Monday, June 07, 2010

Thinking about Birthright

The Birthright Campaign Setting was an attempt by TSR to introduce empire-building into AD&D. Although the execution was remarkably sound, the idea never really caught on and the line was unable to set itself apart from more popular settings at the time. Still, I think it is worthy of praise, so I do so now. In some ways, the setting is very conventional. The PC races are the same, although often with a twist. For example, there are five human races, the Anuireans, the Brecht, the Khinasi, the Rjurik and the Vos. They are modeled on High Middle Age French/Normans, Hanseatic League/Venetians, Arabs, Celts/Norse and Russian/Tatars respectively and each has racial ability adjustments, just like non-humans. The races tend to mix less than in standard D&D campaign settings and, in fact, many elves are murderously hostile towards humans.

Beyond the superficial differences related to races, gods and classes (i.e., true wizards are very rare), there are two basic concepts in Birthright that set it apart from other settings. The first of these is bloodlines. Centuries past, a great battle took place in which both mortals and gods took part. The most powerful of the deities was the evil Azrai and the only way he could be defeated was through the combined sacrifice of all the other gods who opposed him. The resulting release of divine energy blasted down upon the battling mortals below. Those closest to the gods, the earthly lieutenants of the gods themselves who contested atop Mount Deismaar, absorbed so much of the divine essence, they became gods themselves and took over for the deceased gods they followed. Beyond that, many of the lesser, but still potent mortals, absorbed smaller amounts of divine energy and became blooded. Blooded individuals (called scions) enjoy special powers from their bloodlines. These bloodline powers resemble spell-like abilities or feats and the strength and derivation (i.e. which god's essence was absorbed) of one's bloodline determines the strength, number and types of bloodline powers that manifest. Bloodlines can also be strengthened by way of bloodtheft, that is, the killing of other scions (in a precise manner). As such, many weaker scions are advised to hide their bloodlines lest more powerful scions choose to slay them for their bloodline strength. The most powerful scions tend to be evil because they are typically imbued with the bloodline of Azrai, the most powerful of the gods, and because they have few qualms about wanton bloodtheft. Over time, the effects of their bloodlines tends to twist them into monstrous form. These abominations, called awnsheghlien, are generally extremely powerful versions of more common monsters, such as The Gorgon or The Vampire. Many of the more powerful awnsheghlien even rule their own kingdoms.

The second unusual aspect of Birthright derives directly from the first. Regency is power that a blooded ruler derives from the land and peoples he or she rules. This power can be used for the benefit and expansion of the ruler's holdings, which, in turn, may enrich his bloodline. There are four types of holdings, law, temple, guild and source, and it is typical for different regents to control and draw regency from different holdings within a kingdom. For example, the king may control some or all of the law holdings (depending on how tyrannical his rule is) in his kingdom, while the guildmaster controls some of the guild holdings and a large multinational church may control some or all of the temple holdings. Source holdings are magical in nature and are controlled by wizards through the use of ley lines. A powerful wizard may control source holdings from several lands across the continent. Since few unclaimed territories remain, expansion is typically achieved at the expense of other rulers. There are rules for mass combat, which are functional, if a tad clunky, as well as more treacherous means of conflict resolution, like assassination and subterfuge. Many of these actions could lend themselves to role-playing, making it possible for groups to play alternate non-regent characters working in the service of their regent characters.



Obiri said...

I always thought Birthright sounded pretty cool but I never played it. I didn't own any of the books and non of my friends did either. I think it also came out at a time when I wasn't playing.

David said...

I loved Birthright. I bought almost every product they came out with.

Unfortunately I could never talk my friends into letting me run it for them.

Rognar said...

I ran a short campaign back when it first came out. It was pretty cool, but the group I was playing with was very experimental and we never stuck with any one thing for very long. If I ever got motivated enough to run Birthright again, I think I'd probably use different mass combat rules, but everything else in the setting is pure gold.