05 March 2013

The Joys of Middle Management in the Middle Ages

A lot of times it's easy to get bogged down in details when you're creating your nation, or to stick a bunch of shit in there that seems really cool but absolutely is irrelevant to 99% of your nation's decisions. You might think that the High Council of Orhz having advisory power over the King's Inner Sphere sounds really cool (I guess), but what do they do? What do they matter?

And it's easy to see this sort of careless influence being applied to geopolitical matters, too. You see maps that are static for thousands of years, belying a stasis that is completely non-historical, with monolithic ethnic blocks that never existed, with nations that are content to sit in their little corner, places with no hooks or interesting parts, nations that are determined by the actions of heroes. Tolkien wrote like this, where nations kind of sat around until a hero kicked them into high gear, and there's nothing wrong with that, per se. The man knew what he was doing; what he was doing was writing a fantastical history based on legends, where that's exactly what happened. And in most history books of his day (and today, naturally), most of the important things that happened have been attributed to one or two heroes. Alexander may have been a great general and a great thinker, but where would he have been without his advisors, his generals, his lieutenants? Caesar may have made the Roman Empire into a powerful state, but it was the Senators that made things possible. And the Spartans under Leonidas? Same deal.

Unfortunately, people are very good at copying what influences them without understanding why it works, and so we have a hundred thousand derivative books about people sitting around happily until a hero just happens to come around and shake things up. Because that's what happens when you apply modern knowledge (governments are static and persist for a long time) and combine it with what you've heard about old timey stuff (things take a long time to happen, people are uneducated) without doing any research! The ancient and medieval times, poor as they may have been to the large lower class, weren't static and boring; they were composed of incredible and interesting feats of daring, of remarkable progress in innumerable fields (did you know they invented the crane in 515 BC? Or paper in ~200 BC? Seismometers and crankshafts in 200 A.C.?), and of creative individuals all across the world who were creating and destroying vast monuments and feats of engineering that we can't be assed to replicate today.

Picture related: incredible feats of mortarless masonry
But that's neither here nor there. That's all just so we're on the same page. It's a problem, to me, that the background information of a lot of stuff is really bland, because that means that a game like Yer Lordship doesn't have anything good to offer you. It means that you don't want to run a kingdom because they don't actually do anything interesting. It means that you'd rather run around and be an adventurer forever, because at least they get to do something. You get to use your character's powers and I mean, isn't that what it's all about? What's the point of abandoning all your cool character sheets with their concrete benefits to run now play an abstract nation-builder?

So it hit me.

In the vast majority of games, the important parts of the game are spelled out for you on a character sheet. In Descent, for example, your health and armor and offensive potential are all spelled out for you, because that's what important. In Chess, nothing more than their movement potential and their ability to take other pieces are spelled out, because that's all that matters in that game. In roleplaying games it's more complex, but it's still all there; if you take a peek at any decently-designed character sheet you like, everything that you might need during play is on there, and usually on the first page.

It's safe to say that what's on your character sheet is the entirety of what matters about your character, and not having those things on the character sheet is why people don't wanna change. You put all this work into getting a magical sword and gaining hit points and amassing treasure, and then you throw away all that plate mail and +2 swords and stuff and for what? So you can bark orders to some idiots and ignore all the cool loot on your character sheet? What's the point? I don't want to ignore what's on my character sheet, what was important for 95% of the game up until this point!

So why not give them a new character sheet?

They can still have their old one, but it's not going to be very important, because they aren't raiding dungeons- they're collecting taxes or overseeing the training of the army, or leading a sortie on a battlefield two hundred miles from their fortress, or managing trading routes, or other big stuff. So now they have to figure out how much Command they have; how much Influence they've got with other kingdoms, their Reputation, and the other sorts of things that generals and lords need to have.

Well, if their attributes are new things, what are their equipment? What are their skills? Can you guess? It's other characters in the game.

If you're a Reeve, your equipment is whatever helps you do your job, right? So your assistant is on your character sheet; he gives you +1 to Logistics, which is your main stat. Sometimes he's away, or injured, or dying, and that's like losing a good sword. You'll miss him, but you can get a new one, right? And maybe your stats aren't the greatest for your job (imagine a fighter with low stats) but you can still do your job! Your stats are only so important, right?

If you're a General, your equipment would be your army, yes, but more pertinently, it's your exceptional captains. It's what you would be, as a player character, if you were in this army. They're the guys that give you +1 to Logistics, +1 to Command, +2 to Reputation, because they're what makes your life easier. They're your equipment, because they're not an intrinsic part of you.

Pictured: A War Leader and his equipment: a +2 Sergeant, +1 Warriors, and +2 Warship
Your skills (like the fact that the Fighting Man gets a strength bonus or multiple attacks or whatever, or the Cleric getting healing spells) are still part of the game, but now they're a measure of How You Rule. You can be a tyrannical feudalist Fighter or a benevolent aristocratic Cleric, because your class doesn't matter, because you're not fighting people with your swords any more. That's what you hire people to do for you, right?

"What if you can't think of cool things for a Commander to do," you might think, "or a Logistics guy? Isn't that boring?"
Well, that's kind of my job, isn't it? Whose fault is it if a supplement isn't interesting, or if you can't get how exciting it would have been to have been a Guard Captain on a borderlands between you and barbaric ogre tribes, or to be a small, weak Baron when people are slaying each other over matters of birthright?

If you read this far, I just want to thank you, because I like writing about this.


  1. This is a great post. I haven't yet gotten a group of players far enough that this matters, but I'm looking ahead, hoping to get there, and the idea of new stats and NPCs as "gear" is excellent food for thought.

  2. This is some interesting thinking about how to incorporate dominion-level play into a roleplaying game.

  3. Great post. My players are few levels off from domain-building but I absolutely would like it to become part of the game, and your suggestion about a 'domain play' sheet makes a lot of sense to me. I hope you do continue this line of thought and post about it!

  4. I wrote about this for swashbuckling campaigns, and the currency of 'domain' play becomes favors owed, contacts made, and offices held.

    Excellent post - I look forward to reading more.