Monday, June 4, 2012

Turning One's Thoughts to Westeros

The second season of HBO's Game of Thrones is in the books.  My wife has been pestering me to read the latest book, A Dance with Dragons, so I started it last week.  Apparently 'big things happen', and she's been biting her tongue not to drop spoilers, but is insistent on discussing it.  So now I'm reading it.  One of the regulars in the gaming group is getting caught up on the first season and just started reading the books as well.  It's natural to consider if you'd run a D&D game in a setting like Westeros.

There won't be any spoilers here, I'll just be discussing A Game of Thrones in general terms.  The stories have a number of engaging elements; they follow the rise to fame and infamy of the scions of various noble houses in the fictional land of Westeros during a civil war.  The king dies in the first book with a contested heir and the novels relate the chaos in the aftermath.  No one has any plot immunity.  Life in Westeros can be nasty, brutish and short, and main characters frequently get offed.  From that perspective, there is always anticipation of 'what will happen next' when reading GRR Martin.

Westeros itself is very familiar.  The map always seemed to me a fantastic version of England, stretched to the size of a continent.  Hadrian's Wall is replaced by the gigantic ice wall, separating the settled areas from the wild north.  Folks have commented that the war between the Starks and Lannisters is reminiscent of the war between the Yorks and Lancasters; the names share more than a similar phonetic cadence.

The fantastic elements in Westeros are subdued so as not to overwhelm the human element of the conflicts.  There are hints of The Others, ice-born undead beyond the great wall, and legends of a time of dragons, but most of the main characters are disinterested in magic or stories.  Certainly these fantastic elements have gotten more prevalent as the series has progressed.

How would Westeros work as a D&D setting?  The archetypical career of the D&D character, as an explorer and dungeon delver, doesn't seem to have a place in the literary version of the setting.  There are scant mentions of ruins, and there's certainly no freeman profession of "professional adventurer" the way we see it in more typical D&D worlds.  The literary version wouldn't seem to support wealth through salvage.  Mercenaries, yes, but not gold-claiming monster-slayers.  Characters in A Game of Thrones rise to power through politics and feats of arms.  Wifey was telling me - Oh c'mon, you could put old ruins beyond the Ice Wall, or beneath Harrenhall Castle, or on one of the many islands.

Why not just use a standard D&D setting and add a layer of politics and sheer bloody mindedness?  Chances are your D&D setting already has some rulers who were previously adventurers, and a D&D setting assumes it's common for self-made rulers to rise to prominence after starting their careers as dungeon-sacking adventurers.

However, I can think of some things to strip out of D&D to make it fit the theme.  I'd de-emphasize alignment.  The question of right and wrong is highly subjective in A Game of Thrones, and a sympathetic case can be made for each side.  The vast majority of monsters need to be removed as a force in the world.  It's fine if you have some isolated monsters in the ruins or on the frontier, but there are no apparent global monster threats that would trigger the human kingdoms to unite; there's nothing to distract the nobles from beating on each other.  Many D&D worlds follow the Tolkien model of the big bad evil guy, providing a rallying cry for all the 'free peoples' to band together for all mankind and sing the campfire songs.  Not in Westeros.

I'm ambivalent about the degree of magic.  Westeros is seemingly low magic; there are few flashy spells or planar entities or magic weapons getting swung around.  The gods seem distant and remote, but there is evidence of magic-working priests and priestesses.  There's even a fair amount of 'raise dead' that happens in the stories, although the results aren't necessarily comfortable or desirable… more like revenants.

I've been using a list of campaign criteria for a good D&D setting to help the analysis, here's how it shakes out vis a vis Westeros:

The List:
Adventures and Frontiers, Autonomy, Dungeons, XP for Gold, Treasure and Magic Items, Classes and Levels, NPC Classes and Levels, Alignment, High Magic, Humanoids and Monsters, The End Game, Demi-Humans, Clerical Magic, Vancian Magic

We've already said the setting would need to be altered by adding the ruins of prior civilizations to support an adventurer class, autonomous explorers, XP for gold, recovery of treasure and lost magic, and so on.  (Valyrian steel!).  Plenty of the rulers and main characters appear to be tough, high level characters, in game terms, so there's no problem there, and the standard D&D end-game of rising to power and claiming a domain works very well here.  Alignment needs to be removed or face an adjustment, and humanoids and monsters must be marginalized (same for demi-humans).  The political conflicts are human vs human, there's no joining hands with the friendly elves to fight Sauron or Iuz or Tzass Tamm.  I'm ambivalent about low versus high magic, but tend to think low magic would work better in terms of flavor, whereas high magic would require less tweaking of the game engine.

What do you think?  Have you tried playing a D&D game in Westeros, or borrowing ideas and themes from A Game of Thrones into your game?


  1. Wow, after finishing the first book and first series of the show, I can't wait to delve off into book 2 / season 2.

    I have mulled over trying to get a similar style game going with our group but I think the D&D troupes might be to finely engrained. =(

    I am still thinking about doing a purely human E6 (or E5 if I use Pathfinder Beginners Box) of the setting via some form of PbX media. I even remember seeing a hex version of the map. Perhaps on Hexographer? Especially now that I have Book of River Nations as a starting point!

    Anyway, thanks for getting me back into the thought process for making this happen!



  3. I know there is a D20 version of A song of Ice & Fire floating around; but actually, I imagine something like the Chaosium Basic System better suited...

  4. D&D is not the system I would use. Maybe something with more deadly combat and social mechanisms.

    1. Wasn't something along these lines the predecessor of the True20 rules? Something rose....?

      Blue Rose! That is what it was. I would think that would be wonderful for a game of thrones!


  5. Haven't seen the HBO series yet but I've been a fan of Martins since the '80's. Some of his other works may be more typical of a D&D or really an EPT setting. There's one short story for example about a stranded space traveler who takes to exploring an endless undercity maze in an alien ruin trying to find a way off planet. There is another about humans who have evolved into an undergroud society following some disaster. It's really great stuff.

  6. there's certainly no freeman profession of "professional adventurer" the way we see it in more typical D&D

    d'oh! I'm embarrassed by how long it's taken my brain to engage on this, but I think you've identified the missing puzzle piece of early modern DnD. What is the canonical secondary-school-history-class Toynbee distinction between the medieval and the early modern?
    The rise of a middle class of professionals and merchants able and willing to speculate with capital.

    Why does 1500 mark the usual beginning of the Early Modern Period?
    Because that's when overseas exploration and colonization pours accelerant on capitalist ventures and changes the world. That is, the Americas and other Indies provide a means for exchanging capital + risk for MUCH MORE capital. Kinda like a dungeon. And a class of explorer/adventurers grows to fill that niche (and is largely industrialized, BTW, by about 1650-70).

    I've always been uncomfortable with the implicit existence of a broad class of adventurers in DnD, but it's right there in Greyhawk and similar settings: there are many dungeons, each has gold-bearing monsters inside, ergo there must be a class of professional dungeoneers, supported by guilds, services-for-hire temples, all the Ultima/Elder Scrolls/WoW bric-a-brac.
    In other words, stereotypical DnD is already early modern, it's just in denial about this, insisting that (based on tech level alone) it's "medieval."

    I propose that if you want actually medieval DnD then adventurers have to be extremely rare - the PCs might be the only group of adventurers they know about, and they might well have to research long and hard, chase down unreliable rumours, go far out past the borderlands of civilisation, to get to the dungeons and find the treasure - just like John Mandeville or Gulliver or Marco Polo. Or like ancient Egyptian tomb robbers, relying on (maybe) networks of fences and local informants, old ambiguous maps, arduous speculative digging.

    Nothing has to change mechanically for this dungeoneers-light setting: men at arms - loyal retainers to feudal lords - still have the same skills and might still be cast out of their usual jobs. Ditto thieves, mages and holy men. But the skills of dungeoneering itself would be secret by virtue of their scarcity. And if you brought a mysterious wand back to town, you'd be unlikely to find someone to identify it for you, so magic items would retain their mystery a lot longer.

    I'm starting to like this vision best of all, actually.

    1. Yes, I've always been a bit uncomfortable that core D&D appears to be medieval technology, but the social structures to support a free adventuring class don't exist - inns, taverns, merchants and shops; it warps historical games (and is a good reason why it's easier using a S&S setting instead of a quasi-historical). For quasi-historical, I tend to gravitate towards the Roman era, Early Modern, and the Vikings.

  7. While we haven't see as much of them to know, there maybe be room for more typical D&D fair in the lands east of Westeros. I mean, we've got face-changing assassins and ancient, powerful sorcerers over there, at least. I would suspect there are ruins, too.

    1. I'm just in Book 5, and it features the east quite a bit - ancient ruins are intimated, there are these massive city -states driven by slave labor, and wandering mercenary companies straight out of Swords & Sorcery literature. It'd much easier placing a traditional D&D game on the other continent.

  8. but there are no apparent global monster threats that would trigger the human kingdoms to unite

    While I get what you're going for here, I think the Others/White Walkers could easily serve this role in a campaign. The key is not excluding the monster threats, it's having the humans be too petty and self serving to care about them.

    1. This might be where the series eventually goes... I could see a conqueror queen like Daenerys unite Westeros (after conquering it) to throw back the threat of The Others, and GRR could end up with a high fantasy kind of ending after all.

      But at least initially, monsters need to be remote or legendary so power hungry people can do what they do best - backstab each other. (I think we're in agreement).

  9. The published end game for AD&D and then the BX games included building castles and getting an army, setting the DM perfectly to pivot the campaign towards 'Game of Thrones' play.

    Maybe the discussion needs to be this: Would you prefer a game with social combat mechanics before you'd be willing to run a game with more intrigue? That seems to be a fault line with some of the answers.

  10. Guardians of Order made the d20 version of ASOIAF, and Green Ronin holds the license these days - both are pretty good games. I would check them out. You might just like them :-)