Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Blackmoor vs. Birthright: Domain-Play Cage Fight, Round One

One thing that pops out at when you survey the wildly-diverse range of approaches to domain-level rules in fantasy rpgs is that they roughly split into two camps: the abstract and the granular.

Equally clear is that the divide isn't just a navel-gazing matter for rules nerds—maybe it is, but allow me this dignity-preserving conceit—but one that creates two radically-different play experiences. Just to turn up the debate level a notch, I will say straight up that the more granular camp kicks the tar out of the more abstract when it comes to producing a satisfying game.

Let's lock two stand-out examples from each pole in a cage and see who staggers out. In one corner wearing the colors of the abstract we have Birthright, the younger, sleeker almost-champion of second edition AD&D. In the other corner we have the First Fantasy Campaign, the old, occasionally mumbly heavyweight straight out of Blackmoor.

As we jibber-jabbered about last December, Birthright had many strengths. Running a realm—the vital foot and fist work of such a game—as projected by its rules was, however, not one of them. By most accounts domain management was strangely flat and board game-like. 

(Bad boxing allusions end here, dear reader.)

Straight out of the gate on it's chapter on domain rule the tilt toward heavy abstraction is front and center. Take this (my emphasis added):
“Most provinces measure about 1,000-1,500 square miles—about 30-40 miles square, although the exact dimensions of a province aren't important. The vital characteristic of a province is its level, this is an overall measure of its prosperity and importance.”
It goes on to lay out the fact that there are seven levels and throw out some terse details including highly-variable ranges for populations for each.

Next up is a page and a half describing how all political, legal, cultural, religious, and economic institutions thorough out your realm are abstracted into four types of “holdings” each conveniently corresponding to the four main class archetypes: Law (government, fighters), Guilds (economy, thieves), Sources (magic mojo, mages), and Temple (religion, clerics). Again each are mostly just assigned an arbitrary level and poof we are done with the fabric of society.

There are some tidbit details found in them such as the notion that a guild (2) in a province (4) controls 50% of the province's economy. (In passing I have a hard time swallowing the notion that One-Armed Yuri the Master Thief controls half of all the farms, mines, craft work, etc. of an entire province, but whatever.)

The rest of your domain inventory is a grab-bag category called “assets”: armies, courts, fortifications, ley lines, lieutenants, roads, trade routes, the treasury, and loyalty. Armies and lieutenants are the only ones that have some kind of unique to themselves distinctions, the others again have arbitrary levels.

How these elements are put into motion is again highly abstracted. Game play at this level is over rigid, three-month “domain turns”. A ruler of a holding has a certain number of “regency points”, action points for the turn whose correspondence to anything other than that creepy eugenics bloodline connection to the land you rule business is never explained.

The reagent then spends these points selecting actions from a 25-point menu; many of which just add or modify the various levels of the above-mentioned elements. The entire sum of economic activity in your realms for that season is determined with one dice rolled indexed to the level of the province.

As a computer or board game sounds fine, fun even. As a tabletop game, not so much. From the perspectives of both the players and the GM it has so little “face” and conjures up little to inspire the kind of riffing that give tabletop role playing the edge over just about any other game.

Don't you want to know what that “face” really looks like? How do my people make a living? (And how many live exactly here in what amount of territory, for that matter?) Are they harvesting great timbers for ship-building, spinning yak hair, mining glowing ore, toiling away on vast plantations, scraping magical resins, or what? What exact temples and guilds exist here and how do their many respective hierarchies interact with each other? Etc. etc.

These are the details that don't just add color or depth to a setting they add hundreds of little hooks for play.

The BR approach instead is a little akin to me telling you that we are going to take all the little bits that make up your character hand wave them away and just use only your level. We will then take your character through a one-day “dungeon turn” where you can spend a few “adventure points” to buy a handful of actions. After you do this, I cross-reference your level (with a modifier or two) to a chart and then throw a die to determine the outcome of your dungeon turn. Woo hoo!

Next up. let's see how FFC fares after swatting away BR's jabs this round.

Theatrical aside: the counter-posing here is perhaps  for effect a bit hyperbolic. All rules abstract some arenas of play in order to favor others. For sure there are fun and crunchy elements to BR and abstract ones in FFC. Many old school systems like the ones found in the 1st ed. DMG and the BECMI Companion set sit somewhere in the middle.

To further muddy the waters there are some rather stark differences in the granular camp between rules that use detail to add player options and verisimilitude (FFC again) and those that use detail, detail, and more detail to create semi-simulations (Chivalry & Sorcery and Harn).

But alas I was trying to tease out a point here and the latter distinction is a cage match for another day.


  1. You put the finger on what bothered me about Birthright when we tried to play. There was a big disconnect between those dominion turns and the rest of the campaign and it never worked out.

    Look forward to seeing what you think that Blackmoor did better.

  2. Look forward to hearing how the other side fares. I have never really heard of either of these games... still too newbly of me I guess. But, they are now getting pretty high on my required reading list.

  3. I rather like the rules in Pendragon - though I haven't kept up with all the versions so I don't know what it's like now.

    I am also looking forward to hearing about the FFC as I've never seen it up close before. I am imagining something akin to the 3rd D&D booklet, with a touch of Judges Guild thrown in...

  4. @Shino
    Care package coming your way soon.

    The multi-generational time scale of Pendragon make it a really innovative take on epic play. I really like the second edition rules myself. Never had a chance to play it though.

    FFC is really it's on creature, a somewhat incoherent jumble at times, but as a great window into a vibrant and exciting take-off for this hobby. It definitely has that Judges Guild random, strangely useful feel to it.

  5. I've been going over the domain rules in A Game of Thrones - they're a bit birthright-y in terms of general abstraction and levels of various attributes, but I think they do a better job of explaining *what* is actually going on in the domain. A good mix of both attributes, so far.

  6. @Wickedmurph
    I got the sense that the Game of Thrones rules lifted some concepts from Birthright (the holdings business jumps out for sure), but I think it succeeds better with them.

    There's a good deal more color and variety in the tables and the designers modestly state that this portion of play is something "intentionally basic and serve to enhance game play rather than define it."

    I could see a GM building more of them in a granular direction than I can with BR.

  7. {declaration of interest: I am a raging Birthright fan, I think it was one of the best settings/game extensions late-period TSR created}

    Birthright is - like a lot of the games we enjoy - one of those things that unpacks and elaborates itself as you look at how the fine detail of the system interacts.

    All that abstraction (How do my people make a living? (And how many live exactly here in what amount of territory, for that matter?)): that's a feature, not a bug. Just as in a classic hexcrawl the system is designed to be light enough to allow GMs and players as much wiggle room as possible.

    There are some tidbit details found in them such as the notion that a guild (2) in a province (4) controls 50% of the province's economy. (In passing I have a hard time swallowing the notion that One-Armed Yuri the Master Thief controls half of all the farms, mines, craft work, etc. of an entire province, but whatever.)

    In "Birthright" 'Yuri the Master Thief' is actually more likely to be 'Yuri the Legitimate Businessman, Guildmaster of the Hanse'. Those abstract trade, temple, law and ley networks are all linked up to named organisations in named locations, run by named characters with plans and agendas of their own.

    Where the domain-level play and regular ol' adventuring meaningfully interface is:

    1) in the Domain Random Events Charts. Stuff happens regularly, and outcomes for the ruler vary depending on whether you play out resolving the crisis, or send a representative, make a decree, or ignore the matter entirely: the more personal the touch, the better the outcome.


    2) in the domain level Character Actions. Heck, there's even one action called 'Adventure', which represents Lord Broadacres clearing his diary for a week (or more) of dungeon-crawling with the gang.

    Disregard the divine right 'holy-blood-is-power' thing and you can abstract Regency Points as 'attention' or 'institutional capacity'.

    Even the howling emptiness(tm) of the shire-sized provinces in "Birthright" maps pretty solidly onto the traditional 20 mile patrolled radius around a stronghold familiar from OD&D, B/X and (IIRC) AD&D. To my mind that's a pretty strong indication that the Birthright domain system is supposed to be part of a continuum with the traditional 'level 9, build a keep, clear the land' system of domain-ruling (albeit starting at lower character levels).