Saturday, January 26, 2013

What We Have Here is a Failure to Cooperate

Continuing the postmortem analysis of the ACKS game, I'd like to discuss an interesting emergent behavior that occurred, contrast it with what I see in other ACKS games, and examine its causes and consequences.  In my game, PCs established three distinct domains, with a minimum distance between each of 24 miles.  The first was had when the group knocked over the guild leaders of Opportunity, and the bard took control of both the thieves' guild and the town itself.  The second was won by the necromancer when he threatened the crocodile tribes of the eastern swamp into submission, and the third was established as a caravan outpost on the road between Opportunity and Ironbridge, and was ruled by the warrior Corinth.  At its height, the bard (and then assassin)'s domain controlled 3 six-mile hexes and I estimate around five thousand families, half of which were the urban population of Opportunity, though I do not have the exact figures.  The wizard's swamp domain achieved good rates of population growth via the assimilation of other beastman lairs, but had a very low starting point and never expanded beyond a single hex, while at the end of the game Corinth's domain at Camarone was just reaching a single-hex rural population sufficient for her to contemplate building a hamlet around her fortress to provide a market.  Corinth had a henchwoman to fill the role of spiritual advisor and use the worship of the peasants to fuel potion production, while the necromancer ruled alone, and the rulers of Opportunity somehow managed to wrangle the party and assorted henchmen, including Corinth and company, into clearing hexes for their benefit.  The other PCs set up small domain-like operations to make cash; the venturer owned a ship and sent a henchurer to trade on it, the wizard ran an unfortunately-successful spy network, and the last fellow organized a company of mercenary cataphracts and found employ under the Baroness of Opportunity.

Contrast this, if you will, with the apparent dispositions of the Grim Fist when they were in the early domain phase.  Only a single domain, albeit one of a size larger than the total of my PCs', was cleared, and the decision was made that the fighter with the high charisma (paladin?) would be Baron, the thief spymaster, the cleric patriarch, and the wizard guardian of the wood, in addition to continuing her duties as party treasurer on the domain level.  This "domain-level party treasurer" notion is very counter to what we did; each domain stood alone as an income source for its ruler and none other, by which he might earn many XP and advance his own ends.  I would and have argued that this led to a significantly less satisfying game; the aims of the various domain-owning PCs did not align with each other, since each wanted different hexes cleared, and these aims likewise conflicted with those of the non-landowning PCs, who found hex clearing dull and dangerous for low treasure.  In any given clearing operation, there was exactly one player who stood to gain significantly, and so interest waned.  Further, as each of the domain-level PCs were doing their own thing (and even the non-domained PCs had their fingers in many pies), party cohesion suffered.  I was effectively unable to get a single answer to "What are you doing next session?"; instead, I received a plurality of answers.  This made prep difficult, and in some cases I performed poor allocations of prep time which served a single player's interests rather than those of the group as a whole.

But the question remains, "why did the party fracture at domain level as it had not at dungeoneering level?"  I think an answer comes by way of the Fists, in this post:
[We received] an offer of vassalage if we finish clearing the mountain, since Iamanu technically owns this region, but isn't doing anything with it.
Technically, that translates to "won't kick us out." But it's STILL better than the half-baked ideas we were floating to keep Orléans or Atanung from taking the mountain from us once we do all the hard work of clearing it out.
It was about bigger fish; large domains with military and political interests and sufficient power to squash upstart domains.  I made it clear within the setting that there were no such domains in this apocalypse-blasted, monster-infested region of the world; the Dardantines to the south weren't going to bother conquering a backwater when they can already import anything worthwhile that is produced there, while the Myrmidian city-states to the north were busy in their own local struggles against the Skanucks and the Sorosi.  To the west lay dead Zahar, and to the east the ocean and the domains of the pirate princes who, again, had little interest in coming inland and conquering dirt farmers when there were proper riches out to sea.  This produced an environment without a unifying enemy on the domain level; yes, there were the witches, but for all of their lingering menacingly over the horizon, they took only one direct action against a player-held domain, and that was done by proxy and easily dealt with.  They were hardly threatening the player domains with imminent conquest (well, until provoked in the last session, but that is a story which may not be told).  While there were great and ancient powers moving in the region, towards the end of the game I was sufficiently overwhelmed with hex-stocking and trade management that I was unable to effectively play them properly.  And so any old PC with 12500 GP burning a hole in their pocket could build a tower and declare himself a baron, if he so chose and could get his fellows to help him clear the hex he wanted to build in.

The real consistency trouble here is with the presence of bandits.  A bandit lair in ACKS entails a 9th-level fighter, several lieutenants, and a great many men who fight as first-level fighters (much as the Hill Cantons tells it of AD&D).  In a land without liege lords, though, where a PC with the cash and some mercs can prop himself up as a domain ruler, you can bet the bandit chiefs are doing exactly the same thing.  One of the rules I like to follow is "Good for the PCs, good for the NPCs."  You want perma-haste items in 3.0?  Ooooh-kay, but don't be surprised when you end up fighting a perma-hasted great wyrm white dragon (true story; I was on the player end of that and took the lesson to heart).  This is also why I try my best to keep flexible illusions out of the game; it's not that I'm concerned about what PCs will do with them.  Monsters lose a lot, and I'm OK with simulating being illused.  The trouble is that if flexible illusions exist in the world, then NPCs will have them too, and I'll have to deploy them against the PCs, which, after playing under illusionist DMs one time too many, is something I'm unwilling to do.  In any case, the point here is that those bandit chieftains should have been doing the domain thing out in the wilderness, since they have the personal power and small armies to back their claims and provide some 'protection' to their local peasantry, if not proper hex-clearing.  This would have generated a somewhat different feeling to the setting; rather than an unsettled world ripe for expansion, we'd've ended up with a Border Princes vibe, with treacherous and shifting alliances between the PCs and bandit factions, which was much more in line with my vision for the setting at the outset (very Wild Westy, too).  Arguably, this would have been significantly more interesting than the way things actually went down.  The first event following the conquest of Opportunity should have been bandits knocking on the gates, testing the mettle of the new rulers and wondering why their old guildy drinking buddies were no longer in town.  Perhaps better still, bandits rolling in and treating the town as a neutral zone in inter-band feuds, but threatening to quash any attempts at domain expansion.  Many possibilities were missed, and this angle would have segued nicely both into resolving the first party's origin story (caravan guards lost in a sandstorm following an attack by bandits in the south) and developing Corinth's history with the Bandit King of the North.

Perhaps part of the problem was the relative dearth of Men on the random wilderness encounter tables I was using, or a dearth of bandits within the Men subtable.  But I kind of doubt that was the case; I distinctly recall the PCs meeting nomads once or twice, and in case severely offending them.  Those nomads were from a nearby lair, likewise led by a 9th level chief.  The offense given should have perhaps resulted in retribution against their domain in that area, and, had this happened in the early game, it probably would have.  Ultimately I think my list of "people who are after the PCs" just got too long to manage and I started dropping entries rather than using them.  Unfortunate.  Whatever the reason, the PCs lacked a domain-unifying threat, and so their domains split, management time exploded, and party cohesion disintegrated.


  1. I think you're absolutely right. I always wondered what was up with the power vacuum that apparently existed within your world; if there were people more powerful than us, they absolutely should have been establishing and expanding domains to get more money and influence. I even remember reading about the various powerful NPCs in the worldbuilding posts you made, but I don't think we ever met a single one of them. Dealing with the various powers-that-be that aren't _necessarily_ hostile would have been really interesting. I don't think we ever ran into anything that was more powerful than us and also interested in our development except as it encroached on their land; the cactus treants just didn't seem to care about us at all, and it sounded like the Oracle and cronies wouldn't have bothered caring about us if we didn't want to use the fortress. It felt like we were the only humans around, really; what with treating peasants, ruffians, and hirelings more like resources than people, I think the only real people we met while I was playing were the ex-henchman dwarf guy (who cared about us even less than the treants) and the Pirate King who would have been really interesting to deal with (in a way that didn't involve fire and axes) if he wasn't so far away.

    1. To be fair, Jared, they did off a 9th-level assassin and an 8th-level thief to take control of Opportunity way back when (and ran another high-level assassin out of town, who was going to come back and bite them in the ass eventually), and the church of Harmakhis in Opportunity was a continual inconvenience to Drew inasmuch as it wouldn't permit Jarol to take power. The high-power NPCs were mostly as distant as the pirate, except the Judge, who had restraints on his movement. I guess the NPC apathy was an expression of "the NPCs have their own agendas and are not yet sure how your attempts at rulership will affect them, so they're waiting to pass judgment."

      But yeah... there came a point where I was stocking hexes rather than fleshing NPCs or putting a whole lot of thought into their realm-building plans. Happens.