Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Taking Another Look at Birthright

I wasn't a fan of the Birthright campaign setting when it first came out in 1995. To me, it seemed like just another in a multitude of settings that TSR was cranking out, and although I had a vague notion that it had something to do with starting off as the leader of a realm (or something equivalent), I never really pursued it. It seems I wasn't alone, since the setting was retired without fanfare in 1999. In retrospect, this shouldn't be all that surprising, because while there was a plethora (some might say "glut") of setting accessories, there were only five actual adventures published for it. Especially for a setting with a different emphasis such as this one, published adventures should have been used to demonstrate the possibilities.

Although I still wouldn't call myself a fan of the setting (in the same way that I consider myself a fan of Greyhawk, the Forgotten Realms, Wilderlands, and Dragonlance), my stance on Birthright has certainly softened over the years to a place where I can appreciate many of its finer points, and (naturally) seeing how they might be brought into the World of Greyhawk.

If you're not familiar with the setting itself this excellent review by Ross Watson over at Rogue Warden can give you the outline. I've got to say, I'm still not too much of a fan of the actual setting itself. The old gods are dead (but there's no really compelling reason for that, since new gods have taken their places), there are seemingly arbitrary changes to humanoids and demi-humans, and although I get they were going for an epic sweep of history, it just never hit me that way. It just seemed a rather mundane collection of medieval kingdoms with some Really Weird Things thrown in to prove that it's a fantasy setting. I'm also not a fan of the "bloodline" idea (nor did I like the film "Highlander", btw); I'd much rather see a non-magical "regency" mechanic, that anyone could avail themselves of, take its place.

Lest this seem like a hate-fest on Birthright, what I do like about the setting are the domain rules and associated mechanics. In fact, this is what drew me to take another look at the setting, as I was doing research for my upcoming Adventures Great and Glorious project. There is a comprehensive system for four types of "holdings"-- law, guild, temple, and Source (Source holdings are a measure of the magical power inherent in the land). Based on the population of the provinces under a given regent's control, they are then able to do various domain actions; moving armies, constructing settlements and fortifications, etc.

I think there's a lot of potential there for application in other settings. Since the Birthright province is approximately 30-40 miles across, they would seem to map well to the 30 mile hexes on the map of the Flanaess from the World of Greyhawk. If one took out the notion of the regents needing some sort of mystical blood line to access the power of their domains, and replaced it with... something else... I can really see it working for larger-scale Greyhawk games.

Plus the whole notion of "realm spells" is one that's both obvious and overdue. Simply put, they're like ordinary spells, but have a much more far-reaching effect and naturally take much longer to cast. Spells like legion of dead or blight are just too good not to have in a game on that scale, but once again some mechanism would have to be brought in to replace the restriction that only regents with their magical bloodlines can tap into the Source of provinces to cast such spells. I would hesitate to simply remove it, because that would certainly throw an "ordinary" game out of balance should an adventurer somehow gain access to the spell. ("I'm going to take my regiment of zombies into the dungeon...")

Birthright has a system for mass combat, and it looks like it would work fine, but it's a bit abstract for my own personal tastes. For someone who didn't share my predilection for miniatures wargaming, though, I'm sure it would do fine.

So there it is. While I'm still a little "meh" when it comes to the setting of Cerilia itself, there's a lot of good stuff in Birthright that would work in other settings with some tinkering.