Friday, February 23, 2024

[The Domain Game] part 1: Getting Players to Buy Into the Idea


Amberley Castle and environs, from here  

I want to set down an outline of how to play the Domain Game, which is to say that stage of the game in which the players have taken their characters and started to advance them into movers and shakers among your setting's powerful members. Rubbing shoulders with kings and princes, or at least barons and counts, they move beyond simply robbing tombs and ruins and into intrigue and similar opportunities to roleplay without constantly fighting. The characters have acquired enough wealth and material goods that it is physically difficult for them to move around, but also difficult to keep enterprising thieves from finding and taking it for themselves. I also want to discuss how to encourage the players to move into this phase of play instead of just becoming more efficient murderhobos. Now, that's a lot to take on, and frankly I haven't had any opportunity to test these ideas out in actual play so a lot of it will just be theoretical musings about a framework for this sort of campaign play, but it has to start somewhere, so I'll start it there. Obviously, there are some DMs/GMs who aren't interested in this sort of play, and so this series of posts won't be for them.

I want to minimize looking to outside sources or complicated procedures, too, so a lot of this will just be summarizing the Domain Game as it was presented in the Dungeon Masters Guide from 1979 and related materials. For this approach, the DM (or GM/Referee adapting these ideas to another game) will need at least the following: the aforementioned DMG, the Players Handbook, the Monster Manual, Oriental Adventures, and Dragon Magazine issues 108 ("The Role of Nature") and 125 ("Meanwhile, Back at the Fief…", "Armies from the Ground Up"). Optionally, any of the following can expand on the experience, depending on your setting and the characters looking to start playing the game of power: the Fiend Folio, Monster Manual II, other monster collections, and Dragon Magazine issues 80 ("Who Lives in that Castle?"), 94 ("An Army Travels on its Stomach"), 99 ("Tables and Tables of Troops"), 109 ("Fighters for a Price"), 113 ("A Capital Idea"), 115 ("Lords of the Night", "A Den of Thieves"), 123 ("Mystic College"), 127 ("Fighting for Keeps"), 142 ("Made-to-Order Clerical Orders"), 145 ("Holding Down the Fort", other articles in this issue may also prove useful), 152 ("In a Cavern, in a Canyon…"), 165 ("Anchors & Arrows"), 184 ("Courts & Courtiers"), and 231 ("The Thief Who Came in from the Cold", "The Spying Game") may all be of interest for the articles listed in relation to the Domain Game. I especially recommend issue 115 to expand on Thieves' Guilds, 123 to give Magic-Users more options than just a tower, 142 to flesh out a Cleric's holdings a bit, and 231 to give a look at Thieves as an intelligence service instead of or in addition to organized crime.

As an aside, I'd suggest giving XP to characters for spending money rather than acquiring it. Perhaps also use the special class bonuses to XP found in the 2E DMG for inspiration. The relevance of this will be more apparent in a later entry.

All of that preliminary finished, let's get into the meat of the matter. First off, we want to encourage our players to build a castle or whatever, to set up a domain and a home base. The first step toward that is going to be to get rid of some of the things we have done in the past as a convenience for us as the DM, or at least make them more inconvenient for the players' characters. Most importantly, there shouldn't be any banks, or rather they shouldn't be invisible. Characters collect money, but carting it around shouldn't be easy (it is 10 or 50 or however many coins per pound), and leaving it somewhere should make it vulnerable. Obviously, they can't just leave it in the inn, especially if the amount is considerably more than the innkeeper normally makes in a year. If there is some kind of a bank vault, it should be expensive in order to cover the costs of protecting large amounts of coin. If the bank charged 1% of the value each month, that's probably pretty cheap, actually. Going up to 4% per month (48% per year!) is maybe too expensive. I imagine that the average relatively secure bank vault would charge around 2% per month, 24% per year, in advance. Banks that charge a discounted rate would see correspondingly more heists, as they can't afford proper security, and there's no such thing as financial insurance. And if the client left the money there without paying for storing it, it can be legally confiscated by the bank.

Okay, now either the players are spending money like there's no tomorrow or they're existing in a state where their money, beyond what they can carry, is at risk. Time to start hinting that maybe they should consider finding a safe place to store it. Like a house with a locked treasury room and guards or something. A big stone house with walls and gates to keep out unwanted thieves. And wouldn't a home base be nice to operate from? It's a good place to rest up and heal from injuries, research new spells, and all that jazz. After all, healing up in that inn is nice, but remember when that assassin broke in so easily and it was all your characters could do to defeat her? Hey, there's a small mansion in the rich quarter of the city up for sale and it's in your price range. Those mercenaries are still hanging around the tavern looking for work, too, and you do need someone to guard the place.

And so on. The point is that players play murderhobos because being a murderhobo is easy. Make it hard and they'll start acting like they live in the setting, not like they're just passing through.

There was a small rule in City-State of the Invincible Overlord that I think got overlooked all too often. It seems that there was a monopoly, in the City-State, on moneychanging. This meant that those who weren't moneychangers weren't allowed to make change between types of coin. If something cost a silver piece and all your character had was gold, you either went without or handed over the whole gold piece for a measly silver piece worth of whatever. Trying to get change would make the merchant angry that the character would try to get them to break the law like that. Things work a lot more smoothly when you're getting supplies for a castle than when you're having to deal with nuisance laws like that which make life a bit more expensive. Remember, the game is rigged against the small guy because the small guy is small. You don't become big until you have an army. And an army needs a castle to stay at. It might be cheap to sleep in the park, but the park is where sneak thieves pilfer everything that isn't nailed down. Let the Magic-User contemplate that when looking at their spellbook, and consider where they'd be without it.

The solution, your players should come to understand, is to have a base of operations. And a base of operations, they should be taught, requires money to maintain, hired personnel to keep running, and at a certain point soldiers. Mercenary soldiers. Adventurers should be spending money, and they should be needing a solid infrastructure to keep that money safe until they need to spend it, and then they should need to spend it to keep it safe, and so on. But it becomes a little bit cheaper per gold piece to protect it the more gold pieces they have.

Then they'll need a steady source of money to maintain their castles, and that's to be found in the domain. 7 silver pieces per month per person in the domain, on average, the Players Handbook tells us, at least for Fighters. As we will see, that's just the beginning and we can make things more interesting by giving players decisions to make, but for now we've laid out a plan of attack to get the players interested in the idea. Just keep pushing it, though we don't have to be overbearing about it. "Wouldn't it have been nice to have a place to put your money that those thieves couldn't have just climbed into the inn window while you were off at the dungeon? What plan do you want to make for this money you've just carted out from the eighth level of Castle Braufenlurg? You're going to bury it by the third tree in the Hidden Meadow? How are you going to be sure nobody sees you digging?" Just keep pointing out the consequences of their intentions.

Eventually, they'll see that the best plan for a rich person in a world where law is the prerogative of the powerful is to have the power to hold onto their money, and the best source of power is an army. Even if you eventually have to send an army after them to teach them that lesson. A 10th level Fighter might be able to kill as many as 10 Normal Men in a melee round, but when there are 600 or 1000 Normal Men knocking on the door, that's still just a drop in the bucket. Having some Normal Men of their own to guard their flanks and rear might come in handy. How do they get 600 or 1000 Normal Men to even up the odds? That's something we'll get to in an upcoming post.


  1. I think its better to have them capture a castle rather than build one. Have them involved in a war or civil war and their leader offers a Lords properties if the Adventurers remove the Lord. I think you'd get some detailed planning on how to take the castle and buy in on the whole idea that could keep you going for a year.

    1. Oh, that's definitely an option. Right now, I'm just going through the process of retraining players to understand that having a domain is a good thing and also still a source and subject of adventure.