Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Associates vs Parties

Art Credit: Dan Scott
Side story: so I was just gunna use some generic art
of "an adventuring party" here but then I thought to
share this piece, which was the first D&D art I ever
remembering firing up my imagination. I stared at
this picture for hours when I was introduced to 4E D&D
back in 6th grade. I especially love that wizard-y dude
in the front.
I have just discovered an unconscious assumption I've been making in my design work. I discovered it while reading Matt Colville's Strongholds & Followers and then his follow-up book, Kingdoms & Warfare. It's a major philosophical difference between those two works than I'm having trouble mentally reconciling, but I also think it's one of the many general differences between the Old School and the New School. And it's a fracture I think I've already unintentionally baked into Brave.

Are the PCs a true party or are they just adventurers who associate?

Obviously that depends on the players, but game structures can have one of those two assumptions built in and won't really work that well if you disagree with the assumption.

The difference I'm imagining is, I think, easiest to describe by painting a picture of two different campaigns.
  1. A true party is united by a purpose. They either all have the same patron or they operate a single enterprise together. A party that's also a thieves' guild or a pirate crew or an order of knights or something would be an example of this version. A victory for one is a victory for all, and they are frequently attacked, aided, and rewarded as a group. They probably share a single headquarters. Some games go so far as to create a "party sheet" that's like a character sheet but for elements that only exist as a feature of your unity, and aren't an element of any one single member alone (e.g. reputation or turf).
  2. Adventurers who merely associate may still go out on adventures every week, delving into dungeons together and saving each other's bacon. But they each have separate goals and will break off from everyone else if they have good cause to. The wizard owns his own tower from which he performs magical research. The rogue owns her own tavern where she smuggles contraband. The cleric has built a temple in order to better serve their personal deity and the fighter has raised an army to conquer a fortress in order to better protect the peasantry. Especially if you're playing an open table game, then you may not even have a consistent party makeup from session to session. There is no "party," there's just instances of adventurers in a shared world choosing to work together temporarily, and the stories we play out are following different combinations of adventurers each time. You'll also almost certainly not all be the same level, and there may even arise competition between you! An old party member may grow powerful and corrupt and become a villain for everyone else!
In the rest of this post, I'll spell out more thoughts arising from this, how I see this affecting my own RPG, and my thoughts on those Matt Colville books as they relate to this concept (for anyone interested in his work since I'm sure I got some 5E players reading my blog).

The Fantastic Four, a perfect example of what
I call a "true party." Contrast this with...
Implications for Play

So obviously, most tables have elements of both of these forms. A single group of PCs may shift from one type to the other, or they may experience each of the types to varying degrees across different campaigns. I don't believe I've ever described a theoretical dichotomy on this blog that was ever truly binary, but hopefully you're following the patterns I'm pointing to.

I think "true parties" are a bit more New School. Having a patron who tells you what to do is definitely more in line with the "DM-guided linear story" style of play. As we know, the more conventional philosophy of play in the Old School is "player agency-driven sandboxing," in which player ambition is better served when they have freedom. Of course, parties don't necessarily need a patron either, but the absence of a unity of purpose is especially evident in Old School stories of players getting into fierce rivalries back in the days of Greyhawk* and Blackmoor. It's certainly better suited for moral ambiguity among the PCs, whereas a unity of purpose probably means the moral tone is simpler. Either everyone is a cop or everyone is a robber.

I don't know which of these two I prefer. I like both for a lot of reasons. In fact, I think the most unsatisfying parties I've ever played in or run for have been the ones that didn't quite fit into either scheme. "We all work together but not for any particular reason. We don't have a strong theme or purpose but none of us have lives outside of this either."

Let me copy/paste a section I've drafted for the second core rulebook of Brave, which focuses on providing rules and tools for tying your game together into more of a true "campaign":
Party Connections 
Something that can give the campaign greater cohesion and drive is an agreed-upon premise for “who are these characters and why do they adventure together?” It’s fine enough in a standalone session if the answer is simply “because they all want treasure” or “because they’re all escaping prison together” or what have you. But many of the strongest campaigns have an enduring theme that creates more unique and interesting motivations among PCs. “We’re a heist crew” is more specific and novel than just “we work together to get money in various ways.” Here are some examples you might like:
1. Members of a family/household
2. Servants/knights of a noble household
3. Courtiers of a noble or royal
4. Members of a vulnerable settlement
5. Members of a nomadic tribe
6. Members of a frankpledge tithing
7. Students in a school
8. Traveling to a shared destination
9. Soldiers or mercenaries
10. Caravan guards
11. Sailor/pirate crew
12. Performing troupe
13. Pilgrims or missionaries
14. Criminal organization
15. All chosen by a god for a crusade
16. Some other type of shared patron
17. All share a fate, as foretold
18. All share an alignment
19. All under the same curse
20. All in debt to the same person 
Party connections would necessarily be looser in an open table game, but they can still add something fun.
...something like the Justice League. Everyone here
really has their own thing going on most of the time,
except maybe for Martian Manhunter. Each of these
characters has their own solo title, and the "party" is
always a crossover situation.
Sounds like a pretty clear-cut instance of running the game as a "party," right? And I wrote it because I do feel like the best campaigns will have a strong throughline like this. It's always cooler to play as a crew of pirates or a company of mercenaries than to just be "some adventurers," you know? But then I got to thinking about it, and man—the rest of Brave really, really encourages the other playstyle.

Let me go through all the things in my game that I believe support this claim:
  1. It's highly lethal. Whenever that's the case, it's just harder to maintain a party of equally-levelled characters, and especially a consistent organization. By the time the party reaches max level, there's a slim chance that any of the original members are still alive.
  2. Similar to the above: if you die and need to make a new character, you roll 1d4 to determine their starting level.
  3. Everything in this game reinforces murderhoboism to the extreme (by design) so intra-party conflict is honestly kind of the norm. Don't worry if that sounds unbearable to you. When the whole game is built around it and everyone playing sets their expectations accordingly, it's a ton of fun.
  4. As I'm writing the second book, I'm adding in the rules for things like cohorts of followers, strongholds, retainers, and economic enterprises, right? And I've described these things as being assets in one's domain, which is defined as all the resources at your disposal that you don't carry on your person. Favors and contacts and prestige and money in the bank and whatnot are tracked as part of your domain as well. And maybe you see the issue: these are tracked on an individual basis, so one PC forming a cult and cultivating worshippers is totally independent of another player becoming a war advisor to the king and bribing all his courtiers.
  5. I'm also providing all the guidelines to running your game using PC Ledgers, which I've described previously. These are, of course, done on an individual basis by design. While multiple PCs can certainly team up to accomplish some downtime activity together, I warn that if ever you're seeing 3+ PCs doing something together then maybe it's worth saving that for your next session. The downtime system fundamentally assumes that everyone has their own thing going on.
  6. Oh, and this same book provides a stable of characters optional rule. Just as was the norm in the days of OD&D, it's recommended that all regular players in your campaign create and maintain multiple PCs rather than just one. At any given session you still only play as one, but you're able to pick and choose which one to play each session based on who you want to level up with or which ones are available for adventure that week. This once again reinforces an "irregular party makeup" scheme rather than a dedicated, unified party.
  7. If you play with the optional Enchiridion supplement book, then the classes it adds are almost all very factional in nature. Being a member of the Thief class makes you a member of a thieves' guild. Likewise with being a Ranger and being a member of a ranger conclave, being a Knight and being sworn to either a lord or a knightly order, being a Wizard and being an apprentice of an elder wizard or a wizardly school, and so on. While you can certainly have multiple party members all of the same class who share their faction, it's more likely that they'll be different classes because each one has different attribute prerequisites.
The sort of game I've been designing for is one in which the only "main character" you can expect to see at every session is the world itself. Imagine a big, open-world region with wilderness and civilization, noble elf duchies and tyrannical orc baronies, many dungeons and sites of adventure sprinkled throughout to be plundered as the PCs deem fit, and most importantly of all, a varied cast of powerful characters who are each a PC, but not necessarily a party member. 

Sure, at today's session we'll say that each of the players present will be representing a low-level knave who meets up in the tavern and is looking to get into trouble together. But also, each of these players has other characters throughout this same region. One has a druid who tends a grove. One has a wizard who's in downtime researching a summoning spell. One has a thief who got kidnapped by brigands last session and will need rescued before he can be played again. One has both a warrior who is currently sailing to another continent and an assassin who is serving on the queen's court and is keeping his true identity a secret. Some of those characters could have been chosen for today's adventure, but maybe they would have been too high a level and it may have been weird. Some may have been preoccupied. And maybe one player actually did choose to play their mid-level bard today!

And in the course of today's adventure, maybe the party will brush elbows with one or two of those other dormant PCs alongside all the NPCs. Because they're all just a cast of actors playing their parts in a story about the world itself, not the story of them and their quest. The world doesn't revolve around one set of people who're more important than everyone else, so neither does the game.

At least, that's the sort of game I've been designing for. And while I like it... I also like The Lord of the Rings. I could just as easily embrace the other playstyle and be designing for it instead.

I can't tell which one Matt Colville was thinking of

So Matt Colville's RPG company, MCDM productions, has created two full 5E D&D supplement books. The first is called Strongholds and Followers, which introduces rules and content for (get this) strongholds and followers. Plus a shitty first draft of their warfare rules. The second is called Kingdoms and Warfare, which revises the warfare rules and also includes a system for domain play that it calls "intrigue." I was thinking of starting a 5E campaign soon that makes heavy use of these, since, you know, I have them. So I read through the whole first book and I got a ton of ideas of how to incorporate its content and I got pretty excited. It honestly felt like stuff that I could have been using in every 5E game I've ever run or played in and would have immensely improved those experiences. It's refreshingly simple and easy to work in to most campaigns, so I feel comfortable just popping it into a big ol' sandbox campaign that's populated with lots of material I'm gunna cannibalize from other 5E books.

So then I just started the second book, and I almost immediately began to detect a problem. K&W was conceived of at least as early as S&F, and they were always intended to be two halves of a whole. Frequently throughout the text of S&F, topics are cut short with the explanation that the rest will be in the next book. This was a common complaint of S&F, which I totally understand. But I never worried because I knew I had the other book already and it should be seamless.

Well, it doesn't feel that way. It feels like there was a shift in design philosophy for the second book, specifically in how they intended you to make use of the material. To the point where I'm finding it hard to imagine implementing the content in S&F as easily as before. And it all comes back to this dichotomy between party types. Allow me to explain.

Strongholds and Followers

So you can acquire a stronghold by either being gifted one/conquering one, renovating some old ruins, or building one from scratch. Each of those options is more expensive than the last, but even after you've acquired the thing you'll still have plenty of money to pour into it. Each one can be upgraded, all the way to level 5, for some time and money. Plus you can use them to raise armies of units, which need upkeep pay, as well as in-house personal artisans whose workshops can also be upgraded for a price. So the whole enterprise is just one big money sink, but if used right, should also be 1) a pretty respectable money generator of its own, and 2) a great asset towards improving your likely preferred method of making money anyway: adventure!

Here's the important part: a stronghold is owned by exactly one PC, who is its master and is the only one who can receive its benefits. A PC can own multiple strongholds, but can only receive the benefits of one at any given time so that would just be kind of a waste of money.

The book rationalizes this with the example of Marvel's Avengers all hanging out in Tony Stark's mansion. It serves as a HQ for the whole team, but when push comes to shove, the place belongs to Tony. And that makes sense enough to me. But the thing is that, by the time a PC would have enough money to get their first stronghold (around level 7, according to the book), then everyone will have enough money to get one. So fuck Tony Stark's mansion. You may as well have each PC own their own stronghold separate from one another.

And honestly, that just seems more reasonable to me. Like, you could get a stronghold for the party early if everyone pools their money to buy one when you're only level 2 or 3, but if you do that then it'll still only be to the benefit of one PC who is the designated master. Why would everyone chip in for something that's mostly just going to give a huge buff to one party member only? Plus, that party member will need to start taking week-long extended rests to recharge their shit, which will set them apart from everyone else. Not to mention that the master of the stronghold will start attracting armies of soldiers, low-level adventurer retainers who kiss the ground they walk on, artisans who'll craft for them, and so on. And while you could say that these are actually a "collective asset" to the whole party rather than the one PC who owns the place, the types of followers you can attract is still determined by the class of that PC and no other. If everyone chips in so that the druid can own a party stronghold at level 3, you're going to find yourselves increasingly involved in druidism despite no one else really being interested in that sort of thing. So yeah, you might as well wait until level 7 when everyone can get their own.

And that's how I was picturing setting things up. Especially as I was looking at my Forgotten Realms map, I identified a good 2 or 3 ruins for each stronghold type that could be renovated in the northern Sword Coast region alone. That's more than enough for every PC to have multiple strongholds to themselves by the time they're max level! And it means that, as they level up and gain access to domain-level gameplay, they'll each start to carve out a personal role in the region. They have their own followers and their own armies and their own downtime projects. I'm sure they'll still meet up for adventures when they're not taking extended rests, but it just seems like an inevitable progression that they'd kind of drift apart. In a good way!

Now, I have yet to mention the addition of castles in the rules. They say that you can, if you want, pay the big bucks for a combo stronghold with up to one of each stronghold type packaged into one huge building. Each wing can have its own separate master, so everyone in the party can still have their "own" stronghold while simultaneously living in a big HQ together. Sounds like the perfect compromise, right?

...Except for that "up to one of each stronghold type" detail. That means, at most, you can have 1 keep, 1 tower, 1 temple, and 1 establishment. What if you have more than four party members who all want strongholds? What if you have multiple PCs in the group who want the same type of stronghold? I think it only makes sense that both the bard and the rogue will want an establishment, and the fighter and the ranger will want a keep. The castle option is perfect for a very specific party makeup, i.e. exactly 4 PCs who each fit into the traditional roles of "fighter, wizard, cleric, and rogue" or something equivalent. For everyone else, it's just not as smart or viable as living separately.

So yeah, I read this book and happily came away from it thinking that we'd end up with a group of PCs who are more like regional powers who associate during conflict, rather than a "true party" of compatriots in one club together. Which brings us to...

Kingdoms and Warfare

The main feature of this book is a new type of character option called an "organization," which Matt has described as being "like if your party had a character class." You literally get a "character sheet" for your entire party to share, and you get a bunch of new combat abilities that everyone in the party can use together. Most of them, once activated, grant everyone in the party the chance to take the same, coordinated action simultaneously.

The book has 8 organization types, each with 3 sub-types (analogous to archetypes in character classes). The players all agree on which kind of organization they want to play together, and the campaign is shaped around their choice. And while each organization type maps onto a character class pretty cleanly (e.g. underworld syndicate for rogues, mystic circle for wizards, religious order for clerics, etc.), the book stresses that you don't need the whole party to be just that class. A thieves' guild will have a rogue or two, yes. But it still needs enforcers, and that means you need muscle bois like fighters and barbarians. It still needs healers, and it still benefits from utility magic. And you could also always play a non-traditional sneaky boi like a bard or a Way of the Shadow monk or something. So there's definitely flexibility.

But, like, I just don't see any way to use this without everyone in the party being best buds who go beyond mere professional associates to being a bunch of soul-bonded roommates. The procedure Colville creates for using your organization is called "intrigue," a cycle of taking monthly "domain turns" as a group in competition with some other villainous NPC organization. And this is very much a group action. All the assets of your organization are party-owned and party-operated. And it just feels like you kind of need to be operating out of a shared HQ. While it would, of course, benefit your organization to acquire more and more real estate, it would feel pretty silly for any PC to go off and run their own stronghold while the party has domain intrigue to carry out. So either you make a castle or you at least make your collection of strongholds into a little village or something. In fact, the text goes out of its way to say:
Using the rules in this book, an adventuring party becomes an organization when it founds a stronghold, typically by buying, building, discovering, or inheriting it. Founding a stronghold announces to the world that the adventurers are more than just mercenaries, and are ready to get involved with local affairs in one way or another.
A stronghold? Doesn't sound like S&F to me.

Alright alright let's keep going through the text. I'm gunna lift this chunk directly:
A character can be an officer in more than one organization, but they can be involved only in one intrigue at a time and can benefit only from the effects of one party sheet at a time. (That’s the record of a domain’s stats, defenses, and features.) A wizard might be a member of the party’s noble court organization and run their own arcane order on the side. But during an intrigue involving the noble court, the character is focused on that organization while their arcane order tends to its own affairs.
See? Why not just let each PC found their own organization? The rogue can start a thieves' guild and the cleric can start a church and you can still use this content just fine!

...Yeah, except even if the rules say you can do that, it'd be a fucking terrible idea. The whole point of what these organizations offer you, mechanically speaking, is new teamwork-based powers. If you have no one to share them with, then that defeats the purpose.

Players not being in one organization together in a K&W campaign is as pointless and dumb as players choosing to use a single stronghold together in S&F. See the problem?


Maybe I'm overthinking this. I'm sure plenty of people have been using these two books in tandem without issue. I'll just talk to my players about what they want. But I'm annoyed. Moreover, I feel like this has greater implications for RPG design beyong D&D 5E, but in a way that's hard for me to see clearly the right and wrong decisions to make. Like I said before, I don't know which of these two playstyles I prefer. But I definitely know that it would be inelegant to try designing for both.

I almost wish I never picked up on this. I feel cursed by this observation.


*For anyone reading this who's never read the tales of the original Greyhawk home campaign, I strongly recommend it. The Wikipedia article is a pretty good summary.

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