Thursday, March 19, 2009

Birthright: A Cornerstone of Changing Sensibilities

I can't say that I don't like the Birthright setting. It's definitely interesting, both in its implied plot (and believe me, there really is a strong hand at work here) and in the ways that it breaks the rules of AD&D 2e to create a unique little experience. The world itself - if you can get past the nigh unpronounceable pseudo-Celtic names that the developers seem so fond of - is quite a nifty little place where dragons are dying out and the mortal races walk the world today infused with the diluted stuff of gods in their veins. It looks like it could be a good deal of fun.

But I will probably never touch it, and not just because I won't find many people in New Jersey who are interested in pulling a campaign together. It's because Birthright, in all its innovative new rules and its shiny boxed intent, represents a betrayal of the core of D&D as I see it, and the enshrinement of all the negative tendencies of storytelling DM's everywhere. It is, more than DragonLance I think, a real symbol of what D&D was to become over the subsequent years.

Ok, that's a bit of a strong statement. It's not like Birthright was the deathknell of tabletop role playing games as we had all grown to love, but it's clear that the assumptions behind the setting were vastly different than those that went into Greyhawk or Forgotten Realms. It was clear that The Grey Mouser had no place in Cerilia as that world was, quite literally, all about the stories of kings and great lords. Handing what was a reward for long and good play 30 years ago to a first level character changed the dynamics of everything. Characters very often have what amount to nothing less than super powers in the form of divine heritage. Such powers range from access to genetic memories at the discretion of the DM (not entirely a bad idea I suppose) to a persistent protection from evil effect all the way up to (and I wish I were joking) shooting laser beams out of their eyeballs. This does not, of course, include the 1st level characters that enter play as literal kings of the realm. Of course, some effort is thrown in to balance things out. It is possible to play a character who is not super, but in order to balance them against those who are, all non-powered individuals are granted a flat +10%XP bonus. Even Joe-Average has special benefits.

It's not so much the fact that the characters are intended to be super powered that bothers me. After all, in Dark Sun - a setting of which I am particularly fond - the characters have ability scores ranging all the way up to 24 and everybody has psionic powers free of charge. It's the mentality that seems to fuel it. In Dark Sun, PC's need those little extra boosts in order to make it through an average day of shopping at the market. In Birthright, it's simply that heroes have powers: end of story. In fact, it's explicitly stated that characters who make due with a mere 10% bonus in XP should be made subordinate to a PC who does have powers and is the ruler of a province/kingdom, or if none of the PC's have such powers, than they become subservient to and NPC of such type as a controling patron. The concept of a patron doesn't bother me overly. They've been a wrench in the DM's toolbox forever, after all. The issue here, though, is that the patron is not so much a gentle nudge from the DM or a usefull tool in guiding the PC's down "the right road," it's an actual superior who gives orders and dictates actions; something that, in my mind, defeats the purpose of adventurers in the first place.

All of that is, in the end, forgivable. After all, who among us hasn't wanted to play a character with special abilities under their sleeves? To play a king or high priest? We're gamers, it's kind of what we do at least some of the time.

However, the big issue is that all of this orbits what we are assured is the core of the setting. Not the exploration of the unknown by rougues with hearts of gold, or the confrontation of evil by relative unknowns, but the game of kings and thrones to borrow a phrase from Mr. GRR Martin. It's a game of political maneuvering, treaties and alliances, and espionage and outright war. It's supposedly AD&D on the macro scale rather than the micro, but in the end, I find that, either by intent or anything else, it becomes dominated by heavy handed plot of the rise and fall of nations more than the individual characters. Even the few modules published for the setting - uniquely bad in their own right - are focused on how to fit them into whatever plot the DM has concocted for the players to follow and that track is, for the most part, laid out clearly from day 0.

This really isn't, in my mind, D&D. It is exactly what it says in the introduction to the source books inside the box: a failed novel by an overeager man graduating with his degree in English Lit.

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