Wednesday, April 25, 2012

AD&D's Domain Game: Growing a Demense from the Beautiful Chaos of Encounter Tables

Today we get to the third part of our little tour of what the AD&D books say about domain-level play (parts one and two here and here). There's still more to analyize about followers, peasant revolits, hirelings, morale rules, wilderness and other relevant sections, but I'm wary of losing my audience here.

Not Just Wilderness Clearing. Reading over my post I think I may have gone a little too far with yesterday's stick-bending about wilderness clearing being the entirety of the domain-play adventure in AD&D. While it's undoubtedly central stage, Gygax does specifically mention political machinations as a way to shake things up when things start looking dull:

“Because this is a fantasy adventure game, it is not desirable to have any player character's territory become tame and staid. There must always be a chance for some monster to enter the area and threaten the well-being of its inhabitants. What is the answer if the territory is located in the heart of some powerful state? Intrigue and petty wars, of course! If the territory of a player character is part of a nation, then there will be jealous neighbors, assassins, and the like to threaten him or her.”

Encounter Tables as Central Mechanic. Yesterday I also made several mentions of how the many, longish encounter tables crunched in the back of the DMG were to be used to stock out the hexcrawl contents and periodic checks for wandering bands. Suddenly the gigantic “number appearing” and “% in lair” lines become much more relevant.

Interestingly this is extended even further to be the central mechanic to handle the all-important way that your little hold in the wilds grows:

“[Potential settlers] will begin to appear after the player character's stronghold is finished and patrols have generally cleared the area. The populace will match the area and the alignment of the character. When a random monster check reveals some form of creature who properly matches the potential inhabitant type for the territory, then have them move in and settle down, making proper subservience calls upon the master of the territory, naturally. Hamlets, thorps, and various other settlement farms will eventually be established here and there in the area, starting near the castle and working towards the fringe of the territory.”

It's an interesting contrast to how the other D&D domain games which almost to a system work out some automatic (and bone dry) formula for population growth (such and such percentage of “peasant families” move in per such and such time).

At first glance it seems silly and unworkable—what I'm going to grow a colony of wandering ankhegs, satyrs and stag beetles here--but when you look harder at the frequencies of certain encounters it becomes more obvious: the most common encounter across clime and theme is with groups of “normal humans”.

Even on the pure wilderness charts the chance of a given encounter being a roll on the “men” sub-table is as high as 10-25 percent of the time. In inhabited/patrolled areas (presumably what you are rolling on in the post-clearing example above) that number jumps up to 40-65 percent. You can potentially throw in a 1-10 percent chance of meeting demihumans and a 3-15 percent chance of humanoids as possible settlers (depending obviously on alignment and reaction).

What's more on the Men sub-table the “monster” listings—bandits, beserkers, brigands—only occur 10-20 percent of the time, leaving merchants, dervishes, nomads, pilgrims, and tribesmen as groups that have some likelihood of settling down. (Hell my players would just as likely be recruiting the former group of ruffians).

There are also interesting domain-play possibilites for some of the less obvious monster encounters. Herds of mastodons and wild horses? How about a potentially lucrative resource on the hoof? Tribe of hill giants? Do we risk trying to sign those giganto-bumpkins up or mount up?

Personally I love this. It's not great “simulation”, but it is great fantasy gaming. 

But then again the idea of being a self-proclaimed petty warlord just barely ruling over a motley deep-wilderness, monster-haunted domain of religious zealots, blink dogs, forest tribesmen, pixies, and ballsy caravan owners has a way more evocative pull to me then being a feudal-like count with an auto-expanding number of faceless serfs.


  1. "Because this is a fantasy adventure game, it is not desirable to have any player character's territory become tame and staid."

    I think that pretty much says it all.

    (Italics mine, obviously)

    1. That was the phrase that triggered the whole series.

  2. Inspirational.

    Our group's noble master of the land is a player character: High Priest of Chadhros, the Grim Reaper of Pan Tang. He's the governor of a colonial backwater used to grow crops and supply slaves. The wilds around his demesne all have encounter tables, including the outlaying villages; but, I love the idea of doing encounter tables for the core settlement.

    FWIW, here's the Mist Marsh encounter tables.

    1. Taste wise those encounter charts would work pretty well in some of the areas of the Hill Cantons in the Weird. I may use some of them some time.

  3. I hope that you keep discussing these. For years, I overlooked a lot of this, and considered the domain level stuff to be largely missing in AD&D. Recently, I've been re-reading the DMG, and found a lot of these little references. Having someone go through them and collect them together is very helpful to me.

  4. what I'm going to grow a colony of wandering ankhegs, satyrs and stag beetles here

    This goes straight to my continuing efforts to assimilate the "standard" setting of DnD into my tiny brain. If your game world is like Vance's Dying Earth then sure, interdimensional wanderers, things based on half an insect and a nightmare, sarcastic smartass shrimp-critters, of course, you go hit them up for protection money and they want a quiet life so it's a negotiation, who can extract what from whom. Or any game of Carcosa that lasts more than a couple of sessions really ought to wind up with a little domain of men and not-men, living if not in harmony then at least in desperate mutual protection against something much worse. It's only if you insist that DnD is somehow a historical European feudal game that you could have any objection to this.

    ...but for years somehow I fell into the trap of insisting that it really was such a feudal game. I suspect it was the weapons and armour tables that lead me down that road - if only there'd been a Klingon fighting barbecue or some rayguns or a Holtzman shield generator right there on the lists, I'd've got it. But there weren't, and there were all these magazine articles about "realism," so apparently I wasn't the only one who didn't get it. And so every time DnD threatened to turn into He-Man and the Masters of the Universe it would put me off and I'd go play something else, like CnS or Ars Magica. As if those somehow were less insane.

    ...well, in a way they were. They were less inclusive. Less hell-bent on having fun.

    In the early 90s I played a bit of Serim Ral (hey look, it's still around!) which is a turn-based strategy domain game that sounds like it was based directly on this set of ideas you talk about right here. Your PCs are "leaders" and are drawn from any of the critters you attract/conquer. Once you recruit critters they all live "in your castle" (which means on your lands until an enemy shows up and then they claim shelter), cheerfully or fractiously. So you can wind up as a lich leading an army of men, goblins, elves and harpies, needing to expand in order to feed your levies, and clearing hexes and getting more levies and fighting next door's kingdom.

  5. About eight years ago, I started from the same text when characters in my campaign took over a village ruled by an evil cleric and his minions (the scenario was published as Slaughter in the Salt Pits in Fight On! #13). I worked out a basic "random encounter" system for small settlements, which had random monsters settling nearby, colonists looking for a place to settle, visiting dignitaries and more. You can find the basic module, Taxes and Death, at I think the frequency of encounters can be bumped up a bit, but the framework worked like a charm.

    1. Love those kinds of backstories for published material that was gamed. The Taxes and Death encounters look pitch perfect to the AD&D domain game. I'm curious, what level where they when they took control of the village? And how did that work in your sessions? How much of center stage did it become in other words?

    2. They were an army of two characters: Gromm, a 5th level half-orc cleric, and Charnan the Permanent Fiend, a 6th level human Fighter, both amoral miscreants who tended to wander around the Wilderlands, try various get rich schemes, run into trouble and flee while they still could. At least until they came to the village of Orthil, ruled by Narzugon the Evil Cleric.

      Here, they duped a party of three NPC adventurers into formenting a slave revolt, snuck into the local salt mines where all the NPCs perished (some PC manipulation was involved here), and defeated the garrison stationed there with a pack of commanded undead. This involved a whole lot of dumb luck. Then, freeing the slaves in the mines and arming them with the available equipment, they marched on the evil cleric's keep, who was arrogant enough to come out personally to put down the rebel scum, and unlucky enough to fall almost immediately. The rest was a mop-up, and the remaining guard at the keep immediately capitulated in exchange for given quarter and a chance to leave alive.

      After that, the rest of the campaign arc was half domain management, half exploration and traditional adventuring. This was all set in a dangerous environment with city states ruled by petty despots, a local dragon, the dungeons of Rappan Athuk on the same peninsula, and various adventure sites. Many of them were written in a way to allow for both skirmish combat between small armies (we used a variant of the EPT mass combat rules) and a more infiltration-oriented approach. It was a very casual game in some ways, and chock full of enthusiasm.

      Unfortunately, the game ended midway as two of the pool of four players emigrated to the UK, just as the party was cleaning out the dungeons of an ancient warlord (this was published as the free adventure Strabonus, available at ).

      I later resurrected the same rules for a campaign centred on Tegel Manor and its vicinity; here, it was not as successful because the players spent too much time planning their actions and not enough actually doing something. Still, when it worked, it worked fine.

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