If you could tell any story you wanted in a world you know well, what would you want to say? What if that world were the world of Westeros? That’s the promise of A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition, and thankfully the rules do an effective job of conveying the themes and guts, both literal and figurative, of the source novels by George R.R. Martin.
While the original source book from Green Ronin Publishing dates back to 2009 and was based on the series of novels, this recent release of a new edition has a slightly different naming convention. It’s a bit opportunistic to call it a Game of Thrones Edition now that the television series has taken off, but who cares?
This core rulebook gives you the most basic rules, largely unchanged, with the added benefit of its designers trying to "implement all known errata." There’s an introductory adventure and the entirety of a campaign called Peril at King’s Landing. The stats are also reorganized, and there are some new illustrations. And while it’s clear from the cover that they’re trying to cash in on the TV show, you get a lot of stuff in the package.
The time we have now, between seasons, gives us a good excuse to jump in to see if the system is enjoyable, or at least dig a bit into what the system does with the core themes of the books.
The source book opens with one of the best history lessons for Westeros I’ve ever read.
It does a good job of explaining who everyone is, how the world came to be and what may be coming down the path. The game takes place before the events of the novel or television show, and the opening primer would be helpful to anyone who is jumping into the setting for the first time, much less players of the system.
To hook players, and help form a bond at the table from the first sessions, characters are all members of a house they design together. It’s relationship-based; why are these people all together, how do they know each other and how would they relate to one another through their house? What is the house’s sigil and what are its words?
This framework does a great job of giving people a reason to be together, as well as providing a few broad ideas behind what they think and believe. They may not all be perfectly loyal to whatever house you create, but the existence of that house was formative in creating who they are.
The Intrigue System
Battle is important in this world, and you’ll likely be doing at least a little of it no matter what your party composition, but the Intrigue system is where things begin to get interesting.
"The aim of every intrigue is to gain enough influence to compel your opponent to say, reveal, do, or act as you want," the book says. "Whether you’re trying to change a person’s mind, pass yourself as someone or something else, or even just get them into bed, the process is the same."
The Intrigue system uses different abilities and base stats to describe how well you’ll be able to achieve your goals, matched against the different stats and buffs that describe how well someone will be able to resist you.
You do "damage" by moving the other character towards doing what you want. It’s yet another way the system rewards the social constructs of Westeros, although both players and the Narrator have to buy in for the intrigue idea to work. You have to want to role-play this way, and it takes a fair bit of effort.
An intrigue can be many things, and there could be many different things at stake, but the heart of the idea is that you’re trying to use whatever means you can to wear down the other player or character and bend them to your will.
It’s not a simple system, and it takes a bit of practice to get good at both setting up the rules of engagement for each intrigue or learning how to do it well. I felt a bit lost at first, but once you re-contextualize intrigues as a sort of mental or emotional combat you’ll start to get it. There are also many things to consider in the rules: If your character is good-looking, belongs to a house or geographic region that’s respected by the other player or character ... it all matters.
"It’s rather difficult to mask your disdain when trying to befriend a long-time enemy, just as it’s hard to dupe a person you love," the rules say. "The effects of disposition on your words, body language, and other elements of the intrigue can’t be understated. You might armor yourself in scorn but find yourself powerless to change the thinking of those around you."
This process can take a single turn, or many. Different characters are more skilled at Intrigue than others, or they may be more resistant to it, but this is a large part of what makes the system so unique.
This is going to shock absolutely no one, but death is a big part of the rules. It’s not just something that comes about by the various systems, but the tone of the source book itself continually references how easy it is to die, and how often it happens even to those undeserving of the fate.
This is part of the reason I would be very careful about who you play this game with; we’ve all been a part of games where the dungeon master takes a little bit too much joy in wiping the party or punishing errors. These rules give the game master, who is referred to as "the Narrator," a LOT of leeway to do so.
"Life in the Seven Kingdoms is perilous, and those who venture beyond the relative safety of their walls are at risk of attack from bandits and mountain men, wildlings, rogue knights, and even from some predatory animals," the rules state. "With such encounters come injuries, and while many may recover on their own, injuries left untended may fester, and death can result even from a minor cut."
Effects linger with your character to be sure, but even death is not the end.
"Depending on the era in which you play," it says, "your corpse might stir into unlife ... if you believe in that sort of thing."
Characters will die, it may not always be fair, and you may need to roll another character if you want to keep playing. But that’s true of many systems. With A Song of Ice and Fire however, the fact that the parties are lined up by house — a house that players helped to create at the very beginning of play — makes it pretty easy, and actually exciting, to introduce another character into the game.
The Iron Price
This is an enjoyable system, and reading these rules from the point of view of a fan of the books and television show, they seem to have captured a good amount of what makes the setting so fascinating.
And for game masters looking to bring new people to the table and tabletop groups looking for new experiences they can easily relate to, A Song of Ice and Fire offers a few interesting wrinkles in a now very well-known setting. Just don’t be a jerk about it, you know? Not every wound has to get infected.
If you’re impatiently waiting for the next book or season of the show, and aren’t we all, this is a pretty good place to get your fix.