaving was. Was it cowardice? Did his family send him away despite him wanting to stay? What? When the player said that the sheet didn't say, I said, "I know. You get to make up that part. What do you want the answer to be?" He didn't know. It took a few tries for him to decide, but he did come to a wonderful answer in the end. But that kind of thing continued throughout the game, and every time, the player seemed to get more and more down about his perceived lack of knowing the right answer (when there was no right answer).

    Also, interestingly, he decided that Absalam didn't want to kill anyone. There are definitely reasons from the setting for a young, religious wizard-monk to want to avoid murder! I thought it was a great choice, but as the other characters started fighting, the player got distressed about what to do. We reminded him that it was perfectly fine that he chose not to fight, and he could try to convince his comrades to spare the lives of their foes, or even use his spells to stop his comrades from killing, if he wanted. But he got more and more depressed and stressed.

    When I asked for feedback at the end, I got a few pieces of advice.

    Less real-world equivalents. I had been telling them who each faction was in real life, or what the real place was, or what the European title was. Varis's player said that he didn't like that, but Valelf's player said that it helped him understand things a lot.

    In fact, in the past, when running my Traveller scenario that is essentially "Henry Knox and the Cannons" and the American Revolution (in spaaaaace), I found that players got too confused without a way to map the people, places, and events to real history. Maybe the benefits are greater when the players are very familiar with the real counterparts ("Oh, Admiral Lunderham is General Washington. I get it now."), but when the real counterparts are Danes and Slavic Wend tribes, it doesn't help that much. Still, I thought it helped a lot to know that the Immortal God-King is the Holy Roman Emperor, and that a Torchright and Brandright are the Fire Gods equivalent of the Catholic Church's bishopric and archbishopric. I'll try it a few more times to be sure.

    Politics. Sedwig's player deadpanned, "There were a lot of politics." It hit me then that when you pitch a D&D game, people have expectations of, well, dungeons... and dragons... That is, exploring and fighting. And I gave them politics.

    I don't know that I will stop giving them politics, because that's my jam, but I should at least pitch the game as a political game so people come in with the right mindset.

    And they got to use their class skills and stuff, but it was not a dungeon crawl. Choices they made were often tightly constrained by the political landscape, and they couldn't easily murderhobo their way through the adventure.

    A dungeon is simpler. Avoid all the traps, kill all the monsters, take all the treasure. Of course, that kind of play bores me after 37 years of it. The brand new players ought to get that experience though.

    Note: The venue is the Windup Space, a bar in downtown Baltimore. We usually get a 2-hour Happy Hour slot from 6-8 pm before the bands arrive. Last night, there was no band so we had the run of the bar for as long as we wanted. The gaming event is an "open table, no commitment asked, no previous knowledge required" thing with a pitch session at the beginning. So we get people off Facebook who hear about it and show up and want to play. We had 5-6 GMs running different stuff -- Blades in the Dark, another hack of BitD, FFG Star Wars, Stars without Number, plus my game.

    Dice rolls. Varis's player runs a 5e campaign for a steady and regular group. He pointed out that he had never ever seen a GM tell the players the target numbers for skill checks or armor classes or hit points for foes; that it was a bit too much "behind the curtain" for him. I quickly sussed that I'd probably hate his play style and suggested to him, "Is that because you're trying to tell a story and the dice ruin that for you sometimes?" and he agreed vehemently. I laughed and told him how that was antithesis to my preferences, but to each their own.

    I can see how the combination of my look behind the curtain in terms of real-world counterparts for the setting and the constant chatter about dice targets and stuff could ruin things for a player who wants me to craft a "pure immersion" experience.
  • Adam,

    I really enjoyed this writeup, as well as your various observations. (And, indeed, I've been wondering about how people are taking "City of Brass" in the current political climate for some time!) The use of the historical situation is very interesting, as well (although, like - perhaps - your players, I'm not sure why you'd use D&D for this kind of play).

    What really jumped out at me, though, was the player who was mortified about "playing it wrong". I've run into this kind of player now and again, and their consternation baffles me a little. It seems little relieved by assurances that we're all having fun, different types of game systems, and so forth. I've thought sometimes that more directed mechanics (some games "flag" certain moves or decisions with clear incentives) could help such a player, but never had a chance to play with one long-term enough to try some different things.

    This type of player is terrified of "playing it wrong", and assurances to the contrary rarely seem to help. I'm not entirely sure where this stems from or how best to address it (beyond what you've described here in this thread, which I also do). It seems to be an internally-motivated anxiety, but I'm not sure what its causes or factors might be.

    I have had one experience, however, with a player who had some anxiety of this sort, and was quite capable of playing story games (to an outside observer, she seemed to be contributing a lot and having a good time!), but still felt that she probably shouldn't play again because she "is not very good at it".

    I spent some time with her, chatting about the design of games and how many games can relieve creative pressures - or require very little to begin with! - and eventually talked her into trying a little one-on-one play where we improvised material together. She was curious about my assertion that, if instead of second-guessing oneself, a player goes with their first and most obvious impulse, the game will go just as well or better, and is much more relaxing. (Essentially, the "be obvious" principle from improv acting.)

    It took 5-10 minutes for me to keep reinforcing this mindset, and then she got "in the zone". We had a really relaxed and fun session of essentially "make stuff up", where she seemed totally relaxed and had a great time. It worked! And it worked very well. We saw that principle in action.

    However, the idea of doing it again still seems daunting to this person, as though that success was "illusory" or couldn't be recreated (although I see no reason for such). It's pretty interesting, and I'd love to hear more about people's experience with this kind of thing.
  • That's a familiar type of reaction to me as well. I don't have any more insight on it than Paul does, though. To me it seems like something having to do with a particular type of social self-consciousness born of self-esteem issues. Some people get over it with a bit of practice, while for others it's too entrenched for a little bit of play therapy to overcome.

    I suspect that the core reasons are so fundamental that it may actually be the same basic kind of issue as that exhibited by shy people (a much more common trait); some just react by becoming wall-flowers, while others react by constantly second-guessing themselves. Could even be so simple that what we see as shyness or second-guessing dissatisfaction with own performance are just the same person playing two different games: play something that allows shyness and they'll be shy, play something that demands participation and they'll be self-conscious.
  • Quick thought -- I wonder what'd happen if asking players whether they'd like to know their target number or not before rolling were made routine so each player could customize to taste.
  • Adam, how clearly have you told the players what they're supposed to do in this game? It's very possible that what you're seeing is just shyness or self-esteem issues, but if it's not, could it be that Absalam's player doesn't know what he should be doing or how he should be assessing his own play? If this is the case, telling him that "there's no wrong way to play" doesn't help guide his actions. It might even make things worse since there are definitely wrong ways to play any game, and he might instinctively know it.

    Paul mentioned flagging certain moves or decisions with clear incentives. I think these could help.

    One option would be to:
    -Explain what the players' explicit agenda is in this game
    -Clearly tie the players' intended agenda to XP, since you're playing D&D
    -Point out that there's a connection between the agenda and the mechanical reward

    This should help players who are unsure of what they're supposed to be doing. I believe it should work without the mechanical reward as well, but since you're playing D&D you have a clear mechanic to use for this.
  • edited January 2017
    (It's true that it's possible to create "faux" mechanical rewards, like Vincent Baker's "experience bubbles" in Freebooting Venus. Putting a big card out on the table, writing some kind of goal on it, and telling the player that they get the card if they do X makes something fairly intangible seem very concrete. Tricky to accomplish that in some games, though, especially if they are rather freeform and rely in part on *delaying* the end-state of the game - e.g. Archipelago.)

    (In my "newbie-friendly" games I often include a "victory condition" and an official "winner" at the end of the game. My hope is that it helps orient people, even though pretty much every time I've played those games it's been clear afterwards to all that no one really cared who won. I'm not 100% sure how much of the success of those games is based on that feature, however.)
  • The only skill that matters in roleplaying games is the ability to have fun playing the game without making the game less fun for others. This might be a bit reductivist or even circular reasoning, but my point is that what someone contributes fictionally (or socially) doesn't really matter if they simply can't feel relaxed. In other words, focus on the feelings, not the external expression of those feelings.
  • That's an excellent point. What does that look like, in practice?
  • Catching up.

    I get the "why would use D&D 5e for your City of Brass?" question all the time, and the reasons are complicated and varied:

    1. It's a public venue and D&D was a popular choice for the people showing up.

    2. I like running D&D as a ruleset.

    3. I get fatigued with the "murder hobo" mode of play and I wanted to see if I could do something different with D&D. Part of this for me is running D&D ironically, which is exactly why it is alienating people, too.

    4. D&D 5e is actually perfect for the resource tracking necessary for a "you are destitute squatters" setup. 5e is a "zero to hero" game, and I just make it really, really hard to ever get much further past zero.

  • As for Absalam's player... He was a bit shy to begin with, and seemed to be uncomfortable with the whole thing, but he was curious about D&D. I'm kind of sorry that there wasn't a traditional dungeon crawl game available for him to jump into. Then the objectives would be clear, and there would be no moral quandaries to face.

    Again, because I'm experimenting with D&D to do something different, it's not the usual dungeon crawl where you kill anything that moves. There were literally no "monsters" in this session. Every bit of adversity they faced was a living, breathing person with their own motivations.

    When Varis's player suggested that the politics were too complicated because, "these elves were bad, but these other elves were good," that belied the desire for a really simple situation (ethically). At least one player wanted to be able to clearly mark one set of people as "other" or as "evil" and solve their problems with their swords.

    That is, they were looking for traditional "challenge" play and I gave them lots of moral questions and to navigate.

    @Glowie, Did I tell Absalam's player what his goals were? Do you mean player goals or character goals? In either case, yes.

    Character goals: Secure a Torchright [bishopric] for himself.

    Player goals: Play Absalam like a real person, and make choices for him that make sense to you. That is, do what you think Absalam would do. But also, do what you want Absalam to do, as a player.

    There was a bit of staring at the character sheet (the 3-4 sentences of background I wrote) to try to find out what Absalam would do, but then I told the player that within the very limited direction I've given in that character write-up, he now "owned" the character and could interpret him any way he wanted.

    I think that's perhaps too much for some new players. I think he wanted to have certainty about what I intended for the character, so he could play him "right," despite my telling him many times that he was doing great.

    A game like Burning Wheel would have BITs as mechanical devices for him to measure his fidelity to character. 5e has similar things in the personality traits, which I believe I supplied for the character (and I did explain how they worked with Inspiration).
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