A Look at "A Game of Thrones" from an RPG Perspective
“If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words. And if you cannot bear to do that, then perhaps the man does not deserve to die.”
- Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell. A Game of Thrones
I'd thought about doing a straight out review of A Game of Thrones but it occurs to me that with over 8,000 reviews on Amazon I might do better to narrow my focus a bit. With that in mind, I'm going to look at the novel A Game of Thrones from the perspective of an RPG gamer. I'm therefore assuming someone who has read this and later novels.
We'll begin by taking a look at the world. If you or I were to visit the world we'd be hard-pressed to find much in the way of magic. From an RPG perspective, it is an extremely low-magic world. A few of the characters have encounters with the supernatural, but they do occur and are far more significant for that. At the start, a trio of rangers encounter a group of Others and Wights. Only one ranger who had been left behind survives. Jon Snow and other members of the Night's Watch encounter a pair of Wights, an encounter that leaves several dead and Jon badly injured. Khal Drogo is "healed" by a magi, though he is nearly mindless after the experience. And finally Daenerys attempts her own form of magic, using it to hatch long-petrified dragon eggs in the final chapter.
There are hints of more magic - much of it crouched in legend, but something built the Wall. And Bran Stark has some very strange visions, visions which play a larger role as the series goes on. And both he and his brother Rickon dream of their father's death.
The seasons themselves are weird. "Summer" can last for a variable number of years, as can "winter".
The lack of magic has a number of consequences that separate the novel from traditional RPG settings. There is no healing magic, Drogo's "healing" leaves him a shell of the man he once was. As a result Bran's broken spine, Eddard's shattered leg, Drogo's infected wound, and various other injuries have real consequences. No one is bouncing around after losing a bunch of hit points.
Travel is also limited by the speed of walking or riding. An interesting convention used in this (and later) novels is a system of ravens carrying messages. We witness unreliable news traveling - the king was killed by a pig. No, he was killed eating a pig. No, Lord Eddard killed him...
We witness a feudal world, King Robert ruling over the Seven Kingdoms and the various kingdoms all having their own lord. Each of those lords in turn has his own bannermen who answer to him. From a gaming perspective, the details are a bit sparser than one might like. There seems to be very few ranks of nobility. There is the king. And the realms all have their lords. Who have their own lords under them. Having grown up on D&D I'd have preferred a more clearly defined hierarchy - your king at the top, some dukes under him, maybe some earls, viscounts, and barons thrown in there as well. We see the importance of heirs, legitimacy, and the fact that children are forced to grow up extremely quickly. The oldest of Eddard's children, Robb and his bastard brother Jon Snow, are both 14 at the start of the novel and both are involved in battles by the end of it. It's easy to forget that poor maligned Sansa is just 11 years old at the start of the novel. There's opportunity for non-combatant characters to have a huge impact - the best example probably being Littlefinger, who plays several characters without ever putting himself at risk
The unity of the Seven Kingdoms is very fragile and easily fractures by the end of A Game of Swords. In both later books and the Dunk and Egg prequel tales we get reminders that the medieval idea of a nation is quite far from our own, with minor houses of the same lord battling one another.
One interesting fact is much of the novel deals with a series of mysteries, none of which are solved by any of the characters in this tale. How did Bran fall? Who killed Jon Arryn and why? Who sent an assassin after Bran. The only definite answer we get in this novel is Jaime Lannister pushed Bran out the window, though Bran has no clear memory of that trauma and none of the characters discover it for certain. While it seems like Ned solves the mystery of Jon Arryn's murder, believing it to be Cersei, in later books we learn this had not been the case. Having just reread the novel recently I caught a number of clues as to who the true killer was. Nothing to prove it, but we do see in A Game of Thones that Cersei is not the only person with a motive for killing him. One gets the feeling Cersei would have had to kill him sooner or later. The reason I bring this up is Ned's failure to solve the mystery is not due to his failing a spot check - he had all the needed clues to have another suspect. In that, it actually reminds me quite a bit of the Gumshoe RPG system from Pelgrane Press, where you get clues automatically.
As far as RPG systems go, there are three systems which have officially been released. Guardians of Order released A Game of Thrones RPG using the D&D 3.0-era d20 rules. They released a deluxe version of the game as well, using their Tri-Stat system. And finally, Green Ronin has developed their own system for their Song of Ice and Fire RPG. I'd give highest marks to the Green Ronin version, especially with its house creation rules.
With its high emphasis on family and politics, Pengragon would make a fine system for the setting, as would many of the incarnations of RuneQuest out there, perhaps borrowing a bit here and there from Pendragon.
My own inclination, were I to do a game in the Seven Kingdoms, would be to set the game earlier in history. The Dunk and Egg tales take place several years after the Blackfyre Rebellion sent the Seven Kingdoms into Civil War and the aftermath showed a time of unrest and squabbling. I might explore that further in a later posting.