Domain Rulership, Part Eight
Last time in the Domain Rulership series, I talked about some of the relatively rules-light approaches to domain and stronghold play, in the form of 13th Age and Dungeon World. Now I’m turning back toward more involved systems: Fields of Blood by Eden Studios, given to me by a generous reader; and Kingmaker/Ultimate Campaign by Paizo, given to me by… a more different generous reader. The point is, my readers are the best. They are discerning and witty and almost assuredly 10% more appealing to members of their preferred gender than people who do not read my column. Look at you, reading this, getting better-looking every second. I mean, not to me, I’m married. But still.
(Image: The Magna Carta. One of the original system documents defining domain rulership as something other than, “it’s good to be the king.”)
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six | Part Seven | Part Eight
Fields of Blood
This book promises rules for both mass combat and domain management. I’m not covering mass combat in any detail in this article, but I’ve gotten requests to make that a future History series, so I’m sure I’ll come back to it. Fields of Blood borrows some specific terminology choices and concepts from Birthright, such as regent as the general term for a domain ruler and battle spells for spells re-scaled to mass-combat size. This text uses RP for Resource Points, but means about the same thing as Birthright means with GB; there’s no specific concept of magical bloodline and rulership strength.
Realms are made up of provinces, and like in Birthright the province is the meaningful unit of rulership – but here all provinces are hexes on a 12-mile-across scale hex map, and the terms are interchangeable so that you have in-character terminology to use. Provinces can be Governed, Explored, or Wild. Wild hexes have no settlements, not even by orcs, ogres, or other sapient monster races. (I’m not immediately clear on whether a single dragon’s cave constitutes a settlement.) To turn a province from Wild to Explored, you go on an adventure there – so now we have a place for Fields of Blood to plug into classic wilderness hexcrawling.
There are four possible levels of civilization and five possible governing styles. This is the part where I start to find the book’s approach a bit awkward, on two different levels. For one, the governing styles and civilization levels aren’t balanced against one another; if you’re establishing a realm for the first time as a player, there are obvious right choices without a clear cost associated. I’m not sure how you move between civilization levels; I get the impression you don’t, and civilization level is intrinsic to the people under your rule. Governing style gives Warlord and Noble a clear edge, and here Noble means not oligarchic rule, but a regent who cares about high ideals. As I keep reading, I discover more tradeoffs for government types buried in the text.
The other place where this starts to turn awkward is that a lot of the benefits and drawbacks are percentage adjustments to one kind of cost or another, so you’re adding up big lists of modifiers. Also, and this is just a pet peeve, sometimes a 25% boost is listed as “25% more” and sometimes it’s listed as “125% of whatever,” within the same table.
The resources you can expect to extract from each type of terrain varies by the dominant race of the province, but the book only covers five races (human, elf, dwarf, orc, hobgoblin), despite other tables about races in Fields of Blood including eight races (elf, dwarf, gnome, Halfling, orc, ogre, human, sahuagin, and kuo-toa). Anyway, the balance of the racial resources chart is satisfying in itself, as it does a good job reflecting the idea that humans live anywhere aboveground reasonably well (but especially plains), orcs can thrive (for orcish values of the term) absolutely anywhere, and other races have their favored terrain types.
Anyway, the hex’s production value for the race inhabiting it times the settlement’s value (ranging from .25 to 5) times 250 gives you the hex’s Resource Point production. This isn’t the regent’s income, though. To find that, you roll 1d20 and add 19 (light taxation), 29 (moderate), or 39 (heavy) to determine the percentage of a realm’s RP production that is collected as taxes. Income covers “government and military expenditures.” The remainder is the surplus, which covers settlement upkeep and the construction of various kinds of improvements. This division creates a separation between the Crown and the aggregate local governments, and puts a minor brake on royal military spending. The text suggests that in some campaigns, the DM might play the local governments (in feudal societies, the nobility) while the PC plays the Crown.
There are four types of guilds, each with three grades of three levels (so a total of nine levels each): clerics, wizards, druids, and rogues. Adding a holding – sorry, I meant a guild – for druids is mostly better than Birthright’s approach of treating druids as just more different clerics; they’re just separate enough that it makes things weird. (Why on earth would druids not tap into mebhaigl? Not that Fields of Blood has a concept of mebhaigl; it’s just a piece of Birthright fridge logic that has always bugged me.) The design here is good on the simulation side without going overboard; I like that the druid guild has a benefit that applies only to Nomadic realms.
Assets are pretty weird, because their cost is not fixed, but varies by a province’s base seasonal production – which varies by the race of the user. Of course, the benefit is a percentage boost to the province’s production, so dwarves build better but much more expensive mines than other races. (This is a mess in a mixed-race realm, or when one race conquers another race’s realm and seizes their assets.) All assets require water access, which implies that there are non-desert areas of twelve miles across with no water access. Apparently people don’t dig wells? I’m not sure what they’re getting at here. Anyway, dwarves can build mines and smelters without water, elves can build logging camps and sawmills without water. I question whether they would build those assets in the first place – I guess it varies by setting – or what the hell kind of forest grows without water access.
Utilities are miscellaneous beneficial improvements – hospitals, marketplaces, and so on. There are seven types of utilities; pretty good stuff here. It’s still a lot of percentage adjustments to other numbers, with some conditional cases. For instance, the Trade Fair is a huge boon to resource production, but only one season out of every year. Fortunately, it has no upkeep cost… beyond maintaining a unit of elite troops and a garrison in the province.
The last kind of improvement is fortification – that is, stronghold building. These rules are solidly midrange on complexity; you do pay by the inch for wall thickness. Oh, and fortification apparently use Gygaxian inches. Which, let’s be honest, might mean any goddamn thing, but probably mean either 5 feet or 10 feet. Or cubits, I seriously don’t know. (I’m sure it’s explained in Fields of Blood, but I can’t find it quickly.) Anyway, these options are reasonably thorough, but probably get bulked up a lot by the magic chapters later in the book.
There’s a page-long sidebar of optional rules for realm morale. This is the first place that we see a drawback to the Noble government style; taking a page from Sid Meier’s Civilization, the more enlightened government gets into trouble with protracted wars (through morale or war weariness) even faster than other government styles. Despotic governments “shine” in generation-long wars. Realm morale has a lot of fiddly stuff going on, and really wants electronic resolution to support DM adjudication. It’s ultimately on a level with Mentzer’s Companion rules on this point, with fairly similar outcomes.
Things get much more confusing when I come to the Governing Style Upkeep table, which is a percentage of your income that goes to supporting the bureaucracy. Percentage upkeep gives my verisimilitude hives. There’s a cap at 70% or 80% (varying by government style), so once your empire reaches a certain size, it’s nominally more worth continuing your expansion. It makes more sense for major empires to not even bother claiming terrain that they can’t gain a substantial number of RP from, because the bureaucracy is so expensive – but those hinterlands are exactly where rebellions start.
Naturally, units and improvements also have upkeep costs. Unit upkeep comes out of income, and I think that improvement income comes out of surplus. You can also pay unit upkeep out of surplus, but this makes people really angry as it more or less tells the soldiers to requisition whatever they need from the populace without compensation from the Crown. This can send hexes into rebellion, and if that happens, some of your military may join them.
As an American, I’ll be celebrating the historical precedent for this rule on Monday.
Next up is actions. The unit of time in Fields of Blood is the season. Within a single realm, there are three different kinds of actors that receive actions: the regent receives two standard actions or one full-season action, the realm (that is, everyone that isn’t the Crown) receives two standard actions or one full-season action (though there’s an optional rule to allow larger realms more actions), and the regent can order martial actions to be carried out by the realm’s armies (these have a more granular approach to time).
There are eighteen regent actions, ten realm actions, and eight martial actions described here. The kinds of things they accomplish amounts to the same things as Birthright’s list of actions, without the bits specific to magical bloodlines or manipulating loyalty in your own or an enemy’s realm. I could definitely be wrong – independent invention does happen – but there are enough parallels between this text and Birthright that I would be surprised if they weren’t cribbing heavily as they worked. (Don’t take that as an accusation or a slight; I’m glad to see that someone had the foresight to pay attention to what earlier systems did.)
Finally, the text describes seven conditions that apply to realms, in the same way that conditions apply to characters. One of those, blessed, is actually a ton of individual conditions – one per domain in your campaign setting. There’s a huge section on military units, warfare, feats, different feats, prestige classes, normal spells, battle spells… I’m skipping all of that for this article, because none of it really relates to domain rulership directly. There are realm spells! They’re pretty much the same as Birthright’s realm spells.
In conclusion – you can guess what I’m going to say! This is the probably best unofficial adaptation of Birthright’s rules to 3.x, for settings that don’t have magical royal bloodlines, that I could possibly ask for. It works on a totally different scale of numbers, and it gets rid of a lot of the fiddly dice rolling. In exchange, it gains a lot of fiddly multiplication by percentages and managing two different budgetary pools. If I hadn’t worked my way through some of the domain rulership systems that I have, I would call this one complicated. It’s not. Its only real problem is some sort of rocky instructional design, and if I start knocking roleplaying books for that, I will never stop. (Also let’s not pretend I could do better.) They do include usage examples, so that helps. Ripping the 3.x-isms out of Fields of Blood is pretty manageable, and only gets intensive in the unit creation and warfare sections.
The most interesting and challenging new idea in this book is the division between the military executive branch and the local civil governments. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that elsewhere. If anything, I would like to see that expanded into the core of the game, since it sets up either the tension between a monarch and the fractious nobility (ask King John Lackland how that goes – he got a great charter out of it, just the best charter) or the tension between a president or prime minister and… everything that isn’t the executive branch. If I need to point out models for this, read a newspaper.
Kingmaker and the Ultimate Campaign
These two products by Paizo are an Adventure Path and a massive rules tome, respectively. I’m not gonna lie, this is an enormous amount of material to work through for a weekly column, and I am going to miss stuff. It’s Pathfinder, so that also means we’re talking high mechanical detail. Kingmaker is an adventure path all about hexcrawling your way to rulership, building your domain, and expanding its power. Ultimate Campaign covers a lot of territory, including an elaboration on Kingmaker’s rules for rulership and warfare. The great thing about Kingmaker’s structure is that it teaches its extensive rules a piece at a time, and emphasizes the NPC interactions that the system drives.
Bit of full disclosure: I’m playing in a 5e game that has grafted on Ultimate Campaign as its city-building system. The options available to the group are overwhelming to me as a player – I can’t get any sense of how to make a good decision without investing more time than an average afternoon-long play session. That’s a peripheral benefit of writing this article!
Stronghold building works based on rooms constructed and workers recruited. I don’t think it’s unfair to call it exhaustively detailed, with modifiers and benefits to everything – all the way down to the lavatory. Fortunately, there are “prefab” buildings you can use if you don’t want to go construct the building room-by-room. I think this is how we’re handling it in the game I’m playing – at least, I recognize the names and descriptions of several of these buildings from conversation around the table.
The system here delves into minutiae, but (especially with the random event tables) it can be the wellspring of game content that is, I think, the ultimate goal of any stronghold-building or domain-rulership system. It’s cool if all you want is to be able to say, “I have this,” but it’s much more compelling and worth the group’s time if it comes up in the course of the narrative and influences the direction of the story. Stronghold building and domain rulership are, ultimately, all about the deep expression of player agency in an imagined world that is a consensus reality.
On to kingdom-building. Ultimate Campaign tracks a lot of separate qualities in its kingdoms:
- This has hard mechanical effects, and would have been better done as cutting straight to those effects rather than attaching the loaded terminology of alignment, but I digress.
- Build points
- These are your resource points or gold bars or whatever.
- Consumption (upkeep costs)
- Control DC (your DC for all actions that require a check)
- Economy (this is a core attribute)
- Kingdom check (like an ability check, but for your kingdom)
- Loyalty (second core attribute)
- Population (noted as irrelevant and tracked for funsies)
- Size (number of hexes)
- Stability (third core attribute)
- Treasury (banked Build Points)
- Turn (one month of game time)
- Unrest (penalty to all kingdom checks)
- I’m not really sure about high Loyalty/high Unrest, but that can be a thing. I guess that’s a culture war?
The next section takes a page from Birthright that I haven’t seen anywhere else, and unfolds it into a much, much bigger deal. See, it takes a lot of people to run a kingdom. A lot more than are in your adventuring party, that’s for sure! Fourteen, to be exact, and many (though not all) of them carry penalties for vacancy, so you’re better putting a cardboard box with “NPC” painted on the side in the job than no one at all. This is another place where Ultimate Campaign does a good job of spewing forth game content – PCs may be all but incorruptible, but NPCs certainly aren’t. This could be West Wing or it could be House of Cards. The book could do a better job of guiding DMs toward those outcomes, rather than emphasizing the numerical mechanics.
I’ve now looked at enough domain rulership systems to feel like the throughput of this system is (maybe paradoxically) similar to Dungeon World’s – it’s just a question of scaling up your settlement(s) and what new needs that growth generates. Random event tables are just an idea well for DMs, where DW uses a system of Fronts.
This brings us to the weird thing that Ultimate Campaign does, which I haven’t seen anywhere else in tabletop gaming. It’s pure SimCity: each district in a city is made up of lots, and you need to arrange buildings so that the ideal things are adjacent to one another, and so on. This is the kind of thing that should really have one or two interested players meet with the DM away from the gaming session, just to get everything sorted. Really what I’m saying is that it runs so far beyond the interest that I can imagine having in domain management (outside of a video game, I’ll do this shit for years in a vidjagame, especially if Sid Meier’s name is on the cover) that I have no idea why it’s here.
Finally, there’s the requisite Form 1040 that makes it clear just how many modifiers there are to your kingdom’s attributes. Also it points out to me that there are eight more attributes I missed:
These definitely do things that I am not going to look up right now. They are modified by buildings and edicts and all kinds of other stuff. There are also edicts, modifiers for various forms of government, and a lot of other stuff I am completely glossing over. It really is a huge amount of detail and number-crunching.
Ultimate Campaign is far from the first domain system to make me bleed from the eyes out of sheer detail. I do really like the potential that it opens for political drama in a kingdom’s court, and I like that they care about driving player interest in every possible improvement. Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe and Power of Faêrun already staked out two different forms of detail-intensive play, and this proves that there’s a third. MMS is about your subjects are and how much acreage they work; PoF is all about who are you as a leader and what kinds of followers and allies you attract; Ultimate Campaign is halfway about the king and his Cabinet, and half about the buildings your people live in. (Fields of Blood is about who has to pay for things.)
To put that another way:
- If you are a historian at heart or want to your game to feel as close to real Western European feudalism as possible, Magical Medieval Society is for you.
- If you want to revel in high- or epic-level play and let the numbers tell the players what their next goals should be, Power of Faêrun is for you.
- If you want to rule one of several smallish kingdoms – you’re never getting much past 60 miles across without heavy houseruling – or explore the royal dramas of the Plantagenets on through the Stuarts, Fields of Blood is for you.
- If you are a completionist and/or micromanager at heart, or if you want to play out a political drama, Ultimate Campaign is for you.
- If you want to play a hexcrawl while also managing a domain, Kingmaker is probably for you.
I still need to read the Adventurer Conqueror King System and… another thing that is right on the tip of my home-key-resting fingers. I swear I will remember it as soon as this article goes live.
ETA: In addition to posting this a day ahead of schedule (because it was late and I couldn’t remember what day it was last night), I also finally remembered the other game I still want to talk about in depth: Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. I have SIFRP; if any fans feel ridiculously generous and want to help me out with a copy of ACKS, I would be deeply grateful. If not, I’ll fake it!