by Roger E. Moore
In October and November 1994, a TSR product group conducted playtests of the first-draft BIRTHRIGHT(TM) game rules. As the group's creative director, I recorded the action and published the notes in our group's weekly newsletter to other TSR co-workers and executives. Thinking that "normal" gamers might want to see the TSR creative process, such as it is, involved in working out a new game's bugs, I thought it would be nice to publish my game notes for the world to see. As a bonus readers get a free look at how the BIRTHRIGHT game plays out--sort of. We made up a lot as we went along, and the tale grew in the telling. The participants included Rich Baker (the DM), Colin McComb, Anne Brown, Sue Weinlein, Jon Pickens, Skip Williams, Bruce Heard, and myself (who ran Good King Arglebargle I).
Rich went over the BIRTHRIGHT character-creation rules (again),and we rolled up our first batch of royal rulers and their oppressed domains. The overall impression of the group was that the kingly "top down" perspective of this game is very exciting and provokes a lot of new interest in role-playing. Despite a few moments when conversation was understandably sidetracked by in-depth discussions on the Wonder Bra, the O.J. Simpson trial, Colin's habit of torturing peasants who asked for a Bill of Rights, and a brief rendition of "It's My Province And I'll Buy If I Want To," we got a lot done.
For a sample of the action (one Realm Turn, all we had time for), I offer you the Tale of Good King Arglebargle I, Lord of the Free and Happy County of Ilien.
Good King "Papa Doc" Arglebargle I, the Mighty, is a 1st-level fighter, the regent of the single province of Ilien. Ilien is a coastal province (7 rating) of light forests and good cropland. It is dominated by the Free and Happy City of Argh, a seaport that is also the site of Castle Argh (1 rating). "Papa Doc" set up his daughter, "Baby Doc" Arglebargle II, as his most trusted lieutenant and castellan of Castle Argh, and shelled out for an extra level of Loyalty to ensure that his free and happy citizens stayed happy, or else. A unit of elite infantry (The Free and Happy Rangers of the Free and Happy County of Ilien) keeps the peace in this tiny kingdom, aided by local law-enforcement officials (7 "stranglehold" law holding).
In our first exciting Realm Turn, Colin the Thief King was approached by a foreign power and asked to marry another king's daughter. He kept the tribute sent to him and said he would "think it over." Anne the Wizard Queen did nothing because she is a wizard and wizards do nothing, but Sue the High Priestess had lots of trouble with some snotty wizard king somewhere and with Colin, who"forgot" to pay tribute to her. Everyone became highly aware of Ghoere, a large evil kingdom to the north whose shadow fell across the kingdoms of the coast (us) like the shade of a man falls across an anthill. Then the Spider led troops into Jon's country while Jon was reduced to NPC status for forgetting when the meeting was. ("Jon's got monsters, Jon's got monsters!" rang the cry.)
In the Free and Happy Kingdom of Ilien, Good King Argle pondered these events as he counted the semi-oppressive taxes gathered from his free and happy citizens. "Time to build up the castle," he grunted, and sent his daughter "Baby Doc" off to oversee construction of a few new walls, some towers, and a moat full of tiger sharks and strangleweed. Castle Argh's renovations will becomplete next Realm Turn.
Next Realm Turn: Will Colin get someone to throw a ball so he can actually look at the other king's (7 rating) daughter? Will Sue fix that pesky wizard? Will Anne do anything? And what of the Free and Happy Rangers? Stay tuned.
Yes, it's time once again to look into the lives of the Free and Happy Citizens of Ilien, the province-state named for the Sigourney Weaver film of which Good King Arglebargle I (the Mighty, he of the Tainted Bloodline) is so fond. Last issue, as you recall, Castle Argh (located just ten minutes north of downtown Argh, on the sunny southern shores of fair Ilien) was upgraded to level 2 status, thanks to the moderately severe tax-and-spend policies of the Good King (the Mighty).
The end of Realm Turn 1 saw Colin the Rogue blow his action turn on chasing his prospective bride across the face of Cerilia ("I was workin'!") and thus get nothing of consequence done within Guild C. Anne the Wizardess (a.k.a. Magic A) finally took action and attempted to create a holding in a place called Care Bear (perhaps that was Caerwil), an effort that failed miserably and lost mucho dinero; in a retrospective turn, Anne went adventuring and gained 2nd level instead. Sue the High Priestess, fed up with Colin's fooling around with her provincial law holdings, challenged him and kicked him out. She spent some time messing with other provinces with only moderate (for now) results. Skip the Other High Priest made an effort to cause some trouble, with no (for now) results. Jon, who had monsters, apparently got rid of them.
The beginnings of Realm Turn 2 were dramatic indeed. Skip the OHP suddenly found a horde of megamonsters (sent by the Spider?) uprooting his temples in Frorien. Colin discovered the same batchof mega monsters were eating up his guilds and profits in the same province. Jon the Mostly Absent survived a determined assassination attempt, but was gravely wounded; all Roesone - or at least the parts that remembered he was king - danced and sang in grief. Then a terrible natural cataclysm struck Temple X in Duerlin; the earth belched fire, the skies vomited hail, and the crocus did not bloom.
The lordships responded at once. Colin the Rogue ordered an increase in prurient activities to fill his guild coffers. King Arglebargle I (the Mighty) again subjected his Free and Happy Subjects to a moderately severe taxation, then slashed the Courtbudget from 2 to 1 GP, resulting in the removal of all toilets from Castle Argh, the establishment of a cash bar in the Foreign Dog Diplomats' Room at the Hairy Arms Inn in downtown Argh, and the institution of pot-luck suppers at all royal diplomatic functions ("Bring Something To Share!"). Wizardess Anne formally accepted the position of Special Magic Lackey in the service of Sue "The Elephant Master" Weinlein's temple. And Skip did nothing.
Colin, irritated that Sue's temple had treated some of his own guild lackeys unkindly by burying them without waiting for them to die first, looted his own treasure vaults for money to be used as bribes against Sue's snickering priests. Sue noted the potential for corruption but wisely ignored it in favor of letting her church be dragged through an endless spectacle of shame and disgrace, thus giving her another aspect of Colin to complain about. Meanwhile, Anne attempted to create an army without paying her soldiers a salary. Though this venture failed, it was obvious that her heart was in the right place, and her fellow rulers saluted her inspired effort.
Good King Arglebargle I (the Mighty), upon the completion of Castle Argh's facelift, decreed Ye Publik Day of Rejoicing and Carousing with Barn Animals throughout the Free and Happy Kingdom of Ilien. The festival activities were overseen by the Free and Happy Rangers of Ilien and the Not-So-Secret Police of Argh, and the merriment and cheer were allowed to run on for nearly three days. Finally the wineries were empty, and the gleeful shrieks of the celebrants filled the heavens as they were whipped back to their jobs.
Next Session: The Action Turn! Who will be chewed upon by big nasty monsters next? Who tried to off Jon the Mostly Absent? What rifle will set Sue and Colin to yearning once again for each others' chitlins? Must Anne really be required to pay her soldiers a salary, or can she change the rules once she starts to edit them? What kind and benevolent deed is Good King Arglebargle I (the Mighty) contemplating for his first Action Turn? And what of the toilet situation, or are Ilien's courtiers being forced to "hold it" until they can get to Roesone or Medoere? Stay tuned for the next uncensored installment of...Playtesting!
Session #3 "Running out of gold is really unhandy." - King Jon the Mostly Absent
This week's episode of Playtesting was almost completely derailed right from the start when it was discovered that no one had remembered to bring dice. While the dice were sought, Sue told everyone about her peculiar Freudian dreams and Rich reminisced about his baby blankie.
The nasty megamonsters in Frorien that so annoyed Skip, Colin, and the Evil Empire of Ghoere were dealt with during Realm Turn 1. Guild Y continued building its coastal trade profits, Wizard Z expanded his reach across Medoere (Sue) and Roesone (Jon), and Colin worked on his coloring book.
Then diplomats from Diemed offered to perform a special urban and agricultural service for Sue's kingdom of Medoere, in which thousands of Diemedian 4-H officials would march across Medoere's westernmost province to check for deer ticks. If they found none, they would loot the province briefly and return home. Sue could cancel this service for only 16 wagonloads of gold and a promise to let the Diemedian royal family use her castle as their summer retreat.
Somewhat nonplussed, Queen Sue began mustering a mighty army of seminary students and choir directors, while sending her lieutenant to see King Jon, the lieutenant's brother-in-law. Sue's Imperial Wizard Lackey Anne burned out her crystal ball in spying on Diemed, but reported that silly old Diemed had nothing more than six or maybe twelve divisions of heavily armed professional soldiers along the border, not to worry.
Colin the Rogue did his part by expanding his criminal operations across Medoere, claiming that it was all Sue's fault since she never wrote back asking him not to do this. Skip the Other High Priest, this week replaced by Bruce the Imposter High Priest, muddled on through as well.
In the Free and Happy Kingdom of Ilien, Enlightened Center of the World, Good King Arglebargle I (the Mighty) ordered docks to be built, moneyhouses to be raised, warehouses to be filled, and a trading center formed right on the shores of fair Argh, happily replacing the dreary orphanages and smelly hospitals that once lined the beach and made the place so drab. The crowd at the ceremonial opening of the trade center obediently applauded before being whipped back to work. The Good King (the Mighty) collected the first tariffs himself from all the foreign dogs trading partners who came to do business. Alas! Such happy times for Ilien were soon ended. The lap dogs of war were soon yipping at the Gates of Civilization. Queen Sue the High Priestess was awakened in another one of her many Freudian dreams by the hairy, nasty Spider, who was aware of the Diemedian siege towers being lined up along the border with Medoere and sent his regrets. However, the Spider said, he/it might be able to persuade Diemed's royal family to put off their deer-tick inspection of western Medoere if Sue would only - well, perhaps it was a bit much, but maybe - just maybe - Sue could sent a hundred blonde virgin diplomats north to the Spiderfell, "so we can do lunch."
Sue consulted with her advisors, who pointed out that the Spider had not been very specific and a hundred cocker spaniels would fit the letter of the request. As the Royal Dogcatchers worked overtime to fill the menu, Sue received word that Guild Y had once again expanded its cocai - um, coastal trading operations across Medoere.
It was then, during the Holy Breakfast, that Sue the High Priestess looked out her temple window and noticed the first wave of refugees filling her capital's downtown streets. The First Annual Diemedian 4-H Deer-Tick Inspection had begun.
Medoere's mighty seminary students and strapping inkwell fillers did their best against the hordes of heavily armed 4-H officials, but Sue's blessed soldiers found themselves outclassed by the superheavy cavalry of the latter (State Fair Grand Champions, 1958-1994). Tragedy followed in the Diemedians' wake, as hundreds of Sue's temples and roadside shrines were accidentally lost to careless smokers or the bad placement of oily rags. King Jon the Mostly Absent sent a messenger to Queen Sue, telling her that "substantial forces" were on the way, but the messenger tried to cross the Diemedian siege line around Sue's castle and was forced to undergo exploratory surgery under the care of Diemed's 4-H Metal-Shop Class.
Sue was in the process of convincing the local organized crimelords that their loan of gold to her was actually a nonrefundable donation to her temple (I am not making this up) when word came that King Jon's forces had crossed from Roesone into eastern Medoere, on their way to help out. "I love a scrap," said King Jon, almost fully recovered from a somewhat unsuccessful assassination attempt earlier in the year. Colin the Rogue even ordered his forces to venture forth from Endier into northern Diemed, though they hastily claimed to be lost and retreated when they encountered a large force of Diemedians who weren't pretending to be 4-H Club anythings.
Then Anne the Wizardess, peeved at the loss of her crystal ball and unable to sleep from all the noise outside the castle walls, leaned out of a tower window and cast a teleport spell on a unit of superheavy Diemedian cavalry. All 100 cavalrymen and horses vanished without a forwarding address. After quick consultation, the Diemedian 4-H Horde announced that western Medoere was free of deer ticks, and they abandoned their tents and fled home. Medoere was saved.
Diemed looked upon the suppression of civil disorder and deerticks in Medoere as a victory, though the sudden loss of 100 cavalry soldiers was a bit troubling. The mystery was solved a week later when survivors of the force straggled south into Diemed out of the Spiderfells, where they had "done lunch" with the Spider and his/its minions. The Spider, meanwhile, appeared in another Freudian dream to send his/its appreciation to Sue the High Priestess for the canned goods. Sue was now left with a huge clean-up bill for western Medoere, though she also had a real Medoerean army filled with (and these are her exact words) "spanking new boys." King Jon, for his part, managed to convince Diemed to give him enough gold to ship his army home from Medoere, the alternative being a deer-tick inspection of eastern Diemed that would end when the shores of western Diemed were reached.
The weeks after the One Month's War were filled with activity. Anne the Wizardess researched alchemy, King Jon built roads, Skip/Bruce boosted his temples, and Colin spied on the Evil Empire of Ghoere and learned horrible news, which he successfully sold to King Jon and Sue the HP. He tried to sell it to the Free and Happy Kingdom of Ilien, but Arglebargle I (the Mighty) was out on a short adventure. Arglebargle II took the message and promised to call Colin right back, but promptly forgot. It mattered little anyway since the Good King (the Mighty) was already up to his hip boots in secret dealings.
The first secret dealing was less than a total success, involving a search for sunken treasure that ended abruptly when King Arglebargle I discovered that he could not swim. His second dealing, the formation of the Most Secret Free and Happy Scouts of Ilien (all volunteers from the Not-So-Secret Police of Argh), was a total success, however. And his third - well, the third one cannot be revealed here just yet.
And so ended another session of Playtesting. Next week: the thrills of Realm Turn Three!
If Governor Tommy Thompson ordered the Wisconsin National Guard to burn down TSR, how many men would it take? This and other questions occupied the minds of your playtest group Wednesday as we prepared to start an accelerated game to see 1) how the system works over many game turns, and 2) whether anybody will ever get around to conquering anybody else. The Governor Thompson question came up late in the game when we were trying to decide whether a regent has the power to order troops to destroy unfortified holdings in that regent's domain. We decided the answer was yes. (We also decided it would take only one Weekend Warrior with a flamethrower to finish TSR off, or two soldiers if the second one passed out bratwursts to convince the employees that this was merely a "company picnic.")
Skip brought the dice for the playtest (as usual - thank you!) and we began cranking out the Realm Turns as fast as possible. Actually, we got through only one-third of a turn (an Action Turn, equal to one month game time), even with only three NPC regents, but it was amusing nonetheless.
In the wake of the One-Month War in our last session, Medoere's High Priestess Sue found herself still in debt to the local Mafia, with some additional trade troubles, a poor tax-collection return, and a highly expensive army of "spanking new" choir boys and mercenaries demanding to get paid. With a deep sigh, Sue fired the mercenaries, paid off the Mafia with the remains of the tax returns, paid off the guild causing the trade uproar, and almost but not quite sent the "spanking new" boys home to their farms, deciding at last that their rosy cheeks (ahem) certainly did brighten up the local scenery. Then the Mafia asked about the interest owed on the money Sue had borrowed. Interest? asked High Priestess Sue. What interest? Nice domain you have here, said the Mafia. Be a shame if something happened to it. Oh, the interest, said Sue, and began tearing apart the royal sofa in search of spare change.
Wizardess Flunky Anne, meanwhile noted an increase in crime and corruption within her magical domain, but promptly ignored it, rightly reasoning that what imps and familiars did on their own time was none of her business. Instead, she bought a new crystal ball and began spying on the mysterious Wizard Z, who was crowding her territory in Medoere. It was thus that she uncovered the plot by Good King Arglebargle I (the Mighty) to hire the remarkably powerful Wizard Z as his court magic flunky, which perturbed Wizardess Flunky Anne a bit as Good King Arglebargle I was regarded by other the regents as something of a low-class paranoid isolationist mad-dog pariah elitist dictator and cheapskate.
Speaking of Good King Arglebargle I (the Mighty) and the Free and Happy Kingdom of Ilien, difficulties broke out on the streets of the Free and Happy Seaport Capital of Argh. A friendly dispute between two rival shipping firms, Loot The Foreign Dogs Inc. and Makum Payen Blud Ltd., led to a certain amount of name-calling, hand gestures, fisticuffs, and three nights of rioting in which 17 buildings were burned and 250 people were rendered homeless. Good King Arglebargle grew weary of "the troubles" and sent word through his daughter, Princess Arglebargle II (the Mistress of Torment), that if the firms did not cease rioting immediately, the royal family and the Free and Happy Elite Heavily Armed Rangers would beforced to kill them a little bit. This subtle diplomacy worked, and peace once again reigned on the free and happy streets. In an unrelated event, it was reported that a wagonload of royal gold was dropped off in the front yard of Wizard Z's home in northwest Ilien, crushing most of the petunias and marigolds.
But the worst was yet to come! While King Jon the Mostly Absent and Skip the Other High Priest laughed off matters of justice that occupied their own domains, Colin the Rogue King was found by his guards to have suffered a terminally fatal mountaineering accident in his living room. Colin II the Rogue King's Son grew suspicious, rightly believing that his father would never have attempted to throw himself upon so many climbing spikes while tied to a chair buried in a vat full of concrete suspended from the ceiling - at least not while he was sober. Colin II began a spy operation to learn the identity of the person who supplied the climbing spikes, and soon found to his surprise that it had been the king of Ghoere, His Royal Highness Darth Adolf Saddam Nikita Khomeini "It's Nothing Personal" Bates I, currently occupied in building roads across Ghoere so his soldiers could more easily reach and oppress the populace in the manner to which they were accustomed.
So it was that, two weeks later, the king of Ghoere climbed out of his royal shower to answer the ringing of the royal semaphore, only to fall on a bar of royal soap and permanently disfigure himself on the large number of caltrops and land mines scattered around the bathroom floor. About a hundred miles west of the palace, Colin II hung up the semaphore in disappointment and consoled himself with a banana split and plans for a more successful but much less expensive future terminal surprise for Ghoere's king.
The rest of the month was characterized by an upsurge in the construction industry. Orange barrels began appearing along the footpaths of southern Roesone as King Jon began building the Greater Roesone Interprovince Oxcart Turnpike. Perpetual rivals Diemed and Medoere likewise began their own highway projects tomake it easier for them to conduct impromptu Deer-Tick Inspections of each other's territories using the latest in military technology. Skip the Other High Priest built up one of his temples; Good King Arglebargle ordered construction to begin on yet another series of moats, dungeons, barracks buildings, towers, and massage parlors for Castle Argh; and Temple X began to build up its temple holding in Ilien, but local union rules required a 10-day coffee break for every brick put up so little was done beyond laying the first two or three bricks. A strike is anticipated for an equally extended lunch period.
In her copious spare time, Wizardess Flunky "Regency To Spare" Anne did manage to make some money (quite literally) using an Alchemy spell and the entire supply of lead fishing sinkers used by the Medoere Sportsmen's Club. "Groovy!" Anne said, as she went on a spending spree and inflation once again soared off the charts in her home provinces.
It was at this point, the end of the first Action Turn, that it was discovered that Medoere and Roesone had built their highways illegally. (Sue and Jon didn't actually have the funds or something - a lame excuse.) The highway workers threw down their picks and shovels to go on strike, and we all decided to pick up the action next week.
What new and very unfortunate accidental event will trouble the daily routine of Colin II the New Rogue King? How long until the Interprovince Oxcart Turnpike is finished? Who really cares about mean old Ghoere anyway, aside from all those domains within a week's march of its borders, which is to say everyone on the map? And about Medoere's "spanking new" soldiers - just who's doing the spanking? All will be revealed next week in our next session of ... Playtesting!
Play started out typically enough - only Skip remembered to bring dice, Sue wanted to talk about Jon's carefully worked out plan for putting needles into keyboards, and Colin brought up Cartesian mind-matter dualism. Then the "Sue Sings Silly Songs" period began while Rich sorted through his DM's notes, and we heard Poe's "The Raven" sung to "If I Only Had a Brain," the words to "Amazing Grace" combined with the theme music from "Gilligan's Island," and a rousing start to "The Banana Splits" which was interrupted when Roger lost control and shot everyone. Ha ha - just kidding, of course.
Anyway, play began when the Tyrant-King of Ghoere, His Foulness Darth Adolf Saddam Nikita Khomeini "That's Mister Death To You!" Bates I called King Jon the Mostly Absent on the semaphore to borrow a cup of sugar. King Jon was out, so the Tyrant-King was put on hold, which enraged him so much that he declared war on Roesone. King Jon, upon his return, dithered for a time over whether it was worth declaring war on Ghoere in response, thinking maybe the two kings could get together later over a cup of hot java and be friends. News from the northern frontier, however, telling of the massing of thousands of Ghoere's troops and the virtual abandonment of all Roesone's border towns and farms by southward moving citizens, led King Jon to think that the question was moot.
Last-second defensive preparations included the fortifying of Temple X's holdings in Roesone, complete with fall out shelters and three-week supplies of toilet paper, and Colin II the New Rogue King's attempt to have his guilds fortified. However, Colin II immediately ran into the same union problems that last week faced Temple X, with only one person laying stonework while the rest went out for "chocky doughnuts." Since Colin II was the very person who had originally set up these union rules, he was forced to take himself aside and give himself an ultimatum or face execution. The results of these self-to-self negotiations will be revealed next week. Maybe.
Sue the High Priestess meanwhile established a seaport, immediately running afoul of the guild from which she had borrowed so much money during the One Month's War. And in the fair and greenlands of the Free and Happy Kingdom of Ilien, sometimes called the Free and Happy County of Ilien but still Free and Happy nonetheless, Good King Arglebargle I (the Mighty) decreed a temporary increase in the prime lending rate retroactive to the last true new moon as applied to second mortgages and transportation closing fees of the current fiscal quarter as per article 15 of the Give Me Your Money Or Die domestic taxation program. Only enough money was earned to pay off the cost of posting the decree, resulting in a net gain of zero gold pieces, for which the Good King's chief economic advisor was fed to the moat weasels.
I have completely forgotten what Wizardess Flunky Anne did, but it couldn't have been important.
And now for news from the front. While King Jon belatedly paged through Zebulon's Big Book o' Warfare in search of the tactics chapter, the Tyrant-King of Ghoere dropped his black lace hankie to signal the start of the invasion of Roesone. In response, the XXXII Superheavy Panzer-Cavalier Army, the 52nd and 101st Republican Guard Armored Infantry Divisions, and the 88th Flames of Death Air-Bombardment Archery Corps crossed the border into northern Roesone, thundering across two entire provinces before they realized they had not yet met a single living thing. In a classic pincer move, these forces then moved eastward toward King Jon's alternate campaign headquarters in the suburbs of Bellam, which was at that moment being assaulted with whips and chains by Ghoere's leather-bound 97th Mobile Torturers Battalion and the 666th Dominatrix Auxiliaries.
"This would have been a good time to have been mostly absent," muttered King Jon bravely from his castle tower as he viewed the encampments of the enemy, stretched like a dirty black stocking from the castle walls out to the horizon. He retired for the night to get his beauty rest, but at dawn sallied forth from his castle with the courageous heart of his army: 112 unarmed drunken kobolds and a halfling with a wrist slingshot. Following this advance team were the rest of King Jon's human forces, who fervently hoped that Ghoere's army would accept the kobolds, halfling, and King Jon as a sacrifice, then go home. This, sadly, did not happen.
In the initial portion of the Fearsome and Disastrous Rout of Bellam, King Jon's archers opened fire on the enemy from too farback, and his inexperienced swordsmen swung themselves into near exhaustion long before contacting their opponents. Sensing blood in the air, 73 separate companies of Ghoere's mounted shock troops eagerly hurled themselves upon King Jon's shrieking soldiers like tornadoes on a trailer park.
A final casualty tally for Roesone is delayed pending the recovery and identification of body parts. King Jon is, alas, mostly absent and not available for comment.
Next week, the third (and last) month of this dramatic Domain Turn. Where will Ghoere's blood-crazed dominatrixes next slake their thirsts? Will King Jon become the Completely Absent? Will Colin II end up paying for the doughnuts? And where did Sue learn those stupid songs? As if we cared.
Stay tuned for next week's episode of . . . Playtesting!
(Regretfully, there were no more sessions of this particular playtest. However, in the final version of the campaign set-up, Sue Weinlein was honored by being turned into Suris Enlien of Medoere, Colin McComb became Guilder Kailen of Endier, and Roger Moore became Rogr Aglondier of Ilien.)