Saturday, May 23, 2020

Simpler Domains & Warbands. Part 4, Really Simple MASS COMBAT (Into the Odd version)

Once, there was Chainmail. Later, there was War Machine, and then Battlesystem. An Echo, Resounding has a battle system. For something lighter, there's Chris Kutalik's By this Axe or the even smaller-scale By this Poleaxe. Delta's Book of War. Etc., etc., etc. These (and quite a few other approaches) generally adopt some or all of the structure...and pace...of classic tabletop wargames. And then, of course, there are the myriad options for playing an 'actual' formal miniatures wargame, without any clear tie to an RPG.

Roight, me lads, form, wot's that?
We've no convenient mass combat rules? Aaarg, retreat!!!

None of those perfectly fit my current goals and needs as I think about weaving "mini-domain play" into my campaign. If my players are to lead little warbands of followers, clash with corsair crews or cultist gangs, and scatter enemies not just singly but by the dozen, then I'd like a way to manage it all that fits the following criteria:

+ ideally, the mass-combat rules will fit into a session's normal procedures of play as smoothly as possibly. The gold standard here would be integrated mass combat rules that do NOT form a separate sub-system. Yep, this can be done; read on!

+ similarly (or to stress a sub-point within point 1), if possible, tracking damage for gangs/warbands should use the same hp/harm system used to track damage for PCs - though I'm more willing to flex on this point, if necessary.

+ the rules should keep PCs' roles and fates clear and distinct; player characters don't just vanish into a mass of combatants, and PCs ideally should retain independent and critical jobs on the field of battle - they don't function just as bonuses to a larger unit's statline.

+ finally, in keeping with my love for minimalist design, I favor rules that aren't too taxing or complicated - they should work, and get outta the way!

Let's look at some options that I find interesting or appealing, and consider some observations on their strengths and weaknesses. I will also note, in passing, that recent blogoredditsphere conversations have also raised simple-mass-combat questions; for some other takes (and different recommendations) see, for example, here and here (look far down Norbert's post for mass combat guidance) and here [EDIT: and here, too!]. 

Now, for the stuff that I'm thinking about.


Just as Chris M's Into the Odd (and now, Electric Bastionland) includes really nice, dirt-simple "Enterprise" rules that offer a very solid basis for one-brain-cell domain play (recently discussed here), Into the Odd (henceforth: ItO) also includes perfectly serviceable, simple but effective "Detachment" rules for handling combat with gangs, large crews, military units, giant monsters, etc.  If you aren't familiar with ItO, a few tips will be necessary to understand all this: damage automatically hits; instead of rolling to hit, then rolling for damage, you just roll straight to damage. Damage comes off HP without narratively doing 'damage' - but after 0 HP, you start taking "Critical Damage," which comes right off your Strength stat (usually), equates to actual bodily harm, and requires passing a STR save to stay in the fight). You die at 0 STR. 

To wit (taken from the free rules, available in the right margins here): 

DETACHMENTS cost 10 gold to start up, and cost a further d6 gold in upkeep each month, or else they revolt. ... Equipping a Detachment costs twenty times the individual item cost. Detachments start with 1d6 HP and advance in Experience Levels just as individuals do [which, in ItO, generally requires delving missions completed, not a gold-for-xp target]. 

In battle, an ItO Detachment is functionally identical to an individual character, with a few minor tweaks (this means a gang's stats fit on an index card, if not a postage stamp). 

A Detachment deals "Enhanced" damage against individuals (In ItO, this means it rolls 1d12 damage). Normally, an individual can't even attack a Detachment unless that individual's attack is "explosive or suitably large-scale" (so a dragon's breath weapon or a wizard's lightning bolts might toast your own gang of hirelings, but a PC with a halberd can't scratch a goblin warband; you either need to run away, or figure out some more creative way to affect the baddies). If you command a Detachment to do something risky, this "may require a WIL (Will) Save" by the player commanding that Detachment. 

"When a Detachment takes Critical Damage [i.e., 0 HP and damage coming off STR] they are broken and cannot act until rallied. At STR 0 the Detachment is wiped out. When half of a force is broken, the remaining Detachments must pass a WIL save or be routed. Hit Points and Ability Scores are recovered with Short and Long Rests just as with individuals. 

The newer version, Electric Bastionland, offers a few tweaks: Individual attacks against Detachments can cause damage, but they're Impaired (limited to 1d4); Detachment attacks vs. individuals do weapon +1d12, and have a 'Blast' tag - they affect all targets in an area. 

There are also a few other very short rules for ships, vehicles, structures, etc. Quite recently, one GM put together a very nice expanded model for using these rules in a pirate/nautical setting, quite worth checking out for play at sea or on land. 

Alright, let's discuss these. There are wonderful things here, but also a few points I'd like to change or expand. I love how smoothly these fit right into the (admittedly super-minimalist) rules for normal play in ItO; I like how the dirt-simple rules for financing Detachments work with the Enterprise rules (but don't require you to have an Enterprise to run a Detachment, or vice versa); and the fact that a Detachment can 'level up' in the same way as a PC (by running on adventures) is a very interesting design choice that pushes toward specific kinds of veteran units - rather than just throwing in more cash to make a specific, single unit stronger, you can always hire a new separate detachment, but individual detachments gain experience and Hit Points only by joining you, over time, on those terrifying ventures into the darkness below.

All that aside, as a general-purpose mass-combat/mini-domain-play system, I'd like to see a few changes. Past a certain point, Detachments seem a little limited by the binary way they are defined (something is either an Individual or a Detachment). No matter the size or experience of the Detachment, it still rolls the same amount of Damage. When two Detachments fight each other, only their Hit Points (and equipment, I suppose) differentiate between them. Equipping a Detachment with halberds always costs "Halberd cost x 20" no matter the size of the Detachment. Again, these are brilliantly simple  and will cover most of what anyone needs for a small gang, but I think there are enough edge cases to make some tweaks desirable.


Several Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems that I have yet to discuss handle these issues in a nicely nuanced way; if I were running an ItO game right now, I think I'd borrow some of their ideas, and adjust Detachments like this: 

There are four classes of combatant, ranked by size: 

Small Detachments
Medium Detachments
Large Detachments

Detachments can also be differentiated by their experience, which is reflected in their Hit Points, which only increase as they 'Level Up' (just as individuals do). Hiring/forming a detachment costs 1d6 for Small, 2d8 for Medium, and 3d10 for Large. 

In combat, individuals roll normally against other individuals. They roll Impaired damage against Detachments unless their attack has a Blast tag or other suitably extensive damage effect. Detachments roll Enhanced (1d12) damage against Individuals, and regular damage (by weapon type) against other detachments. 

When combatants of the same size-class fight, they roll damage as usual. When combatants of different size-classes fight, the larger combatant gains +1 Armor (damage reduction) and +1 bonus attack die for each step higher above their opponent's size. The attacker's hit dice are rolled together, including any bonus dice, but only the highest rolled result is used.


Small Detachment of musketeers is exchanging fire with a Large Detachment of musketeers. Both Detachments are fairly green, and have 5 HP and 1 Armor. The Small Detachment rolls 1d8 damage, getting a 5, which is reduced by -3 (-2 because the other unit is two steps above them in size, so they gain 2 bonus armor atop their worn 1 Armor). Then the larger unit opens fire. They roll 3d8 (1d8 for their weapon attack, plus two bonus attack dice since they are two steps higher in size), getting a 1, 5, 8. Taking the highest result rolled, they inflict 8 damage, reduced only by the -1 Armor worn by the smaller gang. The smaller unit drops to 0 HP, -2 STR, and they rout (this is a pretty plausible outcome...).  
A more fortunate Small Detachment of spear-wielding goblins  (3 HP, 0 Armor) gang up on a lone but large sword-wielding barbarian (6 HP, 1 Armor). Not-Conan rushes the goblin gang, swinging his blade in great chopping arcs, but there are just so many of the vile things...he rolls an Impaired attack against the Detachment (1d4), inflicting 3 damage. The goblin gang is 1 step larger, however, so they gain 1 free Armor; they are left with 1 HP despite the barbarian's assault. Now they roll to attack, dealing Enhanced (1d12) damage to an individual, and rolling it twice because their +1 size step grants them an extra attack die. Results rolled are = 4, 8. They deal 8 damage, reduced by the Barbarian's 1 Armor, and now the barbarian is out of HP and taking Critical Damage...time to run away, perhaps...

...In which our hero helpfully shows how these rules
let individuals interact with Small Detachments. 

As these examples show, a few tweaks borrowed from Apocalypse World and its spin-offs can add a fair bit of depth and nuance to the simple procedures in Into the Odd, without breaking anything in ItO's more "OSR adjacent" system. 


Games using some version of D&D's normal combat rules (instead of the rules as modified specifically for Into the Odd) would need some tweaks to make these ideas work. There are too many possible variations to address comprehensively here, but I can offer a few suggestions:

+ ItO uses Armor as Damage Reduction. If your system doesn't do that, that's probably one key obstacle (though I suppose you could still use these rules with gang-size damage reduction on top of whatever else you're doing with AC). 

+ ItO dispenses with to-hit rolls. Between ItO, my own OD&D homebrew, and Dungeon World, I've gotten accustomed to playing with rules that speed up combat, so I suppose I can only shake my head sadly if you're really, really committed to rolling 3 on 1d20 all the time and prolonging combat. ;-) With the normal to-hit roll procedure, damage between detachments will be less common and less decisive, but that's just normal for to-hit-roll combat anyway. 

+ ItO hands out low Hit Points to PCs, and sticks with fairly low damage levels, compared to many other rulesets. A 20-HP PC is a very experienced, resilient character in ItO. 1d12 is a substantial damage roll. If your system typically involves higher HP or damage totals, I'd suggest increasing the Armor bonus from +1 per size-step to something a little higher, reflecting whatever is the typical range of damage rolled by a basic attack.

+ Along the same track, damage between size-levels needs to be adjusted if you don't want to use ItO's Impaired (1d4)/Enhanced (1d12) damage system. Without letting Detachments roll 1d12 vs individuals, you can also rewrite the hack above so that each size-step up gives the larger attacker +3 damage, or +1d6 extra damage, or something like that (this fits with some of the PbtA/Dungeon World mass combat ideas I still need to write about). 


"Ok, folks, your scouts' warning was clearly correct; they know you're coming. As you crest the last ridge above Hearthfire Village at the head of your army, you look across the sun-dappled settlement to see that Baron Argov's troops are already drawn up in their battle lines on the low hill opposite from you. You see their banners flapping in the breeze: it looks like Argov's got a Medium Detachment of pikemen holding his right flank, and a Large Detachment of bannerless (and no doubt miserable) peasant levies spread out across his left flank. In the center, you see the red banner of the Venomspike, and you know that the Small Detachment of armored orcs standing there has strength and skill that belies that unit's small size. And if your eyes aren't failing you, that tall figure in black armor at their side is Argov himself, with the foul necromancer in her dark robes behind him...

Now, how do you want to deploy your five detachments as you enter the valley?

I think these simple rules would work really well to game out a mass combat between small armies, in a way that still lets individual characters interact meaningfully with each other and with large units. 

Since my current campaign is using modified Dungeon World rules, however, there are a few other angles that I want to incorporate at my own table. Please stay tuned; next up, I hope to talk about some PbtA warband-combat and simple domain rules in their own right, as they add some further helpful ideas for enriching this kind of play. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Simpler Domains & Warbands. Part 3: Enterprise Rules from INTO THE ODD

Ok, preambles aside (here and here), let's dive directly into systems that could satisfy my desire for elegant, straightforward "mini-domain play" that let PCs run gangs, warbands, properties, or businesses - while keeping adventure front-and-center and without burning too many brain cells on administration.

Let's begin with the...

Enterprise Rules from INTO THE ODD

Into the Odd is a delightful, simple adventure game that can be hacked in all sorts of crazy directions, or played as-is with great enjoyment. Author Chris McDowall recently released Electric Bastionland, which is something between a 2nd edition and a sister-game to Into the Odd. I highly recommend his game designs. His really outstanding blog, Bastionland, includes links to free versions of Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland, or you can follow links from Bastionland to buy the full versions as well. [EDIT: on yesterday's initial post, I mis-spelled Chris' last name as MacDowall. Sorry!]

Because this stuff is right up there in the free version - and because it only takes half a page, which is a real credit to its elegance - I'm just going to walk right through Chris' "Enterprise" rules, which could cover anything from managing profitable land to running a business (whether a tavern or a smuggling ring). The rules are dirt-simple, like mud-under-your-fingernails dirt simple, but honestly...before dismissing these, ask yourself whether this wouldn't suffice for 90% of what a mini-domain game would need...

Let's look at those Enterprise rules (I won't touch the Detachment combat rules here, focusing just on the social-economic part of the domain game for now).

Into the Odd states that...
"Between expeditions, you can try your hand at business, or muster a military force. DETACHMENTS and ENTERPRISES each cost 10 Gold to establish. Detachments demand a further d6 Gold in upkeep each month, or else they revolt."

"Income: New ENTERPRISES generate 1d4 Gold of Income each month. They also face a Threat that will cause 1d4 Gold in Losses unless dealt with. If an Enterprise cannot pay its debts, it collapses. Growth: If an ENTERPRISE ends a month with Profit, its income moves up to the next type of die, to a maximum of d12. However, this larger die also applies to losses from Threats.

"Improvements: Equipping a Detachment costs twenty times the individual item cost. Detachments start with 1d6 HP and advance in Experience Levels just as individuals do." 
Chris just threw down a complete, if very basic, system for founding, running, profiting from, and maybe losing a diverse range of undertakings - his samples include "Underground Distillery," "Smuggling Ring," "Reptile Cult," and "Hidden Vineyard."

Some observations:

SOCIO-ECONOMIC CONTEXT: if the BECMI Companion rules for dominions assume a late medieval faux-European feudal context, Into the Odd's simple rules most directly evoke the latter game's implied setting: a whimsical but gritty early-modern/modern urban milieu, in which an essentially capitalist cash economy dominates society. Thus, for example, the mechanical benefit for successfully running an Enterprise = more cash (though nothing prevents players and GMs from making sure that 'Reptile Cult' has other benefits/drawbacks as well). Similarly, cash is the only thing needed to recruit and keep the services of a band of fighters - as opposed to, say, mustering men available from a given estate of land, or calling on troops bound by specific oaths of loyalty. There's nothing wrong with this, but this assumption should be noted; in a more typically ancient or medieval game setting, I'd suggest tweaking the relationships between precious metal, land, enterprise, and organized violence. As written, therefore, this stands out to me as an amazingly efficient and elegant system, but it would call for a bit more development in something like the faux-Iron Age setting I'm running for players now.

RELATIVE SCALE OF ENTERPRISES: mixing these rules with the abstract wealth mechanics I discussed here could make these even more effective. Currently, ItO's rules describe a total of five stages of Enterprise, those using d4, d6, d8, d10, and d12 to track their 'business' opportunities and risks. That is already a decent range, but one could add legs by making the puniest Enterprises cost 10 Copper to establish, and letting them 'grow' slowly up to the 1d12 Copper level - after which point they might graduate to the 1d4 Silver level, and so on. This would help accentuate the idea that regular access to the different precious metals involves not just different amounts of coinage, but different realms of social power.

As written, Into the Odd doesn't have a very long arc for character advancement (it goes up to Level 5, if I recall correctly). If one split the Enterprise categories into Copper, Silver, and Gold Enterprises, I'd suggest two options: either adjust the advancement array accordingly if you want the campaign to focus on the long 'domain' arc, or ... perhaps better yet...don't change it, but let each new 'generation' of PC keep running the business/enterprise handed down by their mentors. ItO already requires rearing up apprentices by the time you level up as a full veteran; handing the new guy your Enterprise, and then watching the new guy build that enterprise up into something even more grand, before trying yet again, could actually be a very satisfying way to run a deep, rich campaign using a very simple ruleset.

GIMME ADVENTURE! I noted in my criteria for my ideal mini-domain rules that I want them to function as a drive toward ongoing adventure, more than a pull away into the world of technical accounting. ItO's Enterprise rules do this by requiring each Enterprise, each month, to roll for profits against losses coming from some un-named Threat. During lucky months, a player might roll higher profits than losses and just decide to take the gain without any fuss. At other times, a player will have to tangle with those threats. This gives the GM a regular green-light to force the players into who-knows-what kind of trouble, ideally suited to the nature of each Enterprise, if they want to keep the whole thing afloat. Just imagine; what kind of Threats might impose losses for that Reptile Cult? And what kind of adventure hooks would automatically jump out from your answer? This is a very neat way to balance the needs of an adventure roleplaying game with a profitable domain system, without much overhead at all.


Well, I'm not sure I can settle exactly on ItO's rules as written, particularly since I want to rethink the core assumptions for a non-monetized, non-capitalist setting, but I think this shows just how short a ruleset can be while still satisfying most of the things I'm looking for - or, at least, offering a base for moving in that direction. One can imagine using the same core mechanic for non-monetary resources (like Honor or Influence or who knows what).

What do you all think, gang?

Happy gaming!

Simpler Domains & Warbands. Part 2: Ruleset Options and the 'Usual Suspects'

My last post invoked a desire for 'mini-domain' play, accessible even at middling levels, that would allow for fun management of modest warbands, property, and political shenanigans, going beyond mere hireling rules without slowing down the game with too much funky bean-counting.

This post first outlines further my theoretical goals - what kind of system I think I want to find - and then surveys some of the 'usual suspects' that people often use for domain play...and why I'm not choosing them. I'm sorry that the content-per-post pace is a bit slower than I anticipated; to break this series up into more manageable units, I'm trying to release shorter posts with discrete topics rather than cramming everything into one mega-read. Look for separate posts soon comparing and exploring in more detail the quite manageable "mini-domain" and also "mass combat" rules presented by Into the Odd, Dungeon World, Land of Ice and Blades, or even Apocalypse World, all of which I think could satisfy what I'm looking for in their own way - or at least support that most respectable of Frankensteins, the home-brewed, house-ruled heart-breaker hot mess.


Actually, don't just take my word for it. Way back in the halcyon days of 2009, Grognardia ran this piece on the importance of D&D's domain-based 'end game' - emphasizing not Companion- but Expert-level play. Just a few comments in on that blog post, Jeff Rients pitched in, lamenting modern inattentiveness to hirelings and henchmen, with these interesting words:
I think between the hardscabble start and the barony is an intermediary phase where you manage the members of your gang.
That - right there - sums up what I think I'm looking for, at least for now. From Conan temporarily leading a pirate crew to Robin Hood with his merry men, I want a good way for my level-5s to exercise some authority, push some small units around, and maybe reap the fruits of some modest properties. And, of course, I wouldn't be upset if this might lead to a glorious game of thrones later, all modeled loosely enough to avoid major administrative headaches for GMs or players...

So: I want a fun, preferably elegant way to administer play in which PCs:
+ control a small-medium gang (ahem...warband) and/or a non-militant association of followers of comparable size/complexity/expense...
+ ...and therefore must factor in the relationships and plans of comparable, peer-level NPCs in the region. 

My ideal mini-domain rules, therefore, should include:
+ gang/warband rules - and, so, mass combat rules
+ 'company' or 'establishment' rules, ideally, for players running a property, mini-domain, or business;
+ faction network/relationship rules

Finally, my design and play preferences would favor rules that encourage:
+ adventurous narrative developments and complications... 
+ over mundane accounting
when in doubt, or when those two conflict.

Mini-domain play should be:
an asset for further adventure in a character's life above all else,
+ rather than an effective simulation of management above all else.

I also prefer rules that keep player choices and character in-game actions connected to logical fictional consequences, which means I'm not leaning fully into some flavors of 'narrative story-gaming' here.

These preferences are very pronounced for me, and will shape my entire discussion of options below and in subsequent discussion. Others may not share those preferences, which is perfectly respectable; but be aware that one's preferences will shape the personal suitability of different rulesets. As I'm not the kind of GM who wants to worry too much about each hex's historical population densities vs. tax rates, or the specific agricultural fertility of different soil-types, you won't find me digging too deep into the rulesets that allow for such things. :-)


There are some robust options I do NOT hope to use; let me introduce them, and explain why they aren't on my short list. (In no case will that mean these aren't good; they just don't fit the particular vision I expressed above. If you'd like to check any of them out, please be aware that the URL links below to products on DriveThruRPG are affiliate links, which support this site's activities but don't add cost to you as a customer).

But first: there is apparently a solid universal law of Physics that "any given blog-author 'X' will not discover an online discussion about topic 'Y' until after 'X' has written several paragraphs about 'Y.'" And so it was that only this morning (after writing for a while last night) I came across an interesting 13-part series (!) By Brandes Stoddard on Tribality, in which Stoddard surveyed the range of domain and dominion rulesets -- from Mentzer's Expert rules all the way to 3.5, Pathfinder, Harnmaster, 13th Age, and various other offerings both old and new. The link there to the Expert discussion offers part 1 of 13, and Part 13 (with links to previous entries) is here. Where relevant below, I'll simply point you to Stoddard's detailed survey of these options and try to avoid reinventing the wheel completely. At any rate, my own point will be to focus on some options NOT on that list (and perhaps not on many lists).

Let's begin at the beginning, noting that the B/X and BECMI sets already include Stronghold rules at the Expert level, and Dominion, War, and Siege rules (in BECMI) at the Companion and Master level. I've got proxy access to the Expert Stronghold stuff via the retroclones. Although I don't have a copy of the BECMI-based Rules Cyclopedia or the Companion volume, I do have the Companion module Test of the Warlords. Between those items and, well, now with Stoddard's detailed descriptions here and here, I feel pretty confident noting that this isn't exactly what I'm looking for, though it might do the trick for many others. I'd like to avoid even the level of accounting these systems call for, if feasible, and I'd prefer a more open-ended system that doesn't depend as much on the assumptions of the frontier hexcrawl or the structures of a fictional high-late medieval European feudalism (nothing wrong with that setting, of course, I just don't to be limited to it).

Moving onward. Nowadays, most even vaguely OSR-adjacent conversations about domain play usually end up mentioning either Autarch's ACKS (Adventurer, Conqueror, King System) and its multiple Domains at War supplements (Campaigns, Battles, Troops & Terrain) or, for something quite different, Kevin Crawford/Sine Nomine's AER (An Echo, Resounding). This forum discussion includes a lengthy discussion of the two systems in comparison with each other, made more useful by the fact that both system's authors (if I remember correctly) pitch in to talk about their differing design choices. Stoddard discusses them here and here.

As that forum discussion makes clear, An Echo, Resounding is the more abstract, somewhat more free-form option when comparing those two approaches to domain management. It sounded like my cup of tea, so I bought it a while ago. My impression? is a very high-quality, well-done system. It's also not what I'm looking for. Despite its relatively more abstract system, it remains hyper-detailed enough that actually running it just looked like a lot more work than I'd bargained for. I know of a GM who is currently running a kind of bifurcated campaign; RPG players do classic tabletop adventures and then, in-between sessions, a completely different stable of players use An Echo, Resounding to manage the political, economic, and military rivalries going on around the main party. That's a very neat concept, but it illustrates the depth and complexity supported - or maybe required - by AER. So, sadly, AER does not meet my desired criteria for "simpler mini-domain play." (If you do want a fairly involved domain system, I would highly recommend it).

I'm much less familiar with Birthright, which was an AD&D 2nd edition system-and-campaign-setting in days of yore that allowed players to begin Domain play right from the start of a campaign - by playing as noble leaders born into authority. My sense from reading others' thoughts is that this was a very imaginative, neat resource, but it fizzled, possibly for market factors outside the game itself. I will simply point you either to Stoddard's very positive overview, or to this 21-year-old review - and pick out two statements from the latter. On the one hand, "perhaps the core of the entire setting is the Domains themselves." Ok, sounds cool! But..."The Birthright boxed set contains ... a 96-page rulebook detailing the modifications made to the AD&D system when playing the Birthright campaign..." URRRRRK!!!! PULL THE PARKING BRAKE!!! SCREECH!!! Nope, sorry, not looking for any approach that involves a 96-page rulebook separate from the discussion of the domains themselves. Moving on - quite wistfully, as I do hear amazing things about running this...

Finally, there are also some other options, probably less well-known, that I want to mention in passing even though they aren't where I'm landing either.

For anyone interested in the popular but very specific niche of managing an urban criminal gang fighting for wealth, recruitment, jobs, and turf, you might check out Gathox Vertical Slum. It's a near-gonzo weird (science-) fantasy urban setting built on the back of a giant dimension-hoppin monster. No, really. But it also includes an approximately 10-page (IIRC) subsystem for managing urban criminal gangs whose various heists and investigations can support power-plays for turf in the city. Tables open to PbtA and its Forged in the Dark derivatives might instead consider the fantasy heist RPG Blades in the Dark, which has its own urban gang rules, too, or its descendant Band of Blades, about ensemble casts of PC soldiers fighting to get their military company to safety. There is an online SRD now for Blades in the Dark games; if interested, check it out before plunking down $$ to make sure the expensive but very well-reputed BitD is for you.

Legacy: Life among the Ruins is a PbtA game that includes quite different domain play; run a family or other faction across multiple generations, while periodically zooming in to focus on specific characters' exploits. The family/faction rules include a number of 'domain play' options. My players weren't looking for this kind of game, so I'm not using it, but it's worth knowing about (there are a couple of free quick-start options for this game, so check those out before jumping in for $$$).

Ok. So much for what I'm NOT using.

Please stay tuned, and happy gaming!

Friday, May 8, 2020

Simple(r) Domains, Warbands, Associations, and Gangs. Part 1: Rationale

My recent post on streamlined wealth/currency mechanics promised a follow-up on streamlined rules for domain play. Voici! Ok, it's time to start talking here about some simple(r) ways to handle domain play or gangs (ahem...loyal warbands or armies) of followers. 

From where I stand - at least at this moment - I'm inclined to favor thinking small in terms of domain play. I get the impression from a lot of GMs that the promise of very high-level domain play isn't always matched by the rewards of slogging through a detailed domain campaign. (To be fair, most campaigns don't make it that far anyway). This is not to say that this can't be great fun (I mean, just how many hours did I burn decades ago playing Civ 2, after all?), but there is a valid point that most of us play D&D because we like zooming in to the exploits of doughty individuals climbing rooftops and crawling dungeons - not tax-collectors reviewing the quarterly tithe rolls. Personally, playing a detailed boardgame about kingdom management sounds kind of fun, but as others online have mentioned elsewhere, that experience would not scratch the same itch as the desire to play a game of ol' fashioned D&D. No doubt many of us would like to be Aragorn, massing troops to march on the Black Gate while half the party goes commando (nope, phrased that one wrong) inside Mordor - but is a giant meta-game of domain management necessary to make that happen in an RPG? 

As Chris Kutalik argued years ago, however, mid-level domain play (maybe 'mini-domain play') using quite small spheres of influence might actually be just as or even more rewarding for many players. I'll focus on building with this idea. For one thing, 'mini-domain play' would be much more accessible for most of us. Moreover, if there are some good ways to streamline domain play in general at the mid-level, the same principles could be useful even at high levels, too. 

My players are close to the end of one low-ish level campaign arc (B10, Night's Dark Terror), and next up, I think, will be a great big jolly Isle of Dread crawl -- but repackaged in a faction-rich sandbox so that all the face-munching dinosaurs and jungle volcanoes are matched by feuding pirate admirals, envoys of scheming empires, agents of terrible subterranean powers, and probably a few thrones 'back home' hanging in the balance. Against that setting, I think it would be fun to give my players command of a few gangs of hoodlums trusty followers and see whether they build themselves up into a regional force to be reckoned with. But if my players stand a chance of taking out - or joining with or even replacing - great corsair lords of the Sea of Dread, I sure need some handy way to manage basic 'domain' play activity - even if the characters are a long, long way away from "Companion" level. Hmmm. Effective streamlined 'mini-domain' rules, however, should be perfectly workable at mid-level (or even lower). 

And - historically speaking - for some settings, this kind of 'mini-domain play' actually will represent something pretty close to the pinnacle of power. The laws of King Ine of Wessex, 7th-8th-c. Anglo-Saxon ruler, defined bodies of armed attackers thusly: up to seven men counted as thieves, seven to thirty-five attackers formed a warband of marauders, and foes more numerous than thirty-five were labelled an "army" (here)! This is a far, far, far cry from the range of militant powers available a few centuries earlier or more centuries later, but for any comparable setting it shows that you don't actually need a host of thousands to be playing "the domain game." To quote Ben Levick on the scale of early Anglo-Saxon warfare:
"A seventh or eighth century king most often came to his throne through violence or through the threat of violence, and kept his crown by warding off domestic and foreign rivals. Peace was simply the aftermath of one war and the prelude to another. In violent times such as these, it was necessary that a king secure (in the words of the Beowulf poet) "beloved companions to stand by him, people to serve him when war comes." ... The size of these armies was quite small ... Although the exact size of armies of this time remain unknown, even the most powerful kings could probably not call upon warriors numbering more than the low hundreds. Certainly in the late eighth century the æþeling (prince) Cyneherd considered his army of eighty-four men sufficiently large to attempt to seize the throne of Wessex. Time and again we are told in the sources that a new king had to defend his kingdom with tiny armies. Later in their reigns, these same kings having survived these attacks made "while their kingdoms were still weak," are found leading great armies. After all, victory meant tribute and land, and these in turn meant that a king could attract more warriors into his service."
That is kind of an extreme example, but it should illustrate just how plausibly 'domain play' issues could be well within the reach of an average party of level 5, or lower.

"Apologies, my lord...
only the floorplan without a 10' square grid was available print-on-demand.
Perhaps when you reach 6th level???"

Even in a more settled, sophisticated, powerful setting, there are places where this lower-level mini-domain scope of conflict would remain important. The Roman Empire, for example, could field mighty armies of thousands that could crush opposing forces even greater in number. Out in the provinces, however - especially in the more rough-and-tumble corners of empire, like Isauria/Rough Cilicia, there was sometimes room for little local warlords to carve out their own tiny domains - and the local land-owning magnate patrons who kept the empire running day to day, and controlled many of the levers of justice and violence at the community level, probably seemed like the Big Cheese to myriad souls now forgotten by history. 

Rather than dragging my feet while I write a long mega-post too thick to read comfortably, I'm going to break this up, and let what is here so far serve as preamble. Soon, I intend to discuss the following: 

+ why I'm not using the usual suspects - ACKS, An Echo Resounding, 'Companion' rules, and Birthright - and why a few much simpler rulesets look more useful. Oh, and I'll look in passing to honorable mention of Gathox Vertical Slum, Legacy: Life among the Ruins, and Blades in the Dark/Band of Blades...

+ simpler systems that I do think might solve most of my problems for me, or at least carve out the design space for me to hack a simple "mini-domain game" - I'm looking at YOU, A Land of Ice and Blades (and your big cousin, Apocalypse World), and at you too, Into the Odd! I'll survey their key 'domain' mechanics and why I think they're great - and what I might do to build on their foundation. 

+ how I think I'll be handling gang/warband conflict. The leading answer so far rhymes with Schmapocalypse Hurled, but I'll explain why. 

+ Not sure whether I'll get to this, but I'd really like to put all this to the test and write up a "playtest 'actual' play" report in which (say) a couple of 5th-level PCs lead thirty spearmen and a dozen archers through part of some dungeoncrawl see whether these ideas really would work right in that itch-space so particular to classic TTRPGs. 

Thanks all. If this is your jam, feel free to leave comments, questions, or goads for further reflection in the comments as you await next installments. No doubt others have thought about this stuff already. Happy gaming!