Rules Options for Domain Level Play

In my recent post Plotting Grand Campaigns, I’ve written about domain level, or patron style play at length. Here are some references to rules systems one might want to consider to support domain level play. They’re mostly rules for large scale conflict simulation, war games in other words.

Now, before I go on, let me say this: “war game” is a term, I abhor. While I’m obviously mighty fascinated by the derivatives of war games, I consider myself a pacifist. “Conflict simulation” sounds innocent and sophisticated, academically interesting, but let’s face it: we’re talking about armor values and damage potentials and violent death.

Especially at the time of this writing, even thinking about war games feels utterly wrong. There is a real war going on in Ukraine right now. I wish nothing more than the fighting to stop at once! Then again, most of the time we’re playing there’s is some violent conflict going on in the world somewhere. We should always be mindful of this.

If setting up conflict in games teaches us one thing, it’s the fact, that it’s actually quite hard to construct credible reasons for armed conflict. Motives we come up with, are either criminal or corrupt, often both. So, let me say this: reaons to go to war are always made up, they’re always messed up! Reasons to go to war are always fabricated, messed up bullshit, driven by the interests of few corrupt individuals in their criminal pursuit of power.

As H.G. Wells put it in his adendum to Little Wars: “You have only to play at Little Wars three or four times to realise just what a blundering thing Great War must be.

Rules for Political Scheming

This would be the place to link to the original Braunstein rules. But as I already said in my previous blog post, there seem to be no published rules. The best documentation I’ve found is on Ben Robbin’s blog Ars ludi:

The Adventurer, Conqueror, King System, might be useful here, but I can’t claim any experience with this game.

If you have any other suggestions, please do add them to the comments.

Rules for mass combat and large scale conflict

Basically crude mass combat rules can be achieved by simply lumping together a certain number of combatants into one larger “meta-creature”. For example 20 “normal men” in OD&D with one hit die each, dealing one die of damage each, might become one unit with 20 hit dice dealing 20d6 of damage to an opposing similar unit. Only one to hit roll is performed for each unit. Armor class and bonuses remain the same, as for single characters. Combined with the usual rules for morale. This simple scaling of figures might do all that is needed.

Actually the importance of morale can’t be overstated, since in any larger scale conflict, the question is not only survival or death, but whether one side prevails, routs, gains or loses ground.

If anything more is needed, here are a host of various rules sets.

  • Chainmail by Gary Gygax and Jeff Perren, published in 1971 by Guidon Games, and later by TSR. A rules set for medieval miniatures games. It’s “Fantasy Supplement” is considered to be the predecessor of Dungeons & Dragons.
  • Swords & Spells, and amalgam of D&D’s “alternative” d20 based combat system and Chainmail, published by TSR in 1976
  • Daniel “Delta” Collins’ Book of War
  • Alex Schroeder’s Mass Combat Rules
  • Robin Stacey’s Mass Combat Rules
  • Don’t give up the ship, a rules set for naval fleet combat in the age of sail, published in 1972 by Guidon Games, and later by TSR.
  • Warriors of Barsoom, a rules set for war games set on Edgar Rice Burroughs‘ John Carter of Mars Setting. While it’s available on, it’s copyright status seems to remain unclear.
  • War Machine, a set of mass combat rules described in the D&D Companion Rules.
  • Battle System, mass combat rules designed for use with AD&D 2nd edition.
  • Classic Traveller’s Book 4 Mercenary for a rather abstract, sort of birds eye view approach on infantery mass combat.
  • Classic Traveller’s Book 5 High Guard, for battles of large space fleets.
  • Full Thrust by Ground Zero Games, for even more detailed fleet battle in space.
  • Striker, the rules for modern day to far future miniatures combat accompanying Classic Traveller, available from Far Future Enterprises on the Classic Traveller CDROM.
  • GURPS Mass Combat, another abstract system somewhat similar to D&D’s War Machine and Traveller’s Mercenary.

Plotting Grand Campaigns

EDIT 3 (2023-08-01): Recently I had to learn, that the “BrOSR” group of gamers, of which the below mentioned Jeffro is a member, does not only advocate interesting gaming concepts, but also political stances, I cannot approve of at all. If you want to learn more about these concerns, you might want to follow this post over on Tower of the Archmage. Well, maybe you don’t even want to follow the link, since it’s really not funny. I’m afraid the posts Archmage is referring to are no fabrications. Consequently I asked Jeffro to take down the link from his blog to my blog. I’ve never been part of the BrOSR, never will, and I don’t want to be associated with it in any way.

I’m happy, that the OSR and the ttrpg community in general is a creative, broad and diverse bunch, having fun with great games. Also my own interests don’t stop with rules-as-written old-school gaming. Life is colourful! Let’s embrace and celebrate diversity! Let’s be welcoming and share the fun!

With that out of the way, here is the original post:

So I took a deep dive into this rabbit hole for the last couple of weeks. Over on Mastodon user phf pointed me to a blog post by Jeffro on how to play Original D&D. Now, while somewhat polarizing, what Jeffro writes is intriguing. After I commented on one of his earlier post on How do you do Patron Style play in D&D, he answered with yet another blog post on the subject, clarifying some questions I had. So thanks Jeffro for this great inspiration! Consequentially these ideas led me to expand our current Traveller5 campaign to include High Level PCs (post in german).

Basically Jeffro suggests, that in a fantasy campaign, as it was originally conceived, experienced and played by the gaming groups of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the players do not only assume the roles of individual characters going on dungeon excursions, but also the roles of leaders, potentates and antagonists, with “the patrons”, i.e. the players who play these high level characters, given free hand to develop their dominions, and to make up their own agendas and strategies. Thus regular character parties will actually receive quests from, act on behalf of, or against high-level characters, who are in turn also controlled by players. In this kind of game the game master will act much more as a true referee than as a one-man-show puppeteer.

Recapitulating how the Old School Renaissance ventured to repopularize 1970s gaming style, Jeffro states:

“1:1 timekeeping with multiple independent domain-level actors is the fundamental axiom we have been missing.”

He goes on to describe, how by applying these two fundamental principles to his campaign, Jeffro observes how factions begin to act much more consistently and driven by intention, than could be simulated by a single game master, even with the help of various source materials and random tables. The reasons why this should work seem to be quite obvious and convincing to me.

Jeffro anticipates:

“your campaign will immediately begin spontaneously generating SECRETS as soon as you turn it on.”

And as from what I’ve experienced since adding patron style play to our Traveller5 campaign, I think I can confirm this expectation, and I will report on how this turned out in a future blog post.

If all of this sounds convincing to you, and you want to give it a go, I suggest you read Jeffro’s post The “Always On” Campaign, it’s a good place to start.

EDIT: Ben Milton of Questing Beast hast put out a great video about the same ideas.

EDIT 2: in the meantime I saw several videos about Robert Wardhaugh’s enormous D&D campaign. It’s been going on for 40 years. Apparently Robert also has domain level play going on. He refers to it as a macro component using war gaming rules, where players get to control tribes, realms and even whole nations and empires.

While “researching”, I’ve looked at quite a number of rules options to support domain level play. They’ve made it into their own blog post.

If you’re interested in my further thoughts on this subject, read on.

Domain-Level Play in the Original Games

After reading all those blog posts, I went back to the original 1974 rules of the game. If domain level play should be the original assumption, the rules surely must contain some clue about it. Certainly there is a clue, but it’s not easy to find.

While there are rules about constructing castles and strongholds, ruling over baronies, cost of men at arms and so forth, I could not find any obvious mention, of what would be considered “patron style play” … not until I actually leant back, closed the booklet and looked at it’s subtitle: “Rules for Fantastic Medieval Wargames Campaigns” … there it is, hiding in plain sight.

Considering all of the above, I think it fair to take said subtitle as an indication, that those rules were originally conceived as rules to be part of the set up, not necessarrily it’s only defining element. It has often been stated, that one reason, why the original three booklets seem to be difficult to understand in some places, is due to the authors being war gamers, writing for an audience of experienced war gamers. So it’s probably safe to say, that the basic assumption was the war game. And war games, naturally, are games of conflict simulation, in which players take up the roles of conflicting parties.

The first fantasy campaign, widely known as the Blackmoor campaign by Dave Arneson, and considered by many to be the origin of fantasy role playing games, started out in 1971 as a Braunstein game, set in a medieval fantasy setting. Braunstein in turn is a losely defined style of game, conceived by David Wesely in which players take up the roles of various allying or conflicting parties across a broad range of power levels from peasants to generals. Players are supposed to get information from the referee and act by giving written orders. As long as their characters are in the same location, their players may also communicate directly. While there seem to be no pubilshed rules for Braunstein, a lot can be inferred from published play reports and handouts.

In Secrets of Blackmoor, a documentary on the Blackmoor campaign, Stephen Rocheford, one of the original Blackmoor players states: “Yes, I am the High Priest of the Temple of the Frogs“. Clearly you don’t start out as a High Priest when you do conventional character creation in D&D. Obviously this was a patron player character, on which “Rocheford and Arneson [had] worked together to create this character as a humanoid alien with ties to extra terrestrial forces and technnology”.

The fact that in two of D&D’s most famous adventure modules B2 – Keep on the Borderlands, and T1 – The Village of Hommlet, not just the “monsters”, but also the “good non-player characters” are fleshed out with complete combat stats, has been commented on with some amusement, but in the light of an adversarial game being the default, this seems to actually make a lot of sense.

So, these findings seem to indicate, that domain level play might actually have been the default assumption. But there is more, if we look at games and adventure modules published after D&D hit the market.

Antagonistic play in other games

In the canon of Classic Traveller, there are two adventures, which I find quite remarkable with respect to patron style play. Namely Adventure 5 – Trillion Credit Squadron (1981), and Adventure 7 – Broadsword (1982). The former offers an elaborate frame work for setting up a game of conflicting space navies, with missions for individual characters mentioned only as a secondary possibility. The latter is a collection of scenarios designed around the crew and troops of a mercenary ship. The referee is given the advice to have some players play the antagonists, and instructions to stage the scenarios on large scale terrain maps. Similarly in Adventure 5 – Leviathan the referee is advised to have “the player party preferably […] occupy command posts”, giving the game a wholly different perspective, than that of the usual struggling adventurers.

Interestingly also the basic rules set of the Generic Universal Roleplaying System (GURPS) by Steve Jackson Games, contains rules and suggestions about adversarial players, albeit with the notion that an adversarial player will play adverseries ultimately designed by the game master.

And then, there is also Fate, a modern character focused, “story telling” game which, by treating every important story element as a character, offers rules and examples to play on a, possibly adversarial, faction or domain level. There are examples in the Fate Toolkit, as well as in the Burn Shift and Mindjammer settings by Sarah J. Newton.

I’m sure one could find many more examples. If you know of any, please add them to the comments!

The gentle but seldomly trodden path to domain level play

Of course I am perfectly aware, that Dungeons & Dragons’ actual rules put forth in the three brown booklets of 1974 do fokus on characters starting at low level, going on dungeon expeditions as the default setting. This primary focus of the game is again repeated in the paragraph THE FIRST DUNGEON ADVENTURE, in Gary Gygax’s 1979 Dungeon Masters Guide. And it has become the assumed standard ever since, with domain level play only starting once characters reach the lofty, so called “name level”.

Similarly in Traveller, patrons are usually considered to be non-player characters, who might offer jobs or quests to the player characters. And while Marc Miller writes “With time and a growing knowledge of the universe, the players themselves will develop their own missions and become for a time, their own patrons.”

From an educational perspective this gentler path to domain level play appears to be an easy, little demanding way to do it, but achieving patronage through play seems to happen rarely enough, and if at all, only after many sessions have been played.

While in this light, games which never reach domain level play might seem to be missing out, I don’t believe wargame like, adversarial, domain level play to be the end all and be all. Since the days of the old war gaming grognards, a lot of great developement has happend, and character driven role playing games have developed into a multitude of intersting genres and sub genres. Playing a well scripted 1920s pulp adventure may be a phenomenal experience, telling relationship driven stories in a postapocalyptic dystopia might be all you’ll ever want from this hobby. And heroic high fantasy as embodied by todays 5th edition of the original fantasy role playing game has become a whole genre of it’s own. If you like it, there’s nothing wrong with playing the game by it’s modern rules.

All this post is really about, is just say, that playing the game by it’s original rules, might offer an experience much more immersive, than you ever thought. And clearly those original rules sets contain those rules aimed at domain level play. They may just as well be applied right from the start — when you begin to plot your Grand Campaign!

More food for thought


Finally, be sure to watch Secrets of Blackmoor!

Quick Traveller5 Characters

So our Traveller 5 campaign is 12 sessions in, with two independent player groups roaming the Rhylanor Subsector. So far the story has been very consistent and player attendance has been almost 100%. Of course eventually players will need to have to skip a session once in a while. Also, new players might want to join, and players might want to roll up a second (or third?) character on short notice, as developments in the campaign might demand. I’m a huge fan of very traditional campaign setups and open table sandbox gaming (1:1 campaign time, multiple characters per player, all the good stuff).

But then character creation in Traveller 5 is very detailed and takes some time. Up until now we’ve done characters in one-on-one sessions, which took from about 20 to 90 minutes. And right there’s a rub, obviously. Lengthy character creation is nothing I would even want to think of, two hours before a session starts, let alone after the session has started. So this does not seem to be ideal for a traditional campaign.

So what do we do? We need quick character creation!

The following is what I’ve come up with:

The fast and loose method

  • Roll six attributes with 2d6.
  • Pick a name.
  • Let’s talk (or chat or post online) about the kind of character you want to play.
  • Take 5 skills to fit your character idea (the referee will give you suggestions).
  • Roll 1d3 for the level of each skill.
  • Optionally, trade in skill points to increase low attributes (5 or less).
  • Haggle about the gear and credits your character might reasonably have acquired up until now (again the referee will give you suggestions).
  • Done, you’re ready to play!
  • Optionally, some time in between sessions, retrofit a homeworld and a career to your character.

I know it relies heavily on the suggestions, advice and ultimately impartiality of the referee. But if you don’t trust your GM, why play at all, right πŸ˜‰

This approach to character creation already has precedent in our campaign. When one first time role player asked if she could join the game — literally an hour before we were going to start — I asked her to give me a rough idea of what kind of character she wanted to play. She imagined an adventurous, sort of roguish young woman who had been travelling for quite some time already, sometimes as a working passage, sometimes as a stowaway. Then we did some dice rolling and chatting and came up with this:

UPP 796947 (age 22)

Streetwise-2, Stealth-3, JoT-1, Blades-2, Fighter-1

Dagger, Heavy Coat, 500 Credits

Here you go, a playable character. In between sessions we added some backstory, but basically that’s the whole process.

Recently we found another option, which was actually used while we were already half way into a session. A character was needed really quickly.

The online generator method

A lot of folks know and use Paul Gorman‘s Classic Traveller Character Generator. While characters generated for Classic Traveller (CT) are sort of playable according to Traveller5 (T5) rules, their skill values tend to be quite low. I think I remember suggestions to multiply CT skill values by 3 to use them in T5, but we’ve come up with a different method, leading to a much more detailed skills set. Here’s the character the generator gave us:

Lt Colonel UPP 7765CB (age 30)

3 terms army

ATV-1, Air/Raft-1, Dagger-2, Electronics-1, Fwd Obsvr-2, Rifle-1, SMG-1

Now instead of just increasing those skill values, we looked at the career. Survival of three terms in the army, commission, promotion in every term. In Traveller5 the soldier career yields 4 skill points per term plus 1 skill point for a commission, and 1 skill point for each promotion. So in T5 this characer should have 12 skill points for careers, plus 4 skill points for his promotion to officer rank 4, a total of 18 skill points. Add to that possible home world skills. Nine of those 18 points have already been allocated, and they were translated to T5 rules thus:

Electronics-1, Fwd Obsvr-2 (no conversion needed)

ATV-1 and Air/Raft-1 β‡’ Driver-0 (Wheeled-1 Grav-1)

Dagger-2 , SMG-1 and Rifle-1 β‡’ Fighter-0 (Blades-2 Slug Throw-2)

The remaining 9 skill points were allocated by taking automatic skills by rank and randomly rolling on table C Soldier Skills of the soldiers career for the remainder. Finally, after picking a home world, we added home world skills, too. I know this might sound a bit complicated, but it actually went much faster then doing a full on character generation according to T5 rules. Now the character looks like this:

Army Reserve Major, UPP 7765CB (age 30)

Admin-2 Fighter-2 (Slug throw-2 Blades-2) Forward Observer-2 Electronics-1 Leader-1 Medic-1 Stealth-1 Steward-1 Streetwise-1 Tactics-1 Driver-0 (Wheeled-1 Grav-1) Hvy Wpns-0 (WMD-1)

Now, this looks like a playable character to me, generated on the fly, expanded to T5 stats in between sessions.

I must say I like both methods, and would always let player preference be my guide. Finally I guess both approaches can be viewed as rules as written if you consider this quote from the Traveller5 rules books:

“Create the Character you want to play with friends. Pick and choose abilities that are important and interesting. Use randomness for the rest.”

I’ve nothing to add to that πŸ˜‰