Domain Rulership, Part Thirteen
There I was, confidently announcing the end of the Domain Rulership series, when one of my readers reminded me that not only were there products I had agreed to examine in this series, but I had a copy sitting around gathering e-dust. Then I said, “But my second child is about to be born, so it probably won’t be soon.” But, funny story, if you’re not specifically inducing labor, it might be today or a week from today, so I’m seizing this opportunity to go through HârnManor and Household, two supplements for Columbia Games’ Hârn setting. My deepest thanks go to the generous reader who provided these texts.
Image: Highclere Castle, better known now as Downton Abbey. Picture by zen whisk, used through Creative Commons.
The first thing to understand about Hârn is that it’s setting out to push its realism as far as it goes. I don’t know anything about the core system of Hârnmaster, and that’s a modest hindrance to this article, but Wikipedia is kind enough to inform me that its several editions represent the GNS Theory Wars in detail, but with only gamism and simulationism really represented. It’s a low-fantasy setting based primarily on Norman England, it has dwarves, elves, and gârgún, which is to say orcs. Here ends my knowledge of the setting, and this ignorance will not be a significant hindrance to the rest of the article.
On a personal note, in principle, I am a big fan of deep historical study and accuracy. Bernard Cornwell is one of my favorite authors, and his Warlord Chronicles left a permanent imprint on my imagination. This isn’t the flavor I want for all situations, but I am pleased to know that it is so faithfully represented here, as well as in King Arthur Pendragon (which HârnManor strikingly resembles in tone, if not mechanics).
This book sets out to detail the day-to-day life on a manor in the Norman English feudal system, with some random-generation tables along the way. One of the most interesting things here is that it succeeds in presenting multiple contrasting perspectives – various ranks of serfs, freeholders, local nobility, and possibly some protagonist travelers. Much of the game here shows up in the marginalia or single-page rules blocks, while the rest of the text is a mediumweight historical study. Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe springs strongly to mind here.
Much as D&D has long had curious acronyms (AC, THAC0, ECL) to aid the initiated and confound the uninitiated, so too does Hârn. Setting aside the acronyms of the core rules, this text introduces VCF and MBF, which are actually just record sheets for the census and the budget, respectively. There’s also LQ, FI, and TI, for which are multipliers in the vicinity of .5 to 1.5 (somewhat narrower for LQ and FI). LQ is Land Quality, for general land fertility, and I think it says everything about Hârn’s approach to detail that “LQ is given in all Atlas Hârnica entries.” LQ stays steady year by year, though the GM is free to make it fluctuate if there aren’t enough fiddly numbers in this system for their tastes. FI is Fief Index, and generally relates to the state of infrastructure on the fief. I’ll dig into the FI rules in more detail below, but for now let’s leave it at “this is a deeply math-y piece of rules architecture.” TI is the Trade Index, and represents the manor’s accessibility by river and road. It’s a good reminder that the frontier settlements that PCs so often receive in other domain rulership systems are dangerous and difficult for merchants to reach, and their profitability takes a hit for it. Anyway, the TI can fluctuate pretty widely by circumstance.
As Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe did, HârnManor’s focus is on acreage as the most important measure of wealth and productivity. It’s a reminder that the economic structures of most fantasy literature are, at best, more like early-modern structures than feudal Europe. The number of cleared acres determines the manor’s number of tenant families (if you’re not getting that information from a setting book, which the book assumes you mostly will), with higher LQ allowing families to support themselves on smaller plots.
Now we come to another element that literally no other system I’ve reviewed would even consider, but HârnManor uses casually: There are rules to work out the household skill scores and number of individuals in each household of the manor – and a note on where to go if you need deeper detail. The standing (from slave up through craftsman) of each household is randomly determined, which determines how many acres their holdings take up. This looks circular to me: acres determine households, households determine acres – but maybe I’m missing part of the intent here.
Anyway, this generates your pool of renters (craftsmen and farmers – forming the lord’s revenue stream), your military force (yeomen), and your labor pool (villeins, half-villeins, cottars, and slaves – the lord’s labor pool). The manor’s worker-days of labor and the costs in kind (materials, that is) are broken down in detail. I respect the work that went into this, but personally, I would like to get on with the game at this point and stop calculating things. I mean, I thought MMS:WE and ACKS showed their math in detail, but whoa.
There’s a page on the specialties of village craftsmen, with a sidebar on the fees they pay to the lord and some brief mentions of the pressure that trade guilds bring to bear. It sounds like a good social dynamic for tense interactions, anyway. The next page details the yeomen – fighting farmers. It retroactively changes the acreage calculations, which is a regrettable bit of workflow in something that is already very involved.
The next significant area of rules is the maintenance costs on each member of the manorial household – the fiefholder, the family, hearth-knights, squires, skilled craftsmen (including clergy, performers, and so on), and staff. These are yearly costs, but it puts things into perspective – the lord has a lot of income in cash or in kind from the tenants, but these are some big cost numbers (worse when you factor in the required number of horses and hunting animals), because society puts pressure on the nobles to engage in conspicuous consumption. Reading this section reminds me, in a positive way, of things like Downton Abbey and the SIFRP campaign I played in. The sidebar rules for the Loyalty of the household deepens that sense. I’m kind of surprised there’s no reference to wards in the house.
There’s a summary section that presents everything in the book up to this point as a process. It looks a lot more manageable in this form. It’s still a bit… Form 1040-ish. Oh, and there’s another index to use as a multiplier: the WI, or Weather Index. This is one tiny, nitpicky piece of rules that drives me nuts: there’s an optional rule for “weather averaging.” Okay, so you generate your WI with a 3d6 roll, which as every student of D&D will tell you gravitates pretty strongly toward 10.5, because that’s how bell curves work. With the optional rule, you roll five times and average the results. At that level of enforcing average outcomes, outcomes deviating from the average are going to be so rare that it’s quicker to just treat the WI as always being 1.00.
At the end of all of this calculation, there’s a rule for maintenance costs and your Fief Index – which, again, is overall infrastructure. Your current FI determines maintenance costs – good infrastructure makes more money, but costs more as well. Okay, fair. The interesting part is that paying anything less degrades your FI substantially, while increasing your FI is horrifyingly expensive. If that’s not entropy in action, I don’t know what is, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a rule like it.
But we’re only about two-thirds of the way through the book. There are also rules for abbeys and the chapter houses of fighting orders. And of course there are detailed rules for calculating the hardiness of crops.
This is my personal breaking point, at which I would be thrilled to play this as a video game, but no longer have the least interest in handling it as a tabletop game. I seriously could never make myself care about the hardiness, labor cost, and yield in kind of oats. I am not that GM. This is not just in the weeds, it is literally about the weeds.
There’s a similar page of optional rules for livestock, and that’s no bull. (It’s an ox, now, because they removed its bits.) Then for topography, so that you too can make a mountain out of a molehill. I don’t have a lot to say about these because they are both optional and low-impact.
The book ends with four pages of random event tables: Manor Events, Manor Raids, Weather Events, Hallmoots (that is, manorial justice events, and thus phenomenal adventure hooks), and Tenant Fate. This feels personal and real, and I love it. Well, I don’t love the rules for Weather Events, but I like the presentation of the challenges of life on a manor. I’ve heard a lot of players express interest in low-town, slice-of-life kind of stories, and I haven’t seen many things that would help the GM develop those kinds of stories (either directly, or through randomized emergent narrative) as this does.
The second book I’m covering today is a ten-page supplement called Household, which isn’t so much about domain management as it is about why your mother wants to you clean your room so damn much. It clearly comes out of the GM having an argument with the players, because the argument is quoted in the text. It’s also clear that they are not really playing Hârn, but are instead playing a bizarre hack of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, because they are “unskilled, part-time ratters.” I think their core issue is the lack of a small but vicious dog.
To put that another way, this is ten pages of showing the math on lifestyle expenses, which the 5e Player’s Handbook covers in what we’ll generously call one-and-a-quarter pages (p. 157-158), all to provide N. Robin Crossby with a legal framework to tell his players where to stuff it.
Before I continue, I need to make one thing exceedingly clear: I am not making any of this up.
In another sense, it’s domain management for the medieval urban poor. Including the part where an unimportant clerk writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK on a pink official form. Man, this is brutal on the tedium and the acronym multipliers:
- MRF: Market Relationship Factor, one per budget sector, representing your relationship with the general population of vendors of those goods
- PEF: Personal Effectiveness Factor, one per category of contribution you make to your household, representing how good you are at your job
- PEF is derived from your relevant skills, and there’s a secondary table of modifiers based on working conditions, such as hours worked per month.
- LDF: Labor Demand Factor, or the number of hours of each kind of household task that is needed
- LF: Labor Factor, or the ratio of Total Effective Hours to LDF.
- Total Effective Hours (curiously not abbreviated to TEH) are the sum of each household resident’s Effective Hours. Effective Hours are the product of the resident’s Hours and PEF.
- I hate that I have to say this, but it only gets more bizarre and dizzying from here.
- TSF: Total Square Feet, the area of the house.
- FDI: Food and Drink Index, the quantity and quality of food and drink in the house. Low FDIs are harshly punished (“Physical attributes and skills are effectively reduced 10-50%”), while high FDIs are not rewarded.
- The designer also wanted to twist his players’ arms for not investing in their Cooking skills: “Effective food value can be increased by up to 30% by skillful cooking.” As a slightly-better-than-novice cook, it’s not my experience that the cook can conjure calories from nowhere. I have a new plan to solve world hunger. (I wouldn’t bother making this joke if the document weren’t so needlessly precise in other matters.)
- CLI: Clothing Index, because people are super judgy about your grubbies. There’s a chart to convert Clothing Value per Resident to CLI, and a table describing the general appearance for each range of CLI values.
- “Ambitious GMs or players may wish to experiment with calculating a discrete CLI for each resident.” Riiiight.
- HKI: Housekeeping Index, which takes me back to the horrors of my fraternity house. Using the same chart as converting Clothing Value per Resident to CLI, you now convert Housekeeping Value per Resident to HKI. Low HKIs increase susceptibility to disease, in a way that is not mechanically specified.
- Spotless, however, is “a level usually achieved only with lots of daily cleaning in households where servants outnumber family.” I will be using this as expert testimony the next time my mother wants to rehash how bad I was at keeping my room straight. Sure, that was seventeen years ago, but letting things go is not what we do best.
- LXI: Luxury Index, which is a measure of how much not-strictly-necessary stuff you have that makes life more pleasant. Unlike other indices, LXI only includes family members – any servants you’ve hired don’t partake in luxuries.
- LSI: Living Space Index, which makes sure everyone has some square footage of their own. It equals TSF divided by Num/R (number of residents) divided by 20. The resulting value is hard-capped at 20.
- SLI: Standard of Living Index, the sum of FDI, CLI, HKI, LSI, and LXI (and CIA, and XKCD, and MJQ, and oh no I’ve gone crosseyed). This results in a table lookup with five value ranges.
Okay, look. This was written in 1992, so up to 18 months before I got my first AD&D 2e Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. (I wish I had understood that I would also need a Monster Manual.) I don’t know for sure what roleplaying was like across all gaming communities at the time. I would hazard a guess, though, that GMs did not “occasionally wish to audit household accounts,” and were not in the habit of “need[ing] for PCs to actually go out and purchase basic items and [let] them concentrate on less mundane affairs.” I would guess, if some sort of survey could be taken, that better than 90% of all gaming groups were fine glossing over their characters’ bowel movements, minutes or hours of personal grooming, fingernail growth indices, and the like. But by God, if not, here you go. This book is for you like nothing before or since.
The funny thing about this, of course, is that one of the most successful video game franchises of all time is a less-depressing and higher-fantasy version of this book. I’m speaking, of course, of The Sims. But there are a lot of games out there that are laborious in analog and fantastic in digital format – if you want to micromanage the production queues and population distribution of cities, I’ll recommend Civilization (any version, I’ve loved them all) or Fallen Enchantress (particularly the Legendary Heroes version, but they’re all solid) or the venerable but phenomenal Master of Magic.
We want a similar experience from tabletop play, so that we can share it with our friends. Ease of use is a real consideration for tabletop games, though, and one that far too many designers have casually overlooked, especially in domain play. UX – that’s User Experience, for those of you who haven’t worked in software – is a real and important branch of development. There are a zillion different games out there so that every user can find their own best experience, but I think a lot of designers go along without enough thought given to the matter. (Not all of them – I hope it’s abundantly clear that I have the deepest respect for many of the systems I’ve covered.) I hope to address that issue in my own version.
Taking all of these works together, I don’t care to rank them, because they are pursuing different goals in valid ways. I would summarize, though, that:
- Mentzer’s Companion rules hold up very well against later works.
- I can’t be objective about Birthright, but if you can internalize its symbolic language of “holdings,” it is possibly the best for inter-realm political dramas, challenged only by SIFRP.
- An Echo, Resounding and Adventurer Conqueror King System are potentially the best all-around works, and the most readily adaptable to other systems. ACKS’s expanded content blows the doors off of it and covers territory that no one else touches. (I could run a tabletop game of The History of Rome podcast with ACKS and “Senatus Consultum Ultimum.”)
- Dungeon World loses points only for the fact that it isn’t trying to be about domain management – it is a great content generation engine, but provides too little of the feel of rulership to entirely qualify. (PBTA hacks to fully internalize rulership are not uncommon.) That said, the deeper purpose of all domain rulership systems should be content generation.
- 13th Age gets top marks for brevity, clarity, and content generation potential.
- Magical Medieval Society: Western Europe is probably the best historical take; pick up a copy and loot it with keenness and speed for useful material when running other systems.
- Fields of Blood is the best for what it’s doing – bringing domain rulership into 3.x D&D – but if you’re already adapting something, there are better options.
If you’re thinking, “what about the rest of the list?” my answer is “unless you’re really sure, look elsewhere.” There are currently no further domain rulership systems lined up for review, but that may change. Again.