Friday, December 10, 2010

Why did Birthright Fail?

Birthright could have been a contender.

By many measures, the ambitious second edition AD&D setting, should have been.

It was a technically well-done product line for sure. The interior art was tasteful and evocative. The maps were attractively drawn and plentiful. The game accessories such as army cards and battle maps were nicely done. (Well ok, the cover art was horrible and cheesy.)

It didn't lack for product support either. Well-executed supplements detailed nearly every culture on the continent from the bog-standard Anuireans to the lizard-riding dastardly Vos (Russians). They also added new rules, accessory toys, and mini-games like naval combat and trading. It had it's own computer strategy game and six novels as tie-ins.

And most importantly it expanded D&D tabletop gameplay in ways that DMs and players had lusted about since the 1970s. Domain management was not shifted off to a hazy semi-retirement “end game”, it became the central assumed arena of play. Players started not as the rootless and down-on-the-heels schlubs we all know and love, but the genetically-endowed rulers of realms--or the heads of temples or guilds. Whole new rules subsystems were worked out for running your realm and fighting wars (complete with a simple and easy, card-driven wargame.)

Looking back, Birthright had the potential of taking off from where the less-known worldgames of Hyboria, Midgard, and Magira ended. So again what went wrong? Why didn't this game go onwards and upwards? And did anybody really play this for long?

Was it TSR's setting bloat of that period? Was it that the game play was too different from the experience of the standard party-based campaign of that time? Too abstract in its domain management rules? The creepy eugenics-sounding bloodlines business? The evil empire corporate machinations of WOTC? Or what?


  1. I think the setting would have been far more interesting as a wargame than an RPG setting. When compared to my favorite setting, Wilderlands of High Fantasy (JG), the differences are glaring and obvious. In one setting the legos are there to be put together as desired, and in the other, they're already put together, which is just not as exciting to me.

  2. Actually, if I am thinking correctly, I think the problem ends up being a lot simpler. It was released side by side with Planescape. Planescape, being the game that all of us who loved Manual of the Planes had been drooling over for years, just eclipsed Birthright. It's a risk/reward type thing, and the artwork for Planescape was admittedly more eye catching.

    That, and I think the mechanics for Birthright were not yet ready for primetime. I was up to the whole essentials revolution expecting 4E would bring a revival to it, as it seemed just PERFECT for plugging in the Bloodline system too. However, that hope kinda got dashed.

    In a way, I still look forward to a revival of Birthright or it's concepts, as it's one of the games that I missed the chance to play. 1994 was such a good year for RPG's...

  3. Without ever having used it, I would suggest that the strategic aspect could have been too far removed from general perceptions of what D&D is. I think we have a tendency to build out from a central focus rather than shift our perspective, and it may be that the new idea wasn't quite enough to prevent the attention snapping back.

  4. I never got into Birthright, but I loved the idea of it. The scope was pretty epic and I'm a sucker for epic. I just didn't have the roleplaying dollars (I don't think I bought a single D&D book between 1993/4 until 3e came out in 2000) and what money I did have went into Changeling and Cyberpunk.

  5. Back in the day, I ran Birthright for some time and we had a lot of fun with it. As to why it "failed" I think one reason was the TSR bloat.

    The second reason was because it was too generic. The only "new" thing it brought to a game was the domain system. As for the world setting it was standard fantasy similar to all the others of the day. The races were the same, politics, world design all the same as Greyhawk, Forgotten Realms, etc. The splash of various cultures also didn't help as much as they could have. TSR had already released books on Vikings, Arabians, etc so there was nothing new here. Battlesystem was also out to cover army battles. In short, there was nothing truly new (except the Domain system) and in the end it came across rather bland.

    Personally I loved the game and am thinking of working out a 4E version for myself until they get around to it, if I didn't have enough games running right now.

    I suspect that if WotC were to release it now it would do better. Right now there is no system for army warfare, so it would cover that untapped niche, along with the old draw of being able to govern kingdoms. I do however, think they need to add something unique to the actual setting other than bloodlines, and I don't think alternate versions of real world cultures will suffice. They would need to bring it up a notch, maybe include a new race capable of flight or flying cities or something similarly unique.

  6. I'd say it was too tightly tied to it's own setting. Planescape could be played along with virtually any other AD&D campaign of the time. So could Spelljammer. Even DarkSun and Ravenloft were fairly easy to present as side trips in an established campaign.
    Birthright didn't fit with Greyhawk, Blackmoor, Mystara or Forgotten Realms campaigns that survived editions.
    A bit more generic/broader appeal and it may have done better.

    1. best answer award, along with TSR bloat and Spelljammer... jam.

  7. I like Birthright, a lot. Can't say why it failed. Almost everybody preferred Planescape for reasons I don't understand

  8. I adored the Birthright setting when it first came out. For me, it wasn't just the domain rules but the feel of the setting. I felt like TSR had finally put out a game world tailored to my tastes; it had a great fairy-tale vibe, and I loved the clearly-drawn human cultural analogues (really appealed to my history nerd side). And, as you say, it was purty.

    I think what killed it for me was a combination of what Porky said ("...the strategic aspect could have been too far removed from general perceptions of what D&D is") and, much moreso, the setting bloat you allude to. Going into my FLGS and being confronted with a wall of Birthright supplements and tie-in products, with more coming out every week, it seemed. Way too much to keep up with. Plus, as Al said, all that "filling out the corners" of the world really took the fun out of the setting. It felt like playing in someone else's campaign.

  9. "as Al said, all that "filling out the corners" of the world really took the fun out of the setting. It felt like playing in someone else's campaign."

    I suspect that this is a problem inherent in top-down world-building, witness Tekumel. The very scope and detail that makes it fascinating, makes it difficult to swallow for GMs at the table (at least it does for me).

  10. @ckutalik: I'm a big proponent of the Top-Down approach, but there has to be restraint in regard to Level of Detail, lest the campaign resource turn into a traveller's guide.

  11. Yes, it also had a disconnect between adventuring in and ruling over your lands, reconciling the two sides did not really work. It was a cool idea but it really need a clear way of show players (and DMs) what to do with the setting.

  12. @seaofstarsrpg
    An interesting point, none of the 25+ BR products ever really did a good job of showing or advocating ways to expand game play in that way. What I've read was pretty strictly limited to setting embellishment (and a few awkward-seeming adventures).

    Guess you can't really make a revolution halfway, can you? Perhaps it was to many cumulative years of mass marketing mentality model working against it at that point. It's hard presenting an innovation (or at least a revival) in game play when you have existed for too long on mostly selling canned settings and adventure.

    It does make me long for someone(s) to get it right. How do we reconcile those two levels in a satisfying way?

  13. What I remember from Birthright was a boatload of Realms books and hardly any actual adventures. Yeah sure some small percent of the characters got blood magic and cool domain spells, but everyone else got to sit around while the DM and the Domain lord played the domain turns in hopes an adventure would turn up. And who the heck needed all those players guide to podunk hollow across the map from mister domain lord anyways? That being said I found the Awnsheghlien uber monster a downright cool and stealable idea. Overall I'd have to say alot of interesting ideas that didn't quite work, and not enough flexibility for DMs or Players to make their own. I did find the Tribes of the Heartless Wastes one of my favorite region guides, but I am partial to Viking Barbarians anyways.

  14. Unfamiliar territory to myself, sorry, but good answers/discussion, thank you. :)

    Just to clarify one point, Chris (and I might have to hook a few other comments from the latest PM);
    > "Domain management was not shifted off to a hazy semi-retirement "end game""

    Rob's explicit reply to this is at

    It's not particularly surprising that longer-term underlying intentions in such directions in OD&D "as published" were nebulous given the degree to which the dungeon focus was so strongly ingrained that as soon as you went into wilderness mode you were in 5-mile hexcrawl territory (sound familiar? ;) (+ compare also WoM as discussed, of course).

  15. So why not develop a retro-clone that does get it right, or at least attempts to? Reverse engineering the parts taht worked and sawing off the gangrenous wreckage ought to be kind of fun, and the end result could focus on providing a generic tool-box for developing stuff in any setting or campaign, rather than plunking down a fully-fleshed out environment. This could be a really cool supplement to take Labyrinth Lord, Swords & Wizardry, etc. out of the shadows of the original books they reinterpret (and very nicely), and give the OSR something fresh, new and fun to really sink their teeth into. It'd be cool.

  16. @Netherwerks
    Hadn't seriously considered it other than as a thought experiment, but now I am really feeling the demons in my head demanding to get out.

    I have a feeling,though, that the design choices that I would make (or at least advocate for if someone else took up the challenge) would make it something beyond being a Birthright retro-clone.

  17. @NetherWerks: IIRC I'd already joked to Allan/grodog about that in the context of proposed mega/dungeon/ design toolkits not needing to be the only focus (albeit good in their own right).
    OD&D pretty much dries up as soon as you hit the surface and leaving what lay beyond to the GMs imagination did usually result in it being easier to keep the focus underground: if anything, "easier" to shift to another plane than the surface of one's own planet which might be fair enough in "fantasy" but doesn't seem all that faithful to the idea of character roots or the description on the cover of the 3/4 LBBs. (Appendix B in the DMG /was/ better than a kick in the teeth, but not much).
    Roll on 35 years from that scenario...

  18. As someone who completely blew off Birthright at the time it came out, it was really a question of presentation.

    The covers looked, well, dull. Compared to Planescape, Dark Sun, and even Spelljammer, it could not have looked worse. Do you want to play in:

    A metal as hell desert planet?

    An organic spaceship?

    An interdimensional crossroads?

    A bog-standard Western medieval fantasy world?

    Looking back at it now, it seems like there are some neat subsystems to lift, but my 13 year old brain couldn't be more turned off by what the packaging itself was trying to sell me.

  19. I dunno, I always dug this piece of art and it always left me wishing I'd gotten into birthright.

  20. Interesting comments...

    I'm a long time gamer. I've played since D&D. The original one. In the late 80's.

    I am far more biased in many of these issues than some of the more current players. I have played literally dozens of different RPGs. Each one brings to the table its own merits and weaknesses. Some are epic in how well executed they are, others far less impressive.

    All that said, I loved the Birthright setting. The wealth of information that was published for it only made my stories more involved and colorful. I've never suffered from being overwhelmed by an established storyline, as I go into reading the material looking for ways to improve the plot and meta-plots from the get go. More detail just fuels my creative fires that much more.

    So I loved the artwork and the premise. It was a more accurate, Tolkien-like world that, in my opinion, demonstrated a more believable setting in which to play. The game politics and intrigue offered far more than a standard AD&D adventure usually had to offer. I was already working stories like this into my games, but with Birthright I had far more tools and information at my disposal. So much of the heavy lifting and infrastructure had been set in place!

    Personally, for me, Birthright didn't fail. I go back to it regularly. Rule books provide a system with which we can tell a story. Any system can be used, it's only the the talents of a storyteller that get in the way of a good game.

    So when I say that, what I must also reiterate, is that I have zero love for the 3rd edition/WotC versions of my beloved D&D. I still use AD&D and the Skills & Powers line up. With proper tweaking that system is m,ore than enough to tell any story. What so turned me off to the 3rd edition and beyond was the disgusting need to level the playing field. In their blind desire to make everyone, class, and race "fair" they flooded the game with vanilla. Real life is NOT fair. Some races have significant advantages. Others do not. The same with different classes. But I digress.

    Ultimately a setting like this fails for lack of interest by a larger portion of the buyer's market. This is an intelligent setting. It's rife with possibilities in its intrigue and power plays. With effort it could be streamlined into a magnificent story for yourself and your fellow players. But two qualities are rather commonly lacking for a broad customer base. Intelligence and effort. If these are key components in any product, they'll have limited appeal. Those whom it appeals to are the sorts I'd love to play with. The rest will settle for Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk. Too bad, really, that great material and foresight are so commonly wasted on an ignorant populace by businessmen who care only for a bottom line, not the artwork and genius a product like this has to offer.

    Just look at what happened to Firefly...

  21. Birthright did not fail. Kickstarter had to be invented, as I never got rich enough to fund a proper revival! ;-) And truly, 5th edition D&D would really make it more time-efficient and easy-going.

    Just contemplate a background like 'Noble' tweaked into 'Blooded Scion or Regent' plus Birthright feats empowered due the new definition!

  22. I agree that Birthright wasn't a failure. There are games in some groups that have been going on for more than a decade. It is played in various groups in different formats all around the internet and web. It seems it is more popular overseas than in the USA.

    The reason why Birthright (BR) wasn't continued I believe is that D&D is one sort of product and BR is the next level of play for that sort of product. It requires more skills on the part of both players and DM. That isn't appealing to people who don't like change. Look at how all the editions since have "failed" in some sort of way, simply for that reason alone.

    Birthright was new when TSR was going down. The other worlds were already a few years into publication with established product names and player bases. Planescape simply was seen as an add-on to the products that were already made. Birthright was another world entirely. That in itself caused some inertia for purchases. The thing was though, people who wanted to play out the movie in theaters at the time went straight to BR. What movie? Braveheart in the theaters and the new Birthright boxed set just freshly opened back in my dorm room. Another appeal was a year after BR the first novel of A Song of Ice and Fire was released. Fans of Highlander and Tolkien also found something appealing.

    The fact that Game of Thrones is so successful shows that there is a market for Birthright or a game of its like. The problem is D&D and its product focus of pure adventure. The scope of D&D is much more limited and that is what the player base wants and expects. Few of us want the next level, so it is natural the outcome. It is like the people who watch GoT is a bigger number than those who read the books. Running BR takes skills that not everyone has or even wants to develop, therefore it is a bottleneck in order to get a chance to play. For the large part it didn't get a chance at brand recognition like all the other settings because of its uniqueness.

    Why it has succeeded? It is a setting that isn't out of whack like the settings that require high level adventurers to become kings/lords and retire them. It is much more natural. What would Elizabeth I do when she became queen and still not even level 1 in any class?

    It has established a less is more along the lines of class play. Instead of the same old rush to max level with monty hauls and character retirement there is an entire world of RP through ruling, diplomacy, and intrigue that is not glossed over and forgotten. In this world a Tyrion Lannister would get more accomplished than a 20 level PC from the pure dungeon delving games.

    It offers the most powerful magic available in D&D to the PCs and does not restrict it to lame twink characters like Elminster or Dragon Kings. Think Myth Drannor created by one guy to protect his realm from the Gorgon albeit at great sacrifice.

    You can be the head of a domain. There are kingdoms to run, guilds to bolster trade and intrigue, temples to spread the words of the gods, and magic sources to power spells that would make Raistlin turn green with envy. All this and you can play war with armies of your own.

    It has all the scales that fantasy has in one game and makes it accessible to players at level one rather than arbitrarily say, sorry that is beyond your pay-grade. Instead, come read our books about shallow characters that will do everything you wish you could but can't because it would be too epic and break our game.

    For me, and obviously this is my own personal bias, the question is why did D&D fail? Especially, when it had the road to success under its Birthright banner.

  23. I'm way late to this discussion, but I've always wanted to play this campaign. Has it ever been redone for newer rule sets?

  24. I'm way late to this discussion, but I've always wanted to play this campaign. Has it ever been redone for newer rule sets?

    1. Not officially. There's one conversion document somewhere. And got permission to do it as well (but never did). It shouldn't be too hard. The system lends itself nicely for 5th ed.

    2. They have a free 3rd edition format on that website he mentioned, but I personally dislike it. But, in my opinion, you're better off shelling out the cash for the used books out there and running it in AD&D 2nd Edition using the Skills & Powers/Player's Option books. You can find those for free on line. Almost everything in one PDF.

      Just learn the system. You'll save a boat load of money.

      On the other hand, you could try to adapt it to the 5th Edition. I keep hearing good things, but I haven't tried it yet. I'm still running an AD&D campaign.

      All that said, when I hear words like "Feat" and "CR" I cringe. I loathed 3rd Edition. I feel robbed whenever I try to play it. They sucked it's soul out with "balanced" mechanics...

  25. I ran a Birthright campaign for a few years.

    I think one of the hardest aspects was mixing the running of a domain with the running of a D&D adventure.

    Since my players had a different angle; 3 of them ruled separate domains, 1 ran a church and one ran a was easy to get tied up with the domain turns.

    When opportunities for character-level adventuring came about organically, there was always 1 or 2 players that would rather accomplish just one more thing at the domain level...

    It made it difficult to arrange fairly.

    Another downside for me as the DM was keeping track of what all the NPC factions would be doing month by month in order to keep the setting dynamic.

    But we did have some pretty awesome moments!

  26. I ran my longest running campaign in Birthright back in high school in the 90s - but the PCs were never rulers of their own domains but the agents/supporters of one of the domain rulers, Marlae Roesone the Black Baron. I remember them being very loyal to her when it counted (foiling assasination attempts, fighting in wars, etc) but still ok about hiding their wealth from her to avoid paying her taxes! I think the campaign setting itself was/is fantastic even without the domain management element - to me it comes across as a gritty, lowish fantasy, War of the Roses political intrigue, setting - a similar vibe to Game of Thrones interestingly I think the first GoT book was published at a similar time though I never hear of GoT until much MUCH later - I feel like Birthright could really work the popularity of that sort of setting now). I haven't read 'Dark Albion' but it seems to be going for a similar vibe. Anyway, fond memories and I definitely think Birthright didn't get the attention it deserved.

  27. I love Birthright. I still run a 3.5 version of the game. We kept the blood line and domain mechanics but changed the player mechanics to 3.5. Awesome game. Gave you the chance to be a ruler of a domain guild temple etc. or work your way up from the bottom. Up to the DM. You could adventure like games of old or domain move. A good DM could turn every action into a roleplay moment. You contest the law so you send the party to contest the law on the ground. The game was great. I know lots of people who played it. I feel that not much of old TSR survived the Wizard buy out except forgotten realms. Personally I think that's why it died. Wizard. Their were enough players. Check out they have online games to this day.