Castles and Mountains, Men and Characters…

I’ve been reading a lot about the new old school game, Adventurer Conqueror King System (ACKS). It sounds cool. Okay, it sounds awesome. Ten years ago I would have bought it immediately and been devouring it, trying out yet another system for domain building. I’m a sucker for domain rules. I love the idea of players having their own kingdoms, towers, etc. I love the idea (hold that thought) of a game where the players are the primary movers and shakers of the world. I read the introduction/preview available on RPGNow and almost plunked down the 9.99 right there on the spot. I think my fascination with diceless games and romantic fantasy stylings really come down to a desire to have a game that is as much about the council table and the court ball as the battlefield (though don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to shirk the battlefield).

When I ran Amber we’d go months (and we played weekly) without an “action scene” and everyone was okay with that. We spent most of our time working out the plots of those working against us, playing backyard football with Gerard, and hashing out complex negotiations with the Courts of Chaos. And when the action scenes did hit they were brutal, fierce, and usually changed the lives of everyone involved in them. But sometimes, we’d spend two or three sessions at a stretch just talking. And everyone loved it. And we had a great time. Weird, right?

And that’s why I love domain rules. I love the idea that even early on in their careers players are thinking about that next step, transitioning into being lords or ladies or building a tower and doing ancient research while occasionally stomping out of “retirement” to go slay a dragon or something. I mean, when I read fantasy stories, my favorite parts aren’t the screaming deaths and fireballs. I love the parts where the characters sit down and do character development, tell an old story, or reveal their connections to one another. I’m an endgame kinda guy — but role-playing games are an odd duck. In order for that endgame to be as meaningful, it needs to have the build up of the character’s career to ground it. Otherwise, all the details are “false”

I was reading this post from the Weem about the old Immortals set for D&D and the possibility of such a thing moving back into D&D Next. Those old rules were amazing. I played a little bit of Immortal level play back in the long ago years when I was running BECMI. Those were crazy days indeed and I love the idea of having a transcendent level of play… but…

Here’s the thing.

I’ll level with you. I hate the planes. I hated the tacit assumption built into D&D 4e that as you got more powerful the game would “move into the planes.” I hate all the crazy planar races sitting out there waiting for high(er) level PCs to come fight them like the next tier of goblin. One of my favorite parts of 3.5 was that I could run a fairly limited slate of monsters but use templates and class levels to keep them interesting (along with using “PC Race” villains) at all levels of play. I realize that an 18th level wizard can crank out wands that blow up continents (well, sorta) but I don’t care. When I play, when I run a game, I’m thinking about the world the PCs live in. I want them to be connected to their roots and to have threats to what they love and hold dear be what drives the game at any level — not just, “hey, githyanki!” or a need to tromp around the Astral Plane.

Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m a fair DM — and I know some of my players love that kind of stuff and I’m more than happy to insert the Abyss or a demiplane or two full of exciting and different dangers for them to explore. I want them to be happy. But I’m really in it for the relationships. For the sense of place. For having something to defend and to care about.

And that’s the thing. Remember when I mentioned above that I love the “idea?” Well that’s the problem, I’m in love with the idea — like being in love with falling in love — and not the reality. Most sets of domain rules don’t really work for me (this is no comment on ACKS, I haven’t even read it yet) because they only prioritize how much it costs to build a keep, or what the kingdom’s defense bonus is for having border forts, or that you need to spend regency points to establish a trade route and it’s worth an extra gold bar every domain turn… and the rules for mass combat and wars are even more obnoxious and “numbery” and that’s not why I want to have a domain… I want to have a domain so that I can run King Arthur adventures in my own fantasy world. I don’t want to be an accountant in my fantasy kingdom. I’ve been a manager and dealt with scheduling and reviews and P&L statements and payroll and that’s not what I want when I’m gaming.

Is it so hard to write a set of domain-level, “endgame” style rules that actually keeps all the bookkeeping down to a dull roar and encourages the PCs to visit their neighbors and hash out treaties, to care for the people of their courts and kingdoms instead of just collecting taxes from them? I don’t know, I haven’t tried. I just keep reading domain rules hoping someone will…

But the most important thing to take away from all this is not the crunchy side of domain building. The important thing is that if you want the PCs to write the adventures, to defend their homes and stand for something, if you want them to die for the things they care about..? Then you have to help them have things in the game to care about. And they have to care.

Thanks for reading.


7 responses

  1. Great post. I know the feeling – I’m attracted to any game that has domain level-rules – I think it just opens up an interesting set of game play opportunities. I think that you might be interested in Legends of Anglerre – it’s extremely narrative based, very few crunchy fiddly bits, but enough (I think) to appeal to players who care about their city’s silver trade, for instance. Any FATE-based game will have those kinds of options, but I feel that Legends of Anglerre just really brings the fantasy kit together very well. YMMV, but I hope you can check it out 😉

  2. Thanks for the comment and the suggestion!

    I’m not a big fan of FATE based games. Despite my story leanings, something about FATE always rubs me wrong. I might have to check out the game just to look at the domain style rules though — that part might still work for me.


  3. I wholeheartedly agree, it irritated me that at higher tiers you were expected to go planeswalking, as if it were some rite of passage. I’ve always been complete content to wander around in the ordinary and the mundane with appearances in the abyss, and the planes as an exception not the norm.

    I really loved the idea of building your own stronghold when I first started playing. Rather than each having our own stronghold/guild/tower we instead pooled our resources and established a nearby keep as a base of our operations. Although nowadays I have no interest in the domain stage. I suppose it may be because I’ve spent too long behind the screen and I’ve begun to associate domains with book keeping that isn’t worth the investment. Or perhaps I’ve merely become lazier, who knows!

  4. Ha!

    I think I’ve become lazier too. Though to be honest, I attribute that less to actual “laziness” and more to actually spending too much time behind the screen. I think I’m pretty close to full on GM burnout.

    I still love the idea of the domain phase of the game. I remember when Birthright was released back in 2E… I couldn’t wait to play! Of course, I ran Birthright instead of getting to play it so… there you go.

    I’m also still looking for that game where running my domain is more about people than things. I’ve been burning brain cells thinking about how I’d create such a thing but I’m still not quite there yet. We’ll see.


    1. Ah, that’s the old problem with mechanics, they are very poor for representing (and sometimes replacing) social events. It’s much easier for a designer to say peasants require x space to live and generate y in taxes than it is to make a working of model of when trouble arises, which courtesan wants to work the social ladder and how will they will do it. It’s not surprising since traditionally you think of game mechanics through formulas, and math is great for many things but making believable predictions of social events and interactions it is poorly suited.

      I would love to play a game where diplomacy and non-violence is not only the end goal but the entire journey. I’m not sure if any such game exists but I’m sure with enough motivation someone could make one.

      Now that I think about it, Act Raiser on the super nintendo was a pretty great domain type game. As a guardian angel/demi-god you looked out for your people. Terraforming the land so they could use it, chasing off demons, subverting the weather, and occasionally your flock would come to you asking for miracles, aid and near the end of chapter they would tell you of the ancient evil they unintentionally unearthed or the one sealed away that is plaguing their dreams and cursing their children. That would be a very fun template for extraordinarily powerful PCs. I’ll have to see how ACKS stands up.

  5. ACKS is very interesting. It is well-written, obviously a labor of love, and well thought out. I like it a lot and if I decided to “go old school” it would be an obvious choice for me.

    That said, it still really focuses on the “mechanics” of being a “business manager” of a realm in most cases. The rules for the Thief organizations are actually really cool. I like the hijinks rules.

  6. I know I’m late to this discussion, but I’m always on the hunt for great Domain type rules as well. A suggestion for your dilema though… if you want to have a “Council Table” level adventure, you should consider putting some of the work into the hands of some of the active players. For instance, if one of your players shares an interest in kingdom building, and likes the “crunchy bits” more than you do, let them be the group’s Minister of the Interior (or whatever). Similarly, you can have one player be the Monarch or Heir (who comes up with the Aristocracy), one player control the ships and military, etc. All of this content would be made available by the players for the GM to use or adjust as wanted.

    The two big potential issues with that approach (assuming the players want to do these things) is 1) It may leave you with less design space than you may like, and 2) You end up with the “CSI dynamic” of having too few actors having to represent the entire working system. For example, the Medical Examiner might also be the Public Relations Personality and Liason to the overall Bueracracy…. as if anyone would have time to do ALL of those things.

    One very experimental thing I tried to do in one of my games might be a useful solution to problem number 2. This game had only two (but very experienced) players, and inhabited a big world with alot happening at once scattered around the map. So I had the players take on the roles of a completely different set of characters from week to week. So first they played the Blacksmith and a young Hunter in service to their Lord, while the next week they played one of that Blacksmith’s young kids and his best friend on an exciting trip to a far off place that was about to go terribly wrong. In another week they played their first characters’ Lord’s Lord and his son as they were being executed for an imagined treason by their mad King.

    I didn’t get to continue the experiment any further, but I think it worked well (for us) for as long as we tried it. I loved the improvisation we were all forced to use when thrust in an unexpected role. I don’t think this would work for everyone, or even anyone less experienced in roleplaying. This approach emerged because I needed to convey some important events to the players whose characters were far removed in both distance and social station from them.

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