I see Kevin Crawford has written a book for domain-level play in Labyrinth Lord, and given that I’ve liked everything else he has released, it was a no-brainer to buy that as well.
This is Sine Nomine Publishing’s take on the presumed end game of OD&D, namely PCs in charge of their own fiefs.
Summary: 111 page Labyrinth Lord supplement covering the creation and operation of domains. Labyrinth Lord or some other D&D style game required; SNP’s Red Tide useful, but not essential.
INTRODUCTION (1 page)
This explains the contents and aims of the book. Key goals are that ruling a domain is optional for PCs, and that domains should serve as a source of adventures and consistent background for the GM whether any, all, or none of the PCs want to be a feudal lord.
DOMAIN PLAY IN A CAMPAIGN (4 pages)
This expands on the key goals, and recommends embedding domain-level play structures in a campaign from the beginning, emphasising the value of a clear political landscape. While traditionally OD&D assumes that everyone becomes a landholder at about 9th level, this book assumes that some will, some won’t; those who do will take up control at different levels; and those who don’t are still useful henchmen for NPC lords. More on how that works later.
Meanwhile, the book acknowledges that some players just want to stay freebooters their whole careers, and offers advice on handling their concerns – will they be forced into running a fief, will their PCs be edged out of the limelight by those who do? No, because adventures can be structured to retain their involvment.
It’s also notable that the recommended campaign focus is smaller for An Echo Resounding than for Adventurer-Conqueror-King, recently reviewed on this very blog. While ACK looks to the level of kingdoms and empires, AER focuses on a small border region of a few towns and maybe one city. (If you want to grow beyond that, the Domain Management chapter has ideas for it.)
CREATING CAMPAIGN REGIONS (30 pages)
This is the heart of the book; how to set up your campaign so that it will grow easily and naturally into domain-level play. As with all SNP rules, the GM is warned against burnout from overdoing the setting creation process. The design goal for this chapter is that you should be able to create a borderland region and its political structure in a single afternoon, elaborating on it later as play dictates.
The region is up to 300 miles on a side, and contains a number of locations, each of which is just a place the PCs might be interested in; locations are rated for Military, Wealth and Social values, and also have traits – similar to the tags in other SNP products – and obstacles. Traits are capsule descriptions of things that make the location unique, while obstacles are problems it must overcome, usually by hiring adventurers to deal with them. Finally, locations have assets, used in the Domain Management and Mass Combat rules later.
Region setup is simple. Start with a map, either a hexmap or a free-form sketch; the book notes in passing that a map isn’t really necessary, but by this point I already have one in mind.
On the map, the GM places one city of 10-15 thousand people, four towns of one or two thousand inhabitants, and five ruins or places of mystery for the PCs to investigate. For each town, place a Resource location – a source of some valuable commodity such as food, lumber, gems or whatever – a little way from towns or cities; this makes it easier for conflicts over them to develop.
Next, mark likely routes between cities and towns on the map. Halfway along each route is a monster lair, preying on the traffic; disposing of these is what adventurers do.
All of these numbers can be scaled up proportionally for bigger or more well-developed areas, or just because you feel like it; but I think this would give me enough to be going on with.
Each location (by now you have a couple of dozen) is fleshed out with traits from a table for that type of location. Each city, town or resource location gets an obstacle – initially, the obstacle is what has prevented a larger polity from seizing effective control of it. If you’re using Red Tide as well, this is where you roll up the site tags for those locations.
(PCs may well establish their own locations, even if they don’t control them; remember that a location is something that interests PCs, so expect to find more and mark them on the map as play progresses.)
Now the actual Domains appear; these are the towns, cities or other areas which are the movers and shakers in the campaign. Many of the towns and cities have neither the capability nor the desire to play a role on the regional stage, but you need some that are. Domains in AER consist of 2-3 locations which act together and are controlled by one leadership. Those leaders have somehow come to terms with the local obstacles, but anyone else wanting to take over will need to make their own arrangements.
Next, the Hall of Infamy. These are the regional-level Big Bads who are foreshadowed in early adventures, and may eventually be taken down by the PCs. They consist of the Prime Evil, a challenge worthy of the maximum level you expect PCs to reach in the campaign; two lesser threats, a match for 9th level PCs; and four villains who will give mid-level parties a run for their money, each of whom probably occupies one of the lairs placed earlier. Lesser enemies are bit parts, with no ongoing role in the campaign story.
Again, this approach can be scaled to give more foes if you wish.
Two special cases are considered; venturing afar, i.e. adventures which go a long way off-map, and retrofitting the system to an existing map.
If the party ventures afar on a specific quest, then all you need are a few locations they will pass through on their way. If they’re moving in for the long term, you need another region.
Retrofitting is for a GM with an existing campaign. Take your map, pick a region, and pick which towns and cities matter. The others continue to exist, but for whatever reason are not strategically valuable to Domains. The purpose of this is to focus the GM’s effort on a manageable number of locations. From this point on, proceed as if generating a new region. If you have existing power structures, they become Domains. In name, they might all be part of the same empire, but this just drives conflict underground.
ACK bases its domain generation on demographics; AER does not, but provides a page of instructions on reverse-engineering the demographics from the domain should you wish.
Next, a series of tables to flesh out locations; each outcome influences the owning domain’s Military, Wealth and/or Social ratings, usually by adding +2 to one of them. The city and town tables cover origin (why were they built?); activities (why are they still here?); and obstacles (what’s in their way?). The ruins tables cover its nature (what was it before?), its traits (why would you want to control it?); and obstacles (why don’t you?). The resources tables show the type of resource, and obstacles to obtaining it. Lair tables determine the lair’s nature.
Remember those pesky obstacles? As a Domain ruler, you have two ways of dealing with them – either commission a party of adventurers to rid you of them, or take us a Solve an Obstacle action and the correct unit type to have a crack at them. Until you have dealt with the obstacle, it reduces your Military, Social and Wealth ratings. This would have made more sense to me as part of the next chapter, but that’s not an enormous problem as it is the last section in this one.
DOMAIN MANAGEMENT (12 pages)
Domains are, in a way, a different type of character. Consider its Military, Wealth and Social scores as its attributes, and its assets as equipment. It has saving throws, used in overcoming obstacles. Domains are managed in domain turns, each lasting roughly one month of game time and intended to be handled in 10-15 minutes of effort at the end of each session. PC-controlled domains get two actions per turn, NPC-controlled domains only one.
Actions include making or destroying assets or locations, moving or repairing an asset, accumulating wealth, attacking a location, resolving an obstacle, punish a scapegoat for your atrocity, and so forth. Note that siphoning off funds for personal use is also an action.
Assets include shrines, military units, charity, friendship with demihumans, slaves, and many more. Each affects the domain’s Military, Wealth and/or Social ratings. Assets cost Wealth to maintain, which places an upper limit on how much power a domain can project. Assets are assigned by the GM based on the location’s role in the game.
Domains require at least one location as the seat of their power, and most wish to expand. They do this by resolving the obstacle at a new location, then persuading the locals to accept their rule. Multiple competing domains may be interested in the same location at the same time. Conquering a location by force destroys its assets, and it must then be rebuilt; if you use diplomacy, the location might give up some assets willingly.
If the obstacle can be resolved by simply throwing money, arrows or spells at it, then resolution is probably a domain action. Otherwise, it’s an adventure for the PCs.
Meanwhile, at home, it’s tempting for the ruler to hurry up domain actions by executing dissidents and committing atrocities. These give bonuses on the saving throw for the current problem, but penalties on Military, Wealth and Social ratings until the ruler dies or pins the blame on a scapegoat. (Is that a scenario I hear, offstage?) More gentle management, however, means any rebels who do arise are better equipped.
It’s good to be the king. The domain ruler (or rulers) get a cash income from their domain, and can call on its assets (temples, troop units, magical schools) to do things for him. Rulers can appoint viziers to do the boring parts for them.
Vast domains are handled by scaling things up. The city becomes an urbanised section of a province, the troop unit becomes a thousand archers instead of the usual hundred, the map gets bigger.
This chapter concludes with an example of domain-level play.
MASS COMBAT (14 pages)
Disputes between domains are often military in nature, and thus a simple mass combat system is needed. This chapter provides it; it has a turn sequence much like that for personal combat, and units representing about 100 humanoids, a lair’s-worth of other creatures, or individual champions such as the PCs, moving about on a rough map of the battlefield.
In effect, these rules use the personal combat rules, with each figure representing a unit. Heroes can fight alone, or join a unit to give it bonuses. Some spells can be used only against heroes, others can also be targeted at troop units.
Sieges are handled in an abstract manner. Assets can be destroyed, and may have to be rebuilt; troops can gain experience, which increases their unit’s attack rolls, morale, hit dice, AC and/or special qualities. Not very far, and not very fast, but it does.
HEROES (6 pages)
Once PCs reach a certain level, they begin to gain parallel levels as a Champion. Each time they gain a Champion level, they may choose an appropriate special ability or “gift” from a list of several dozen, which makes them valuable to a domain. (NPCs don’t get these abilities as a rule, to make them simpler for the GM to adjudicate.) In addition, they get one gift based on their race and class.
Gifts will bring you followers, give a troop unit you attach yourself to combat bonuses, or modify your domain’s MSW ratings.
The bonuses from gifts don’t stack, so there’s no point two PCs taking the same one, or one PC taking the same one twice.
I can immediately see assassination scenarios springing from this. (“Ragnar’s Martial Glory grants his Domain +4 Military, I want you lot to kill him so they become conquerable.”)
THE WESTMARK (38 pages)
This is a detailed example of the rules above, in the form of one of the regions in Red Tide, with a colour hex-map for the GM, a much less detailed black and white one for the players (or as a basis for a different region entirely) and 40 locations fleshed out with game statistics and plot hooks. As well as being a how-to guide, it is usable as an “instant” region, or can be mined for locations etc. to insert into your own game.
The book closes with an index and the OGL. No forms for the GM this time; none are really necessary. Hex paper is optional, and you probably have a source of that already. If not, try Dragonsfoot.
The obvious comparisons for me are with OD&D and Adventurer-Conqueror-King.
Even re-reading OD&D with 35 years’ gaming experience, I can see that my PC could use his money to build a castle and clear a domain, but then what? It’s unclear. Yes, I could work it out for myself, but the 30-40 hours per week I put into RPGs in my twenties are no longer viable for me, and dropping another $10 or so to get much of the work done for me is a very fair trade.
Reading ACK left me with the feeling that I’d love to use it, but wouldn’t have the time or (frankly) determination to see it through.
Reading An Echo Resounding left me keen to start using it, right away, confident that it could grow organically in whatever time I gave it.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5.