Friday, September 21, 2012

Birthright Campign Setting Reflections, 47%

Hi, everybody – welcome back! A couple of weeks back, Nicolas Santarelli asked about my recollections of working on the Birthright Campaign Setting. I went and broke out an old BRCS box to remind myself of what the world was all about; it’s been a few years, after all. So this week I’m going to take walk down memory lane with the Birthright Campaign Setting, reflect briefly on campaign “gaffes,” and pay homage to teriyaki.

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.



  1. Thanks, Richard, for the thoughts on Birthright - I'm a huge fan of the setting. In adapting the setting to other systems, I have often considered downplaying bloodlines, or at least removing blood abilities. It's good to hear you thinking along the same lines.

    What are the chances that anyone could actually get rights to the IP from Wizards though?

  2. Regarding the 47% comments, I tend to agree that they are not all that surprising, and that both Obama and Romney are pushed by their more extreme donors to take positions out of the mainstream, especially in private.

    Even now I think relatively few Republicans are against all forms of "redistribution" (Social Security, Medicare, some form of progressive tax, equal opportunity for education, government support for strategic activites like oil drilling, etc.) And likewise, I think there are hardly any Democrats that are against hard work, individual initiative and productive competition. The real debate remains over where to draw the lines, how to balance interests and design effective programs, who benefits and who doesn't, and how to pay for things. Neither side finds it politically expedient to admit that any more, and we are all suffering from the political gridlock and rancor that has resulted.

    The two concerns I have about Romney's comments are:

    1) I don't feel I have any idea how Romney actually would govern--i.e. what is the base-inspiring pablum and what is real? A year or two ago I thought maybe he would govern moderately, but now I fear he's a tabula rasa on which more radically ideological elements in the Republican party would be successful in pursuing their agenda (akin to how I thought electing Bush Jr. wasn't a big deal, and then he conned the nation into an unnecessary and costly foreign war). How to know?

    2) It does concern me that, as far as I can tell, the most radical elements in the Republican party are spending hundreds of millons (billions?) to influence the election, whereas the most radical elements in the Democratic party are spending a fraction of that. It looks like all the Republican money may not buy the presidential election, but I continue to feel it's a flawed system that gives so much weight and power to such a small clique of moneyed and ideologically-driven few, whatever side they may be on.


  3. oh, and to add, I was surprised you felt like the (liberal?) media had written off Romney earlier. This is the first time I've seen some statements that he was going to lose, and even then there have been a lot of caveats about there still being time, the debates coming up, etc.

    The theme of the summer has been to focus on the various perceived tactical mistakes of Romney that you mentioned, and to say that it's suprising that he's making such execution errors, that they are taking him off message, and that time continues to run out for him to take it up a notch. Maybe that's biased reporting, maybe not; but I think far from writing Romney off, a lot of liberals have continued to be scared.

    Anyway, the media types want to ride this story all the way to the election. Myself, I can't wait to get it done with. Really tired of it...


  4. The liberal media has to focus on the 'faults' of Romney so they can overshadow the absolute failure of the Obama administration.

  5. I don't think you need to posit a big conspiracy enabrantain--the media loves process stories on both sides of the aisle, and whether you consider Romney's misques substantive or not, his campaign has created a lot of fodder for the chattering classes.

    I always want to elicit more details when I hear conservatives criticizing economic performance under Obama. Liberals who criticise Obama's economic results argue he should have done more in 2009-2010 when there was room for action--bigger stimulus, real mortgage assistance, ram through single-payer health care that would really lower costs, etc. These seem like intellectually coherent criticisms.

    Conservatives want less government action, which by definition means government can do even less to influence short-term events. The idea that if Obama had followed the conservative course--not done the stimulus and bailouts, drastically cut the budget and (simultaneously?!) cut taxes still more than the payroll tax and Bush tax cut extensions we've had--then we would somehow have had 4 years of big growth and low unemployment shows no understanding of economics or history. Just look how austerity is working in Europe.

    The intellectually honest conservative would, I think, agree that the conservative approach would not have made things better in 4 years, and very possibly worse. Such a conservative would argue that any amount of economic volatility, consequent human disruption and individual suffering is acceptable in the short to mid term, based on the belief that in the long term, growth and total economic propsperity would be greater if the government reduced regulation, the safety net and active management of the economy. This would be akin to how the USA managed things from 1870-1932.

    At least that's how I see things. Romney is happy to capitalize on the bad economy in the short term, as any self-respecting presidential candidate would. But his substantive proposals, as far as I can tell, amount to 20% tax cuts across the board, magic fairy dust that balances the budget anyway, and "a whole pile of nothing" when it comes to unemployment, health care, the housing market, etc.

    I respect people who argue less government, while painful in the short-term, will in the decades to come make things better (even if I disagree with them). But I wonder how a truly conservative policy can promise with a straight face to change things in 4 years.


    1. Fred, I think it's fair to say that I don't know how Romney would govern, either; for example, I don't know if he would try to repeal Obamacare or not. But I do know that I don't like the way Obama governs.

      As a (hopefully intellectually honest) conservative, I would have accepted a lot of short-term pain to put the country back on better long-term rails. I would have let Lehman Brothers (Bush) and GM (Obama) go bankrupt instead of interfering in the "natural selection" of the marketplace; IMO it would have been a much better message to send to other Wall Street firms in the former case, and in the latter case, a restructured GM would have reemerged from the bankruptcy process without specific intervention. I think the question of where we would be after four years of something closer to austerity is ultimately unknowable, because we can't go back and perform the experiment now. But I suspect that a regime that reassured small business and the energy industry instead of burdening them with tons of new regulations and onerous tax penalties might have had more success in creating jobs. Ultimately we're going to have to grow our way out of this deficit mess, because the other alternatives -- significant increases in taxation, or significant decreases in spending -- probably just can't work. (Although I think structural improvements to the tax code to close loopholes and broaden the tax base, and changes to entitlement programs to change how they're indexed, could help a whole lot.)

      Whether or not any of that is possible under a potential Romney administration, I don't know. But I do know that it's not going to happen under Obama. The man doesn't even bother to create a budget anymore.

  6. Thanks so much for the post Rich! Being honest, I find Birthright appealing for different reasons: it has the most historical feel among D&D campaign settings; magic is mysterious, even dangerous, and its use by humans has a believable explanation; monsters are truly fearsome and rare; non-human races are truly mysterious; and one gets to play rulers. Actually, concerning this, I prefer to handle domains mostly by role playing rather than using the domain rules, which feel a little like a board game, and I think in legends of the hero kings advice to do this is provided. On bloodlines, well, I agree with you, although downplaying them would not amount to completely deny them in my games. Now, given my background, do you think a South or Central American aboriginal culture could fit in Birthright? in another continent? Thanks so much again!!!

    1. I have a hand-drawn map of the continent southwest of Cerilia sitting here on my desk; I ought to get it scanned and post it sometime. I only remember a few of the details of what we were going to put where. In one area we were considering a strong Mideast/South Asian feel, with a fantasy-India culture. In another area, we were looking at a fantastic medieval-Roman culture (say, something like Byzantium around 1000 AD or so). And, oddly enough, in another area we were instructed by the president of TSR to make into historical Aquitaine. She'd just finished reading a book or watching a movie about Eleanor of Aquitaine, and she directed us to include Aquitaine in the next Birthright produce we did. Not a fantasy-Aquitaine, just Aquitaine. We tried to explain that the audience wouldn't stand for that and it made no sense in the rest of the game world, but we were told to do it anyway. Fortunately (?) the line went on hold before we actually had to try to do that.

      I didn't have any specific plans for aboriginal American culture, mostly because the Maztica experience in Forgotten Realms had left us with a lot of skepticism about its appeal to our audience. But we definitely had some wide-open spaces and vast jungles in mind, and there would presumably be more room for aboriginal cultures there. The world of Birthright needed more unexplored frontiers, anyway.

    2. Thanks for your answer! I definitely plan to buy the electronic version of Birthright books once WoTC releases them next year

  7. Thanks for the comments on the Birthright Campaign Setting. They were very interesting and I've posted a thread about this blog entry at the Birthright forum at The Piazza so that the other Birthright fans I know don't miss it.

    I'm really glad that Nicolás Santarelli prompted you to write this review of Birthright and I second his request for you to post your map. I think that Birthright fans would love to see it.

  8. I actually really agree with downplaying the bloodlines -- real blood abilities, as noted in the 7th Sea backmaterial, denotes that there is a LEGITIMATE REASON for nobility to exist. They are actually better than everyone else, as they have these real concretized bloodlines.

    I've adopted the Birthright system several times to run not on Bloodlines; that is, by changing the name of your Blood Rating to Fiat Rating it reflects instead how absolute your control is over your own domain. This minor name-change actually shifts the whole concept to allow things such as complex senatorial governing bodies rather than simply kings and regents.