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! 


  1. Very interested to see where this is going. I've got to say, I'm not very familiar with most of your "usual suspects" list. Will you briefly summarise them, or is there somewhere else you could point me at that would?

  2. Yep, I definitely plan to summarize briefly each of the 'usual suspects' - along with the other 'roads not taken' here.

    1. See the sequel post - lots of info (or at least links to lots of info) now available on those 'usual suspects'!

  3. "...climbing rooftops and crawling dungeons - not tax-collectors reviewing the quarterly tithe rolls"

    Funnily enough, the keystone PC in my solitaire Babylonian campaign is a tax-collector, as I thought it would give him ample opportunities for adventure.

    But I am interested to see how mini-domain play works out.

    1. Hah, Touché! I bet that works very well. I suspect, however, that temple or palace tax records on clay are not the sole source of adventure for your Mannum-kīma-Adad... :-)

      Great blog. Thanks for swinging by mine!

    2. Also: The Doberman Pinscher was bred by a German tax collector for protection while out making his rounds. Sounds like the profession is adventurer material to me!

    3. Oh, that's great! A perfect fit with something evoking Warhammer Fantasy RPG, to be sure.

    4. Indeed, tax records aren't the sole source of adventure for Mannum-kīma-Adad, but they do provide a good catylist. Maybe some day he'll be the only one who can take out the Babylonian Al Capone! Provided an evil utukkum doesn't seize him first!

  4. Very interesting as I work towards defining C&S domains in the Wilderlands setting

    1. Thanks! As I note in my follow-up post, my own preferences lean toward the less-simulationist, but hopefully they will point you to things that support your own preferred depth and scope.