Strongholds, Towers, and Hideouts

imageI am currently reading through the D&D Rules Cyclopedia from 1991 and I’m constantly discovering game aspects that the later editions lack or which have been severely limited in scope. One of these things is the idea of a travelling vs. a land-owning character.

In Basic D&D there was a concept known as “Name level”. When your character reaches level 9 you get a fancy title and you have to make a choice: do you want to own land and construct your own stronghold, tower or hideout, do you join a noble’s court or do you continue as a travelling character? Some classes have more options than others, but that’s basically the gist of it.

Personally I love that a lot. Strongholds, towers, and hideouts are not just a physical sign of a character’s achievements, it’s also a great plot device. A personal stronghold can be attacked, there might be conflicts with neighbors, or there are disputes for the lord of stronghold to settle. Players have to make important decisions which not only affect themselves, but also their staff, their subjects, the lands around their stronghold. It’s not just dungeon delving and monster killing anymore, but starting with level 9 politics get into the picture.

When the player characters want to go on a quest away from their personal holds, new questions arise which may be hooks for exciting adventures. Who will manage the daily affairs when the player characters’ are away? Will something happen while they are gone off on a quest? Perhaps one character is in the service of a noble who asks a favor from the party before they give permission for the character to leave. The adventures basically write themselves.

Even if you decide against being a land-owning character, the so-called BECMI edition of Basic D&D offers a couple of interesting options. Fighters can become Paladins or Avengers and swear fealty to a clerical order. Or they can become knights and pledge their allegiance to a noble. Magic-users may work at a noble’s court as adviser. A cleric may decide to become a Druid. Regardless of what option you choose it will tremendously affect how the campaign develops from this point on. Reaching “Name level” and settling down may also be the perfect end goal for a shorter campaign.

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I don’t remember building one’s own stronghold being part of AD&D 2nd Edition (but I might be mistaken since I haven’t played it in a long time) and when Wizards of the Coast took over, it didn’t make a comeback either. Was it that unpopular with the majority of fans? Or are there other reasons why this feature of the game was faded out? If one of my honored readers knows more about this, please share in the comments below.

By the way, in 1993 Stormfront Studios developed a D&D computer game called Stronghold (not to be confused with the game series by Firefly Studios which started in 2001) which was basically a D&D-themed city builder. It might have out-dated graphics and a worse user interface, but it’s still quite enjoyable to play and it has a certain old-school charm. It’s available on GOG for about 5€ and thanks to DOSBOX it runs great on modern PCs.

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What are your thoughts on strongholds, towers, and hideouts? Is this something you miss in newer editions of D&D or are you glad this aspect of the game had been thrown out? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Michael Wolf is a German games designer and enthusiast best known for his English language role-playing games blog, Stargazer's World, and for creating the free rules-light medieval fantasy adventure game Warrior, Rogue & Mage. He has also worked as an English translator on the German-language Dungeonslayers role-playing game and was part of its editorial team. In addition to his work on Warrior, Rogue & Mage and Dungeonslayers, he has created several self-published games and also performed layout services and published other independent role-playing games such as A Wanderer's Romance, Badass, and the Wyrm System derivative Resolute, Adventurer & Genius, all released through his imprint Stargazer Games. Professionally, he works as a video technician and information technologies specialist. Stargazer's World was started by Michael in August 2008.

10 thoughts on “Strongholds, Towers, and Hideouts”

  1. Hello Michael,

    great article. The topic of stronghold/kingdom building also crossed my path lately and I researched a bit. The most appeal to me had the Kingdom Building rules in the Pathfinder Ultimate Campaign sourcebook. Apparently an update to the kingdom building rules from the PF Kingmaker adventure path. However, this can turn rather into a fully fledged economic/political simulation if you play it for a longer time.

    But I like this kind of strategic resource driven gameplay. I simulated a small test kingdom for 12 turns and with some minor adaptations it also works fine for D&D 5e. I have to admit it takes some time and effort to get a grip on the comprehensive mechanics but in my eyes it is worth it to add a new aspect to a game/campaign that has been running for a longer time. You can also scale it down and only use some aspects of it and do the rest via narrative.

    I think this can be a nice enrichment between game sessions (e.g. via Email), especially if you don’t meet that often at the gaming table. However, you clearly need players that are into that aside or in between the regular adventures.

    See the pfsrd for the complete ruleset: https://www.d20pfsrd.com/gamemastering/other-rules/kingdom-building/

    We also discussed this here (sorry, only availbale in German): https://rollenspiel-bonn.de/viewtopic.php?f=5&t=493

    Cheers

    Johannes

    1. I’ll definitely check out the discussion later, and perhaps even have a look at the Pathfinder rules, but I doubt they’ll be much use in a BECMI game. You know me, I prefer less complex and detailed rules. Pathfinder is way out of my comfort zone. 😉

      1. That’s most probably true wrt BECMI. 🙂

        But I think you can get some great inspiration from it. E.g. there is a random table for positive and negative events that can happen to/in your kingdom each turn that you can use as adventure seeds. I once got religious fundamentalists that started their own unauthorized inquisition in my kingdom almost sending morale and loyalty of my people into a downward spiral.

        It might also help to think through the various aspects and their interdependendcies that play a role in a kingdom even if you don’t want to use the rules.

        As always in RPG: Use what you like and discard the rest…

  2. I can remember the castle building rules and reaching named level with a cleric when I played D&D. I think I got 3d6x10 1st and 2nd level fighters as loyal followers.

    The DM mainly seemed to use it as a money sink and also took great pleasure in wiping out my loyal followers, but rarely hurt the mercenaries I was employing.

    It became the norm to adventure to earn sufficient funds to keep the castle running. In general it was more of a liability than a benefit and we certainly never kept anything of value in your castle as it was bound to get stolen.

    After the first round of castle building I don’t think anyone ever bothered again. The option of signing on with a larger organisation or joining a court was equally good for bringing in plot hooks but was less hassle than running a castle.

    I think the only exception to that was the thief character that set up a hideout. The bar to entry was so low as were the expectations. It was also not an obvious target and its location was not common knowledge.

  3. I’m a big fan of “name level” and have used it for every edition of my homebrew campaign, from BECMI to Pathfinder 1e and D&D5e.

    I strongly believe that the style of play should evolve as characters, parties, and stories develop. Skirmishes for survival at low levels should lead to dungeon crawls and missions of increasing scale and complexity at midlevel. Teamwork and relationship building are just as important as finding treasure and slaying monsters in my games.

    At higher levels (10+ in my case), Player Characters should be respected and connected to their world, with some building strongholds, founding orders, or taking on followers or feudal responsibilities. Role-players who like resource management should have a chance to do so, but others can just become more flashy.

    Battles become more epic, with the fates of kingdoms and regions on the line — think of the progression in the Lord of the Rings books or movies. Dungeon crawls should reach more dangerous environments, such as undersea or the Underdark.

    For the rare parties that reach higher levels (15 to 20+), adventurers may travel the planes, save the world, or become rulers in their own right. Personal survival should always be at risk, as should families, companions, and causes. Otherwise, each successive battle just becomes an exercise in Hit Points vs. Armor Class/resistance vs. damage per round inflation.

    Sure, some characters can become hermits, lone wolves, or singular heroes/villains, but their reputations should precede them. I’m supporting a crowdfunding campaign for D&D5e supplements to support strongholds and strategic play.

  4. This is why I love BECMI (my first RPG). It has everything and will keep you busy for a great number of game years. After reaching Name level, you can seek World Domination or even Immortality!

    1. I misunderstood the rules in the Companion book regarding population growth, and which parts of Norwold were tundra in Test of the Warlords. Consequently, the Empire of Norwold conquered most of the Known World.

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