D&D5E Actual Play: a short adventure in Brancalonia

Note: this is the translation of a post that I wrote on La Locanda dei GDR some time ago.

After an interesting discussion on a Telegram channel about Brancalonia[1], where people questioned whether the game engine (D&D 5e) was suitable for the setting, I decided to experiment. I had bought the Brancalonia manual some time ago, taking advantage of a discount, and the basic rules of D&D 5e are now open source.

The play took place on Discord in three sessions, with three players.

  • One was first Scrat, “mattatore,” woodland hunter, then Guerrino, “spadaccino,” hardcore mercenary.
  • Another was Alboin, “benandante,” practitioner of pagan magic.
  • A third (almost newbie player) was Pandolfo, “cavaliere errante,” a loose-tongued former lawyer later converted to paladin.

There was a brief pre-game discussion on Telegram,

mainly to
  • highlight the key elements of the setting and the small rule variations it introduces (all I did was post the pieces of the manual that I thought were essential),
  • agree on some technical things; in particular, we chose to:
    • play with 3rd level characters,
    • use only Brancalonia-specific subclasses and backgrounds, and
    • ignore the inspiration mechanic (which I dislike very much; it was the only change with respect to the rules-as-written).

This was the adventure hook:

When cheese fell from the sky

Your group has fallen out of favor within the gang it belongs to: you urgently need a good heist, something to redeem you in the eyes of the ringleaders.

Your wandering has brought you to a change station in Torrigiana[2], where you have learned the news of the week: apparently, a gigantic wheel of cheese fell from the sky, bounced off the walls of the nearby Badìa di San Monco[3], and then rolled down to an old stone quarry.

Various people rushed over, interested in that prodigy. Rich people begin to offer large sums for the privilege of tasting the heavenly dairy product.

Things are not so easy: the quarry is on the lands of the capricious Duke Bramanti, who doesn’t let anyone through, not even the friars nor the “birri”[4].

It is suspected that the gang of Ghino il Secco, wanted for a sensational robbery, has taken refuge in the quarry, and that the Duke’s real purpose is to secure their bounty and/or loot.

That’s not all: there are rumors that the quarry is home to a sleeping monster, and that the chaos will surely wake him up.

There is little time to act before the situation becomes explosive!

It was my first time GMing Brancalonia, and I think for all the players it was their first time playing it.

In the Italian version of the post I included my entire preparation as a Google Doc, but it’s in Italian. Feel free to check it out, anyways: it’s quite schematic and it includes pictures.

The scenario was a so-called “sandbox,” i.e., a completely open scenario with no specific goal for the PCs except the generic “make as much money as you can before it’s too late.”

In fact, it was the first time I had ever brought such an open scenario into a short play[5]: normally, when playtime is limited, I tend to prefer plays with “strong premises.” But I wanted to take a chance, because I had many ideas I liked and in this way I put them all in, leaving it then up to the players which ones would be explored.

To make the scenario dynamic, I included an “event roll” as time passed: basically a “wandering monster roll,” except that the results, rather than making monsters appear, made one of the many factions on the field undertake some actions[6].

Overall, the play was very good and entertaining.

Resume of what happened:

Scrat, Alboino and Pandolfo immediately decided to set out in search of the cheese, after talking to the innkeeper Giovanna who promised to buy it at a good price. At the checkpoint they managed, cunningly, to join the Duke, about to leave on his punitive expedition against Gino’s gang. Scrat had (by player decision) a backstory of mutual hatred with the Duke, but he managed to avoid being identified.

Meanwhile, events in the background moved in such a way that Gino’s men had mutinied, and were about to escape with the loot.

The two groups (the fugitives and the Duke’s army) met outside the quarry, and a confrontation ensued. Pandolfo participated, trying to take a bandit alive and succeeding, while Scrat and Alboino took the opportunity to try to kill the Duke, but to no avail; in fact, they narrowly missed being killed by his bodyguards. Pandolfo’s return saved them.

The Duke escaped on horseback. He took refuge in a shack in the quarry, but the PCs were able to follow his trail. Scrat wanted to burn him alive with the shack, but Alboino and Pandolfo convinced him to take him hostage instead.

Exploring the quarry, they also found and captured Ghino.

Using the Duke as a hostage, they forced his soldiers, who had emerged victorious from the clash with the bandits, to drop their weapons and hand over the spoils of the robbery, just confiscated.

They then fabricated a sled to be tied to a horse, to transport the cheese. This took time, however, and the sudden awakening of the quarry monster put both PCs and soldiers on the run.

The PCs returned to the checkpoint, taking with them the cheese and the prisoners (the Duke, Ghino, the other brigand captured by Pandolfo, who I decided to call Mino). They tried to gain passage by threatening to kill the Duke. But Knight Tullio, chief guard of the checkpoint, was actually itching to get rid of his lord, so he ordered the attack. Scrat killed the Duke and was in turn killed by Tullio. Ghino and Mino slipped away into the woods. Alboino and Pandolfo escaped, but had to leave the cheese there.

Back at the trading post, Alboino and Pandolfo formed an alliance with Guerrino (new PC) and talked to Dr. Romina, who was interested in studying the cheese. They devised a cunning plan to recover it: they would exploit the doctor as a diversion, backed by Guerrino whom the soldiers had never seen, while Alboino and Pandolfo would sneak in from the bush.

Romina turned out to be cooperative but very naive, which created some hilarious situations. Guerrino was good at distracting Tullio. But meanwhile, in the bush, Alboino and Pandolfo ran into the notorious bounty hunter Beccogrigio, with his henchmen. He was on Ghino’s trail, not theirs. They agreed to put him on the right track, and so they got away with it.

Despite a couple of good ideas, and other funny scenes, the second part of the plan didn’t go well: they got caught, and a new battle broke out. Pandolfo fell heroically, Alboino got away, Guerrino fought valiantly but surrendered when he found himself surrounded.

Alboino was the only survivor, with a fair amount of money (his share of the loot from the robbery). The cheese remained there, and its origin remained unexplained.

After each session we had a talk to exchange impressions. Overall, we were satisfied.

Among the main positive comments:

  • It was very much felt, and appreciated, the atmosphere that everyone expected from Brancalonia, with somewhat “outcast” characters, good-natured “rogues” in a bizarre world larger than them.
  • The frequent use of tricks and cleverness to resolve situations was amusing.
  • Players became attached to their characters.

A small criticism, which I thought was very apt, concerns those parts of the D&D 5e game engine that were not “touched” by the Brancalonia “reflavour”, particularly spells and magic powers. We all agreed that it would have been nice (and would have required little effort) to “reskin” them all to make more bizarre and more consistent with the setting. The players tried to do so a couple of times: Alboino used fleas and lice he had on him as components of his spells, and when he used Wild Shape he charged enemies in cow form!

There was no opportunity to try the special brawling mechanics introduced in Brancalonia. Also, of course, many other special mechanics that are clearly intended for a long campaign were not used (the lair management, the gradual increase of bounties on characters, the downtime events…).

Personally, I am satisfied. The preparation was easy and took me a fairly short time. In fact, I do not feel that I have appreciably altered my preparation technique from my usual with games similar to this one.

Translated with some help by DeepL Translate: The world's most accurate translator (free version)

  1. Brancalonia is a third-party setting for D&D 5e which introduces a few races, subclasses, items and background “thematized” for “spaghetti fantasy”. ↩︎

  2. The setting’s version of Tuscany. This term comes from the book, while all the other geographical and political details are my invention. ↩︎

  3. A monastery. ↩︎

  4. Guards are called “birri” in Brancalonia. ↩︎

  5. Except, perhaps, another one set in the Antioch siege. I have posts on La Locanda dei GDR on that too… I might consider to translate them, one day. ↩︎

  6. The table is included at the end of the Google Doc. ↩︎

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This is both very much in depth and quite entertaining! Thanks for this writeup, Lorenzo!

I wonder where you got the idea of cheese falling from the sky? What inspired this scenario?

I also have some other questions:

  1. Why do you dislike the Inspiration mechanic?

  2. Which random events got played, and how important were they to the resolution of the scenario?

  3. How much difficulty did you have introducing a new character?

  4. Was the D&D ruleset well-suited to the scenario and its action? Did it give you what you wanted here? (Your writeup has a lot of drama and shenanigans but fairly little that’s clearly “D&D”, so I’m curious!)

For instance, did people ever have to choose between loot and a fight (or whatever else grants XP in this version/scenario) and, if so, what did they choose?

I have many fond memories of twisted and messy scenarios like these from my old gaming days; this brings me back! Nice.

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Thank you Paul for this comment and your kind words!

I don’t remember how I came up with the idea… I think I just wanted something to happen suddenly to shake the balance of a quiet area (thus, “falling from the sky”), and I wanted it to be bizarre enough to give the feeling of the setting (thus, “cheese”).

Basically, I don’t feel comfortable with “judging” players’ roleplaying behavior on a purely subjective basis.

In my experience Inspiration tends, in many groups, to make the game goal drift towards “get GM’s appreciation”, and I don’t want that.

Also, I’ve seen that I tend to forget to award Inspiration during game: I’m too concentrated on other things.

The following things were triggered by the random event mechanic:

  • The gang of Ghino betraying him and trying to flee with the money. This happened very soon and was a strong change of the situation. Otherwise, the gang would have been barricaded together in the quarry, in a easy-to-defend position.
  • The monster of the quarry awakening and coming out.
  • The bounty hunter entering the woods, near the end, in search of Ghino (while the fact that he encountered the PCs was my decision afterwards).

Another event that triggered was that a woman knight, initially present at the trading post, went on a quest to fight the quarry monster. The PCs crossed her path but didn’t engage in any relevant way, so she went on her way (probably to her death) with no consequences; I didn’t even include her in the resume.

It was very easy. It happened when the second session started. All players were well aware that the new character was expected to join the group, and the “how” was nearly a formality. So, we all collaborated in defining a good justification, and we went on.

I very much think so. Even more than I expected. Skills and backgrounds were a robust and flexible framework to adjudicate actions. Spells and equipment worked well as problem-solving tools. In fact, I was surprised that 3 PCs out of 4 fell: D&D 5e is usually considered too “merciful” towards players in this sense, but this time it wasn’t the case (maybe I was just lucky).

Being a self-contained two-shot, XP weren’t present at all (they would’ve bee useless: no level up would’ve happened anyways). Actually this is an interesting point: I think it’s applicable to all short plays of this kind. Maybe it did contribute to improve the game!
(When I GM long adventures or campaigns, anyways, I make very clear that XP will be awarded for each challenge overcome by the PCs, however they do it; so, not necessarily by fighting.)

Now I’m curious to know what would be “clearly D&D” from your perspective :slight_smile:

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