Disclaimer: This pdf was provided as a backer reward for supporting the Domains at War kickstarter. All opinions within the review are my own.
Autarch was the third company to get money out of me on Kickstarter. By that time, I had already found Adventurer, Conqueror, King (ACKS) and was feverishly working my way through it. As I stated here, ACKS’ rules reminded me a lot of what I loved about Birthright. I found myself wanting rules for mass combat so that PC kingdoms could go to war. Then Domains at War popped up on Kickstarter, and much money and many months later, I have the PDF copies of the Campaigns and Battles books. (My hardcopy is in the mail!)
Domains at War (D@W) is actually two books (one that focuses on abstract campaigns, and the other is a table top wargames) so I will be giving each book their own in-depth review.
Domains at War: Campaigns Review
Domains at War: Campaigns is a 105 page PDF. You can get it either by itself or as part of the Domains at War: Complete Set at drivethrurpg.com. Like all Autarch products, D@W is a sharp looking book with great art. Alexander Marcis, the author of the book, does a great job distilling the abstract and concrete elements of rule set into a readable format and provides great examples every step of the way.
This one page introduction gives us a brief overview of the book’s inspiration, what to expect as a reader, and important terms. Take time to read the fourth paragraph on this page, and look at the references that were listed. This is a book that is grounded in a classical understanding of war. ACKS cleaves to a simulationist style of game design (especially in world design), and D@W is no different. However, what makes ACKS so attractive to me is the verisimilitude that this historical grounding gives the game.
Chapter 1 – Armies
This chapter covers how to create and manage armies within your D@W (and ACKS) campaign. Hiring mercenaries, conscripting peasants, levying militias, deploying followers, buying slaves, and calling up vassal troops each receive detailed rules for every aspect of using them in a campaign. Costs are given for acquiring, equipping, and maintaining these units. Want to figure out what the standing army of a kingdom is? There is a table for Vassal Troops. Want to know how much an Ogre trained as a heavy infantry will cost you at market? D@W covers that (it is 2,625 gp in case you were curious).
The chapter then goes into how to structure your armies, what command requirements your PCs must meet, and what military specialists are good for and why you need them in your army. Chapter 1 finishes up with the Unit Characteristics tables for a huge variety of troop types.
Since D@W focuses on mass combat in a fantastical world, it doesn’t just give information for the troops of men, but for Dwarves, Elves, Beastmen, and other exotic creatures. The information for fielding a unit of werebears, 12 headed hydras, or Ancient Dragons are all here practically begging to be used.
Chapter 2 – Equipment
Chapter 2 covers all the gear you and your army will need on the campaign trail and in the field. Like the ACKS equipment section, do not just read the little table at the front and move on. There are subtle rules for a number of pieces. If you don’t read the whole description you will miss things like the rules for helmets or the mirrored shield. Following the PC-focused gear, we get to costs and statistics for siege weapons. What mass combat book would be complete without catapults, trebuchets, and ballista?
One small paragraph explains how armies become their own market based on their size. It got me thinking how you could run an entire campaign on the campaign trail, with the camp counting as a mobile home base.
The rules and costs for building strongholds to assault or defend are also found here. This section, which will be very helpful when using D@W in your ACKS game, refers the reader back to chapters 3 and 7 of the ACKS main book. This section will play out in your conquests as you assault, defend, and conquer strongholds with your army. The Sieges chapter will refer to a number of statistics that can be found in these tables. While D@W does give options for abstracting strongholds, I feel you would be missing out on a significant chunk of the game’s enjoyment if you didn’t flesh out your castles with these rules.
Chapter 3 – Campaigns
Before you can get your armies from Chapter 1 to Chapter 5, you have to move them around the map. Each campaign turn is broken down in to a simple four step process. And I do mean simple; only 13 pages of rules are given to this section. And it covers moving armies, supplying armies, reconnaissance, and what do with domains once you conquer them.
Each turn, which lasts about a week of game time (plenty of time to players to get their characters into all sorts of adventures between turns), breaks down into four phases: Initiative, Movement and Battle, Supply, and Occupation and Conquest. Each phase is well laid out, easy to understand, and presents a number of clear and influential choices for players who are in command of the armies. One thing that stands out is the use of magic in D@W. The book provides guidelines for how scrying will influence an army’s ability to hide itself or track the enemy. It is easy to read this book and become entranced with the idea of seeing ancient world or medieval battles played out. The author does a great job of remembering these rules are intended for use with a fantasy game, even if the reader might sometimes forget.
While some of this chapter is clearly designed to dovetail into the ACKS domain rules, a large majority of it can be picked up and dropped into almost any OSR or modern d20 based game.
Chapter 4 – Battles
And now the rules for fighting. After you establish the type of battle (based on choices made during the Campaign turn), you are ready to engage in either bloody conquest or righteous war. We zoom into a 10 minute turn, and each turn is again broken down into simple steps. Army leaders select participating units, calculate their strength, PCs get to be awesome, each side rolls to hit and removes casualties, checks are made for morale, and then see if they want to (or can) fight another round. The abstract combat is fast and deadly, giving the game a feel of the grinding wheel of war wearing down the masses.
Rules are given for calculating battle strengths, including formulas for calculating unlisted monsters and PCs. This is where D@W shines as a product for systems other than just ACKS. Want to figure out what the Companions of the Hall would be like as a unit in an army? Do it. Want a squad of floating spheres with one large eye and multiple other eyes on stalks? If it has an armor class, hit dice, and a list of special abilities, you can abstract it with D@W.
But what stands out for me is the Heroic forays. Once problem with mass combat in most RPGs is how they tend to handle what the characters are doing while the battle is happening. Let’s be honest, RPGs focus on the character level, and mass combat…well has mass in the title. The story lens can pull too far back for the players to feel like their characters have any say in the outcome. D@W does a fantastic job of preventing this from happening. First, and simplest, your PCs could just be one super awesome unit. It is quick, and allows the overall combat to move faster, but still might cause the story to be too panoramic for most players (I know my players are like this).
So, players can make Heroic Forays. These boil down to heroic gambles that the players make to cause the tide of battle to swing in their favor. They wager their unit strength (the GM presents them with enemies equal to that strength), and you play out an encounter right there while the battle rages on around them. If they win, those casualties are inflicted on the opposing army right then and there before the standard attacks are rolled. Players can choose to foray multiple times over the course of a battle. There are also some slick rules for Hero vs. Hero Forays, but who runs games with pvp?…. Oh wait.
How battles end, what the winners can do to the losers, how casualties are treated, and what makes up the spoils of war round out this chapter. Just remember, if you are leading a horde of carnivorous warg riders to glory, captives are not just for interrogation or ransom. Wargs gotta eat….just saying.
Chapter 5 – Sieges
This chapter covers everything you would want to know about Sieges. It also provides rules for abstracting those sieges. We find rules for blockading to starve out defenders, breaking their defenses, and how to assault their broken walls. It includes simplified rules for quickly establishing how long a siege would take if it happened in the background of a game.
Once again, we see how magic will affect combats in a fantasy world. Rules for how spells can be used against strongholds are looked at here. Your clerics and wizards will be able to raze to strongholds with spells, while the rest of the party climbs through the breach in the wall the fighter made with his horn of blasting.
The rules for this section, as I stated earlier, refer heavily back to the stronghold creation section of Chapter 2. This is another part of D@W that can be ported directly to another system. Ignore the building costs, create your castle, then throw a siege at it.
Chapter 6 – Vagaries
The last chapter is devoted to tables of how the twists of fate may affect a campaign. There is a table for vagaries of recruitment, war, and battle. These table interject those things that are uncontrollable but inevitable over the course of a campaign. The quote by Julius Ceasar at the start of this chapter sums up what you will find. ‘Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.’
Finally, the glossary. Any bolded word throughout D@W is covered here. In fact, I printed out the glossary immediately before I read through the book for this review. It is a great reference which I recommend handing out to your players so they have it as well.
As you can probably tell, there is a lot crammed into the 105 pages of this PDF. D@W: Campaigns is a great supplement for people who want mass combat added into their game but still want it abstracted into in an evening of play.
ACKS books are well thought out, and there is a high level of interplay between all the moving pieces of the rules. D@W is no different. So much of the structure of D@W ties back into the ACKS rules about economics and domains. So when you get this, I would advise reading through it at least twice. Once to get a wide view of the Campaigns system and a second to dig deeply into each section. D@W provides cross-references to the other ACKS books where they apply, which is very helpful.
If you are looking for a rule set for a d20 game that abstracts mass combat in a fun, simple way, while still providing players influential choices, check out D@W.