I’ve mentioned Birthright a dozen or more times over the past few years of writing this blog, especially while playing around with SIFRP hacks, but I’ve never written a detailed post of why it deserves its place in the canon of D&D’s settings. If it weren’t wedded pretty heavily to its AD&D 2e rules, it would be just about perfect; some of the setting’s design elements were, if not common, not unknown in 2e design, but would be rejected outright in the design environment of 2013. Setting those things aside, though, Birthright has a lot of worthwhile lessons left to teach.
The first thing that draws me to Aebrynis, the world of Birthright, is that is does draw heavily on real-world cultures (and more than just England), which sets it apart from a lot of TSR’s settings. Birthright is still mostly European in its cultures, I have to admit, but the core idioms of feudalism don’t apply to all cultures.
Now, this is applying the standards of setting design in 2013 to 1995 – in ’95 there was almost no internet, much less an industry-wide conversation on how to be less Euro-cis-male-centric. I suspect that if Birthright had become a runaway success as it so richly deserved, the game’s designers might have explored continents beyond Cerilia and revealed cultures based on, say, the Mali Empire, the Incan Empire, and Warring States-era China. (I say this based on how the Shaar, Zakhara, Maztica, and Kara-Tur were added to Forgotten Realms.)
The continent on which Birthright takes place is a little bit smaller (thanks to coastline shape) than real-world India. It is subdivided into five major regions that are roughly analogous to nations, except that they have no central government whatsoever. These regions and their real-world cultural and linguistic origins are, roughly:
- Anuire: England and France, between 1300 and maybe the mid-1500s; minor Scottish influences
- Brechtür: Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, during the height of the Hanseatic League; this parses as vaguely Italian at times
- Khinasi: Two distinct cultures, the Basarji (Arabia) and the Masetians (umm… Phoenician? Greek? unclear)
- Rjurik: Celtic/Scandinavian blend, heavy druidic influences
- Vosgaard: Russia
- Also, all of the elves are heavily Irish, the dwarves are… very faintly Welsh, but mostly just dwarven, and the halflings are magical hobbits.
These cultural connections aren’t 1:1, but they’re only lightly veiled. The setting-writers take a very high-level approach to setting presentation, which I want to talk about more in a minute; the cultural notes come across heavily in the names and descriptions of domains, leaders, and organizations.
The setting famously sets itself apart by assuming that PCs are playing regents: nobility in direct control of a domain, religious sect, guild or cartel, or ley-line network. (“Regent” lets them dodge using king, queen, or any other rank name as their generic term; there also a hazy implication that all of these regents are placeholders for a “true” monarch.) The setting not only embraces the divine right of kings, but doubles down: long ago the gods infused a limited set of mortals with their power, a power which is passed down through bloodlines. Without this power, most of the tasks of rulership are impossible and the domain would be easily overwhelmed by grasping neighbors. There are also some classes (wizard) and class abilities (Realm spells) that are off-limits to commoners.
You could play a commoner and be part of a PC or NPC regent’s entourage, but Birthright doesn’t encourage that style of play anywhere near as much as SIFRP does. There are ways to go from commoner to noble, though they’re deliberately rare. I appreciate the game embracing and enforcing its theme this deeply. In more than one of my settings I’ve considered emulating Birthright’s use of magical bloodlines.
With the contention, violent and otherwise, between neighboring domains, it really is hard to avoid comparisons with SIFRP. Both games include domain management as a phase of gameplay, but they handle domain-level conflict in strikingly different ways. SIFRP’s “domains” – the lands of a particular House – are treated as if they are mostly monolithic (people will mostly be loyal to their Houses, and the Faith of the Seven isn’t a major power structure in Westeros), and the narrative of political conflict between Houses is handled on-camera in extended Intrigue scenes. Also, the granularity of each House’s stats don’t translate all that well into understandable concepts.
Birthright is a bit different: religious conflict, mercantile conflict, and conflict over ley lines are separate layers of power struggles, all overlaid on the political map. Political control of a province (counties within a domain) comes from owning its Law holdings; there’s not really anything defining the borders of a domain other than “the provinces all nominally controlled by the same Law,” but conflict and weak rulers can make even that vague statement untrue. One of the main ways to spread dissent and confusion among one’s enemies is to establish and expand a Law holding in their territory; on a story level, this means that a portion of the subjects of that domain are influenced and governed by your word rather than the local ruler’s. Religious control naturally comes from Temples, and a sect can easily cover more than one domain. Likewise for guilds – these become “multinational corporations” in a real hurry, though it’s difficult to extend any network all that far from home when the locals are constantly struggling to assert their own power and erode the power of others. Sources – the ley line networks – are unusual in that they don’t represent a human (dwarf, elf, whatever) organization. Instead, they are a single wizard’s ability to draw on the power of the untamed wilderness, and (once drawn) they determine where the wizard can exercise that power.
What I like about this is that the design puts the conflict and the stakes of the conflict on center stage. It trumpets its conflict from the ramparts, in order to solve the typical problem of politics in games: it’s usually easy for players to lose sight of the goals, tools, and techniques when solving their problems through politics – as compared to combat, where the goals (kill them while not getting killed), tools (the thing with the pointy end), and techniques (putting the pointy end in the other man) are all crystal-clear and written on each player’s character sheet.
Continuing in this vein, Birthright also encapsulates the process of running a domain into a list of 25 actions, most of which cost an action round (a month – one-third of a domain turn). Many action rounds pass quickly as downtime, but one of the actions is Adventure, so a domain turn certainly could be “uptime” as well. Many of the actions can be resolved in a single roll that costs Regency Points and Gold Bars (domain-scale currency), while others might be a relatively quick dialogue.
Birthright presents a sandbox for gameplay like few others. Not the kind of sandbox where players wander around looking for a goal or a plotline, but one where they have something that is theirs and will be under attack from Day One. The game goes as far as to include a mechanism for randomized emergent plot. The DM does need to be prepared to expand on the random results – a few index cards for each of the 14 random outcomes is a good survival strategy for the DM (and really, this is such a good idea that even remotely sandbox-friendly DMs should be doing this regardless of whether they’re running Birthright).
There are a lot of other great things about the setting design, and while I’d love to give each one of them a few paragraphs of attention, that’s not exactly feasible. Instead, I’ll hit a few high points.
- I like that there are a lot of bad guys out there with domains of their own. Some of them are human-level bad guys running their own evil empires, and some are horrific atavisms corrupted by the blood of Azrai, the adversary-god.
- I like that the setting books don’t worry about street-level detail and individual dungeons. The writers focused on people and motives and naming everything instead.
- I like that, with everything focused on people and motives, the setting handles other scales of play just fine, though dungeon-crawling would take substantial work. A campaign in which the players went after the awnsheghlien one-by-one could easily turn into some good dungeon-crawling.
The Weak Points
There are some weak points. Like I mentioned before, the setting and setting-specific rules are bolted onto a 2e chassis. The first problem is that characters garner Regency Points from holdings based on their character class(es)… which means that single-class wizards are terrible regents, and only earn RP (a crucial currency of control) from Sources. This fits theme all right, except that the book mentions most Khinasi regents as being wizards. If this were actually the case, the whole region of Khinasi would be overwhelmed by awnsheghlien inside of a year. I’m not sure how I’d make this work instead; dividing RP earnings by class does serve the useful function of making multiple characters useful in a party. If I were adapting this to D&D Next, I might give every class a primary source of RP and every background a half-strength source of RP.
Correction: One of my readers, Isaelie, has pointed out that wizards still gain RP from the level of the province itself, which makes it much easier for wizard regents to get by. This is true, though it only mitigates the problem: increasing a Province Level lowers the maximum value of source holdings, so the two things that grant a wizard RP indirectly conflict, while Law, Guild, and Temple holdings are capped by Province Level – raising a Province Level is pretty much only a good thing for characters who gain RP from Law, Guild, and Temple holdings.
PC bloodlines and powers are intended to be randomly generated, which creates the possibility of hugely swingy outcomes – the range of power levels is about like randomly generating a character’s starting level with a d8. (I don’t recommend this.) When 2e was the design landscape, this is how things were done – remember wild talents? – but later editions have sharply tapered off randomized character creation, and the design work that goes on in non-D&D modern-era games likewise reduces random components to just about nothing. If I were going to run Birthright, I’d definitely want to rework this somehow.
Finally – and this is a big deal – all of those people and motives and organizations mean that the game has a colossal number of moving parts, and managing even just the ones that matter is a full-time job for a DM. Incidentally, this is also what makes Birthright so appealing for PBEM and play-by-post games: outsourcing the management of all of those domains to PvP actors. The one Birthright campaign I ran – my first long-term campaign with more than one player – made the mistake of giving the players too much territory, removed internal enemies, and didn’t put the neighboring domains on the offensive. At the time, I was definitely not equal to the task of managing all of those domains; now, I would manage as many of the neighbors as I could but the work would expand to fill my mental capacity. The books offer a bit of advice on this, but I wouldn’t say it’s enough advice.
The game really needs some electronic support, nigh-unthinkable in ’95 but natural now: something as simple as a Gdoc spreadsheet template to manage domains, holdings, cash and Regency Point income and expenditure would be phenomenal for making all of this work. I’m pretty sure that this style of number-crunching gameplay has fallen well out of favor with everyone but the 3.x/Pathfinder crowd, these days, though I haven’t really studied the Adventurer Conqueror King System’s domain rules, or Pathfinder’s Kingmaker rules, for that.
What You Should Steal
The system of holdings, and the actions that increase or decrease holdings, are ripe for aggressive borrowing into other systems. There are a lot of important moving parts in the system – province rating, source rating, domain power, bloodline strength… if you’re stealing anything less than all of it, you’ll be running a significant danger of dropping a component that matters. The bloodline powers could get cut completely as long as the bloodline rating remains, but it takes away a lot of the inherent superiority of the nobility over the commoners. (One bizarro hack: Birthright in the modern world, with regents maneuvering for psychic control of populace. I think I’ll write this up in full someday.)
3e stole the concept of mystically empowered bloodlines, but didn’t keep the concept that they granted the right to rule. I played with the latter part of the idea indirectly in my D&D Next revision of the sorcerer, though I have to admit that the rules I created for the sorcerer aren’t great in their current form. Birthright’s implementation of bloodline powers doesn’t fit into class-based systems all that well, since they’re a lot like racial abilities with open-ended progression; Eberron’s dragonmarks are one of the closer cognates, as are Theme powers from 4e Dark Sun, but both of these are flawed because of the way bloodline strength is completely unconnected to character level.
Awnsheghlien are worth stealing, both as a group concept and as individuals. They’re monsters that receive the definite article for their type – what’s not to like about that? Names like “The Gorgon” and “The Serpent” go a long way toward enhancing their mythic status; since they’re widely known in the world, players have plenty of time to learn to dread them before they would ever even consider taking them on. Also, many of those monstrous opponents are willing and able to pursue political aims as well as combative ones.
Birthright is amazing for games that include action but really care about the players building domains of their own that could persist for decades of in-game time. The world is gritty (but not grimdark) and believable, with an absolutely consistent tone. Even more than most games, the DM might not need to be anything more than an impartial adjudicator; there’s probably never been a D&D property that was better suited to PvP (really, I have to call it RvR). I think that Birthright is the kind of setting that was fated to have a hard time really finding its audience, but (like everything made before five minutes ago) it has its own diehard fanbase who remain active here, even going so far as to retool Birthright for 3.x rules. There’s a huge amount of the original Birthright material posted there, and I recommend giving it a look if anything I’ve said here has intrigued you.