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Sunday 15 June 2014

Your Westeros Primer

Having finally got round to watching Season #3 of A Game of Thrones and read both parts of A Storm of Swords, I can at last feel confident in avoiding spoilers in reading and then reviewing A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. This is the first supplement for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue , the RPG published by Green Ronin based on the series of best-selling fantasy books by George R.R. Martin.  I have already reviewed the second supplement, A Song of Ice and Fire Chronicle Starter, as that contains no spoilers from either the books or the television series and is much of more of a gaming supplement than A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. This supplement though, is much grander affair, describing as it does Westeros in lavish detail, providing full details on all the major regions and principal players of the game of thrones.

So if you happen not to have watched season #3 of A Game of Thrones or read both parts of A Storm of Swords, you do need to know that it does contain some spoilers. For in detailing the places and personages of Westeros and beyond, it focuses on places and peoples that do not appear until towards the end of both. It should be made clear that for the most part, these are not plot spoilers, but rather setting spoilers. Nevertheless, at least one plot spoiler is illustrated late in the book.

In keeping with the A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue, the setting for A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is in the immediate years before the events of Martin’s heptalogy—or is that octet?—begin. The Seven Kingdoms of Westeros are at peace under the reign of Robert Baratheon, who usurped the Iron Throne from the Targaryen dynasty, the last of the Targaryens are powerless exiles to the east, the wildlings beyond the Wall seem contained, and the first stirrings of winter have yet to come. The handsome hardback opens with a history of Westeros, covering from The Dawn Age through the Age of Heroes and Age of the Dragons to just beyond the War of the Usurper and Greyjoy’s Rebellion. It is followed by an examination of the culture of Westeros, covering laws and justice, customs, entertainments and pastimes, goods and trading, language, faith, and the Maesters—the latter the scholars of Westeros. Several sections here will be of interest to the GM wanting to run a standard campaign based around a house of the players’ creation as described in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. These include knighthood, social status and rank, and illegitimacy—the latter accompanied by the regional names accorded bastards in Westeros, Jon Snow of the North being the most obvious example.

This sets the stage for the bulk of the book. From King’s Landing and Dragonstone to The Stormlands and Dorne, the book details the history, geography and key locations, and the ruling House of its region, plus persons of note and notable personages, and the Banner Houses that owe fealty to the ruling House. So for example, the chapter detailing The Reach tells you how rich and fertile it is and of its rivalry with Dorne; of Oldtown, the city that is  home to the Maesters of the Citadel that was once Westeros’ premier city; and of the Maesters and how you would don the Chain to become one, before presenting House Tyrell. Some members of the House are simply given descriptions, but others are also given full stats according to the rules of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. In this case, they are Lord Mace Tyrell, his mother Lady Olenna Tyrell, and three of his four children, Ser Garlan, Ser Loras, and Margaery. Other persons of note are also given full write-ups, though these are less frequent. For the Reach, they consist solely of Samwell Tarly of House Tarly. Following the description of the Ruling House, the most notable Banner Houses are presented. These include major, minor, and landed houses as well as extinct ones. In some cases they are accorded a single line, others are a bit more detailed and thus interesting.

In each of the descriptions of the Seven Kingdoms, further aspects of Westeros are also given. In the case of The Reach, this is Oldtown and the Maesters, for the North, this the Night’s Watch, the neutral sworn brotherhood that mans the Wall against incursions by the Wildings, and for Dragonstone, it is background to the Targaryens, including write-ups and stats for Viserys and Daenerys, the surviving heirs. Accompanying the House descriptions and the Banner House descriptions are their castle names, coat of arms, and motto. In many cases, a very many of the Banner Houses have their coats of arms illustrated. Each of these chapters is accompanied by a decent map.

Having worked its way north from King’s Landing to the North and back down south again, the penultimate chapter in A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is the eponymously titled ‘Beyond Westeros’ as it takes the reader across the Summer Sea to the Free Cities, the Dothraki Sea, and beyond. There are no game stats or character write-ups in this section.

Rounding out A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is ‘Exploring Westeros’, a chapter of advice for the GM. This presents a look at the themes and feel of a Westeros campaign—noting that throughout, both are unlike traditional fantasy, either of certain novels and their bearing of rings or particular roleplaying games. It addresses the issue of running a campaign with a setting that has a particular plot—something that the A Song of Ice and Fire series has in abundance. There is a balance to be maintained the advice suggests between the players and their characters wanting to interact with the series’ signature characters and the influence and input from the player characters not derailing the plots and events that weave around the series’ characters. Essentially, what it comes down to is that a GM  and his players need to decide on the game that they want to play—one that unfolds alongside the events of the novels or want that goes off in another direction entirely. Completing the chapter is a number of campaign ideas that a GM could develop.

Physically, A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is nicely presented with lots of full colour, painted art that presents another look and feel to that depicted in the television series. The book is nicely written and an enjoyably clear read, and the maps are good too.

There are one or two issues with A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. As good as the maps are, the book could have down with more. In particular, no maps are given for the lands to the East. Given that they figure strongly in the novels, the lack of maps is a disappointing omission. Similarly, more maps of other locations would have been nice too. Maps are given for King’s Landing and the Red Keep, but not for many of the other castles or big towns in Westeros. To an extent, not all of them are detailed in the novels, but this is a roleplaying supplement after all, and some GMs like to have things quantified. Having already mentioned the plot spoilers in the art in the rear of the book, it should be pointed out that the choice of characters given full stats seems odd given that they are not connected with any particular character or House. This sort of heralds the importance of their roles in the novels.

If you happen to have read A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords, and watched the first three seasons of A Game of Thrones, then there is much to be enjoyed in A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide. You could ignore the game game stats altogether, because really, they do not take up all that much space; if you did, then what you would have is a well written and informative sourcebook for both the books and the television series up to end of book #3 and season #3. One that complements them both, though the books more so than the television series. As written though, A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is a roleplaying supplement and both the source material presented here and the accompanying stats ably support that aspect (the latter without being unobtrusive). The advice in the last chapter is a pleasing if concise counterpart to the material presented earlier in the book and is good corollary to the advice given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue.

Thus A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide is a good sourcebook for the A Song of Ice and Fire novels. It is also a good roleplaying supplement, expanding upon the information given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Adventure, War, and Intrigue. So A Song of Ice and Fire Campaign Guide succeeds twice.

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