I’ve been mulling over some gaming stuff lately, because my brain has been slipping its chain and actively fleeing the world of law, what with the interviews and the journal and the gah my head.
Birthright was one of TSR’s 2nd edition AD&D settings, and one I’m very fond of. I have a weakness for that realm that lies somewhere at the junction of roleplaying, wargaming, and political science simulation. There have been a number of forays into that realm over time; most of them aren’t so good. Birthright is one of the better ones. It postulated a world where the gods are dead and their power has devolved to the ruling families of the world, who acquire thereby a mystical attachment to the lands they rule and the ability to do all sorts of awesome stuff with their divine right. It also has very clever mechanics for handling diplomacy, intrigue, war, and other incidents of kingdom-scale play. And yet, Birthright never really took off. I suspect this is because of its failure to articulate a canonical adventure.
For those of you who haven’t encountered the term before, a “canonical adventure” is a basic model of adventuring for a particular game that a group can always fall back on. It’s the simplest answer to the question, “What do you do in this game?” Not all games have them, but many classics do. The canonical adventure in D&D, for example, is “Go into a dungeon; kill monsters; take their stuff”. You can do many other things with the game, but you can always fall back on going into dungeons, killing monsters, and taking their stuff. The canonical adventure in Traveller is “buy low, travel in space, sell high”. Transhuman Space, as a counter-example, doesn’t really have one.
Birthright never really explains how to use all the neat kingdom-scale stuff it introduces. The set spends only a couple of pages on how to deal with party composition and adventure design, and its advice is unsatisfying. At times, it seems to assume that one PC will be a temporal ruler, with the other PCs being either noble characters with no kingdom or commoners, and the party will go on relatively ordinary adventures in between (or as part of) kingdom-scale events. At other times, it seems that each PC should have his or her own kingdom. Obviously, both are possible, but it means that “a Birthright game” doesn’t have an unambiguous meaning. The various resources and concerns that attach to rulership mean that the basic AD&D canonical adventure is, if not unavailable, at least complicated. It makes it harder to imagine exactly what to do with the set.
This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the designers tied their kingdom-scale mechanics fairly strongly to the setting; you can’t simply transplant the mechanics to a different setting where you want intrigue and political shenanigans. If you don’t want a world where nobles have powers by virtue of divine right, some significant kit-bashing is required.
The upshot of all this is that the stuff in Birthright makes me pretty excited to do something, but it would clearly take a fair amount of work. Which is a problem, compared to something easy to do out of the box. On the other hand, I do have these brain-cycles begging me not to make them think about patent licensing.