Using the wrong game for the right story
I had intended this as an aside in my previous post about Green Ronin’s A Song of Ice and Fire RPG, but it occurred to me that I might as well spend a little more time on the idea and give it a little space to breathe, in case someone wanted to emulate my ideas overall.
As noted, there’s already a game system in place for running games set in George R. R. Martin’s world, replete with fantastic rules for intrigues, all manner of setting details and plot hooks, and a solid system to work everything with. But since this is a relatively recent thing, I’d already given time and motion to a back-up system. Go figure. I started reading the books back in 2003, and about halfway through the first one, I was already trying to figure out what sort of personal touches I would give a game, were I to run the saga in some way.
At its heart, Game of Thrones is a war story, one that comes in the aftermath of two previous wars, the aftereffects of which have scarred the main characters heavily. Robert sits upon the Iron Throne only because he was forced by the events of the previous war to take control. Ned serves Robert because his loyalties to his family and his fostered brother demand that he must. He is forced out of retirement, into a viper’s nest of courtly intrigues and vicious plots, because he knows that it’s the only way to keep the peace. He’s one of the greatest swordsmen Westeros has ever seen, but he’s stuck in the midst of a number of entangling conspiracies without a way to cut himself free. And he sticks with it, not because he’s got any skill at dealing with this situation but because the alternatives are too awful to consider. And we discover that, no matter one’s noble intentions, even heroes can get in over their heads.
We all know what happens then. The great houses of Westeros rise in war, the tangled histories and alliances moving across the board to settle old scores and reinforce current loyalties. Human pettiness drives many of the characters towards their own personal ruin, even as a supernatural threat in the north threatens the entirety of the continent. And save for a few people, there’s very little concern about these legends.
Everything in Westeros is defined by which house a character owes their loyalty to, either by blood or by oath. While there is an element of magic and the supernatural, most of the game works in a low fantasy milieu. There are themes of honor and duty interwoven throughout the story, as motivations for several of the characters.
Naturally, the best game at the time to play this was the Legend of the Five Rings RPG.
At first blush, it’s a weird direction to take things, but it does make sense. By moving the War of the Roses into a broad samurai epic, you end up with a very workable set-up. The same themes of personal honor and one’s duty to one’s house remain intact, and the clans work as a solid interpretation of the houses of Westeros. There’s plenty of system available in L5R to manage both the personal combat and the massive battles, and a war for the throne is one that’s played out multiple times in the established game fiction. The only real difference, to be honest, is determining how much magic the GM wants to allow into the campaign.
What’s even more fun is that the clans allow for a solid one-to-one conversion in a lot of cases, with only minor bits of adjustment required to build things up correctly. The Crab stand in for the Night’s Watch, guarding the land from a terrible threat that only they seem to take seriously. The Lion are something of a gimme to stand in for the Lions of Casterly Rock, the Lannisters. During their time of exile, the Unicorn stand as the rough, horse adapted barbarians – a clear analogue for the Dothraki. With a little bit of adaptation, the Scorpion can work as the Dornishmen, and the Mantis could become the Ironborn. And the Cranes allow for an expanded role for characters like Littlefinger and the Arryns. Honestly, the only gaps in this conversion are what to do with the Dragon and Phoenix, and where to slot in Houses Stark and Baratheon. Thematically, it would make sense to drop the Targaryens into Dragon, but that’s a whole lot more work to pull off, given the whole ‘house in exile’ motif that Daenerys has going for her.
From there, it just becomes a matter of filling in the history and building motivations for the individual characters in the game. Fifteen years earlier, the elders of the clans rose up and overthrew the Hantei dynasty over a slight to the honor of one of the houses. The few remaining scions of the dynasty fled to the Burning Sands, while a new Emperor was installed to rule over the Empire. Some time later, a Mantis clan rebellion caused another minor war, and the clans rose again to bring them in line. Since then, peace has held, more or less.
In the mean time, the last heir to the Hantei dynasty, convinced that the people of Rokugan eagerly await the return of their exiled ruler, has made alliances with the Unicorn clan, in exile as well, and prepare to march on the Empire. And the Crane clan, sensing weakness in the distracted Emperor, has started a number of conspiracies to bend the Empire to their ends. Meanwhile, the Crab clan has noted an army of the undead massing to overwhelm the wall, and they’ve dispatched a number of emissaries to the capital for assistance. So far, they have been ignored, as the clans start to move towards war amongst themselves as old wrongs are starting to be settled.
Cue dramatic music, and toss the characters into the mix. Each clan has its own agenda in the upcoming war, whether it happens to be an unavenged assassination during the previous war or a thwarted marriage recently. Personally, I would start things off slowly, hinting at the simmering tensions and allowing the player characters to try their hands at unraveling the alliances and rivalries that are to form the basis of the war itself.
While they could all be members of a single clan that’s trying to pull apart the tangle of interwoven plots, it might not be a bad model to let the traditional L5R game model – characters of a scattering of clans – work in as well. This would allow the players to be drawn into the larger plots under the directives of their clan elders, often putting them at odds with their own allies as they navigate the larger conflict.
This is one of those game ideas that I really, really like and doubt that I will ever get around to actually running. I’ve got a substantial collection of Legend of the Five Rings RPG books, but it’s one of those game that I never really get around to running for myself.