Saturday, February 24, 2024

[The Domain Game] part 2: Setting Up a Domain

Reconstruction of an early stage of Kidwelly Castle

 Now that you've convinced your players that having a base of operations is a good idea, they have to actually get one. While there are certain benefits that accrue to characters of a certain level upon acquiring such a base, it is not necessary that they are at that level before they can try. They can simply buy a building, of course, or pay to have one built, but other options exist. They might take over an existing castle or fort by replacing its current owners through proper application of force, which was mentioned in the comments to the previous post in this series. This is probably the most attractive option, especially if the players want to have an unusual and difficult to construct base of operations such as Quasqueton, the underground fortress built and then abandoned for unknown reasons by Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown, presented in B1 In Search of the Unknown. But players of a certain bent—I am certainly of this mind—will want to create their castle or whatever entirely from scratch. It's a similar sort of joy to that of playing a tower defense game, watching the defenses you designed operate to repel attackers, as well as being much like designing imaginary home floor plans. You can put in a library of the sort you would like to see, secret passages, and other objects of your home-owning fantasies.

Either way, the base of operations is going to cost the players money, and getting them to spend money is always a good thing. See page 25 of the DMG for the cost of maintenance, but the upshot is that it will cost 1% of the cost of the stronghold each month to keep it from starting to decay. There's no exact method listed for adjudicating what happens if that amount isn't paid, but any DM/GM is perfectly capable of introducing leaking roofs, cracks in the walls, and other home maintenance inconveniences based on their assessment of how much the players are underpaying. But how much did the place cost, since you need to know that to assess the maintenance cost? It's really a simple matter to just add up the elements, as listed in the DMG, again, this time on pages 106-108. It's perhaps a little more effort to figure out how many person-days of mining it took for excavated strongholds like Quasqueton in order to price how much the tunnels cost, but the information is there to do it. As an aside, if you can get them to do it, stone giants make the best miners, but dwarfs are not far behind and are much more hireable for the purpose.

While this is fine for the purposes of having a place to stash their stuff, players at lower levels will lack an important legal right: the right to tax the population. This only comes, for Fighters and Clerics, at 9th level, or 12th level for Magic-Users. Thieves don't worry about legalities, of course, but nobody takes a Thief seriously as head of a Thieves' Guild until they reach 10th level. This makes getting that maintenance cost much easier, though of course lower level characters can always go off adventuring to find treasure to pay for their home bases.

There are some other options, such as setting up a business (Dragon magazine issue 113 "A Capital Idea") or a mine (Dragon magazine issue 152 "In a Cavern, in a Canyon…"), or finding a similar business opportunity. Thieves can always set up a protection racket, run numbers, traffic in illegal items, or whatever, as long as they have the blessing of the local Thieves' Guild and pay their dues. Yay, sandbox play!

In any case, the players will be acquiring money and spending it. This is part of the reason that I usually suggest that the DM award XP for money spent (on most things; training is an example of a cost where I'd not award XP for the monetary outlay) rather than money acquired, and to go ahead and give players XP regardless of the source of the money. This encourages the players to, potentially at least, do more than just rob tombs all day erryday, and leads to more social roleplaying than murderhoboing.

Now, when they do get to the point of being able to legally tax their citizenry, that can end up being potentially very lucrative. A Fighter, in the Players Handbook, is able to get 7 silver pieces per month per inhabitant, on average. The article "Armies from the Ground Up" in Dragon magazine issue 125 offers guidelines on allowing the ruler to vary this rate from 5 silver pieces to 9 silver pieces, with rewards and consequences for the variations. If that particular system doesn't appeal to you, there's a similar but different system for setting different tax rates in "Meanwhile, Back at the Fief…", found in the same issue. But at the basic rate, with a modest population of only 10,000 scattered across the fairly large domain that AD&D assumes (for Fighters, a region ranging from 40 to 100 miles across, which is bigger than Luxembourg or Rhode Island; a 40 mile diameter circle is over 1250 square miles, compared to the roughly 1000 square miles of each of those two examples), gives 70,000 silver pieces per month. That is 3500 gold pieces per month, kids, or 42,000 gold pieces per year. It may take some time to build up to that level of population, of course, if the new domain is being carved out of the howling wilderness, but an active campaign of inviting settlers and accepting the wandering bands that show up will have the population getting up there.

The suggestion in the DMG (pages 93-94) is to start with campaign hexes of 30 miles across, divide them up into 1 mile hexes, then divide those up into hexes of around 200 yards across in the direct region of the place the players intend to build their fortress. These hex sheets, Trevor's Hex Grids, will come in handy for these suggestions, including a large hex divided into 30 hexes across, as well as a hex divided into 10 hexes across (a 1 mile hex divided into 10 across will have 176-yard smaller hexes, close enough to the DMG recommendation of ~200 yards). There's also a large hex divided into 24 across, in case you prefer a 24-mile campaign hex, or for that matter one that is 12 miles across such as I've seen used in one case for a hex map of North America. The players will then spend some time exploring and clearing these hexes of monstrous denizens, using the normal wilderness adventuring rules, to make them safe for the settlers to come. After clearing them, the players should set up patrols of mercenary or loyal soldiers to keep them cleared of intruders. At this time, the encounter checks are modified so that the whole domain experiences one check per day to see if some encounter has appeared on the perimeter, and another check per week to see if a monster or group has shown up in the interior of the domain.

If those encounters are with friendly types, such as "men", "elves", or the like, it is possible that they will settle down and join the growing population of the domain. If a monster or other hostile, then the players will need to deal with them as appropriate. A lycanthrope, for example, might require figuring out who, exactly, is transforming and ravaging the people, while an ankheg needs to be tracked down and destroyed before it tears up too many farms. But does the lycanthrope really need to be destroyed? Maybe it can be recruited to aid the players' growing army, if they're willing to take on that risk. A wandering tribe of orcs or goblinoids might be defeated in open battle and run out of the domain, or they might be induced to settle down and ally themselves with the players. How will they react to being forced to pay taxes or to being called up for military service (see pages 105-106 of the DMG for one set of guidelines)? How will their proximity affect the human population of the region? And so on. So-called "wandering" encounters should be seen by the DM/GM as scenario, or at least scenario idea, generators. These adventuring possibilities, alone, will keep the players busy, but there's still more that can happen.


  1. I want to say that I'm really enjoying this series of posts, and I hope that this is not the last one. Domain-level play is something that fascinated me for a long time. It's a shame that GURPS Realm Management ended up being very disappointing.

    1. Oh, there's plenty more to say on the subject. I expect to be getting more use for this series. The next entry will be on other sorts of adventuring possibilities that exist for characters who have these sorts of holdings.

      By the way, in GURPS, I'd suggest that characters would need some sort of Legal Enforcement Powers to be able to legally levy taxes on a population. They could get that either from a secular authority, such as a lord to whom they owe fealty, or from whatever scheme they can convince the population to accept. That latter is a task for Social Engineering, probably.

      Currently, it seems to me, Realm Management is better replaced by a mix of Low-Tech Companion 3: Daily Life and Economics, City Stats and Boardroom and Curia, plus that article in Pyramid 3/54 - Social Engineering, "City Management" and the articles in 3/33 - Low-Tech and 3/52 - Low-Tech II on resource production (also, 3/87 - Low-Tech III has some really useful bits on trade & commerce). But there are probably going to be a lot of B&C-style organizations in any reasonably-sized domain and there's a fair amount of calculation involved in "At Play in the Fields" and "Lord of the Manor", so it remains unwieldy.

    2. In fact, all of the Low-Tech Companion volumes are going to come in handy for this sort of thing, as well as Low-Tech itself, of course.

    3. Good point about Legal Enforcement Power! I never thought about that, and I'll have to keep that in mind. Also, I agree about replacing Realm Management with the things you suggested. Currently, I'm also waiting for ACKS II to be released, as the domain-level rules there seem promising, and they probably can be GURPSified.

    4. One thing that I like about the way AD&D went about domain level play is the abstraction involved. By simply averaging everything out and saying, "Okay, you get X silver pieces per inhabitant, " as a baseline, it avoids having to calculate all of the various intricate details involved in systems like ACKS, the Adventures Dark and Deep supplement titled Adventures Great and Glorious, the methods for detailing a manor in Chivalry & Sorcery, or the suggestions for GURPS. From there, additional detail can be added, such as the mines of "In a Cavern, In a Canyon" I mentioned in this entry. Just assuming that the domain's people can mostly fend for themselves when it comes to food and other necessities really makes everything flow more smoothly. The DM can always introduce complications like famine or whatever (and those are included among the various random events I discuss in the next entry in this series, so even that can be automated to an extent).

      That said, for some GMs it is a lot easier to let complications flow out of the mass of data that gets crunched for these more detailed systems, so each method has its charms.

      Hm, I wonder if anyone would be interested in an overview of the various different ways that other games like the ones I mentioned above, Maelstrom Domesday, Pendragon, or for that matter Traveller: The New Era or Marc Miller's Traveller handle domain-scale play. I think Aftermath! might even have some rudimentary methods of that sort. I'd probably also talk about what I'd like to see in such a system and why.

  2. > players at lower levels will lack an important legal right: the right to tax the population. This only comes, for Fighters and Clerics, at 9th level, ...

    For me this feels a bit over-restrictive; IMC, much like in ACKS, if the players can establish & protect a domain, and avoid encroachment by or come to an agreement with larger polities, then of course they can collect taxes from inhabitants. But I might make that more-or-less automatic at high levels, while at low levels of course they need to get involved in negotiation.

    In my last campaign the players were given a (remote, neglected, bandit-infested) hunting lodge by the queen as the campaign opener, and never thought to try to establish authority over the nearby village; they were too busy chasing "bad guys". That's going to be changed one way or the other in the game we start next month.

    1. I do think that there are different ways to approach the low-level issue in domain game play, and that seems like just as good an approach as any other. I might make it so that lower level characters can go out and shake down, er, negotiate with the populace, as you say, or even send out agents/tax collectors to do it for them. But yeah, once they hit the appropriate level, it all becomes automatic. I might also put in complications at lower levels, such as making any negotiations with larger polities much more difficult, which comes down to my philosophy of what a "level" and "experience points" represent in the setting (a measure of glory, mostly, in the sense that Pendragon uses the term; that is to say, something like what is meant by "mana" in Polynesian culture rather than as that term has been used in gaming—"To have mana implies influence, authority, and efficacy: the ability to perform in a given situation.").