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.