I've mentioned Birthright a dozen or more times over the past few years of writing this blog, especially while playing around with SIFRP hacks, but I've never written a detailed post of why it deserves its place in the canon of D&D's settings. If it weren't wedded pretty heavily to its AD&D 2e rules, it would be just about perfect; some of the setting's design elements were, if not common, not unknown in 2e design, but would be rejected outright in the design environment of 2013. Setting those things aside, though, Birthright has a lot of worthwhile lessons left to teach.
The first thing that draws me to Aebrynis, the world of Birthright, is that is does draw heavily on real-world cultures (and more than just England), which sets it apart from a lot of TSR's settings. Birthright is still mostly European in its cultures, I have to admit, but the core idioms of feudalism don't apply to all cultures. Now, this is applying the standards of setting design in 2013 to 1995 - in '95 there was almost no internet, much less an industry-wide conversation on how to be less Euro-cis-male-centric. I suspect that if Birthright had become a runaway success as it so richly deserved, the game's designers might have explored continents beyond Cerilia and revealed cultures based on, say, the Mali Empire, the Incan Empire, and Warring States-era China. (I say this based on how the Shaar, Zakhara, Maztica, and Kara-Tur were added to Forgotten Realms.)
The continent on which Birthright takes place is a little bit smaller (thanks to coastline shape) than real-world India. It is subdivided into five major regions that are roughly analogous to nations, except that they have no central government whatsoever. These regions and their real-world cultural and linguistic origins are, roughly:
- Anuire: England and France, between 1300 and maybe the mid-1500s; minor Scottish influences
- Brechtür: Denmark, Germany, and the Netherlands, during the height of the Hanseatic League; this parses as vaguely Italian at times
- Khinasi: Two distinct cultures, the Basarji (Arabia) and the Masetians (umm... Phoenician? Greek? unclear)
- Rjurik: Celtic/Scandinavian blend, heavy druidic influences
- Vosgaard: Russia
- Also, all of the elves are heavily Irish, the dwarves are... very faintly Welsh, but mostly just dwarven, and the halflings are magical hobbits.
These cultural connections aren't 1:1, but they're only lightly veiled. The setting-writers take a very high-level approach to setting presentation, which I want to talk about more in a minute; the cultural notes come across heavily in the names and descriptions of domains, leaders, and organizations.