Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Sunday 26 June 2016

Crow's Black Agents

Things have been very quiet for over the last two years for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, the RPG based on the fantasy works of George R.R. Martin published by Green Ronin Publishing. Indeed there have been two whole series of the television adaptation, A Game of Thrones, broadcast since the release of the last supplement, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night's Watch, back in 2012. This being the last supplement to be released—though more have been promised, including a full adventure, Dragon’s Hoard—is not its only distinction. One is that A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night's Watch won the 2013 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Supplement, whilst another is that the supplement is the first to take A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying into the unknown and beyond the lands of the Seven Kingdoms.

A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night's Watch can roughly be divided in half, each half devoted to a campaigns equally divided by the Wall, the gigantic structure of ice, stone, and ancient magic that separates the warm lands of lords and kings of Westeros to the south from the frozen and brutal wilderness to the north. the Wall protects the Seven Kingdoms from ancient dangers—many considered to be no more than the stuff of legend—and the Wildlings, the free folk who kneel to no king and constantly work to bypass or ascend the Wall to raid lands beyond. the Wall is constantly manned by the men of the Night’s Watch, thieves, murderers, and members of the nobility who have forsworn their previous lives and pledged their loyalty to the only independent military force in Westeros. On the other side of the Wall the many tribes of the Wildlings live independently, surviving off the land, feuding with each other, but always with an eye to the rich, warmer lands to the south—if they can find a way past the Wall.

Both of the campaign options suggested in Night’s Watch are markedly different to the default given in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, although the same mechanics are used. That default involves the player characters creating their own noble house and its leading members and attempting to navigate its and their military and political fortunes in the ‘Game of Thrones’ that dominates Westeros as best typified by A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Chronicle Starter—and of course, both the novels and the television series. When they ‘Take the Black’, whether low born or high born, the player characters will forget their pasts and former ties and pledge their allegiance and loyalty to the Night’s Watch—for life. Having done so, they will become Rangers who regularly guard the Wall and conduct missions to the north known as ‘Rangings’; Builders who patrol the Wall and the castles along it, making repairs and maintaining the structure of both; or Stewards, who keep the Night’s Watch organised and supplied. By the reign of Robert Baratheon, these tasks have become increasingly difficult as the stories of the dangers from other side of the Wall have become legends rather than history and the Night’s Watch has become more of a dumping ground for criminals, ne’er do wells, and those nobles who have lost in the constant feuding to the south than a duty to be fulfilled. This does not mean that the men of the Night’s Watch do not hold their duty and their oath to be unimportant, as after all, they face execution should they desert the Wall. Nevertheless, as their numbers and the number of castles on the Wall fully manned dwindle, only they suspect the growing threat as Winter draws near and Mance Rayder is said to have united all of the tribes of the Wildings as the King-Beyond-the Wall.

Creating a character for a Night’s Watch campaign uses the standard rules from A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying, but where a player character would usually select a House and a Bloodline, here the Night’s Watch replaces both. Characters will also lack the Status they once had in the Seven Kingdoms. Whatever their role in the Night’s Watch, a character also starts with one less Destiny point with which to purchase Benefits, but in its stead starts with the Brother of the Night’s Watch, which comes with three options, one per branch of the Night’s Watch. In addition to Brother of the Night’s Watch, the supplement introduces a number of new Benefits and Drawbacks, such as Defensive Engineer, Favoured of Wildlings, Convict, and Kneeler. There is still room for the various Roles in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying—Expert, Fighter, Leader, Rogue, and Schemer—but they do not figure quite as prominently as they do in a standard A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game. Certainly the Night’s Watch is intolerant of active thieves and there is less scope for a Schemer to intrigue, though rivalries between castles of the Wall are not unknown. 

Our sample character is Endrew Waters. He can barely remember his mother, but he recalls her death and he recalls that on her deathbed, she drew a promise from the local septon that her son would be accepted as a novice of the Faith of the Seven. Orphaned, he began training as a novice, but he found another calling—entertaining. Endrew ran away to join an acting troupe and for over a decade he travelled the Seven Kingdoms, performing before audiences both low born and high born. Two years he performed before House Bracken in the Riverlands and struck up a friendship with the heir that blossomed into an affair. This lasted a few months during which Endrew became a favourite in the Bracken Household, but it was brought to an end when the heir’s mother came to him and told him to leave. Her son she said, was besotted with Endrew and she knew him well enough that he would never consent to marriage and children if Endrew did not leave—and if there was any possibility that Endrew might return, she knew her son might follow him. She gave him a choice… Hunted down like a deer in the woods or the Night’s Watch. Endrew left for the Wall the following morning.

Endrew is a reluctant member of the Night’s Watch. He hates fighting and he hates the cold. He is beginning to find a place with his ability to entertain, but his primary duties involve the repair of other brothers’ clothing and equipment.

Endrew Waters (Adult Schemer)
Agility 3, Animal Handling 2, Athletics 3, Awareness 3 (Empathy 1B), Cunning 3 (Memory 1B), Deception 4 (Bluff 1B), Endurance 3, Fighting 3 (Long Blades 1B), Healing 3, Knowledge 4 (Education 1B), Language 3 (Common, High Valyrian, Valyrian), Marksmanship 2, Persuasion 5 (Charm 1B, Seduce 1B), Status 1 (Steward 1B), Stealth 2, Survival 2, Thievery 3, Warfare 2, Will 3

Social Background: Lowborn
Background Event: You had an affair with a member of the nobility
Reason for Taking the Black: You are avoiding a scandal
Reasons for Desertion: You cannot tolerate callous cruelty
Goal: Fame Motivation: Love Virtue: Devoted Vice: Cowardly
Qualities: Destiny Points 1, Brother of the Night’s Watch (Steward), Charismatic (Charm +2), Mummer, Trade (Tailor)
Awareness 3
Intrigue Defence 7 / Composure 9
Move 4 (3) / Sprint 16 (14)
Combat Defence 8 (10 with shield) / Armour Rating 4 / Health 9
Attack Longsword 3+1B (3 damage)
Attack Shield 3 (1 damage; defensive +2)
Personal Gear: Longsword, Ring Mail, Medium Shield, Warm Clothing, Black Cloak

Night’s Watch campaigns primarily involve guarding the Wall, but there are plenty of other options for adventures and campaigns. There are Rangings north of the Wall, tracking down Wildlings who have made it into the Gift—the lands immediately south of the Wall, racing after a deserter before he can get too far and there is reason enough for him to be executed, and travelling south to petition for more money and men for the Wall. Most of these will involve the player characters serving at one of the few castles stilled manned, most likely Castle Black, but another option given sees the player characters being given a command of their own and assigned to castle. During the reign of Robert Baratheon, this is likely to be one of the many abandoned castles along the Wall, but during an earlier period of the eight thousand history of the Wall, it might be a new castle. Restoring and managing a castle is the equivalent of running a house in a standard A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign, except that it is more challenging, the upkeep is harder, and the player characters are not trying to promulgate their family by creating an heir…

Now there is one very obvious issue with a Night’s Watch campaign. Despite its egalitarian leanings in that all men are more or less equal amongst the Night’s Watch and most positions of authority are held on merit, it does lack female roles. Now there is no reason why they cannot be included should the GM allow them in his game, but the presence of women amongst the Night’s Watch, which is after all, a brotherhood, is neither canon to the novels or the television series. This may well be an issue in some campaigns, but not if the GM takes his campaign north of the Wall and sets it amongst the Wildlings.

The life of a Wildling—Wildling being the derogatory term used by the peoples of Westeros for those who live north of the Wall—is quite possibly nasty, brutal, and short, but it is free. Unlike the soft men of the south, a Wildling does not kneel. For he is a member of the Free Folk. Further, a Wildling must be able to survive and contribute to his tribe, hunting for food and resources, protecting the tribe and keeping it strong. Raids on rival tribes are common—more common than raids south of the Wall—and whilst most of these will be for food and other resources, it is common practice for men of a tribe to raid another for wives. Most women of the Free Folk, known as Spearwives, are as tough as the men. Most tribes are nomadic, but some have formed permanent settlements around important resources. Their technology is roughly that of the Stone Age, primarily making use of wood, bone, and stone, though some tribes have the means to make bronze and most tribes make use of arms and armour that they can take from the Night’s Watch or trade with merchants from across the sea in Essos.

Like creating a member of the Night’s Watch, creating a member of the Free Folk uses the standard rules in A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying. Similarly, the various Roles—Expert, Fighter, Leader, Rogue, and Schemer—exist, but those of Fighter, Leader, and Rogue tend to dominate. Where a brother of the Night’s Watch replaces his House and Bloodline with the Night’s Watch, a Wildling replaces them with Tribe and Lands. Like the Night’s Watch, the Free Folk also place a similar lack of value upon Status as well as a lack of value on Knowledge and both are likely to start at lower values. They also have access to a host of new Benefits. Many of these relate to a particular tribe, like ‘Born of the Thenn Tribes’ or ‘Born of the Nightrunners’, but others include ‘Giant Friend’, ‘Spearwife’, and ‘Winter-Touched’. It should also be noted that the Free Folk possess a greater awareness of the old ways and Greensight, Skinchanger, Warg, and Warg Dreams are far common than they are in the south.

Our sample character is Tsersi, though not born of the Ice Wives was found and raised by them. She has worked hard to be as good as any natural-born Ice Wife, but in her heart she she does not quite feel one of them. Thus she strives to be better whilst being tolerant of her fellow tribe members, but known to be intolerant, if not outright cruel to outsiders.

Tsersi (Young Adult Fighter)
Agility 3, Animal Handling 4 (Ride 1B, Train 1B), Athletics 3, Awareness 3, Cunning 3, Deception 2 , Endurance 4 (Stamina 1B), Fighting 4 (Spears 1B), Healing 2, Knowledge 1, Language 2 (Common, Old Tongue), Marksmanship 2, Persuasion 3, Status 1 , Stealth 3, Survival 4 (Hunt 1B), Thievery 2, Warfare 3, Will 4 (Dedication 1B)
Social Background: Free Folk
Background Event: Stolen from another tribe 
Goal: Security Motivation: Excellence Virtue: Magnanimous Vice: Cruel
Qualities: Destiny Points 2, Animal Cohort, Blood of the Wildlings, Born of the Ice Wives
Awareness 3
Intrigue Defence 7 / Composure 12
Move 4 (3) / Sprint 16 (14)
Combat Defence 9 / Armour Rating 4 / Health 12
Attack Spear 3+1B (3 damage)
Personal Gear: Spear, Furs, Warm Clothing, Black Cloak, Bear

Multiple tribes are described, from the Cannibal Clans of the Ice River and the Cave Dweller Clans to the Ice Wives and the Walrus Men. All of these tribes are available to play in a Night’s Watch campaign and part of playing a Wildling campaign will typically involve the players creating and directing the fate of their characters’ tribe. This is more of a requirement than it is in a campaign where the player characters are sworn brothers of the Night’s Watch, where creating and running a castle is just an option, and is much like the requirement in a standard A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign for the players to create their characters’ noble house. Like a castle on the Wall, the lands of a Wildling tribe will have access to fewer resources and have a hard time surviving, but depending on the tribe may be able to field a number of new military units, including Bear Riders, Dog Runners, Giants, and Mammoth Riders.

Being descended from the First Men, the Wildlings not only have more legends about the Others, the creatures of extreme cold from the far north, they also know them to be real rather than mere legends as the men of the south believe. A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night’s Watch not only details these legends, it also gives stats and write-ups for many of these inhuman creatures. This includes the infamous King of Winter and the White Lady—the lesser, though no less dangerous White Walkers and Wights, being described in the core rules for A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying—and it is here that Night’s Watch departs from canon. The authors explain that their new material is based upon what details are given in the books and to not include more information about the Others would have been a missed opportunity. To be honest this material is likely to be used rarely in a GM’s campaign and even then, not used directly, but rather to hint at the threat coming from the north as part of build towards a final confrontation.

As well as the detailed descriptions of the Gift, the Wall and it castles, and the lands beyond the Wall, various notables from the source material are given full write-ups. North of the Wall, these include Mance Rayder and his lieutenants, such as Tormund Giantsbane, Alfyn Crowkiller, Harma the Dogshead, and Lord o’Bones; on the Wall itself, they include Small Paul, Cotter Pyke, and Ser Denys Mallister. A notable and pleasing inclusion is that of Dolorous Edd Tollet, a fan favourite character. Notable absences include Ser Jeor Mormont and Maester Aemon. Lastly, supporting each of the book’s three sections—on the Night’s Watch, the Wildlings, and the Others, Night’s Watch gives over thirty adventure seeds and stories. These include a set of five adventure seeds for each branch of the Night’s Watch; eight fully detailed story hooks for Rangings; and another seven for the Wildlings and six involving the Others. All of these are excellent scenario ideas and nicely illustrate many of the ideas discussed elsewhere in the book. In particular there is one scenario hook where a Ranging comes across what looks to be an orphaned Wildling. This is a simple enough idea, but the authors then turn round and present the situation from the Wildlings’ point of view as a separate scenario, essentially abling a group of players to play through it twice, but each time with a different approach.

Of course, the obvious way in which to use the Night’s Watch sourcebook is as setting supplement to run campaigns either involving the men of the Night’s Watch or the Wildlings. The supplement offers plenty of scope and ideas for both options, but this does not mean that the two cannot interact. Plenty of members of the Night’s Watch have deserted and fled north to live amongst the Free Folk, whilst the Night’s Watch does take in Wildlings orphans and raise them to serve on the Wall. After all, Mance Rayder, the King-Beyond-the-Wall, was both, a Wildling foundling adopted by the Night’s Watch who later deserted. Further, the supplement could be used to create characters from beyond the Wall who now live south of it, such as Osha, who is a member of the Stark household.

Physically, Night’s Watch maintains the standards set for the A Game of Ice and Fire Roleplaying line. The writing is excellent, the artwork good, and the book is well presented.

Taking A Game of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign to the Wall and beyond frees it from the constraints of a standard A Game of Ice and Fire Roleplaying campaign and its focus upon the player characters’ noble house and its and their future. There are still constraints, in particular the oath sworn by the brothers of the Night’s Watch, but the focus in a game set on the Wall and beyond is more on survival and fighting rather than intrigue and deception. Although a Night’s Watch campaign has an understandably military bent, both Night’s Watch and Wildling campaigns feel freer and much more like traditional fantasy campaigns. Plus there are actual monsters to encounter and confront, much like a traditional fantasy campaign.

However it is used, A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: Night’s Watch offers plenty of scope for the campaigns it sets up and backs this up with detail and solid story hooks. It is a well written supplement that combines great source material with well realised application.

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