Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Domain-Play Lessons from ... Shadow of War?

Now that my offspring are of that age when gruesome video games feel like "questionable parenting" instead of "atrocious parenting," I let them borrow the Middle Earth-themed Shadows of War on Xbox from the local library (at our library, you can even check out things like chainsaws and snowshoes - hopefully not for use at the same time, and especially not for LARPing something like Shadows of War). 


Anyway, I expected a pretty mediocre game (and we almost abandoned it after about 20 minutes). But as more of the game unfolded, I started noticing some positive aspects! I won't have much to say here about the game's alt-canon storyline, in which a good guy does emo-grimdark good guy stuff by acting like a bad guy by beating the snot out of orcs so he can mentally dominate them in order to build up an army worthy of challenging Mordor, because ends and means or something like that... 

So, not much to say about all that. (I also have never played the earlier Shadow of Mordor, so I can't say anything meaningful to compare the games). Rather, as I chewed on Shadow of War's design, I noticed three features that made the gameplay loop more appealing - and I realized that these could make a tabletop RPG's domain play more efficient and fun.

To wit:

+ NPCs as proxies for warbands. 

D&D (and adjacent) rules for domain play usually include a way to recruit and maintain army units, warbands, etc. In some cases, this gets pretty technical and economiwhatsit. At the other extreme, Into the Odd and related games instead provide a refreshingly light and abstract system for hiring "detachments," paying their upkeep, and fending off narrative problems that can afflict any would-be tyrant. But even at that rules-light end of the scale, the "detachment" is still a faceless entity, an asset, and recruiting one basically comes down to one factor - have you got enough gold on hand to pay them? 

In Shadows of War, you don't recruit a new warband; you recruit a Captain, who is in command of a warband. And each Captain has their own personality, their own motives, their own story and grudges and desires, and their own in-play/in-combat distinctions. This means that gaining more followers feels really personal. You don't just think of that block of spearmen who will be useful to lengthen your battle-line; you think about how annoying or funny or suspicious or brutal the new guy feels while he's extending your battle-line. 

Especially in the kind of domain game that I find most appealing - relatively low in scale/scope, where the number of troops and units stays manageable - it would be pretty easy to add a lot of color and fun by associating a new NPC commanding officer with every single detachment/warband. Have you had that experience where a random retainer/hired follower gains a name, personality, and a beloved place in your party's story? Now multiply that times every warband the party will deal with. You can still keep using whatever rules you're using for armies/detachments, but add a face and contact person who feels different, and who speaks for that unit. 

Another nice thing about this approach is that recruiting or maintaining a warband might be about money, but it doesn't have to be. Maybe Xantharikos the Red and his Crimson Lancers just want to get paid by Tuesday; but Larry and the Lizardmen are in it because of their fierce vendetta against the hobgoblins, so they'll fight for you for nothing but hobgoblin meat - but WATCH OUT if you ever make peace with the enemy ... or if you show weakness. (Insert myriad other possible Captain/unit motivations and intrigues). 

+ A finite number of warbands in the setting. 

But how long can you go on recruiting new regiments to replace the ones you just fed to the meat-grinder? 

As ye classic guide to the demographics of a fantasy setting recognizes, the number of fighting troops in an agrarian society should be pretty low, at least as a percentage of the overall population: being a skilled combatant is a kind of highly specialized labor supported by far more numerous food-producers. At some point, then, there should be a ceiling on available troops. And in a particularly war-torn, volatile setting, it's not implausible that all the available fighting power has already been identified and mobilized, at least in the form of reserves (village militias, etc.). Having a master list of available units - with a hard cap - can, and maybe should, be part of a small setting. 

Whether consciously or not, Shadows of War reflects this. So far as I can tell from watching the game, the total number of recruitable Captains is finite. Especially if you enjoy sparsely inhabited "points of light" settings (as do I), you can really get away with having not that many warbands even available to recruit across the entire setting! In such a context, destroying an enemy warband in battle might work (along with the usual risks), but maybe enemy fighters are too precious to put to the sword - so, back to the previous point, above: what would it take to make that specific warband switch sides and stick with the party? By making recruitable units a limited resource, you accentuate the stakes of the choices involved in dealing with them. 

And, of course, this makes losing an allied detachment in battle a much bigger deal. Unless you are planning to run a campaign that lasts for the next 35 years, providing a small campaign with 20-30 total detachments to engage -- each one led by a defined, named personality -- has much to offer. 

+ PC-level actions as domain play. 

Domain and mass battle rules often gravitate toward either moving units and assets around like a wargame, into which the PCs' actions sort of fade into the background, or like a set of military-themed skill challenges that emphasize PC choices and efforts, but which may not feel like an actual war/battle. 

Shadow of War definitely emphasizes PC actions, but it manages to make the domain game -- conquering and keeping a territory -- feel pretty central. It does this by emphasizing cool bits - winning new recruits, maintaining their loyalty (sometimes by side-quests), and storming fortresses - while allowing lots of room for individual-level stealth and combat missions (you know...your normal D&D stuff). But then it basically ignores (unless I'm not looking closely enough) the boring bean-counting. Raising food and taxes, etc., fades into the background. 

If you want to run a mostly military campaign, this is not a bad way to handle things. I think it was in comments around my domain/mass battle posts some years ago that someone suggested using "Influence" instead of "gold" for maintaining detachments. I am intrigued by the idea of a campaign in which you run dungeons, etc. to gain social influence in the setting, and then spend that social capital to help recruit followers. Beyond that, if you want to run a domain game as a list of military targets or fantasy adventure quests, why not just limit it to that?

More detailed simulations aren't wrong, of course, but Shadows illustrates that you can still have some fun without as many variables. Adding regular D&D play on top of that would make things richer still. 

Closing observations

I suspect that having a small campaign setting with a few dungeons and a pre-defined list of politically active NPCs and detachments could enable a pretty fun campaign, one focused just as much on personal intrigue and unit battles as on picking the lock down on level 4 of the nearest dungeon. I also suspect that once an initial setting was built, you might be able to run a very low-prep campaign, just making "moves" to respond to whatever happens in session. 

I have been tweaking just such a session in the background as a personal project. It may never see the light of day, but I'm hoping it might ground my next campaign, or maybe even be worth sharing with Ye Gaming Publick. 

What do you think? Does the idea of a faction-focused sandbox with finite, limited military units, each led by a known NPC, sound fun? 

1 comment:

  1. Ran the numbers -- England in 410 AD gets you 35 to 70 fighters per 6-mile hex, England in 1000 AD gets 14 to 29.

    In both cases, it's entirely reasonable to say that that is *one* lord per hex, and to write a random lord generator.


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