Giving your heroes a home base opens up new options for fun at the table.

a castle

Keeps and castles are a staple of old school "paragon level" play.

How old were you when you started playing Dungeons and Dragons? If the answer to that question ends in, “-teen,” then you probably at some point spent hours and hours hunched over sheets of graph paper, meticulously drafting your favorite character’s castle, house, grove, or ship. Homework left untouched and fingers black with graphite dust, days could go into perfecting this imaginary space. One need only look at the castles people build in Minecraft to see that for many gamers, this desire for creation and design does not really go away in adulthood.

Give Them What They Want

Do the heroes in your game have a home base? Since basic D&D, heroes have always been able to use their hard-earned loot and prestige to get fancy digs. Giving the heroes a base of operations can provide all sorts of adventure hooks. If the heroes are gifted a frontier keep by a grateful noble, then they will need to defend it from savage orc barbarians. If they take up a life of opulence and luxury in a major city, then their home may be at the center of all sorts of scandalous rumors. Basing out of old dungeon they have cleared is certainly a viable option, but what happens when the original owner comes to take it back? Giving the heroes a space to call home and then drawing it into the story can help engage your players.

cover shot of DMGR2 The Castle GuideAs a player, a big part of the fun of having a stronghold lies in the design. Make this part of your game! Let the players design their own fort, and then let them know how much time and gold it will cost to build. One good reference for this, and many other aspects of medieval life, is DMGR2 The Castle Guide from Dungeons and Dragons 2e. Wizards of the Coast released this book as a free PDF a while ago, though it is no longer on their website. You can find copies online, though I am unsure of the legality of their distribution since Wizards took it down. You can also purchase a dead tree copy from any of several used game shops online. Another option is find a copy of the Birthright campaign setting, which contained rules for building castles as part of ruling a domain.

Once the PCs have a design on paper, convert it to a full (1″ = 5′ scale) battle map. This could end up being huge, but it is also a great tool to have handy in your campaign. If you really want to have the base be a focal point of the campaign, then there are all sorts of low cost printable, customizable terrain options on the web. Pick up an appropriate set and you can really go to town, giving your players time to build their base in 3D.

The Plan for My Game

In my home campaign, one of the parties has settled down as the lord and leaders of a frontier province. They have established a capital city, which is now really just a village, and they hope to grow at the game years go by. I have been wondering how to make this work as a battle map, and I think I came up with an answer.

The base will be a very large grass battle mat. From there, all of the buildings, roads, etc. can be modular, as separate pieces laid on top of the mat. Players can design their own buildings, like the wizard’s smithy, and choose their location. Now, as the village grows and the heroes add things like a fort and maybe eventually a full castle, they can just be added as a modular piece to the map as needed. Keeping all of the components modular means that the village will take a bit more time to set up when it is needed, but I will have all of the components available for other scenarios when I am hosting a different crew. Being a bit of a 3d terrain junky, I think this could be a lot of fun.

Giving heroes a home within the game world increases their stake in many aspects of the game. Give it a try and see how your players like it. I will include any results people share with my own results in a future post, once the village terrain gets off the ground in my home game.

Do the players in your game already have a place to call home? Do you map it out, or just play things fast and loose when it comes to specifics? Are there any books, supplements, or websites you recommend for would-be stronghold builders?

6 Responses to “Safe at Home”

  1. My groups always seem to end up with strongholds of some sort or other.

    My long-running 3E campaign had a base of operations that eventually ended up being attacked. The battlemap was great to present, as I’d drawn in little details that made each room look lived-in by the characters in question. Great ending to the fight too – one of my players had this zip-line going from his tower down to his coach house, and used it to boot the villain off the roof.

    In my current 4E group, one of my players has just built this ranger training base, and it’s currently on the frontline of a war. If it comes under attack, I’ll be sure to draw it up and drop you a line.

    • Thanks. I’d love to see a picture if that comes to pass. I love the zip line, by the way. If you still see that player, tell him that I think he is a genius, or at least fairly badass.

  2. This was standard operating procedure in my games. Although strongholds were not necessarily actual castles/forts/chateaus/monasteries with accompanying estates/domain/fief. It could just as well be a school (either magical or martial), a temple, a wizard’s tower, a “thieves guild,” or even a mercenary warband (which would have home barracks for the winter).

    The trick was to try and bind the players into the local community, rather than having them as rootless vagabonds. Something that worked well in doing this was that I only gave xp for gp that was spent “appropriately.” For fighter’s this meant acquiring martial accoutrements and troops, clerics supporting temples and making appropriate sacrifices and feats to their gods, and magic users investing in a library and laboratory.* This definitely encourages a more sedentary lifestyle (as the players start to accumulate stuff that needs to be put somewhere). And then they start hiring people as retainers, and before you know it they have this whole going concern, and players get rather attached to their shiny new homes and start enjoying improving them (although one must not get trapped into a game of Accountants & Actuaries).

    Another nice thing to look at is Greg Stafford’s The Book of the Manor for Pendragon, which provides nice rules for improving the feudal manor (which as knights, all player characters have). The nice thing is that these retainers and improvements feed back into the character by allowing the character access to skills he might not normally have or giving them an opportunity to make checks (required for improving the character), as well as affecting income earned. This feedback mechanism helps forge a strong connection between the character (and even better, the intentions of the player) and their stronghold.

    Remember that original D&D grew out of a wargame campaign where this sort of thing is bread-and-butter. For example the old First Fantasy Campaign from Judges Guild, which examines Dave Arneson’s Blackmoor game, featured lots of ideas and rules for developing a domain. In fact I often viewed early D&D as a conflict between “Law As Civilization” and “Chaos As Wilderness,” since players generally went into a wilderness (which might be a social or political wilderness where there are no actual wildlands to be had or even a dungeon) and “civilised it,” eventually carving a new domain out of it. Naturally the orcs, bandits, barabarians, dragons, and other bad guys would object to being dispossessed of their homes.

    In more modern campaigns where these wildlands might not actually exist (or if they do, no one in their right mind would want to live there), there is a political aspect to convincing whoever is in charge of an area that the players should be in charge of it. This could be actual politics, such as being granted a rank and domain by whoever is in authority, but there are other alternatives as well. Don’t forget marriage to wealthy dowagers. A rich widow in medieval times was a highly sought commodity. And then there is also conquest, but doing so either provokes retaliation from whomever you carved your domain out of the side of, or in an anarchy (such as Sengoku-era Japan), you will likely get surrounding individuals test the mettle of the pretender. [And remember that castles are military weapons - if you build one, even on land you own, the local Powers That Be may look askance as to why you are doing so.] So it might be better to go in a slightly different direction and build your domain in a non-geographical manner. For instance, establishing a fencing academy can lead to close interaction with the local overlord (“In lieu of taxes I shall send six students a year to be trained in arms”), as well as competition with rival martial schools.

    Apologies for waffling on.

    [* It even included hiring an artist to create a statue celebrating their acts to save a town, dramatically increasing their reputation and political prestige.]

    • I love the examples you give, Reverance. Having a monument made to celebrate the PCs is fantastic. My home game is in the Birthright setting, so the PCs have access to the same kinds of retainers and helpers you might find in as classic game. You also raise a good point about castles and how not everyone may be cool with the heroes just erecting one wherever they deem fit.

      I will check out The Book of the Manor – it sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for commenting!

  3. While we play a different system at my house, I’m finding that many of these topics apply to role playing in general. Revervance makes a good point about targeted xp spending. GURPS has an advantage called “Fixed Property.” Players may spend points at start up or anywhere along the line that they feel appropriate to secure large assets. Fixed Property does a couple things. First, it makes it less likely the GM will try to take the asset away from the PC, as points has been invested. Secondly, IF something should happen to the asset, the PC is not completely robbed. If the building burns down in the sweeping fire that takes out half the city, is it resolved that insurance money comes and allows for rebuilding with minimal fuss. IF a boat is stolen, the PCs will have ample and reasonable opportunity to get it back, or replace it.

    For example, my main wizard started off working in the family tavern in a major port city, secured by Fixed Property. Detailed drawings of the layout floor by floor including the two secret access routes into the city sewers are accounted for.

    The party took a sea voyage as paying passengers on a merchant vessel. There was a naval war going on at the time, and an enemy vessel attacked the merchantman. The party fought off the boarding enemy and took the enemy ship as their own. My wizard saved up the xp and made the ship Fixed Property. Each time a modification was made to the ship, new drawings and movement specifications were done up.

    Eventually, Little Wizard got herself knighted, which came with a small estate in the country. It was really just a small villa, a kitchen garden and an orchard. More xp was thrown at another Fixed Property. There are detailed floor plans for all 3 floors including three secret hiding holes, new attic rooms for apprentices, and built in custom furniture for the nursery. Adjoining land has been bought a couple times; new fields planted; and much construction of cottages, barns, guard barracks, a school, gazebos, and a small tavern has been completed. I know the construction materials, time and cost as well as the layout for every building on the property. Time was taken over finding just the right tenants for the new cottages (includes a mason, carpenter, weaver, shepherd, teacher, physician, etc). A few more points were recently spent on a different advantage that makes her magic work extra special and nice in her “home turf” of the country manor.

    I know precisely what manner of quilt there is on my wizard’s bed in each setting, which books are on the shelves, and where the aloe plant hangs in her captain’s cabin on that ship (good for swinging at heads, not so good to catch the back swing). Is this important in a fight? Sometimes. We don’t roll to figure out how far the nearest light source is, they are already drawn in. Due to one of the children being royalty, there is concern about assassins and kidnappers- so the secret true lead lined compartment in the back of the closet in the nursery has come in handy a time or two.

    More importantly, I enjoy this level of detail. Spending a whole session interviewing candidates for the new governess or teacher or physician post is fun for me. And seeing as I am firmly anchored in each of three settings, it gives tons of scope for the poor crops at the next farm over, the ransacked neighbor in the city, or the demon overtaking the smugglers’ hideout to be rich fodder as plot hooks. My GM knows that I will care about the alchemist who’s new bride robbed him blind and skipped town, because he knows I am already invested the alchemist as a neighbor.

    There is a spring fair coming up very soon. Perhaps I’ll be able to get another braided rug for the dining room…

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