Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here
Having stalled on the front-loaded preperation work involved in the Gygax ’75 protocols, I decided to just start running a game in the little bit of setting I had dreamed up just to see how far I would get.
Turns out quite a long way… I will doubtless write a bit more about this campaign in future but I wanted to write a bit about the law of unintended consequences and how one single alteration to the experience rules combined with a bad ruling can result in a campaign that goes to some really weird and unexpected places.
So this post is a combination warning and war story about how I started a campaign based upon Conan the Barbarian and wound up running The Wire.
I have been running OSE in a fairly vanilla fantasy setting. The main difference is that there are no non-human races available at launch. The main difference between my game and out-of-the-box OSE is that I altered the experience rules: In my game, you get XP for killing stuff and you get XP for spending money.
The main reason for this change is my love of the scene in the old Conan the Barbarian film where the thieves escape from the tower of the serpent cult and go on a bender: They get drunk, they get high, they get laid, they get rooms at a nice inn, they get good food, and they buy fancy hats. Then… In the next scene, we see a hatless Conan heading back out to work: He spent the loot, he has run out of money, now he needs to go find another temple to rob. Awesome.
At first, the house rule worked beautifully as the players spent and spent, and then went out to get more gold when they ran dry. They got the best gear, they spent money on hirelings, they even bought a house and threw a party! This was exactly what I wanted.
Things got a bit weird when they realised that spending gold was more fun and effective than killing things but the campaign just shifted from being a standard dungeon crawly thing to more of a fantasy crime campaign as the group decided to start breaking into houses instead of going on adventures. Things changed again after a run-in with the law and a near TPK.
Mindful that it was the law rather than the victims that had nearly done them in, the group decided to change strategy: Rather than knocking over temples and big houses, they would target criminals and start stealing from them instead! They even started spending some of their loot on charitable actions and bribes in order to stay on the good side of the local law. After a while, they even started travelling to other places in order to not ‘shit where they eat’. So my campaign had moved from Conan climbing the snake temple to The Gentleman Bastards novels to the Oceans franchise.
By this stage, we were spending about a session in three doing traditional adventures: You had the scouting and planning of the heist, the heist itself, and then you a session of downtime in which the group spent their cash and administered their empire. At this point, you should probably know that my group contains a professional book-keeper and someone who was a personal assistant to a prominent academic bureaucrat. So when I say that these guys administered their empire, I mean that they administered their empire. I’m a humanities graduate and an artist man… They had fucking spreadsheets!
I was aware that I had kinda lost control of the game but I was still a step or two ahead of them and while their organisation had money, their characters kept getting killed so the most powerful PC was a 7th level cleric. This shit was well in hand.
Things started to go weird when they fucked up a heist and left a corpse behind. I ruled that the gangster was able to ID the corpse and that he sent a load of assassin’s after the PCs. This scared them and they had a big argument that culminated with the cleric announcing that he was moving out of their lair and buying a house so that he could handle his own security. During the week, the group used their private WhatsApp group to talk him down and the session started with the player announcing that he was going to rent out his new place. This is where I really fucked up: I allowed him to spend the gold he got from renting out a house and to log that expenditure as XP.
Suddenly, the entire group started putting all of their money into buying up properties and renting them out. They were racking up hundreds of XP per month just sitting on their arses! They even tried to take out loans in order to buy more houses that they could then turn into XP! In a matter of months, my campaign about Barbarian thieves had transformed into a game about mid-sized landlords managing their mortgages and trying to find reliable tradespeople.
Well aware that the shit was in the process of burying the fucking fan, I tried to lure them back to traditional adventuring. At one point, one of their bankers (!) was revealed to be a cultist who ran off with some of their money but rather than trying to track them down, they outsourced the adventuring part to a less successful group and spent a session roleplaying a meeting in which they tried to manipulate the representative of a local potentate to open a barracks in their town because they had ‘the perfect piece of land’ for a fort and knew exactly who to approach to get the work done ‘for a reasonable price’.
The past month has found me trying to drag the game away from admin: I took inspiration from the classic crime film The Long Good Friday and had a well-resourced gang move into their territory and start messing with their business. I also took inspiration from the news and took inspiration from the recent run on Silicon Valley Bank by having an interest-rate hike massively cut into their profits so that the infrastructure they have assembled no longer pays for itself.
I admit that I lost control of the game, I admit that there was one week where I struggled to think of how the campaign would play out except as a weird business sim where the PCs just levelled up and got richer until everyone got bored. I also didn’t want to be the GM who sits there and cooks up bullshit reasons for the players not to have their way. Then I realised that crime stories aren’t just about Danny Ocean being awesome, they’re also about institutions and the functioning of society. Indeed, it occurred to me that my group were like the Barksdale crew in The Wire.
The Wire begins in media res: Avon Barksdale and his partner Stringer Bell have taken over drug trade in the US equivalent of a council estate: They run dealers in the flats, they run them in the stairs, and they run them in and around the low-rise buildings surrounding the estate. They have also built up their organisation to the point where it is quite complex: There are several layers of dealers who sell the drugs, there are soldiers who keep order, and there are people who run the drugs, move the stashes, and collect the money. The Barksdale Crew at the start of The Wire are a bit like the Peaky Blinders at the start of season two they run things, they make money, and they are constantly pressed by tensions from within (How do they expand? Can people with responsibility within the organisation be trusted?) and without (Do they have competition? Are there more powerful groups they can ally with? Do they need to keep the government onside?). In fact, if you are curious as to what Fantasy Peaky Blinders might look like then consider checking out Peter McLean’s War of the Rose Throne series as the first novel Priest of Bones is literally a beat-for-beat retelling of Peaky Blinders that happens to contain a bit of magic.
I’m not sure how all of this is going to play out but I find it fascinating that One rule change plus One bad ruling plus One motivated set of players can completely change the direction of an entire campaign.
Crazy! Did you think about having a big war start and the local ruler asking them to raise an army and get involved? That could have been a way to keep spending their money but also bring adventure back into the campaign.
Hi Tom, one of the things that happened quite early on was that the group spent a load of money buying their way into polite society (parties and gifts) so the law and powers-that-be would cover for them up to a point. They did get into conflicts but mostly with other gangs, hence the assassins. Great suggestion though.