ThugLife: A Campaign Primer
CAN YOU DIG IT?!
Looking for a new campaign idea? Bit tired of the old skirmish and plunder in creepy foul dungeons? Why not sign your group up for some streetwise mayhem – for fun and profit! Urban violence is on the rise, and you too can get in on the action! How do you get such a great deal? Just one easy payment of reading this post!
It slices, it dices, it makes perfect fries every time!
Are you ready suckers?
Street Gang. The Campaign.
BLOOD IN THE WATER
Imagine this as your campaign blurb – something you text to your friends to see how it floats
Your crew just knocked out the Old Man who runs the 9th Street Bakery, and are whooping it up as they clean out the cash box and start shoving fresh loaves and hot donuts into cloth bags. Stupid old man wouldn't pay – wouldn't show the proper respect. Ain't nobody gonna say The 19th Street Killers aren't number one on the block! The money ain't great, but it'll pay for food and ale and maybe some of that dreamshit that's been going around – heard its got a two-day hangover, but its supposed to be real!
Today was just supposed to be another day. Dodging the Watch, fucking around, giving the local weak some shit, and trying to party as much as possible. But this situation, right here? Got you thinking. Got you thinking about all these weak civilians who haven't shown respect either. Yeah. "That hag over at the Herbalists, she's definitely going to pay up. Could easily shake down the mouthy gnome down in the Beer Garden. This whole street gonna pay up!"
The 19th Street Killers just claimed its first bit of territory, and a new group was born, like so many others that form and bubble and fade away, swallowed up by the sharks in this ocean of cobblestone and torchlight. This city breeds desperation as maggots in sun-blown meat, and no one was going to give you power – you had to take it.
Today your gang is born. What stories will you paint in blood and graffiti on the crumbling streets of the City?
I hear you saying, "I feel you, water horse, but how do I do all that?"
Read on, brothers and sisters, and you shall find the path laid out before you
CAN YOU COUNT, SUCKERS?
Gangs all have the same basic attributes:
- They claim a real world location as owned property
- They exploit that location according to the location's purpose – businesses are taxed, parks are used as an outdoor venue for business or pleasure, homes are used as "safe houses", etc…
- They will defend their territory with violence or diplomacy, but never just diplomacy. Gangs are violent entities.
- They give the gang a name, and members will choose a new name (their "blood name").
- They will adopt a symbol that is used to mark the members and their claimed territory.
- New members are tested before being allowed entrance. This can take myriad forms, from being physically beaten, to performing unlawful activities, to contests of strength, or cunning, or wit – or all of the above in a D&D version of Hellweek (or Month or Year).
- The only way to leave the gang is to die. Anyone who betrays the gang is marked for death.
- The members work towards a common goal, have common interests, and feel a sense of belonging. Betrayal is the ultimate sin.
From there, however, the way Gangs operate, their methods and motivations, their hierarchies, and their means of choosing new members are as myriad as the stars. Settle in. This is gonna be a long one.
The Gang narrative is simple. Its an action film and while action films are all about high adventure and crazy individuals, you should lay down your social contract with your group before you start to discuss running a campaign like this. Its going to be hard to take up the mantle of a street gang without discussing all the horrible shit that occurs in that lifestyle. No sexual violence is mostly a no-brainer for most groups, but I've been in stories where its occurred, and its powerful stuff if used correctly and with the right people, but you should have a talk beforehand. How much is too much street ugliness? What is not going to be part of the narrative? Get everyone in the same headspace and the tone of the setting will resonate with everyone, and you can all play on the same stage with the same narrative tools and easily keep out the dissonance. Nothing kills a game faster than players who bring noise to a harmonic game.
ALL ABOUT THAT
- Money: "Get it"
- Reputation: "Protect it"
- Lifestyle: "Spend it"
Gangs all have the same primary motivation – life is all about the quick profit, the easy score, the no-brainer heist. Smash and grab is the fastest way to rob a business, and threatening a guard into leaving a door unlocked is the easiest way to heist. Gangs don't plan for the long term. They might not be alive tomorrow. Immediacy drives the street gang. If they are thwarted or diverted from their goals, they will generally keep trying until the gang, or the obstacle, breaks.
This is the reason that gang violence is as regular as the rising sun – without striving for more power, the gang's motivation (fast money, cheap thrills) sputters and dies. They are like sharks, these street gangs, they have to keep moving or they die. In the gang's case – moving up. If another gang is holding a set next to theirs and they can't push them away, they will just keep fighting until one side is wiped out.
Peace is a political tool, never a true state of affairs. Gang life is about perception. Who thinks what about you and your crew. That matters. Its the second primary motivation – reputation. Without it, the extremely vital mechanism that both drives gang violence and prevents it from consuming all the combined gang territory into a whirlwind of violence, cannot function. Reputation also serves a political goal – it makes your enemy spend precious time and resources worrying about you. The more badass people think you are, the more money, time, and manpower your rivals spend making sure they are safe from you. That's always worthwhile, and so Reputation with a capitol R, is something that drives every gang member. They will always be thinking about how their actions impact the reputation of the gang first, and themselves second, and their set (territory) last. Violent clashes over disrespect keeps the gangs churning over new members – chumming the waters for the smart members to survive and grow stronger. The OG in a street gang has been in the organization for a year, maybe 2. But that gangster is smart, tough, and cunning, and from their ranks come the true Rogues of of a city.
What does money and reputation allow you as far as lifestyle is concerned? Gangs are born from poverty and disenfranchisement, and wealth and status symbols are direct refusals of that humble truth. No one wants to be poor, but if you're going to be rich, let everyone know just how rich you are – after all, wealth and reputation go hand-in-hand. Gangs are almost obsessed with symbology. From their emblems that adorn bodies, clothing, weapons, armor, flags, banners, walls and any other place that can be tagged, to the secret symbol-languages (shadowmarks) that cover their own territory and the nearby territories of their rivals in tiny graffiti, to the complicated handslang that they use to speak internally and to throw shade at enemies or whoever they want to intimidate. Symbolism creates meaning to those who know what the symbols stand for, and that meaning is always a powerful one of belonging to the group. Almost everyone wanted to make up a secret language as a kid with a friend or two, yes for the sheer coolness of being able to speak in code, but also because you wanted to solidify your loyalty to your friends, even though you didn't know that's why you did it – wanting to belong is a primary driving force in the human psyche and that's a powerful bit of psychology to someone who has nothing, and no familial ties. Gang is family. Gang is life.
Yeah, you are saying, a lot of this is obvious shit, you semi-aquatic dickhead, when are you going to get to the bits I can actually use in my game? And I'm saying, if you open one of my posts, you gotta know the rambles are gonna be there. That's the price of admission – but they are coming next, ok? I never make you wait too long.
LIKE A G-STER AN OG-STER
The fun part for your party will be creating the Gang itself. Do this BEFORE you start the first narrative session. After all, you need to set up all the pieces around them before you begin. Here's the steps you should take, and that will be followed by the details of each list entry.
Where my crew at?
- Pick a name. This is crucial and might take certain parties awhile to figure out. That old goblin, The Name. I've listed some generators that can help, below.
- Pick a symbol. The crew's tag. This will be used to mark territory, bodies (in the form of tattoos, generally), clothing, and other items. There's an Emblem generator below if you want to fiddle with that, or if you have an artist in the party, that's even better. Part of the decision making about the tag is the color or colors of the gang. This will identify them through clothing and other items.
- Choose the leadership. This is the first decision that will require your party to elect a leader. Yes. A leader. This is not something that's been seen in D&D very much, but I think the idea of it can work well in a Gang format, for a few different reasons. Firstly, there's no democracy on the street, and having someone step up and give orders is a concession that is practically a requirement. Secondly, the leadership can change, as the Gang's power and respect levels shift around. I'll talk about those later, but its a fun dynamic that I think you'll enjoy. Thirdly, and most importantly, the drama that's created by hierarchies in general is good for the tension it creates and the personal subplots that spring up because of it. I don't mean PVP, well, I do, but its a modified form. That comes later. Humiliation and loss of power is far better suited to a group activity over death, but DM's discretion as always. I'll talk about the actual hierarchies a bit later.
- Choose the initiation test. None of the party members will have to undergo this test. They are the Original members and don't have to do that shit, unless your group wants to. The Gang Leader would oversee these activities, but they are going to have to be largely bullshit, because the characters can't fail or they aren't in the gang. So use it as a cool opening montage if its used at all. The test will be for any NPCs OR new PCs OR existing player's new character. In the case of the NPC there is always the chance of failure, but there won't be for the PCs – that's just a cut scene. By that I mean they can't fail, although the DM can certainly foster the illusion that they could lose. This is mostly for narrative flavor. I've made up a short list of possible tests, below.
- Decide on the makeup of the Gang's initial territory. This is the starting area of the Gang, and its holdings. This will be, at the start, a single street. It will be either all households, all businesses, or a mixture of the two. The DM should allow the party to decide for themselves what the territory is going to comprise, by informing them of the differences between the two. A Household pays less per week, but is less likely to refuse to pay protection, and will resist more if the weekly rate is raised. A Business pays more per week, but is more likely to refuse to pay protection, and will resist less if the rate is raised. How this plays out with dice is explained, below.
THE LIST DETAILS
A GTA one. Its not terrible, but some of the choices are a bit too modern sounding. I did, however, have a good laugh at "Nutty Irresistable" and pictured a thug of the forest gnome persuasion, all stylee, maybe a big glittery hat and a spiked, bloodstained baseball bat. Just click the "Generate crew names" button and the names appear at the bottom of the page. ("Hawkish Coercion" was another good one for the right group).
A Shadowrun-inspired one. Probably my favorite. Got the right mix of swearing and cool sounding adjectives. "Baker Street Misery" and "Satanic Hamsterfuckers", I mean come on. Fantastic.
Modern day street gangs are fractured, complex things, and that won't do for D&D, and we need something a bit more medieval feeling anyway. I think the best kind of hierarchies are the simplest, where everyone has a designated task or tasks, and they are welcome to speak their opinions on the actions of the others, they each stick to their respective specialties when it comes to gang-related activity. In other words, the Dope King can talk all the smack he wants on the War Chief, but at the end of the day, The War Chief decides who the Gang's enemies are, and when its time to fight.
Trying to come up with titles that don't sound corny is difficult at the best of times, so its often beneficial to get the party to make these up for themselves. I'll list the generic positions that should/could be filled along with my own shitty names, and you can amend as you see fit. I'll keep the titles masculine for simplicity. Sorry, ladies.
- The Leader: The King, The Baron, The Emperor, The Boss
- The Second in Command: The Earl, The Prince, The Second
- Security: Warchief, Sergeant-at-Arms, The Enforcer
- Treasurer: King Stacks, The Banker, The Cashman
These are optional (and listed in case your party is larger than 4)
- Wise Man: Memory, The Dreamer, Chief o' Dreams
- The Finder: The Procurer, The Provider, Chief Plenty
- Make Something Up That You Find Cool: Chief Whatever
By no means should this be the structure for every gang or even your first gang! This is just a very generic example, so please do something more creative!
These are only examples, of course, and fairly tame. Go wild with these.
- Jumped In – Survive a physical beating from the entire gang for 60 seconds.
- Blood for Blood – Kill a rival member
- Trophy – Bring back a valuable item from a rival
- Street Marks – Tag the gang symbol in rival territory (usually in a prominent place)
- Wilding – Kill 1 or more civilians
- Spree – Destroy or cause a lot of physical damage to a location
- Run the Pack – Kill a guard and get away
- Renegotiate – Force 3 new marks to pay protection (minimum DC 15)
- Burn the Witch – Kill a mage/cleric (of rank)
- Rat Race – Take large amounts of drugs and alcohol, and be blindfolded and dropped far from home. Return alive.
A household or business must be Intimidated into paying a weekly protection tax in order for that location to be added to the Gang's territory. This location must be adjacent to existing Gang territory, or within 1 city block of it. The Intimidation can be roleplayed (best) or forced with a skill check. If a skill check is used, the DC for a household is 10 and for a business is between 12 and 17 (1d6 for a random DC), usually the higher DCs are for the more wealthy businesses. Government locations cannot be acquired, and neither can Guild Houses or Public Works. Once the payment is secured, the target will pay a weekly tax for as long as the Gang maintains its presence in the area.
Some targets will refuse to pay on certain weeks, and must be convinced to change their minds. If a target refuses to pay, then they must be Intimidated or Assaulted to force a new check. If Intimidated, the DC is between 10 and 15 (1d6 for a random DC) for a household and a DC between 12 and 21 (1d10 for a random DC) for a business. If the check succeeds, then the Chance to Raise Tax check is performed by the DM, by rolling a percentile. If the target number or less is rolled, the victim agrees to pay more weekly tax. This increase is between 1 to 5 coins per week. Each household or business can only have their tax raised once. If more money is extorted the household will be forced to move, or the business will be forced to close.
Here's a quick table.
|Weekly Tax||1-5 coins||5-50 coins|
|Chance to Refuse||10%||25%|
|Chance to Raise Tax||20%||60%|
|Raised Tax||Additional 1-5 coins per week|
MAKE MONEY TAKE MONEY MONEY
Gangs are going to operate differently from a formal Guild, however. Was less bureaucracy, usually, and gangs generally don't involve themselves with any aspect of business from the production side of things. They also don't tend to split themselves up when there are less than 10 members. Its just too dangerous. All the work done by the gang is done by the gang as a whole. "Rollin less than 10 deep" isn't just a stupid idea, its bad business. The Gang is nothing without its reputation, and shows of force are simple-to-understand and don't cost anything. Gangs are all about that low overhead. When you live fast and die young, profit – easy and quick profit, is king.
Rackets are illegal activities that provide money for the Gang. The rackets list included in the Let's Build a Thieves Guild isn't fully appropriate for a Gang, as they are not a Guild, and will never have the resources and power as a true Guild House would. I am going to include the ones that are appropriate, modified for a Gang-centric campaign.
Narcotics – Corner sales and low-level distribution are the primary activities. Gangs never produce, and are the main source of distribution for true Guild Houses, or in the case of smaller areas, a few lone suppliers. Gangs make anywhere from 20-200 coins per week, depending on a number of factors – your campaign's economy, the size of the distribution areas, and non-interference from rivals. Getting ripped off is a hazard of street life, and there may be weeks where the Gang brings in zero income.
- Prostitution – Gangs generally never undertake any formal prostitution rackets, as a general rule, but there may be instances where new recruits are asked to provide services as part as their initiation process, or by forcing locals into the trade, or by members themselves. This is completely optional depending on your table's social contract, obviously. If this is included, the weekly income could be between 5 and 50 coins per week, with the same factors as mentioned in the Narcotics racket.
- Protection – This is the old classic. Homeowners or shopkeepers (or both) pay a weekly or monthly fee to prevent their homes, businesses or selves from being destroyed/robbed/beaten up. This is the main source of income for a Gang, and is the only way that a Gang can gain new territory. Every protected building enlarges the Gang's influence. The price of protection varies, based on who is being strong-armed, but a good rule of thumb is 1-5 coins per week from a homeowner, and 5-50 coins per week from a business. There is a 10% chance that each week a different "protected" refuses to pay, and must be intimidated or physically threatened in order to continue the payment. If this fails, then the mark gets enraged and attacks the bagman/men. Anyone who protests and is successfully intimidated will agree to pay 1-5 coins more per week out of fear. There may be instances where they cannot pay anymore coin, and will offer some trade instead.
- Smuggling – This involves moving illegal goods through the Gang's territory, for a price. This is always an outsider wishing to smuggle goods, not the Gang's themselves. There is a 10% chance each week that a Smuggler will approach the Gang and ask for safe passage. The smuggler's goods will be worth between 50 and 500 coins and is willing to pay 5-20 coins for protection through the Gang's area. If the smuggler is killed/assaulted for their goods, there is a 100% chance that the one who hired the smuggler will send one or more persons to find out what happened. The power level of this unknown employer is, of course, up to you, but I wouldn't make it someone too powerful. After all, the idea is that the Gang stays in this territory and isn't driven out.
- Burglary – This is simple theft of houses or businesses. This racket is rare among Gangs, and usually only occurs when they have 100% reliable intelligence that something of immediate value to the Gang is present and can be either sold or used immediately. As such, there is no weekly income.
- Street Crimes (Pickpocketing, Mugging) – These are the other main staple for a Gang. Harassing travelers is practically a pastime for a Gang member, and its done almost without thinking. Everyone pays coin and respect. This generally nets a small amount per week, from 5-20 coins.
Need a table? When do you not need a good table?
|Protection||1-5 coins per homeowner; 5-50 coins per business|
|Street Crimes||5-20 coins|
|Smuggling||10% chance, 5-20 coins|
JUICE – An Optional Inclusion
This is all a new ruleset. I urge you to at least give it a read and consider my arguments. If its shit, by all means, amend or toss. I don't mind. This is a gift, not a lecture 🙂
This is the addition of a new Statistic for your individual PCs. We are going to create a simple points based system that will be used as votes by the PCs at the end of each gaming session. This will reflect a shifting leadership dynamic based on in-game actions. The actual points count will be kept secret from the party, but the DM will advise when things have shifted, and when Challenges can be made. Follow.
Respect is earned. Daily. Every day you gotta prove yourself. Prove your worth. Prove your loyalty.
The DM creates a new meta-value called Respect (or Juice, or Sand, or Balls, or whatever). This number value is never revealed to the players, but only the players are the ones who can change this value, the DM cannot.
At the end of every session, the DM asks the players to "Show Respect" to the other members of the gang. They then assign a number to each player, giving a score between 2 and 7. This is a public declaration. This score is based on how much the player's character acted in line with the values of the gang during the session. This is added to the running total. A Gang Leader starts with 30 Respect. The 2nd in Command (if there is one) starts with 15 Respect. Soldiers start with 5.
When a Soldier's respect is equal with a Leadership member's respect, the Soldier can challenge the member for the position in the gang. The winner claims that position. The loser becomes a Soldier with 5 Respect, and loses all other previously gained respect. This means that if you challenge, and lose, you have to gain the Respect of your crew again, but for real. Sure, your group could game the system but that's no fun for anyone, and should be strongly discouraged.
So here's how this looks at the table.
The Gang, the Stone Axe Killerz, has just successfully beaten off a rival crew who tried to invade their set. Trophies are gathered up and the bodies dumped. Everyone is celebrating and carousing. The Tale begins. Someone brings up the fight again and the encounter is rehashed, in real time, by the party, as they remember it right then. They mention the other crew members who impressed them, and throw them some props – using the number in the praise of the crew member. Does that make sense? "And when Lothar knocked that fuckin toe-head's teeth out?! Oh man, that shit was five alive! And Little Spark! Blew those Green meatheads away was so cool man, but missing their Chief, Zod, with that last bolt? Sorry but that was three strikes, man. You should have fried his Green ass!"
If that's all too corny, by all means, just have the PCs say what impressed them, simply, and then they give the number to each party member. Simple.
The DM keeps a running total. The DM never reveals this total except to announce that a challenge may be made. This announcement can be private, if you like, but secret planning and scheming is not in a Gang member's repertoire. Live fast, die rich, that's the thuglyfe. Once the challenge is announced, the actual event must occur within 7 days or the challenger loses all his respect and drops to 5. This causes a constant churning of responsibilities and chances at all the positions in the gang, including leadership, and maybe leadership more than once. By creating a gang hierarchy and assigning each rank a Respect level, you can control the administrative roles within the gang, and that gets real fun, real fast. The party has to be well-advised, in advance, that this is the kind of campaign dynamic that is going to be used. It is PVP, but its PVP with a purpose, and its never to the death, only to the first blood, or whatever criteria is set. And the near-immediate aspect of regaining the approval of the gang members who had previously lost all of their respect because the PC failed, is a powerful reinforcement that the group is worth keeping alive, and (should) cut down on vendetta-mindsets that inevitably spring up in PVP campaigns. Also, since 2 is the lowest Respect you can throw, its an advertising dodge that makes it seem more valuable. Similarly with having 7 at the top, instead of 6, reinforces the existing mythology that humanity has with 7, and lends it more weight, serving as further reinforcement that the gang is someplace where you can be someone worthy, of respect, and of belonging. Very important with us nerdy types. I digress.
There's an alternate ruleset that should be considered. Instead of violent challenges for leadership where lots of respect is lost (and earned), the challenged gang member can peacefully step aside and lose only half their current respect score. This would allow for more politically minded groups, and should be considered for an add-on to the method I mentioned above. Perhaps the gang has a mix of active and passive challenge "modes" that can be utilized to change the leadership around. Worth considering, I think.
You can set the values of each gang rank as you like, but starting with "some" is always better than 0. Play around with my numbers (30,15,5) and see what works for you. You can always change the values after the game gets rolling. Who's to know but you?
One last comment. This aspect of forcing leadership on everyone is only going to strengthen the group as a whole. If everyone fills every role, then all are more efficient as players interacting with the game, but more importantly, they will be more immersed, and more invested in the mythology and power of the gang. Imagine the first PC to get patched in as the new Prez. Or the old Prez, who took a chance and nearly won, but now is bloody and beaten and still a fuckin Soldier, still alive, but now has to look at the world from a new place. How is that ever a bad thing in a narrative?
STREET FIGHTING MEN
Conflict with other gangs is going to occur on a regular basis for your gang's members. Fighting to expand, fighting to protect, fighting just to survive, sometimes. The level of lethality in these conflicts is going to depend largely on the group's decision before play begins. Straight up brawling without weapons with characters with 5 or more levels is going to get tediously slow, so I would advise against going that low on the violence scale. But I can see not fighting to the death as a valid middle ground. To the death is common, but perhaps this area's gangs don't all play like that. Maybe its more about show and lots of bruises, with the occasional unfortunate accident. Or perhaps it's total murdercity out there. You'll have to find your own level of settling gang clashes, and what works for the narrative you all want to explore.
The fights between gangs are rightfully called Wars, because all available members are involved and all resources of the respective gangs are spent on winning. When there's a gang beef in the streets, people know it, and sometimes (often times), civilians get hurt or killed. The Law gets involved, sometimes. Or other interests, with uncertain intentions.
Gang Wars generally are trying to accomplish one or more of the following:
There are other reasons of course, some of them shrewd, others insane, but this is only a short example to give you inspiration for your own lists.
- Gain Territory – Winning the War means instant access to new income from protected locals, and oftentimes resources left by the losing gang are recovered.
- Defend Territory – Winning means survival. Losing means a loss of area, income, resources, and influence.
- Prosecute a Grudge – Beefs are as old as mankind. They build up and explode. You don't need my help of thinking of ways to get angry.
- Terrify the Locals – Gang Wars will force all protected civilians to check to see if they want to refuse paying protection. This causes havoc and distracts the invaded gang's leadership from focusing on the War. This check is done 1/week during a War.
You should create a chart with all the local gangs listed and their respective relationships with one another, and perhaps even the corrupted Powers That Be in the area, if they exist. A simple matrix will give you an at-a-glance look at who's cool and who's got beef. You can use a tickmark, dash, and x for positive, neutral, and negative relationship statuses, or smiley faces, or whatever symbology you like. But keep it on your shield and keep it updated. This is your Map O' Drama Fun, and should drive the whole damn over-narrative.
The hooks should write themselves from there. Decide which gangs control which resources, and start moving them around and watch what your gang does with information that you give them from the street or from their own observations.
The campaign could literally start with the gang hanging out in some alleyway, shooting dice, when that shithead, Dunka Moane, little snot nose from upstreet says he saw a rival gang's wagon over on X Street. The gang reacts. The city reacts to the gang's reaction and that's all you need. The Engine Has Begun.
Decide on how many gangs and power players/factions in the area and flesh them out. That's going to be the most work. The party will build their own gang, so don't even consider them when you are planning out the milieu, just roll 3d4 and think of as many funky ideas as you can and then pare them down to something that won't be impossible to track. I think an area number of 6 would be manageable. You could of course use more or less, depending on how good your scheduling/project management genes are in your family history.
So yeah. I'm not giving you any hooks. You only need to create 1. The Catalyst. Get that Great God a'Mighty Steamshovel moving and the world will build itself.
I don't know about you but I could use a good rumble right now. I'm buying the ales afterward! 57TH STREET JUMP – KILLERS IN PARADISE