Imagine a standard D&D type start point – a bunch of adventurers arrive somewhere from various other places, meet up somehow and are given a quest of some sort from some NPC or other.
It seems to me this isn’t very realistic.
Now realism or otherwise doesn’t matter in an RPG *unless* it adds to or detracts from the imagination-immersion.
So how could you do it differently in a way that was more realistic in the good way i.e. it added to the sense of immersion?
Most of world history had some version of feudalism or partial feudalism where the primary political units – kingdoms, city-states etc – were divided up into a heirarchy of smaller geographical areas and each area had its own local political authority who was responsible for defending that area and maintaining law and order within that area. Armies were the agglomeration of all these small local forces under regional leaders.
There are lots of possible variations on this theme but let’s take the standard european version as the model for an example.
(Using D&D for the examples although the same basic idea would work in all systems.)
1) The base terriotorial unit is a knight’s fief made up of a main village, maybe 2-3 smaller ones and 4-6 farms.
2) 3-6 of these units makes up a barony centred on a small town
3) 3-6 baronies make up a county centred on a large town
4) 3-6 counties (or more) make up a kingdom or duchy centred on the capital city
5) The standard political authority in the base unit might be something like a level 6 knight with a posse of retainers:
– level 3 squire
– level 3 sergeant at arms
– level 3 magician
– level 3 agent (one of the bard/thief type classes)
– level 3 scout/forester
– level 3 village priest
– up to a dozen level 1 or 2 guards
6) The higher rungs of political authority would follow the same pattern except the barons might be level 9, counts 12, dukes/kings 15 and their retainers in proportion i.e. baron’s retainers level 6, count’s retainers level 9 etc.
( Point 6 would only be the default pattern. In reality it would diverge from this as described later.)
7) Lastly in the knight’s fiefdoms there would be a levy of the young people among the villagers as they came of age who were drafted into being future retainers (based on having better attributes than the average) who then became apprenticed to whichever of the knight’s retainers was suitable.
So now you have a start setting where the players are part of a group based on a small territory that contains all these NPCs and themselves. Groups of heavily armed adventurers outside of that feudal political structure roaming around the realm are treated with great hostility and suspicion as suspected bandits keeping the players initially in their starting area.
What this allows is the possibility (to me) of a lot more interesting early game adventures instead of the usual rats then kobolds then orcs then etc sequence.
For example a level 8 troll comes down from the mountains and is spotted in the territory so the whole posse goes out after it, knight, retainers, guards and the players making for a kind of mmorpg raid type boss battle. The players have to help defeat the troll, make sure the knight doesn’t die, pull wounded NPCs away, distract etc.
Exp might be awarded something like
knight dies -300
retainer dies -100
guard dies -50
pulling a wounded posse member away +50
healing +50 per point
damage +10 per point
Most missions wouldn’t have the whole posse as that would distract from the players too much. Another mission might be to repair a shrine up in the hills so the players might go with the priest and forester and a couple of guards. Another might be patrolling a religious festival with the sergeant and a couple of guards breaking up any drunken fights. However in most cases the players will be led by one of the higher level NPCs and have some redshirts in the form of guards. This i think creates a lot of opportunity for realistic (in the good way) early missions and allows the enemies to vary more in level e.g. you could have a 6th level bandit chief with some 3rd level retainers and level 1 minions. With the players trying to avoid becoming the main target of the higher levels and instead taking out the minions of their own level and helping their side’s higher levels.
This would proceed until around 3rd level.
Taking this setting realistically implies imo
1) If the knight caste was hereditary the knight might not always be 6th level, a young one who had recently taken over from a parent would not neccessarily have had that much experience yet
1b) The parent in this case may have hired a more experienced sergeant to compensate e.g. level 3 knight, level 6 sergeant
2) If the knight caste was appointed then they would almost always have experience
3) The retainers are in a career as place-ronin. This is their job. They were levies once like the players and gained experience as levies and then took a position as a place-ronin in a knight’s posse. As place-ronin any extra experience might be slow in coming – especially in peaceful areas away from the frontiers – so a place-ronin village priest in a peaceful area might have been 3rd level for years
4) Alternatively, place-ronin who gained enough experience to get to level 6 would likely seek a new position with a baron and then if they gained more seek a position with a count etc. Being a place-ronin would be their career
5) An alternative to the place-ronin career could be free-ronin. Once they reached around level 3 levied place-ronin (e.g. the players) can choose either to seek to be place-ronin for some knight or other – which would generally entail the players getting positions with different knights and the party splitting up – or become a group of free-ronin where free-ronin are a caste with it’s own distinct legal status. Groups of officially sanctioned free-ronin can wander the realm looking for work as temporary additions to a knight’s or lord’s retainers for a specific task.
6) Free-ronin would have a distinguishing mark or badge of some kind that prevented them being treated as bandits.
7) Parties of free-ronin would gain a reputation over time and so could start to receive offers to become place-ronin at higher levels in the hierarchy or offered free-ronin missions from afar.
8) A realm could have multiple groups of free-ronin of varying levels at any time
9) If they don’t get killed in the process free-ronin will generally “retire” eventually to become place-ronin somewhere. Occasionally a free-ronin is made into a knight with a fief of their own.
10) If the system is hereditary then generally it is the eldest sibling who inherits a fiefdom while the next younger becomes a squire for a nearby knight as a spare. Any other siblings generally become ronin. In a hereditary system ronin from noble families have a higher chance of becoming enfeoffed knights.
11) Away from frontiers missions are more likely to involve human cults, thieves, bandits, murder mysteries and low monsters. On the frontiers it will involve more monsters.
12) The knights and barons don’t have to be fighters. Depending on the setting the nobility could all be wizards or priests or a mixture.
Alternatives to the standard quasi-european model migt include:
1) A city-state divided into rural and urban cantons (or mixed rural and urban). Each canton might have an elected district official who appoints a canton captain who organizes a levied militia. The bulk of the militia would be level 1 townspeople but it also includes a levy from the wizard’s guild, priests etc. The players would have been levied and selected for training into their class by their attributes. Above the canton level might be a quarter and/or city level depending on the size of the town/city with higher level NPCs. The early missions would be similar except more urban and above a certain level the players could either move up a level in the city hierarchy or become a named free company similar to free ronin.
2) A thieve’s guild version of the above if all the players were into that. A large city is divided into fiefdoms each with a local gang who pay tribute to a crime baron who pays tribute to one of the 2-4 crime counts in the city.
3) Many cultures had a more individual form of feudalism where individual soldiers were given plots of land in return for military service so instead of peasants working on the lord’s land and a few independent farmers you’d have a lot more independent farmers. In this case a base territory might contain fewer and smaller villages and more individual farms. Each farm would be expected to provide a recruit to the local defense force. Like the city-state example the levies might be trained and organised by a paid captain while the district authority itself was in the hands of a district steward of some sort – not necessarily a combatant themselves, more of a bureaucrat. The players would be part of that levy with players of non-fighter type classes being assumed to have been singled out (due to their attributes) to be apprenticed to one of the district specialists who are attached to the levy.
4) In a non-fantasy setting like Traveller you could do the same thing if all the players were okay with all starting in the Scouts or the Navy/Marines and you could make their early adventures be their service experience i.e. the players are part of a scout squadron alongside some experienced scout NPCs (early on at least). One mission per tour of duty. However the idea is better suited to fantasy imo.
Players wanting to be dwarves, hobbits, elves etc would influence the nature of the fiefdom the players start in.
– if an elf character then you could have a wood or an island in a lake in the knight’s fiefdom with a small elf hamlet
– if a dwarf then you could have a small mine or a quarry in the knight’s fiefdom with a small dwarf hamlet
—- mines and quarries would often belong to the king but the hamlet itself might still be bound to provide a recruit to the local levy
– if a hobbit then a hobbit farming hamlet or even the main village
I think that could be fun and allow the DM to only need a vague idea of the world at the start (and for the players to only know a limited amount about the world).