16 October 2013

The Hard Sell

How on earth do you sell a domain-level game to your players?

"Oh yeah, you guys don't play as adventurers or detectives or knights or anything, you play as noblemen and Barons and Dukes, see, and you give commands to other people to solve problems, and build walls, and levy armies, and elect people from the populace as reeves and sheriffs and magistrates. That still sounds fun, right?"

And to the right person (me, for one), it does sound pretty fun. I remember using the excremental 3rd edition D&D rules to whip up some quick conversions and figure out how long it'd take any given group of craftsmen to construct a wall, for example, or how much gold some miners could dig up. I even ran it once, for my brother, although that abortive campaign really went nowhere fast for some reason. I can't remember why, honestly, because it started out pretty well.

But I digress.

Part of the problem is that the players are no longer working directly together. Instead, they are directly pitted against each other in a sort of ethereal board game, or perhaps they form a sort of cooperative ruling class where the main gameplay is arguing about stuff and waiting for their underlings to do things. The best case scenario I can think of is that one player is a sort of king, and the others are ministers of a certain part of the government (like the general of the armies, or the Head Reeve, or maybe the Lord of the Merchant's Guide) so that each player has a separate job, and they have to decide how to partition out their money and time and experts so that each person is accomplishing plenty of things without stepping on each others' toes or feeling useless...

But, really, at this point we're playing a really huge kingdom simulator, and I don't know if I'm able to simulate an ancient-worlds kingdom from a high level. It's a huge job, and would probably require a lot of reading and memorization and knowledge if I wanted to avoid the typical fantasyland boringness of "nothing ever changes unless something Named and Powerful does it," which I do.

The other part of the issue is that the genre as a whole is heavily skewed towards playing as an exceptional individual doing individually exceptional things. It's all about personal glory and personal belongings and very rarely about doing anything for one's society or even group. Maybe I've been reading the wrong games? Who knows.

Still, a man can dream.


  1. I still think Birthright did it right. They broke down domains further into Law (the person who controls the land and bodies of the people), Temples (the person who controls the minds of the people), Guilds (the person who controls the money) and Sources (the person who controls the magic of the land). Domains were even further broken down by race; elves and dwarves were their own domain and seldom crossed over into the human domains. This allowed for a group of players to actually still work together as each could control each type of domain without encroaching on the others - in fact they became stronger as a group rather than individuals.

    But yes, it is a tough sell. A month ago I wrapped up my 4E campaign and I tried to sell a hacked Birthright (HARP character rules but Birthright domain rules) as our next game. In the end we ended up deciding on 7th Sea, with Birthright coming in third behind the 3E game.

    1. As much as I love Birthright, I could never get my players to go for it... And you're correct, Birthright does it right!

  2. I think its a great game concept. I've run something vaguely similar in the past. The key concept to keep in mind is 'middle management' the characters for all there success and power are still beholden to people (beings/kings/emperors/sultans/gods/planar entitites), that they have to obey more or less. The challenge for the players is to execute the commands of the higher authorities, by getting their simpler underlings to do it, correctly. And often times the characters will say to themselves 'if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself' and begin strapping on armor and polishing weapons. Coupled with a campaign wide event, that affects everyone...like a plague for example, it can prove for a very viable game. The king summons his noble/counselors/etc (PCs) to address/resolve the plague outbreak suddenly gripping his kingdom. The HighPriest (PC), explains that due to the sheer volume of dead they can't burn them fast enough, and there has been a corresponding increase in undead sightings. He suspects something behind the plague; a lich or vampire perhaps but has been unable to investigate because of managing the pyres, as his underlings are dying, and the team he sent to investigate the village that was the source of the plague hasn't returned. Lord Nonce the Shire Reeve (PC) complains that with the plague the city's militia is at half strength and tax collection has all but ceased. His tax collectors have reported rumors of revolt and cessation from the kingdom, and some have even been robbed and gone missing. The Archwizard (PC) takes this time to confer that certain items have turned up missing from the vaults of the Wizard academy, since the academy has been hit hardest with the plague (wiz low Con); apprentices dropping like flies. The items may have a part in creating this plague, and must be recovered at all costs. The Guildmaster (PC) a cagey one admits that this plague has been horrible for business, and while some rivals have fallen victim to the plague, to his benefit, he has suffered some serious attrrition in his ranks and needs to go on a recruiting drive, and for that he'll need some coin....and so on. Now the characters all have common cause to go adventuring, to combat a threat that their underlings cannot handle, and that they are pressured from the King to resolve ASAP.

    Further, at the outset of such a game, since you will be presumably starting at a higher level, have each of the characters do a solo session prior to the true start of the campaign. In doing so, you will have the character the 'calm before the storm' introducing their underlings, retainers, and subplots. The resolution of which should leave the characters with a clue which will become apparent later. For example; the High Priest is overseeing a costly expansion of the temple; stuck in budget meetings and labor disputes. Workers accidentally discover a hidden tomb. Several die horribly before the High Priest can get to the site...there's evidence something escaped. The Shire Reeve's fiance a beautiful young noblewoman spurns him publicly at a Royal dinner, she's been acting extremely odd lately. One would think she found another lover...rumors speak of one of his retainers. And so on.

    Loyal reader of 2 years...keep it up.

    1. I love the ideas. Absolutely love them.

      Probably what I'd have to do would be, as the capstone of a successful campaign where the players impressed the right people and come into some serious money, would be to have them play a domain game for a while; it'd be fun on its own for a couple of sessions, even for people that aren't usually a fan of that sort of thing, and it'd help disentangle the players from the characters they loved so much. Let them kind of relax, calm down, and reminisce about the good old days when they would just march into a dungeon, slap goblins around, and then leave... except that unlike real life, we can actually make that happen!

      So the domain game would continue on in the background, more or less, and might even let the player's current characters work for their players' former characters...

      Yes, I think that'd do nicely. With any luck, I can aim my current game towards that eventual goal ;)

  3. One of my formative influences is Dune, so a game of nobles and household staff playing games of intrigue and influence is something that has always appealed to me (it doesn't hurt that my first game of AD&D was with a character who spent nearly all his money on hireling mercenaries, to great success).

    Games that are useful for this include: Pendragon, Chivalry & Sorcery (1st or 2nd edition, perhaps 4th, but 3rd dropped all of the manorial stuff from the main rules), Realms of the Unknown (which is entirely about running a social community, or "Realm", rather than individual characters, with play somewhat resembling the old PBM games), Birthright (as mentioned), and a few others. GURPS has all the tools to make a domain-level game, but hasn't put them together in that way as yet, exactly, and so might require a lot of prep work. AD&D (and Adventures Dark and Deep) has all the tools, if one includes a mass combat game like Battlesystem, By This Axe, or Book of War, or relies on DM fiat for battles, but is heavily reliant on DM adjudication (there was a blog post discussing how the random encounter tables are extraordinarily useful for this sort of thing, but I forget where that was). RuneQuest 3 had a supplement (Dorastor, I think) that included some notes on running colonists in those Chaotic lands that were useful for such an endeavor.

    1. Oh, and a good way to help sell the idea to many players might be to invoke Game of Thrones/Song of Ice and Fire, since a lot of people enjoy that show/those books quite a great deal.

      Another very useful game for domains is ACKS. Not sure why that slipped my mind.

    2. That list is absolutely what I was looking for, thank you!

      I think it'll still be a fairly hard sell for my current group, who's infinitely more inspired by World of Warcraft and Guild Wars and the like than Dune or any of the more traditional sources, to go for a fantasy game where they don't actually do any slaying, but damn it, I'm going to try.

      Good idea on the Game of Thrones thing, I'm reasonably sure at least one of them has a passing knowledge of the TV show and hopefully it'll help them realize that engaging fantasy doesn't have to be about charging to one's near-death every week.

    3. Glad I could help!

      Another one I forgot is Cyclopedia D&D (or BECMI), which includes domain rules. However, those rules are designed so that a domain can't pay for itself, to encourage PCs to go out and adventure for more cash. In Dragon magazines 187, 189, and 190, though, there was a set of modifications to the rules to make the economy more realistic.