Are you a Butt-Kicker, a Specialist, or a Story-Teller? There is a huge world of games out there to satisfy every player’s and group’s style. And while there are academic discussions in every corner of the internet, sometimes it’s best to start at level one. Join the Level One Wonk in exploring the possibilities that RPGs have to offer, from Aberrant to Zorcerer of Zo. Today, we look into the tricky business of building an empire. Want to turn your role-playing game into a wargame? That’s done with rules for domain-level play!
Most role-playing games, fantasy role-playing games in particular, revolve around the structural idea that characters continually increase in power, wealth, and influence. While some games have continuous treadmills of monsters to fight and special items to buy for sessions upon sessions, the reality is that in all but the most enchanted and exalted of settings, the power curve will run out after a relatively modest amount of play-time. Fortunately, there is more to most worlds than slaying monsters and clearing out dungeons or pulling off heists and dramatic rescue missions. When your characters need to get larger than themselves, you may think about domain-level play.
Domain-level play is an old term for giving RPG characters political power in the form of ”domains” they control, be those guilds, corporations, or part or all of a sovereign nation. Historically, Dungeons and Dragons campaigns would eventually see the characters having enough wealth and influence to purchase a stronghold, which would give them not only a base of operations but also a parcel of land to see over. Once the characters were officially nobles in this way, a whole new area of storylines could open up, involving courtly intrigue as well as broader politics. At a default level this would insert characters onto a bigger political stage, but it was both possible and for some palatable to start changing the course of politics in the world in which the game took place.
Domain-level play, in terms of the mechanical aspects, involves bringing strategy into what was originally a smaller and more direct game. Like hex-crawling, the stronghold construction and nobility aspects were originally a creation of old-school D&D, but there’s more recognition of domain-level play in modern gaming than there is hex-crawling. Pathfinder’s Kingmaker adventure path is a relatively recent product that embraces domain-level play for its high-level characters, and provides the players with mechanical support for running their kingdom.
Domain-level play is not restricted to D&D and its variants. Any world where the characters could find themselves running not only a nation but maybe also a business or other large group could benefit from additional rules that solidify what the group is and how they can affect the world. The game Reign has a more wide-reaching set of rules for what the game calls “Companies”, and this can describe anything from a local guild to a wide-reaching empire using fairly straightforward attributes and available actions. Fate is surprisingly well-suited to a political game; thanks to the Fate Fractal which states that anything can be statted out as a character, it’s straightforward to assign an organization skill ratings which can define how said organization interacts with others. Interface Zero: Fate edition uses this exact mechanical paradigm for the game’s corporations, and it’s an excellent compromise of mechanical depth and minimizing extra rules.
Whether introducing domain-level elements in your game makes sense depends on how they fit with the existing campaign as well as your players’ interests. Not every genre easily supports domain-level play; supers and horror are two examples where more organizational complexity would likely diminish rather than enhance the game. Even though a supers game may have a super team and/or a shadowy villain cabal, the genre is built on character ability and character action. Instead of having a group at the forefront, have the super characters do the heavy lifting, and focus on how their powers work together rather than group logistics. In horror, you may have factions such as those in Urban Shadows, but the sort of ancient traditions and rivalries they represent are likely out of the characters’ sphere of influence. Whenever you introduce rules for larger organizations you are potentially giving the characters the ability to make and destroy them, which won’t work well in every game.
Where domain-level play shines is in any genre where there is a ceiling to characters’ personal power that is likely to be hit. While fantasy games can often feed characters magic items and treasure for what seems like forever, there is a limit to how long this stays novel. In a science fiction game, in contrast, there are usually harder limits on personal ability, which sometimes are nearly reached even at the beginning of a campaign. In both of these cases, having a group whose resources you can leverage (be it a noble house, corporation, or something else entirely) can provide both new goals and new and interesting problems that cannot be solved solely with personal ability. This is both a positive and a negative; while courtly intrigue and threats of war can really spice up a game, they also create situations where characters’ personal abilities take a back seat to the nations they’re involved with. It’s important to make sure that characters still have some ability to go off and have adventures on their own, unless of course your players are having more fun being nobles or executives or generals.
There are some games built for domain-level play, either in the core rules or a supplement. The abovementioned Reign and Kingmaker for Pathfinder are great examples; Mongoose’s version of RuneQuest has the Empires supplement, and AD&D had the Birthright campaign setting. There’s also the retroclone Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS), which assumes that the characters will become generals or nobles as they advance. It’s in no way necessary to buy a game specifically for domain-level play if you want to include it in your game, many systems have other rules that give you a good baseline. Exalted is an example of a game without domain-level rules per se, but with the War and Bureaucracy skills having full charmsets you have more than enough rules to run effective storylines about politics, intrigue, and war. The only time you need additional rules is if you as a GM want to emphasize strategy as part of your game and want to introduce wargame elements. Reign, RuneQuest Empires, and ACKS all have these level of rules, but it’s in no way required to model domains at this level if it wouldn’t be interesting in your game.
Domain-based play can be a great addition to your campaign, especially if you’re trying to run a more open-ended or sandbox style of game. Creating groups and political entities which make moves both with and against each other can provide a lot of story ideas, and more detailed rules systems often allow a GM to come up with new conflicts or dilemmas with only a couple dice rolls. Campaigns which heavily feature domain-based play tend to de-emphasize the actions of your individual characters, but in return give them new avenues to gain power and wealth. Each group is different in terms of whether or not they’d be interested in these storylines, but being aware of the domains in your campaign can open up a lot of options in a high-level game and keep things fresh.