Sunday, January 8, 2012

It has been a long time since I posted here. My Labyrinth Lord campaign is on hiatus, I'm running Star Wars Saga Edition instead, and thanks to persistent scheduling problems my group hasn't gamed for months and may not for months to come. So I haven't had much to post about because I'm not running or even seriously planning to run any D&D for quite some time.

However, I have made a New Year semi-resolution to read some of the many books I have unread. In the area of RPGs, I'm pretty bad for spending my free time for RPGs reading forums (which do have some really good content but in the middle of lots of useless stuff) instead of reading books I've bought. I made a start on this project yesterday, and thought I'd share my thoughts here.

Inspired by a thread I've been reading on about the "lost endgame" of D&D – becoming a ruler after Name Level, which modern editions dropped – I decided to read Birthright for AD&D. Or, to be more precise, the rulebook from the Birthright core box set (not the setting books, which I'm not interested in), for the domain management systems. I already vaguely knew some of it, partly from playing the old PC game spin-off years ago: "Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance" (a very underrated empire-building/RPG hybrid). I've also flicked through the rules a few times before; I couldn't remember why, but I never managed to do more than skim before putting the box away, which is odd because since my longest-running campaign featured PC rulership it's a subject I'm interested in.

I read the whole thing through last night, and now I remember why I'd never finished it before: it's a difficult dry read, and Birthright's domain systems are a full-on game in their own right, not something you toy with for a little interval between adventures. In Birthright, it's the other way round: you go on adventures during domain turns, and it costs you a domain action at that, so getting "leave" to go dungeon-delving may not be possible when things are hectic. On the other hand, some random events (mostly bad ones) rolled for each domain turn can require adventures to solve the problem or they will get worse. The book actually recommends that in some campaigns players of regent PCs have a second character to take on adventures if his regent can't spare time from his duties, hinting at the possibility of Ars-Magica-style troupe play.

One of the two main issues I'd have with adopting Birthright's rules is that they're tied to the setting: there are bloodlines of heroes from an ancient war, and only the blooded heirs can rule (unblooded are out of luck: they can become respected and personally powerful, but can never hold a throne under any circumstances). A bloodline grants some special abilities (randomly determined by rolling on a table, old-skool style!) but more importantly, bloodline strength is tied into the regency point rules, which measure a regent's political power and influence and are central to the system. Using Birthright's rules out of the setting context would require a certain amount of work (I'm not sure how much) to decouple the bloodline rules from the rest of the regency system.

The other problem, and the real deal-breaker, is that it would take a lot of work to run, from both regent players and the DM. Birthright is functionally a full-blown kingdom-running/diplomacy/empire-building boardgame plugged into AD&D. The setting map is in effect a game-board with all the provinces statted out – they have multiple ratings for things like the strength of law&order, temples, economic relationships, sites of magical power (and any of these "holdings" can belong to the province ruler, a non-ruler, or even a rival). There are rules for province creation tucked away in an appendix, but using the rules in another setting would require writing up a great many provinces and politically mapping them too.

Aside from that, not only do PC regents get actions during domain turns, NPC regents do too. The book acknowledges that running ALL of them in the same turn isn't practical and suggests how to choose which ones to run based on relevance and importance, but still, the DM has lots of management to do. This section contains some tantalising glimpses into the potential of a Birthright game: the GM can, with his knowledge of what NPC regents are up to strategically with/against other regents (including PCs), think through their plans and come up with character-scale adventures resulting from these maneuverings, and the outcome of these adventures could impact on the domain game in turn. For instance, an NPC might try to destabilise an economically important province of another NPC regent (one allied to a PC) by supplying local brigands with weapons and information. The regent of the province might need to enlist the aid of the PC regent (perhaps with the offer of trade concessions), and if the PC party manage to deal with the brigands and uncover who was behind them, it could lead to war. Since these NPC actions are also going to be affected by the actions of PC regents' domains, this could make for a campaign with cascading cause-and-effect consequences that could surprise the DM as much as the players.

There's a nifty mass battle system in Birthright that occupies a middle ground between the Battlesystem miniatures-gaming mass battle rules that TSR supported for AD&D and the War Machine rules in the D&D Companion set that required only dice rolls. Birthright's system uses cards, each with stats for a different type of unit (pikes, archers, etc.) played on a special mat marked out into abstract zones of the battlefield (attacker's left flank, defender's reserves, etc.). Battles are played out in turns, with attacks resolved by drawing other cards and cross-referencing the results with the cards of the units involved. It looks pretty good and feels very different to personal combat; the morale rules ensure that standing and fighting to the last man are unlikely.

Unfortunately, the battle rules are very limited when used outside the Birthright setting. They depend on having cards for the units, and the included cards cover the usual types of units plus some non-humans (elves, dwarves, goblins etc.) that have armies in the Birthright world, but other monsters aren't covered. AD&D monster stats don't correspond to the battle card stats, and no conversion guidelines are offered. This isn't a major problem in a Birthright-setting game where true "monsters" are extremely rare to keep the focus on the conflicts of people, but if you want to run a battle in the Forgotten Realms with a red dragon leading an attack on a castle while the defenders summon devils to counterattack, the Birthright rules are little help. There is a skirmish rules section which you could use, but it's a messy handwave and has big granularity problems (for example, if the AD&D combat stats allow 12+ maximum attack damage, damage in the skirmish game is doubled, but 11 or less max damage gives no benefit; so 1d4 damage and 1d8+3 damage attacks in AD&D are identical in skirmish, but 1d8+4 is twice as powerful as 1d8+3!).

So one of the running limitations on the Birthright rules system is that it isn't easy to use outside of the Birthright setting. Ironically, it would actually be easier to use them outside of the AD&D rules system, and perhaps even preferable! Birthright is from the 2nd Edition AD&D era, the time when D&D's aesthetic had moved from the swords-and-sorcery mercenary adventuring of 1st Edition and earlier to the post-Dragonlance epic quest storytelling model; but the mechanics were still AD&D and rooted in the old-school sensibilities where an adventurer is never more than a few dice rolls from sudden death. This shows in Birthright – the game portrays regents going adventuring quite blithely, giving no advice to the DM or players about dealing with the consequences of a single save-or-die effect leaving a throne suddenly vacant. There's still clerical magic to raise the dead, but again Birthright never gives any attention to the consequences of an adventuring regent owing his (second) life to a high priest. Really, magic receives little coverage in Birthright besides some specific applications in mass battle, even though this game could really benefit from examining its possible uses (and abuses) in larger society. By also de-emphasising monsters in the setting to reinforce the medieval clash-of-armies style of conflicts, it seems like Birthright is straining against being AD&D.


  1. Very nice analysis! I hadn't ever considered the whole "Oh crap, the king was killed by green slime!" problem before. Have you taken a look at Chris K's proposal for a Fantasy War Guide for D&D-alikes?

  2. No, I haven't seen it. Do you have a link?

    I'm looking forward to Adventurer Conqueror King when it comes out in print. I suspect it may be a bit more in-depth than I'm looking for, but it might be a good idea mine at least.