Two weeks ago, I talked about the Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook, the “main” 3.x-based book for stronghold construction and domains. I also mentioned a third-party product, A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe, by Expeditious Retreat Press. In the comments, alert reader Charles Geringer brought up Power of Faerûn. Because irony is the only cosmic balance to entropy, I have a copy of that very incunabulum on the shelf behind me. This is me, in my customary writing chair, looking as dashing as ever.
Anyway, those are the books I’ll be covering today, neither of them lightweights when it comes to domain rules.
A Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe
This book made a big splash, as third-party publications go, when it came out in 2003, as one of the most comprehensive deep dives into the details of medieval life in a magical world. Even better, it is maybe 75% system-agnostic and 20% “5e is still d20-based, so it’s fine.” I won’t be doing a line-by-line critique of this 144-page book, which is light on art and heavy on text and tables, so let’s just focus on the stronghold and domain rules. The super-short version of what I’m not covering is discussion of world-building for a medieval society in a low-magic setting with essentially nothing gonzo whatsoever. Short of updating Birthright, I don’t think a product could have me any more in its crosshairs as a target audience than this one does.
The first chapter deals with the daily lives and social structure (including some very detailed discussion of taxation) on manors. This is one of the few products I’ve seen that emphasizes manors as the foundational unit of rulership, and reading it makes life at Downton Abbey seem about as easy and free as Spring Break. The really important thing is that you do not ever want to play a serf. Life is a lot more expensive as a serf, because so many taxes only apply to “unfree peasants,” as the text describes them. Yeomanry is the lowest rung that you actually want to play, unless the whole game is about a peasants’ revolt and sticking it to the Man.
The level of detail alone is kind of fascinating. I have never seen a group of players debate what to plant on their acreage to balance the food they need and a profitable yield, but by God you could play that game with this book, including some guidance on what kind of labor force you need. I’m not gonna lie, this kinda makes me want to run Dark Ages Downton. Weird as it is, I think it would be a compelling experience for the right group.
MMS manors have three salient stats: money (both income and expenses), acreage, and population. There’s a Manor Worksheet to help with money and acreage, and thankfully the worksheet simplifies a lot of what goes on in the text. I must stress that something can be simpler without being simple, however; the Manor Worksheet has a good bit in common with a Form 1040. God help you if you’re lord over multiple manors; there’s a special rule to make that easier, but I can’t really follow what it’s saying. Do you remember how I said Birthright really needs electronic tools to handle data? MMS blows it out of the water at the manor scale. They’ve drilled down to an intensely personal scale, and that is fascinating, but dense.
Let me emphasize here that, while I am a serious history nerd and whatever, the text of this book is shockingly good for balancing detail and interest. I feel smarter for having read this book. Its mechanical detail is often not really necessary, but the description of medieval reality is so good. Also noteworthy: interspersed bits on how D&D’s core assumptions, like class demographics, magic, literacy, and provable polytheism, change the world.
There’s a section on detailing cities, but I don’t think it’s particularly common even in dedicated domain gameplay for PCs to be in charge of a city. The next step up from that is ruling a kingdom, and here again MMS has rules to offer, tracking more stats:
- Money, of course – if the book has one through-line point, it’s that money is why people do things. There are a five major income sources: manors, taxes, scutage, mines, and towns and cities.
- Number of manors, towns, and cities
- Strength of King (a five-step scale).
- I don’t see a clear suggestion of how a PC king might have Strength rated. If your DM has a low opinion of your legitimacy and/or decision-making, you might have a bad problem.
All of this goes into another worksheet, which is a bit closer to a W2 than a Form 1040. I really want to like these rules, but this is a lot of finagling over what starts to feel like individual gold pieces. It makes me appreciate the other systems that have rounded values off a bit (as with BR’s Gold Bar system), or at least work out the chart so that you’re performing fewer overall operations.
There’s also a building guide for anything you care to construct, though you might need a working knowledge of architecture or civil engineering to make good estimates of each building’s square footage… because square footage is the cornerstone of pricing out construction. Did I give the Stronghold Builder’s Guidebook grief for excessive detail? I take it all back. This runs completely beyond my ability to enjoy detail. Mercy! Quarter! I yield!
Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe emphasizes life within a kingdom. It has essentially nothing to say about politics or interactions between states – it is strictly internal politics, economics, and religious contention. It presents a playable game at every level of detail that stays within one kingdom’s borders (or any number of peaceful neighboring kingdoms, I guess). The hard part is getting all of the players at the table educated as to the historical terms and relationships. If you don’t know the difference between a mortmain and an allod, you are in for a straight-up bitch of a learning curve. (I really, really hope that) This product stakes out the high-water mark for detail and presenting the actual problems faced by peasants, aristos, and monarchs, and spins them into storylines.
Power of Faerûn
I have owned a very large number of Forgotten Realms-related game supplements in my time, and I have read most of them. I think I can safely say that I have never seen any other Realms-related book that has anything at all in common with this one. It feels like someone took the Realms and force-fed it to Aaron Sorkin and Christopher Nolan, who had apparently taken an interest in map fantasy for some reason. To put that another way, I’ve never seen the Realms so political, pragmatic – even gritty. (It’s not the Full GRRM, though.)
As with MMS, this book covers domain rulership and then some, so I’ll only really be discussing domain rulership matters. In particular, there are details on life in a royal court, and on turning an expanse of frontier into your own personal fiefdom. Tucked away in the back of the book is a major expansion to the 3.5 Leadership feat and rules, opening the way to epic-level cohorts and thousands of followers.
The majority of the text here is flavor rather than mechanics, which is pretty surprising if you have a sizable collection of 3.x-era FR hardbacks. It’s one of the few that isn’t all that rich in new spells, feats, magic items, and prestige classes; it has only a tiny number of those. That means it’s delving into a lot of setting detail, but – and here I reveal a lot of bias – it does the typical Realms thing and emphasizes detail that I cannot imagine a DM or the players ever using. Look just a few paragraphs up in this article and understand how mangled my standards for “would use this in a game” really are – but a lot of this material doesn’t reach that bar. Making interesting grist out of the tradition that Waterdhavian fishing boats always receive a berth before any other kind of vessel is, frankly, beyond me. It isn’t all like that; the good bits are the story hooks aimed at rulers and social climbers, emphasizing the tough choices they face in the Realms.
In summary, what Power of Faerûn says about life at court is that you can add a bunch of fiddly modifiers to your Diplomacy checks, but what you really need to know – and what players are signing on to enjoy – is the texture and context of conflicts, not numerical stat growth so much. In some ways the campaign becomes the opposite of adventuring, and adventurers become one of the main threats and sources of trouble.
Carving out a frontier realm, on the other hand, has a lot more in common with the adventuring life, just scaled up a bit. Even a casual read of 1e and 2e makes it abundantly clear that the early-ish D&D designs had exactly this style of play in mind. Here again the text focuses on the kinds of challenges a frontier lord faces rather than spinning up a new system; the only rules crunch in the chapter is an array of new infectious diseases and medicinal herbs.
The problem that I see in both chapters is that there’s no explicit discussion of how to shift your campaign’s whole approach to wealth. We’re talking about D&D 3.5, where wealth is your progress track toward the magic items you need in order to keep up with enemies you’re fighting. Reconfiguring that to absorb both the income and expenses of a frontier realm takes actual work (or siloing into a separate, semi-fungible currency, which was Birthright’s answer), but this book and MMS largely handwave the matter.
This is especially telling in MMS, where the math breaks down how much magical gear you can expect to collect in a tax season. This number is in the mid-seven figures for the example king, and the writers just assume you won’t liquidate as much as possible and convert it into the best gear that the most powerful spellcaster you know can create. Even played very conservatively, you’re looking at one new +10-equivalent weapon each tax cycle.
Finally I get to the mechanics chapter, which maps Leadership scores of 25 and up. Do we all remember how easy it is to abuse Diplomacy – especially as a bard – in 3.x? Good, because Leadership takes that and makes it a whole lot worse. These rules treat your Leadership score as a skill bonus that you could apply to a check, with nice low DCs. So… how are you ever going to fail one of these checks, I wonder? I think it a lot of cases a mid-to-high-level character, the kind of character these rules are for, really shouldn’t be able to fail unless they have deliberately betrayed their religion or cause, or broken deals they had agreed upon.
Secondly, there’s an Influence system. For every 200 full points of Influence that you gain, you pick up a +1 bonus to checks where strong social influence might help. The things that boost your Leadership and Influence scores thus become a generalized quest log for the aspiring ruler. That part of the system is pretty cool. The bad part is the implication of constant dice rolls by PC and NPC leaders, potentially stripping away their cohorts and followers. This implies that NPC rulers need to be constructed with a full spread of Leadership and Influence scores (and the feats to make those go). I don’t know about you, but even when I was actively running 3.x, I did not have time for that noise.
No one should really be surprised that these two 3.x-era products are designed for heavy data management. To one degree or another, that’s been the flavor that all domain-management systems come in. Magical Medieval Society minimizes the ruler’s mechanical impact – there aren’t a lot of places where skill checks or your Charisma score factor into their rules, much less the Leadership feat. Leaders are nearly interchangeable. At the other extreme, Power of Faerûn’s whole system proceeds from the ruler’s stats, and all of the cohorts and followers in the world are just props to increase your Leadership and Influence. I’m not sure which approach is the more cynical.
The book does posit the rulership system that has no system, in which the realm and rulership are strictly elements of the fiction and no stats are ever tracked. That’s a valid approach, though for my tastes that runs too far in the other direction. Next week, I’ll look at two (or more, we’ll see) domain-rulership systems that come pretty close to that: Dungeon World and 13th Age.