.A common element in many video game RPGs is management of home base, be it the Ebon Hawk in Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic, your chosen house in Skyrim, Skyhold in Dragon Age: Inquisition, the Jackdaw in Assassin’s Creed IV, the Normandy in Mass Effect, or your base in XCOM (yes, I realize not all of these are RPGs, but they all have at least some RPG elements). These provide the player with a part of the fictional game world to make their own and improve. I’ve not yet played in a tabletop campaign which has been able to match such video games in creating a space in which I’ve had such personal interest in developing. I’ve taken some of my favorite experiences in estate management from the video-gaming world, attempted to figure out why they were so fun, and translate that into use in tabletop RPGs. Here’s what I’ve come up with:
Provide the players land and/or assets and reward players for interacting with them. It doesn’t matter what the land or assets are, be they a castle, ship, tavern, or even just a bare patch of earth, so long as players can make something out of them. There should be a sense of progression in the ownership; the players need to be able to make it their own, customize it to suit their needs/whims, and improve it over time. The rewards that come from ownership should also progress accordingly. The easiest rewards are financial. A steady income can be earned, be it from the taxation of lowly peasants or a weekly take from a tavern’s profits; as time and investment increases, more money should be able to be earned. However, rewards should not be limited to financial. Less tangible but more desirable benefits should be given whenever possible; these only limited by your imagination. Just a few off the top of my head- prestige in the eyes of the local nobility (and the favors that follow), involvement and influence with a local guild, new ways of interacting with the land (see governance below), political power on a local or regional scale, 100 foot tall golden statues of the party, and the attraction of followers (see minions below). Questing and adventuring is great fun, to be sure, but property and estate management can also be great fun, if done correctly.
While it’s certainly fun to have land and buildings, it’s even more fun to have people. Minions can come in all shapes and sizes but they need to either provide some tangible benefit to the players or have an interesting enough personality to warrant interaction; in other words, the players should be given a reason to care about their minions, because of what they can do for the player or who they are. Through the attraction and management of followers, the players should be able to earn rewards similarly to management of property. Followers are much more versatile and valuable tools and should be treated as such. Followers can be assigned missions or tasks to benefit the players; these missions can have their own rewards and chance of success based on the difficulty of the tasks and the skill of the one(s) undertaking them. Making your players care about their minions, not just in a general sense but on a personal level, can be difficult, but if done successfully, will drive the players to invest more in the relationship and the community they’re building. The GM can use these relationships to enrich the story and drive character actions (i.e. have a beloved minion be kidnapped by local bandits and watch the players break loose all hell upon them to ensure their safe return). The people the players choose to surround themselves with also adds another layer of personality and personal modification to all that they are working to build.
Having assets, people, and land is fine, but the real fun comes in having authority over them. Giving the players meaningful control of the policies, actions, and affairs of their little piece of the world is paramount. This ranges from being able to control what goes on inside their borders to how their domain influences the world at large. Choosing what buildings will go up, what people will be employed (or enslaved), and how things will run gives players an important sense of control over their little kingdom and motivate them to care about what happens to it. Presiding over the very fates of their people can be a challenge, especially when players’ decisions will lead to the literal life or death of their domain and/or its inhabitants. The players should also be able to use their domain as a tool to influence the wider world. Some examples of this might be: swearing fealty to a powerful kingdom, clashing with neighboring territories, working for a particular guild, bullying smaller landholders, or starting their own nation. It’s challenging to give weight to players’ decisions, having both tangible rewards and consequences for different actions or policies they might take, but it is of utmost importance in order to generate the sense of ownership and meaningfulness in governance of their estate.
The lifeblood of any domain is its economy. The production and consumption of goods, services, and resources provide can provide an enjoyable aspect of estate management for some players (others might find such detail utterly uninteresting). Managing supply and demand of various resources and goods can engaging for players, provided there are suitable rewards for doing so. Typically such rewards come in monetary form. In some cases, mitigating disaster and their estate falling apart is reward enough, e.g., their kingdom had a poor harvest and is on the brink of starvation if the players are unable to secure a source of food. While creating a functioning economy that is realistic and engaging is likely too large a task to be undertaken in a tabletop RPG, the GM can pick and choose different economic elements to include in the management of the players’ domain, according to the temperament of his or her players (a group full of economics professors might enjoy an intense economic simulation; a group of normal people - probably not so much).
As a lover of strategic elements in gaming, I find domain management to be a real pleasure, a chance to flex some of those planning muscles which all too often are dormant when gaming. Hopefully you found some useful ideas that you can take to your own game. I don’t often look to video games to inform how I should be playing at my tabletop, but in this case, I think that many video games have done an excellent job in fostering a sense of responsibility and personal interest in the development of a fictional property, which I think will translate very well into the wonderful, wide world of tabletop.
- Jake is a lifelong video-gamer who has upgraded the Ebon Hawk to its fullest extent, spent hours crafting Lakeview Manor in Skyrim, and virtually pimped out the Normandy. He’s proud of these accomplishments but not so much as to put them on his actual resume.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.