There is a certain ‘feel’ that people will be looking for when they decide to play a tabletop roleplaying game based on the Game of Thrones television series or A Song of Ice and Fire novels. You could easily imagine using a map of Westeros and some lore and plot points from the novels in a generic low-magic fantasy roleplaying game like Dungeons and Dragons. But there is a certain something about that setting that would be missing. Put most simply, players will want to play the ‘game of thrones’.
It is against this criterion that the unique features of Green Ronin’s Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game (SIFRP) will be judged. SIFRP is a tabletop roleplaying game where players take on the roles of characters guided by a Narrator in exploring the world created by George R. R. Martin in his A Song of Ice and Fire novels. If you are unfamiliar with the game, publisher Green Ronin has released a free Quick-Start Guide to the as well. This 32-page booklet gives you a taste of the rules, six pre-generated characters, and a short adventure so you can try the game out (noting that the Quickstart won the 2009 Gold ENnie Award for Best Free Product).
One of the key ways that SIFRP captures the feel of the Game of Thrones setting is by devoting significant attention not just to the creation of characters, but to the creation of their noble House. In many ways, the Houses themselves become characters in the story, but instead of being under the control of a single player, they are collaboratively controlled by all players working together in each other’s best interest.
SIFRP assumes that player characters are members of the same household in a minor House, and that they will each take on a role as a family member, retainer, servant or knight in that House. It is certainly possible to ignore this rule, but frankly I think you would lose a lot of what makes this ruleset capture the feel of Westeros. Unifying gameplay around the common House creates the basis for some of the unique character archetypes of the setting: hedge knights, sellswords, maesters, stewards, septons – archetypes that have obvious parallels with other fantasy settings, but are in some ways unique to Westeros and with deep resonances for those familiar with the world. The focus on the House supplies players with a reason why they would be working together – as opposed to the old meet in a tavern trope – but further highlights the importance of not only improving the individual character’s fortunes, but those of the House as a whole. This makes for a more cooperative experience, but also immediately pits the characters against their rival houses, creating the intrigue and scheming that the Game of Thrones setting is most notorious for.
After all, as the writers of SIFRP points out, the notion of house, lineage, and blood are endemic in the stories of Westeros, and it is the machinations of Houses as much as heroes that drives the unfolding history of Westeros. It is the ultimately the story of feuding families, and the way in which an entire society is enrolled into and shaped by the forces of these feuds.
The recognition of the importance of the Houses is a masterstroke by the designers. The loyalty to a common House, whether through blood or coin, immediately involves the players in the world in a way that allows them to, quite literally, play the game of thrones.
The idea that Houses are effectively characters in the narrative is not just symbolic – each House has quantifiable attributes that reflect its strengths and weaknesses, a living history and agency within the gameplay context. The Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying corebook details the rules of House creation at length, including extraordinary rich rules for the design of the House’s coat of arms and heraldry.
House creation is a cooperative process which is undertaken in the first session of the campaign (Session Zero) and prior to the creation of individual characters. Each player has equal say about the salient features pertaining to the house, through decision-making and dice rolls. Players work together to develop narratives around the results of dice rolls in the house creation process, simultaneously establishing a shared background from which each player can build their own character.
Characters initially determine the region of their House. The core rules provide a random table for this purpose, based on 3d6 roll. Incidentally, this table demonstrates the designers preference for Houses to be from the more generic regions like the Riverlands and the Mountains of the Moon, than say Dorne or King’s Landing. There’s a clear opportunity for the PCs to make a choice rather than roll here, and the selected region will have a determining impact on the theme and gameplay of the campaign. Being from the Iron Islands, for instance, will create a vastly different gameplay experience of exploration, raiding and pillaging to a King’s Landing campaign that revolves around intrigue and the affairs of the court in an urban environment.
The choice of region also defines the starting resources of the House, which is the second step of the process. Resources are intrinsically linked to the lands where the House is located, so starting values for each House’s Defense, Influence, Lands, Law, Population, Power, and Wealth are derived geographically. House resources are not purchased with experience in the way that PCs do, but are modified randomly to reflect the history of the House that is outside the control or decision-making of the players themselves.
Importantly, after the starting values for each resource are determined, each player gets to modify the values by rolling 1d6 and adding it to a resource of their choice. This gives players extra agency in the story of their House, but also means that a large group of PCs will have a stronger House – having benefit of more signature characters.
The third step is determining the house’s historical events, which is done by choosing or rolling a first founding timeline, which determines the number of historical events that can influence the final shape your house takes at the start of the game. Older houses have more historical events, while younger houses have fewer.
Historical events provide important developments in the House history, increasing or decreasing the resources of the House prior to the start of play. These range from an advantageous marriage, a great deed for a liege lord, or heroism in a decisive battle to outbreak of plague, blight, or drought to the annihilation of the House from a supernatural attack by horrors from beyond the Wall. The first historical event rolled describes the circumstances of The House’s origins, defining what sort of event elevated the family to nobility.
Resources are then invested into the House’s ‘holdings’, the specific assets of the House in the form of castles, towers, cities, towns, soldiers, mines, and so forth. The House’s influence score is used to ‘purchase’ heirs, being the children of the House’s head. Here the PCs work together to flesh out the mechanical details of their House in material terms.
The final step in house creation is describing the individuals who comprise the important family members and retainers that make up the House. Most important are the lord and lady, but there are also the heirs, maester and septon, master-at-arms, castellan, steward, and anyone else who is more than just a common servant. Some of the characters will likely be the future PCs of the campaign as players build their own characters based on the work that the group has done in the development of the House overall.
The House creation rules are rich, detailed and fun. I’ve used them in homebrew games where I’ve wanted to flesh out the backstory of a noble family and the process itself is creative and provocative. More importantly, though, it is one of the key departures of the Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying Game from other similar game systems, and is central to ensuring that gameplay captures the unique feel of the setting.