On Session Zero: Part Two

Alright! New domain name, new blog, and time to pick up where I left off. The answers to the aforementioned survey! My players were pretty great in responding both at length when prompted and earnestly. It turns out they wanted a fairly wide variety of things out of this “Wizard City” cops campaign! Some DMs may consider that a problem, but I actually like the idea of covering multiple tones, themes, etc. It’s a fun challenge for me as a DM to keep the story congruous through all that, and I’ll be able to explore wherever my imagination (and their decisions) take us!

What are you hoping Wizard City will be like? Do you envision a particular scene or scenario when you think about this upcoming campaign? Do you liken what you want to see to any existing campaign settings/books/movies/etc.? Or would you rather be surprised?

Player 1: Gritty noire detective work where there may not be a right answer. Dresden Files is a good base, but that usually ends positively, so could go darker.

Player 2: Noir as fuck, with magic baked into the fabric of society, like in Eberron or Girl Genius.

Player 3: Nightwatch from Discworld, Automata from Penny Arcade, Wax & Wayne from Mistborn Era 2
Player 4: More cowbell. Basically exactly wizard city in adventure time.

So as you can see, we’ve got a mix of initial desires here – detective noir is featured strongly, but I should also think about including whimsical/wacky elements when I want to lighten the mood. (Discworld and Adventure Time are especially good at that.

What pillar of rpg design do you want Wizard City to focus on the most?

50% wanted “Roughly equal Socialization and Exploration, less Combat.”

25% wanted “Roughly equal Socialization and Combat, less Exploration.”

25% wanted “About an even mix of all three!”

This one seems pretty easy to satisfy. Everyone wants plenty of socialization, which’ll be easy in an urban campaign. Easy to make happen anyway – it’ll be a unique challenge for me to come up with that many interesting and varied characters, which I’m looking forward to. Better exercise my voices and accents! Two players want combat to take more of a backseat to a standard campaign – at the same time, D&D is a very combat-focused RPG, so I should make sure to remind them of that and see if they’re still game. While you can play a low-combat D&D game, the more of it you cut out the less of the game’s actual content you’re using (since the vast majority of words in the book are focused on it). In addition, from what I know of those two players they don’t necessarily mean exploration outside the city, but exploration in the sense of finding neat situations, cultures, ruins, etc. within the city during the course of their investigations as fantasy cops – so their desires aren’t as different from the other two than they seem!

Wizard City lends itself to a couple of narrative styles. What are you hoping the progression of sessions to be most like?

Player1: Seasonal arcs is good, but I would love to have recurring villains, like “damn the Fripperer is at it again!” Story arcs usually end in capturing a villain, but it would be great to have familiar faces in those we fight, like “the Fripperer uses a lot of sexy bard henchpeople, so we know to buff our Will saves”

Player2: Mix, but I want to explain why. I love how your plots draw threads in to weave a grand plot.

Player3: Police Procedural – a series of vignettes like “episodes”, most of which are unrelated.

Player4: Seasonal Arcs – like a grand quest but broken up into big chunks of “story”, where the enemy or challenge changes with each.

This went about as I expected (everyone wanting something a bit different), but I was pleased they took the time to add some context. From what I’m seeing here, I should focus on a greater seasonal arc but with plenty of “vignettes” to break up the narrative and keep things interesting. Keep them guessing as to what’s related and what isn’t to one ‘big case’ per arc, and give them a “rogue’s gallery” of villains, some of which get captured and escape, and other who always seem to elude them (until they don’t!) Notably, no one chose “grand quest”, meaning I probably don’t need to come up with the BBEG for the entire campaign from the start – just BBEGs for each arc of every-increasing scope and power.

How “open world” do you want Wizard City to be?

Player 1: On Rails. We progress from story to story with your PCs making decisions that may alter how that scenario goes, but I keep you on task.

Player 2: Living world. Once you’re “plugged in” to a certain scenario it goes like one of the above, but besides that everyone else just kinda does their thing while you do yours and things play out naturally when you’re not involved. Certain events have time limits.

Player 3: Hooks and threads. I give you clues/NPCs/etc. to follow, but how you progress is up to you.

Player 4: I like hex crawl if thats something youd like to build as a supplement. Maybe with larger hooks to uncover and multiple factiins to work with. Otherwise living world, ideally with less dominant character roles, a la mass effect 2 instead of 3

Talk about varied responses! Once again I find that a mix of progression-methods is probably best. The on rails player may have to suck it up a bit – an urban fantasy game is by its very nature a bit less “on rails”, because the PCs will have easy access to many resources and less travel time to get where they’re going. They’ll have the freedom to revisit old crime scenes and NPCs rather than follow a carefully laid out plot – however, I can still keep a closer eye on this player and if he is getting frustrated at a lack of progression I can certainly give them a nudge! The police format also helps with an “on rails” feel without actually being on rails – while they might pursue multiple crimes/cases at once, each case will be distinct with a specific goal in mind (discover how it happened and find the culprit usually), which will help keep things feeling structured and motivated.

I’m a big fan of “living worlds” and it was nice to see many of these players are too. What I mean by that is a world that progresses regardless of PC interaction – the bakers make bread whether you witness them or not, and on a larger scale, it means NPCs make plans and time passes the way one would expect despite the PCs’ decisions. A badguy might be able to further their master plan because the PCs are off pursuing some other lead – this doesn’t necessarily mean they “lose”, but it can add interesting complications to things once they find out what they “missed” – it’s a way to give PCs tough decisions that give the game impact and drama. By the same token, allied NPCs may keep working toward their goals – this party could maybe convince another group of cops to take up a case they don’t have time for, and see the ramifications of that later. (Or be outmaneuvered for a promotion by “competitor” NPCs!)

The hex crawl idea is interesting – I wouldn’t do that for the city itself (besides dividing it into wards and districts for easier reference), but I do love hex crawls for wilderness adventures. Maybe if the PCs change their mind on what tone they want for the campaign later, or just need a break from city sights, I’ll work in a reason they need to explore the dangerous wilderness outside, and come up with a hex map full of mysteries to uncover.

What “magic level” are you looking for in this campaign?

Player 1: High Magic (lots of magic and magic items everywhere, but few high level NPCs.)

Player 2: Not too important to me, but the tone and social structure must match. With greater magic necessarily comes greater chance for brutal inequality, and less bottom-up trust without extensive magical or mundane alteration of opinion.

Player 3: Medium Magic (D&D standard – nothing is particularly rare but magic items, especially those for combat, are expensive or harder to find; low level casting is common but the higher you go the fewer entities with such power exist).

Player 4: Most magic is monkey paw magic. Comes at a cost or is intelligent with its own motives. Maybe linked.

Again, varied responses! This oughta be an interesting campaign, heh. With this wide net of responses, I feel most comfortable defaulting to my own ideas for the campaign, which is sort of a “middle ground with exceptions”. The city I have in mind for Wizard City is one filled with postwar refugees, mixes of cultures and races trying to survive behind the protection of city walls, when the world outside is full of monsters and zones made dangerous by the terrible weapons of a recent war. As such, I’m going to try running a game that had medium access to magic, but a few powerful luminaries that can do more.

“Cosmetic” or utilitarian public magic, like illusion-concerts, airships, and elemental-powered rails like Eberron will exist, but only because powerful entities like merchant guilds and wizard colleges have pooled their resources to make the populace happy (and make money). “Individual” magic is rarer, especially on the level of PC classes (though I won’t be limiting the PCs themselves – I find that unfun). Magic items with smaller effects like the common ones in Xanathar’s are easy to get, but the more powerful ones, especially weaponized magic, are either restricted or rare due to many of them being unpredictable, used up, or corrupted by the last war.

So essentially it will be “high magic” for public works, “low magic” for the lower class, and “medium magic” for the PCs. In any urban fantasy game class conflict is a great source of story threads and dramatic conflict, and access to magic can feed into that as well. I do want my world’s magic to make sense in how it works (as much as one can, anyway), so I’ll be thinking hard on how easy access to such things will shape a society. Another idea I’m toying with is that magic items like weapons are harder to come by because crafting an enchantment to stand up to repeated blows, to “battle-harden” it and the item, is far more difficult than, say, making a self-sweeping broom for a noble’s household. Only the great nation-armies of yesteryear could afford to throw resources into mass producing such things, and so finding something like a +1 longsword is still a powerful moment for a PC.

Notably, no one wanted “high magic with powerful NPCs” (i.e. Forgotten Realms) or either kind of low magic: very little magic of any kind, or very few humanoid casters or magic items but still many supernatural monsters (sort of Witcher-esque). So I’m avoiding all that.

What tone do you want for Wizard City?

50% wanted “Realistic – lights and darks, and all the grays in between. Regular but not constant difficult choices, the occasional no-win scenario and corruption.”

25% wanted “Even mix of serious and funny.”

25% said “_____ cant handle anything serious unless you force him. So id say even mix unless youve got a particular preference.”

Campaign hasn’t even begun and they’re throwin’ shade at each other. 😛

The even mix will likely win out here (mostly because I think catering partially to all tastes is better than catering perfectly to only half of them), but I also don’t think these desires are too far off from each other. I’m thinking this campaign will have a 60/40 split between serious and lighthearted games, with maybe 10% delving into the deep end of dark – a scenario where the PCs have to make really tough, dramatic, no-win choices that may change their character’s outlook or make them question why they’re doing this job. (Like any good cop drama!)

How difficult do you want Wizard City challenges to be?

25% wanted “Tough. Higher CR combats where you have to out think or out fight (i.e. picking solid PC feats/spells/etc. and knowing how to use them optimally), lethal and near-lethal traps, interesting logistical challenges that require out-of-the-box thinking to get past at all.”

75% wanted “Realism-with-hints. There will be regions/areas/challenges you literally cannot handle at current level, or would require extreme tactical advantage you will have to engineer (and may need to retreat until you can). DM may give some hints or outright tell you when something is “above your pay grade”.”

Finally, some consensus! I was very pleased with this result because I already wanted to run a game that was a little more challenging than “D&D standard”. These players are all pretty good at character optimization and tactics anyway, so I’m happy to take the kid gloves off. In a cityscape campaign like this especially, there will be some wrinkles that normal adventuring doesn’t have:

  1. Fewer encounters per day. Since you pretty much will always have access to a nearby inn or safe haven, rests will be easy to come by. This means individual encounters will be more difficult to compensate.
  2. Fewer enemies. While there will be plenty of “cops vs thieves guild” style battles where the PCs are equal or outmatched by their foes, there will also be the occasional solo or small-group enemies – a chimera that escaped from a wizard’s private zoo, for example. Balancing such things will be an extra challenge for both me and them – I might end up adding additional resistances/vulnerabilities, legendary actions, or “phases” for the enemy to keep it tough and interesting despite the 4-on-1 advantage; or tactical positioning itself may be a challenge in many fights. Monsters rampaging through a city can often be like a literal bull in a china shop – when the streets are full of debris or people and barely 10 feet across, the real challenge may be finding a way for everyone to bring it down together!
  3. Hints will be important for the realism aspect. “You’re pretty sure there’s no way you’d survive a fall from this airship.” “You watch as the wild clay golem picks up an entire cart filled with iron ore and tosses it through a building.” Telegraphing that an enemy might be too strong for the PCs alone is always useful – though it is always worth keeping your mind open to their ideas as a DM, too. They WILL surprise you sometimes! “He’s going under the cobblestone bridge though, right? How sturdy do the supports look?” Hmm. Interesting idea…

Is there a particular monster or type of enemy you want to see featured as an ally or enemy?

Player1: Yuan-ti, if I’m a yuan-ti (shit seems deep and almost anti-combat)

Player2: Nah man, I trust ya

Player3: Not sure, but I’d like less extremely supernatural monsters, such as fiends. More of the typical races, dwarves, elves, etc

Player4: Slimes

Tying in a PC’s race with the plot (especially when they’re a pureblood yuan-ti) is a no-brainer – DMs love to tug on those threads – so no worries there! I’d already planned a whole thing with the city sewers and issues with slimes, so I can meet that player’s expectations too (or even expand it…the new Oblex from Tome of Foes has given me some ideas…) For the third player, I’ll need to keep in mind his desire for more “terrestrial” enemies and allies – the city needs to have a mundane “core” so that supernatural beasties are still dramatic and unique when they do show up. I think I’ll avoid having too many planar beasties (like devils/demons) show up especially, and if I do include them, keep most of their influence distant, through cultists, rituals, dark books of lore, etc.

How much politics do you want in Wizard City?

25% wanted “A fair amount – makes sense in a city and I want my PC to be a social power player as well as a physical one.”

75% wanted “A bit – the rare session about coups, power struggles/vaccuums, or whatever is ok. But let’s say 90%+ focus on street-level stuff.”

Looks like one player was out voted here! This will likely be a mostly “down-to-earth” campaign, with the PCs working on street-level problems and still acting very much like adventurers with a badge, rather than getting promoted through the ranks rapidly and rubbing elbows with nobles, merchant princes, guild leaders, and politicians. However, I do plan on still having room for that for this one player – there may be the occasional case that requires one of them to explore the “upper crust” so to speak, or push something through judicially, and this PC will be perfect for working that angle. They say don’t split the party, but we’ll see… >:)

Do you want your PCs to ever venture out of the city?

25% – Yes, rarely.

75% – Occasionally and/or maybe for an “arc”, as a change of pace.

So! My initial idea of Wizard City being an urban campaign was not off – these guys are looking forward to spending most of their adventures inside the city walls, getting to know this fantasy megalopolis inside and out. I’m thinking maybe 5-10% of the time they’ll get a quest/mission/case that takes them outside the city walls – sometimes to the outlying farmsteads, sometimes even into the war-torn, magic-polluted, monster-infested wilderness beyond! At one point, I’ll probably have them go on a long sojourn into the wilderness for the WCPD. Or possibly even a short one that turns into a real “arc” when they get captured by some enemy. Maybe the remnants of a forgotten nation still fighting its “war”, or a new monstrous empire that has taken advantage of the dangerous wilderness to expand its power, eventually threatening even their home city.

Do you want actual dungeon crawls in Wizard City? How many?

25% – No, that sounds dumb.

50% – Whenever it makes sense.

25% – Once in a blue moon.

The results are in, and this will probably end up similar to the last question – 5-10% of the time will involve some sort of dungeon romp. Wizard City’s origins are shrouded in mystery – it was founded by war refugees that found the metropolis abandoned and have built up on it ever since. So there are ancient ruins below the sewer level, secret passages yet to be explored, and more to find. I’ll save such revelations for when they’ll have the best impact.

Do you like Riddles in your D&D?

50% – Yes, as long as they make sense in the narrative.

25% – No.

25% – Yes, rarely.

Sounds good – I enjoy a good riddle but I do like them to make sense, so this will likely be pretty rare. Maybe they’ll meet an eccentric old gnome witness who refuses to answer their questions until they answer his (which are riddles), or a sphinx guarding something/someone they need to see. I’m imagining less than 5% of games will see this.

Do you like Puzzles or Brain Teasers in your D&D?

100% – Yes, as long as they make sense in the narrative.

Whoa, judging from so far I never expected to have them all agree on something! And this is my preferred response too – I’m a big fan of puzzles in dungeons and such, but only when it makes sense: an ancient temple designed to test the faithful, for example, or an intentionally obfuscated message written in code. The latter is even a mainstay for fantasy mysteries, and I’m sure there will be room for some in a fantasy cop drama.

Are there any particular topics you’d prefer to be avoided in Wizard City? Or if not avoided entirely, merely alluded to in vague generalities?

Player1: It’d be cool if we could avoid rape in general. I get that a lot with my volunteering life. Plus sometimes I see it as a literary crutch for some authors, like an automatic way to make someone bad. If you want to include it that’s fine, but like it should be exceedingly rare and the worst thing in the entire world when it happens, or maybe like “this mayor is good for the city but also kid rape sometimes,” shit like that. Basically any time rape is involved at all, it should involve ridiculous amounts of consideration and forethought. Not just an easy way to make someone evil.

Player2: Anything goes. With magical realism comes interesting ways people interact, and that includes the bad as well as the good. I’m looking forward to how it plays out.

Player3: No rape or abuse, I don’t want to play L&O:SVU. Yes to racial tensions, after all I plan on playing an Eberron style warforged that was a weapon of the last war, now trying to find purpose, and I don’t think people should trust them.

Player4: Nah

In my opinion, this is one of if not the most important question you can ask your players before a game begins. Some people just aren’t comfortable exploring certain themes (the DM included), and one of the quickest ways to make your game implode is to make someone uncomfortable with the basic premise of a session. As such I’m going to avoid certain topics in this campaign – most notably rape and abuse. If they’re referenced at all it will be very subtly, and ideally I won’t come up with any story that relies on them for dramatic tension. While I completely agree that it can lead to interesting stories and moral quandaries and enhance the right game if treated in the right way with the right audience – there are plenty of other threads to use to enhance your game, without yanking on ones that are potential triggers or that, if done poorly, have the potential to make your game feel gross or sloppy.

And that’s it! Hope you enjoyed the rundown of my thought process. I’ve already started a setting document in OneNote for this Wizard City campaign – it has a condensed version of these results on one page, so I can always remind myself what my design goals are. The start of a new campaign is always an exciting time, but it doesn’t really take form until you get into your “groove” – just like any TV show that goes more than one season, it can take a little while to find that voice. Surveys like this can help you get a much-needed head start.

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