October 7, 2010 by Jeff
By Wolfgang Baur
Conan’s goal in life was to rule the jeweled throne of Aquilonia. Elric was a prince, Arthur took the throne, and heck, even Gilgamesh was nominally in charge of things in Sumeria. The urge to be top dog has always been part of heroic fantasy legends and our history. Heroes literally rule. Despite the clear urge to personal, individual power for all PCs, standard D&D games rarely support a player’s urge to rule. So what’s wrong with seizing power?
Problems of Power
Part of the problem is just the game itself; characters grow in their at-will, encounter, and daily powers. All of these are geared toward combat and individual effort. Likewise, the 4th Edition D&D treasure track makes sure my DM provides me with enough parcels of loot per level. It’s not just D&D, either, of course; COC has a handy Credit Rating skill that let’s me buy anything with a die roll. And Pathfinder let’s me do the math to power up with feats and powers every level. Individual power and a sense of mastery are very cool; everyone likes to feel personally competent, masterful, confident in their abilities.
However… D&D adventures have never really provided options to rule a kingdom. The one big exception was Birthright campaign setting, for 2nd Edition AD&D. That presumed that all characters were born to rule, and supported that urge with mechanics. But it’s the big exception.
And there’s a reason for this. Power comes with responsibilities; it ties a party down and locks them into a particular region. They lose mobility, and players may feel boxed in.
Levels of Play
On the other side of the screen, it requires a much higher level of DM ability to keep a kingdom interesting than to keep the next dungeon interesting. Rulership is full of politics, intrigue, compromises, dark deeds, assassinations, rivals, information brokering, and making and breaking alliances.
That’s all great material for film and novels (and LARPing), but it’s much more difficult for a DM just starting out. Certainly when I was 12 or 13 I wasn’t interested in any of that, and neither were the buddies I was gaming with. We wanted to kill creatures and take their stuff. I wanted to present a world of adventure, dungeon crawl style. Absolutely nothing wrong with that. As an older game with broader horizons, though, sometimes that’s not enough. And certainly Wizards of the Coast isn’t about to bust out 4th Edition Birthright.
So is this all just a lowest common denominator problem? I don’t think so. Certainly Vampire managed to throw a lot of political angles into RPGs. D&D can do exactly the same. But it needs two elements to make it work: it needs some quick rules, and it needs to be bounded to be a part of a campaign, an installment rather than the whole game. If you want a whole game of politics and rulership, play Vampire, Houses of the Blooded, Pendragon, or a similar game; if you want a change of pace, though… Well, here’s what I did.
King for a Day
The problems of giving PCs real power to rule and change the setting is that it’s too permanent, and it’s unsupported by the mechanics — the extent of that power is entirely at the DM’s option, and not something that PCs accumulate along any clear axis of growing strength. And a level-based system like D&D is really about clear progressions and power in the hands of players. Just as important, this acquisition of power should be real but temporary.
My design solution to this in Courts of the Shadow Fey was simple: provide a clear a straightforward mechanic for character prestige, to cover elements of social class, noble titles and clout. Tie that measurement to in-game powers; then, give NPC nobles special power that others don’t have. So in the Courts of the Shadow Fey adventure, Paragon-level PCs can visit a deeply corrupt court of demons and shadow fey, acquire power within that setting — and once that adventure is complete, the burdens of power can be abandoned so that the PCs aren’t stuck ruling one little corner of the setting, but instead are free to move on to the next opportunity, whether it is plane-hopping, dungeon-crawling, or something else entirely.
Mechanics of Power
The design behind this is straightforward, even if we haven’t seen it in D&D before. The accumulation of Prestige is effectively a parallel XP system which depends on player actions. While it does grant prestige and status powers, it is also reversible; prestige is never permanent, and those powers are lost if and when the character loses prestige.
In play, this works wonderfully. Characters who have always aspired to noble titles gain them by taking the actions that lead to that level of power. Characters who don’t care simply focus their efforts on traditional combat and skill challenge character progression. The two don’t step on each other’s toes, but like party members with different roles, they shine at different points of the game. Indeed, one way to think about this is that the prestige system creates an additional role — call it a noble or perhaps a social striker — that excels at social functions, skill challenges, and certain combat powers intrinsic to the setting’s rulers. In the case of the Court of the Shadow Fey, those are Shadow and dueling powers, but they might take the form of Divine powers in a theocracy, Martial powers in a warlord’s realm, or Primal powers in a Druid coven.
Have you ever experimented with giving PCs titles, nobility, or land? What did you like or dislike about that style of gaming? I’d love to hear it in comments.Wolfgang Baur is the publisher of Kobold Quarterly and the designer of Courts of the Shadow Fey. He enjoys granting raw ultimate power to players and seeing what happens when they realize, yes, they really CAN take over the setting any time — and then what do they do? © Wolfgang Baur 2010. All rights reserved. Published with permission.