Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Bringing the feudal power game to the tabeltop

I'm reading George R. Martin's Clash of Kings while travelling in South America, and frankly, it is even more depressing than the first book. I wonder to myself why I'm putting myself through the experience, and will have to turn again to the Winter King trilogy by Bernard Cornwell when I return in order to boost flagging morale.

BUT, it has got me thinking about how you play a good feudal power game on the tabletop. I like the setting of Westeros, although were I ever to run a game of this type, I'd probably create my own campaign world rather than spend valuable man hours trying to research and reproduce Martin's world accurately. Heck, even reading the book I can't keep track of all the intricate relationships between the noble families of Westeros, and keep finding myself praying the Dothraki invade and slaughter everybody - a bit like the Mongols in Poland in 1241!

"What? You've taken no chargen points in Longsword?"

I've participated in a small number of what I would call feudally-based roleplaying campaigns over the years. By this I mean games in which the player characters are nobles or allies to a noble family with a large political or economic stake in the realm in which they dwell. They are closer to the centre of power than the average group of D&D adventurers, and have a vested interest in the political destiny of the kingdom in which they dwell.

For example, take Pendragon. Here the players are knights in Arthur's Britain. Pendragon can be a political campaign, particularly if you plug estate management rules into it. In the early stages of the Pendragon campaign - i.e. after the death of Uther Pendragon but before the coronation of Arthur - the knights spend much of their time exploring and slaying monsters, as well as fighting off the dastardly Saxons. To date I've not played a Pendragon game that strayed too far off the accepted path of heroic chivalry, although Ben's most recent effort did see us investing a lot of time in managing our estates to the extent that the idea of Saxon raiders turning up to burn one's gazebo and trample one's vegetable gardens was a horrific prospect. At the end of the day, however, Pendragon is about knights aspiring to a chivalric ideal, which some Westeros knights do as well - e.g. the Knight of Flowers - but which most seem to ignore.

Don't neglect your Horsemanship in a feudal campaign!

I've also played in an excellent game of Legend of the Five Rings, again set in a feudal society, this time in Rokugan. Thanks to the accompanying CCG, Rokugan is now vastly more detailed than it was when it was first published in 1996, and thanks to the feudal nature of its Japano-Korean culture, well suited to a power/politics game, if a GM chooses this route. The characters are all samurai, making them automatic members of the ruling class, and all are strongly tied into the family groupings that make up the major and minor samurai clans. I personally enjoy Japanese history, and feudal era Japan is arguably the setting I'd most likely opt for in the event I chose to run a feudal power/politics campaign. It was reading James Clavell's excellent Shogun that got me into Japanese history in the first place, and any fan of A Game of Thrones is advised to read this book and Clavell's Tai Pan if they can find them.

Westeros was first explored as an RPG in a d20 edition game which I have since sold - for a tidy profit - on eBay. We played a short Westeros-based campaign where all the characters were attached to a noble house in the northwestern reaches of the kingdom, shortly before the events in the books. This was a great setting for a d20 campaign, and the GM, who was/is a massive fan of Game of Thrones, entered into the spirit of the setting with relish. He has since left Brighton, however, so sadly the campaign went into dormancy, perhaps never to be resurrected.

Feudal PCs need to put food on the table for more than just themselves.

A western feudal game would need, in my view, some kind of mechanism that would permit a degree of realm management and campaign back story mechanics to help simulate the wealth - or lack thereof - of the characters' holdings, as well as the actions of NPC family members. There would also need to be realistic combat mechanics to help simulate mass battles and campaigns. Magic would need to be toned down considerably, as mages of D&D-grade power would really rise to become the dominant class, as we discovered in our own Pathfinder Kingmaker campaign, where our magic user PC became easily the most powerful member of the party by 13th level. With characters of Saruman's power level running around, there is less room for Baratheons or Lannisters - they'd just become his playthings. But even Saruman could not teleport an entire assault squad into a fortress and knock off a rival lord, as occurred in Kingmaker. Who needs subtlety once you have that level of power at your fingertips?

A potential candidate for a feudal level RPG might be Burning Wheel, strangely enough, as the system is flexible enough for players to generate characters with noble backgrounds, and the Resources/Circles mechanic can help to drive a political campaign in ways that d20 could not. What it lacks is a decent mass battle system, particularly for engagements where the PCs are involved. It should, however, be relatively simple to move this to the table top and play it out with miniatures, for example using Hostile Realms or even Warhammer Ancient Battles. This would then give the player a real possibility that he could lose a battle, and potentially see his beloved PC slain into the bargain.

Sir Reginald would need a few more d6 to get him out of this one.

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