Thursday, August 19, 2010

Birthright and Me

Since the theme of the week has kind of turned into campaign worlds, here's a post I wrote on EN World earlier this week as someone brought up Birthright, why it failed, and whether it would be worth bringing back today.

Birthright was published in 1995 during the 2E era when LOT of campaign worlds were supported with print products. There had already been Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, Planescape, Ravenloft, Dark Sun, and Dragonlance box sets. The production values were amazing - the boxed set came with nice rulebooks, a full color poster map or 3, army cards,, and a nice DM Screen with that full-color painting on the outside - it probably did lose money (many TSR products did as it turned out later)  but it was a very striking set and made a strong impression. Also 1995 wasn't right at the end of the TSR run, but looking back that might have been the last plateau for them.

The wikipedia entry describes the history well:

Cerilia was originally inhabited by the elves, dwarves, and goblins. Fleeing the corruption of Aduria by the dark god Azrai, human tribes settled Cerilia. At first contact between the elves and humans was peaceful, but conflict soon arose as the human population expanded into elven lands.

After years of manipulation and machination Azrai's armies marched on Cerilia. On his side were his Adurian minions, the Vos (a human tribe he had corrupted), and the elves, bitter from their wars with humanity. The human tribes and their patron gods met him in battle at Mount Deismaar, located on the landbridge between Aduria and Cerilia. The elves realized they had been tricked by Azrai and most switched sides. As their armies fought on the slopes of the mountain, the gods themselves met in battle. The other gods were only able to defeat Azrai by sacrificing themselves. In a colossal explosion, they destroyed themselves and Azrai. Mount Deismaar and the land bridge were destroyed.

The power of the gods was not wasted, however. It shot out and entered those present at the battle. The champions of the gods, those closest in ideal and virtue to their patron as well as physical proximity at the time of the cataclysm, received the most power. They became gods themselves, a new pantheon that would replace the old.

Other combatants also received some of the divine power of the gods. On the battlefield it did not take them long to realize that this power was in their blood, and could be stolen. A scion, as one of the divine blood is called, could have his blood strength stolen if killed by a blow piercing his heart.

The divine gifts of the scions make them able leaders. They form a connection to their people and land, drawing strength from them. And in times of need returning that strength and perform great deeds. They also can have a variety of other divine powers, such as long life, the ability to detect poison or project a divine aura, depending upon their bloodline strength and the god it was derived from.

Those who find themselves with the blood of Azrai often become powerful abominations, or awnsheghlien. Corrupted by their dark blood, their bodies twist to reflect their inner corruption. Many of the major villains and monsters are awnsheghlien. Examples include the Gorgon (stone-skinned with a petrifying gaze, perhaps the strongest creature in Cerilia), the Sphinx (an insane half-cat lover of riddles), the Spider (once a goblin-king who fought at Deismaar), and the Vampire (once a young hero who killed a blood abomination named the Sinister and thus became corrupted himself).

I liked the background for the most part - the "Archvillain" style monsters like the gorgon and the spider fit a lot of fantasy fiction very well - it's more high fantasy than sword and sorcery but it should work in D&D quite well. The destruction of the gods and the creation of the bloodlines gives a nice epic historical feel and then links it directly to the PC's. The emphasis on domains with actual mechanical support is a nice change and when added to the bloodlines and the big bads gives the world a unique feel. 

Now mechanically the bllodline powers were pretty simple to handle, but domains were an entirely separate system and didn't really interact a ton with the rest of D&D at the time. This made it easier in many cases to just ignore it which I think hurt the game. Better integration mechanically and even some simplification would have led to more use of the domains in actual campaigns. I think 4E could do this better with it's new design philosophy - maybe we'll get a chance to see down the road. My take is that although it may not apply in a realistic sense, in a D&D sense being "the king" should always be a benefit to your character, never a hindrance. Wealth, some kind of inherent bonuses, power boosts tied to paragon paths - there have to be some ways to do it.

Mass combat was done in kind of a clunky way - it was a sort of card game with stats for different units on cards which were positioned on a poster map / battle mat kind of thing - yet another new subsystem that looked complicated and played a little clunky which led to a lot of handwaving. If it had come back for 3E it would have been cool to see it supported with some kind of miniatures play but realistically you need a non-gadget way of handling mass combat for D&D to really integrate it and have people use it.

The marketing was strong at the start - Dragon had big foldout ads in full color and they talked about ruling a domain and all of the things that made it different. They did that part right. Later though...with 5 major nations, putting each one out as a boxed set was probably a mistake - I know I struggled to gather them back then as it seemed like they took forever to come out. In the meantime we were also buried under a seemingly endless set of "players secrets of x" supplements that were short on content and tough to distinguish from one another (wikipedia says there were only 15 of them but it seemed like more). I think this helped kill interest in the line too as it was too much detail too fast for a brand new setting.

Overall I think timing was a factor - if it had launched about 1990 and been handled as say 2nd edition's "Eberron" (as Eberron was to 3E) then I think it would have fared better although the mechanical complexity tied into Domains and Mass Combat would have impacted its popularity. There isn't anything inherently wrong or weak as far as the concepts behind it - big progenitor archviallian monsters who control chunks of the main continent (some of whom are fallen heroes), an emphasis on running nations controlled by semi-divine player characters , adventuring to further your nation's position in the world and possibly for political reasons - it can make for a really interesting campaign that runs a little deeper than our traditional looting games. It could have been positioned as truly "Advanced" D&D - bigger stakes, bigger responsibilities. more power - but it ended up positioned as "one more option among many" and as the youngest of the 2E worlds it never matured enough to deserve a revisit by the company.

Birthright was something I really liked when it came out but I only ran a few sessions of it as my players were already into Greyhawk and FR campaigns and weren't really looking to change. It sat on a shelf, asking to be played but it never really went anywhere and then once 3E came out we never looked back. 

Looking at it now I realize it's one of the directions D&D could have gone that was stifled mainly due to business problems, not flaws inherent to the concept. It's not a new or even an uncommon story in RPG's, but this one in particular bothers me as it had and still has potential untapped. Fans have made an effort to keep it alive but I admit I was not one of them. I held onto my stuff for about 10 years but I finally sold it a few years ago. I periodically feel the need to clear out some space and a half-shelf of campaign material for a game I only ran a few times about 1996 was pretty easy to shed. At some point I might look into picking it up again but it didn't take off here back when it was new so there's no nostalgia factor at work and it's not rally a major part of D&D history, so I'm not that keen on playing in it's original form. A new version would have potential though.

If WOTC sticks to the one campaign world per year plan they have followed for 4E (although 2011's announced schedule so far makes this a little murky) AND 4E has several more years left to run then I think Birthright is worth a revisit. One book or box on the world with paragon paths and epic destinies and maybe a domain system, one book of monsters detailing the big bads and some of the different Cerilia versions of regular monsters, plus an adventure and you're good. Make Heroic Tier = "you're one of the royal family", Paragon = "you're the heir apparent" and Epic = "you're the ruler". In this world you're not going to spend your Epic levels gallivanting off in the Nine Hells, you're going to spend them gathering your armies and meeting The Gorgon head on as he tries to invade your realm! There's a certain segment of the D&D crowd that that's going to appeal to. Whether that segment is enough to justify putting it out again, I can't say but I would play it and I would run it so there's one vote.

Here's a link to the Birthright Wiki that has a lot of 3E conversion material. 

Here's another link to a short article by someone who has a lot of love for the setting and talks about some of the more detailed changes from standard D&D.

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