I’m changing some things up with the blog and looking at a variety of new and old ideas in gaming. I’d like to spend part of today talking about some recurring tropes and ideas that crop up in fantasy storytelling and how they can be used (and abused) in an RPG to some sort of effect. Today’s volume is going to feature The Birthright phenomenon. There are a variety of ways this idea can be used to great effect in a fantasy rpg. Let’s take a look at how that can work.
Plot Point 6 Birthright
This iteration of the plot trap involves a character element that one character has an inheritance of a place, an item, or some other item of value. There are also inherited traits or other things that can be passed down from parent to child, and there are some exciting stories you can tell with this plot trap. Perhaps a character has inherited a specific capability for magic that others don’t have, or a connection to an ancient creature that offers great power.
In this iteration of the plot, the character’s Birthright is ownership of a specific place by deed or title. This is a very common plot trap for Noble characters but you can have a variety of interesting interactions when a character from a different background has the birthright to a region or a place.
In this iteration of the plot, the character’s Birthright is ownership of an item. This could be anything as simple as a small pile of coins, to a magic item, or something as complex as a ship or other means of conveyance. The ownership of this item represents either a specific bond from parent to child, or it’s a legal issue settled by the courts. Either way, the item’s value is twofold. It has the sentimental value it has to the character and it has a specific value the rest of the world attaches to the item.
In this iteration of the plot, the character’s Birthright is access to a power that otherwise is unavailable in the world. Strange magicks or esoteric knowledge are both accessible through this version of the Plot, as are a host of unusual or quirky effects. This one is often the hardest to figure out because the mechanical effects of this Birthright are hard to assign attributes for.
Why is this a Plot Trap?
You can build a campaign around this Plot Trap, but you have to be very careful with it. Like the Destiny Plot Trap, Birthrights are often singular in nature, and it’s hard to have multiple characters lay claim to the same birthright as a functional player character group (I’ll cover this in just a second). You also need to know what the Birthright entitles the character to, and be willing to live with the consequences of handing that to a player character. Making a character the Heir Apparent to the largest kingdom of Wizards in the world is going to cause some imbalances and issues that you better be ready for. An important thing to remember with a Birthright is that even if the character has the Birthright, they often have to be able to enforce or defend their claim to it. A King that lives thousands of miles from his throne is going to have a hard time defending it. An ancient power may require rituals and other rites to maintain the Birthright or the power will seek out a new wielder.
Key Elements of this plot device
- The Right: A Birthright is a specific right of authority or ownership of something specific. Even if you couch it in mythic language like “the fealty of all true men of the East” you have to understand exactly what that means and how it’s going to apply in your game. .
- The Claim: Sometimes there are only a single person who can lay a legitimate claim to a Birthright, but there are always cases where there are other claimants. Distant relations, close siblings, or even stranger things can all lay claim to a Birthright. Identifying potential other claimants can help you structure how the plot is shaped and identify sources of conflict (or support. Some Claimants may have no desire to the birthright).
- The Consequences: Once the character has laid their claim and secured their birthright, what happens next? Does the character have the ability to continue on as a player character or is it situation where their new responsibilities prevent them from being an adventurer? Are there further rights that become available now that the character has claimed the first one or are they finished with this task?
There are a couple of variations on this theme that all work roughly the same way. Let’s take a closer look.
In this instance, the Birthright is actually a negative thing. A terrible curse afflicts the family line and it’s something that they have struggled with for an undisclosed time. The character has the potential to break the curse, but they are going to have to discover how the family was cursed in order to figure out how to solve it. (Lycanthropy can fall into this category very easily).
The Family Estate (or the Homestead)
This iteration of the plot revolves around the Birthright being either in a distant land or in an unclaimed wilderness. The character will have to travel to that location in order to exercise their claim on their Birthright and defend it against all challengers. This might also include a title or other authority over the people in said area. They may or may not be happy with their new ruler.
The Inheritance in this case is an item of interest to someone. Perhaps it is a key that opens a very specific lock, or it’s a map to a lost something. The item has qualities that make it valuable beyond its intrinsic value and there are people who are coming for it despite it being a specific person’s Birthright. The character (and his or her companions) will have to figure out what everyone is interested in it for and identify its secrets.
Birthrights are an interesting Plot Trap that you can use to shape your campaign. You need to put your work in at the front end of things in order to make sure you understand the mechanics of the Birthright so it gets used the way you want it. There are a lot of moving parts for a Plot Trap like this, so take your time and make your notes. Next time we’ll take a look at something similar, the Vendetta Plot Trap.
I hope this gives all of you some insights and ideas on incorporating this style of a Plot Element into your game without it becoming a burden to your fun. If you’d like to see more of these, or have a question about a specific plot element that you’d like to know more about, drop me a line on twitter, which you should be able to see over there on the right side of the screen. Game On, Game Fans.
Almost. Like i said above, i’m going to give you a campaign seed for using a version of this plot trap in a hopefully not crazy way.
Campaign Seed: The Dragon’s Roar
This campaign seed starts with a mystery. The characters are contacted by a messenger that invites them to travel to a major city in their home region to meet with a Barrister. Upon their arrival, the man introduces himself as the manager of a long lost cousin to one of the characters and informs them that one of them has inherited a keep in a distant frontier of their home country. The characters will have to be at the keep by a specific time to press their claim to the inherited Keep or it will revert to a local lord.
Leg 1: The Road to the Keep
The characters set out on the journey and they have enough time to get to the keep, but they can’t necessarily screw around on the way. Their journey is plagued by setbacks and bandits along with a host of other inconveniences. The characters finally arrive in time to press their claim, and (assuming they made good time) successfully lay claim to the Keep.
Leg 2: Better Property Management and You
Unfortunately for the characters, the Keep is not in ideal condition and they are going to have to take their time and spend some resources to bring it back to a working, functional castle. There are dozens of opportunities in the frontier to make money and push back encroaching monsters. The characters are finally able to restore their castle to its former glory and then all hell breaks loose.
Leg 3: Defend it if you can
Monsters have surged across the border in numbers unseen in recent memory. Goblins, orcs and other terrible things are moving in numbers against the civilized world, and the Keep the characters have inherited is the closest bastion of civilization to the horde. The local lord asks the characters to help defend the realm as best they can. What’s worse, there are rumors of a Dragon long thought slain moving in the area, and it has a bone to pick with the owners of the Keep.
Leg 4: inheritor’s Due
The savage tide has been turned back, but the Dragon’s fury has reaped a terrible tally. The lands around the Keep have been scorched and ruined, and the Dragon continues to be a terrible threat. The characters will have to seek out this Wyrm and take the fight to it if they are going to make their lands safe again.
And that’s our 30 minute campaign seed. See you guys next time.