Do old-school strongholds have a place in a 4e game?

This posting initially started as a comment on this post over at GM Oracle, which was the last in a series on legacy edition rules for creating player character strongholds, but its length quickly became unwieldy, so it became a post here instead. In the series, the author provides an accurate overview of those old-school rules and concludes that the myriad of details a player would need to track to effectively govern a dominion are too cumbersome for the current game.

But that wasn’t always the case.

It strikes me that one of the reasons for legacy rules for strongholds involved so much resource and estate management could be connected to the game’s wargaming roots. The game was, after all, created and developed by miniature wargamers, and its first fans were drawn from the ranks of wargamers; veteran players will remember that the name of TSR, publishers of the original games, was an acronym for Tactial Studies Rules, and that the company’s earliest releases weren’t role-playing games at all, but were standard wargames. An AD&D campaign reaching completion at “name level” effectively told the story of the player characters’ rise from obscurity to a level of status where they could put troops on the field, allowing for more traditional wargaming scenarios – like defending their own strongholds – to be played with miniatures on the tabletop with the characters in command. The AD&D rules went so far as to define what troops were attracted, what types of leaders they had, and even how they were armed and armored, but stopped short of detailing how larger-scale battles with those troops would be fought – probably because members of the existing fan base already had several rulesets to choose from to resolve such conflicts themselves.

As D&D developed its own market niche, it moved further from wargaming, eventually becoming what most believe to be a separate hobby, and the type of player changed. Wargamers are used to volumes of rules accounting for as many real-world factors as possible – they enjoy that level of detail – so even the most convoluted D&D rules about stronghold creation and maintenance were like a pamphlet to those players. But role-playing gamers quickly became more about the stories they were telling and about skirmish-level battles, and we’ve come to the point where the current Dungeon Master’s Guide admonishes us to “get to the fun” as quickly as possible, suggesting that managing all those small details wasn’t part of the fun. But for traditional wargamers, it was.

Having said that, this writer largely concurs with the GM Oracle that old-school rules for stronghold creation run contrary to the spirit of the current edition. His suggestions regarding what forms 4e player character strongholds might take all point in the same direction: that they be used as springboards for further role-playing adventures, but not entail any additional bookkeeping:

The only thing I would insist upon is that the home is self-sufficient. That is, unless it’s part of an adventure or the overall campaign plot/goals, the headquarters remains in the background going about its business quietly. Thus there is no large household staff, no peasants, no craftsmen, no community attached as there would be in a classic stronghold/domain setup, no borders to defend, no taxes to collect, etc. Remember, these are adventuring heroes, not estate managers.

Given the manner in which the game is currently played , there is a lot of sense in that statement. There is one counterpoint worth mentioning, however: by employing dominion management rules on a limited basis, a Dungeon Master (DM) can access another stream of potential adventure leads. For example, consider one of this writer’s past campaigns that made use of the D&D Companion Set’s rules for governing a dominion. While only one player accepted the title of duke and the governing responsibilities that came with it, the entire party pooled their resources and built a single  massive stronghold for a base of operations. As a group, we decided to spend a couple of hours tossing dice to see how the dominion would fare for the entire game year (instead of doing so as each game month passed, as the rules suggested).

The results gave me some interesting adventure leads. A drop in peasant population for a few months in a row – which basically resulted from a quirk of the dice – set my mind turning not on people moving out or dying off, but people being abducted. It wasn’t long before the heroes began hearing of people turning up missing on the borderlands, and as the rulers of the place, it became their responsibility to investigate; and when the henchmen they sent to discover the source of the problem didn’t return, the heroes themselves set forth to stop a band of ogre slavers and their dark elf masters.

The discovery of a new resource, in this case, a silver mine, led to something of a power struggle. In order for the resource to be obtained, it was necessary for the heroes to clear the area of monsters (adventure No. 1), but when that was accomplished, the neighboring duchy laid claim to the land and presented such a convoluted justification for their claim that it required communing with the departed spirit of the king who first parceled out the land to resolve it (adventure No. 2). With that issue resolved, the heroes discovered that their new mining operation was frequently being sabotaged (leading to adventure No. 3); the saboteurs were identified as agents from the rival duchy, but the heroes had to cross that same duchy secretly to bring the evidence of their treachery to the current king (which was adventure No. 4).

In total, the extra hour or two we spent on being estate managers led to no fewer than five exciting adventures. And while one could argue that we would have had exciting adventures anyway through some other source, it’s necessary to give credit where it is due: the leads came through the dominion management rules.

To answer the original question about whether or not old-school strongholds have a place in a 4e game: while they aren’t necessary, using those rules can lead to some adventure ideas that may not develop in other ways. Even if the heroes never establish a stronghold, those rules may be worth a second look – there may be a proverbial baby in the bath water that’s being tossed out.

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16 comments on “Do old-school strongholds have a place in a 4e game?

  1. callin says:

    They have a place if the group wants them to have a place, regardless of edition. Some groups really enjoy this level of bookkeeping, some do not. I do not think this is even an edition issue; people playing in previous editions may not have liked the minutia and excluded strongholds from their games.
    It all comes down to what the group wants and no edition can tell a group what they can and can not include.
    Honestly, I see Birthright being one of the settings 4E brings back.

    • Alric says:

      I agree wholeheartedly. I brought the edition question into the discussion because the styles of play the designers seem to have intended between 1e and 4e. And younger 4e players may not know that the “minutia rules” existed.

  2. Anarkeith says:

    My city-adventure group just bought an inn from its beleaguered hafling owner. I’m running it largely in the background, but, as you say, it becomes a great source for encounters of all sorts. The regulars at the inn/tavern become people the pcs care about, and feel obligated to defend.

    • Alric says:

      The fact that your players are so connected to the NPCs is a testimony to your ability as a DM; it is great to have those relationships for story hooks, though.

  3. That Tim says:

    “Wargamers are used to volumes of rules accounting for as many real-world factors as possible – they enjoy that level of detail – so even the most convoluted D&D rules about stronghold creation and maintenance were like a pamphlet to those players.”

    Well, some wargamers. Most modern wargame design accepts the limits of the medium and work within them to get the ‘feel’ right, without going into high levels of detail. That’s left for computer games, which do it much better.

  4. Mike says:

    This is an interesting post and a great site overall for d&d. I’m going to be running the pathfinder Kingmaker series in a few months and I have been concerned about the building of a kingdom by a group of pcs. What concerns me the most is the building of armies in the latter chapters of the series. I’m converting the entire series to 4e which isn’t terribly difficult, but what concerns me is keeping pcs from using their armies all the time. I’ve dealt with this in other games I’ve run by having armies face off in the background while the pcs deal with the arch-villain leading the opposing army. One thought I had was the idea of using minions when the pcs explore a dangerous tomb/castle/keep/wine cellar/etc. Pcs could bring along minions of their own. Risking the lives of their men would certainly cost the pcs in terms of army morale, but it would let them feel like kings. Kings don’t charge a castle alone to find the villain. Any thoughts or suggestions would be greatly appreciated. Mostly I just don’t want to see my d&d game become a warhammer game (no offense to warhammer players intended).

  5. Alric says:

    Thank you for your kind words about the site.

    One way you could approach handling the actual battles between armies is to pick up a copy of the D&D Comapnion Set rules (or the DM book, if you can find it separately). There’s a chapter in it detailing “The War Machine” mass combat system. Or you can use a 4e conversion of that same product at Greywulf’s Lair by clocking here:

    http://greywulf.net/2010/01/war-machine-revised-mass-combat-for-4e-part-2/

    As for keeping armies from doing the PCs’ job, I’d suggest configuring the position of enemy armies in such a way that friendly armies can be deployed for no other purpose but to defend against attack from those enemy armies. If the heroes must defend two mountain passes and the great road leading to the heart of the kingdom, have an enemy force of sufficient size traveling along each axis of movement; if the heroes take one of the armies to accomplish their own goals, the road is wide open for the enemy.

    Another option involves having the heroes act like “kings” and not go in alone – but there is at least one task that the rank-and-file can’t perform, like ridding the area of a villain’s dragon allies or making a dangerous area safe for the army to traverse.

    Lastly, you conduct representative combat. If the villains are willing, both sides could designate a specified number of champions to represent their entire armies, and the result of that small skirmish would be the “official” result of the battle, assuming that both leaders are following chivalry or some other code of honor.

  6. […] Do old-school strongholds have a place in a 4e game? […]

  7. ClefJ says:

    I have never done a wargame before, but I’ve been in an rpg that’s quite similar to the videogame Suikoden. A similar premise of obscurity to building a fortress and new nation to combat an empire, as was the motivation within the rpg.

    Good reminder, this! I wish to try this out in my own campaign. Never tried a fantasy setting before, and this may work out well for some good plot devices.

    • Alric says:

      Thanks for your visit, and for your kind words. When my campaign eventually goes off hiatus, some of my old-school players were talking about going in that direction, so I’ll probably try it, too.

  8. I think the holding rules should always be updated to reflect the view of the players

  9. […] were pared back. Sure, an ambitious character who wanted to become a warlord still could administer a fiefdom in D&D4e, but it could require creative role-playing only recently supported by the official rules, and an […]

  10. Sol Keirn says:

    Perfect , keep writing

  11. […] the concept of building strongholds and gaining followers. As the Athenaeum has discussed before in this post, the idea of heroes settling down when reaching “name level”and building a stronghold […]

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