|Image from Wikipedia
JB over at Blackrazor has been writing (one, two, three, four, five) about the phases of D&D (dungeon delving, wilderness exploration, and domain endgame) and how the traditional D&D incentive structure works well for the first, okay for the second, and not so well at all for the third. I more or less agree with his overall analysis. New incentives need to be discovered for domain play, and not just collecting taxes (because that is boring).
As idle thought experiments, here are two variations on the traditional phase-based D&D game. In the first variation, you tell the story backwards. You already have a lord or wizard with a stronghold and followers, and the game is to figure out how they got there. Unlike standard D&D, final death can’t be a danger because you already know that your character makes it to name level. Also unlike standard D&D, the game would end when you reach first level or 0 XP, rather than potentially going on indefinitely.
Would there be a way to make D&D played backwards interesting? I’m not sure, maybe 1d3 adventures per level, with each “death” leading to some sort of complication that would draw out the particular adventure. So getting from name level back to the beginning with the fewest complications would be the achievement. I feel like there is some connection here to the idea of planning out build options up to high levels like is sometimes done in 3E and 4E.
Now for the second variation. What if players started out with a stronghold? Either one per player or collectively. I feel like this would probably feel very different from D&D, despite the fact that all the rules would be identical for things like classes and spells. I’m not sure exactly why this would be the case, except perhaps that in the standard dungeon to wilderness to domain play (assuming a relatively deadly and impartial referee), everything is earned, whereas in this proposed structure you get everything for free. Also, people would not be as attached to their individual characters and thus perhaps not care as much about their advancement.
I imagine such a game progressing by first setting a basic stage (surroundings, stronghold capabilities, followers) and then advancing domain turns (probably one month per turn) to see what happens, based on some series of event tables. Scope could be zoomed in or out as necessary, so for wilderness expeditions, the players would zoom down to the perspective of questing knights and their squires (or magic-users with warders seeking rare spell components).
What would the overall motivation be to keep playing? Perhaps, like Dwarf Fortress, to see how many domain turns you can keep the whole thing going before being overwhelmed by an orc invasion or releasing some nameless menace from a long-sealed tomb? Individual characters need not gain levels (knights could just be level 4 fighters, for example) but I could see gaining powerful magic items still functioning as a reward of sorts. Does this just turn into a war game? Perhaps, but I’m not sure; especially if there are not opposing player-controlled sides.
Beginning complexity would also be higher than traditional D&D (and thus character/domain generation requirements would be heavier), but since there would be multiple characters (a lord, knights, spies, dungeoneers), lethality would not be problematic like it is in heavy chargen systems that make you put all your eggs in one basket. Such a basket is easily sent to the grave with a bad save versus poison roll.
Part of the tension here might be that when playing D&D, people want (or at least expect) to play an individual, whereas the domain level game is really less about individuals and more about collectives. This is why the incentives at the individual level don’t seem to make as much sense. Thus, maybe Game of Thrones style intrigue from the beginning just doesn’t work as well in a game, or at least not in the compulsively obsessive way D&D does.