If you followed my History of Domain Rulership over in Tribality, which ran from March of 2016 to January of 2017, I mentioned there that I was going to try to build my own ideal domain rulership system for 5e. In this post, I’m showing the work as I go. Depending on motivation and available time, this may also become a series.
The central idea of this document is that domain management needs to function at multiple zoom levels, and different character concepts DO different things at each scale. These map to different monetary units, much like the tiers of play. The defining aim of the work is to inform gameplay, generate content, and eat up cash earned through adventuring. Ideally, the thing(s) you need to do to improve your domain and, if you wish, keep moving up the scale are always obvious enough that they function like quest goals for you.
The notes below describe three different scales, which I’m calling Silver, Gold, and Platinum. The idea there is that bars (SB, GB, PB) of that metal are a currency for domains of that scale, as a riff on the Gold Bars used by Birthright and others. A bar is nominally equal to 2000 coins of the associated type, keeping in mind that trading in gold coins right from first level is part of why adventurers are anomalous in basically every setting (except those on a silver standard, like Aurikesh); even their earliest adventures pay them more money than the vast majority of commoners in that setting will see in a lifetime. With that in mind, 2-3 SB could be a fair amount of money for getting minor things done in Silver Scale domains.
The point of the different scales is to address a recurring problem in domain rulership systems. There’s a level of detail that is fun when your holdings are limited to a single stronghold; depending on your group that might be knowing the names of every single person in the castle, picking between wood and stone walls for every passageway in the building, or… not. It takes all kinds, and while I’m not aiming for a system to lovingly place every trap and guard, I want to make it possible to drill down fairly deep. At the same time, that level of detail rapidly loses its charm the moment you have two strongholds, or a settlement of a few hundred or more residents, and so on. (Let’s be real, designers are always designing their own tastes and just hoping they can talk others into sharing those preferences.) If you shift to Gold Scale, you have enough holdings that you want to be able to generalize, rather than playing SpreadsheetQuest. In priniciple, I want to still support SpreadsheetQuest, but my design choices won’t prioritize it. That means that your capital holding probably still has everything detailed out as it was at Silver Scale, but every additional holding boils things way down. This pattern repeats if you shift to Platinum Scale. You should be able to have a satisfying domain rulership experience even if you stay at Silver Scale for twenty levels of play. (I also want to make sure that a single city-state isn’t objectively better for the players than expansion.)
In a broad interpretation of bounded accuracy, I want to resist the urge to make bigger numbers as a primary driver of acquisition – that is, I want to push against having a pile of stats for each holding, which Pathfinder’s Ultimate Campaign is particularly bad about. Compare this to how 5e sticks with much lower attack, defense, skill, and saving throw values for characters than 3.x or 4e, but hands out features that make positive or negative (resistance/immunity – that is, “this thing can’t happen to you”) statements of potential. I don’t have the fundamentals worked out yet, but I’d like for most acquisitions to work similarly.
A single holding within a scale might take any number of different forms, which I’ve tried to explore in some detail. Running a district in a single city might be about on par with running the entirety of a village or town, in terms of potential if not title. Because I only have three different scales, there’s also a lot of variation within a scale. The stronghold of a single wizard is a far cry from running a whole district full of tradesmen or scholars, but finer granularity makes the system (more) unwieldy.
One of the dangers here is that a high-level character just entering into the Silver Scale may find the monetary scale laughable – having collected, let’s say, 50k in gold pieces, what do they care about laying out 50 SB to blow away their problems? The good news is, the DM just gave that high-level character a way to turn money into coolness to solve a problem, and more problems will come along in due course. This is assuming the DM and player don’t just want the character to buy their way directly into a higher Scale.
In the long term, I want players to have a lot of ways to improve their domains. I think we all know that 5e is thin on ways to spend piles of cash at mid-to-high-levels, but D&D fundamentally works better if cash is interesting to the players. At the same time, I don’t want players who take on a domain to feel like it’s an endless money sink; I own a home already, I can get that kind of abuse for free! I want it to feel mostly self-sustaining, with some good chances for being cash-flow-positive. Going on the offensive or expanding your territory should almost always cost piles of money. I considered using expended cash as an XP track for leveling up to higher scales, but for now I’ve set that idea aside.
Most of the rest of this post is raw brainstorming notes, and some of what I’m saying may be less than obvious. Feel free to ask.
- District in a city
- Village or town
- A trading company
- A castle or wilderness stronghold
- A temple, abbey, or monastery
- A wizard’s tower
- A nomadic tribe
- String of forts: Barony, County, Duchy, or Province
- Kingdom, Empire
- Thief-Principate (i.e., Grandfather of Thieves on a kingdom-wide scale; the Old Man of the Mountain)
- Faith, Papacy
- What do you buy within a tier? Since the core is about giving PCs a ton of ways to spend money, this needs to be extensive.
- How do you advance up the scale?
- How do you gain money from your holdings?
- Each holding gets an action and a bonus action in every round. You can only gain cash once per round. Not all holdings can make money off of action or bonus action.
- How is maintenance determined and paid?
- How much time is one domain action? 1 month.
- Does the system have a clear way to guide conflict and internal management for NPC domains?
- Does this system explicitly handle mass combat? Army logistics? (10 -> 100 -> 1000 warriors)
Districts in a City
In this section I’m breaking down all of the likely districts in a city, and going further into what the general, gameable functions of those districts might be. It’s Step One in determining the features that they grant you. I haven’t continued with this approach into Gold and Platinum Scales yet, just because I want to think more about how this is going to play.
- Thievery, Piracy
- High society contacts
- Administrative (but really, if you’re running this district, you’re probably running the whole city)
- Courts (honest, dishonest)
- Public record lore
- Guards (honest, dishonest)
- Magic item creation
- Relic trade
- Animals (travel, etc.)
- Contact with travelers (caravanserai)
- Magic item creation
- Spell creation
- Affordable political support
- Undercity, sewers
Moving on into other Silver Scale holdings, I am not drilling down to game function, but just mapping out the different types of each holding. There probably isn’t a huge difference between a Logging Village and a Mining Village in what it lets you do or stops others from doing to you, because I don’t think tabletop play truly benefits from a Catan-like approach to commodities. On the other hand, a town probably can’t suffer a shortage of what it produces as long as it is producing, which might key into things that opponents try to do to you. I anticipate drawing a fair amount of inspiration from the Hardholder, the Hocus, and other Apocalypse World playbooks; likewise from a 4e domain rulership system that a friend of mine wrote.
Villages and Towns:
- Religious (Pilgrimage Destination)
- Nearly Abandoned or Ruined
Fortifications and Wilderness Strongholds:
- Trading Outpost
- Religious Site
- Pilgrimage Destination
- Place of Power (e.g., some sort of henge)
- Place of Power (e.g., planar junction)
That’s where I am with this for now. If you have thoughts on this, I’m happy to hear them, but please understand if I don’t want anyone to take this and run with it in their own direction right now. If you love this so much that you want to collaborate on it (unlikely as that may be at this early stage), wait for me to get a few more posts in. Just in case you want such a thing, the Tip Jar is a great way to demonstrate enthusiasm in a way to rearrange my creative priorities.