Four thousand pages of source material
Game of Thrones started up on Sunday, bringing back the most pirated show on television. I’ve been looking forward to this season, if only because it has the Red Viper, the medieval fantasy version of Boba Fett. He’s awesome, flashy, and dies just about as soon as the audience gets enthused about him. And more than likely, there’s a substantial amount of fan fiction about him somewhere. I’ve specifically avoided looking.
I’m an old fan of the novels, having read all of them multiple times and encouraged all of my friends (and my mother) to read them, if only so we could talk about them. I’d debated picking up the Guardians of Order tome back in the day, only to hold off because I didn’t figure that a D20 rules set would do it any justice. At this point, the only reason I could see owning that edition would be for the sake of its collectibility.
In 2009, Green Ronin put out their version of the game, A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, with Robert Baratheon and Rhaegar Targaryen at the Ruby Ford on the cover. It wasn’t the same image that I was using as computer wallpaper at the time, but it was close enough. I perused the rules when I first had the chance, and it was a pretty easy sell. I picked the game up when I found it at the right price.
On the surface, the game system isn’t radically different than early D6, with elements of Roll and Keep. The attributes range from one to six (actually up to eight, but that’s the unlikely end of things), which give a dice pool for actions, and any skills underneath these attributes end up working like bonus dice. Everything is based on d6 rolls, with negative dice for the various penalties. Unlike many systems, these negative dice merely bump the number of kept dice down, rather than reducing the number of rolled dice.
Character creation is based generally on the age of the character. Younger characters have less in the way of initial starting experience, but they’re given more Destiny Points to work with. Where experience is used to buy up skills and attributes, Destiny is used for special abilities and boosting rolls. It’s assumed that a party of characters in the setting will include a wide variety of characters, so the age factor is considered fairly crucial. The archetypes for the pre-generated characters includes an array of young and old, from the Young Adult Heir and Noble builds to the Middle Aged Scout and Hedge Knight ones.
It’s an interesting nuance that is brought forth in the context of the game. Games like Dungeons & Dragons and the like make an assumption that starting characters are relatively young, given that they haven’t advanced very far in their careers. Since starting experience is tied to age, this game allows you to build an aged maester that can work alongside the fifteen year old noble. It doesn’t really address how these characters are supposed to adventure together, necessarily, but it’s a start towards building some diversity in the group.
One of the elements that really sets the game apart from others of its type is the section on creating your own noble house for the campaign. Handled through a series of d6 rolls, the rules allow your group to work through the long history of their house’s founding and setbacks through the many ages. Each region (the North, the Reach, Dorne, etc.) offers different bonuses and penalties, and with a long enough history, the houses can rise and fall through the ages. It gives the game a fantastic flavor, overall, and it’s pretty fun to work through the fortunes of a couple of houses (a powerful enough house needs to have banner houses rolled up as well) to get a feel for it. Depending on the rolls, this system can determine how much influence one’s house has, how great the castle is, and the type of armies it can raise as needed.
This section is ridiculously in-depth, as far as the details for customizing your characters’ house go. It even contains a proper Heraldry section, so the most minute details of the coat of arms can be designed. This actually turns into a very strange downside, however, and one that I cannot, in good conscience, blame Green Ronin for. With all of the work they put into heraldic design for the game, there’s no very good way for this to be utilized without having an artist in your gaming group. When I got all fired up about the coat of arms for the different houses in my games, I went online to mock up a few of them. And apparently, there aren’t any DIY heraldry designers that are nearly as well done as the system in the book. At least none that carry the same level of detail. So while I may have wanted to make up pictorial representations of the different allied and rival houses for my game, there wasn’t much I could do.
The next section after the House Creation rules is the Intrigue section, which outlines what amounts to being the Social Combat system for the game. This sets a lot of tone, right out of the gate for this game. Proceeding from the Introduction and Primer on Westeros towards the back of the book, we’ve dealt with basic game rules, a couple of sections on character creation, house creation, and now social combat. Actual combat isn’t covered until the next chapter, and it’s immediately followed with the section on full-scale warfare. It’s a lot more important for the scope of the game to be able to deal with the plots and intrigues that surround the character than it is to deal with actual physical combat. And given the source material, this is how it should be.
It’s also telling that, even though I’ve run a number of sessions, I don’t honestly recall the intricacies of social combat from a quick skim. Given a closer read of things, I’d be back on top of it, but Green Ronin made sure to keep the rules complex enough to offer a wide variety of options for the players. (I’ve never seen rules complexity as being a downfall of a game, per se, but it is a bad thing when the GM can’t make sense of things.) It also has one of the best defenses for a character losing in Social Combat – if all else fails, you can avoid being influenced simply by stabbing your opponent. The game does note that you’ll suffer all manner of negative consequences, but it’s still an option.
The GM section finishes out the book, noting that while the default assumption for the game is that it’s going to be run around the same time as the books or TV series, there are a number of interesting alternatives for the ambitious GM. My favorites are the ‘Game of Thrones’ and the ‘Historical’ variants. In the first, the players make their own houses for the game, and set into motion the requisite plots and intrigues, likely during the timeframe of the novels. Each player is responsible for a multitude of different characters, based on the influence of the House itself, most of which are important people within the house. The second one, the ‘Historical’ variant, places the game somewhere in the history of Westeros, so that they’re not stepping on the plots of the novels. Both of these styles of play allow the players to make characters whose destinies will have the same sort of weight as the characters in the books, which is something that I would personally want in any game I played.