Thursday, August 18, 2011

Domain is the Name of the Game – Kingdoms and Towns in RPGs

I've always been fascinated by the concept of community building in roleplaying games. I'm not talking about building a community of players, though I've certainly been through all that in the last two decades. I'm talking about the incorporation of elements traditionally left to strategy computer games like Civilization into the tabletop rpg. Early editions of D&D had sketchy notes on the concepts of followers and strongholds, indicating that a transition to a position of rulership over a kingdom was a goal of high level play. My personal largest design project was the initial structure and mechanics for the Living Greyhawk Town Project. Written for the Living Campaign's Illinois and Indiana region of the Viscounty of Verbobonc initially, long after development of my rules passed from my hands, the system spread. Before long, players nationwide were sinking character gold and personal creativity into building and growing a village for PCs and NPCs to call home. The notion of domain-level play continues to fascinate me, and the inspiration for a flurry of design has eluded me since I wrote most of the Town Building rules in a single feverish night.

Screenshot from Majesty 2. I kind of want to do this, only not limited to fantasy, and in a Tabletop RPG.

What is domain play? Simply put, it is characters in control of something larger than their personal characters and a small group of henchmen. Whether that means a town, a kingdom, a temple, guild or street gang, there are events that must be endured and responded to, resources to be collected and power structures to be built. One of the most well known examples of domain play is the AD&D Birthright Campaign setting, which was interesting on its surface, but failed to catch on, as suiting the management of a kingdom to individual play groups felt unwieldy. It almost felt as though Birthright was two games, one a strategic solo play that felt almost like a board game, and another that cobbled the rulers of the local kingdom, temple, wizard's guild and thieves guild to adventure together somehow. DMs were confused by how, specifically to structure the narrative of their campaign to have both the dungeon exploration and roleplaying mix with the micromanagement and politics of the domain turn.

Domain gaming isn't unique to Dungeons and Dragons, either. The Lodge rules in the Savage Worlds setting Rippers that I recently wrote about are a very abstract and simple example of this style of gaming. TORG had a set of mechanics for player controlled megacorporations competing in economic warfare with hostile takeovers, market manipulation and stock splits that most likely only interested a tiny sliver of gamers that includes me. I'm fascinated by the idea of a system that incorporates gathering of materials, building defenses and infrastructure and establishing trade to watch a player-built organization flourish. Every rule set I've encountered has either been too abstract and mechanically murky, or has otherwise seemed half-finished. The best of these rules have been complicated, requiring a lot of bookkeeping and end up feeling like a separate game that is tacked on to an RPG.

I've met so many people who read and loved the idea of this boxed set.
No one who actually played it.

There are some examples of domain play in more recent gaming systems, but I know only enough about them to list them here. Green Ronin's A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, based on Martin's books includes rules on managing a character's own House in the Game of Thrones, an essential aspect of the setting, in my opinion. Goodman Games also recently published the D&D 4th Edition supplement Crime Pays, which handles a fantasy take on running criminal organizations. What little I've gotten to see from Crime Pays amounts to a pretty decent little set of rules for managing anything from a street gang through a thieves' guild or a player-controlled Mafia complete with bribing officials, assigning specific crimes and getting involved in wars for territory. I'm currently grappling with whether or not I need to add this to my collection of domain gaming books I am unlikely to use, but which I really like the idea of.

Smaller publishers and fan-supported projects have gotten into the act as well, with standouts being Greg Stoltze's REIGN system for the ORE (One Roll Engine) system, available as either print-on-demand or downloadable PDF with a pile of supplements licensed under Creative Commons ready to download from his website. The strength of the Reign system is in random generation of power groups with conflicting goals and a streamlined system for resolving conflicts between them. Currently under production and in beta-testing is the Borderlands domain game for D&D OSR (Old-School Rules) being written and refined over at the blog Hill Cantons. I've seen the preview of the Table of Contents, and I'm looking forward to checking out the finished product when it is ready for public consumption beyond those few lucky groups who can commit to a full playtest.

I recommend looking into the setting and deciding if the setting info is necessary for
your game if you want to try this, otherwise there is a cheaper edition without it out there.

I still daydream about being able to run a game where city construction and management is as integral to the play as delving into dungeons and trade, diplomacy and resource management have to be mastered as well as the sword. I'd love to play a tabletop RPG where the management of an organization works without endless charts and bookkeeping. Maybe one of the existing systems I haven't tried or don't know about will fill this need to mashup computer strategy gaming with my tabletop roleplaying. Maybe not. I was pretty much the perfect target audience for the indie RPG Recettear, imported from Japan on Steam and focusing on running an item shop in a little fantasy village. I still load up and play X-Com: UFO Defense and Jagged Alliance. I'd just like a little more building bases, running guilds, expanding the territory of my character's street gang and successfully building a community in my games. Anyone know how?
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Bonjour Tristesse said...

Love this idea. I've always wanted to play a game where you could be one of the schemers instead of the same old adventurer.

Jay said...

this got me thinking of simcity...

ckutalik said...

A Song of Ice and Fire RPG's domain rules are essentially a better-realized version of Birthright (they have such abstract things as "law holdings" and the like).

Not surprisingly I agree with you about BR--and really most tabletop attempts at domain-level play--they suffer from an identity problem. They don't figure out ways to integrate whatever brilliant system they are designing with the flow and form of what you actually play in a rpg session.

I'm trying to be really intentional about figuring ways to do that Borderlands, a lot of the answers I think stem back to the very early days of how Blackmoor was run. But I guess we'll see...

Alpha said...

Love me some tower defense/building games. Love 'em

The Angry Lurker said...

Definitely would attract me if you could.

Timothy said...

I think that my fondness of RSI's PBM game Hyborian War is due to that fact that each kingdom gets a stable of characters at court in addition to building armies and conquering provinces (often ones that previously belonged to another paying player).
The real problem with HW is that it is still run off the same program they had in the mid-to-late 1980s.

Dra8er said...

Just stumbled across your blog today, some good reading. I own a game/hobby shop & publishing company & my core RPG group (been together since 96') have been of doing this 'sort' of thing for years. We 'semi-retire' our high level characters (those that make it mwa ha ha ha) & they become baron, lords, guild-masters, and such. Even as far as role-playing there old characters when their newer versions want to do something as mundane as build a carpentry shop & they need guild approval (as most of my PC's have "other jobs" besides adventuring). Even once had a players old retired PC deny his newer PC land rights (because it would have lessened his retired characters political power) & an amazing adventure unfolded afterwords to 'bring down' the retired (now corrupt) PC.

Its works out amazingly well as players not only help with world design/building, but the pay off is much more satisfying to everyone! Just thought I'd share, thx =)

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