RPG Review: Domain Building (Populated Hexcrawl Series)
Domain Building is an entry in Todd Leback's "Populated Hexcrawl Series" of PDFs. This particular entry is concerned with the building and management of a domain, which was a major goal for characters in old-school RPGs back in the 1970's and 1980's, but has become less of a concern in recent years. With the popularity of old-school games and their retro-clones continuing to increase, the subject of "name level" and domain building is one that may interest both old-time gamers as well as newer games just discovering old-school games.
I first encountered Todd Leback's name as a contestant in the annual One Page Dungeon Contest for which I've been a judge for the past few years. I had rated Todd's 2019 entry, "Dome of the Library" as among my Top 20 entries that year, which earned him an "Honorable Mention" prize in the contest, and in my notes, I mentioned it was a "fun, non-standard fantasy adventure in the old-school style..." So, Leback has the chops to create old-school products like this.
Creating and managing a domain, while often a PC goal in the early years of the hobby, particularly for the Fighter class, was never adequately described beyond just a few sentences. For example, in the Old School Essentials (an exact retro-clone of the 1981 Basic/Expert D&D game) entry for the Fighter class, under "Stronghold," it says, "Any time a fighter wishes (and has sufficient money), they can build a castle or stronghold and control the surrounding lands." That's it - there are no details on clearing the area, maintenance costs, staff and personnel, etc.
Domain Building fills in all of these details and provides information on recruiting and keeping retainers to help manage your domain, protecting your domain with troops and checking their morale, bringing civilization to a wilderness hex area and creating an urban center around which to build your domain, attracting settlers, generating income, managing expenses, translating domain income into XP, calculating your domain's morale, trading goods for profit, and then provides detailed examples of the process.
Lots of these topics actually provide a lot of opportunity for role-playing, including recruiting retainers and stronghold garrison troops and attracting settlers. While these can be hand-waved or dealt with by making simple Charisma checks, enough ideas and details are provided to help DMs create role-playing scenarios for domain rulers to offer land grants or gold payments to potential settlers, which could lead to some interesting politics and intrigue in a campaign.
While Fighters are the main focus of ruling a domain, there is also information provided for each main class (cleric, magic-user, and thief) to also create and rule a domain, with details on how it impacts those class's typical name-level benefits and the followers they typically attract at that time.
The main draw of this product is the actual topic itself, and that Leback has put so much thought into each area of how to manage a domain, but keeps the details reined in so that the process doesn't get bogged down in an obsessive amount of detail. There are some areas that I wouldn't have actually even considered, such as the aforementioned section on attracting settlers to the domain, creating "retainer trees" to allow a PC to entrust the management of a domain to select higher-level retainer "lieutenants" and have those lieutenants, in turn, provide direction to lower-level retainers for the mundane aspects of domain management that a PC wouldn't want to deal with.
There are also costs provided for different parts of a castle/stronghold (barbicans, gates, keeps, towers, walls) but also the maintenance costs.
All of the aspects of domain creation and management are here, so a player and referee will have everything at their fingertips if this is an aspect of the game you want to embrace.
I also really like the "extended example" provided that shows examples of what happens in certain months and years of a domain, showing how many peasant families are attracted to a domain; the income generated in the initial month from the value of land, services, and taxes; expenses by month; and XP gained. At the end of the example, it notes that the ruler of the domain can continue to grow through conquering new territory and adding it to his kingdom, which will soon grow too large to manage properly, so land grants and titles may be given to various loyal retainers. To me, again, this creates great opportunities for role-playing and future conflict, as some retainers may not be happy with the size of the land or the title they are granted.
PROS AND CONS
The topic could initially appear to be a bit dry, but the presentation and concise writing help keep it entertaining and manageable. The layout is pretty clean, with a standard two-column format, and a simple black-and-white presentation. Examples are called out with boxed text and gray shading to help them stand out. The illustrations, while sparse in number, are generally good and evoke an old-school aesthetic with a combination of three sketchy pencil drawings by Patrick E. Pullen, and some pen-and-ink work by David Lewis Johnson and Miguel Santos. There is also some stock art by Rich Hershey from Fat Goblin Games. The main font size is sans serif, but large enough to be very legible, while headers are in a serif font.
In terms of improvement, I would have liked to have seen a layout style adhere a little closer to the Old School Essentials style of distinct two-page spreads and not having sentences cut-off and requiring turning the page to finish. While that ultimately may have made the book a bit longer, it minimizes page-turning when using the book during play, which is a big benefit. The art has two very different styles (one more loose and sketchy with pencil shading, and the other pen-and-ink line drawings with minimal or no shading). Both styles are fine, but they clash a bit, and the way are placed in the book puts all of the pencil drawings first, upfront, then all the pen-and-ink drawings in the back, so there's a definite change in style about a third of the way through the book.
Also, in one section, there's mention that "The document Hexcrawl Basics explores the actual process of exploring and clearing a hex. But, for now, assume the adventurers have thoroughly explored the target hex, cleared it of any threats, and are now ready to found their domain." While this makes sense, I wonder if a little more synergy could be made between the two products, or at least have a summarized version of what exploring and clearing a hex entails including in Domain Building. It might even be worth some marketing text for the product to note that exploring and clearing the hex is covered in another product, and Domain Building assumes that step has already been done.
These are minor quibbles and don't impact the use of the product. If you're running B/X or Old School Essentials game, or really any old-school retro-clone, and you're looking to insert domain creation and management into your campaign, this is a great addition to your toolkit to do so.
- Format: 49-page black-and-white PDF, including cover and Open Game License
- Where to Buy: Available at DriveThruRPG (link leads directly to the product page)
- Price: "Pay What You Want"
- System: Designed specifically for Old School Essentials, of course completely usable with the 1981 B/X D&D Game, and easily adaptable to most old-school fantasy games and retro-clones
- More Information: The author, Todd Leback, has a Patreon Page specifically for supporting his "Populated Hexes" products. Other Populated Hexes can be found at DriveThruRPG.
Disclaimer: I was provided with a copy of this PDF for review purposes
Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Cold brew coffee (Stumptown Nitro)
Listening: "Holiday on Skis" by Al Caiola and Riz Ortolani, from the album "Ultra Lounge: Christmas Cocktails"