The Implicit Empire

There are a lot of essays I want to write within the field of How D&D Is And Why, but before I even begin, framing it that way has some problems.  The concepts and patterns of thought I want to talk about aren’t limited to D&D; they appear throughout tabletop RPG, and even out into books, digital games, movies, and beyond.  At the same time, you can play D&D without most of these elements, and many people do.  It’s tricky to clearly articulate the idea space.

The reason for this, I think, is because while D&D is theoretically setting-agnostic, from its earliest editions it has incorporated a lot of very particular, and often sort of weird, assumptions about how the game setting works.  These assumptions range from the mechanical — e.g., memorized spells forgotten upon use — to the cosmological — e.g., the Inner and Outer Planes.  All of those assumptions are technically optional, but they’re incorporated by reference throughout the rest of the game.  Abandoning them requires a certain amount of work to follow out all the chains of influence.  [This makes those elements a fairly powerful default; people will change elements that are important to the game they want to play, but leave alone elements they just feel neutral about.]

This makes D&D in many ways an inelegant design, but I think that baroqueness was actually an important element of D&D’s success.  More cleanly generic RPGs have sometimes struggled to gain traction, because it’s hard to provide a hook for players’ imaginations to grab on to.  D&D’s idiosyncrasies are a sort of canonical adventure of setting, a baseline understanding of what RPG worlds look like to fall back on.  (In 4th grade, I was accosted by a new classmate who was affronted that the cover of the book I was reading featured a spellcaster wielding a sword.  We became best friends.)

For this reason, I think it’s meaningful to talk about a default D&D setting, even though you can’t go buy a boxed set for it.  There is an ur-setting that lies behind and ties together all the tens of thousands of campaigns that implement D&D’s setting assumptions, and the scope of its influence makes it useful to talk about.  I call it the Implicit Empire.

Its broad familiarity — and frankly, its internal contradictions — makes it wildly generative.  Every weird quirk of how D&D does things is a site for exploration, elaboration, or subversion that will be legible to anyone who knows the game. At the same time, the fact that it emerged haphazardly from a gumbo of what a not especially diverse pool of contributors in the late 70s thought was cool means that a lot of those tropes and premises are often real problematic in real deep ways. There’s a lot going on in that tension that I want to explore.

More Birthright

Something that irked me about Birthright, to the point that I had edited it out of my memory until I reread it last night, is the way they handled their gods. The big event that establishes the setting’s status quo is a legendary battle in which all the gods die and their divine essence flows out and into the mortals present at their demise. This is a pretty cool premise.

However, the lion’s share of said divine essence flowed directly into each god’s most favored lieutenant, turning them into gods. And basically the same gods. This is kinda lame.

It would be niftier, to my tastes, had they done something Unknown Armies-style, wherein a regent who enhances his or her bloodline sufficiently could ascend to divine status, possibly displacing the current holder of that status. (Among other things, it would add some depth to the quest to enhance one’s bloodline.)

Alternately, they could have gone totally hardcore and had no gods remaining, with clerics worshipping the most powerful regents and deriving their powers from them.

Then it occurred to me that Dark Sun was set up a little like that, with its templars who draw magic power from the sorceror-kings. Somewhere out there, someone has run a Birthright/Dark Sun crossover. I bet it was awesome.

Originally published on LiveJournal

Birthright and the Canonical Adventure

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.

Originally published on LiveJournal