Besides assembling a retinue of armed and optionally disagreeable men, another D&D tradition is obtaining a castle, keep, or other stronghold. Some variants (especially Adventurer, Conqueror, King) go a step further, and assume that the new home base comes with feudal obligations and large territories to manage. Obtaining an interesting home base has long been something I have wanted to do in a game. Rules for these, however, tend to delve into almost minute detail.

Now, as much as I love the idea of playing a character who gets to establish a home base, my prior posts may suggest that spreadsheet management away from the gaming table is not my preferred play style. So what kind of crunch, if any, should I look for to put owning a castle in a game?

ACKS, and various stronghold guides for core D&D, all spend a great deal of effort modeling thickness of walls, the cost of adding arrow slits, the effect of proximity to population centers, and dozens of other concerns that amount to a giant spreadsheet management game. This is valuable only to the extent that knowing the thickness of walls, the number of seasons and workers required to construct the castle, and the number of peasant families living in the surrounding lands is a desirable outcome during the game. If it is, I will say that ACKS is exactly what is needed to simulate a general medieval economy, and I don’t want to compete in that space.

I think there are a few purposes served by designing a home base (not necessarily a fortified keep or castle), and like character creation, I think it’s a trade-off between at-table utility and away-from-the-game design fancy. The form could be an old keep out in the marches, or the familiar inn at the crossroads, a wizard’s tower, or a psychic spire in the astral, or a small village, or a ship. The game effects I would list as:

  • Obtaining the home base could be a quest in itself. The party could keep returning to the same inn because it’s conveniently located and cheap, and there’s lots of tradition there, but winning possession of the home base gives player ownership of the story resource through play.
  • It’s a source, subject, or feature of quests. This is the case in CRPGs like Pillars of Eternity or Baldur’s Gate II, as well – the stronghold, once earned, offers additional quest options that build up the story of the stronghold. An adventuring group based on a ship will have quests that tend to involve ship travel. Lots of times this may involve quests that imperil the home base (invading army besieges the castle/goblins attack the town/pirates try to sink the ship), but it’s not good to make the home base a liability. A game that revolves around continuously trying not to lose cool things will stop appealing to most players, without up-front buy-in on that focus.
  • Enhancing the home base is fun. After the initial design, I feel this motivates most of the point-buy system design that goes into any stronghold system. The more complex the system is, the more that it becomes an away-from-the-table activity. While I can’t quite work myself around to a universal declaration that between-session work is all bad, I don’t want working out the spreadsheets between games to be a natural feature of my work. That makes any system to grow the home base a balancing act between expressive power and complexity.
  • It gives something for players and characters to be proactive about. This is really a restatement of the prior point, but it’s applying the principle in play. Having a game around recruiting resources to enhance your frontier village gives lots of opportunities for interesting decisions, whether it’s at the macro-level of deciding whether you’d rather recruit the outcast smith-clan dwarves or the displaced elven wardens, or the micro/tactical level of actually playing out the respective quests. This ties growing the home base in with the quest reward system, which keeps the focus on table play.
  • Like mass combat, it’s a gateway to playing the game at a larger level of abstraction by taking up actual rulership of a domain, in effect playing a new kind of character in a different ruleset. This has the same kinds of challenges that mass combat system design would, with respect to managing scale. Additionally, there are already solid treatments of this with ACKS, and though I don’t have my hands on a copy yet, reportedly also An Echo, Resounding.

So with those thoughts in mind, while I don’t have a “stronghold system” in mind yet, I do have an idea of what a “home base” framework might entail. I want it to be abstract enough to cover many different kinds of home bases, whether or not the characters technically own them in-game or not. I want any mechanics tied to them to be low complexity, so that having such a base doesn’t incur the work of running another character. The base’s main contribution to the game should be through story options or quests in the game, and not function as a second game system for a parallel kind of character. Bonus points will be awarded for supporting airships as an option.

Castle by Lara Eakins CC BY-NC 2.0

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3 thoughts on “But will it sink into the swamp?

  1. I tacked a simple stronghold system on to the epic tier of my D&D4 game, but swiftly lost track of it during play. It was one more thing to monitor and update in a game that already bordered on overwhelming amounts of GM cognitive load. Your overall simpler system may fare better!

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    1. I’d be interested in seeing your stronghold system some time. In the spirit of my complexity thesis, I’m trying to query potential systems in terms of their net effects on the game. My conclusion re: managing a home base is that I prefer to use it as a means rather than an end for my own system, but I’m still fascinated be the systems that treat it as an end. At some point I’ll get around to posting about emergent properties of rules and systems. I do wonder about the emergent properties of stronghold-for-stronghold’s-sake, and whether that and domain management is more than just starting to play a different kind of game.

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