Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Harn Manor

Inspired by +Rob Conley I bought some Harn products that arrived yesterday. I'm still traditionalist enough that I vastly prefer hardcopy products to pdfs so I purchased them directly from Columbia Games through their online store. Following Rob's advice I picked up Harn World; and because I have been digging into domains and population density rules for ACKS, I also picked up the interesting looking Harn Manor.

I had some qualms when I ordered the products that they came unbound and 2-hole punched. I've tried this format in the past and durability of the pages has been an issue for me. When they books (can I call them books when they are unbound?) arrived I was surprised and pleased and the weight and finish of the paper stock used. I don't expect durability to be an issue with the production quality of the books. Columbia prices the Harn product line as a premium product and the attention to physical quality reflects that.

I spent several hours last night reading Harn Manor, and I expect to spent a few more tonight; I may be hooked. In my gaming circles, Harn garnered a certain amount of awed respect and derision. The level of detail, as described to us by the guy who owned it, left us simultaneously gob-smacked and pitying for gamers just trying too hard. About the same reaction we had to Advanced Squad Leader, the detail was admirable but we suspected it might not turn out to be that much fun. The reality of digging into Harn Manor left with me with about the same reaction; with one more layer, fascination.

I will never use the entire set of manor generation rules in any of my games, its just too much detail for what I want. But, reading all that juicy, juicy detail and mining it for ideas and as inspiration for a level of zoomed-in-focus sandbox building that goes beyond my usual "here's a village to start in approach" has energized me. If you have ever had the itch to detail every single NPC in a village, no matter how insignificant, then you should own this book.

My current ruleset of choice is ACKS, mostly because I love the level of worldbuilding detail Autarch created to support mid and high level game play. But +Alexander Macris made a deliberate design choice to zoom into the regional hex level (6 mile hex) and avoid any further detail. I would like to include play at the lowest level of landed nobility which means dealing with fees and manors. I had begun outlining an approach I wanted to take for adding this detail to my ACKS campaign but Harn Manor is going to help me get there faster.

Even when the detail goes to a level that feels a bit excessive to me, the presentation and writing is always clear and enjoyable to read. There are frequent hints on how to use the information in game. If there are inaccuracies in the information relative to their stated model of medieval England I am not scholar enough to spot them. Maybe more importantly for gaming purposes, the details are plausible and internally consistent and therefore eminently gameable even if they are not "realistic" in some points.

I highly recommend this book and I can tell it is going to be one of my top go to reference sources for worldbuilding.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Conquerors and Kings

Interwoven amongst the varied demands of work projects and family life I have been slowly digesting the wonderful work that Alex Macris did with Autarch's Domains@War. The opening chapters in the campaign book on raising armies and the expanded insight of the economics of domains has been fascinating for me.

The hardcopies of D@W arrived at a serendipitous time for me. I have been spending some effort in reconciling the information on domain management in Chapter 7 (Campaigns) of the core ACKS rulebook and the world building/realm information in Chapter 10 (Secrets). In particular, I was trying to relate the rules on stronghold costs and population limits from the player's perspective in chapter 7 to the tables of "typical" realms in chapter 10. Two things in particular kept throwing me. First, the Ruler's Stronghold Value for the various realm sizes in the Revenue by Realm Type chart on page 230 and the Minimum Stronghold Value table on page 127 don't seem to line up very well. Second, this paragraph from Strongholds and Domains on page 125:
To establish a stronghold, the adventurer must first secure
an area of land, known as a domain. The minimum size of a
domain is a 1-square mile area of land. An average domain size
is a 32-square mile area of land (1 6-mile hex on a standard
wilderness map) while the maximum size of a domain is
500 square miles (1 24-mile hex on a large scale map, or 16
contiguous 6-mile hexes on a standard map).
and the population and size values for a barony from the Realms by Type table on page 229 seem a bit at odds with each other. I feel like there are some missing assumptions about character levels and progressions and expected growth and expansion of player domains across levels that are not stated but must have affected the sections I've been struggling with.

The demographics tables on page 235 only make my confusion worse.  A barony is the smallest realm type; being a realm it should have vassal domains, possibly including one controlled by a fresh level 9 fighter. But, the Maximum NPC Population by Realm Type table on page 235 says a barony will have a maximum npc level of 5 and it takes a good size county or smallish duchy to find a level 9 character. Parenthetically, the Realms by Type table says it's quite likely to have 2 baronies in a single 6-mile hex which is hard to reconcile with the quote above that says an average domain size is 1 6-mile hex. After a lot of head scratching and attempts to reverse engineer the Realms by Type and Revenue by Realm Type tables so they fit the domain rules in chapter 7, I've come to the conclusion they were never meant to.

It could be that I should just shrug it off and chalk it up to the players characters being the special beings they are and they simply do not fit into the typical world building guidelines. It's a perfectly good game answer but I don't really buy it. Alex and his cohorts spent entirely too much effort making the rest of the character rules and campaign rules tie together in nice internally consistent structures. I think the real answer to my dilemma is contained in the aforementioned unstated assumptions around changes in the domain game as characters level.

There are a couple snippets in the rules that may point me to the correct assumptions. The rule about minimum domain size being 1 square mile and the XP from Domain and Mercantile Income table on page 146 strongly imply to me that domain rulership can and should be explored before reaching the class levels that allow for the building of strongholds and attraction of followers.
At 9th level (Warlord), a fighter can, assuming enough gold is at hand, build a castle and become a great leader of men, taking a 0th level mercenaries and 1d6 fighters of 1st-3rd level will come to apply for jobs and training.
This class power description seems to read that a fighter earns the right to build a castle at 9th level. I think it is really supposed to say that a 9th level fighter attracts a body of mercenaries but a castle is required first.  The difference might be hair-splitting (or self evident to you, gentle reader) but when combined with the XP from Domain and Mercantile Income it says to me that the domain game can start at whatever level the PC can acquire the resources to start clearing and building. By the time they reach 9th level a fighter should already have a domain spanning a full 6 mile hex or more and be thinking about how to use those attracted followers to claim a broader realm with vassal domains.

I have participated in discussions of the domain game that assume that it starts at level 9 or name level, an assumption supported by the usual interpretation of the class power (and ones like it for other classes) that I quoted above. What I could not find in the domain and strongholds rules in chapter 7 was any level requirement for owning a domain or stronghold only a level requirement for attracting the followers that automatically come with a domain and stronghold. What I did find is a class power at level 5 for the various fighter type classes that gives them a leadership bonus when leading mercenaries and henchmen. This rule from page 49 defines the difference between henchmen and mercenaries:
Henchmen are typically  very loyal and are willing to take reasonable risks; in particular, they are the only sort of hireling who will generally accompany an adventurer into a dungeon, lair, or ruin. Mercenaries are hired soldiers, and will guard, patrol, and otherwise serve in wilderness settings, but only as part of a larger force, not an adventuring party.
Since by definition mercenaries are not suitable for the typical adventuring use, the fighter receiving a morale boosting ability for leading mercenaries implies to me that fighters (and their PC cohorts) are expected to start participating in battles, clearing wilderness terrain of threats, and guarding property. All of which are standard components of the domain game. [edit: nDervish on the Autarch forums pointed out a rules section on page 134 that explicitly states that characters below 9th level can gain possession of stronghold and would start interacting with the domain rules, without the benefit of followers. That section is a bit smaller than the four paragraphs and two rules quotes I took to back into that rule.]

Between the leadership ability many classes get at 5th level, the very small minimum domain size, and the ability to gain XP for domain income at any level, I conclude that levels 5 - 8 are the true beginning of the Conqueror tier of play. By level 9 PCs should already by planning or possibly already have achieved some degree of realm rulership and have entered the King tier of play. But is it really feasible for  a 5th level fighter to clear a small domain, say one or two square miles, and build a suitable stronghold to start attracting peasant families?

The answer to that will be explored in a companion article as this one has already grown to an unwieldy size.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Flavors of Spellcaster

Sometimes I am struck by ideas that seem to be floating in the currents of my little corner of the gaming community. Today I was reading an interesting blog post from the always thought provoking +Wayne Rossi and his notion of spellcasters with powers rather than traditional D&D spell use crashed into a post from +Rachel Ghoul on a Sorceror class design for ACKS.

One of the things I really like about Rachel's sorceror class is the addition of powers granted by the sorceror's bloodline. The single approach to arcane spell casting of vancian spells seems to work against the intent of the sorceror as an instinctive caster of magic inherited through fantastic descent. Wayne's post really brought home to me that what I wanted from a sorceror was a class with more frequent use of a limited number of inherent powers.

Don't get me wrong, I like the traditional vancian caster. I think it models a caster of a hermetic tradition really well. It's tropes of material components as manifestations of the laws of sympathy and contagion (I'm a big fan of the deCamp and Pratt Harold Shea stories) feel satisfying to me. I also want other flavors of spellcasters in my games; ones that represent other mythic and literary traditions.