Thursday, February 3, 2011

Blackmoor vs. Birthright, Round Two

In round one we watched Birthright fail to land any solid blows despite a flurry of footwork. Now let's see what that old champ from the 70s, the First Fantasy Campaign, has in store for us.

At first glance FFC doesn't look like much of a contender. The organization of the 92-page booklet is all over the map. Transitions are abrupt from section to section, and it reads more like the jumble of a GM's campaign notebook and working rules guidelines than a straightforward presentation of the history of the Blackmoor campaign. One certainly doesn't walk away with thinking “here's a complete system I can use right out of the box in my world.”

That unassuming surface hides some strong muscles though. Dave Arneson's much-talked ability to put on a helluva show really shines through in nearly every section.

More relevantly to this post are the (too brief) windows into how he handles domain-level play--or more accurately the kind of open-ended, ruler-level wargame campaign that spawned our hobby in the first place. Here a close reader sees a great deal of parallels to his contemporary Tin God, Tony Bath.

Neither man seems to have started his campaign with a single, unified system of rules. Both seem to have not only have grown their rules as loose guidelines over years of play, but to have also made big conceptual leaps at different stages (Arneson's largest one, of course, creating the foundation of D&D).

The beauty of that organic-growing evolution is that you see an accumulation of increasingly immersive details to each worldgame over time. Looking back through their respective books is like seeing snapshots of points in a development arc. As each layer of detail was added, subsystems were tacked on to handle this or that situation that grew out of the devious ingenuity of the players.

The best example of this in FFC is in the rules on internal investments, the meat of Arneson's guidelines for the civilian side of a player's options. What's telling about this whole section is that there is nary a single system tying them all together, instead each and every activity has it's unique elements.

Let's let Dave do some talking here. Take the following three excerpts from activities--that are utterly dull in most systems--to give you an idea:
FARMING: For every 20 GP invested one more family (five persons) will move into your area during the first twelve months of each of the years. These parties must travel in from the edge of the board, they are unarmed except for clubs (one [fighter] per group). You will roll at random for the months of APRIL, MAY, JUNE, JULY, AUGUST, and SEPTEMBER to see when these groups of five enter the board. Roll for each group of five separately...Then roll the four sided die for which week of the month, and the six sided die (no travel on SUNDAY) for which day...You can establish an escort service to bring in as many as you wish, at whatever time you wish during the months. However, you must then supply them with food while they wait, and when they travel, which will require additional money (not part of the investment) and wagons to carry the food for settlers and soldiers...
TOURISM: For every 100 GP invested in advertising one Tourist will visit your area, stay at your Inn, spend his money there, and become a non-player character. If he leaves the area safely he will return next year with a friend. The third year, three will come adding an additional person per year, up until the 10th year when they will come with their families and settle (50 people) as farmers or fishermen...
HUNTING, ARMORIES and ANIMAL BREEDING...Hunting will require the individual to go out in the square and have chances at encounters. A return of 10-60% of the investment is gained after each year and with 100 men conducting 12 hunting trips (not all right after each other but at least a week in between) during the year. The return is after deducting the cost of protection and weapons for the men (but not food or pay for them).
Quirky? Yes. A little cumbersome? Yes too. Inelegant? Definitely.

Yet unlike the bland abstraction of Birthright and similar systems in which what you do becomes a gamey (if rules elegant) way of spending points and ratcheting up this or that level, this kind of approach ladles on a whole lot more “face”.

In your mind's eye you can readily imagine the farmer/settlers nervously making their way across your campaign map to your stronghold or the mysterious traveler to your local tavern who gets taken in by the countryside.

Again compare having religion as an abstract “holding” level, as it is in Birthright, to this:
RELIGION: Most pertinent manifestation is the construction of impressive buildings and the equipping of same with riches like candle stick holders, statues, etc. It will also require the shipping of 10% to 60% (six sided die) of the contributions off the board each year. Wagons and protections must come out of the other 40% or wheedled out of the players. Normally 10% is given by all to the dominant religion in an area... Destruction of such convoys will require the sending of 10-60% of what is left, immediately to appease off the board patriarchs, in a new convoy. This is repeated until one of the convoys makes it, or the church is busted. Should the players give up on the convoys all law characters in the area go down two levels and PALADINS will go down three, while CLERICS will be reduced four levels. Destroyed religious establishments must be immediately rebuilt by LAW forces.
To my evil DM mind all these pieces positively drip with things to riff of when I get to the tabletop. It's also an approach that grows behind the open-ended play and tailors itself to the specific give-and-take of a campaign. Rather than weighing play down, this kind of granularity opens up more and more possibilities.

By decision, I declare FFC the winner.

[Editor's Note: The nifty map above lives on Havard's excellent Blackmoor site, a must-visit for anyone interested in that OG campaign.]


  1. I still prefer the Birthright version. The Blackmoor version seems fine for a DM to use, but I can't imagine a group of players each trying to use something like this. Birthright might be too "board-gamey" but it is much easier (and better) for a player to make use of.

  2. I would love to get my hands on First Fantasy, it's just too expensive every time I look on Ebay!! I guess I grok what you are saying about the difference. I would have thought of myself more of a keep it simple and abstract person but every time you make this distinction I feel like I warm to the other side.

  3. I have read about each of these on Dragonsfoot and here but I have only managed to get ahold of Birthright.

    Callin has a good point. Seems like it would be hard to put togetjer a project that had so many little parts, it would really take a dedicated DM to pull it off right at the minimum. Then again maybe it is that level of creativity we should be aspiring to get too.

  4. @Callin
    I have to respectfully disagree. I am not convinced that the BR approach is simpler or better for ALL players.

    Take two of players in our tabletop LL campaign. Both of them are first-time players of rpgs; neither knows a great deal about the rules mechanics proper (it being like sausage making). Yet both are great players, not because they have a simple, clear set of rules in front of them, but because open-ended play is kind of intuitive to some people.

    The rules behind my DM's screen might be opaque and byzantine to them, but they parse it out by relaying whatever common sense logic thing comes into their head. This gets either translated back into the game mechanics or I simply make a ruling based on my own common sense.

    On the other end of the scale are the players in my Domain Game crazy-person experiment. Several of them are long-time players and quite rules sophisticated, some are not. But nearly all of them have come up literally page after page of out-of-the-box ways to play the game.

    Yes both situations are somewhat demanding imagination wise, but in neither situation does the relative simplicity or complexity of the rules make the game too difficult. (At least I think so, I may be deluded here and players in either game can correct me.)

  5. Interesting comparison. Seems the Arneson's stuff would be better for an RPG setting. Only thing I have any familiarity with is the Chivalry and Sorcery system, which is probably too "nuts and bolts" for most players. I like it.

  6. @Underminer
    I like it too and have been reading a lot of C&S 1st and 2nd edition lately.

    It's funny before this project I had been somewhat prejudiced against C&S, but thanks to a generous gift from one of the local players, its somewhat obsessive search for depth has really started to grow on me.

  7. (aside; to clarify) Tony Bath's campaigning /did/ start with a single, unified system of rules published in 1956 - for individual and group level combat - but, as you describe, both those and non-combat rules were grown and evolved over the years.

    That Dave Arneson acted in a more freeform manner from inspired actions could be argued to be to an advantage, perhaps?

  8. @irbyz
    Yes Bath's miniatures rules, a well-respected set of rules for many years in those circles (despite his basing being for 30mm flats), were out quite early. Though even those rules (see my recent review of them) feel like they had subsytems tacked on to them over time.

    I see nothing wrong with a unified system as a starting point, in fact it will likely save one from having to continuously re-invent the wheel. (I am learning this the hard way with the Domain Game.)

    I think it's more about leaving the door open for play to extend out beyond that box--and changing its parameters when it shifts into something else completely.