Last time in this series, I examined the Adventurer Conqueror King System. Alexander Macris came along in the comments section and offered me previews of five articles that will appear in the AXIOMS fanzine, expanding some particular elements of ACKS’s handling for non-feudal governance and the like. I’m starting this article with some commentary on those, and I’ll continue into discussing An Echo, Resounding by Kevin Crawford. The huge amount of content I’m covering is also the reason this is going up almost twelve hours late.

(image above from the popular HBO series, Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo Kill Everyone)

Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight | Part Nine | Part Ten


Senatus Consultum Ultimum

This article offers rules for realms with advisory or legislative councils, usually made up of the Who’s Who of the realm’s society. There are a lot of tradeoffs that go into establishing a senatorial realm, but that’s not the really eye-popping thing about this article. This is, in brief, a layman’s guide to running Classical- or Medieval-edition The West Wing. The material is dense, so go in prepared to work your way through it with care, but no lie, it is a work of staggering genius when it comes to generating enough social conflict to drive a whole campaign. If there weren’t extensive mechanics attached, it would look like a by-the-numbers plot generator:

  • It establishes leading senators, which is a way of boiling the whole senate down to a manageable number of people.
  • It generates their degree of influence, which means they aren’t all of equal importance even within this primary tier.
  • It provides policy objectives – a random generator for what these major characters care about.
    • It could afford to stop here. Once you have a list of characters who care about conflicting things and some sense of the assets they bring to that conflict, you’re set.
  • It further establishes when and why the will of the senate becomes important in the course of play – the events that compel the PCs to consult the senate.
  • It lists a variety of conditions that grant bonuses or penalties to the all-important voting roll, which is to say that it gives the PCs a checklist of ways to engage NPCs in order to get what they want.

The text notes that influencing the voting can quickly take over a campaign, as players take all of the safeties off of their ruthlessness. This is just as much a selling point as a weakness.

Having said that, let me go back and provide a little more detail. A senatorial realm gains some significant benefits to balance the vexations of the republic: improved morale (because people are more invested in governance), increased loyalty of henchmen and non-henchmen vassals, and raising the levy does not reduce morale if the senate backs it. I’ve been listening to Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast lately, and this fits in very well with his presentation of the Roman senate and mindset. It’s easy to imagine that it would likewise fit Athenian democracy. Perhaps less so for common presentations of the Great Council of Venice or the Anglo-Saxon Witenaġemot. Of course, once you start down that historical path, you soon realize that aristocrats have always wanted the ruler to heed their voices. When I read the senatorial realm’s list of benefits, the narrative in my head goes directly to King John conceding to the aristocrats in order to raise morale, or King Charles I dissolving Parliament because of failed voting rolls (and thus losing these benefits).

The mechanics here also embrace scalability, from march councils of 4-15 senators to vast imperial senates numbering more than 1,200 senators. I don’t know how many ACKS campaigns lead to PCs ruling empires that would make Augustus Caesar blush, but I’m glad that the support is there in the text. Even so, tracking and engaging with the policy goals of 4d6+1 leading senators is some intense content management to put on the GM’s plate. It can be done, but… oof. There are very good reasons that a sidebar mentions an empire with a “smaller, more manageable senate of 600 seats.”

As with the rest of ACKS domain rulership, the system here depends almost entirely on tables. It’s a black-box approach – the tables work as an AI that the GM can override at need.

Finally, there are extensive details on how to tamper with the vote. Properly organized crime can wreak the most amusing havoc with its hijinks: assassination, rumor-gathering, slandering, and spying. We’ve gone from The West Wing to House of Cards and Game of Thrones. In short, this is great material and (like the rest of ACKS’s rulership system) it is only lightly attached to its adventuring rules – it would be trivial to adapt this to any other dice-based game system.


Wandering Into War

The next article offers a system for wandering monsters operating at the domain scale rather than the personal adventuring scale. Encounter frequency varies greatly by the domain’s settlement level, the strength of nearby settlements (if any), local dungeons (cleared dungeons may be repopulated by wandering monsters), and other factors. Much like the article before it, this is a guide to procedural content generation, allowing the GM to quasi-automate the campaign.

The level of detail in this article is perceptibly more complicated to resolve than in the other parts of ACKS that I’ve read so far. The good news is that the complexity generates a reasonably stable set of stats, which the GM can write down and process in a simpler way. Any change to garrisons throws a wrench in that, though.

The guidelines for the nature of the encounter – attitude and the like – references core ACKS rules. This nicely reinforces that the article is about the proper way to scale up from adventurer play to domain-level play. Again, this is solid content generation, as long as the GM is adept at constructing an orderly and sensical outcome from randomized results. These rules depend a bit more on Domains at War, an ACKS supplement for mass combat that I won’t be covering until I write a whole series on mass combat. (It’s on the agenda, just not at the top of the agenda right now.) This portion of the rules is fairly involved and has to be resolved separately each time it comes up, so it’s going to chew up some time at the table if the GM doesn’t work it all out as part of session prep. (Personally, I would never remember to do this, so it’s easy for me to forget that other GMs would.)

This article is fine, but much more dependent on ACKS and D@W rules. Compared to core ACKS and the article above, it’s also less of a black box that spits out content with rich encounter hooks – more of the wiring is exposed here. That’s not bad, but it feels like a deviation from style. I would assume that there was simply no other way to make it function.


Separating Land and Lordship

Much like “Senatus Consultum Ultimum,” this article offers in-depth support for situations that deviate from the medieval feudal structure that core ACKS assumes so heavily. They made the right decision by not putting this in the main book, but it’s really interesting to have it and expand the variety of historical settings the system can emulate. This supports people with the right to collect rents on lands they own, but not taxes – they are not the law of the land.

In addition to supporting aristocratic landowners and governors, the text also explores freeholds and urban city-states. A freehold is a domain in which the peasants who work the land also own it, which delivers huge benefits to morale. The article points me to “The Economics of Peasant Families,” which is the fifth of the articles I’ll be covering here. An urban city-state is, perhaps curiously, not about the city, but about tenant farming or sharecropping – the land is divided up into small plots, which are not owned by the workers.

Overall, there’s a lot less of a content-generation engine built into this article, but it’s a compelling alternative to ACKS and reflects historical realism very well. The single best part of the article is the Designer’s Notes section at the end, which steps back from how to examine why. The different feel of bureaucratic realms from feudal realms, and the likely responses to the different incentives that governors face, brings the article together. Between this and Senatus Consultum Ultimum, they have opened up enormous vistas of gameplay as a way to explore political theory. That sounds dry as dust, but once it’s your character’s holdings and XP income on the line, there’s a perspective shift into gaming the system… herein lies the lesson.


Strongholds and Domains: A Revised Approach

As a variant of the core ACKS section on Strongholds and Domains, this demands a close reading, even a line-by-line comparison. Let’s do this.

  • The minimum domain size has changed from 1 square mile to 2 square miles.
  • Similar tweaks to the numbers so that they actually make sense with the game’s hex sizes.
  • When determining land revenue, you can group your 6-mile hexes into one 24-mile hex, or you can go even simpler and assume average rolls on 3d3. I can’t help but like the promise of more land-development articles to come.
  • Character level now controls how many hexes of territory one can control without taking a morale penalty. This seems a little weird, but it pushes the creation of vassal realms.
    • Indirectly, this encourages every member of the party to get in on domain rulership, rather than it all being one character’s minigame.
  • There are now rules for noncontiguous domains and strongholds, absolutely necessary in the context of Separating Land and Lordship.
  • Limits of Growth – the point at which wilderness becomes borderland and borderland becomes civilized – has been reworked to incorporate its own rules on urban families. I think this is mostly about clarity.
  • There’s a new section on Domain Income that doesn’t have anything new, but frames revenue and expenses more clearly than the rules text.
  • There are rules for non-henchmen vassals, who (naturally) have less loyalty to the ruler and perform favors more grudgingly.
  • The rules now specify what happens when a garrison is undermanned or underpaid, as well as when it is absent or deployed.
  • Finally, there are rules for urban settlements depopulating back down to hamlet status.

The article, then, is dense in clarifications, use cases, and foundations for other articles to build upon. In itself it doesn’t present a lot of new ideas, because that isn’t its point. If you’re going to use ACKS domain management rules, though, this document isn’t to be missed.


The Economics of Peasant Families

I don’t think I’m being terribly uncharitable to call this an article in which the designers show their work on the game’s math, literally down to the caloric level. I don’t have any analysis to add to this, but it’s an interesting read if you like the idea of a game having an economic system that you could beat on all day (outside of inflation or deflation) without breaking. I have a hard time imagining ever using this at the table, but it isn’t really about that.

The five articles together are a pretty amazing body of work. Senatus Consultum Ultimum is staggering in its excellence as a plot generator and source material for non-feudal government. It goes hand-in-glove with Separating Land and Lordship, though the latter is not a machine for printing plot ideas to nearly the same degree. I have never played ACKS, but I recommend these highly for their thoughtful approach and cross-game applicability.


An Echo, Resounding

An incredibly generous reader gave me a copy of An Echo, Resounding as well, requesting only that I cover it in this series. AER is a robust document of domain rulership for Labyrinth Lord. I have no prior experience with LL, but I know enough about the source editions of which it is a retroclone that I assume I can read rules expansions without too much trouble.

AER’s pitch is very much like ACKS’s: plan on domain rulership while the PCs are first level, weave it into the story and the setting assumptions, and make the shift at 9th level or so, but in a natural way rather than a jarring one. Also (or alternately), use AER or ACKS as the backend for procedural content generation, if you want to run stories about blood and politics. Any increase in session prep should return dividends in the NPCs’ actions having firm footing in inter-domain relations and a logical rule set.

Kevin Crawford, AER’s writer, starts with a nuanced discussion of the many hurdles to running domain rulership as part of a tabletop game. The commentary here could be a line-by-line response to a lot of the conversations that have played out in the Comments sections of my Domain Rulership articles.

The first rules-like section of the text deals with building an interesting map, including settlements, resources, and adventure sites. It’s solid guidance, and Resources are the best part – they give all of these settlements something to fight about. Resources also guide the placement of Lairs, which are like Ruins but more assertive. The next step is assigning Traits – that is, the specifics in the fiction of what each Resource is, how each City was founded, that kind of thing. If you thought of it as giving each defined point on the map a contextually suitable Aspect (per Fate), you wouldn’t be far off. There are random tables for generating large amounts of data in a hurry, and you’re going to have to in building a 200-mile x 200-mile regional map.

Finally, each City, Town, and Resource gains an Obstacle. These are more or less a blend of Dungeon World’s fronts and needs – it’s whatever holds that City, Town, or Resource back from being unstoppable and awesome, and is rated on a scale of 1-8. Generating all of this prior to play slots AER firmly into a GM-as-neutral-arbiter style, rather than making the GM someone who guides the PCs to the fun. These are both valid styles, and you can do both in a single campaign, but it’s interesting to see what amounts to the GM choosing to bind their own hands during campaign prep, since the challenge levels of the content have been defined before the PCs have crossed paths with it.

Only now do you establish Domains around these power centers, and the text strongly recommends starting small – generally with city-states, of which one usually wants 2-3, to generate conflict. There’s some very solid worldbuilding advice here, especially when it moves on to building a Hall of Infamy. That’s basically the campaign’s Rogues Gallery, but designed on the assumption that starting PCs can’t do much about them beyond gathering information. This portion of the advice is exactly how we built the main villains of the Dust to Dust setting, so it resonates with me strongly. The only thing I would add to it is that I love putting PCs in three-sided conflicts, so I would create two Prime Evils rather than one. Make them as evenly matched as possible, so that the PCs spoil their détente almost before they know the conflict exists.

Now we come to the actual lists of Traits, each of which has a descriptive text blurb, and also carries a +2 bonus to one of Military, Social, or Wealth. Okay, so those are going to be stats we track. Towns intrinsically grant +2 to Social and Wealth, while Cities grant +4 instead. Next up, Cities and Towns have an Activity, which likewise grants another +2 to one of the three stats. Oh, now I see that Ruins are meant to be cleaned out and controlled by adjoining settlements, because their owner gains another +2 to a stat based on what the ruin is, and another +2 to a stat based on what is interesting about it. I don’t think it unfair to compare these to barbarian huts in Sid Meier’s Civilization series, or dungeons in Stardock’s Fallen Enchantress series. More than in Civ, though, there’s a huge amount of story-building going into this, both in the narrative that the GM strings together from randomness and from the PCs kicking ass up and down the countryside. It’s now no surprise at all that Resources also grant a +2 to one of the three stats.

Lairs spawn raiders or damaging encounters, and also have a “standard” combat challenge in order to clear them out. I’ve already compared AER to two of my favorite 4X franchises, but this section feels even more video-gamey. That’s not a slam; it’s fairly sensible, and it means that wandering monsters have a defined point of origin, rather than popping into existence. It also creates a fairly clear task list for ending the threat they pose – but since they don’t spawn in every domain turn, you can often afford to forget about them for awhile and take care of other problems.

Rulers can try to solve Obstacles either by hiring the PCs (in which case an adventure happens), or by deploying military, social, or wealth-related units: guards, regular army, merchants, sages, prophets, or magistrates. Associating ignorance and sages with “wealth disorders” seems a little weird to me, and I wouldn’t often think of rulers having prophets on-call as troubleshooters, but to be fair, Crawford’s default setting here is fantasy Asia, so that makes a good bit more sense.

The list of Obstacles is about as good of an adventure generator as anything in print. It’s quite varied, as the text needs to give roughly equal support to each of the six obstacle Types. In combination with Lairs, Ruins, and so on, the procedural content generation here is phenomenal. The depth of Social and Wealth issues (which includes needs like education) puts an unexpected spin on AER, as a game where heroes might address more of society’s ills than just a new tribe of ogres next door.

At last we come to actual domain-management rules! Those Military, Social, and Wealth scores get converted to a modifier, but their base values are also your upkeep budget. The modifiers influence the domain’s saving throws, which is how they address Obstacles when they can’t get the PCs involved. On the other hand, the system punishes failed saving throws – not only is the Obstacle not solved, the force used to address it is weakened.

Then I came to a section that is really nothing like anything I have seen before. Now, I’m lucky in the playerbase I draw upon for my games: in general, it’s not a race to the bottom, piling atrocity upon atrocity. AER has rules for that, though, and they are brutal. Atrocities corrode the social fabric (a penalty to your domain stats, that is) until someone takes the fall for crimes committed. Atrocity points also provide a budget for building a rebel force. These are tools with the potential for deep, affecting stories referencing real-world issues. Having good reasons to govern ethically is good too; for good or ill, Senatus Consultum Ultimum highlights the effectiveness of political ruthlessness, so it’s nice to see a counterpoint. (Of course, you could always punish a scapegoat rather than the person actually responsible, so the rules induce the appearance of good behavior more than actual good behavior.)

There’s a solid but surprisingly short list of Domain Actions. Things like Establish an Asset or Solve an Obstacle group together a huge number of different actions. “Assets” are a huge variety of game objects, from cultural customs to military investments to constructing physical structures. They’re one of the things I like most about AER: Crawford put a lot of thought into what players do to make domains more awesome, and rather than only increasing numbers (which my beloved Birthright is a bit guilty of), Assets frame the numerical increases and decreases in specific, story-friendly chunks.

Finally, PCs can gain Champion levels in parallel with their class levels. The point at which PCs gain their first Champion level is up to the GM (sorry, the Labyrinth Lord), but after that it’s a standard XP track. Each Champion level grants a character one choice from a list of special abilities; the first Champion level grants an additional feature based on their core class, such as attracting units of followers with no upkeep, or increasing their domain stats. I like this a lot, as it keeps the PC as an important (but not all-important) part of the domain’s strength. Also, a lot of the options are super evocative – what Dwarf wouldn’t want the Godhammer ability?

I like the mere existence of Champion levels, because it’s one good way to solve a problem that comes up in designing domain management or politics rules for tabletop games: how do I fold this into a progression that is about adventuring? How do I support a fighter being a scheming politician or a rogue being a military strategist, rather than pigeonholing them based on their class’s apparent defaults? I don’t really want a separate feat progression, I don’t want to force multiclassing, and I don’t want them to choose between that progression and their combat effectiveness. The Champion does that: its abilities affect mass combat, but not squad-level (adventuring) combat. Or you can pursue political skills, or domain stat bonuses, or a number of other things. I don’t know that I would adapt this to 5e… but honestly, I can’t think of anything it would break if I did. (You’d want to retune XP requirements to 5e’s scale, but if that’s your worst problem, you don’t have a problem.)

One of the great things about AER is that it has no internal sense of scale – it can be rescaled to whatever suits the story, since “+2 Military” doesn’t have the same kind of objective meaning that 500 gp does in ACKS, and a military unit with an upkeep of 3M 4W 1S could mean a dozen warriors, or a thousand. On the other hand, it loses a sense of being firmly grounded. It’s smart as hell, but it doesn’t aim for the rigorous economics of ACKS or Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe. It’s another domain rulership system where the core game engine is 95% irrelevant, and it would be trivial to rework it for any system that uses dice. ACKS wants you to build economies and use their pseudo-AI, but not worry about describing much of the world before the start of play; AER believes that if you have a really interesting world in Session 1, much of the rest of the campaign takes care of itself with only very light use of dice rolls, and playing forward NPC forces’ agendas. In the interest of completeness, though, here’s a great thread discussing AER and ACKS, in which Kevin Crawford offers his own analysis. I didn’t exactly crib from it, but I didn’t ignore his points either.

These are both utterly valid approaches. Figure out your strengths and weaknesses as a GM, and choose a domain rulership system that works for you and your players. I greatly enjoyed everything I read for this article, and recommend them even if you’re not planning to directly use them. There’s bound to be some social structure or conflict that they reframe and help you present in a new light.

  • Colin McLaughlin

    I never did see that show Rome that HBO was always advertising, but Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo Kill Everyone was really good. Particularly the collegium.

  • Syd Andrews

    So, there’s something that I never really thought about until this installment. And that is the “core game system”. In all of the previous articles, I had always made the assumption that each of the domain rulership systems were married to a particular RPG system that was some flavor of fantasy-slash-medieval system.

    But after reading this post, now it has me wondering. Are these various Domain Rulership variants system agnostic? Are some of them designed for a very specific RPG system? Are they very flexible? It seems from this post that the AER system is highly flexible and able to be adapted to various RPGs. And maybe the ACKS is as well?

    In my previous musing about how a campaign centered around domain management felt like a “different animal” (to me at least) than a “typical” D&D campaign that was centered around the adventuring lifestyle. As I consider this more, it seems that if the domain-management rules are, in fact, not system specific; in other words, they aren’t written for “D&D Edition X”; then they are more of a “tack on” system or “replacement system” from the core of the D&D (or other specific RPG) rules.

    I guess the heart of my question is this: which of these are specifically written to be used with a particular RPG, and which of these is more “system agnostic”?

    • I’ve covered a whole mess of systems so far. Not one of them has been, from first principles, system-agnostic. There are huge variances in how easy they would be to lift from their core adventuring systems, though – AER, Magical Medieval Society, Mentzer’s Companion, and 13th Age are all on the Very Easy end (it’s literally hard to go much lighter on attachment), while Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook, Birthright, Ultimate Campaign, and some others have their core systems deeply integrated. ACKS is sort of an ambiguous middle ground – its ultradeep economy design means you can choose whether or not to adopt it, and you can kinda get away with not, but really weird things happen down the line if you don’t. For example, without GP -> XP that it assumes, things start slowing down even more than intended at mid-to-high levels, as you have few ways to accumulate XP from rulership.

      There’s a whole separate conversation about whether close integration of rulership and core systems is beneficial. In general, the stronger the connection, the more your nature and stats as an adventurer inform your nature and stats as a ruler. That can extend to “fighters can’t be good kings because they aren’t good at diplomacy,” or it can just mean “all those magic items you collected can be useful for your stronghold once you outgrow them.” It’s a tough balancing act for every rule set.

      MOST things that were built for any edition of D&D could be ported to any other edition with a minimum of fuss, though the 2e/3e threshold is a difficulty spike in either direction. If there were a domain rulership system for 4e, it would likely be radically different and nearly nonconvertible.

  • This series has gone on for a long time and I love it. I am extremely glad you’ve had the opportunity to review ACKS material in such detail. The systems are almost excruciatingly exact, but their ability to simulate all the things they are capable of simulating (I could have just stopped at “all the things”) is a demonstration of superb research and thought applied to a design.

    One of these days I’ll get you in a game of it. 😀

    • There are still one or two systems left to cover, if you can believe that!

      On a simulation level, my only real issue with ACKS is that it LETS you trade in cattle, spices, or whatever non-coin wealth you like, it doesn’t push that approach to a historically plausible degree. Talk about your nitpicky issues! I would love to play an ACKS campaign if you were running it. 🙂

  • Wyvern

    I’d at least heard of most of the other supplements you’ve covered in this series, but AER is a new one to me. I like the idea of a domain system based on fantasy Asia rather than fantasy Europe; I wonder if it would work for Exalted. I have a few questions about it:

    – What are the mechanical benefits of the domain scores, besides being used to pay for upkeep of troops?

    – Just what does Social represent? Is it used in diplomacy, for instance? And if sages deal with Wealth issues, what kind of hirelings deal with Social problems?

    – What are the six different types of Obstacles? And what are some examples of Obstacles a Resource might have?

    Btw, I played a bit of Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes a few years ago, and absolutely loved it. I think it may very well be a contender for my favorite computer game ever. I plan on giving it another go once I’ve finished with some of the other games I’m currently in the middle of.

    Have you ever played Crusader Kings 2, and if so can you draw any parallels between the way that game handles your advisory council (particularly with the Conclave expansion), and the rules in Senatus Consultum Ultimum? (I wonder how policy objectives, for instance, compare with the different voting stances of councillors in CK2.)

    • As long as you make sure the tone of Obstacles continues to feel right for the power level of Exalted, I expect AER could be a very good fit for it. Kevin Crawford’s recent Godbound is a pretty stunning vision of Exalted woven into D&D. (In case I haven’t been clear enough about this, Kevin Crawford is kind of blowing my mind these days, and I think he’s one of the most excellent creative voices in gaming right now.)

      Military, Social, and Wealth get converted to a modifier, starting at +0 and scaling up theoretically as far as needed (but practically, very large scores would be bad for keeping tension in the game). Add this modifier to a saving throw roll when you use NPCs rather than PCs to solve the domain’s problems.

      Social represents a domain’s harmony, the knit of its fabric. Things that increase Social include society-wide missionary zeal, obedience to top-down control, the domain being founded by outcasts (who had to learn to work together just to survive), clear legitimacy of rule, that kind of thing. Prophets and Magistrates are the Social hirelings.

      The six types of Obstacles are Disorder and Uprising (Military), Poverty and Ignorance (Wealth), and Despair and Corruption (Social).

      Resources have Obstacles like Flooding, Relic Golems, No Workers, and Bad Feng Shui.

      I have not played Crusader Kings 2. I played just enough Europa Universalis 2 to be completely snowed under with its complexity. I’m aware of Paradox’s games as heartbreaking works of staggering genius that I just don’t have time to study – lots of my friends are huge fans of them, and I trust their tastes.

    • Wyvern

      The “ignorance as a Wealth disorder” makes more sense when you pair it with poverty. As Dickens famously portrayed in A Christmas Carol, poverty and ignorance often go together, the former leading to the latter. I presume that merchants combat poverty just as sages combat ignorance — and likewise, prophets and magistrates counter despair and corruption respectively.

      I own a bunch of Paradox games, having picked them up as a package deal from a GOG sale, but I haven’t really played any of the others (though I’m looking forward to trying out EU Rome). I started Hearts of Iron 2 once, but gave up immediately when I realized I had no idea what I should do first. So I can relate to what you’re saying. I’ve only barely scratched the surface of CK2 (I’m a few years into the learning scenario), but FWIW I get the impression that it lends itself better to casual play than the others. Sure, it has tremendous depth, which you can really sink your teeth into if that’s your thing, but you can also just let the game run and see what happens, as I’ve been doing. Kind of like a very zoomed-out, medieval dynastic version of The Sims.

  • Shane

    It’s worth mentioning that the ACKS material reviewed in this article can now be purchased from DriveThruRPG, in AXIOMS Issue #3 from Autarch.