RPG Setting/System Review: Birthright

Greetings, readers! This week’s blog post is all about one of my absolute all-time favorite campaign settings: Birthright. This setting was initially created for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition and was released in 1995. I first encountered it in 1996 when playing Dungeons and Dragons in the army at Fort Knox. At first, I wasn’t sure about all this—players are kings? Prior to reading Birthright, my main exposure to a fully-developed campaign setting was the Forgotten Realms, so it was with some suspicion that I picked up the boxed set and began reading.
Michael Roele falls before the Gorgon and ends the reign of Anuirean Empire.
Overnight, I became a Birthright nut. It’s fair to say that I am one of the most ardent fans of the setting in the world—I’ve ran or played in over a dozen campaigns, both tabletop and through the internet; I contributed to the 3rd edition Birthright fan-made sourcebook; I negotiated for original art with the main artist of the setting, Tony Szczudlo; I tracked down the creators at every opportunity to thank them for making such an awesome setting; I read all the novels and played the hell out of the computer game. I’m proud of being known as “The Birthright guy.”
So it should be clear by now that the Birthright setting is very important to me as a gamer and is a significant part of my gaming history. Writing this blog post is something I’ve wanted to do for some time, but I wanted to make sure that I took care to do it right!

The Creators

When you talk about Birthright, there are four names you need to know.
Rich Baker and Colin McComb were the architects of the main setting and rules, while Ed Stark and Carrie Bebris fleshed out much of the rest of the world of Birthright.
The talent of this group is remarkable—consider that these folks created 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, built the Forgotten Realms we know today, developed the best iteration of the Planescape setting, and helped craft amazing games like Planescape: Torment and Fallout 2—and that’s just a highlight reel.
It should also be mentioned that the art of Tony Szczudlo really brought the setting to life; he brings a stark and grim style that still feels epic and fantastic and encompasses everything Birthright was about in his paintings.

The Setting

Birthright is a fantasy setting that has a distinct feel from other “D&D-like” realms. I enjoy Baker’s quote about Birthright from a Dragon Magazine article (and referenced in his Wikipedia Page): “I’m very proud of it. It represents an entirely new approach to the traditional fantasy roleplaying campaign, and the world itself is filled with a strong sense of history.”
A glorious battle scene by Tony Szczudlo.
The main focus of Birthright is the continent of Cerilia and the default region known as Anuire. Birthright’s Wikipedia page contains some info on the other regions if you’re curious.*
*Note: I’m going to be careful to try and not re-state info from Wikipedia, and if you really want to know more about Birthright, I’m including some links below to a number of freely available materials on the web.
More about Birthright after the break! (This is a long one, folks)

Death of the Gods

Probably the most significant element of Birthright is that a major war between the gods occurred over fifteen centuries ago; the god of evil, Azrai, gathered a huge force of monsters, men (mostly the tribes of Vosgaard), and elves (whom Azrai had seduced with promises of support to root out the humans from their forests and restore their ancient glory). The other gods gathered their own armies and together these two forces met in battle on the slopes of Mount Deismaar. The battle was apocalyptic in scale—the elves switched sides at a pivotal moment, tipping the balance against Azrai. 
The battle ended when the gods sacrificed themselves to destroy Azrai before he could unleash his vengeance. Thus, the gods died—their divine essence rained down onto the battlefield, raising new gods from those closest to the confrontation and imbuing hundreds more with divine power in their bloodlines that connected them to the lands they ruled.

Broken Empire

Anuire forms the ruins of a shattered empire. Once, the rulers of Anuire straddled most of Cerilia, having conquered vast portions of the continent over generations of war. However, the last emperor perished roughly 550 years prior to the current campaign date, plunging the empire into disarray and civil war. In the current time, Anuire is a fractured realm, with many smaller kingdoms struggling for dominance. There are a handful of contenders for the Iron Throne of the Emperor, but there is plenty of room for a resourceful and strong player character to unite Anuire beneath his banner. Anuire has a strong historical and cultural link to Britain, and there are many parallels that one can draw between struggles in Anuire to the War of the Roses and other civil conflicts in Britain’s history.
A cleric invests a scion’s heir with his bloodline as he lays dying on the field of battle.
(This is not limited just to the main region of Anuire. Much of Birthright’s setting is based on real-world historical cultures and conflicts. The region of Brechtur, for example, is modeled upon the Hanseatic League.)
What I like about Anuire: While it’s fair to say that I really like all of the Birthright regions (I have a special fondness for the Khinasi Cities of the Sun and the Brechtur Havens of the Great Bay), Anuire is my favorite. I love that you can find nearly every example of Birthright’s touchstones in Anuire, from dangerous Awnsheghlien like the Gorgon and the Spider to mysterious elven realms like the Sielwode. Powerful wizards like the Sword Mage can be found there, as well as lawless regions crying out for a hero to forge them into a realm—such as the Five Peaks. The goblin kingdom of Thurazor, the wonders of the Imperial City, unexplored islands lying temptingly close to familiar shores, ancient ruined keeps and deep-delving dwarves—Anuire has it all.
The region of Anuire is also chock-full of interesting personalities and NPC’s. The Gorgon is the most powerful awnsheghlien on the continent and constantly schemes to claim the Iron Throne. Rhoubhe Manslayer represents the resentment and hatred of the Elves towards the tribes of humanity who drove them out of their forests. The Mhor of Mhoried holds the unwelcome position of the realm most likely to suffer the Gorgon’s wrath; he must be ever-vigilant to raise his defenses against an inhuman and implacable foe. The Archduke of Boeruine schemes to position himself as the pre-eminent candidate for a restored Empire. The wizard known as the Eyeless One conducts mysterious experiments among the lawless mountains of the Five Peaks.
You can practically /taste/ the epic. If you’re like me, you’re probably hearing the Skyrim (or the Game of Thrones) theme in your head right now.
And these are just a handful of the cool characters to encounter in just one region!

The Shadow World

Cerilia has a dark twin, a twisted reflection of itself known as the Shadow World. This is a parallel dimension where shadows and night linger and take the forms of nightmare. The undead draw strength from the Shadow World, and it is a sinister place of great danger for any living thing. The Halflings claim that they once dwelt in the Shadow World, but the dimension slowly changed into its current form and drove them away. 
The Raven is a powerful Awnshegh with ties to the Shadow World.
There are still places in Cerilia where the boundaries between it and the Shadow World are thin, and creatures may pass from one to the other easily. There are some advantages to doing so, for each step travelled in the Shadow World is hundreds of paces in Cerilia, allowing for extremely fast movement between two points. There are many who claim that Azrai’s divine essence corrupted the Shadow World and exists there as a foul and murderous avatar known only as the Cold Rider.

Divine Right

Take your Dungeons & Dragons game, place it in a kickass setting, and add a dash of Highlander. Now, you’re getting closer to Birthright. Since the destruction at Deismaar, the divine essence of the old gods has been passed down through bloodlines. These bloodlines vary in strength, and grant unusual powers (known as Blood Abilities) to the Blooded. Known as Scions, creatures with a divine bloodline can increase their power either through wise rulership or (more commonly) through slaying other blooded creatures with a blow through the heart to steal that divine essence. This process is known as Bloodtheft.
Some old-school miniatures of Blooded Scions and Regents of Cerilia.
Those scions possessing the bloodline of Azrai face a particular danger—if their bloodline gains significant strength through bloodtheft, it is possible that the blood may corrupt them into inhuman monsters of great power known as Awnsheghlien (“blood of darkness”). Several Awnsheghlien roam Cerilia—some of them even rule vast realms and command armies of loyal followers. Others are nearly-mindless beasts who occasionally rampage through civilized lands.
The impact of blood abilities is to add a new layer of interesting things to do and react to in the game. For example, a noble paladin might have the blood of Azrai in his veins, and must struggle against that part of his nature. A stealthy theif may have the blood of the sun goddess and find he has powers over light. A character with a minor bloodline may scheme to improve it, whilst a character with a great bloodline may be pressured to live up to his dynasty’s ideals.

Land of Legends

The Birthright setting is a curious mix of low-magic and epic fantasy. On the one hand, most magic-users in Birthright practice what is known as “Lesser Magic,” essentially illusionists who are restricted from casting truly powerful spells that affect the real world. Blooded Wizards and Elves, however, practice “True Magic” and can cast any of the normal Player’s Handbook spells. This means that wizards who practice True Magic are vanishingly rare—a blooded Wizard is often a figure of legend and fear. Most of these wizards have a particular name or title that reinforces that feel, such as the Sword Mage, the Eyeless One, and so forth. 
True magic is impressive stuff…
When it comes to True Magic, there are three distinct tiers. The first is the normal adventuring magic found in the Player’s Handbook. The second are known as Battle Spells—these incantations are very similar to the ones in the Player’s Handbook, but take longer to cast and can affect entire units of soldiers on the battlefield. An example of a Battle Spell is the Storm of Magic Missiles. The third and most powerful tier is known as Realm Magic—these spells can affect large regions of a realm, known as provinces, and can have an impact on hundreds of people with a single casting.
Similarly, many of the more fantastical monsters of D&D are missing in Cerilia—beholders, ropers, and illithids are unknown, for an example. Instead, many of the classical D&D monsters—Dragons, Griffins, etc. exist in Cerilia, but in small numbers (there are roughly only twelve Dragons in the known world) and are possessed of awesome power. A Cerilian Dragon would probably wipe the floor with most Dragons from other D&D settings, to give you just one idea.
This is expressed even in the nature of player characters—Elves are immortal, capricious beings who haunt their forests like beings of fey. Dwarves are as tough as the rocks they live amongst. There are no known gnomes, tieflings, or other such races in Cerilia.
There are no generic orcs in Birthright… instead, the main foes are the Goblin races (Goblins, Hobgoblins, Bugbears), Gnoll raiders, and Orogs (massive, ogre-like evil humanoids who tunnel up into the world from below and a major enemy of the dwarves). Many of these monstrous races control realms and kingdoms of their own, often right next to (or carved out of!) more civilized lands of men and elves.
The Awnsheghlien, mentioned above, are legendary foes that all have histories, and occasionally special abilities or weaknesses hidden in the stories whispered of them by minstrels. Each Awnsheghlien is simply a fantastic enemy—just reading about them makes it seem like would be eminently satisfying to defeat such a monster! Part of this feel is reinforced by observing the map of Cerilia and understanding that each Awnsheghlien rules over hundreds or thousands of (usually) oppressed subjects and threatens any surrounding realms with death and war. This escalation of importance of the bad guys really brings home the level of threat… and consequently, the potential rewards of finding victory in combat against such a dire foe. The Elven realm of Cmwb Bheinn (pronounced Coom Veen) is threatened by two Awnsheghlien realms, and reading about it never fails to make me want to draw my sword and defend that lonesome forest against the encroaching darkness.

Domain Rules

One of the most interesting features of Birthright is another layer of rules that encompasses ruling a realm. Again, the Wikipedia entry covers this in pretty good detail, so I’ll limit myself to commenting on my own feelings about the Domain rules.
An Awnshegh known as the Ogre destroys a noble’s knights… only a blooded hero can face such a threat and survive.
The Birthright Domain rules were one of the first of its kind—before this, there hadn’t really been any decent rules for running a country or for roleplaying at the level of a king. The rules for running a domain are quite well-developed, robust, and innovative. It all turns on the nature of the regent, of course, meaning that Fighters generally run law holdings better and Rogues get a free Espionage action, as examples. The way the Domain rules are laid out it is entirely possible to run a game without any of the traditional D&D tropes of dungeon crawls! Many, many play-by-e-mail campaigns have been set up using the Birthright Domain ruleset where the rulers of each realm struggle for dominance without ever once setting foot in a dungeon or drawing a blade against a dragon.
The Domain rules are not without some flaws; there’s no real way to run or create secret holdings—regents are generally always aware of all holdings inside their realm. Druids tend to be somewhat screwed compared to other Divine Casters, in that they don’t really benefit from high levels of civilization. The default setting is that Wizards require unspoiled lands to have high level holdings, which can be rather counter-intuitive for other campaign settings (such as the Forgotten Realms), which limits the versatility of the ruleset somewhat.
Even so, these Domain rules are overall well-designed and could be used to portray nearly any fantasy campaign setting with a few judicious tweaks. Even if the other aspects of Birthright don’t really light your fire, definitely check out the Domain ruleset.

My Thoughts

Given what I said at the beginning of this post, gentle reader, it should be clear by now that I love Birthright fiercely.
I feel that the setting fits together really well. Every piece feels interrelated and part of one, singular vision. I think one possibly explanation as to why Birthright feels so solid to me is that it had a short and limited print run—there was never an opportunity for things to go off the rails like so many other settings. This is not to say that Birthright is perfect… some of the Player’s Secrets books are particularly flawed, but others are fairly good, so overall I would call it a wash.
The names of the setting are all very cool, although often difficult to spell and pronounce… especially the Welsh-derived Elven words and names!
The Domain rules and divine bloodlines are unique elements of Birthright that I feel were elegantly executed and make the setting stand out as a truly memorable place to set your campaign.

Swept Under The Rug

Unfortunately, Birthright did not enjoy great commercial success—some have said it was due to the products arriving near the end of TSR’s “setting glut,” a time in which the market was saturated with different D&D settings from Mystara to various flavors of Forgotten Realms and Greyhawk, amongst others.
Heartless indeed!
In many ways, Birthright never really got the attention it deserved… after the initial release, the line ended prematurely with several products still in development, and few nearly complete (such as the Book of Regency and Blood Spawn).
Possibly the greatest oversight is that the Birthright setting was left entirely out of the 30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons retrospective book… a book that covered every other D&D setting ever published.

Player’s Secrets

I’m pleased to say that I was involved with the 3rdedition fan creation of the Birthright setting, found at Birthright.net.
In addition, many of the products of Birthright were made available for free by the Wizards of the Coast in 2005. Amongst these is probably the best of the Birthright novels (written by Rich Baker himself), The Falcon and the Wolf.
Also created for Birthright was a very popular boardgame known as Legacy of Kings. Although this board game had non-stop lines at Gen Con every year it was shown, the board game was never produced.
Just as a side note, if anyone from Wizards/Hasbro is reading this–please release this board game! You seem really into doing D&D board games right now, and this one is a surefire hit! Thank you.
Sierra created a computer game for the setting known as Birthright: The Gorgon’s Alliance. Although this video game had poor sales, I consider it to be very fun and enjoyable as a Birthright fan.
I won’t share links on this blog post, but the original free downloads of Birthright products made available by Wizards of the Coast are still out there on the internet if one has sufficient google-fu.

3 responses to “RPG Setting/System Review: Birthright

  1. Hi Ross. You might be interested in my own post on the Birthright campaign which this review of yours inspired: http://greyhawkgrognard.blogspot.com/2012/08/taking-another-look-at-birthright.html

  2. Great post! I think that anyone who enjoys a political aspect to their RPG game, like Game of Thrones or Dune, would potentially be a fan of this campaign setting. I reffed one campaign where the players were all nobles in one region (Tournen), and played in one where there were 2 DMs and 3 or 4 groups of players. It was quite a different feeling when you never knew if the problems in your country were being caused by the DM, or another faction of players. Initially we did not even know what the player led factions were…

    You have brought back some wonderful memories! It’s a bit sad, given that Birthright is not well known, that I don’t think I will get to play in a campaign again. After a hiatus of many years, I am getting back into AD+D with a group of 30 something married couples that have never rpg-ed before. It would be fun to ref, but I am not sure how it would work with beginning players.

    Looking forward to reading more of your blog.

    take care,
    David S.
    Minnesota, USA

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