Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Lost Mechanics: Dominion-Level Play

"The Silver Warrior" by Frank Frazetta
Public Domain Image

I think one of the most interesting mechanics that have been discarded in newer games is Dominion level play. In Dungeons & Dragons this was an option given to the players when they hit 9th level: they could choose to give up on their wandering lifestyle and become a leader within a community.

In early editions of Dungeons & Dragons this was an option granted two-player characters when they hit 9th level. They had to choose between becoming landed character or a wanderer. Becoming a landed character grants them a permanent residence, number of followers, and some sort of position of power. The specifics were dependant upon character class.


Fighters were given the option to move to the frontiers of the land in which they live to establish a new stronghold. Thiss involved clearing land of monsters & dangers, raising the funds to build a fortress, then defending his new holdings untilnthey are cleared and setyled. Once that was accomplished, the Fighter would have a small force of men-at-arms to command. They may also choose to be a part of the system of peerage of the realm with status and privileges. Alternately they can petition to become the ruler of an existing land with no ruler, but must complete a quest to gain the blessing of the local ruler.


Clerics were given the option to creating an Abbey stronghold. If they are in good standing with their clerical order, the order will donate a portion of the cost of establishing the stronghold  and be assigned several lower-level clerics to aid them.

Magic Users

Magic-users were given two options.  The simpler of the two would be to become a court magician "Magist" of a loxal lord. The character is rewarded with a stipend of several thousand gold and several low-level magic-user apprentices.

The more complex option is to capture of built a stronghold (referred to as a "tower"), following the same rules as a fighter's keep. They don't generally become a peer of the land, but are treated as a law unto themselves. They both gain apprentices, and If they build a dungeon, attract monsters to it (These do not necessarily serve the wizard.)


Thieves do not need to settle new lands. Instead they can establish a hideout in a dungeon, cave, or fortified house. They get a few apprentice thieves to help them with day-to-day operations, and give the PC a cut in return for training. A Thief can petition for official recognition of their hideout as a guild hall by the Thieves' Guild and be granted the title "guildmaster" to earn some perks. 


Demihumans of 9th level all have essentially identical paths to dominion-level play. The establish a stronghold like a fighter, with a little variant flavour anc bring a chunk of their clan out to expand, making them a Clanmaster. If they served their community, their elders might front a chunk of the cost. As with all classes, they get a bunch of low-level followers of the same class to serve them.

This systems for dealing with dominion-level characters were somewhat different between BECMI and AD&D. 

The rules beyond that I have outlined above we're fairly scant. AD&D had few mechanics for building a castle or dungeon beyond pricing for common structural parts, and discussion of the cost of the various laborers needed to make creating a dominion happen. There wasn't a lot of other information available. And there was a hidden assumption that it would not bring the player character significant treasure, but essentially be a self-sustaining thing that happens in the background.

The Companion box included dominion rules for BECMI that were far more detailed. Not only does it cover the necessary process for clearing and settling a land, and the cost of building a castle and paying the laborers to do so, but it had mechanics for attracting people to your community.

Once a Dominion was built, a score was kept to track how prosperous the community was, what resources they had discovered, and how well the settlers had exploited them. Every in-game month, the general well-being and happiness of the community would be calculated based on a number of factors. Random events could be rolled that might cause some of the peasantry to die off or become destitute, or generally threaten the life, limb, and labour of ypur people: everything from monster attacks and brigandry, to invading armies, plagues, natural disasters, etc. The PCS were generally of given a chance to either hire low level characters or personally take care of problems.

At the end of the month a tax income would be calculated based on a mix of the community well being, the effects of disasters, and how well the players handled problems that arose. That tax income would translate into experience points for the ruler of the Dominion. It was possible for a player character to getting a great deal of treasure  and experience my either focussing on a fair Rule and being responsive to emergencies, or being a brutal tyrant. However, there was a chance when's the community morale fell too low of a peasant revolt at the beginning of each month.

This system is accompanied by and other system for Mass combat. If the PCS had to raise an army in the defense of their Dominion, their management of the Dominion could make a big difference in the power of their military.

By Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Ed., Dominion level play had disappeared. Cost of acquiring a castle or manor house we're offered for player characters who would consider investing in such things. Otherwise, there was an optional feat contained in the Dungeon Master's Guide called Leadership. Leadership allowed a player character to recruit a large number of possible followers based on a leadership rating, including a few specialized followers ("cohorts") that would gain levels alongside the player character. One's Leadership score would increase if one established a Dominion, but very little information was given on establishing one. Leadership itself offered little aside from the mechanics and having a pool of low-level characters who would support you were offered.

In Dungeons & Dragons 5th ed., the price of a large home is listed, and titles and privileges are a suggested alternative treasures in the Dungeon Master's Guide. There are no mechanics offered at all.

Why This Was a Good System

At its core, the point of having a Dominion was first to reward the character with power and influence, to reflect the hard work a player put into the character to get them to such a high level. 

Second, it was to root the player character more deeply into the campaign world; this Dominion meant that the player character had a major stake in seeing that the adventures put in front of them had a resolution. After all, the people who were suffering and the gold that was being stolen ultimately belongs to the PC.

Third, it opened up a new sort of challenge. Low-level characters tend to delve a dungeon where they run into small numbers of enemies in a constrained space. By making them clear land in the frontier, it was possible to throw huge creatures, or many of them from the wilderness. Giants, hoards of Goblins, legions of Bandits could be fought. PCs might gave to protect their land from invading armies. And it created a whole new scale and type of creature to encounter. It also made the Wilderness adventuring more relevant.

Fourth, it encouraged the players to create secondary characters. Apprentices, retainers, protegé's or children of the semi-retired landowner characters who can handle the small, low-level challenges that crop up.

Finally, it was a source of Adventures itself. Play the characters no longer had to hunt for adventure. Once they had a stronghold that their characters were invested in protecting, the adventure could easily come to them. The DM had a built-in mechanism for delivering new adventure hooks to the player characters. Whatever was going on, was threatening their people and their land.

Other Games

Dominion-level playe as I'm presenting appears very specific to Dungeons & Dragons. However, other games offered similar ideas both in the past and currently. Mutant Year Zero, was in essence a game about developing enough influence to become the major players in a post-apocalyptic survivor community., and had fairly significant rules about growing and developing your community. Vampire: the Masquerade was entirely built around trying to gain power and influence until you became the ruler of a metropolitan area. Shadowrun offered fairly detailed rules and its third edition about becoming a fixer, Mr. Johnson, or building some sort of black  arket business in your down time as your character advanced and grew in resources in reputation. The second edition of the Monte Cook Games masterpiece, NumenĂ©ra includes rules for building a community into a bastion of civilization by reclaiming Ancient Wonders and putting them to work in everyday life.

Why it Went Away

In D&D's the Companion rules, Dominions were never particularly well fleshed-out to begin with, and the task of building them was daunting. The rules were effective, but somewhat clunky and involved a lot of bookkeeping. No other edition of D&D, with one notable exception (below), has tried to do a better. Preferring to hand-wave this task altogether.

It also had the problem and seeming strangely disconnected from Narrative. It makes sense that a fighter who hits  9th level by dealing with Bandits, protecting communities from Monsters, and duelling with Infamous villains might be offered a title and rank. It is not so clear why a character who's managed to reach 9th level entirely by slaying oozes and aberrations underground, away from Town, and in a way that has no impact on the community might get the same. Using level to decide when a character might be granted a Dominion could demand a strange sort of metagaming. Offering a mechanic whereby a player might opt to take on followers makes a little more sense, but still should rely on the fact that the players have earned the trust of the community, rather than a feat on the character sheet.

So, divorcing Dominion from class and level made a certain sort of sense; especially when games became more narratively focussed. However, without having some clear marker about when a player character ought to be offered to Dominion, it simply was a style of play that fell entirely by the wayside in the vast majority of campaigns and faded from the rule books as well. In the process D&D lost one of its best campaign bu8lding tools. The same was true of Shadowrun, and to a lesser extent Vampire as it evolved into Requiem or focused more on the Sabbat as PCs or villains.

The structure of Dungeons & Dragons starting at third edition and moving onward was very focussed on creating one particular sort of narrative in which the player characters were wandering heroes engaged in a great deal of combat, in order to overcome some great and terrible evil. Not a game about tomb raiders looking to earn money, power, and acceptance through their exploits. 21st century Dungeons & Dragons is more interested in telling the tale of the Fellowship of the Rings and it is telling the tale of Conan of cimmeria.

The same is true of other games that I have mentioned. Shadowrun salt to make characters feel more desperate in later editions. And added a greater element of being people who are actually fighting to change the unjust system that is the linchpin of the Shadowrun world. Since characters building a massive underworld Empire seems to fit the theme less.

Innovations in Dominion-Level Play

Wild Dominion level play has essentially disappeared from Dungeons & Dragons, there have been some notable developments both in and out of the osr community regarding it.

Birthright Campaign Setting Cover Art
By Tony Szczudlo © 1995 TSR, Inc.


Birthright is campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd edition. In it, at least one player character in a party play the Scion of a noble house with a claim to the lordship of a fiefdom. Adventures generally circulated around addressing threats to one's lands or interacting with portly in trees. The game place to huge emphasis on mass combat. Often, player characters lead armies against enemies. It included Mechanics for ritual magic that allowed to spellcasters to affect entire groups of enemies rather than a single foe. and had slightly more elegant rules than companion in terms of developing and measuring the prosperity of a fiefdom. Unfortunately, I have only passing familiarity with Birthright. Although, some of the players I have worked with in the past are very passionate about it. It holds a particular Cult standing in Dungeons & Dragons.

Adventurer, Conqueror, King

Adventurer, Conqueror King is in OSR retroclone that mixes elements of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and BECMI to create a particular sort of story arc involving a Wandering Warrior finding a place, building Prestige, winning honours and treasure, and eventually becoming the Lord of a small Kingdom. It very much built on the narrative structure around characters such as Conan of Cimmeria or John Carter.

ACK uses B/X as a base, but takes the Companion rules and retools them to make sense from a macro-economics standpoint, and to streamline Companion's chunky Dominion rules down to a smoother-running system.

In effect, Adventurer, Conqueror, King is a retooling of B/X and C where dominion-level play is considered a major stage in the game and the groundwork for it is laid from the beginning of character growth, rather than an optional add-on.

Cover, Death is the New Pink, by Angie Groves
© 2017 DIY RPG Productions

Death is the New Pink

Death is the New Pink is an Into the Odd game (so, OSR stripped-down to its skivvies) that turns Dominion and getting retainers on their head. Instead of being a result of character growth, but a prerequisite of it. If a character wants to get past 2nd level, they have to train low-level NPCs and take them on adventures. If they want to advance much beyond 4th,  they have to start businesses and form warbands. If they want to reach the highest levels of play, they have to be ome a visionary and a leader so that they can make a lasting mark on the Wasteland.

I like this approach, as it rewards players for engaging with the campaign world on their own terms, and ensures that dominion-level play integrates well into the narrative structure. It also makes general sense when considering personal growth. We often learn best when we teach and challenge ourself in New ways. Why shouldn't levelling up happen as a result of stepping up and doing the next big thing, rather than more ofvthe same?

Strongholds & Followers

Matthew Coleville's book Strongholds & Followers has been given a lot of attention in my circle of the OSR. It is a book that adds some of the lost elements of Old-School Dungeons and Dragons play into the 5th edition. It introduces rules for henchmen and hireling that work swiftly in 5e's structure, and adds in mechanics for dominions that borrow much of their design from the Lair abilities of Legendary creatures in the 5e structure. It also adds mass combat rules that take the best of Companion and make them far simpler.

Final Thoughts

My best campaigns have always happened when Dominion play has emerged as a part of the game. My favourite  campaign in the last few years involved a quest to put the rightful heir of a kingdom on her throne... and then bring peace to a country in civil war.

The reason these were so successful was that they has staying power. The PCs were invested in the world and became co-authors in its creation. They had incentive in and out of character to keep coming back.

You don't necessarily have to make PCs take a chunk of wilderness and clear it of redcaps andvtrolls before building a brand new castle, as in BECMI, but giving them an important place in your world, and then using that as a vessel for offering an endless supply of plot hooks can work wonders for makimg high-level games fun.

I suspect the loss of Dominions as a part of Dungeons and Dragons is one of the reasons why campaigns now tend to fome to s hard stop at 10th level in 5th edition as it is normally played. If your character has been focused on heroically stopping one evil force across numerous dungeons and exotic battlegrounds, but never put down roots in a town, then after they save the world, what's left for them in it?

It is a wonder more 5e gamers don't take the example from the insanely popular "Critical Role" series: Matt Mercer is quick to give PCs castles, titles, an political power because it keeps them invested in the campaign world. Otherwise the series would have ended in Episode 11. It was PC investment in their homeland: A castle, a relationship with the emperor, a seat on the council, that kept the campaign rolling long enough to achieve cult status and then explode in tone phenomenon.


  1. Well said. I actually had no idea this had been abandoned. I thought being able to have your own castle, and go on adventures from it, was part and parcel of what made a Fantasy RPG viable long term.

    Getting back into the hobby, having skipped 3rd and 4th edition, has been interesting.

    1. It is a strange turn that came out of story-driven gaming.

      My next article is going to be about how these rules changes fundamentally changed the play arc of D&D, and created a bunch of self-perpetuating shifts in the D&D paradigm.

  2. If you're interested in a Dominion style campaign, I highly recommend the game FORBIDDEN LANDS by Fria Ligan/Modophius.

    1. I have had my eye on that one for awhile. I will give it a deeper look. Thank you!