Real-time play & the "Braunstein" effect
Due to Memorial Day, there was no session this week--which is not to say that nothing interesting or significant happened this week in my campaign world. In fact, three rather major events occurred.
First, Aeoth--who began his career as a lowly 1/8 CR guard henchman--was given the Barony of Zundbridge. Upon arriving in Zundbridge, Baron Aeoth discovered that his new town was suffering from a deadly plague--and spent roughly 3.5 weeks of downtime trying to save as many people in his new town from dying of the sewer plague. (Aeoth is not available for play or downtime until June 22).
Third, another long running issue was finally resolved. About which I will hopefully say more at a later time. Currently, though, my players don't have any knowledge of this, so I cannot elaborate further.
The other two events occurred as a result of the "Braunstein effect" in my campaign. You see, on April 15, I came up with an idea for a new rival/foil/villain for my campaign. The idea came from a tweet by Padre Brendon on Twitter:
Here is my vision of the true justice, the justice of nature: the zoos opened, behemoths unleashed by the dozens, hundreds….four thousand hungry velociraptors rampaging on streets of these hive cities, tyrannosaurs and triceratops stampeding, the buildings smashed to pieces, the cries of the human bug shearing through the streets as the lord of beasts returns. Waterdeep, Neverwinter, and the Forbidden City reduced to ruins overgrown by vines and forest, the haunt of the raptor and the deinonychus again.
I thought both of these characters were interesting. But at this point, I was running into a bit of a problem. As I explained in my earlier posts about downtime, I found that the addition of downtime was an extremely powerful tool at fleshing out my campaign setting. No longer were the powerful NPCs limited to waiting in the lowest and most fortified rooms of their lairs for the players to eventually happen along and kill them. No--instead, with downtime, all of the villainous NPCs were constantly pursuing their own goals--sometimes including taking action to counter or deter the PCs, but just as often including goals entirely unrelated to the PCs--like building up a drug empire, trying to locate powerful evil artifacts, increasing wealth, bribing politicians, and many other things.
But with the addition of these two new factions, I was feeling a bit pinched. You see, I was having a pretty tough time keeping track of the factions that were ALREADY in play. So--although in theory all of the factions (both good and bad)--were free to act during their downtime-- IN PRACTICE, I was having trouble coming up with goals and directions for most of them to pursue. The most active factions were the two factions the players engaged with the most. The Aboleth, and the Vampire.
Now, granted, I was running these two factions fairly. Even though on occasion, the players were upset with how I ruled on how these factions would act. In one instance, for example, the players set up a very elaborate trap for the Aboleth using glyphs of warding. They assumed this trap would have a high likelihood of success because they didn't have very good information about the Aboleth's movement patterns. Moreover, when the players were setting this trap they were observed by multiple factions--several of whom deduced what the players were doing. And one of which relayed this information to the Aboleth. Based on this information--which I knew--but which was hidden from the players, I ruled that there was only a 5% chance the trap would go off in any given week. It still hasn't gone off (which might be fortunate, because if/when the trap does trigger it create a massive sinkhole, possibly engulfing several buildings in the city above.
But as I saw it, the problem WASN'T primarily with how I was running the Aboleth and the Vampire (and their factions). Instead, the problem was that because the players were ONLY engaging with these two factions, I wasn't paying very much attention to ANY of the other factions in town--including at least 2 or 3 other significant evil factions in town--as well as the lawful-good aligned factions in the lawful-good aligned city of Waterdeep.
As a result, I was leery about committing to running these new factions (DAP, and the Church of St. Cuthbert). Even though the Church of St. Cuthbert was an important faction for the Paladin character--Aeoth--in particular. Since he was a member of that Church.
My solution was relatively simple. I already knew how to adjudicate downtime requests from players. Instead of running all the NPCs in the campaign, I would turn over the Dawn Age Pervert to another person. DAP has never really been an NPC--because he's not a "non-player character." However, DAP is also not a PC. Because DAP has never played in any of my campaign sessions. Instead, DAP is what I call a "Patron." Patrons are characters who would otherwise be NPCs, whose downtime is controlled by a real person. DAP was my first patron--and he is played by BDubs (whose Auran Borderlands ACKS campaign inspired me to adopt Gary Gygax's "1 day of real time = 1 day of game time" rule from AD&D 1e).
I was confident that this creation of DAP as a "Patron" would help solve problems I was having with running downtime for too many different factions. But it created a new problem. Several actually.
The first problem was this. There are no rules (as far as I know) in 5e, or in ACKS, or even in 1e for running patrons. D&D is a game. For this game to work properly, both the player (or the patron in this case), and the DM need stats. The problem is--for a patron, their individual statblock ISN'T REALLY THAT IMPORTANT. In D&D, it's perfectly possible for a very powerful king--with hundreds of cities, thousands of vassals, and hundreds of thousands of subjects--to only have one or two hitdice. Provided, of course, that this King has enough loyalty and security to protect him from assassination attempts from disgruntled cadet branches.
In response to this issue, I created a patron character sheet for DAP. In it's earliest incarnation--DAP's character sheet had the following information listed: (1) DAPs individual stats; (2) DAPs roster of minions (and the HD of each); and (3) DAPs goals. DAPs initial character sheet looked like this:
The second problem is that--at least in 5e--there isn't a good way to resolve combat (and dungeon exploration) actions by NPCs. I guess this is one reason why patrons (and NPCs generally) hire adventurers to go find missing persons in the goblin halls. The other reason--of course--is that if you send a lot of low-level minions into a dungeon, a lot of the time, you're just going to have more missing persons. And if the dungeon belongs to a necromancer, you might even be increasing his strength.
To solve this second problem, I first had to come up with a good way to resolve combat and dangerous exploration actions by Patrons during downtime. I ended up adopting the 5e Mass Combat Rules--which are fairly abstract, but provide a simple and quick method to determine the outcome of fights based on each sides "Battle Rating." Which in turn, led me to modify the patrons' character sheet--removing the minions HD and replacing it with each minions' battle rating:
This left me with only one remaining problem. The problem of money. Specifically, I needed to figure out how much money DAP was making each week, and how much money he was spending to pay for his minions, and for food for his dinosaurs. This was a much easier problem to solve. The daily wages for a hireling are listed in the PHB. As a starting point, I put all of DAPs hirelings at a wage of 2 gp. The formula was simple: DAPs upkeep costs = 2 gp x __ henchment x 7 days. Here is what it looked like when I first added this section to DAPs character sheet
You may notice I made a mistake and only charged him for 1 day of upkeep instead of 7! Working with the economic under-systems of D&D was still fairly new for me at the time. I have since rectified the error. I have also--more recently--devised a more rigorous system for NPC wages. The rates listed in the DMG for skilled and unskilled hirelings are 2 gp and 2 silver per day respectively. However, these rates don't work very well once players (and/or patrons) start employing more powerful henchmen. In response to this problem, I devised a fairly simple chart that lists the daily wages, and BR for henchmen based on their CR.
(I don't use CR to develop "level-appropriate" encounters--as the 5e DMG suggests. However, it is a useful tool for other aspects of play--such as determining combat XP, and in this case, determining the minion's cost and BR.) Finally, I removed the "goals" section from DAPs character sheet.
Since adding DAP as a patron to my campaign, I have added three other patrons: (1) My brother--playing a retired PC who is king of a country that is rivals with Waterdeep; (2) the Commander of the City Watch (played by Jeffro Johnson), and (3) Padre Brendon Larouche, Cleric of St. Cuthbert, who is played by Father Brendon Larouche, Priest of Allentown, PA.
In practice, what does this mode of play look like?
Well, during downtime, a patron will often ask questions, send off minions to gather information, and make plans about how to act. Often, after receiving this information, the patron will give me a general idea about how they want their Patron (and their faction) to act. I then interpret these broad orders, and will sometimes ask questions, or give them further information if their CHARACTER would know about potential risks with this line of action. As a recent example, DAP gave some orders earlier this week. His orders were "let's do what X minion thinks is the best course of action." However Y minion strongly disagreed with X minion's recommendations, and explained why he disagreed. X minion then explained why she thought her plan was best. After considering the information from both minions, DAP picked one course of action over the other. Also, Patrons will frequently communicate with players during downtime. Three of the four patrons have communicated directly with the players in this way--conveying information, asking for help, or boasting (DAP)
However, during the campaign sessions, a patron does not control their NPC directly. Instead, if/when the players go to meet with a patron during a campaign session, I roleplay the Patron based on how I think the Patron's player would act in that situation. A notable example of this arose in a recent session when the players met with DAP (after he gave them a quest and didn't wait for them to finish the quest, but instead chased off the quest target). The players were pretty upset that DAP gave them a quest one week--they spent 500 gold gathering information to follow up on this quest--and then DAP jumped on it, and chased the quarry off into the Astral Plane. I didn't think that DAP would be upset that they were upset. Because DAP's player has told me multiple times he's amused when he messes up the PCs quests. So instead of getting upset that these PCs show up and start yelling at him for messing up their quest, DAP offered them a wager-- "I bet 200 gold, I can find and kill the Mind Flayer before you do." The players scoffed at such a paltry sum. So instead DAP offered to wager Skullport (a town he had just conquered earlier that week) in exchange for Barrelriders (the player owned tavern). I thought this would be an acceptable wager for DAP's player--and fortunately it was.
But I think this is the biggest potential pitfall with Patrons. I can see some people getting too "attached" to their Patron, and being very upset when they feel the DM has "misplayed" their "character" during a campaign session. Or alternatively, being upset when the PCs decide to curbstomp them (which is, of course, always a possibility in D&D)-- I mean the First edition Monster Manual gives Asmodeus (the Lord of Hell) a stat block. And as everyone knows, if it has a statblock, it can die.
So far, however, I haven't dealt with these issues. I think I've recruited mostly good and experienced DMs to run patrons. And the Patron-players haven't yet gotten angry with me for how I've run their character in session.
The addition of these rules--patron stat-blocks, mass combat, and detailed upkeep tracking--have also helped solve my original problem with the other major NPC factions. Over time, the initial one-page google doc I set up to keep track of DAPs stats has now grown to a 10 page document with detailed notes listing the rosters, battle ratings, income and upkeep, and goals for 13 different NPC factions. Most recently, I added a "patron stat block" for a player--Aeoth the Paladin--when after the last campaign session, he was given the Barony of Zundbridge.
The addition of patrons to my campaign is a development--or perhaps more accurately a rediscovery, I think--of a lost element from early D&D. Early D&D wasn't merely an individual RPG (with players controlling an individual PC--ala "the dragonborn" of Skyrim). Early D&D was a wargame--with players controlling factions, territory, and regions. The creation of the patron character sheet, adoption of mass combat rules, and detailed upkeep tracking go hand-in-hand with real-time play.
As Gygax wrote--in all caps--in the Dungeon Masters Guide: "YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT TIME RECORDS ARE NOT KEPT."