Thursday, January 27, 2011

Death to Kings

In Which A New Poll Makes an Appearance

Honor and fear were heaped upon his name and, in time, he became a king by his own hand...
The sandbox mantra X is for killing got me thinking about one of my favorite D&Disms to question - can the PCs in your game sack the town, kill the town guard, and ride off with the plunder like Wild West outlaws?  Can they kill the king and put themselves on the throne?  (See the poll on the right!)

Are the guards, knights, rulers and kings in your game mostly 0-level men, or are they higher level characters? 

The Argument for Tough Rulers
The boss comes out on the side of high level rulers - all the rulers of Greyhawk are high-powered.  A patrol of knights in Greyhawk could be led by a 9th level fighter.  Even Gygaxian setting modules like Keep on the Borderlands or The Village of Hommlet have NPCs with levels appropriate to their rank.

Gygax points out (p 91 DMG) that adventurers will be viewed as dangerous characters in the settled lands, like gunslingers in the Wild West.  The rulers and NPCs have better things to do than adventure, and will be too glad to encourage the adventurers to stay out on the frontier, risking themselves against monsters.  He clearly envisioned the  settings of your campaign being one where adventurers were capable of threatening the stability of the natural order.

Arguments Against High Level NPCs
Help me with the argument why you wouldn't make the rulers or their retinues tough enough to withstand the first band of adventurers that comes to town.

Maybe the DM lays some ground rules, like 'That's not the kind of story I tell, I don't allow evil parties'.  Fine - but what about evil (NPC) adventurers?  Wouldn't the first group of NPC adventurers that returns to town with experience and a bunch of magic items roll over the town?

And what DM is going to tell Conan he can't make himself king of Aquilonia?

Perhaps NPCs don't have levels because you can only gain levels through adventuring .  Wouldn't a lifetime of warfare and sword practice toughen the king's retinue of veteran knights?

One argument I can get behind is to get rid of Mary Sue NPCs that steal the center of attention.  (EGG's position is that those types of folks should have better things to do.)

Disclaimer:  we persevered with almost two years of 4th Edition, so I know all about running games where the players are expected to be "special chosen heroes" with amazing powers and everyone else in the world is "a normal Joe".

I'd rather not put those kinds of restrictions on players any longer.  The sandbox is able to maintain its own order through natural consequences.  If it's in the game, it's meant to be killed… if you're tough enough to do it, and deal with the consequences.

Principles of Sandbox Rulership:
  • Adventurers are common in the world
  • Adventurers are dangerous, and not all of them are 'good'
  • Adventurers are capable of taking over settlements
  • A world with adventurers has elements in common with the Wild West
  • The end game for adventurers is becoming rulers themselves
  • Law and order must be tough enough to handle adventurers
  • Rulers (or their retinue) must be tough enough to hang on to power
 Anything you'd like to add?


  1. The world at large will also react appropriately to adventurer actions. If they go around sacking towns, someone is going to raise an army to help protect territories and wipe out said adventurers. Towns will start hiring "good" adventurers to help protect them against outsiders. Things like food won't be sold to strangers, etc.

  2. If the world is like the usual (fictional) potrayals of the "Wild West" then adventurers that persist in anti-social behaviors will eventually meet their end at the hands of the established social order.

  3. I completely agree (with both comments). Players should be free to do anti-social behavior, but there should also be natural consequences.

    However, either the PC's are the baddest dudes around or they're not. The Gygaxian worldview would have the DM put plenty of tough guys in the sandbox to keep players honest.

    So far, I'm finding players don't use their freedom for evil.

  4. "4th Edition, so I know all about running games where the players are expected to be "special chosen heroes" with amazing powers and everyone else in the world is "a normal Joe"."

    Seriously, this is a mantra of 4e? I think I just threw up a little.

    Beedo, you really hit the nail on the head in your comment there. Sure, the players have the "freedom" to do what they want, but there is a world around them that doesn't center itself on what they do. That means, as you said, consequences for their actions.

    As to your question of rulers, I'm not a huge fan of the 0 level NPC ruler, but I've encountered some 0 levels in the past that were pretty badass themselves. Just because you're 0 level doesn't mean you can't defend yourself with the vast resources a king would have at his command. To that end, though, I prefer the notion that rulers should be of some high level in the game.

  5. Unlike, say, 4E, in an old-school sandbox BOTH the PCs AND everyone else are "normal Joes", at least in regard to killability.

    Yes, in principle, kings are for killing. But PCs are for killing too!

    As for rulers, some, who have taken the throne by force themselves or who have fought many wars, would be mighty warriors (just imagine trying to wrest the throne of Aquilonia from the hands of Conan!). Others, mostly those who have inherited the throne or who have grabbed it with the use of poison and treachery, might be level 0 NPCs.

    Any way, a ruler will have powerful bodyguards and champions at hand, especially in worlds where adventurers are common. So a ruler can have level 1 adventurers killed on the spot with ease, and even level 8 superheroes will have some trouble dispatching the royal guard.

    But that does not say that the PCs can't overthrow a ruler. It's just going to be a tough challenge. If they're clever enough, they can do so with enough planning and cunning schemes. And they can fail and die... Or grab the throne and be kings themselves. It's all part of the game!

  6. Of course, kings are for killing (like everyone else, for what matter). But I'm with Omer Golan: PCs are for killing too!

  7. Seriously, this is a mantra of 4e? I think I just threw up a little.

    The heart of 4E is an intricate combat system (the system is simple, but the choices, tactics and power combos add depth). To get to the point where combats are interesting and challenging, fights need to be balanced for the party level. Instead of simulating a world, the DM is constantly adjusting the world to fit the current capabilities of the party.

    I need to put a post together comparing a 1E vs a 4E experience.

    Just because you're 0 level doesn't mean you can't defend yourself with the vast resources a king would have at his command.

    Very true - there are many different types of power. I think of how many Roman emperors were deposed by generals or praetorians as an example that when power wanes or the social order breaks down, might makes right.

    It may not seem controversial in the blogosphere to say, "In my sandbox, the players are always free to seize power", but you'd be surprised in the discussion board world how many DMs constrain behavior through table rules or ground rules or banning certain alignments or classes. The free-form sandbox approach is definitely a minority view, though it seems well-supported by the boss and other products of the time, like the Wilderlands of High Fantasy.

  8. I don't think there is only one way to "properly" run D&D. A moderate, non-blatant 'railroad' is as legitimate as a 'sandbox', as long as this is what the players and the DM/GM/Referee want to play. It all boils down to player preferences.

    But if you like a sandbox, plotting to seize power is an interesting story and a worthy challenge, and it was done by mighty warriors and scheming rogues both in real-world history and in myth and fiction. And, if done properly, it could be loads of fun!

    And you don't need to be Evil (tm) to plot to seize power. Not all kings are good, after all, and deposing a tyrant might actually be a good and heroic deed to do.

  9. @Beedo:
    Law of averages, they're probably not. :-)
    They still can do some damage before they're brought down.(The True Endgame in my opinion! How Well Will You Die?) But, on occasion, a PC has been a true Master(Mistress?) Of Disaster!

    'Just because you're 0 level doesn't mean you can't defend yourself with the vast resources a king would have at his command.':
    It's amusing when PCs learn that NPCs(sometimes they seem to think they exist only to glorify the character's existence...) can defend themselves sometimes! One player lost an entire family of characters(12! Sweet.) trying to overthrow a local ruler; the other PCs went along until the body count reached the 4th brother. It was of course, eminently possible for him to succeed. The ruler herself was a jumped up Guard Captain, so no easy target. The lesson of course, is those that are in power will seek to retain it by employing violence like you wouldn't believe!

    A later player found himself the ruler of a small nation recently despoiled by pirates after he helped rebuild the capitol, patrol the inlands, and secure the borders.(Occasionally with the help of the other PCs who had other asses to, stuff to do.) He built up a loyal guard force who were able to repel fairly well-organized, potentially lethal assaults. The fun part is when half the remainder of the party took a contract to depose him, were captured, and executed! Adding 4 more sheets to the Pain Pile! Everybody agreed it was pretty cool, and intense. Still later, a PC was killed by the others for murdering a favorite NPC, pursued by the authorities for unlawful killing, and took refuge in the other PC's kingdom, nearly causing a diplomatic incident. Much awesome was had!

    This is the kind of gaming I prefer: if you got hit points, prepare to lose 'em! Except, of course, when the rules don't apply, Deities anyone? Death's an inconvenience at best to the divine beings in Deties and Demi-gods/Legends and Lore! But, oh well. That's why I have worship of Giant Ticks!

    'you'd be surprised in the discussion board world how many DMs constrain behavior through table rules or ground rules or banning certain alignments or classes.':
    Me and my friends never took 'balance' into account! Fantasy Ninjas, a clone of Tarzan's double, Esteban Miranda, a Dwarf Barbarian in a world without either, MagiRobotGolem thingies, the only Psionic in the game world(though I dislike Psionics in Fantasy, he wanted to play it so we went with it.), an Alligatorman form TMNT, and an Uplifted Skrying Orb that could project its consciousness into vic..donors for a day or so at a time were some of the zany characters that were running around at any given time.(the tone was often serious, though.[What can scare a Crystal Ball?])
    In my game, you're pretty free to wreck or get wrecked. All options are pretty much open. As aforementioned political shenanigans may have hinted! I wouldn't have it any other way!

  10. It makes sense to me to level an NPC according to their history. A coddled aristocrat who's never touched a sword wouldn't have levels and would be very killable. An evil adventuring NPC who killed a coddled aristocrat and seized the throne would be far more dangerous in person.

    On the other hand, aristocrats tend to know how killable they are, and take measures to prevent it from happening. A 0-level king is likely to have royal magicians, court priests, and a retinue of tough guards. Evil or jaded rulers might have assassins on the payroll. The court might be structured so that elaborate safeguards and ceremonies have to be passed through before one is even allowed to hear the ruler's voice through a screen.