Design Diary: 5e Domain Rulership 15

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.

Core Ideas

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.

Silver Scale

  • 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

Gold Scale

  • City
  • String of forts: Barony, County, Duchy, or Province
  • Syndicate
  • Guild
  • Sect
  • Order
  • Horde

Platinum Scale

  • Kingdom, Empire
  • Thief-Principate (i.e., Grandfather of Thieves on a kingdom-wide scale; the Old Man of the Mountain)
  • Faith, Papacy
  • Exchequer



  • 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)


Drilling Down

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.

  • Docks
    • Rumors
    • Smuggling
    • Thievery, Piracy
    • Storage
  • Trade
    • Manufacture
    • Exchange
    • Thievery
  • High
    • High society contacts
    • Rumors
    • Espionage
  • 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)
  • Temple
    • Healing
    • Blessing
    • Magic item creation
    • Lore
    • Relic trade
  • Outskirts
    • Hiring
    • Smuggling
    • Storage
    • Secrecy
    • Animals (travel, etc.)
    • Contact with travelers (caravanserai)
  • Academic
    • Lore
    • Magic item creation
    • Rumors
    • Spell creation
  • Slums
    • Hiring
    • Affordable political support
    • Thievery
  • Undercity, sewers
    • Secrecy
    • Thievery
    • Smuggling


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:

  • Mining
  • Farming
  • Logging
  • Market
  • Fishing
  • Religious (Pilgrimage Destination)
  • Nearly Abandoned or Ruined

Trading Company:

  • Local
  • Regional
  • Overseas
  • Illicit

Fortifications and Wilderness Strongholds:

  • Trading Outpost
  • Watchtower
  • Prison
  • Castle
  • Religious Site

Religious Holdings

  • Pilgrimage Destination
  • Cathedral
  • Monastery
  • Place of Power (e.g., some sort of henge)
  • Hidden

Wizard’s Tower

  • Remote
  • Urban
  • Hidden
  • Place of Power (e.g., planar junction)

Nomadic Tribe

  • Cavalry
  • Herding
  • Mercantile
  • Seagoing
  • Hunting


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.

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15 thoughts on “Design Diary: 5e Domain Rulership

  • Craig Cormier

    This all sounds like a great start. I enjoyed your History of Domain Rulership series and I hope you continue with this development. Every D&D game that I have ever played into levels 10 or higher has wanted a good domain building system.

    The way you talk about the different tiers of rulership puts me immediately in mind of different characters potentially interacting with the system at different levels, even in the same party. The Wizard who engages at Silver for a really super well-defined tower, the Cleric that makes the jump to Gold to establish his own order & the Fighter that both of them support as he moves into Platinum and becomes a king.

    Could all be super fun.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

      I have concerns about the feel at the table when PCs operate on different scales. To use your examples, does the Wizard at Silver Scale feel like they’re contributing to the party’s success and making decisions of equivalent interest to the Gold-Scale Cleric and the Platinum-Scale Fighter? It depends heavily on the DM, and on how interesting their action options are in the domain rulership system.

      • Craig Cormier

        My thinking in that example was that the Silver-Scale Wizard is spending Gold-Scale or even Platinum-Scale money, but devoting it to a Silver-Scale project. So rather than spreading out the wealth into an elite religious Order or a relatively mundane Kingdom, the Wizard is building a fly tower that can travel the planes and act as a magic-boosting nexus. Or something equally crazy. I don’t know if that is the intent, but that is the path my thinking immediately went down.

        I can definitely see the concern that individual players may feel that they are contributing less. In the end, I think it will depend heavily on what the players each want to accomplish with their specific characters.

        • Brandes Stoddard Post author

          Huh. That’s… a really good point. I need to make sure that domains, especially personal strongholds, have big-ticket options. Sure, you technically operate at Silver Scale, but your resources are more Platinum or Platinum+.

          Fortunately, it’s pretty easy to imagine ever more extraordinary things for wizards to want in their towers. If nothing else, Steven Brust has done a lot of that work for me, with Castle Black and (spoiler because the book came out last week). What would a stable, permanent, secure portal to the City of Brass run you, anyway? (Which also raises the point of relative real estate values – running a district in Sigil or the City of Brass is at LEAST Gold Scale, if running a district in Baldur’s Gate is Silver Scale.)

          Thanks for giving me a lot to think about!

  • Ray

    I think this is a solid start to a very interesting system. I’m very curious to see how you’ll end up tackling the issue of high level players buying their way forward in one fell swoop without having to implement some sort of check box system.
    Also, I think this is a great addition to 5e’s otherwise scarce downtime activities. Per Craig’s earlier comment, this could be a great system for individual players to pursue downtime goals that can ultimately weave together. The current options often feel self-serving with little to no group-wide benefits that aren’t combat based.

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Off the top of my head, I think that doubling the cash cost if you try to build more than one thing in a turn is probably viable. Birthright tackles this by requiring Regency Points as a second currency. You CAN go nuts on spending GB in other places, but you mostly wouldn’t come to regency late in your career in that setting anyway. Plausible, but not as intended, I guess? I haven’t yet figured out if I need an RP/Influence currency; I’d rather not, because it’s more to track, but it has its purposes.

      • Ray

        It is indeed a lot to track, but some influence or notoriety proxy makes sense from an immersion standpoint. The ruled over npcs should feel like the PCs claim on a domain is legitimate. Though in some scenarios perhaps they shouldn’t and maybe lots of money is enough. Classic feudal Lord just bought the land my family has lived on forever kind of thing.

        • Brandes Stoddard Post author

          Yeah, I hear you. It’s something I’ll be thinking about a lot when I next move forward on this project.

          I want this to FEEL like 5e and match 5e’s design ethos as much as I can make myself write. To me, that means favoring simplicity and Yes You Can over fiddly math and You Could Try, when it comes to class features, magic item features, monster abilities, feats, and so on. (Not talking about doing away with attack rolls; look more at how Background traits and many feats present a Definite Yes rather than a skill test.) That thinking draws me away, then, from RP/Influence. On the other hand, I’m a firm believer that for any problem there’s a solution that is clear, simple, and wrong. So we’ll see!

          • PB

            Maybe a labor pool system could govern how much a player can spend in a single turn, to keep him from solving his problems instantly by throwing piles of money at it. You could say that in any given settlement, only X percent of the local population is available to work on a construction project (the rest being busy farming and stuff), and each laborer can do Y gold pieces’ worth of work per turn (depending on the standard wages and the amount of time a turn represents). If that’s not fast enough to suit the player, he can employ more of the population in exchange for a penalty representing other work going undone (like a smaller harvest that season). Or he can bring in more help from out of town, but those guys will cost double while only contributing the regular amount of work (the extra being overhead for transportation and lodging).

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Well, thanks! It shouldn’t be too long before the next post, which will probably be called “Supplies and Demands.” I’m thinking about how to create a system of logistics without getting lost in fiddly math. I’ve got a plan, but I need to write it all out and see if it holds up. =)

  • John Shannon

    Really enjoyed this. Cant wait to see more. I dont know if you covered this in your domain articles but Dragon #293 has a Dungeoncraft article all about building a realm. Its meant more for DMs but it had some great ideas for high level kingdom control (your platinum level).

    • Brandes Stoddard Post author

      Thanks for your kind words!

      I surely would have read #293 when it came out, but I didn’t recall it or track it down again while working on the domain management series. I’ll see if I can dig it up and give it a look, thank you!

      • mankyle

        You should also take a look at Dragon Magazine Issues 187, 189 and 190.There are short articles about economy, population and a couple more things there. I think you Will fin them interesting.
        I’m using them as a basis for my homebrewed fiefdom rules.