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.
WHAT I (THINK I) AM LOOKING FOR
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. :-)
THE USUAL SUSPECTS
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? Well...it 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!