It’s been a good while – longer than intended, but you can blame Unearthed Arcana for that – since I last wrote about domain rulership systems. Today, I’m correcting that, and you are instructed to rejoice. I only know of one product line explicitly intended to add domain rulership to 5e D&D, and that’s Legendary Games’ Kingdoms and Ultimate Rulership. (If you know of others that are specifically for 5e, please let me know in the comments.)
Let me get the hard part out of the way first. This is a fraternal twin of Pathfinder’s Ultimate Campaign. It doesn’t advertise itself as such, but it cites Ultimate Campaign on its SRD page, and one of the reviews on DTRPG is straightforward about that. For my purposes in this column, of course, so close an adaptation of a system is not useful – I’m looking for new ideas, not texts that literally restate things I’ve covered in previous articles.
Okay, so having said that, I’m going to try to approach it fresh – not doing a compare/contrast of how they adapted PF to 5e, and really trying to forget that I’ve read its predecessor. I expect to drill down into critique design elements in more detail, since analyzing 5e design is one of the things I do here.
The first thing I learn is that this document won’t put any emphasis on thorps that grow into metropolises, because it mentions that the number of inhabitants in a settlement is irrelevant. Maybe settlements grow in a way that doesn’t track population numbers? We’ll see. Settlements have stat blocks, and Population is one of them, but not for any important reason.
The first major settlement statistic, then, is Alignment. I’m on the record as finding the existence of the nine-fold alignment system counterproductive in gaming, but at least 5e had the good sense to rip out all mechanical throughput from alignment. (It’s still bad for the game even without mechanical throughput, because: “We killed them because they’re evil.” “How did you know they were evil?” “Well, it said so in the Monster Manual.” is just terrible – and yes, I know of groups where that exact conversation has happened.) Kingdoms, on the other hand, has each alignment component affect other settlement attributes. Lawful, neutral, and good alignments improve helpful stats, while chaotic or evil alignments increase harmful stats. I’m more or less fine with the law/chaos axis, though I think chaos should probably have some beneficial effects to go with its negative ones. But man, defining a settlement as evil just bugs the shit out of me.
Settlements have six modifiers, which we could call their ability scores. The values of these modifiers accumulate from various other things about the settlement: its type (that is, size), alignment, government, qualities, and disadvantages. The six modifiers are Corruption, Crime, Law, Lore, Productivity, and Society. Law has nothing to do with adherence to the law – rather, it is the amount of force the legitimate authorities can bring to bear. Civilians in high-Law societies respond timidly to a show of force, apparently. In brief, none of the words used for the modifiers match their concepts all that well. Each modifier applies its value to a few (usually 2-3) different ability checks; Charisma (Persuasion) gets sliced awfully thin, according to situation.
This is my next problem with Kingdoms: D&D 5e goes way out of its way to avoid stacking up a lot of +/-X situational modifiers. They want to minimize cases of the DM having to rewind the narrative because someone suddenly remembered more modifiers. It has had phenomenal dividends in speeding up play. Kingdoms missed the memo on this, and a lot of small-value and corner-case modifiers are central to the system.
The paragraph of rules on how to call the Watch shows another poor fit with 5e rules. There’s no specific reason that higher ability checks can’t generate better grades of success, but that is not an extant part of 5e design that I can recall. This is, I admit, nitpicking. Anyway, better Cha (Persuasion) rolls get the guards on the scene faster, scaling downward first in minutes, then in rounds.
These rules recognize five forms of government: autocracy (but it mentions chosen by the people, which is… not the normal meaning of autocrat), council, magical (covers theocracy), overlord (the normal meaning of autocrat), and secret syndicate. I only took Poli Sci for Beginners, but this list has issues. Anyway, autocracy is the default, with no modifiers, while the other four change a few of your modifiers, an equal amount up as down.
There are twelve settlement qualities, some purely beneficial, some a mixed bag, and one strongly negative. The number of qualities a settlement has comes from its size. Then there are five disadvantages, which are just as solely-bad as the word implies; these are often transient conditions rather than permanent elements of the settlement’s status, which is lucky, because they’re very bad. Getting rid of them is a worthy adventure goal, especially if causing it was a previous adventure’s result.
Settlements have a Danger level, which is meant to adjust percentile random encounter tables, where the deadly stuff is in the high values. Of course, the 5e DMG doesn’t push this approach to random encounter tables, so it’s more like a nebulous “0 to arbitrarily high numbers” scale.
Finally, settlements have Spellcasting and Magic Items as stats. Spellcasting is the highest-level spell available for purchase from the local casters, while magic items is a dice expression for how many items of each rarity level you can expect to find for sale there (common, uncommon, and rare only – very rare and legendary are only available for purchase with DM fiat). This seems a fairly sane approach, though given the limited number of ways to spend a metropolis’s six qualities, you’re near to guaranteed access to 9th-level spells (no distinction between spellcasting classes). A global reduction in availability, to run a lower-magic campaign, shouldn’t have any unexpected downstream effects.
Next up are kingdom stats. Where settlements are largely presented from a visitor’s perspective, kingdoms show a ruler’s perspective. It’s curious that they treat kingdoms as something relatively easy to manipulate, while individual settlements have no obvious player-facing levers (I’m not sure what this would look like, but… yeah) until you rule them.
Kingdoms have a lot of stats. First off is alignment; take it as read that many of my objections above apply here as well, except that chaotic or evil kingdoms get beneficial stat modifications. Interestingly, Lawful and Evil both improve Economy, while Chaotic and Good both improve Loyalty. Neutral (either kind of neutral) increases Stability. It makes me sad that settlements and kingdoms don’t operate on the same collection of attribute scores, but that’s a matter of the shift from visitor perspective to ruler perspective that I mentioned before.
Consumption is the monthly upkeep cost, in Build Points (BP). BP is nigh-identical to Birthright’s Gold Bars in concept, except that it’s not liquid wealth – the moneychangers who convert between BP and gold pieces are some vicious sons of bitches, with a 50% rake when you convert BP back to gp. Stopping PCs from looting the kingdom treasury is supremely important in Pathfinder, where money can buy magic items, and not the least bit useful or important in 5e, where high-level characters don’t currently have much they can do with money. Kingdoms even reinforces that, with the aforementioned restriction on buying and selling very rare or legendary magic items. Different portions of the rules describe 1 BP as 2,000 or 4,000 gp, along with a few other values.
The dice-rolling dynamic of kingdom play is the Kingdom Check (1d20 + one of Economy, Loyalty, or Stability + other modifiers) against the Control DC (20 + size in hexes + number of districts in all settlements + other modifiers). The foundational modifiers to Economy, Loyalty, and Stability are from alignment and the various leaders’ ability scores. It might be just as fair to say that the sole point of Economy, Loyalty, and Stability is to pass relevant Kingdom Checks. There’s also an Unrest stat, which is sort of like an anti-score, or a Danger attribute from Fallen London – your Unrest is a direct penalty to your Economy, Loyalty, and Stability, and if Unrest ever reaches 11 you have problems. If it reaches 20, you have a bad problem and will not go to space today. Your kingdom is officially on fire.
Before we can move into the full function of Kingdom Checks, we get the rules on who runs the show around here – the PCs, and as many NPCs as they need to fill out the regime. An administration has fourteen key posts, some of which are fine to skip if you need, and some of which are a big problem if unfilled. The stated goal of having so many posts is that some of the mandatory posts will have to be filled by NPCs, who will presumably act to support the regime, but may also have their own interests or be Cylons or whatever. Some of the position names are… not really correct, but that’s okay. (“Councilor” doesn’t mean that. “Grand Diplomat” isn’t a thing until very much non-medieval governments take hold. The “Royal Enforcer” is some combination of the Attorney General, the FBI Director, and an executioner who deputizes civilians.)
One more thing. I mentioned that many of the posts boost one or more of Economy, Loyalty, and Stability. They do this by letting the office-holder add a particular ability score bonus to those stats – for example, if the Councilor has 18 Wisdom, the realm’s Loyalty rating increases by 4. Superficially, this is fine: a wise or charismatic Councilor does reasonably improve the realm’s Loyalty. It fits the fiction. It makes a great post for, you know, bards, clerics, druids, monks, paladins, rangers, sorcerers, and warlocks. Charisma applies to eight of the fourteen posts; that’s fantastic, because the fiction about Charisma has always been that it’s about leadership and magnetism. It’s great to include strong reasons for classes that don’t use Cha as a spellcasting stat to make it a dump stat.
The problem, then, is that they back down from everyone needs Charisma to well, okay, we should include something for the Cha dump stat folks. Intelligence and Wisdom! Yay, good game. I totally understand how Intelligence and Wisdom are useful in the hard work of governance, and any jokes I might make here are too obvious, so just fill in your own. Okay, but now you’ve prioritized spellcasters – should a fighter have to crank one of those stats up to 20 just to keep up? Fine, hell with it, you can use Str, Dex, and Con too. We have no story explanation for how Strength makes for a good general, except that being good at a class that uses Strength might also make you good at generalship. Okay, but fighters and rangers particularly might drop Strength and go deep on Dex. Sorry, they’re bad generals.
This is super nitpicky, but it drives me nuts because the mechanics are totally dropping the ball on communicating theme. The mechanics are increasing the numbers for the sake of making arbitrary math work out. My feeling is that each post should require proficiency in a particular skill or tool kit. Once you meet that requirement, you add your proficiency bonus to the Kingdom Check, because at least your proficiency bonus can stand in for broad competency. The worst that happens is a character needs to spend one feat to pick up a skill they haven’t gotten from class or background.
Next up is the process of the monthly kingdom turn. There are four Phases, most of which are multiple steps: Upkeep, Edict, Income, and Event, resolved in that order. These contain 4, 7, 4, and 1 step, respectively, as well as extensive table lookups. Rather than digging through every single one of these, I want to talk a little more about the function of Unrest, because that mechanic carries a lot of water for the system.
Upkeep opens with a Stability check, which has Pass, Fail, and Seriously Fail as outcomes. Passing the check lowers Unrest – people like Stability and get used to the idea that tomorrow will be more or less like yesterday. If your Unrest is already 0, you get 1 BP instead, because everything is chugging along and your economy is great. Failure increases Unrest by 1, or by 1d4 if you fail by 5+. Unrest also increases (by 2) if your Treasury is in the red (presumably this is tension between the ruling class and the bankers, inflation, or whatever), and by 1 for each of Economy, Loyalty, or Stability that are below 0. The Royal Enforcer can suppress Unrest (by 1), risking a point of Loyalty for the privilege. If you take it slow and look at potential use cases, it becomes clearer that this is a strong marriage of mechanics and story, though the DM must be prepared to put some meat on these bones – or, in PBTA terms, to never speak the name of their move.
Anyway, what this all means is that you can have things go really wrong for a month or three – blowing Stability checks, borrowing heavily, letting Economy or Loyalty or Stability go into the toilet, whatever. You can stanch the bleeding by having the AG the Royal Enforcer prosecute crime – the crime has nothing to do with the Unrest, but crime-and-punishment rulers are both suppressing Unrest in one portion of society and reducing it in another. I just summarized a lot of the last sixty years for you, you’re welcome. Eventually, though, you start addressing root issues – like the Treasury being empty or the office of the High Priest being vacant – and Stability clears the way for Unrest to drop.
There are a ton of tiny modifiers to E/L/S in the Edict tables. This is a place where the rules are frustrating in exactly the way that suits the fiction. In a single month, you’ll note that Edicts come after Upkeep, and there are two more phases before the next Upkeep phase. If you want tinker with policy, you have to work through the rest of the turn before you get to experience the results (since a lot of what you want from those policies is about reducing Unrest). This nicely mirrors the sluggish responsiveness of the public good, and public opinion, to new policy, while still being gameable.
After this point, frankly, the rules really start to get dense, and I’m going to have a very hard time sustaining this detail in analysis. One of the examples in setting policy to manage Stability really shows how much system mastery the player(s) need in order to get by. That’s the sharp downside of what I described in the previous paragraph: this system is a less granular, tabletop version of Europa Universalis games. The learning curve is murder and the compelling story outcomes of play require a pretty detailed understanding of why a choice creates its outcome.
There’s also a constant issue in the text of establishing one standard approach when an idea is first introduced (such as your tax revenue equaling your Economy check divided by 3), only to introduce all of the variant forms of that rule a few pages later (you can choose to divide by 5, 4, 3, 2.5, or 2; the higher the number, the lower your tax rate, creating various effects on Economy and Stability).
Let’s dive into the policy-making minigame, though, because whatever its issues, Kingdoms is all about putting your hands right onto the rudder of the ship of state. To my mind, all of these policy choices do a far better job of describing what kind of realm you rule than alignment ever could. It calls these Edicts, and breaks them into Expansion, Holiday, Improvement, and Taxation categories. The policy lever of Expansion is choosing one of five stances, from Isolationist to Imperialist, with tradeoffs and/or BP costs for each. For Holidays, you’re only choosing frequency, and you’re literally buying Economy and Loyalty bonuses with a randomized BP cost (the die size increases with frequency). Improvement Edicts are the most involved – these edicts follow through on Expansion policy, claiming new hexes, constructing new buildings or terrain improvements, recruiting a new army, or constructing new settlements. Finally, Taxation edicts let you control your tax rate, as I described above.
Improvements bring us back around to the nitty-gritty of settlements, with lot-by-lot distribution of buildings in the settlement. Naturally, the buildings affect the stats of both the kingdom and the settlement, so here it becomes clearer why they aren’t on the same attribute scheme. Needing to position buildings adjacent to one another goes way too far into the weeds for my tastes, though SimCity has sold, according to last count, five hundred quintillion copies, so it’s somebody’s thing! (Don’t get me wrong, I love city-building games, it’s just a lot more awkward in a tabletop environment.) Anyway, the list of improvements is thorough, but doesn’t break a lot of new conceptual ground. Having to choose between them (because a district only has so many lots) seems odd, but you can always make a settlement have multiple districts. The main problem with this system is that it’s not readily avoidable while still using other parts of Kingdoms – the bonuses to Economy, Loyalty, and Stability that you pick up from improvements are the bulk of your totals, after a year or so of in-game construction.
I probably don’t need to explain anything about the random events tables, beyond noting that it’s a percentile scale with different results to indicate good or bad things on kingdom or settlement scales. Otherwise, it’s a pretty classic random event generator. I appreciate the suggested effects of these events, but I would probably find them more compelling if they behaved a little more like a story generator and a little less like a pass/fail test of the players’ actions. I dunno.
A section of optional rules adds four more types of Edicts, but really these are less “optional” and more “this doesn’t come up so often.” As with everything else, these rules are much too number-crunchy for 5e’s whole design aesthetic. There is a literally paragraph-length list of modifiers to the core Charisma (Persuasion) check for Diplomatic Edicts, as well as two separate tables of modifiers.
Exploration Edicts are a shorthand way to send a team of adventurers to explore neighboring hexes, if it’s not convenient to handle it yourself. It’s still dice-roll-intensive overall, but if you’ve ever thought that the most exciting role to play in the Lewis and Clark Expedition was Jefferson, then these rules are for you. I think most PCs would look at the 4,000-16,000 gp per month that Exploration Edicts cost and wonder why they weren’t getting a better percentage of that payday back when they were doing their own bold exploring.
Trade Edicts are pretty much like setting up a business, but on a kingdom scale – you pays your money, you takes your chances. It depends heavily on the buildings you’ve constructed in a given settlement.
Vassalage Edicts are sort of bizarre as definitions of vassalage go, but then this whole system is for building kingdoms in conveniently-mostly-unoccupied territory (a monarchist vision of the American colonizing experience), not modeling actual medieval dynamics. After all, founding a dynasty is a great heroic ambition, but basically no one in history rose from commoner scum with a sword to Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV. Anyway, this establishes another realm as your subordinate, whether through peaceful or warlike means.
This brings us to the end of Kingdoms, but we still have Ultimate Rulership. Fortunately for this already massive article, and if you’re still reading this I love you for it, it’s about half as long.
The follow-up expansion to Kingdoms covers all of the areas of rulership that the first book didn’t. It adds five new classes of edicts, more discussion of how to make domain play a natural part of the campaign (in several different cultural models, no less), an alternate approach to settlement building that emphasizes growth from village to metropolis, a list of new buildings (including Wonders of the World, because yes, if I’m playing domain rulership, I did set out to play Sid Meier’s Civilization), a huge number of new settlement qualities and disadvantages, and generally a much improved integration of the fantastical into the system.
The new kinds of edicts are the only part that needs discussion here; the rest of the work is just more, all in the vein of what’s found in Kingdoms. (That’s not a bad thing, and in the balance, it was needed.) Commission edicts represent only the ruler’s ability to pre-empt others in a magic item crafter’s production queue. I… guess there are still professional magic item crafters in some 5e settings, and it’s just as well if they’re all NPCs. The rules-as-written for magic item crafting are a kick in the teeth.
Anyway, next up is the Endowment edict, stop snickering, I see you there in the back, which is the privilege of paying a bunch of additional cash to make the building famous and pretty, which pays dividends in the Fame and Loyalty stats. It’s not even a burdensome amount of money, but since you can issue only one Special Edict per turn, the action economy means you might not get around to it for a long time.
Espionage Edicts are another example of letting rulers hire NPCs to have adventures for them. It certainly puts me in mind of the rules for hiring assassins in the 1e DMG. Determining the check DC and the various forms of possible espionage is a full page of rules. The blowback if your spy or saboteur fails, and you also fail a Loyalty check, is serious.
Since there are already Holiday Edicts, one might think Festival Edicts unnecessary, and the text addresses that. The former are for recurring cultural touchstones, while the latter are for one-time expenditures. If you want to regain the goodwill of the masses, get yourself made aedile for the year (uh, not really, I’ve just been listening to Mike Duncan’s amazing History of Rome podcast a lot lately) and go all bread-and-circuses on their asses. You roll Economy, Loyalty, and Stability to determine how your festival is received. It’s a surprisingly high-stakes check, with all kinds of things that can go wrong in the unlikely event that you fail all three. (Really, you can calculate the odds fairly precisely beforehand, so unless natural 1s show up a lot, you shouldn’t have this problem.)
Recruitment Edicts allow the ruler to choose the realm’s stance vis-à-vis militarism, a five-step scale from pacifist to warlike. Curiously, your realm’s Population now matters a lot, since your military recruitment limits are expressed as a percentage of what was supposed to be an irrelevant value. It particularly matters when we start talking about recruiting elites (2nd and 3rd-level troops with class levels). As with the rest of the Domain Rulership series, I’m not digging into the mass-combat rules – that’s likely to be another series, in the yet distant future.
What I can say about Kingdoms and Ultimate Rulership is that they are for people who want extraordinarily deep detail and very little glossing over of things that, frankly, rulers and their Small Council don’t usually handle. If micromanaging a kingdom is your deal, this is for you. Make sure you get broad buy-in from everyone at the table, because resolving these details is going to chew up time at the table like crazy.
The best part of the setup here is that the system shows you a huge number of different ways to boost Economy, Loyalty, and Stability. Sometimes you have to do a different thing first, but basically, just about any logically useful thing you’re going to do improves one of those, or contributes to doing so further down the road. The downside is, again, the data management (even a spreadsheet only helps so much here), the sheer time to discuss and make these decisions, and the fact that most of the system’s outputs don’t lead to compelling story. To do that, a greater percentage of the results would need to be things you logically resolve with adventure.
For me, the best thing about this is that I’ve clarified a lot of my own goals and approaches, if and when I write my own domain-management system for 5e. I believe that making it feel like 5e’s design aesthetic is key. Unless another system presents itself and I simply can’t pass it by, this is the last article in this series for a good while, as I’ll be taking time – possibly a lot of time – to develop my own domain management system. I’ve got the seed of an idea so far, but that’s the easy part…