Thursday, May 2, 2013

"Building a Stronghold"

Preface: I posted this on theRPGsite about three years ago, and stumbled across it while searching for something else. You may see some hints about where I developed my formulation of the the swashbuckling 'endgame.'
"Building a stronghold" is more than the construction of a castle and hiring of mercenaries. It's about becoming a political creature. I think this is what many fantasy games miss, and it's one of the reasons I prefer historical games to fantasy ones.

For this to work, the players must accept that the goals and objectives change as the game transitions from one style of play to another over time. To use a hex-and-counter analogy, it starts off as GDW's The Battle of Agincourt and becomes Avalon Hill's Kingmaker.

From what little I've read of the early days of fantasy rpgs - mostly The First Fantasy Campaign - the players readily understood and embraced this mindset. From my own experience, however, it disappeared pretty quickly among gamers: in our AD&D games in the early Eighties - call it '81 to '83 or thereabouts - building a stronghold was about clearing land and building a castle and hiring mercenaries and attracting followers [and] was followed by fighting off monsters and humanoids who wanted to make that stronghold their next lair and those followers their next meal. The political game remained nebulous to non-existant, in no small part because our strongholds tended to be built beyond the frontier, consciously or subconsciously reflecting the desire to avoid being beholden to a prince and the attendant political maneuvering. Our experience was more like a cavalry outpost in Indian country than the War of the Roses.

So the first hurdle, in my experience, is getting the players on-board with this transitional nature of the gaming experience. Gamers who want nothing more than to play wandering tomb-robbers and mercenaries may struggle with this.

Accomplishing this means enmeshing the adventurers in the political world of the setting, which of course means there needs to be a political component to the setting first. I didn't really grasp this until I was in college, so it started appearing in my games in the mid-Eighties; the relationship between a planetary government and the Imperium in my Traveller games began taking on some nuance and balkanized worlds became my favorite planets for adventure, frex.

Kingmaker provided a lot of inspiration for introducing politics into my roleplaying gaming. Power is gained through control of offices of the state and church, not just nobles and men-at-arms in the field; if one's faction does not possess the sole prince, then one needs to crown a pretender and gain seats in the houses of Lords and Commons or one may be quickly isolated and overwhelmed when Parliament is summoned.

The key idea here is that one's ability to exert influence in the setting must extend further than the point on one's sword or lance, so gaining political power means gaining entry to and mastery of the institutions of state. In a fantasy roleplaying game, this means giving the adventurers the opportunity to join something, to climb a hierarchy other than the experience points table, to gain titles other than those of one's class. It could be an order of knighthood, a college of wizards, a religious confraternity, the Thieves' Guild, or whatever; as the adventurers gain personal power, they should have the opportunity to gain influence as well. A career spent as the behind-the-scenes mercenary strike force of the Emperor doesn't get you there.

By the time they reach "name level," or whatever level represents the lower reaches of the game-world's main figures of power, they should be enmeshed in the affairs of state, able to enter the halls of power and reasonably expect to pull some of the levers therein.

The situations they confront there should not be readily resolved with swords or spells - at least not always. One should need allies, and one should be someone who is sought for an alliance. This means the referee needs to create, and run, a convincing court with conflicting factions as well as allies and enemies abroad - and if those allies can sometimes be enemies and vice cersa, so much the better. The adventurers graduate from simple power wielders to power brokers, using those levers of power to exhance or diminish the levers pulled by others. A fighter who is also the grandmaster of an order or knights and the governor of a royal fortress controlling a key pass in the mountains or a cleric who is the ecclesiarch of an important temple and the tutor to the prince's heir possess the leverage to affect events out of scale with their stats and abilities.

Once you reach this point, in my opinion, the "historical scope" of the campaign becomes tangible and meaningful to both the players and the adventurers. Can your character become a Warwick, or a Richelieu?

This doesn't preclude the characters from reaching higher by any means. The adventurers in this game can also aspire to be a Timur or an Othman, but they may find that gaining an empire is not the same as holding it. A prince often discovers that there are levers of power out of reach of the throne, so one better gain, and keep, allies. The idea of legacy may become a powerful motivation here: Othman established a great dynasty, while Timur's empire pretty much died with him.

For this type of play, one where the characters control considerable resources by dint of office or commission, counting gold pieces needs to be abstracted.

To borrow an analogy from another board game, you need something like the BRPs - basic resource points, iirc - of Third Reich, a simple means of representing the resources of a city, a realm, or what-have-you, and a mean of converting them into armies or fortresses or school or temples or estates. The ability to give power as well as the mean of gaining it should be important at this level, such as placing a henchman in a key provincial government or an admiralty; rewards should be more than, "Oh, and here's this +1 sword I don't use anymore."


  1. Good post.

    Running things at the end game seems like it would almost require creating a new game to represent the power and factions. Something like a Kingmaker game for the particular campaign - be it the Reaches in Traveller or 1620s France in Flashing Blades.

    Have you gotten to the point of creating something like BRPs for your Flashing Blades campaign?

    It also seems to me that the work required to create a system to run country level politics in a sandbox style would require more than the 4 PCs in my current H+I campaign. For example, IIR games of Kingmaker weren't very fun with less than 4 players and the game included many "characters" in the various noble lords that the player controlled as part of his faction.

    1. I've been looking at GMT's Thirty Years War: Europe in Agony, 1618-1648 with an idea of adapting it to the large scale geopolitical simulations.

    2. Clicked on the link. That does look interesting. I'll be interested to see what you do with that.

  2. I love this post, though I do have a niggling worry with this section:

    'By the time they reach "name level," or whatever level represents the lower reaches of the game-world's main figures of power, they should be enmeshed in the affairs of state, able to enter the halls of power and reasonably expect to pull some of the levers therein.'

    Not too big a thing to point out, but I would argue that most of the main figures of power (at least in D&D terms) shouldn't necessarily have that many levels. Adventurers, being a breed apart, bust through social mores and restrictions which allows them to obtain by skill and force a measure of power that a hierarchal society would normally deny them by opportunity of "class" (however permeable it may be). Thus, I would argue that the "name level" of adventurers is actually far higher than the "name level" of, say, a nobleman (which might be 0) because they need to forcefully overcome societal barriers.

    This applies, I think, even in the case where the adventurer himself is noble, as identifying with such a scurrilous profession negates the natural privileges of his rank.

    As I said—extremely minor issue, and I love this post. Just thought it was worth throwing out there.

    1. Looking at the various humans listed in the 1e MM and DMG suggests that character level-equivalent npcs are pretty common, even if they aren't actually earning levels as adventurers, so while some nobles, magistrates, and so forth are very likely to be 0-level humans, many will have character levels of one sort or another.

    2. If your King is a paper tiger, your players will simply murder him. If they are stopped by the high-level King's Champion, they will wonder why the Champion isn't king. Faced with a butter-soft nobility, they will cut through them like Ghengis Khan. And they're right to do so: a nobility that can't fight is decadent and corrupt. The peasants farm, the clergy pray, and the nobility fight.

      Just look at Game of Thrones - Tywin Lannister is still a physical threat and his son is personally feared throughout the kingdom, while Littlefinger is mocked despite his wealth and influence. Stannis and Renly both lead from the front, and use their marital prowess to impress the men who follow them. The Boy King of the North wins respect because he can fight at least as well as any of his bannermen.

      The best thing you can do for your D&D world is make the guy in the castle someone your players are scared of.

    3. I know that's what the rules say, but I question the validity of that argument. Certainly, many nobles throughout history dove into battle and earned respect by fighting; but could many of them fight a troll or an ogre in single combat? Probably not.

      As for the king who shouldn't be king... Well, history is rife with examples of men who were not personally mighty who yet ruled kingdoms. The first one that comes to mind is Alfred the Great, who was weak and willowy, sick to his stomach always, never went into a fight, and spent entire days praying on his knees in the cold stone churches of wet Wessex... and yet stopped the Great Heathen Army with his strategies, caused a proliferation of art and Anglo-saxon cultures, and fortified southern England to prevent the Vikings from ravaging the land.

      The reason PLAYERS don't murder people is because, often times, their foes are high level. The reason other people in the society don't is much more complicated than that. I would estimate that on average nobility would have the fighting-experience to be around 3-4th level at best; unless they are marcher lords who ride out to do battle with unpleasant monstrous beasts all the time, they simply aren't going to be doing enough fighting throughout their entire lifetimes. The most ferocious and formidable knights in a kingdom might be levels 9-12.

      I was speaking with a friend the other day, and we both thought it worth noting that the name level acquisition of troops, strongholds, etc. can be considered a function of PURE FAME without work on the player's part. However, there is nothing stopping a lower level PC from attaining followers or a parcel of land if he or she should so desire and make efforts to do so. This, of course, is more difficult than waiting for it to fall into your lap, as it requires the navigation of complex systems of loyalty, but there's little reason why it shouldn't be possible.

      Nobility who cannot fight aren't "decadent" or "corrupt," they are simply human. Even being trained to level 1 is a far cry above the common rabble, and being levels 2-3 is nothing to scoff at. By the time a fighter is level 9, he has 50 or so hp and can literally take on a small crowd of men by himself. While it may be plausible ruleswise to make all your lords of that level, it certainly doesn't match up with historical reality as to the prowess of the average fighting-noble. Nor should every Lord Bishop be able to cast a resurrection or earthquake—many of them have no levels of cleric at all in Arunia, and for good reason: the presence of thousands of high-level characters makes the game much more high magic and much more heroic than most settings would even suggest (save, perhaps, the Forgotten Realms).

    4. Certainly, many nobles throughout history dove into battle and earned respect by fighting; but could many of them fight a troll or an ogre in single combat? Probably not.

      Historically speaking none of them could. :-P

      I won't say this problem only occurs in a level-based system like D&D, but it is undoubtably much worse in a level based system. In a system where everyone has more or less the same number of hit points, it is nearly as easy to assassinate a skilled person as an unskilled one.

      In addition, there should be a lot of reasons (social, legal, and personal) besides the individual toughness of the ruler to keep would-be PC assassins in check.

    5. I understand what you're saying, Josh, and I agree with it to a point. I'm comfortable with the implied setting for 1e while accepting that it's a poor simulation of noble roles and power relationships. For me, I think of it as a world dominated by warlords, with few examples of what would later come to be known as the robe nobility, frex.

  3. Stannis & Renly's men are impressed by their "marital prowess," eh? I haven't seen Game of Thrones but now I'm very curious about what goes on!

  4. Fascinating discussion and one I've grappled with...but only in the abstract. I've never had a campaign last long-enough for this to be an issue and I don't know that I've ever had a group of players who'd be interested in this kind of endgame.

    That said, the best supplements I recall TSR producing to help with the heavy lifting in creating this sort of verisimilitude were the D&D Gazetteer series books, especially GAZ1 and GAZ3.


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