This article originally appeared in Pyramid #16
Published by TSR, Inc.
Designed by Rich Baker and Colin McComb
Many people have heaped disdain on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons for being a "power game." True roleplaying (never mind that nobody can agree on just what that means) has nothing to do with the hack-and-slash, kill-the-monster-take-the-treasure, I-wanna-be- 20th-level kind of roleplaying, the critics say.
I say: So what? Power gaming is loads of fun. Sometimes, all I want to do is kick down the door, kill the monster, take the treasure and go up a level. Leave the hand-wringing self-doubt and the theatrics for another time. And there's no reason power gaming can't be a challenge. Remember the great lesson of all heroic fiction: With great power comes great responsibility.
If you were really the toughest thing in armor for 1,000 miles in any direction, what kind of life would you really have? People running to you for help every time a monster goes on a rampage or a petty warlord sets up shop, young whippersnappers wanting to test themselves against the best, followers to take care of - never a moment's rest. And if you were really the head of the Thieves' Guild, you'd be spending all your time protecting yourself from all the up-and-coming sneaks who wanted to be the next head of the Thieves' Guild. The chances to go gallivanting around dungeons and outwitting dragons would be few and far between - life would be mostly bureaucracy and drudgery, ending in the inevitable dagger in the back.
But that's not muchfun, either. The trick in power gaming is to make the players feel the responsibilities that accompany great power, but to keep it fun. And that's where Birthright comes in. Other games have tried to do fantasy roleplaying on a kingdom-wide scale; Birthright is the first to succeed.
Designers Baker and McComb have come up with a fairly typical high fantasy world (though not without its twists), but with an important difference, the concept of bloodlines. Bloodlines are hereditary magical powers tying a family line to various domains, either land, or temples, or political organizations. People with strong bloodlines are natural leaders, deferred to by the general populace. Great, valorous deeds can enhance your bloodline and actually increase your power; failure can cause your bloodline to wane. And bloodlines can actually be given to other people, or taken by force. It's not the usual static situation you see in many other fantasy games. Characters from any of the major classes can have bloodlines. Fighters tend to become political leaders, of course, and clerics become powerful patriarchs with loyal followings. Thieves rise to the head of their shadowy underground organizations, and wizards - well, let's just say that wizards are special. Birthright is set in a relatively low-magic world, and powerful wizards are far from common.
But these powerful player characters have powerful foes, too, the awnsheghlien (awn-SHAY-len, it means "blood of darkness" in Elven), the champions of the various evil bloodlines in the world. The awnsheghlien are worthy adversaries; the gamebook tells the story of one of the most powerful human champions of all time, who decided to challenge the Gorgon (one of the nastier awnsheghlien) in his lair, and was killed with horrific ease. Mess with these guys at your peril.
Not everybody has a bloodline; of course, the player characters are all encouraged to (though the game allows you to play someone who doesn't have a bloodline, that's not where the fun is). The game is very heavy on political intrigue and resource management; in addition to the everyday adventures of the PCs (if there's any time), something called "domain turns" go on in the background. A domain turn covers three months of the life of a domain: random disasters may strike, enemies may attack, peasants may revolt, festivals may be thrown. Birthright does not wait for the PCs to instigate the action; the game encourages the DM to keep things moving, whether the PCs get involved or not. It makes the Birthright world much more realistic than most.
The components are up to TSR's usual standards, which is to say, gorgeous. And you get loads of stuff for your $30, too - three books, a ref screen, two maps, over 100 cards for playing out large battles and a dozen reference cards, all in gorgeous full color. Oh, yeah, large battles. There's a whole new system for resolving battles between fantasy armies that uses cards representing various regiments and a position sheet to indicate who's holding the line, who's on the flank, etc. It's a nice little system, with a strong fantasy flavor but requiring some tactical smarts, too. All in all, an outstanding addition to the AD&D line, and a new take on "power gaming" that will have you taking a second look at the concept. Highly recommended.
Ñ Scott Haring
Article publication date: December 1, 1995
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