Adam Dray's City of Brass/Mirrorrim


Talk to us about your game(s), while we ask questions!

You have two different modes of play, one for dungeoneering and one for trying to scrape by and dealing with inequality in the city.

What distinguishes the two "games"?

How do you run them differently?

How should the players approach them differently?

What, if any, rules are handled differently?

Finally, what does an adventure or scenario for the "squatters" look like, in practice? How is it formed, and how do the GM and players engage with it?

How does it deal with the bizarre contrast between powerful (and often well-equipped or wealthy) D&D characters and the supposed squalor and poverty they live in?


  • edited December 2017
    City of Brass: Squatters Game

    I designed the City of Brass for the squatters game, which I ran mostly at a bar in Baltimore twice a month. The constraints for that were:

    1. Open Table. That is, players were expected to drop in to play with no commitment that they'd be there the next week.

    2. Two Hours. The slot we had was from 6-8, before the band showed up. I needed something that would be satisfying to play in a short time.

    3. D&D. Though we later added all kinds of story games and whatnot, the event was (is) called "Drinking & Dragons," and it attracted a lot of people who wanted to play D&D, so I wanted to help fill that need.

    So I took a grab bag of ideas I'd been thinking about and tossed them into a bigger-than-life city with draconian laws, and came up with the squatters idea.

    Every PC was a new member of the "Commune," a sort of last resort for destitute people in the city. Every character there literally had no other option. They'd tried everything else, and ended up starving or worse. Some were hiding from the law. Some had problems that made them unemployable. Some were just destitute and hoping for better options.

    The Commune welcomed them in. There weren't many rules, but a sort of consensus was required to do things there. When people went rogue and did things that affected the Commune and didn't get the buy-in of the group first, there could be consequences. Banishment would be the ultimate consequence.

    I made sure that the players in the game understood the premise: Your PC is poor and desperate. It was inviolable.

    I usually brought a dozen pregens. However, about half the players made their own characters. Since they didn't know much about the City of Brass setting, we'd quickly discuss it when they showed up. If they wanted to play a half-orc, I'd tell them that half-orcs in this setting were half orc, half giant ant, with mandibles and antennae instead of tusks, and that they were nomads with a very strong sense of community (deeply absent in this big city). I never had a player push back at anything about their character fitting in.

    Every character started with a measly 6 GP. That's a very small portion of what normal 1st characters usually get (usually more like 100 GP). Most characters didn't have weapons or armor of any kind.

    Within 15 minutes after starting, we were usually done talking about characters.

    It's important to point out that players ranged from "I've played every RPG ever" to "I have never played any RPG." Sometimes I also had to explain the basics to a new player.

    Next, I pulled out my stack of index cards, each with an unresolved problem on it. I treated these as a sort of countdown clock, as you'll see later. I had two players roll 2d12 on my "random new problems" table, and I'd add new cards. If they rolled an old problem (that there was a card out for), it advanced that problem. These problems were largely social things: "Hengritte is addicted to spirit potions. She isn’t doing her chores."

    I documented this process a while ago. You can also see my list of problems.

    I layed out all the cards and explained each one with enough backstory so they understood what the PCs had done before, what had worked and what had not, and then let them pick a problem to work on. They also could use their time to do other things, if they wanted. I had a tiefling cross the city to meet an old friend, a minor noble, who was now distancing herself from him, now that he was smelly and poor. An unconfident dwarf named Gravel often spent her time working at a boring physical labor job and trying not to mess up and get fired. Employment opportunities were often forefront.

    At the end of the game, I asked them all to pay for Upkeep. This was often just 1 silver piece, but sometimes people needed to borrow money from other characters. Ever copper piece mattered in this campaign, and we tracked money and items carefully.

    I also asked each character to make a sort of Morale check, a DC 10 Wisdom (Insight) check. There were ways to help each other, and religious types (clerics, paladins) could also help people, to get Advantage on this roll. Each player who failed the roll was asked to choose from a set of five Commune aspects based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, and decrement one of those stats. I used that to repopulate the problems on the table accordingly. (There were ways to improve these stats, but rarely did characters pursue these, but none of the stats had gotten critically low yet.)

    XP was milestone based. If they partially or completely solved a problem on a card, everyone who played earned 1 or 2 XP, respectively. They needed 10 XP to advance to 2nd level. A couple characters advanced to level 2 over the course of many games.

    I ran it maybe 6-8 times at the bar, 3-4 times for some friends at my house or other people's houses, and 2-3 times at conventions. Notably, in one of those convention games, I had a table full of storygamers and they ran wild with things and I let them, and it got crazy fast, but it was tons of fun.

    Since the 2016 Election, I haven't run this. In the days after the election, the young art student types in Baltimore weren't interested in role-playing being politically miserable and destitute, and a couple times I found myself with no interested players after a pitch session. I started running things like Misspent Youth after that.
  • City of Brass: Mirrorrim, Megadungeon Game

    Still wanting to play D&D 5e and feeling like I hadn't explored the potential of my City of Brass setting, I kept searching for more stuff to do with that campaign. After reading the Dwimmermount megadungeon book, I was inspired to go back to old school roots and build a megadungeon of my own.

    I had always known that there were old, buried dungeons under the City of Brass, including part of the city that was buried in a magical sandstorm.

    My Goals:

    1. Build a true "megadungeon." This means many interconnected dungeon sections with different themes, but also with a sort of deep history there, and mysteries about the world with buried answers to be unearthed.

    2. Run games online. I'd played D&D once on Roll20, but never run a game there. My work and home responsibilities were making it harder to do full four-hour games. My biweekly storygame group had dried up. The Pathfinder game I was playing in finished at 8th level and then almost continued and then fizzled. My Windup Space (the Baltimore bar) game moved from Wednesdays to Sundays and I couldn't attend regularly.

    3. Use the City of Brass. I have some self-publishing aspirations for this setting and wanted to develop it more.

    4. Open Table. Just like the squatters game, I wanted people to be able to drop in and out of this campaign without issue. I also accepted people brand new to D&D or role-playing.

    5. Challenge-Based. This is about dungeon-crawling and survival. I don't make up monsters or change things on the fly. I stick to my prep and let the dice fall where they may. I want characters to die.

    I decided on a 2-hour Roll20 session once or twice a week. I organized it via a Facebook Group, knowing that I had enough interested gamer friends that I could create a "stable" of players who could drop in when they had time.

    I wrote the Player's Guide and bounced it off players and tweaked it to answer their questions and correct errors. The main complaint they had was that they were having a hard time picturing what this city and its people looked like, so I stole a ton of art off the Internet and filled the Guide with it. Like this:


    I studied Arabic / Moslem architecture from the 12th-14th century because I remembered something cool about the street layout from a Designing Cities course I took on Coursera a few years ago. I stared at the layout of a house from that place and time and channeled that into a map of eight houses with twisting streets. I hand drew that on large paper, snapped a pic with my iPhone, and processed it a little in GIMP, then keyed each room and wrote a short entry for each room. I'd already done some work with a D&D 5e encounter builder tool online and wrote up a bunch of suitable encounters with a few themes, so I was able to plop them into the houses quickly. Added some "dressing" and had a finished map in a few days.

    I imported the map into Roll20 and stretched it to fit a grid. It didn't look great. Crisp black pen wall lines were now blurry and gray and full of weird artifacts. But it didn't matter. Using the maps and character "miniatures" (icons) that each player could move around was very dramatic. (Dare I say "immersive"?) I also turned on the "fog of war" feature on Roll20, which allowed me to see the map in full, but let the players only see the portions that I had revealed to them with polygon tools. It worked very well.

    I really had to use the map tools, because it was too hard to play otherwise. The non-grid map I'd drawn was too difficult to describe "theater of the mind" style, and too complex to draw on the fly. I ran the first session without it, and had it up and running by session 2 as a survival mechanism.

    I also dropped suitable monster icons onto the map, moved them around appropriately during combats, and used the red status bar feature to show everyone's current hit point (as a proportion of "full," not a number).

    This dungeon was called The Ancient City, and its backstory is that it was buried under sand hundreds of years ago, but its people somehow figured out how to survive. Eventually, someone powerful installed a magical barrier between the modern city and the Ancient City, keeping everyone in their respective areas. The denizens of the Ancient City lived generations, eking out a sad and miserable life there, farming mushrooms and hunting giant rats, etc. Some turned to ghouls. There are a few hints about the history of what happened scattered around the dungeon.

    Some Stats

    I've run 16 sessions, mostly 2 hours each, but a couple were 4 hours on a weekend.

    The Ancient City has over 160 keyed rooms. About 1/6th of them are "empty."

    14 different players have joined my games. One player has played in 13 of them. 5 of the players are women.

    I know most of the players pretty well. I've met all of them in person at least once. Some of them I've known for 15-20 years. I invited every gamer I knew, but I think only people who knew me felt comfortable enough to jump into this campaign.

    18 different characters have stepped into the Ancient City.

    3 characters have died. There have been a couple very near TPKs and several more near-deaths for individual PCs. It's a dangerous dungeon-crawl, but probably not as lethal as many. So far, when characters die, their players think it's hilarious.

    One character reached 4th level so far. Two or three more are 3rd level. Most of them are still 1st level.

    A couple of the players had played in the squatters game at the Windup. Anna brought her dwarf, Gravel, from that game into the dungeon.
  • ...continued

    Current State

    A little background: The dungeon is sealed magically, right? So the group has a magical disc that they use to unlock the seal in a sewer entrance. The magic is an Imperial Seal. To tamper with it is punishable by death. Well, at the end of every game, I have them make an easy DC 10 Stealth roll to avoid detection by the city. They usually aid another etc. to get Advantage on this roll, and they usually have the Rogue make the roll with her +6 or whatever.

    In the game before last, they failed their Stealth roll. Somehow the Rogue rolled like two d20s and got less than 4 on both of them. This meant they were caught by the guards.

    This was actually the third time they'd had a run-in with guards near the dungeon entrance, including one time they saw one of those flying eye surveillance units, and blasted it to death before it could summon help.

    Three strikes was my rule for getting into an Imperial entanglement, and they unlocked the door one day and found six Imperial guards there. Ambush! They struggled with the morality of just murdering them all. Two of the five PCs didn't seem to mind killing them, but the others let a couple guards escape.

    The consequence is that their dungeon entrance is now under constant Imperial watch, so I told them to find a way around that, or find a new dungeon. They decided the latter, and I reminded them of the descriptions of the dungeon entrances in the Player's Guide, and they mutually agreed on the Green Stairs in the druid's grove.

    That sent me back to the drawing board, quite literally. As this dungeon is more natural caves than Arabic-style housing, I used GIMP to draw a very high resolution map that will port into Roll20 without artifacts or stretching. I may add textures and stuff to make it feel more like a nasty cave.

    This area has about 130 keyed rooms in six distinct "zones." Very few are truly empty or uninteresting. It is "Jacquayed." It has a deeper and more complex history than the Ancient City. It's more dangerous, but also has more treasure in it. More traps and weirder encounters. It will be a lot of fun.

    Once I finish it.
  • Let me address your questions directly. I'll refer back to the text above, though.

    What distinguishes the two "games"?

    The squatters game is focused on social problems and solving them creatively, and it's my love letter to liberalism. Every action likely has a social consequence for oneself and for others nearby.

    The megadungeon game is focused on exploration and combat. There are mysteries to unearth and monsters to battle. Characters die regularly.

    How do you run them differently?

    The squatters game is all theater of the mind and almost always in person, on a tabletop. It has a very rigid structure, with a beginning (Commune meeting where characters are introduced and problems raised), a middle (PCs address problems), and an end (Morale checks, upkeep). I focus on carrying consequences forward. I improvise constantly, from my prep, and it feels like a storygame in a lot of ways.

    The megadungeon game is always on Roll20. (I don't think I could even run the Ancient City dungeon without the map and fog-of-war tools!) This is an OSR game. I prep hard, stick to prep, and roll dice in the open and stick to the results. Characters die.

    How should the players approach them differently?

    Both are about survival, sorta.

    To survive in the squatters game, one must balance wanting to fix things with the problems of sticking one's nose out. Often fixing things causes new, bigger problems, if one is not super careful. The characters are terribly underpowered and outmatched constantly. One has to count silver pieces and make sure there's dinner and a warm place to sleep.

    To survive in the megadungeon game, one needs to explore cautiously and not get impatient. Teamwork is very important. Party balance matters. Going down without a cleric is stupid. Because I do not weaken encounters based on party strength (or size), it's not wise to go down with less than 3 characters, and 4 is better. There's nothing stopping you from bringing a party of 6 adventurers (I cap it at 6 usually, but I bet I could manage 8-10 on Roll20).

    What, if any, rules are handled differently?

    They're not concurrent games. In terms of setting, the megadungeon is an evolution of the squatters. That is, I built a setting for the squatters, then modified it for the megadungeon campaign. If I were to run a new squatters session, it would be further informed by the work I did in the megadungeon campaign. New racial options and stuff, mostly, but also new takes on the Empress and laws and stuff like that.

    The biggest rule change is character creation. Squatters got 6 gp to outfit their characters. Megadungeon adventurers get the full amount of starting gold. Everything else is stock out of the D&D Player's Handbook -- for both games!

    Finally, what does an adventure or scenario for the "squatters" look like, in practice? How is it formed, and how do the GM and players engage with it?

    I think I addressed this. There are no set adventures. It's always generated on-the-fly from random rolls on the Problems table plus whatever leftover problems linger from games past. And unresolved problems get worse.

    In a few games, when players seemed directionless, or if they could not decide which of 3-5 problems to tackle, I'd think about which problems were due to get worse, and start making them worse. I'd have NPCs show up at the Commune and make demands or deliver terrible news. Then I'd give the players another 15 minutes to pick a direction before adding more pressure. The most I ever had to do this was twice. Most groups grabbed a problem in 30 seconds and were off and running. Some groups solved 3-4 problems in a two-hour session. One group only partially solved a single problem in two hours.

    How does it deal with the bizarre contrast between powerful (and often well-equipped or wealthy) D&D characters and the supposed squalor and poverty they live in?

    The 1st level D&D characters with 6 gp never felt powerful. I made sure they always felt like the smallest fish in the biggest ocean. Poverty and social class closed all doors to them.

    By depriving them of a dungeon to delve and plunder, they remained poor. The city was full of 2nd level thugs and 3rd level guards and 5th level mafiosi who would stomp the shit out a 1st level character who got in their way.

    Rarely did you encounter a low-level person who didn't have friends. Sure, you might beat up those four "Brass Clubs" thugs (and they did, and killed one), but that means you have 20 more of them and their powerful leader out looking for you. That brings heat down on the Commune itself, or at least brings club-wielding thugs banging innocent heads there while asking questions.

    It's amazing how people can't be murderhobos when they're literally trapped in a huge, unforgiving city full of people who belong to power structures. You cannot outrun consequences in a community.

    The main way to level up in the squatters game was to solve problems. Your groups had to completely solve 5 problems to get to 2nd level, then 15 more problems to reach 3rd level. If you solved lots of problems, you probably aren't the murderhobo type anyway.

    A few people tried to solve problems with escalating violence. I had one TPK in the squatters game, when a group of characters went to the apartment HQ of the Brass Clubs to try to de-escalate the rising conflict with the gang. They had a plan to talk it out and be reasonable, but the cleric went all Leeroy Jenkins on things with a botched command spell (everyone knew the cleric was magicking their leader), and things went ugly fast. I think four or five characters died in that session. Consequences.
  • If you have more questions, go ahead and ask!
  • I think I killed you with volume.
  • Just to say, in the absence of more intelligent commentary / questions, that I'm really enjoying this thread. Thanks for posting @Adam_Dray!
  • Adam,

    I don't know if I've ever received a more thorough and satisfying to a question I had!

    I have read it all and will be back with (minor) questions. Fantastic! Thank you.

    The main things which confuse or confused me have to do with my own D&D brain damage. (For example, I just can't get into the - arguably correct! - interpretation of D&D as a ruleset where most/many NPCs should be leveled characters, so, in my vision of D&D, a 1st-level character is a force of nature with special status. But, yeah, if your NPCs are regularly running around with levels 2 through 5, then 1st level PCs can feel pretty pathetic, I'm sure.)

    I might be interested in joining a session sometime, if you have availability!
  • Absolutely. I'll probably host a Megadungeon game next week, Tuesday or Thursday 10-midnight Eastern Time.

    Are you on FB? Are we friended? I do all of my coordination through a FB Group. Do you know how to make a 5e character?

    I wrote 5.5 pages (2300 words) to key 10 encounter areas last night for the Fungal Caves! These are approximate 5 times as detailed as my dungeon notes for the Ancient City.

  • Old School games had NPCs as leveled characters, almost always. At least everyone Hit Dice, if not actual class levels. Human types, even noncombatants, would be described succinctly: "Shopkeeper, Ftr 1, hp 8, AC 10, Atk 1d6."

    A leader was probably a high level character. She was a Queen because she fought her way to the top. "Queen Alimada, Ftr 11 / Clr 2, hp 77, AC 2, Atk 1d10+6."
  • Adam,

    I'll PM you about joining!

    As for "NPCs as level characters", I fully admit that this is purely a case of my own prejudices or limited thinking.

    I just can't accept a vision of D&D where character levels and classes are descriptive of the world the characters inhabit. It makes sense to me to see characters classes as descriptive of the kinds of adventurers you can play, and XP and levels as a metagame conceit to encourage and reward a certain type of player activity and then pace character advancement.

    To say that everyone else works this way, too - that the local shopkeeper must be statted up as a Paladin, Sorcerer, or Cleric, etc., and then the implication that he can get better and "more experienced" by killing others in challenging combat-to-the-death - is a really bizarre frame I just can't will myself to believe in. The implication that the whole world works this way just rubs me the wrong way in just about every possible sense.

    I could accept statting up important NPCs as monsters, maybe. But writing up an important politician as a 15th-level Bard or some such thing just seems ludicrous to me.

    I can definitely see how that would necessary in your game, though - given the ruleset you're using, you don't have many alternatives. So it's not a criticism; just an insight into how my mind works when I ponder such (ultimately trivial) matters.

  • In my Mirrorrim setting (and in my Towerlands post-apocalypse setting in design), levels are indicative of merging with additional spirits.

    Level 1, you have one spirit (your original).
    Level 2, a second spirit has been attracted to you by your deeds and merges with yours.
    And so on.

    Shopkeepers can attract spirits, too, and level up, but they tend to attract the kinds of spirits who think shopkeepers are cool, not the kind that do sorcery.

    Adventurers attract the spirits of great warriors, fire elements, and the like. That's why their skills are more "magical."

    Still, a high-level artisan might have some magic in his brush, right?

    Having more than one spirit makes you harder to kill, obviously.

    Outside of my games, D&D and Pathfinder have NPC classes like Aristrocrat and Commoner, so you might encounter a shopkeeper who is a Commoner 4 or whatever.
  • edited December 2017
    Have characters moved between the two forms?

    PS: thanks for inspiration in the last thread, it helped me build something useful
  • One character (Gravel, the dwarf with poor self-confidence) ported from the squatters game to the megadungeon game.
  • Re: Sſtabhmontown Adventures. That's really cool!
  • Adam:

    Spirit accumulation is your in-fiction explanation for leveling? Interesting!
  • Adam,

    Is City of Brass in any way inspired by the writing of China Mieville?

    (I ask because it feels like it! There's a similar wild intensity and "melting pot" vibe to your campaign setting primer.)
  • No. I'm familiar with Mieville but never read any.

    I think we're both inspired by postmodernism and cyberpunk.
  • Well, City of Brass is VERY China Mieville. I described it in brief terms for a friend of mine, and his immediate response was: "Oh, is this based on a China Mieville novel?" Ha!
  • Hey, I'll take it.
  • Yeah, I'd say it's a good thing!
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