Despite the fact that there has been a copy of A Game of Thrones on the bookshelf for a good decade or more, I have never found the time to pick it up and start reading George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice & Fire series. Nor did I pick it up and start reading it when the television series was made or when Green Ronin Publishing released A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue in George R. R. Martin’s World of Westeros. In this last week or so, I have however engaged in a marathon one-day viewing of A Game of Thrones, Season One and finished reading through A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition released by Green Ronin Publishing. So now, I at least feel qualified to review what in effect, is the game’s second edition, updated and revised from its original release in 2009 and now including not one, but two full scenarios that had been previously available as separate adventures.
What should be made clear about A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition is it is not a roleplaying game about playing the events of the novels or the television series. In fact, none of the signature characters appear, or are described, in its pages. Nor is it set at the time of the novels, but rather, before the chaos of the events that they describe. That said, some spoilers are contained within its pages. Anyway, instead of portraying the signature characters, the players of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying work together to create a minor noble house and attempt to control not just its fortunes, but also those of the members of its household, as roleplayed by the players, either nobles or retainers. This can be through allegiances, war, and intrigue, but ultimately, the fate of the house is tied to one of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros. These kingdoms vary in nature and tradition as much as the continent of Westeros does, from the sparseness of the North dominated by the three hundred mile long, seven hundred foot high Wall of ice and magic that has protected the lands to the south for millennia, to the rocks and mountains of Dorne in the far South.
Whilst the setting of the series and the RPG is one of High Fantasy, it is not one necessarily of great magic. Magic has existed in its past, but exists only in small ways within both the setting and the RPG, mostly as omens or dreams. This is reflected in what is available as characters to the players. They can be warriors, whether Anointed Knights of the nobility or Hedge Knights who have risen from the common folk to sell their service to the nobility; heirs and nobles intriguing for their house; the learned Maesters who wear chain necklaces with each link indicating an area of their learned knowledge and advise the houses on a range of subjects, except for faith, as this is provided by the Godsworn; and any number of retainers and experts that a house might employ, from a bard to a scout. Within the limits of game’s setting, the players are free to create any characters that they want.
The process though, starts with House creation – this despite the fact that the rules for this are placed after those for character creation in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. The players work to create the house together, deciding which of Westeros’ Seven Kingdoms it lies, before rolling handfuls of dice to determine its Resources in terms of its Defense, Influence, Lands, Law, Population, Power, and Wealth. These are influenced by a House’s history and the events that have taken place since. Whilst these are also randomly rolled for, the players are free to decide the exact nature of these events. Once the Resource levels are finally determined, they are then used as points to purchase a House’s castle, hall, or tower; how many children its current Lord has; the features of its lands, basically its terrain types and communities; any lesser or Banner Houses that swear fealty to it – each Banner House can also be created using these mechanics – and what military units it commands; and lastly, features born of wealth, like a marketplace or port. The players also decide what their House’s motto is and with rolls of even more dice, its coat of arms. Lastly, the players decide upon the members of the household, many of whom will become player characters.
The creation process is entertaining and will probably take a session in its own right. Beyond the creation process itself, the House needs to be run from one month to the next. This can be as simple as making a House Fortune roll, which provides a random event such as a plague that reduces a House’s Population Resource or an increase in its Influence Resource with the blessing that the Lady of the House is with child. The Lord of a House can also undertake an action each month, managing Resources, adding new features to his lands, waging war, or even host a tournament. Beyond the mere mechanics, the House serves as a character in its own right, from which the Narrator can derive events and challenges to present to his players.
House: Install of the Iron Islands, Lords of the Ladder
Defence: 36 (Small Castle )
Influence: 26 (First-born son )
Lands: 22 (Wetlands , Hamlet , Coast , River , Ruin )
Law: 19 (House Fortunes -5)
Population: 33 (House Fortunes +3)
Power: 48 (Banner House Mohr – Defence: 18, Influence: 22, Lands: 21, Law: 12, Population: 9, Power: 20, Wealth: 15), (Banner House Lassen – Defence: 15, Influence: 14, Lands: 20, Law: 18, Population: 19, Power: 18, Wealth: 20), (Trained Sailors: Discipline Routine , Agility 3/Awareness 3/Fighting 3, [Power 7]; Fleet: Trained Warships: Discipline Routine , Awareness 3/Fighting 3/Marksmanship 3, [Power 10]; Green Peasant Levies: Discipline Routine , Animal Handling 2/Awareness 3/Fighting 2, [Power 1])
Wealth: 45 (Artisan, Maester, Port, Sept)
Heraldic Device: Sanguine over Azure Per Chevron with a Ladder Or centre
Motto: We Climb to Honour
Family legend says that the founder of House of Install helped the Grey King of the Iron Islands to climb from the sea and was the first to kneel before him. In return for his fealty, the first Install was given the right to take an island by blood and conquest. He choose Harlaw and in a campaign that lasted a hundred years, the first Install claimed the island in the name of the Grey King, and from there would lead many raids upon the West coast of Westeros. The family’s fortunes fell during the Targaryen conquest. Aegon the Conqueror and his Dragons drove the Ironmen of the River Lands out and forced them to return to the Iron Islands, where their jealousy of the then Lord Install’s holdings weakened the response to the Targaryen invasion. Despite the niggardly attacks upon his estates, Lord Install stood with House Greyjoy throughout the assault on the islands, and when the Greyjoys were chosen by the Iron Men to become the Lords Paramount of the Iron Isles, the Installs swore their allegiance to them. Their loyalty was not forgotten and whilst Lord Greyjoy was forced to grant lands to House Install’s leading detractors – Lassen and Mohr, it was as Banner Houses to Lord Install.
In more recent times, Lord Gregor Install forged greater links through trade with the mainland and supported Robert of House Baratheon in his overthrow of Aerys II Targaryen, "the Mad King." He gained great favour with the new king, but the division to his loyalties drove him mad when his liege lord, Balon Greyjoy, openly rebelled against King Robert Baratheon. Although the rebellion failed, Lord Gregor’s indecision lost the house favour with both Houses Greyjoy and Baratheon and many of his decisions in the last decade have further weakened the family’s status. As has Lord Gregor’s conversion to the faith of the Seven, which resulted in him allowing the establishment of a Sept on his lands. His wife, Elana, persuaded her husband to acquire the services of a Maester in response, so as to reduce the influence of her husband’s madness on her children.
House Install’s holdings consist of the entire length of the River Piddle that divides the island of Harlaw and the wetlands that run along its banks. Castle Install stands several miles up the navigable river over the island’s major port, Harlaw’s Foot. The Installs tax the trade that passes through the port onto the market in Lassen and back out again.
- Lord Gregor Install, Lord of Harlaw’s Foot, an old man of nearly seventy
- Lady Elana, Lady of Harlaw’s Foot, formerly of Banner House Mohr and aunt of Kyle, current head of House Mohr, a middle-aged woman of thirty-eight
- Ser Aubran Pyke, bastard son of Harlaw’s Foot, an adult man of twenty-five years
- Lady Ingirun Install, daughter of Harlaw’s Foot, a young woman of eighteen years
- Lord Stefan Install, heir of Harlaw’s Foot, a young man of thirteen
- Duncan Lassen, Squire to Ser Aubran, Ward of House Install, a young man of twelve years
- Mace Weller, a Bravoosi Water Dancer and Swords Master, tutor to Lord Stefan Install and Duncan Lassen, an adult man of thirty years
- Maester Gilbert, a middle-aged man of forty-one years, once of the Riverlands
Creating a character in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying involves choosing a place within a House. This should not be the head of the House, but can be his heir or his heir’s siblings, wards from other Houses, or any number of loyal retainers. Once selected, a character’s age is either chosen or rolled, and this determines how many points he has available to spend on Attributes, Bonus Dice, and Destiny Points, as well as any Flaws or Drawbacks. The older a character is, the more he has to spend on Attributes and Bonus Dice, but the less he has to spend on Destiny Points as they have already experienced much of his life. Younger characters receive fewer points to spend on Attributes and Bonus Dice, but have more Destiny Points to spend because they have their life yet to lead.
Although not a “class or level” game, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying does suggest what character Abilities fit certain Roles and illustrates it with characters from the book. For example, Eddard Stark is listed as a Leader, and the Cunning, Endurance, Fighting, Persuasion, Status, and Warfare Abilities are suggested for that role. The other Roles are Expert, Fighter, Rogue, and Schemer. Of course, a player is free to combine whatever role and take whatever Abilities he wants for his character. There are a total of eighteen Abilities, from Agility and Awareness to Warfare and Will. They are as much skills as they are the attributes to be found in other RPGs, and range from between one and eight, with an Ability starting at two and rarely going six or above. All of the Abilities are important, but within the setting of Westeros, Persuasion is useful in intrigues; Status represents the circumstances of your birth and station, as well as your skill at governing your House; and Warfare lets you take command of your House’s troops – if it has any! In addition, a character has a number of Specialities attached to his Abilities, such as Climb or Swim for the Athletics Ability, Bluff or Cheat for the Deception Ability, and Axes or Spears for the Fighting Ability.
During his creation, a character also begins with a number of Destiny Points, the amount varying according to his age. In game, they can be used to gain bonuses and control of the narrative, but more importantly, if the character is defeated – whether due to intrigue or open combat – they allow him to choose his fate. Otherwise, it lies in the hands of the victor – which is never a good thing! Whilst the game advises that the character keeps some for this purpose, during character creation, they can be used to purchase Benefits. These are the equivalent of Advantages in other games, and fall under several categories – Ability, Fate, Heritage, Martial, and Social. For example, the Guttersnipe Ability Benefit allows re-rolls of one on the results of all Thievery Tests; the Heir Fate Benefit grants no mechanical advantage, but should the head of the House die, then you inherit the Head of House Benefit and control the family’s fortunes; the Bludgeon Fighter I Martial Benefit makes it easier for the user’s weapon to shatter armour; and the Charismatic Social Benefit grants a bonus to Persuasion Tests. Many of the Benefits given in the game directly reflect elements of the setting, such as Brother of the Night’s Watch or Animal Cohort. Many also stack and require previous Benefits, such as Short Blade Fighter I, Short Blade Fighter II, and Short Blade Fighter III, such as the Warg benefit needing Warg Dreams and Animal Cohort.
In addition to these Benefits, older characters tend to suffer from Drawbacks, which inflict penalties on a character’s Abilities, and Flaws, which are like traditional Disadvantages of other roleplaying games. Lastly, a character rolls for his Life Events around which his background can be created, and either chooses, or rolls, for his Goal, Motivation, Virtue, and Vice. Again, these have no mechanical bearing on the game, and are included as roleplaying hooks.
Alternatively, some nine pre-generated characters are included as ready-to-play examples. A player is free to use these, or create his own. The creation process is more fun though.
Lady Ingirun Install
As the eldest legitimate offspring of House Install, Lady Ingirun rages at her situation. She does not wish to be married off to maintain some alliance, but rather to see to her House’s fortunes herself. She is torn between the aims of her parents, rent in twain by her father’s madness. Under his guidance, she would be a warrior and a raider, leading the house’s fleet into war. Only last year she took command of a vessel that was harried by pirates and turned her ship upon the buccaneers, not only capturing its captain in personal combat, but saving both the lives of her mother and younger brother in the process.
Her mother wishes her daughter to marry well and so strengthen House Install in the process. She has been presented at several courts, but as charming and as charismatic as she is, her suitors rarely linger. Vivacious and disarming she can be, but there is something a little odd about both her and some of the things that she says, things that sometimes come to pass. Ingirun is a popular member of House Install, especially with the Iron Men, who see her as a true daughter of the First Install who would be welcome on any of their boats.
Lady Ingirun Install
Athletics 3, Awareness 3, Cunning 3, Deception 3, Fighting 3 (Long Blades 1B), Knowledge, Language 3 (Common), Persuasion 4 (Charm 1B), Status 4 (Breeding 1B, Stewardship 1B), Warfare 2 (Command 1B), Will 4 (Dedication 1B)
Goal: Power Motivation: Hatred Virtue: Courageous Vice: Scheming
Events: Achieved a significant deed
Qualities: Destiny Points 2, Blood of the Ironmen, Charismatic, Third Eye
Intrigue Defence 10 / Composure 12
Move 3 / Sprint 14
Combat Defence 8 (10 with shield) / Armour Rating 5 / Health 6
Attack Longsword 3+1B (4 damage)
Attack Shield 3 (1 damage; defensive +2)
Personal Gear: Longsword, Mail, Shield, Courtier’s Clothing, 11 Gold Dragons
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying uses what Green Ronin Publishing calls the Chronicle System which only uses six-sided dice. This of course, makes its mechanics easier for anyone coming to the game via the books or the television series rather than another RPG. To undertake an action, a character gets to roll a number of dice equal to the Ability plus any Speciality dice, but he only gets to keep a number of dice equal to the Ability. A Routine Test would be 6, with difficulties rising in steps of three. In certain situations, Degrees of Success matter, each requiring multiples of five above the basic Test value.
For example, Lady Ingirun Install is aboard a ship that has been attacked by a pirate ship. She has prepared for the attack and donned her sword and armour. As the pirate comes alongside, she attempts to leap across. This is an Athletics Test, which the Narrator sets at Formidable or 12. Her player asks that Ingirun receive a bonus for her Blood of the Ironmen Benefit and her Courageous Virtue and the Narrator gives her a +2 bonus. He rolls a 4, 5, and 6, which together with the +2 gives her a total of 17. This also gives Ingirun the equivalent of a Great Success and her Narrator rules that she has landed on her feet in the pirate boat and is ready to fight.
The combat system has a pleasing brutality to it. It makes a strong division between physical defence and physical protection. Thus the lighter the type of armour that a defendant is wearing, the more difficult it is to hit him, but when he is hit, his armour stops less damage. A defendant wearing heavy armour is easier to hit, but his armour offers him better protection. He is also much slower. Weapon damage is not determined by a die roll, by the actual weapon used. For example, a Greatword does damage equal to the wielder’s Athletics Ability +3. Most weapons also have one or more Qualities of their own. The Greatsword has the Qualities of Powerful, Slow, Two-handed, Unwieldy, and Vicious, which means that a wielder can put more effort into a strike and inflict more damage (Powerful), that the wielder cannot divide his attacks against multiple opponents (Slow), requires two hands (Two-handed), is difficult to use on horseback (Unwieldy), and in defeating an opponent, always kills him (Vicious). Whilst a simple hit inflicts a set amount of damage, Degrees of Success multiply the base damage, which when you consider that the base Health rating for a character is 6, means that combat can be very deadly. Combat is not necessarily complex, but it does offer plenty of options, especially once characters start employing manoeuvres.
When a character has his Health reduced to 0, he has been defeated. It can offset though, by taking Wounds or Injuries, which involves taking penalties to Tests until a character is healed. If he is defeated though, the victor chooses what happens to you. Common options include Death, Maiming (with an accompanying reduction in one Ability), being Ransomed (or being held captive until this can be paid), Take the Black (exile and service with the Night’s Watch rangers on the Wall), or Unconsciousness. Alternatively, the Defeated could Yield and negotiate with the Narrator as to his fate; or he could burn a Destiny Point to decide what happens.
For example, having led her troops aboard the pirate vessel, Lady Ingirun has cut her way through several of the pirates, but not without suffering in injury to her arm that imposes a -2 to all Tests in the combat. She finally reaches the pirate captain, Olef the Red, and attacks with the fury of the Blood of the Ironmen, giving her a single extra die to roll and keep. She has Fighting 3+1B with a longsword, so she gets to roll five dice and keep four, deducting two from the final result. She rolls 2, 3, 3, 6, and 6, chooses the highest four results, and deducts 2 to get a final result of 16. The captain is wearing ring mail and has a Combat Defence of 4, so Ingirun has rolled 14 higher than the target. This is three Degree of Success and so Ingirun inflicts 12 points of damage, which is reduced to 8 by his ring mail. The pirate captain cannot withstand this blow and attempts to yield. Ingirun, ever the schemer, demands Olef and his men surrender and enter her service, or die…
Little is known of Mace Weller’s background and he rarely speaks of it. A trained Water Dancer despite his obviously being from Westeros rather than Bravos across the Narrow Sea, Weller has returned to his homeland where he is currently a sword master in the employ of House Install. If anyone asks, he will state that he was a student of the late Titos Fallelan, famed Bravoosi Water Dancer and nothing more. He denies any knowledge of the rumours surrounding his master’s death, but has been to stare longingly at a small cameo that he keeps in a locket and is never without.
Agility 4 (Acrobatics 1B, Quickness 1B), Animal Handling 2, Athletics 3, Awareness 3 (Empathy 1B), Cunning 2, Deception 2, Endurance 3, Fighting 5 (Fencing 3B), Healing 2, Knowledge 2, Language 3 (Bravoosi) 2 (Westeros), Marksmanship 2, Persuasion 3 (Charm 1B), Status 2 (Breeding 1B), Stealth 2, Survival 2, Thievery 2, Warfare 2, Will 3
Goal: Revenge Motivation: Peace Virtue: Humble Vice: Cowardly
Events: Travelled across the Narrow Sea; Kidnapped and escaped; Falsely accused of wrong doing
Qualities: Destiny Points 1, Braavosi Fighter I, Water Dancer I, Courteous
Intrigue Defence 7 / Composure 9
Move 3 / Sprint 14
Combat Defence 10+2 / Padded Armour 1/ Health 9
Attack Bravoosi Blade 5+2B (4 damage, Fast, Defensive +1)
Personal Gear: Bravoosi Blade, Courtier’s Clothing, 5 Gold Dragons
A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying includes two other forms of combat. The first is Warfare, which enables the Narrator to play out pitched battles and other military engagements, as well as allowing the player characters to get involved. Not just in fighting alongside the units, but also in joining and leading them. The rules involve units of a hundred foot soldiers or twenty cavalry, which possess Abilities just like characters, most obviously Fighting and Discipline. The latter is important when its commander attempts to give it orders using his Warfare Ability. Just like the rules for combat there several advanced options which allow for particular manoeuvres or formations, such as Pincer or Square. The rules can be used to roleplay out a military engagement, but they can just as easily be used with miniatures to play out as a simple wargame. These rules also allow the players’ House to go to war or defend itself using the military units purchased with the Power Resource.
The second form of combat in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying is Intrigue. Where both melee and missile combat and Warfare handle physical combat, Intrigue is for social combat. Whilst the danger of physical combat in the Seven Kingdoms is an ever present threat, Intrigue is more civilised form of warfare and constantly plays out across Westeros, most notably as the “Game of Thrones.” Where in melee combat a character will enter into the fray with his arms and armour, when entering into an Intrigue, he has Dispositions and Techniques, the first serving as his armour, the latter as his attacks, and will withstand attacks with his Intrigue Defence – and if not, will take “social” damage to his Composure. An Intrigue can be handled in as complex a fashion as the players and Narrator wants. A Simple Intrigue can be handled with a single Test, a Standard Intrigue as a series of Tests, and a Complex Intrigue as a series of Standard Intrigues played out over time.
As with physical Combat, there are consequences to suffering a Defeat during an Intrigue. These though, will vary depending upon the Technique used by the victor. For example, a successful Bargain might gain the victor a reduction in the cost of a service, whilst with a successful Convince, the defeated will agree to support the victor, even if they hate the victor. As with the previous forms of combat, the rules for Intrigue are supported with detailed examples.
Other elements of the setting of A Song of Ice and Fire are supported through the equipment lists, which includes a lengthy section on poisons, and the bestiary. The latter includes a small selection of supernatural creatures, such as the Others and Wights, should the player characters’ adventures ever take them beyond the Wall. The Narrator also receives some expanded rules and discussion of the previous rules as well as the usual advice on running the game, plus advice on handling magic and supernatural events, and running a game set within the Seven Kingdoms not built around the game’s default of running and playing a House. This includes having the players take the roles of the adventurers more typically found in a fantasy RPG, playing Free Folk, getting involved in the Game of Thrones or the events of the books, and of course, having the player characters Take the Black and join the rangers of the Night’s Watch on the Wall.
If there is an issue to A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying it is that the background is underwhelming. The almanac at the book’s start gives a good introduction to the setting, but at no point do you get the feeling that you have enough information about Westeros. Much of it comes down to small details, such as names. For example, in creating the sample House, Banner Houses, and characters above, I was left wondering what would be suitable names for the setting. Much of this is addressed in the game’s two main supplements. A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide, for example, provides much more detail about the Seven Kingdoms and Westeros, as well as describing the characters from the books. A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter also gives six whole Houses in detail, any one of which could become the one run by the players. The others of course, could be their House’s allies, enemies, or rivals – or all six could serve in any of these capacities if the players have created their own House.
Nevertheless, this problem has been in part addressed in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition. This new deluxe version of the RPG has been expanded by a third with the inclusion of two scenarios that had previously been available in PDF. “Journey to King’s Landing” originally appeared in the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Quickstart, whilst the much, much longer “Peril at King’s Landing,” which appeared as a supplement of its own. Notes are included that allow the scenarios to be run together with the scenario “Wedding Night” which appears in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Narrator’s Kit. “Peril at King’s Landing” also provides specific information about the Westerosi capital, King’s Landing, and a full set of NPCs and minor houses. Both scenarios make use of the sample pre-generated characters provided at the beginning of the book, specifically adding a background to each to involve them in the adventures.
Physically, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition is nicely presented. The new edition is cleaner and tidier, and it has all of the errata worked in from the original A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. New artwork has been added, including the cover, and whilst some of it hints at spoilers, it is generally evocative of the setting.
As an aside, it should be noted that A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition bears strong comparison with another roleplaying game, both in terms of setting and mechanics. That game is Alderac Entertainment Group’s Legends of the Five Rings. Both games employ a “roll and keep” core mechanic, using ten-sided dice in the case of Legends of the Five Rings and six-sided dice in the case of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. Of course, how the results are interpreted is very different, with the Chronicle System being the slightly more complex of the two. In both settings, there is massive wall built through magic that protects the nation. In Westeros, this is of ice and found in the North, in Rokugan, it lies in the far South and is of stone construction. Both constructions are known as the Wall. Similarly, in both settings great clans or houses vie with each for power and prestige before the current holder of the nation’s throne – the Iron Throne in the case of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, the Emerald Throne in the case of Rokugan. Parallels aside, there is nothing to stop a GM from the rules given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition and the Chronicle System in general to run a fantasy campaign in which a family organisation matters. So it would work with the RPGs King Arthur Pendragon and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne, and it would also work with Frank Herbert’s Dune. All it would take is some tweaking upon the part of the GM.
In many ways, the basic rules and mechanics in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition do feel far from original. Yet does something have to be original to work? The Chronicle System is a relatively simple one, and simple for a roleplaying game that has deal with both experienced players and those coming to it anew as a fan of the novels and television series, is nothing but a good design decision. Plus, the one or two steps that the rules take in order to handle the trio of rules sets at the heart of the game and Westeros itself – Combat, Intrigue, and Warfare – are not overly complex ones and they do have enough similarities to go from one to another. In fact, the most mechanically complex aspect of the game is character generation, and that is more a problem of having to flip back and forth though the book to understand how each element of a character works in order to create one suitable for both the game and the setting.
Ultimately, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition is weakest when it comes to the background of the books and the television series, but get past that and the Chronicle System and its implementation here capture the grim, often brutal fantasy as seen in both the books and on screen. The rules allow you to make an interesting House around which to play your characters, and also allow you to create characters that have the potential to be honourable, feared, hated, devious, and even mourned… If a Narrator and his players want to roleplay a campaign set within the Seven Kingdoms and Westeros, then A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition has everything that they need to get started.