Friday, December 17, 2010

How Can We Build a Better Domain-Level Game?

A number of interesting comments from you fine folks on the Birthright and Hyboria posts got me thinking about this old head-scratcher of mine: how can you extend domain-level play in classic D&D such a way to meet the promise of a satisfying “endgame”? 

Or rather how can we not make it an endgame; not a dullish semi-retirement wind-down but a more vibrant game play area that can draw players in much earlier in the campaign arc—and lock in their interest at the higher levels.

For sure, discussions about enhancing domain-level play have seemed awfully a lot like that old jokey cliché about the weather: we all talk about it, but nobody does anything to change it.

Well Ok, that's not totally true, a few retro-clones have done some nice work streamlining mass combat and stronghold construction rules. But I've yet to see an effort that goes beyond the high water marks of attempts to this in D&D: Birthright and Mentzer's Companion set.

In ruling domains we've seen everything from very abstract domain management (Birthright) with it's somewhat rigid computer game-like domain turn actions to the highly granular world of Tony Bath's Hyboria where the resources of a hex are spelled out in exacting detail (and play paradoxically more free-wheeling).

War has gotten a gamut of campaign treatment: miniature rules, abstract mass combat rules, cardboard wargames, even card games.

Are we doomed to just re-hash these efforts? What features would you like to see that you haven't seen before—or haven't seen implemented in a way that is both workable and fun in your campaign world? How can we make it work better with the standard game play of older editions of D&D?

Is it even possible to out-flank the computer-strategy games that seem to have a lock on this kind of play? What could a table-top game do that these games can't?


  1. For me I think the issue is that the PCs have to be able to interact with the domain system from day 1 at 0xp. I'm not saying PCs should start out owning kingdoms, rather that that you show the players the mechanics and give them a chance to play with them by, say, influencing their liege or expanding his influence. Then you have something with immediate benefit to the game, not "this will be so cool if you survive to level 12", which the campaign will be dead before then, so who gives a crap?

  2. Jeff, I totally agree. The San Antonio campaign has been going for a year and a half and the players are just hitting fourth level at that rate the Hill Cantons will be dead and buried likely before they'd even get near trying these things out.

    I like the idea of shortening the campaign arc from the zero to 60 acceleration that happens at name level. As you say they don't have to jump to being rulers, but they can play all kinds of meaningful roles earlier.

    Empire of the Petal Throne had some interesting hints about how to do this. The free-wheeling barbarian scum players became "resident aliens" at third level. Clerics were temple commandants by fifth, warriors generals by sixth. And all classes could apply to become fief-holders by seventh!

  3. You may be interested in this:

    This is my new project after having just released Errant.

  4. I have heard your weather talk re: this subject up close and personal so I figure I get where your leading questions are going, CK. LOL.

    I would like something with more meat. Just lots more of options on how my character can rule. I also want more real story/role playing action and not just routinue things like build temple and you get a 10% reduction in unhappiness.

    Hope that helps. : )

  5. Doesn't Houses of the Blooded have a Domain Management rule set in it?

  6. First, 1974 OD&D never posed an "end-game" that was "retirement" and "winding down". The "end-game" connotation is strictly a "New" (and revised/tacked on) phrase which is interpreted in some strange way as being both an end and a retirement.

    It's just the campaign portion extending itself dynamically; and as there is no end to RPGs except as separate DMs choose, the game goes on into the infinite future.

  7. @LOGD
    Rob, that would be like a softball pitch to you (unintentional but thanks for chiming in about this). Readers should check out the interesting exchange between Harami/Irbyz and Rob/Major Kookie here at DF for context:

    A good reminder that the elements were there for exciting play at this level from the get go of the game's origins. Just flipping through the pages of Arneson's First Fantasy Campaign or Rob's recollections and you see the potential and innovation.

    So how do we go further by building off that past play maybe is the way we should re-frame the question.

  8. It's just open-ended play. That portion which extends on and on, and those specifics (like maybe ruling a planet and then fighting other planets, perhaps?) are not covered in the rules, though others may construct these as we did. The greatest aspect of our game in this OE (Open-ended) clime is that someone WILL do just that, some time, some where, and may even write about it for others to do. As far as Domains, that's covered in OD&D under Upkeep and such. Enough for us to manage BitD with RP elements, builds, adventure and exploration and mass combats (Chainmail, etc) By then, IMO, folks should be moving (or considering moving) to a campaign miniatures game (Like EGG, Don Kaye and myself did PBeM with Dave Arneson in his Napoleonics Campaign). YMMV. Most of the components and rules can be brought together ad-hoc to satisfy varying tastes and levels of inclination.

  9. Not very familiar with this aspect of OD&D. Stopped running it when EPT came out, and graduated from there to Chivalry and Sorcery, which actually included rules for this kind of thing (and expanded greatly upon them in their supplements). when I ran D&D, most of my players only concern was the dungeon crawl. I had a couple who wanted info on their temple's workings or how to establish a holding of their own, but the majority of my players couldn't see beyond the circle of light thrown by the torches they carried.

  10. @Underminer. Cool! Another EPT fan (few and far between these days, IMHO). FGU produced some good games, more in the traditional line that I am used to as a pure-bred wargamer. C&S did have some mighty tiny print for my eyes, even back then. ;)

    OD&D has rules for building and managing Barony level domains; it is assumed that once so inured that DMs can reduplicate/expand and sculpt thereafter according to range and taste.

    IMO, all that is needed are a good set of guides (as provided in OD&D) and then let the DM exercise their creative talents to further each singular design along the paths they choose.

  11. Maybe the perceived record-keeping scares some people away. If that could be done via computer spreadsheet, it would make domain-level play easier, and perhaps more gamers would give it a shot.

  12. I've used the term "end game" myself for convenience of discussion but I must agree I don't think "domain-level" play should be considered the end of the game.

    I've played in campaigns that were just domain-level (actually nation-level) play and they were a ton of fun. The record keeping for a domain really doesn't' have to be much worse then a fully detailed deluxe character folio.

  13. @Desert Scribe
    I think the record-keeping is daunting for the more granular style. Definitely one of the biggest advantages of computer games is hiding that back end number crunching. I like the idea of developing more software tools to ease the burden in tabletop play.

    Agree that the X factor is more the creative will of the DM and players in a campaign more than the right rule set. I like how you frame OD&D more as a starting point for a journey for each person who encounters the game rather than the end all and be all. It's a key point in understanding where things went off track in the hobby (that and the points you make about mass marketing).

  14. @Chris. Thanks. The real victory in RPG belongs to those who invest their time in creating from seeds their own singular plantations. Thus I have always believed in a broad-base approach as the only course towards those ends.

    EGG: "Why have us do all of your imagining for you?" IMO, the singular most important quote he made about this type of hands-on, open-ended, interpret-as-you-need and creative, play-style.

    As for computers assisting... I believe that JDJarvis nailed that. There's not much in the way of burden with that by way of extension Now in Arneson's Nappy game which involved us at all levels of nation building--comparable to taking Civilization, the game, and atomizing it down to very specific levels in many cases-- yes, and that was uber-immersive, even with orders being due at a monthly clip. Some people like that mix and elasticity and will rise to the challenge while others will not, such as it was in our day--not everyone in LG decided to run Campaign level games up front or even as a latter extension of adventure-play. Many did, but not all. All the more reason, IMO, to keep it granular with guides as OD&D did.

  15. @Lord of the Green Dragons, "FGU produced some good games, more in the traditional line that I am used to as a pure-bred wargamer."

    Funny, because I bought the rules thinking it was a set of medieval miniature rules, not an RPG. It was a pleasant surprise and I've never used another set of Fantasy rules since, other than forays into Swords and Glory and Gardasiyal.

    Can't really say I'm an EPT "fan" exactly. I like the setting and I've collected a fair amount of stuff for it over the years, but seems the more I read of it, as it's currently "defined", the less appealing that it becomes. Frankly, I'd have been much better off if I hadn't read anything other than OEPT and done as Barker said there, "make it your own." And following the Yahoo Group discussions hasn't helped that any.

  16. @Underminer: The Omnipotnet Azure Legion will not come and break down your door in the middle of the night to take you away if you run a non-canonical EPT/Tekumel cmapaign. No one has any authority or right to define your efforts or your game for you, especially not people you will probably never play with--frankly, they're just not relevant. Ignore them and do like the Professor said in print in the book--'Make it your own.' Besides, unless you kidnap the old gent and strap him down to a chair at your game table, what are the chances that your game will ever trouble Prof. Barker in the least?

  17. @Netherworks - Never really tried to make my game canon in any way. For one, I tended to downplay the extreme xenophobia that Tsolyani society apparently has, since it wasn't that appparent in OEPT and I could never determine why it would have arisen anyway. In fact it doesn't seem to extend to the non-humans, which always struck me as odd. Doesn't seem to be a racial or religious reason to it.
    Actually I never really had any problems with running the OEPT, other than getting the players used to the setting. But I've run three Gardasiyal games and tried to make them more "canon," and the players simply couldn't get into it. Ended up going back to C&S.