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Plugs For Friends: Strongholds & Followers on Kickstarter

posted Feb 11, 2018, 4:27 PM by Douglas Sun

Only a few days into the campaign, and it looks like my old Decipher RPG colleague Matt Colville has made one hellacious debut on Kickstarter. His campaign for Strongholds & Followers has drawn almost ten thousand pledges worth close to a million dollars as I write, and the campaign still has almost four weeks left to run. Not only has it taken off like a rocket, but it will leave the solar system and catch up with the Voyager probes as they enter deep space soon.

It’s always good to see a friend succeed. But in this case it’s all the more so because Strongholds & Followers addresses something that I have always seen as a big gap in the Dungeons & Dragons experience, but which has drawn remarkably few serious attempt to address it over the past five decades: How do you integrate a small group of characters into a dynamic larger world that not only affects them, but which they can affect through their actions? The simple answer is that, as the GM and the narrator of the story, you can use your right of fiat — make it up as you go along. But if you want something less arbitrary — to create a true system, a world that can surprise you as well as your players — you need rules that govern how that world works without you to steer it.

Despite the primitive level of technology and political organization that characterizes fantasy worlds, there are always larger forces at work beyond the individual character. Polities exist and come into conflict with each other — Queen So-and-so and Lord Whatsisface are at war — and in fact, such conflict may lie at the core of the campaign. How do you simulate that in a comprehensible way? What happens when large forces fight each other in proximity to the characters and you need to quantify its impact on the characters? How do you give characters the chance to affect the outcome? 

Sure, you can find a miniatures system and graft it onto your campaign and reconcile your players to fighting the Battle of Whatever Mountain before your return to your regularly scheduled programming. But it isn’t really D&D; it’s a kludge. And it doesn’t give you any systematic method for answering important questions: How do you create credible orders of battle? How do you know how large or small those opposing armies can be without stretching credulity? What is likely to happen after the battle is decided?

Related to this is another question that I have long seen as a weak spot in the overall D&D experience: What happens at the end of the road, once a character has made his or her fortune as an adventurer and there are no more dragon hoards left to pilfer? The conventional answer for a fantasy world is that you become a person of substance — the ruler of your own realm. Sure, you may get the itch to set out on another adventure like Tennyson’s Ulysses, but if you follow the rules of how such worlds work, you’re probably going to be a ruler of other people and solidify your wealth so that you can pass it on to your descendants. Realistically, that’s the end state to which you have aspired all along. How does governing a realm work? How do you maintain or even expand your personal wealth?

Maybe peace is no fun and this phase of the campaign needs conflict to keep it spicy. But that returns us to the first issue that I raised: How many armed followers can your realm support? How are they to be equipped and how effective are they likely to prove in battle? Where are you going to deploy them? Because that determines who and how many you can bring to bear if it comes down to a fight. Again, you need rules to govern how all of this works, unless you feel perfectly comfortable pulling figures out of thin air.

Years ago, I had the pleasure of helping Matt Colville put the finishing touches on a book called Fields of Blood, which introduced a simple, yet effective add-on system for D&D 3E for incorporating dynamic top-down world management into a campaign. Matt asked me to tie up some loose ends — crunching numbers, filling in charts and tables, that sort of thing. Much to my delight, I found that the book addressed these questions about army combat and top-down management with a depth and seriousness that I had never seen anywhere before. Certainly, it approached them with more systematic rigor than the cursory treatment they receive in the world-building section of the Dungeon Master’s Guide. And the entire subsystem integrated seamlessy with the 3rd Edition rules. Matt always gives me much more credit than I deserve for my contribution to Fields of Blood, but I have always been proud that I was part of that project.

Strongholds & Followers continues the basic project behind Fields of Blood: How do you manage a world from the bird’s-eye view while integrating that angle of vision with D&D in a clean, seamless way? Matt has spent a long time thinking seriously about these issues — as have I, but unlike me, he has actually put his formidable design fu to work and done something about it. Strongholds & Followers will share the benefit of his work with 5E fans. If you run a campaign and you want to let your world run on its own to see where it goes, or even if you have wondered about what your character can do once he has reached Epic level and has all the treasure he needs to last a lifetime, you will want this book.