Sunday, May 29, 2016

Domains and Discontent

Brutorz Bill of Green Skeleton Gaming Guild asked for the blogosphere's thoughts on ACKS recently, and I commented to the effect that most of ACKS is great, but the domain system has left me disappointed.  I was asked to elaborate, and decided that it warranted a post.  I may catch some flak for this, but keep in mind that I'm aiming for healthy, constructive criticism which may make ACKS a better game.

Which begs the question: "What is best in gaming, Conan?"

Conan's answer, I suspect, is "something other than spreadsheets."

The trouble is that running a domain in ACKS is not fun.  It is paperwork.  ACKS' domain rules have the following property: an extrinsic incentive exists for PCs to want domains (primarily XP from running a domain, but also some cash from taxes and ready availability of a market), but there is nothing intrinsically rewarding about the actual mechanics of operating a domain.  First campaign with domains, we had a character with a domain who was milking it for XP, and other players decided to establish their own to keep up, and were disappointed with the experience.  Second campaign with domains, we decided to avoid the loss-of-cohesion trap of individual domains and have a jointly-held party domain.  This meant someone had to be the Spreadsheet Guy.  Nobody wanted it.  Sure, I could run the domain, but I'm already swamped running all the other domains and building adventures and trying to remember to eat and sleep.

(Incidentally, the following analysis owes much to Alexis/Tao's book, How to Run.  I have not yet finished it, but it articulates many things which agree with my experience.  I also owe a little to Collins' Interaction Ritual Chains, which is really good)

In the dungeoneering phase of the game, there are a number of events that are emotionally charged.  Fighting is exciting because you almost die, and then there's the thrill of victory.  Falling below 0 HP is ACKS is exciting, because it puts everyone in a state of tension for the mortal wounds roll, which is delayed (this is one of ACKS' finest contributions).  Getting treasure is exciting, because maybe you'll find some sweet magic shit or maybe your friend will pick up a cursed sword and you get the satisfaction of having dodged a bullet.  Exploring is tense and anticipatory, because you might find combat or treasure or trapped death at any time.  Even tracking torches can contribute to excitement under the right circumstances - it builds tension towards that moment when you run out and are trapped in the dark.  Basically, any of: gaining power, finding yourself in deep trouble, or things likely to lead to either of those outcomes has emotional merit (combat which seems unlikely to lead to either gain or loss is usually deeply boring).  Dungeoneering, of all of the phases of the game, does the best job of concentrating these emotional charges in the hands of an unskilled DM.  The rules make it practically unavoidable.

The wilderness phase of the game is weaker, but similar.  Getting chased by worgs is high-tension in an immediate sense.  Getting lost in the woods, or becalmed at sea, or running low on drinkable water in the desert, all build tension.  Coming over the ridge and seeing home in the valley, knowing that you are safe and your travels are over is a release of tension, a relief.  The wilderness exploration rules support these sources of rising and falling tension.  However, while the dungeoneering rules suffer more abstractions and nonsense for this purpose ("We can move how many 10' squares per 10-minute turn of exploration movement?"), wilderness play tends to get a little more bogged down in realistic overland speed and encumbrance, and the tension-release cycles feel much longer than in dungeoneering.  I'm not entirely sure why this is - might have to do with ability to restore resources by resting in the wilderness, so combat loses center stage to logistics attrition, which has a longer cycle?  Anyway, that's another post.

Domain play in ACKS is even worse at supporting emotionally-charged play.  The peaks of domain play (those moments when your players go "haha yeah, suck it!") might include: crushing an army in the field, storming a castle, assassinating a rival, being crowned emperor, sacking Rome, and winning the tournament to marry the princess.  The deep lows of domain play (those moments when your players say "oooh shit, we're boned", followed shortly by swearing revenge if they survive) might include: having their army crushed in the field, having their castle stormed and their town sacked, waking up with assassins in their bedchamber, being called to court to answer for their crimes, Mongol horde or great dragon politely requests submit or die, being excommunicated/fatwa'd by the head of a major religion, plague, natural disasters.  ACKS' domain rules...  don't do any of these things particularly well.  Assassination is supported, but it's one roll.  Being summoned (though not for crimes) and marrying the princess are on a random events table that you're supposed to roll occasionally.  Domains at War adds the crushing/being crushed, storming, and sacking, but Battles is a relatively high-detail system which can make pacing it difficult (and is in general error-prone for the inexperienced).  Moreover, the rules don't really provide ready paths to such situations.  There is no clear state-machine and path of play like in dungeoneering or the wilderness ("Go to the place, kill the thing, take the stuff, deal with complications along the way, and don't die").  The domain XP threshold rules strongly encourage expansion, but it's less clear how to go about it in practice.

Instead of focusing on these emotionally-charged events, the domain rules focus on taxation and population.  It is true that war and skullduggery cost money and manpower.  It is true that gathering an army and preparing an invasion build tension and anticipation of that action. But the balance between means and ends is tilted too far towards the means in ACKS; the tension-release cycle is all buildup (part of this may be a failure of our group's collective patience, but when a campaign lasts in the 3-6 month range on average, it is worth considering).  There has been a failure in choosing what to abstract away - taxation, population, and recruiting are high detail, while many of the interesting parts of domain play are either a single roll, random chance, or just left to DM improvisation.  Unfortunately, so far our luck with DM improvisation in the domain space suggests that it is hard to get right, and terrible unintended consequences often ensue from changes that seemed initially reasonable.

In dungeoneering, the lazy, exhausted, or incompetent DM (yours truly) has a host of systems for generating dungeons full of monsters and treasure from random tables.  Do these dungeon ecologies make sense?  Not particularly.  Do your players care?  Not as a rule.  They tend to be perfectly happy with plausibility and consistency, which is achievable with a little massaging of table results, rather than deep, realistic simulation.  You can paint a dungeon by numbers, stuff it with random monsters and treasure, and your players will probably have fun (the emotional content of the dungeoneering ritual is only loosely related to the literal content).  We also have such systems in wilderness play, though they are not as well-developed.  But when you get to the domain level, ACKS throws the lazy DM, who has relied heavily on tables for the preceding part of the campaign, to the wolves.  No random tables to be found, just demographics and statistics.  And it is possible, from those demographics, to derive reasonable size and population and troop strength estimates for NPC domains.  It's doable, but substantially more labor than rolling some dice and going "yeah that'll work," and demands a much deeper understanding of what those numbers actually mean.  If one is a compulsive automator, it requires a very different approach than tabling there as well.  And unlike with dynamic lairs in the wilderness, very few abstractions and affordances are made to DM ease of use in this area.

If ACKS' support for dungeoneering play is at GUI-levels of usability, where you can kind of bumble your way through it ("push button, receive dungeon, insert players, enjoy"), domain play is closer to the command line; you have to be really willing to read the manual, consider many options, and glue lots of obscure pieces together.  And god help you if you err.

There are also some issues with thief and wizard domain play.  Thieves are overpowered gold-fountains that obliterate suspension of disbelief in ACKS' economies.  Wizard domain play is a comedy of errors at the mid-levels where we've played it, because you can try to research the function of a magic item for two solid months, easily fail all four of your tries, and be left with nothing to show for all that time that you could've been adventuring.  It's very frustrating.  I don't know much about the operation of cleric-specific domain abilities (blood sacrifice, divine power) because nobody plays clerics, but their main domain game is functionally the same as a fighter's.

So there you have it: domains and discontent.  At some point maybe I should write some houserules / abstractions aimed at making the interesting parts of the domain game actually happen.


  1. Interesting post, thanks for sharing your thoughts regarding Domain management.

  2. Yes, useful post. I've glanced over ACKS and found all the detail rather intimidating in an, 'how could my much simpler idea hold a candle to this?' but you've encouraged me.

    In other news, have you looked at An Echo Resounding? I've skimmed it, and it seems to provide something a bit chunkier, but I haven't absorbed it at the detail necessary to play it.

    1. I think I skimmed AER too; was that the one kind of like Stars Without Number's faction system, but with locations of geographic significance? Been a while. Looked pretty gameable, but a bit lower-detail than I am think I want.

      And yeah, I think ACKS' detail is a good beginning towards or foundation for a domain game, but there is much more to be done to make it a fun game.

  3. I've been cogitating on this in the background for a few hours, so, this may be a little meandering:

    I see where you're coming from. It is...plain? Generic? I think what's missing maybe is a bit of explanation about how to outfit the campaign map with compelling interests.

    Your point about dungeon play is spot on. Here's a structure with defined paths - you've populated these areas with opponents who have resources you'd like to take - those resources turn into points with which you measure your score.

    At some point you move into the wilderness arena, and the pathing is less defined, and the ranges larger - you learn to survive on your own, but, you still come across opponents, who have resources you take for points.

    Now, those resources in the dungeon or wilderness lair regenerate after some time, sure, but you're not running around farming locations like an MMO until you hit the level cap and go play the next MMO. You move onto domain play.

    Domain play has resources (families on land that provide income, troops generated from that population) that you want to take - but it's not a one time thing. These are constant resources that you draw on as time goes by, take their point values and leveraging them to gain more and more.

    While the classical view is clearing out a spot in the wilderness and generating them out of whole cloth, D@W indicates that you really could just have a set of opponents that have resources you want, that you take for points...just like the previous two play arenas.

    Being of a certain age, when I think of emotional investment in a "domain game", I think Sid Meier's Civilization - the "just one more turn" phenomenon. I think about how many times I've nervously rushed settlers to make sure I claim a specific tile resource, my fear at discovering the Mayans in the early game, my panicked military building, my elation at crushing the English, my dread at Ghandi announcing he's discovered nukes...not even to mention the rage at just missing completing a Wonder.

    What I think may needed is twofold:

    Port the well-trod dungeon populating and "faction play" into the scale of the wilderness map. The Secrets chapter needs to go into further detail about what it really *means* to have all these little baronies, marches, counties, dukedoms, and that "empire" right on the corner of the hex map.

    The same care that went into, say, Sakkara or Dwimmermount, at making the dungeon "alive". Rival adventurers establishing domains, existing counts imposing their authority, lesser nobles asking for alliances.

    I've kinda felt the "hex", as a concept, needs more. It's someplace to find or put families to generate taxes, sure, but there's the whole "land value" concept that's been abstracted away - and maybe it ought not. Mountain hex? Maybe there's a mine - income bonus. That heavy forest is needed to fund construction projects. I need that river hex to get on that trade route. I need a stronghold at that mountain pass to control this other trade route...

    And I'm competing for all of that against NPCs.

    (hit post limit...)

  4. (second part)

    To paraphrase, if you could generate a random map of terrain, stuff it with random dungeon, lair, and domain locations, sit back and think a little bit about where factions might develop, you've done just the same thing as when the harried DM threw a half-coherent dungeon at their players.

    It's all implied in what's there already, but it's been hidden behind an ingenious, but generic, system. We'd have the same problem in the dungeon arena if Autarch had instead developed a system by which you can determine how the bugbears in Level 3, Rooms 5-8 feed themselves, and the copious tribal knowledge about "how to dungeon" didn't exist.

    Maybe the last "support book" after Lairs and Encounters should be on the domain arena play.

    Been a while since I've perused Echo Resounding, I recall being reminded of Birthright, but I'd always be a little wary of abstracting away a value that converts to XP - it's a game where a wizard will cart a crate of pottery to the next market because it may be the difference between level 3 and level 4. I'm sure there's a way to present things better, perhaps, but I'd hate to lose detail. (I'll admit, however, I'm weird, and I celebrate the fact that spreadsheets and Perl have been invented to make this sort of thing achievable)

  5. Koewn: As usual, I like the cut of your jib.

    If you're razing and pillaging, it very well *could* be a one-time thing :P

    I am starting to think that the correct end to the wilderness game is not "so we cleared some land and swore fealty to this lord and became barons", so much as "we were out in the woods and this horde of barbarians swore fealty to us after I killed their chieftain in single combat, so the time has come to conquer the decadent realms of civilized men." Adventurer *Conqueror* King, not Adventurer Courtier King! The trick is linking the wilderness game to the domain game, so that it follows. The dungeoneering game is linked to the wilderness game by the necessity of traveling to higher-level dungeons. Nominally the wilderness game is linked to the domain game by the accumulation of mercenaries to guard the supply train, and the accidental clearing of land. But land-clearing doesn't really work as a trigger, because the really good loot that propels characters to name level in the wilderness is all from treasure maps and dragons, which are widely-distributed. So hex-clearing becomes an incidental step, necessary to progress to the domain but not occurring naturally.

    Civ is certainly a better game, if a worse simulation, than Crusader Kings, which tends to be my basis for domain ideas.

    I'm really curious to see what L&E has in terms of hex stocking; for some reason this kickstarter didn't have draft access for pdf-only backers. Very frustrating. Probably Autarch's loss in terms of proofreading, though.

    More active NPC domains are definitely necessary. The old Oriental Adventures random event table sort of works, but there's a lot of stuff on it that doesn't quite translate.

    Linking land value to hex type is something I've looked at but never actually done in play. There is definitely more to be done there with trade too.

    Good analogy with the dungeon.

    For the record, I don't mind automating, but I hate having to :P Or more precisely, all of my good automation happens between campaigns, which means that it's less than maximally useful.

  6. Firstly: I'm very positive that a draft of L&E was distributed to backers...looks like January 19th, should have seen an email. If you can't find the email or the link in the email has expired, let me know via PM on the Autarch board, please, or skip my middlemanning and message

    Secondly: Crusader Kings is still on my list of things-to-do...Europa Universalis seems to be from the same studio, do you have any insight on how they compare? Or are the complementary?

    The barbarian idea: indeed. In fact, I'd posit that the campaign map generation would generate the smaller domains with rulers of the appropriate NPC level - not everybody just hit 9th and founded a new domain - and PCs of anywhere from 4th-5th on up might be able to either impress, coerce, intimidate, besiege, or outright purchase their way into an existing domain. The Holy Roman Empire, for a quick example, had plenty of examples of nobility selling off their lands to pay debts - earn or hijink your way into having some petty lord indebted to you, make the right sort of noise...

    And in the case that a cogent system tying land value to discrete resources comes up, clearing an otherwise bystanding hex is a means to an end beyond just claiming real estate - there's a real "thing" that must need positive control on. The rules that Alex posted some time back about non-hench vassals would probably see heavy use here; some small remote stronghold there mainly to exert ZOC over a mine or whatever (plus that adds to the emotional investment if that stronghold value is counted as PC XP, so the loss of the same is a real threat!)

    ...actually, now that I say that, I wonder if a proper level of abstraction includes expanding the idea of "stronghold XP" out to one's entire domain and realm holdings - hm. Haveta cogitate on that one - the game really wants you to have that extra income, and abstracting it away from actual gold-in-hand seems limiting to the players.

  7. I quite believe you that such a link was emailed out, but I did not receive it; I backed at Adventurer, and for whatever reason the cutoff for preview access this kickstarter (per the Jan19 update on the kickstarter page itself, and the pledge level descriptions) was Explorer from Foreign Lands. I didn't figure preview access was worth an extra $14. I'm not above begging a copy to proofread this late in the game if y'all want one more set of eyes over the draft, though.

    CK2 and EU4 run on very similar engines but in adjacent time periods; CK2 is from 1066(earlier with expansions)-1444, and EU4 is 1444-1810ish. CK2 is much more dynastically- and personally-focused; you have a character, they have a family and personality traits, your vassals get mad because they don't like that you're greedy and cowardly, your brother tries to usurp your throne, and so forth. If your dynasty dies out or loses all of its land, you lose. EU4 is more of a state's-eye-view; royal families come and go, but Russia/England/wherever remains, and as long as your state has territory, you don't lose. EU4's focus is more on tech and colonization, and expansion is easier (because you don't have to deal so much with titles and claims and pretenders and gavelkind inheritance law and whatnot). I found CK2's relationship management focus overwhelming, and enjoy EU4 much more as a game, but CK2 is fun as an inspiration for grim medieval domain play (there's a lot of assassination), especially if you play Norse (which adds raiding and human sacrifice). Both suffer from pacing issues, with long periods of waiting punctuated by occasional warfare or disaster.

    Yep. I was doing some domain math today, and a baron in civilized lands would only hit like 6th level off of domain XP. It should be pretty feasible for low-mid level characters to secure small domains, by hook or crook.

    This does seem to be something that An Echo Resounding got right; points of strategic interest that rulers would consider fighting to hold. Mines, straits, major harbors, sources of naval-grade timber and pitch, fords over major rivers, ...

  8. Link: Ah, gotcha. I'll ask around.

    Thanks for the info on CK2/EU4. Looks like expansions are still coming out - my general parsimony and procrastination may delay my tryout until a collection is available on GOG, but you never know. I do need something to putter around with...

    I have a feeling between the Auran Empire book and Patreon output, we'll see some holes filled in as far as 'design of campaign area' goes - I'd wager things like "hex resources" may still be a community created thing, but things like "here's what application of Ch 10 looks like" is probably soon to come. Dwimmermount had a peek at it, but I think was a bit hamstrung by being a conversion rather than a native application.

    I'mma go cogitate on your latest post.

  9. Cool, thanks.

    Yeah, honestly I kind of wish they'd quit writing expansions. The last couple of expansions for CK2 have been pretty lousy, and the last one for EU4 was not well-received (though Cossacks was supposely really good). It would have been nice if they'd just quit changing things six months ago. They get bundled on Steam during the sales once or twice a year, and those bundles typically include all but the last expansion or two (they always keep the last one full-price until the next is released).

    I'd consider paying for just a fully-fleshed out domain setting.

  10. Hey John! I'll be curious as to what you think of the new domain rules. I definitely took note of your feedback as I was drafting them.

    One of the things I like about the new rules is that they serve as a nice guideline for how players can get involved in domain building, since they show max domain sizes by level, with nice breakpoints at 5th and 9th level.

    I've been working on new rules for terrain interaction with land value, and for domain activities/actions that integrate in a specific way with the cycle of gameplay.