Saturday, 11 July 2009

Random Blathering About Feudal Management Gaming

I've long harboured an urge to run a game about managing a feudal realm. Obviously Birthright is geared towards this. But I'm thinking of doing one of those annoying smart-alecky mashup things, probably involving Dragon Warriors (for the in-character level) and the "Seasons" rules cribbed from Houses of the Blooded for the resource management bits (shorn of any setting, because I despise the Houses of the Blooded setting the way I despise the Australian cricket team).

The first great difficulty with a feudal realm management game is intertwining the resource management bit with the role playing. How do you keep them integrated and stop it turning into a pen & paper and inferior version of Crusader Kings?

Clearly, random events help with this. "This month ... [sound of dice rolling] ... you recieve news that orcs are invading... [sound of dice rolling] ... from the south ... [sound of dice rolling] ... and a dragon destroys the village of ... [sound of dice rolling] Riverbridgetownplace." [Cut to in-character mode as the PC goes out a-orc-or-dragon-killing.] So of course does good improvisation on the part of the DM. (The character wants to clear some forest for farming so he can increase the population of his realm and get more money. Okay, go and persuade the headman of the nearest village to get his men to do that rather than, you know, do the work they have to do to survive. But it turns out the headman is a werewolf! Or whatever. Something better than that, preferably.)

The second great difficulty with a feudal management game is keeping all the players happy. Because whatever happens it's likely you'll end up with some level of irritation: you'll have to have one player be the boss of the others (if you're just playing in one realm, because that's inherent in the feudal system); you'll have to take 'turns' while the different players do different things (in the case of a number of different realms, or if you're in one realm with players taking different responsibilities); or you'll have to do something incredibly artificial (having all the players doing the same things together all the time, which is enough of a stretch when they're just dungeoneering, let's face it).

This is more difficult to solve. Playing PBP or playing one-on-one would seem to help, but the traditional group is going to find it tough to make the feudal management game work effectively. This makes noisms cry.


  1. I run sandbox games, so this happens nigh constantly.

    A good system is to have different "separate but equal' offices.

    The church, the State, The merchant network and some kind of wizards council if you wish (or a mercenary army works too).

    Each with different "abilities" or duties that they can work as a team.

    I'd give a longer post but Im about to head off for the day)

  2. Didn't LUG Dune integrate Great House play into the existing mechanics of the game? I know the old Underground superpunk RPG had mechanics that allowed characters to advance wider social and political agendas over the course of the campaign.

    Pendragon has the Winter Phase (estate management, garrison duty, hunting, court, romance, etc.) mini-games. I even wrote a domain system derived from that and Birthright for Fading Suns once upon a time (it should still be out there somewhere in netland...)

    I think part of the problem is that the abstraction of domain-level play and the immersiveness of an ongoing role-playing campaign tend to pull in different, largely irreconcilable directions. Taking a wider perspective inevitably makes individual actions seem less obviously significant.

    PS: googled Houses of the Blooded. Worried that I'd somehow fallen through a timewarp to the worst excesses of 90s Vampire LARPing...

  3. I think this is a great idea to apply to End Game D&D! What happens when those characters reach a high enough level to found their own strongholds? It's time to roll on the Random Horrible Crap that happens to your Domain Table!
    Oh look! It's the Black Death!

  4. Competitive game. Each person against each other.

    Turn based.

    Essentially strategic + roleplaying + DM retools carrot/stick set-up between sessions to match what happened that day

    On a players turn, the other players play people with limited abilities to interfere with him/her in that "realm".

    i.e. if you are at home in the court, the foes play minor backstabbing nobles with a limited set of "things they can do without getting thrown out of court"

    if you are orc-hunting, the foes play the orcs

    etc. etc.

    each time it's your turn you have several different choices of which "minigame" you want to play (hunting orcs, give yourself up to battling monthly events, growing some stupid crops, etc.) and each successfully completed type of mini-game gives you a DIFFERENT kind of power/opportunity/magic-plot-card you can use against the other foes when you are playing the minor characters in different minigames.

    i.e. Successfully "Build A StrongHold In Hostile Territory" and you win a free "Unveil Hidden Assassin in Enemy Court" card.

    Though maybe more causally conected than that.

    plus it should all be in Yoon Suin.

  5. I've wanted to run this kind of thing for years, myself. I hope I'm not being overly optimistic when I say that I hope my own DW campaign might eventually get to that point.

  6. "Birthright" is probably too abstract for what I think you want. It works at the shire/county level, rather than the fief and town level. And it's pretty gamey.

    If you can get a certain level of cooperation or niche protection like Zzarchov says, you can handle the domain management stuff between sessions via email, blog, or bulletin board, and save actual meeting for gaming sessions.

    The adventuring might work best West Marches style, where you throw difficulties at the players, and when a quorum decides on a challenge and time to meet, you get together and game that.

  7. Zzarchov: The problem with that is, you still have to have some players sitting around doing nothing for long periods, right? For example, when the person who is the leader of the State is off hunting orcs, they require a lot of face time from the DM. In the meantime what is the head of the church doing? Twiddling his thumbs?

    Chris: I'll have to take a look at some of those. In particular LUG Dune. That already is feudal; I assume all you would need to do would be to strip out the hi-tech stuff and hey presto! Medieval style feudal management game.

    I had the exact same reaction to Houses of the Blooded but it turns out its rules for managing a realm are pretty decent.

    E. G. Palmer: You don't get much more hard core old school than that. Roll on the's the Black Death! Your character has a 50% chance of contracting the diseases and dying. Oh, he's dead.

    Zak S.: I think that would be good, though time consuming to work out the intricacies of. Particularly you'd have to come up with a large stack of power/opportunity/magic plot cards and work out how they all fit in with the various actions the players are taking.

    Blizack: Well, I hope it does too. Yezekael already has plans to unite Cornumbria under his banner.

    Trollsmyth: Yeah, that is the key problem I think - the abstract "Civ II" sort of game is perfectly fine, but then what you're doing is playing a board game, not a role playing one.

    I think the idea of doing the domain management bits in between sessions is a good one.

  8. Pendragon is indeed great for this sort of thing. There's even a book that Greg Stafford put together for domain management, The Book of the Manor. But I tend to agree with you, that this sort of thing is best handled in a one-on-one game, or in a game where one PC is a lord and the others are members of his retinue and as such pretty much have a vested interest in said domain management. Or maybe the random events and mundane stuff could be handled in a separate PBeM format between regular sessions?

    E.G. Palmer's comment reminded me of an old Dragon article called "Holding Down the Fort" (Issue 145). Basically one big random event chart.

  9. @ Noism

    I think i see the disconnect. Part of higher "level" (as in nation building) play, is the need to delegate.

    Just as the heroes once were given quests by the king, when they become king they have to send off heroes to do the quests.

    After all, if the head of state goes into the woods chasing orcs the most likely scenario is a rival state wipes out the orcs for you as they capture the head of state.

    Its what they call the "captain's dilemma" in Star Trek, a lot of captains don't want promotions to admiral, because they stop being "hands on" at that point.

    Or Jack O'Neil in Stargate etc. Once you get to "high societal level" play the adventuring has to stop unless the threat is truly epic.

    In which case the old heroes leave their post as head of state, church, merchant guild etc, dust off their old armour..mention how it must have shrunk and ride off one more time.

    But for the more piddly threats, putting themselves at risk is often a greater danger to the state than leaving it unchecked, in which case they need to assemble their own personal champions and knights questing to handle them.

  10. Zzarchov: Well, okay, but the point remains: what's the head of the church doing when the lord of the manor is raising an army to go and invade the next barony? If there's only one DM surely you're going to end up with problems with face-time.

  11. @noism

    Its actually very similar to what happens in a normal group. What does the warrior do when the thief disarms traps? Or the cleric when the warrior fights. If one player is leading a thrust, it all about support.

    After all, even in the war example there is plenty of other tasks that need to be done to win. A head of church can either rally up support of zealots and pilgrims (if its against "heathens") or if its against the same faith, keep the lord of the army from being excommunicated by playing politics in the church hierarchy (and thus keeping his opponent from having swarms of the faithful, including from the lords own army, fighting against him). Likewise the merchant will need to use economic and cargo muscle to keep the lords army fed and keep the opposing army starved out and under a blockade. Its a far better scenario to have everyone being equal but incomplete than one king and his underlings..because then the king really can do everything. What is a player in charge of the army to do when the player who is the king decides to micromanage? not much beyond say "yes sir".

    That is just how I run them though. I take the concept of different party roles and 'macro' them.

  12. Zzarchov: I see what you mean, but when a thief is de-trapping and a fighter fighting the results are usually faily instantaneous - a few minutes at most of boredom?

    Whereas if you're roleplaying out what happens while the head of the church is rallying the clergy, that could take a fair while. Or do you just make one roll and say, "Okay, now the clergy are rallied"?

  13. Part of that deals with what is involved with the actual character.

    The head of the church is only really involved in one debate during a time frame, much of his work is delegated to other priests.

    Likewise the head of the army isn't dealing with every minor conflict, he lays out grand strategy, which really plays out very quickly from his input.

    In a feudal system, delegation is the literal name of the game. You have underlings who themselves have underlings who themselves have underlings and then come the people who actually DO things.

    In any 'high level' management situation its about choosing the right people to do the job and then hoping they damn well get it done.

    There might be one debate or fight or a single set of military orders to draft (and then give to commanders). Thats resolves itself fairly quickly.

    The usual response to Feudal play is often then to want to play the children or champions of your "high character" or to abandon the reins of power and return to adventuring.

    "high level" games definately involve less action, its the nature of command.

    In many cases its both the endgame of one campaign and the birth of the next, as they really can play their character's children. Pendragon is very good for this.