First, a funny story about the Birthright Campaign Setting. The designers and editors were asked to brainstorm up some marketing taglines. We kicked around dozens of possibilities. One that kept coming up was “Blood and Honor,” which seemed okay—the setting was about characters with heroic bloodlines, ruling honorably. But something sounded familiar about that. I thought hard about it, and realized that there was a reason it sounded familiar: Blut und Ehre was a slogan of the SS Hitler Youth. I suggested to my colleagues that we probably didn’t want a Nazi motto for our marketing tagline, so we kept trying. We circled back around to Blood and Honor like four or five times, and each time I had to shout out, “No! Nazi slogan! Try again!”Eventually, upper management grew tired of our efforts, and retained a Chicago marketing firm to create our motto for us. They came up with, “When greatness by right is thrust upon you, it is best to be ready.” I kid you not. I don’t recall the alternatives we came up with (other than Blood and Honor) but I know they were better than that! I mean, it doesn’t even make sense. Do you have greatness by right, or are you becoming great because greatness is being thrust upon you? Sigh. The real tragedy is that for those fourteen clumsy words, TSR paid more than they paid Colin McComb and I to write the whole damned setting over six months of work. No wonder they went out of business.
Gaming: Okay, so what do I think about the Birthright Campaign Setting fifteen years after publishing it? Well, I love the art and the maps. I like the human cultures that populate the continent, and I like the spooky and interesting takes on the elves and halflings. But the real point of retrospection is thinking about what you would have done differently, and of course when I look at something I worked on a long time ago, I want to go back and tinker. So what’s on my list?First, I wish we’d actually stuffed the box with things the setting really needed instead of the mish-mash of poster maps, reference cards, battle cards, and a fold-up battle card storage unit. I didn’t really want all that clutter in the box, nor did Colin or Anne or Sue or Andria—all of us creative sorts felt that we were including things we didn’t need. But the orders from higher up were clear: Here are the components, use them all. It turned out that the cost of the goods of the product was so high that there was no way it could ever make money, but that sort of information wasn’t shared with the creative types back at old TSR. Did I mention they eventually ran the company out of business?
In world design, I wish we’d left a little more open frontier on the map of Cerilia. While it’s pretty clear that low-rated provinces in the middle of nowhere are probably pretty lawless and open for development by anyone who comes along, the map seems to suggest much more firmly established borders. Maybe we could have come up with a graphic treatment to distinguish between the borders different realms *claim* and the borders they actually *control.* In retrospect, the classic D&D trope of clearing wilderness and becoming a minor noble would have worked well in the setting and could have been integrated better into the Domain rules.In domain mechanics, I wish that wizards weren’t so concerned with unspoiled lands. It makes wizards into very druid-like figures, and I think that’s just a little bit off. Part of this arose out of the edition of D&D we were working with: In 2nd Edition, druids were considered examples of specialty priests, not a full character class like the cleric. Had we done the same material in 3rd Edition or 4th Edition, we probably would have assigned the wizard’s mechanics for gathering regency to the druid. Interestingly enough, the power source notion described in 4th Edition might have been a very powerful tool for organizing the system of holdings and regency points. In the 4e idiom, Primal characters would be the guys drawing power from sources and ley lines, and that just feels right.
That begs the question of what the wizard should have been doing instead. If I were to do it over again, I might get rid of permanent arcane holdings altogether. Instead, I’d tie the wizard’s ability to use the Realm Magic system to possession of “items of power”: a legendary spellbook, a mystic crystal, a demon prince’s heart, etc. They’re generally not portable, so the wizard’s holding really represents a fortress or lair in which the items of power are protected. Items of power might include things that aren’t even items per se, for example, a circle or guild of lesser mages, the patronage of a powerful extraplanar being, or a curse or prophecy. If you lose your item or items of power, you’re still a high-level wizard, you just lose access to Realm Magic.Okay, and last but not least. Here’s what might be the most heretical thought for you Birthright fans out there: I think I would really downplay the idea of bloodlines and bloodline powers in a redo. “Your character is the king” was enough of a hook for the setting that we didn’t need to make those characters mystically better than ordinary people with extensive bloodline powers. That would also mean revisiting a number of the awnsheghlien: Too many of them are tragic figures because we got overly hung up on the notion of the bloodlines. And, unfortunately, other designers missed the mood of the setting and went for grotesque with the monstrous bloodlines. The Blood Enemies book really suffered for that reason, I think.
Overall... Sometimes less is more, and I feel that we succumbed to the temptation to “kitchen sink” the setting and included too many new things. I would like to go back, narrow the focus, and make it really sing with a great campaign narrative and a lot more support for the most difficult and innovative concept in the setting—running kingdoms while you’re playing your heroes.
Politics/Current Events: I’ve decided that I am not particularly shocked by Mitt Romney’s 47% remark. It’s probably something that he wishes he hadn’t said, but I just don’t think it’s any kind of game-changer in the presidential race. Answer honestly: Does the story change your intended vote? I’m guessing probably not. Most people are already pretty well settled on voting for Obama, or are equally determined to vote against him. Either way, the Romney kerfluffle isn’t making many people change their minds. There’s maybe a narrow band of say 5 to 10 percent of the voters in the middle who *might* still be in play for something like that, but in all honesty, Obama has said things that are nearly as bad—for example, his “bitter clingers” remark about guns and religion, his “spread the wealth around” comment to Joe the Plumber, or the recent audio that’s been airing in which he endorses the redistribution of wealth as a goal of government. All candidates tailor their remarks to the audience they’re speaking in front of, and say things in front of core donors that they wouldn’t necessarily say to the broader voting public. It ain’t news.I’m amazed by how many times in the last couple of months the collected punditry of the country has decided to declare Obama the winner of the election. Romney’s tax returns were supposed to be the lethal blow, then the quiet Republican convention, then the rowdy Democrat convention, then the criticism of the administration’s Middle East policy, and now the 47 percent remark. That’s five times in the last ten weeks that liberal commentators have unanimously declared that NOW MITT ROMNEY CAN’T POSSIBLY WIN! I’ve got an idea: How about we just go ahead and hold the election anyway, and we’ll see?
The Finer Things: Teriyaki. A funny thing about the Pacific Northwest: You can’t walk one hundred yards in a straight line without bumping into a teriyaki shop (or a coffee stand, for that matter). I grew up on the Jersey shore, and there were a handful of Japanese restaurants around. Out here, teriyaki places are like sub shops in Jersey. Every shopping center has one, maybe two. You can put down maybe $6 or $7 and get a great chicken teriyaki almost anywhere out here. Someday we’ll probably find ourselves on the East Coast again, and when we do, am I going to miss a teriyaki place on every corner!In case you’re wondering, Teriyaki 2 U has the best yakisoba; Ginger Teriyaki has the best katsu; and Ono Teriyaki up in Renton has a spicy chicken that is out of this world.